My favorite albums: ‘Hollywood Dream’

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Image from Amazon.com.

There used to be a record store in New Orleans called Leisure Landing. It may have had the best selection of new records in town (if you wanted used, there was Record Ron’s), and they also had the best prices: $5.99 for a new LP when retail was $7.98 or $8.98. When I had some extra money, I’d go there after school, taking the streetcar down St. Charles and walking a few blocks to Magazine. Leisure Landing was where I bought “Beatles ‘65” and “The History of the Bonzos” and who knows how many other records.

(Funny how you remember these things.)

The other thing about Leisure Landing was, if they didn’t have it, they’d happily order it. They kept a copy of PhonoLog, the thick, yellow-sheeted database of recordings, near the register, and if your request was in there, they’d find a way to get it.

Which is how I ended up ordering Thunderclap Newman’s “Hollywood Dream” one day.

Going in, I knew three things about “Hollywood Dream”: It featured “Something in the Air,” a song I loved; it had gotten a rapturous review from Rolling Stone in 1970 (as I knew from “The Rolling Stone Record Review,” an old paperback I’d picked up at my summer job at a used bookstore in Gretna); and it had five stars in “The Rolling Stone Record Buyer’s Guide.” Oh, make it four things: Pete Townshend had produced it, and I was a huge Who fan at the time.

Leisure Landing didn’t have a copy on hand, but they could order it. And about a week later, I got a call: “Hollywood Dream” had arrived.

To this day — 35 years later — it may be one of the oddest and most wonderful albums I own.

“Odd” described the band, too. Vocalist Speedy Keen was a former Who driver (!) who’d written “Sell Out’s” “Armenia City in the Sky.” Pianist Newman, a distinctly un-rock ‘n’ roll-looking guy who wore a hat and thick-framed glasses, was a pal of Townshend’s from art college. (Checking the web, I see he died just two months ago. RIP.) Guitarist Jimmy McCulloch was a teenage whiz kid.

The music, combining Keen’s awkward voice — he sounded like the embarrassed kid brother of the Zombies’ Colin Blunstone — Newman’s chunky, offbeat piano chords and McCulloch’s testosterone-fueled guitar playing, shouldn’t have gelled. (And Keen’s lyrics for songs such as “Accidents,” which is like an Edward Gorey book set to music, and “Hollywood #1” — “I’d like to see the movie stars smiling / So big they make you sick” — added another eccentricity to the stew.) According to an interview with Newman, he met McCulloch in the studio the first day they got together.

Somehow, though, it worked. Wonderfully. (Townshend, under the name Bijou Drains, played bass and almost certainly acoustic guitar.)

The songs are whimsical, absurd, even yearning. “All around the world now eyes are pointing to the sky / Hoping for a chance to straighten out our lives,” Keen sings on “The Reason.”

It’s like nothing else, before or since. What other band would stop cold to make way for Newman’s Dixieland piano — not that you had a choice, since it wasn’t as if you could keep up?

Naturally, such a one-off couldn’t sustain itself. McCulloch joined Wings. Keen recorded a couple solo albums and became a session musician. (According to Wikipedia, he once worked with Kenny G.) Newman eventually became an electrician. He had been an engineer for the post office when he joined Thunderclap Newman; Robert Christgau wondered if Townshend was going to pay his pension.

They’re all gone now, as is PhonoLog and Leisure Landing. But the memories — and the songs — remain. There’s always something in the air.

(Note: The CD contains some extra tracks, including the “Something in the Air” flipside, “Wilhelmina,” and the single version of “Accidents.” Which was a bizarre choice for a single in the first place.)

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