Before Commander Cody became a household name for his saloon-stomping, country-rock jams in the '70s, the man behind the moniker had a career in art academia as George Frayne. In the late '60s Frayne was plying his MFA in sculpture toward teaching at the Wisconsin State University in Oshkosh when he decided to move to San Francisco in 1969 with members of his backing band to pursue music full-time. Later that same year, Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen would open for the Grateful Dead and then go on to tour the world, releasing albums throughout the '70s on Paramount and Warner Bros., the highest-charting being the band's self-titled 1975 release.
The Lost Planet Airmen lineup ended with We Got a Live One Here in 1976, but the Commander forged ahead with various backing bands in the subsequent years. After the release of Let's Rock on Blind Pig Records in '87, Commander Cody stopped touring and recording regularly but continued with his art, especially painting.
This year, Commander Cody has a new album out, Dopers, Drunks and Everyday Losers, his first since 1999, as well as a coffee-table book, Art, Music & Life, which features paintings by Frayne alongside stories from his life and career in music.
The 1819 Central Gallery will be showing an exhibition of Frayne's paintings beginning with an opening tonight from 6 to 9 p.m. (Read our profile of the gallery here.) The show runs through December. Unfortunately, Cody won't be coming to town to play, he says, until probably sometime this Spring, at Knuckleheads.
Never ones to pass up a chance to talk to someone unusual and famous, we caught up with the Commander from his home in Saratoga Springs, New York, to talk about, among other things, a life-changing revelation in his family history, playing Cowtown Ballroom in KC, how he was the "reefer man" in Ann Arbor, how Hunter S. Thompson tried to blow up his hotel room and, well, art, music and life. Better clear your calendar for the next 30 or so -- the Commander likes to talk (and we likes to listen to him).
Is it alright to call you Commander?
Sure, call me Commander or George or Cody - actually, most people call me Cody. But whatever you're comfortable with.
I kinda like Commander.
Excellent, I'm kind of a Trekkie myself. I certainly enjoy science-fiction. That's one of the things I really, really love.
Did you toy with any other stage names?
Yeah. It was 1967 and I was out at my summer job in New York as a lifeguard at Jones Beach, which is a pretty big deal. Every July 4th about 3 million people show up at Jones Beach. There's 427 lifeguards spread out over 32 miles and 17 beaches.
We'd retired to the Jones Beach Hotel where there's sort of a lifeguard bar. We were forming a lifeguard band and were trying to figure what names to call it, and I had three. First of all was the name I'd been trying to start a band with, a name I'd brought from college, which was Smooth Dog and the Puppies, which I thought was damn good, you know?
But that didn't work over. Then the television set was on behind the bar, and the rocket man was on there, the Commando Cody character. And the movie was The Lost Planet Airmen, so I went, "How about Commando Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen?" But they didn't like that either.
So I saved both of those, and the one they went with at the time was the Lorenzo Lightfoot Athletic Club and Blues Band. So we named it that, but I liked the Commander Cody thing because my band that I was going back to - I was going to start graduate school about two weeks after that incident - had started to become serious after we'd broken up the frat band when everyone graduated.
We were starting to play country and western music more and more. We were playing Buck Owens' "Tiger by the Tail" and, of course, "Act Naturally." We were playing a little rockabilly because that fit right into what we were doing anyway as a frat band.
But the bass player wanted to learn how to play steel guitar, and we'd run into this hillbilly from Alabama who wrote songs, named Billy C. Farlow. Over the course of the fall, Andy Stein was wandering by my house, and I hired him on the spot because he had a fiddle case in his hand.
I hadn't heard him play or anything, but at the time I could do stuff like that because I was the reefer man in Ann Arbor. I was the guy with the Detroit Dynamite. And having put myself through graduate school - well, I was on a full ride, don't get me wrong. I was on a full ride, but I was boogieing out to Berkeley and coming back with hashish - as you know, today's terrorist was yesterday's freedom fighter. And I knew a lot of Persians in Berkeley who gave me a great deal on hash, and I would fly that back to Ann Arbor and support the band.
As my academic career was being supported by the University of Michigan, I was teaching and I was on a full ride and I was making sculptures and stuff like that. But it allowed me to go out and buy a new electric piano and the pickup truck that we used for our equipment vehicle and hire different people.
That's how all that got started, really. The whole early Commander Cody thing had a lot to do with art and marijuana. That's one of the reasons San Francisco was so interesting - people were actually showing art at music performances, which was totally new. That's one of those things that was totally new about San Francisco - this combination of art and music. Not just music or another dull band playing for four hours. It was a bunch of art and a bunch of drugs and a bunch of music. We fit right in there. [...] Me and Billy C. and the West Virginia Creeper [Steve Davis] arrived in San Francisco June 6, 1969, and by August 18, 1969, we were opening up for the Grateful Dead.
Speaking of which, is it true you were born on a train?
Well, as it turns out, that's not as true as I thought it would be. My dear old dad had never told me anything about my early life or his life whatsoever, and I knew that he was in Spokane and had lived in Brooklyn, and the only thing I remember from this time - don't forget, I was just born then - was this long train ride, and I figured that while we were on the train, we got off in Boise and my mom had me.
And my dad just read that in the paper, and I'd thought this my whole life, and he just straightened me out the other day. He said, "No, actually, we (the family - me and my mom and my dad) were stationed in Boise for a little while and then we got on the train from Boise and went to Brooklyn on it." So I guess I'll have to rewrite the bio.
He told you that just recently?
Yeah, last night! Yesterday. Yeah he got pissed at me -- "Well it's not showing much respect for your mother and father" -- but it's a great romantic story. I always thought it was true, and it's what my grandmother told me. That's one thing he can't deny - my grandmother had a great way of embellishing every story ever told. And that's where that story came from.
So I wasn't actually born on the train, I was born near where the train was, and then we got on the train and went to Brooklyn. Actually, I guess we went to Connecticut. So that's two parts of the story I was misinformed on. [...] So I guess I'll have to rewrite the bio on that. No - I'm not going to rewrite the bio, fuck that. It's too good a story. As I learned in Texas, why let a few facts get in the way of a good story?
But that's what I thought the story was my whole life, until yesterday, so all kinds of things are in upheaval here now. My wife is out on the roof putting in a new roof as we speak! That hammering you can hear in the background is her knocking in the shingles.
That's pretty hard work.
Yeah it is! Are you kidding me!? I ain't goin' up there. I've got vertigo and two torn rotators and a fractured hip. She's not gonna let me up there, 'cause that'll be the end of the paycheck. But something had to be done, so she's up there on one of those cheap aluminum ladders with a reciprocating saw ... [describes, in precise detail, the process of repairing the roof] ... and those antique-metal thingies. Beats me, I'm not the roofer she is. She's also 13 years younger than me. [Laughs.] She is doing a great job.
According to some local historians you played in Kansas City at the Cowtown Ballroom in 1973 with Earl Scruggs and 1974 with the Lost Planet Airmen. Does that sound right?
Earl Scruggs, no. Lost Planet Airmen, yes. Unless Earl Scruggs was the opening band, and I just got there after they left and I was not aware who was opening the show. I certainly knew who Earl Scruggs was, and I would think that I would've remember that, but that's not in my memory, but, possibly. 1973 was one of those Lost in the Ozone-type years. But I would say I remember about 80 percent of it.
Do you remember those shows or playing in Kansas City?
Yeah, I remember the Cowtown Ballroom. That's where we met Nicolette Larson, in fact. I finally got "Seeds and Stems" recorded the way I would've had it recorded by her if she had live.
You have a book coming out called Art, Music & Life...
I wanted to do an art book, but I wanted to do a slightly different than normal art book. I also wanted to have a couple of stories. [...] I have the one where Hunter S. Thompson throws a bomb into my hotel room, so I tell that story and paint a picture of him. I smoke a joint with Louie Armstrong, and I paint a picture of him. Those are my two best stories, so I kick it off with those, and I have other stories I weave in as it goes on from there.
So what happened exactly with Hunter S. Thompson?
I had appeared on David Letterman in the summer of '82, and Hunter Thompson saw it, and he wanted to get on the talk show. But he didn't want to be interviewed by David Letterman, and he saw me on there and thought I talked pretty good. So he hired Cox Cable - oh yeah, and his lecture manager was my lecture manager. The same person that booked Hunter booked me, and she supplied Hunter with all that Peruvian white[?], so we can't mention her name on the air, but she did her five years and she's out, so she's fine.
But that was our connection. So she calls me and says, "Hunter wants to do an interview and have you interview him, so let's fly out to Key West and do it." She flew me out to Key West, and he'd already been down there for a week with Bill Murray and Bill's brother, Baby, and they had been partying like it was just invented. By the time I got there, they were all totally shitfaced.
I come down and try to get into it as much as I possibly can, and I was asking him, "Why do you think we should invade Mexico - really?" And he was explaining why we should invade Mexico and he decided to pull out a tazer and just kind of shot it at the camera man, who, of course, didn't like that at all, shut down the whole thing, grabbed the camera gear and split, leaving us sitting there.
So we retired to the bar and blah blah-blah blah. Later on, about three o'clock in the morning, I was in my room with a couple of people, especially this one woman. At that time, we were about to close it down, and all of a sudden a giant explosion went off.
Hunter Thompson had become friends with the owner of the hotel, who didn't like me because I was wearing an F-18 T-shirt, and he thought that it was a crime against God that some hippie should be wearing an F-18 T-shirt, so he's pissed. And everyone's drunk to - everyone's drunk. I mean, the whole thing is all about alcohol and drugs. So they're all pissed off. I've got the chick, and she's got the drugs, and they're pissed at me.
So Hunter takes these M-80s and wraps them together with a bunch of gaffer's tape to a thing about the size of a bowling ball. He lights all the fuses and rolls it through the open lanai door - the door was open, but the drapes were drawn across. So it did not make it all the way in, the momentum was stopped by the drapes. This is probably why I'm still alive. Instead of going ka-boom, it went bap-bap-bap-bap-bap. So the women, one of whom happened to be the wife of the local district attorney, grab the dope and heads for the door. Then of course, Hunter continues partying and I'm left to put the fire out.
Do you think he envisioned that bomb working like a large, single explosive?
I don't think he went that far with it, with the thought process. I think it was just he had a bunch of fireworks, he was gonna set them off in some kinda way. 'Cause I left the bar with the woman, so they were left to conspire, so they probably came up with that idea and went "alright!" and went off someplace else to consume more drugs and alcohol and did it and then, I was surprised they were able to get into and start a boat up.
And don't forget at that time, 1982, everyone was loaded anyway. That's what happened to the American car industry. That's why that went south. So that was essentially the atmosphere of the time, and the story was a result of that. It wasn't much fun at the time, but it's great in the retelling of it.