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LOST IN SPACE

THE EPIC SAGA OF FORT WORTH'S SPACE OPERA

CHAPTER SIX: When the Mountain Won't Come to You...

The return home was not all bad. It was home, after all, and they could take comfort in that. They all stayed with the music, alone and in different combinations, and it slowly became business as usual.

“After five intense years together,” said Bullock, “when the band decided to take a break, Scott and I had virtually stopped listening to pop music and began to study orchestration on our own, using college level textbooks and our ears as resources. I bought some textbooks on harmony and orchestration, but ended up using them just for reference. Scott was also teaching himself and was many months ahead of me, so I would compare notes with him.

“When it was just the four of us, we gave each other room to supply ideas in addition to the specific parts we wanted the others to play. We demoed songs and then the others would add their ideas. The song arrangement would develop synergistically. That was a joy. By 1972, when we were recording in Toronto, we could play flute and cello and could use synthesizers to add other colors and textures.”

Bullock and Fraser wanted to take the music in a slightly different and more complex direction and the breakup was as good a time as any, but they missed the music and camaraderie. White was playing rock and jazz in clubs around Fort Worth with other local musicians and Wilson had become an accountant, and they too missed the band.

In 1975, the four decided to make another run at it. This time the lineup was more fluid, though the core was still the quartet.

“We brought other players, strings and woodwinds, into the band,” explained Bullock, “or to accompany the band, I should say. Both in the studio and in our live shows. It was sort of like a laboratory where you could learn from mistakes and successes. Our approach to handling all of these instruments varied. They might play harmony in unison with our parts, or play counterpoint. We tried to weave the instruments into our arrangements and make it interesting rather than just having them play long, whole-note phrases. The sound was dense and it sometimes really added to what we were doing while at other times seemed superfluous.

“Live, we were always trying to make things interesting for ourselves and our audience. The band once spent several weeks preparing for a one-night show at the HOP where we would earn $200. This was just the four of us, no auxiliary players. We put together a show that consisted almost entirely of instrumental music, including free-form versions of our familiar songs. The few selections that included vocals were actually several songs combined and sung simultaneously. The idea was to present Space Opera's music in new and experimental forms, juxtaposing highly structured pieces with free improvisation. It was the most “out” music we ever played. The members of the audience who didn't walk out enjoyed the novelty and spontaneity of the evening. We had spent many hours in preparing this show, realizing we would probably only do it one night. The money was entirely secondary. We were at a point of total freedom.”

One reviewer found the band's performance above par. “They don't just write songs,” the review said, “they compose miniature symphonies, three to five minute pieces that combine musical elements that would seem to have no place in rock.”

“From 1975 to 1978, Space Opera appeared sometimes as the four-man group, and sometimes augmented by a group of support players from the orchestra,” Bullock said. “Still, the four man band was the most satisfying thing we ever did, which was why we kept coming back to that format.”

Looking back, that period was disjointed at best. Even Bullock refers to it more as a personal rather than a band era.

“After the last gig,” remembered Claudia, “Space Opera was in limbo. David lit out for New York because he liked New York. Scott followed pretty quickly, and then Phil and Brett. They moved into a loft and the band was reformed.”

Simplified, but basically true. Remember, New York was home to Rex Farr, who wanted the band to give it another go.

“Rex arranged for me and Scott to come to New York to play some acoustic gigs,” Bullock said, filling in the blanks. “I went to New York a couple of months ahead of Scott and lived in a borrowed apartment on the top floor of the Ansonia Hotel, and slept on Rex's couch, until we found an apartment in Yorkville.”

David came to New York first,” echoed Farr. “He was living in the Ansonia, sleeping on the couch. Scott came up next and we worked with him for probably six to eight months before they decided they wanted to go electric. Bullock and Fraser, at that time, was playing unplugged. They were playing progressive chamber music. Let's put it that way.”

“Scott and I had discussed what instruments we wanted in our backing ensemble,” continued Bullock, “so I was busy writing arrangements for my songs. One day, I walked into Juilliard, found the bookstore and began reading posts on the bulletin board. As luck would have it, I struck up a conversation with a student who asked me about the band I was putting together. I described the idea and she said she would be interested in playing with us. She also gave me names of several other musicians, all of whom ended up in the band.”

The band was Laurel Zucker, flute; Gary Hamme, oboe; Laura Ardan, clarinet; Diane Chaplin, ‘cello; Judith Sugarman, contrabass; and Howie Kruskol, trumpet. Thalia Moore subbed Diane on ‘cello.

This new arrangement meant more work, also. “In this Bullock-Fraser configuration,” Bullock explained, “one had to create and notate the parts for all of the other players because while they were highly trained, they did not improvise.”

When Fraser arrived, Farr and Bullock found a flat in Germantown in New York City, on the upper east side. “81st or something like that,” Farr recollected. “It was an old building, but they had a roof over their heads with a kitchen and a little sitting room, which was where the three of us spent most of our time.”

“It was a tiny space,” recalled Bullock, “a 5th floor walk-up, but in a really nice neighborhood. Scott and I enjoyed working on arrangements, cooking our little meals up there like a couple of bachelors. We rehearsed in a large room at Juilliard and in a rehearsal space on the 2nd. floor of the Ansonia and pretty soon the band was ready to play.

“We began playing clubs and galleries in Greenwich Village. We played quite a few dates at Folk City as Bullock-Fraser, backed by the ensemble of six players. Folk City was a club on West 3rd Street in the Village and was owned by a nice old Italian gentleman named Mike Porco. The original Gerdes’ Folk City had been located a block over, on West 4th. That was the room where Dylan played his first New York shows. Mike Porco moved the club to the West 3rd location in the early 1970s, almost next door to another famous club called The Night Owl. Bleecker Bob’s record store took over the Night Owl space about that time. Folk City, at both locations, had seen its share of great music and Mike Porco had seen his share of Village history. He told me about his time working as a bartender in the 1930s. People would give him jive drink orders, like “Go up the stairs” (Carstairs Whiskey) and “You and Me” (a black customer ordering Black and White Whiskey). Mike was ready to retire, and closed his club the following year, but at this time, it was still happening. The Roche Sisters, Suzanne Vega, and Steve Forbert were among the regulars there.

I don’t think the folkies quite knew what to think of us. The music was unusual and I don’t think there had ever been a little orchestra on that stage, but we sounded good and audiences seemed to enjoy what we did. And the Juilliard kids enjoyed doing something completely different. Their friends came to listen, along with Village regulars and some of Rex Farr’s upper east side swells.”

In Farr’s words, they were operating on a shoestring and a prayer, but there always seemed to be money to have some fun. “After playing a gig, we would hit the town,” Bullock said. “We might have a late dinner at Mortimer’s or P.J Clarke, or start the bar crawl at Nicola’s and go from there. A few times we went to Studio 54, a truly amazing scene that we took in from the safety of the balcony seats. Elaine’s was a place we often went for food and drinks. We had gone there with Jim Meeker on our first trip to New York in 1969. Jim was good friends with Elaine, and of course Rex was, too. The place was a favorite hangout for writers, musicians, and actors. It was not unusual to meet folks like Paul Desmond and Laura Nyro there, or to see the cast of Saturday Night Live – Bill Murray, Gilda, Lorne Michaels. Rex was a born and bred New Yorker, and he knew interesting people wherever we went, and knew all the good drinking spots and after-hours places as well. We usually made it back to the apartment about the time everyone else was leaving for work in the morning. I can’t imagine living that way now, but it was great fun at the time.”

Still, the feel was different than it had been during Space Opera's first run.

I don't think a record contract was Bullock-Fraser's immediate concern,” Farr stated. “I was looking to get them commissioned works and get them to do stuff that really had nothing to do with Billboard.”

“After a few months of this, we took a break and went back to Texas,” said Bullock. “Scott had the itch to plug in again, and we agreed to try putting Space Opera back together. Brett was still in Fort Worth, and Phil was in Los Angeles, doing well for himself as a bass player and producer. He was reluctant to come to New York, but he did.”

“I found them a loft around 19th and Broadway, downtown,” Farr remembered. “It was an artist's area, mainly photographers, right next to Union Square where they had big commercial buildings with huge lofts. They had running water and a shower and that was about it. They cooked off of a hot plate.”

In September, when Phil and Brett joined us,” Bullock said, “we eliminated the contrabass and added two violins and two female singers. We were itching to play as a band again, to rock. At that point, our first album had been dead for four years, but we were still vital and creating new music. We were Space Opera again, fully electric, a ten-piece orchestra--- twelve when you count the two vocalists. The four of us lived in a loft at 873 Broadway. Our equipment took up half the space and couches, beds, and a television were scattered around the other half. We had a bathroom built in, and our kitchen was a small refrigerator and a hot plate. At that time, most lofts were not really legal for residential living, even though thousands of people were doing it. Since the building was commercial, heat was only provided during business hours. So at night and on weekends, we froze.”

“When they reunited,” Farr recalled, “the Juilliard people became part of the group. They spent a month and a half rehearsing. In the meantime, I was out pounding the streets for record companies. There were still enough people at the labels who I knew to at least get the band a shot. That's how Studio Instrument Rentals (SIR) came into play. I knew the owner and manager, so I got the rehearsal space at a very, very reduced rate and was able to use it for record company showcases. It was on West 50-something street. CBS was on 52nd and 6th, so you could literally walk from the A&R offices at CBS and Atlantic and RCA to SIR in ten minutes.”

“We played some private showcases for label execs,” Bullock said, “trying to land another recording contract. The showcase gigs we played at S.I.R. and at Jimmy Pullis' club, Trax, were good. It was a tight band. In retrospect, we might have done better as just the four-man band, out playing clubs every night. Rex was doing his best to keep us afloat, but the shoestring-and-a-prayer thing was even harder to pull off with the full band.”

Farr watched and waited.

The reincarnated Space Opera never really played out,” he said. “Once again, they had the ensemble from Juilliard. I tried to talk them into going out there, but they were up there for the sole purpose of being heard by record companies. That was their marketing plan. My marketing plan was for Bullock-Fraser. I mean, I could feel it. When you're a band, you have to be a Mack Truck and there was something lost after fifteen years of hard work and not breaking through.

“Maybe they thought they had a better shot at getting a contract as an electric band. I didn't discourage them, but I had a premonition about that move. I was very happy working with Bullock-Fraser because by then David and Scott were talking music theory. And in terms of economics, it was a lot easier for me to work with, control and market the Juilliard/Bullock-Fraser setup, even though it was somewhat out there. I mean, there were plenty of roads between Boston and Washington, D.C. that had 400-seat and 500-seat venues. That would have been absolutely perfect, as I was trying to market Bullock-Fraser to film companies like Troma.”

“I would have been happy to continue doing the Bullock-Fraser thing,” Bullock stated. “It was just that Space Opera, the full band, was so much more fun that we always gravitated back to it. Rex had agreed to manage me and Scott, and it was presumptuous of us to suddenly hit him with managing Space Opera. His first experience in music management had been with Jack Hardy, a Village folk singer. From that, Rex had the contacts to book Scott and myself into a couple of clubs, which was fine, but supporting and managing a full-blown rock band – really an electric orchestra – was something Rex hadn’t bargained for, and he was in over his head.”

They didn't go into a recording studio during that period,” Farr recollected. “There was no money to go into a studio. We had our own studio, in a way, where they rehearsed with the equipment they had. Money was beginning to be a problem. We were paying loft, we were paying expenses for rehearsal, and there was the expense of working the phones constantly.

“After probably six months at the loft, it became apparent that either they had to make the commitment to go out on the road and be a band, the four of them, because no one was going to sign them. Not after what happened with the first record and no matter how good that record was. We probably got heard by six or eight labels in the course of eight months. (This incarnation of) Space Opera was playing some new things and some things from the album, maybe a 60/40 blend of the old and new.”

“Because the labels showed no interest,” Bullock said, “in March of '79, the others headed back to Texas. I stayed in New York and moved back into the Yorkville apartment where Scott and I had lived. I married Carole Wagner, my girlfriend from Texas, and we lived there happily for another six years. Life in Manhattan was sometimes nerve-wracking, but it was exhilarating to be there, young and free to do as we pleased.

I began playing shows in the Village, sometimes backed by a trio of flute, oboe and cello, or just with my oboe player, Gary Hamme. Carole and I, and Gary and his wife, became good friends. Gary was a member of the Brioso Woodwind Quintet, who performed annual concerts at Carnegie Recital Hall. In 1982, I played with them there as a guest artist.

I enjoyed the independence of being a solo performer and took some inspiration from living in New York, hearing all the new music being created in the clubs and the halls, and the energy on the streets. Along with Gary and the other players from the Bullock-Fraser ensemble, I played gigs with a violinist named Reinhardt Straub, who lived in our neighborhood. I also worked with Brenda Madison, one of the vocalists from the Space Opera New York band, helping arrange strings for her recording sessions. And in the apartment on 81st Street, I wrote several of the songs eventually played and recorded by Space Opera: Vieux Carre, Welcome, and Mother Nature & Father Time. Those were productive and happy years for myself and Carole. We had an interesting circle of friends and took advantage of all New York had to offer culturally. I knew we would eventually move back home to Texas, but we weren't in any hurry.”

Fraser-Farr

“Once Scott went back to Texas, within a year we had basically taken a mortgage out on a thing called the Synclavier,” Farr remembered. “Scott and I had a very special relationship. For me, it was Scott. It was his very first guitar line in Williamsville, from Holy River, okay? As much as I appreciated Country Max and Phil's stuff, for some reason I liked Scott's more. But then Scott and I were soulmates.

“A company by the name of New England Digital manufactured the Synclavier. It was the first direct-to-disc. You could buy a full-blown system in 1980 for probably one and a half to two million dollars. Sting and maybe a half dozen other artists had them. They were a step above the regular synthesizer. You had FM voices and a whole library of sounds. We used it on SS-433.”

“That was sometime around '83,” said Farr. “Scott had two or three pieces of music and vocals were needed, so we brought David in. The idea was to make an EP, take them around to some record companies and if they didn't show interest, we would release it ourselves. Then, at least we would be doing music.

The labels didn't bite, so we distributed it. I printed up 5,000 copies and sent some to radio. We might have sold 500 because, again, Scott wasn't playing, I had no outlet, I would consign. I would send maybe ten copies to each store. I covered Dallas and Fort Worth. I even went into San Antonio and Houston.

SS-433, Fraser's first true solo effort, was named after a star. Recorded at Secret Sound Studios in New York, it did not feature the Synclavier. Bullock recollected that “the instrumental lineup included cello, violin and trumpet, with Scott playing guitars, keyboards, and programmed percussion. I was still in living in New York. Scott and Bob Hickey came up for about a week. Bob was an audio engineer from Fort Worth who had worked for several years with Space Opera. I was invited to do some singing on the sessions and was happy to be involved.”

“You know, I learned the business a little bit from Michael (Mann) and the rest by the seat of my pants,” said Farr. “By the time Bullock-Fraser was around, I had a pretty good handle on what needed to be done and I knew the tools I needed to work with. But Scott wasn't playing and, anyway, in NYC, you payed to play. For instance, Alan Pepper, the owner of The Bottom Line, would not allow you to play unless you had a major contract. Now, it is completely different, obviously. There are so many tools out there and you have a much larger stage. But then, you have a different kind of business going because there are people who can work the Internet.

“It took me by surprise when Scott went back to Texas and married Mary. It threw me for a loop because I knew at that point that he wasn't coming back. There was nothing I could do for Scott in New York. I couldn't leave the farm and Scott was then ensconced in Fort Worth. It was over.

Still, SS-433 is a piece of work that still stands up. It's richly textured, it's very Scott Fraser, and there is a lot of Philip Glass. (laughs) It's an incredible piece of work.”

The ties were too strong to completely sever, though. Farr decided to try to work something out to keep things going.

“There was no money. Scott was teaching guitar and I said, look, Scott, while you're teaching guitar, let's see what we can put together. That's why we bought the Synclavier. And he started working at his house. He had the Synclavier for three and a half years. I'm paying, while still running a farm, hundreds of dollars a month to pay off the mortgage on this instrument. I finally took it back because Scott, in that three and a half years, didn't give me anything. I gave it to a studio and then Scott came up. With the credit I had accumulated by leasing the instrument to the studio in NY, Scott was able to go in there for a sufficient number of hours to have gotten at least one piece done, but it didn't work. I didn't get anything out of it.

“I remember David, Scott and myself out here on the farm in one bedroom with my wife in the living room,” recalled Farr. “(We had) a studio upstairs. There were wires all over the house, the Synclavier was hooked up, and we rehearsed during the day for what we were going to do in the studio. David came up for that, but it was Scott's music.

(Working with Scott after Bullock-Fraser) was a very creative period for me,” he explained, “because it allowed me to branch out into other genres, such as film and dance. I took tapes to Troma, a very grade B film studio which put out horror movies. You can imagine Scott Fraser writing for horror films... Zuckerman, the guy at Troma, said come on, Rex, (laughs) this is superior. I can't work this into the film.”

When the dust settled, the individual members of Space Opera followed their roots back to Texas, where their relationships, music and otherwise, continued. Only White was active in the clubs, playing in various groups for survival's sake, but the others kept their hands in the game. Bullock continued writing as did Fraser, and the occasional jam session would happen at odd times in Fraser's garage. White was adamant that they never split up, were always a group, and he must have been right because Space Opera, the band, had more life left in them.....

CHAPTER ONE: The Beginning...
CHAPTER TWO: Houston, We Have a Party (and later, a problem)...
CHAPTER THREE: We're Singers and We're Sailors...
CHAPTER FOUR: The Gospel According to Bullock, Fraser, White & Wilson
CHAPTER FIVE: The Best Laid Plans of Singers & Sailors...
CHAPTER SEVEN: I Ain't Going To Swim Here Anymore...

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