The following is an amalgam of excerpts from the liner notes I wrote for the CDs Welcome To My Job and Abba Dabba Dabba, interwoven with thoughts as they come to me today, three days after my friend Cub Koda died as the result of kidney failure at the age of 51.
When he first read my notes to his 1994 CD, Abba Dabba--the one where he's pictured on the cover playing a pink Danelectro hybrid with fur binding while wearing a garish dinner jacket and gorilla mask--Cub Koda asked if the opening wasn't "somewhat apocryphal." No, I assured him, this is exactly as it happened.
You see, around May of that year, as I stated in the notes, Cub provided me with one of those Kodak-moment/It's-Miller-Time freeze frames--even though he was 1,200 miles away at the time. I had just bought a '56 Chevy sedan delivery and was driving it back from California alone. I'd packed fistfuls of tapes for the trip but ended up almost exclusively playing stuff Cub had sent me: his Welcome To My Job best-of; a primer on Detroit's Fortune Records that he'd taped just for me; demented obscurities from his vast record collection, like Tommy Tucker singing "The Ghost of Mary Lou" and Andy & the Manhattans' "Double Mirror Wrap Around Shades"; and rough mixes of Abba Dabba. I was heading out of Van Horn, Texas, it was dusk, and I had a Dr. Pepper between my legs and a fried pie in one hand; I was driving the hottest rod within a hundred-mile radius, and Cub was reaching for (and nailing) the high note on "Village of Love."
It was indeed one of those stop-and-smell-the-bluebonnets moments, and Cub was as integral a component as the whitewalls or the sunset.
At that point Cub and I had been amigos for about five years, galvanized by an all-nighter at a Denny's in Killeen, Texas, one July night. We must have witnessed two shift changes, over grilled cheese sandwiches, a couple of bowls of tomato soup, 40 cups o' coffee, and a freewheeling, nonstop dialog that encompassed everything from el-cheapo electric guitars to the films of Bela Lugosi to what's the most out-of-tune blues record ever made--all things Cub was an authority on.
As we were finally leaving the eatery, by now greeting the rising sun, Cub asked me, "What's your favorite Bo Diddley song?" Knowing I had to fish a little deeper than "Who Do You Love" to prove that I knew my onions (one of the Cubmaster's patented phrases), I cited "Background to a Music"--quite possibly the most surreally stupid number in the Book Of Bo (which is sayin' something). As I was driving Cub back to his motel, he played me a cassette of his latest work-in-progress, Cub Digs Bo. "Well, hello dere," began Cub Voice #27, in a Jerome Green/George "Kingfish" Stevens vein. "I would like to get a job," answered Cub Voice #28, as various other Kodas played drums, bass, tremolo guitar and maracas. It was the perfect end to a marathon first meeting, the audio equivalent of us pricking our index fingers and becoming blood brothers.
Earlier that evening I'd already come to the realization that I'd misjudged this Cub guy. Because, to be quite honest, the fact that he'd played stadiums and had hit records with Brownsville Station (most notably 1973's number-three "Smokin' in the Boy's Room") didn't mean squat to me. I was far too sophisticated and adult by the time they came along (hey, I was in college), and in retrospect, they personified every spandex/shag-haircut/platform- shoe stereotype I detested about '70s rock. Of course, if I'd been four years younger, I would've been front-and-center at their stadium revelries (hell, Foghat's and Grand Funk's, too), and if I'd been four years older (Cub's age), I would've been auditioning as his rhythm guitarist. (And never mind that I had a couple of pairs of platforms myself.)
I first suspected that there was a deep end to the Koda pool when I read his liner notes to a 1976 Chess reissue of unsung blues visionary J.B. Lenoir. Describing the song "Natural Man," Cub pointed out that the horn section repeated the same riff irrespective of the chord changes, that the drummer whacked the front-, rather than the back-, beat (on the 1 and 3), that J.B. sang like "the bastard son of Big Boy Crudup and Little Anthony & the Imperials"--and that these elements were exactly what made J.B. the coolest. He wasn't making fun of the bluesman, but neither was he shooting him full of formaldehyde. And one thing was abundantly obvious--the same thing that was brought into sharper focus after reading his Vinyl Junkie columns in Goldmine (and later DISCoveries): Mr. Smokin' In The Boy's Room was passionate about American music, preferably the raw, wild, lunatic-fringe variety. Earlier in '89 this blues annotator became a penpal after he solicited my aid in his quest for the Holy Grail of guitars, a Jimmy Reed tiger-pickguard Kay electric. So when Cub and his then- band, the Bone Gods, were stranded in mid-tour, thanks to the breakup of the show's headliner, Black Oak Arkansas (Phase III), I drove up from Austin. Needless to say, a short-notice fill-in weeknight at a cavernous alcoholic amusement park in a Texas military outpost (which Cub purposely mispronounced "Keileen," as if it rhymed with "Eileen," all night) was hardly a "showcase." But as I since found out was his wont, Cub played as if it were Elvis' satellite Aloha concert from Hawaii. He howled and belted, he literally led the band through their paces with choreography, played one-handed guitar solos, and did everything but Al Jolson bird calls. He wasn't about to get off that stage until he'd connected with each and every one of the 50 or so people who'd wandered in that night. And by the time the last chords of "Smokin'" had faded, all 50, even those who weren't quite sure who this bespectacled runt was when they'd walked in, knew they'd seen a show by a true professional.
Of all the handles he wore in his four-decade career--singer, songwriter, guitarist, harmonica player, multi-instrumentalist, bandleader, rock journalist, CD compiler, cottage industry--I think the one he was proudest of, and was most fitting, was Entertainer. And that ability and sensibility went all the way back to his Gene Krupa Meets Little Richard impersonations at talent shows when he was five. By age 14, the Ann Arbor, Michigan, native had switched to guitar and formed a trio called the Del-Tino's. The band's first single, a cover of Roy Orbison's "Go, Go, Go," was cut in September of '63, a month before Koda turned 15. "We'd been together maybe six months," he told me, "so I'd been playing guitar for about six months." (The sum total of the Del-Tino's' recorded output was later compiled on an LP, Go! Go! Go! With The Del-Tino's; Sounds Interesting Records, 1984.)
That band dissolved around 1966, when college and other concerns intervened, and Cub gigged with various "neither fish nor fowl" groups, including a Las Vegas lounge duo. In 1969 he formed Brownsville Station, and as he stated in the liner notes to the band's best-of compilation on Rhino, "The way we saw it, rock'n'roll had taken a left turn straight into hell. We thought that concept albums, drums solos, and wah-wah pedals were a spit in the face of our musical forefathers. Our musical outlook was formed by Phil Spector 45s, Link Wray, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Bo Diddley, and Ricky Nelson, while our stage act was equal parts Paul Revere & the Raiders, James Brown, Brother Dave Gardner, Lenny Bruce, and bad science-fiction movies. We never referred to ourselves as a 'rock group'; we were a Detroit rock'n'roll band, and damn proud of it."
The band toured the arena/cow-pasture circuit, opening for everyone that was big and headlining over everyone that was about to be big (Springsteen and ZZ Top, among them). They made all the Midnight (or was it spelled "Midnite"?) Special, Don Kirshner's, In Concert TV shows, and were, as Cub readily admitted with no apologies or embarrassment, "emblematic of our times and surroundings," with their shags, platforms, and Marshall stacks. The aforementioned "Smokin'" put them on the map and in the Top 10, not once but twice--later revived by Motley Crue, who presented its composer with a double-platinum momento of their Theatre of Pain album.
As the band became more famous, and his bandmates became more desirous of success and "legitimacy" (as in the rock press variety), Cub got deeper and deeper into "what I'm really about, the music that was very passionate for me"--which surfaced in the form of his one-man-multi-tracked-band tapes. As he explained, "There was no one to play 'Ubangi Stomp' with at 3:00 in the morning--except myself."
Although it wasn't released until years later, Cub's first solo project was a country/rockabilly collection called That's What I Like About The South. By aiming to "sound like a real good band at a VFW hall on a Saturday night," Cub's solo outings sound more real and full of energy than any pitch-corrected, Pro Tools- enhanced recordings I've heard. And although when they eventually began seeing the light of day, Cub was greeted with a new level of respect from the roots/collector crowd, to my mind he still hasn't received the recognition his talents merit as a singer, guitarist, and just a damn fine musician--let alone stylistic chameleon. Listen to his best-Jerry-Lee-Lewis-song-the-Killer-never-recorded ("Two Handed Love Affair") or tributes to Link Wray ("Ace of Spades"), Roky Erickson ("We Sell Soul"), Chuck Berry (Cub Digs Chuck), and Bo Diddley (Cub Digs Bo), and realize that the ass- kicking garage band you're hearing is one guy and his trusty Tascam 4-track "Buick." If you're still not impressed, stick an ad in the Recycler and try to find a drummer (or guitarist, let alone a drummer/guitarist) who can cover a fraction of the styles Cub embraced. The audition from hell: "Okay, all you've got to do is play a blues shuffle so deep you can hear the traffic on Maxwell Street, then some Detroit doo-wop with extra Royal Crown pomade, a little surf music, some Louis Prima cacophony, New Orleans second- line...."
But the most important ingredient in Cub's alter-ego tributes and genre-pinballing was that he never submerged his own identity; his personality, his voice, always shone through. "It's obvious that I love a lot of different kinds of music," he told me, "so what I want to do now is stretch the boundaries of so-called roots music as far as I can, while making it singularly stamped with my own personality. I'm not worried about sounding exactly like some old blues or doo-wop record; screw that--I want to sound exactly like me doin' that stuff."
"I've never understood how someone can obviate their own personality to crawl inside somebody else's skin," he continued. "If I can't bring something of my own self to it, it just doesn't make any sense to me. And, to me, you should throw your heart and soul into that music. The thing I don't agree with with the blues nazis is, 'Oh, you've got to play it just like the original Checker 78.' If you mummify something and just turn it into a museum piece, it won't live. That music's vibrant, and you've just got to play that stuff like you're killing rattlesnakes in your backyard--with a vengeance."
Thankfully, one of the strongest elements of Cub's personality, musically and otherwise, was always apparent on his records, and that was his sense of humor. Who but Cub would record a field holler called "Random Drug Testing" ("Well, the boss man said you gotta pee in the cup, pee in the cup, pee in the cup..."), or ask the musical question, What if Howlin' Wolf had recorded Broadway show tunes or Gary Lewis & the Playboys hits? Needless to say, the mere idea, let alone the uncannily authentic sound, of the Wolf singing "Shuffle Off to Buffalo" or "She's Just My Style" must have given the blues-embalmer crowd massive strokes--a fact that was no doubt that much more icing on the cake for Cub. And the thing is, the stuff sounded oddly appropriate. Far from blasphemy, it showed a level of insight that an army of guys with shades and beat-up Strats will never reach.
And who but Cub would conceive and play out an almost Andy Kaufmanesque in-joke (with only him and a few close friends in on the joke) like his musical alter ego, King Uszniewicz? During the latter stages of Brownsville, he and the road crew would record as this horrendously bad fictitious oldies band (one rule being that you could not play your usual instrument of choice, so I believe that's the Cubster on sax), and actually press up a box or two of singles and sneak them into the collectors' consciousness via Goodwill bins. (The eventual release of these tracks on LP, by Norton Records in '89, even merited a follow-up, so Cub rounded up the Uszniewicztones and served up another hysterical helping of musical shit on a shingle.)
Another equally important component to all things Cub was the man's energy level, which only seemed to increase as he reached middle age. In addition to always gigging, always having two or three solo projects in the works and another half-dozen in the back of his mind, his aforementioned Vinyl Junkie column (which ran for 20-some years), and more recently his work for the All Music guides and authoring Blues For Dummies (IDG, 1998), raised the standard of rock journalism, injecting passion and breathing life into that jaded, tragically-hipper-than-thou arena. If Koda wasn't single- handedly the heart and soul of rock'n'roll, he was arguably its conscience.
When Brownsville imploded in '79, Cub took the reins of a rootsier, more intelligent, "Brownsville the way I wanted to do it" quartet, dubbed Cub Koda And The Points. They released only one self-titled album (which contains a blistering treatment of Moon Martin's "Cadillac Walk"), although when they briefly reunited in 1999 the results were released as Noise Monkeys (J-Bird Records). Following the group's demise, Cub fell into perhaps his dream gig, leading the late Hound Dog Taylor's bandmates, drummer Ted Harvey and guitarist Brewer Phillips--the Houserockers! Though scarcely noticed at the time by the Blues Intelligentsia (no, I'm not gonna make an oxymoron joke here), this sawed-off upstart with the Beatle cut proved that he could trade his platforms for a pair of Stacy Adams and fill the shoes (well, come as close as anyone is ever likely to) of one of the greatest juice-joint blues-rockers. Just listen to these three pummeling "Highway 49" on their eventually-released live CD (Cub Koda & The Houserockers Live At B.L.U.E.S., 1982; Wolf Records, 1990). The most significant acceptance he got was that of Brewer and Ted (and Eddy Clearwater and Lefty Diz), who saw him as a peer; he just happened to have had the good fortune to have had a big hit on the radio a few years earlier.
In recent years, Cub toured on several of the summer oldies packages at state fairs and such, but leave it to Cub to bring integrity and dignity to that as well. He'd call me from the road, sometimes excited, sometimes a bit weary, with stories of the one- and two-hit wonders he was sharing billing with and sometimes accompanying--Al "Show And Tell" Wilson, Donnie "Mission Bell" Brooks, Sonny "Time Won't Let Me" and "Precious And Few" Geraci, the Beau Brummels' Sal Valentino, the Dovells' Len Barry, and even one of his Detroit heroes, Mitch Ryder. "If it ever got to the point," he said, "where I thought I had lost the things that drove me when I was 14 years old--that gotta-be-somebody instinct that drives every performer--if I was just up there headed into Hackland, I'd quit." But it never got to that point; he was active to the very end.
It was the man who sang "Bristol Stomp" and 1-2-3," Len Barry, who wrote the most eloquent testimonial for Cub's Welcome To My Job retrospective: "Cub Koda is a Confederate cracker from Detroit. Cub, actually, should be from the Australian outback or the 'Wild Wyoming West,' where he cooked on cattle drives and played frontier funk around the fire at night. The cowboys would tolerate his lousy cooking because his songs were so full of love and understanding for them. You see, where Cub really comes from is the heart; his heart and yours. He's a miner, an automobile worker, and a farmer. Cub Koda is a blue-collar cowboy whose gravel throat growls and groans concern for you. He roars like a man and loves like a lamb. He's like a doctor who says, 'Look what you've done to yourself,' followed by, 'I can't save you,' followed by him ultimately saving you. Cub Michael Koda is a bright, warm, kindhearted man who comes with a lotta little boy in him. He has chosen to take his talent that's fit for a king, and give it back instead to the peasants from which it came. I consider him to be the poet spokesman for all the people who work too hard for too little. He will always be the empathetic personification of the union he represents: the B.C.D.-- 'Blue Collar Dudes.' Cub Koda is my friend, and I love him."
The only thing I can think of to add to that (other than "Amen") is that if you knew Cub, you really knew him. Even if you only knew him through his writing, or saw the performer onstage, you were looking straight into a very real, very human person--an extremely personable, always accessible guy, not some star. And if you knew Cub, you were likely to also know (or at least feel like you knew) his beautiful wife of a quarter-century, Jeannie ("Lady J"), and his parents, Max and Lois Koda--whom he never failed to thank on one of his records. My deepest sympathies (and those of a gazillion fans) go out to them. Hopefully this quote from one of my interviews with Cub will give them some solace: "Best of all is to know that I'm not just a name in a history book, that I actually brought some life to the party. I've gotten to do things that most people never get a chance to do; I'm appreciative of all of it. And to realize that it's lasted, and that people like it and enjoy it, that I've influenced other musicians--hey, man, what else could you ask for?"
(C) 2000 - Teisco Del Rey
[Teisco Del Rey is a journalist and
surf guitarist who counts among his
biggest showbiz thrills playing maracas
and rhythm guitar behind Cub Koda one
night at the Continental Club in Austin,
[Originally appeared in Cosmik Debris Magazine's July 2000 issue.]