by Kim Cooper
(from Scram #3, reprinted in Having a Rave Up with Scram Magazine, a special best-of issue)
Although L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was published more than forty years before the discovery of LSD, the story holds a natural allure for dabblers in psychedelic pharmacology. Both W. W. Denslow’s original illustrations and the more familiar Technicolor film offer extensive fodder for slow stoned perusal. It should come as no surprise to find that two hip production companies undertook, in the late 1960s, to create musical versions of the story for the listening pleasure of flipped-out teenyboppers and collegiates.
While internal evidence suggests that “The Wizard of Oz and Other Trans Love Trips” (Capitol ST 2776) and “The Wozard of Iz: An Electronic Odyssey” (A&M SP 4156) were realized almost simultaneously. the resulting albums are very different entities. The Capitol release, produced by Nick “Beach Boys” Venet and conducted by James E. Bond, Jr. (AKA The West Coast Workshop), is easy listening gone horribly awry. Familiar Harburg-Arlen compositions from the film are subjected to a sitar-drenched deconstruction, while original numbers like “Yellow Brick Trip,” “The Dowser and the Thaumaturgist,” and “Ode to Jackie, Dorothy and Alyce” (?!) caused this listener to scratch her head mightily, and marvel at the power granted to a mid-sixties house producer. It’s all pretty delightful, in an annoying way, and the cool cover photo of a hippie Dorothy surrounded by soul brother versions Of the Oz gang is a pip.
Unfortunately, A&M wasn’t willing to spring for a comparable photo shoot. and so The Wozard of Iz cover shows an ineffectual doodle of a rainbow-bedecked television surrounded by cherubim, the title barely visible against a black background. As a record consumer in the market for a Wizard of Oz-themed electronic suite, odds are you’d spring for the Capitol release. This time, though, the prettiest box doesn’t hold the prize. Venet’s vision pales beside that of Mort Garson and Jacques Wilson, the masterminds of “The Wozard of Iz.”
“Wozard” is simply a gas, with wild lyrics, restrained use of Moog effects, and a McLuhanesque message that isn’t too embarrassing. It’s also notable for starring Suzi Jane Hokum. The mysterious Miss Hokum was a staffer at Lee Hazlewood’s LHI Productions, and the subject of his ghastly “Suzi Jane is Back in Town.” She makes a terrific Dorothy, with a voice at once jaded, naive and adorably congested.
The scene opens on Dorothy, a bright young thing whose mind is just itching to expand. She’s stuck in Kansas City with an aunt and uncle who are both too addicted to television to realize that their young ward is ready to split. A frenetic sound collage indicts the media, deteriorating into a delirious repetition of the phrase “Isn’t it funny that Dino drinks?” which maybe sums up the sixties all by itself. Jacques Wilson, who narrates Wozard in a snide singsong voice, intones: “Goodbye Dorothy. You’re about to join the ranks of other famous teenaged dropouts like Shirley Temple, Candy, and Tallulah Bankhead.” The sexual subtext in that lineage is hardly obscure although I’m not sure what we’re meant think about ol’, Shirl.
Suzi June has a great monologue as she busses it to the coast, which she sexily recites in adenoidal tones. (I am not making this up.)
Dorothy: “Kansas City isn’t where it’s at
It’s a place where people throw rocks at dreams
And the dream shouldn’t be stoned, only the dreamer…
I have to find out where my head belongs, and listen to the kind of songs
The groovy people sing, I want to do my thing.
Kansas City is not a painting, it doesn’t have any colors or any form
And it isn’t warm at all, only hot in summer
Kansas is a bummer, really, And I’m splitting!”
The bus ride would have been fine, except some crazy old biddy spent the trip trying to convert our heroine to her flippy hippie creed. Dot calls her a wicked old witch and rushes out the hydraulic doors and right into the swirling human show that is the Upset Strip. Dorothy digs: paisleys, stripes, silken rags, groupies, groups, Blue Boy hawking his wares, Pandora’s Box, Ciro’s, speed, STP and pancakes at Ben Frank’s. Waiflike girls are selling the Freep on street corners: “General Westmoreland trades in his dog-tags for love-beads,” smirks Dorothy. It’s beautiful, yet strangely hollow.
A “goodie and tasty witch” hips Dorothy to the fact that the Strip is last year’s scene, and suggests she seek out the Wozard of Iz instead. This Witch also warns her to never ever follow the yellow-green road, the symbolism of which is never adequately explained. Why yellow-green? Is it a reference to a bad batch of acid? The deforestation of Vietnam? Maybe it’s just Jacques Wilson’s least favorite color. Before there’s time to ponder, Dorothy’s on the move again.
Splitting Sin City, our heroine picks up that chartreuse path, even though the goodie witch made it clear that “Warhol movies are never shown there, You can be sure your mind will be blown.” Actually, that doesn’t sound half bad! Besides, where else would Dorothy find the three familiar companions fated to share her voyage of self-discovery? Baum’s Scarecrow is reworked into the Thing-A-Ling, a middle-aged success story without even the vestige of a soul: “I have substituted thing for think.” He’s in the market for a brain, so he signs up with the Kansas City kid. Next to join up is the In Man, a super-analytical man-machine who clicks and buzzes: “I’m the In Man and I’m all head, But elsewhere I’m kind of dead” Innie wants a heart, natch. Lastly, there’s the Lyin’ Coward, a salesman type who’s all talk and no guts; he wants some nerve.
It’s pretty clear which of these messed up males will, in the absence of a loyal little dog, be selected to satisfy Dorothy’s needs. The Lyin’ Coward wouldn’t dare, although he’d probably talk a good game, and the In Man introduced himself with a admission of his impotency, but as in the original story, the Scarecrow/ Thing-A-Ling has a definite yen for Kansas City chicken. Anyway. no one ever said you needed to have a soul to make a young girl happy. The party complete, our freaky quartet eases on down the road to a psychedelic madrigal: “As sure as phosphate fizzes… the wise old Wozard of Iz is!” So ends side one.
Flipping the record puts you in the middle of a way-out scene, a maelstrom of dumb electronic howling that is the hallucinatory floor show at the Blue Poppy Club. If you’re still confused, after six minutes of sonic excess, Dorothy explains “It was a therapy happening. But all it leaves you with is memories, and memories aren’t where it’s at.” The Thing-A-Ling adds that “That would have blown my mind, if I had a mind.”
Suzi Jane gets a solo turn on “I’ve Been Over the Rainbow,” a sort of some velvet Phaedra moment, which I choose to interpret as a metaphor for the gang’s hitching a ride up the coast in a freaky black school bus full of young girls and a guy called Charlie. Dorothy and company get off in Big Sur: redwoods, pounding surf, vegetarian feasts, hot-tubbing at Esalen, and maybe some sugar cubes to wash it all down. Dorothy sings “I will teach you a song that I learned while high… high on Big Sur,” and meets a strange girl who hands her a flower, demonstrating the kind of wide-open loving spirit that Dorothy longs to make her own… or does she meet herself, man? It’s all about as heavy as a balloon-basket fall of slag, and the funny thing is the Wozard never even shows up. Because, dig, each of the characters always had what they lacked, and never needed a guru at all.
Too quickly, the record ends in a witch-killing ceremony in which the four mind-travelers destroy the destructive forces in themselves, emerging free and clean as newborn souls, ready to join an anarchist commune, take up macramï¿½ or write a hit record.
“The Wozard of Iz” is terrific because it takes a familiar story and updates it in a way that makes sense internally. The novelty of producing a Moog record structured like a pop album, with wit, melody and electronic squawks kept to an effective minimum, makes this a classic of its rather small genre. So if you must own just one psychedelic Wizard of Oz recording, this is definitely the one. Happy hunting!