In a pop music world where the Madonna-Britney kiss and Janet Jackson's nipple make headlines for weeks, the death of Ray Condo won't rate a blip on the mainstream radar. If he wasn't dead, he'd be the first to rag on this disparity.
"Fake, counterfeit," he once railed to me about contemporary pop stars. "I wish all these punks and kids would realize their rock stars are decadent imposters, phonies."
Speaking his mind was typical for Condo, the flamboyant, talented and wickedly funny Canadian rockabilly who was found dead on April 15 of an apparent heart attack. He was 53.
Condo scraped by on the fringehe lived and played in an underground scene, never rising above cult level in the worlds of rockabilly and neo-traditional music. He lived hard, and he made music that should be remembered.
A rail of a man in a '40s suit and battered fedora, Condo was a bristling and manic presence on and off stage, whether he was squawking on sax, slamming out sock rhythm on his acoustic guitar or yelping into a microphone. With his stellar bands The Hardrock Goners and The Ricochets, he left behind a series of fine indie recordings. Among them was Swing Brother Swing!, a title that also served as a mantra for his life.
Condo treated old songs like new viscera, something to be torn into, whether the numbers were swinging jazz or hard honky-tonk or hillbilly boogie. In his hands, numbers like Hank Penny's 1952 "Hadicillin Boogie" and Henry "Red" Allen's "There's a House in Harlem for Sale" alternately glittered and bled anew. At the time of his death, Condo was gearing up for a new tour.
When I heard about Condo's death, I went back to an interview I'd done with him in 1996. His quotes still roar off the page.
"The corporate agenda doesn't want you to have memories. You have to keep the machines running, fuck the past," he'd yelled, holding forth about society's collective loss of history. "I'd like to see us go the other way, put on the brakes and find out where we came from."
Ray Condo played music festivals around the world, but he was best experienced in a small club. As news of his death trickled through cyberspace, everyone who'd ever seen him had a similar story. Wrote one poster on the alt-country listserv Postcard2: "I remember standing at the bar and seeing this old skinny guy in a suit. I thought it was one of the local rummies coming in for a glass of beer.... Then he got up on stage and kicked our asses. Great voice, tremendous energy and half-nutsa True Rockabilly."
"Half-nuts" nails it. Condo spent his life kicking against the pricks, always putting his music where his big mouth was. But obscurity can get exhausting. It doesn't pay much and it can leave you old before your time. But like everything else he cared about, Condo even saw that as an important part of the history.
"The greatest American musicians were dying in cheap hotels, drinking in old bars," he said in 1996.
In the end, maybe Ray Condoa brilliant, half-nuts rockabilly who drank and played in old bars and died quietly in his Vancouver apartmenthad it right on that last count.
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