Ron Nagle: Bad Rice

RonNagle_BadRice1970s cult classic gets the deluxe reissue it’s always deserved

If you’ve worked at a college radio station with a deep library of vinyl, you might have been tipped to Ron Nagle’s 1970 album by a knowledgeable elder. Assuming it hadn’t been stolen, of course. Or maybe a songwriting credit (Barbra! The Tubes!) or the music he made on 1979’s Durocs prompted you to ask questions. Questions that led you on a journey through used record stores, flea markets and collectors’ forums. Perhaps an indie record store clerk even shelved a copy of Edsel’s 1986 vinyl reissue behind the counter for you. But more likely, and like the many fans of Nagle’s ceramics, you’ve never heard (or even heard of) this album. And that’s a wrong that’s finally being righted forty-five years after the fact.

Nagle’s one and only solo album was something of a lark, and was conceived at the intersection of his music and art careers. With his group the Mystery Trend having folded a few years earlier, he was focused full-time on ceramics. To help promote his first solo gallery show, he recorded the original “61 Clay,” and when the recording made its way to San Francisco’s KSAN-FM it caught the ear of the station’s major domo, Tom Donahue. Donahue got Nagle signed to Warner Brothers, and stayed on to co-produce the album with the legendary Jack Nitzsche. Recorded in both San Francisco and Los Angeles, the result drew heavily on Nagle’s Bay Area connections. In addition to his impressive vocals and keyboards, the album includes Beau Brummels Sal Valentino and Ron Elliott, Commander Cody’s steel player Steve Davis, Stoneground guitarists John Blakeley and Tim Barnes, and soon-to-be Pablo Cruise founder David Jenkins.  

Beyond the San Francisco connections, Nagle drew upon the talents of guitarist Ry Cooder, and legendary drummers Mickey Waller and George Rains. But even with all that talent on board, Nagle remains very much the star of the show. Launching his songs from biographical seeds, he sings of a childhood crush, his parents hyperbolic storytelling, and his marriages – the first dissolving in an ex-wife’s identity crisis, the second providing him the support to turn back alcohol problems. He adds a twist to the neighborhood bodega of “Frank’s Store,” creating heartbreaking pathos with his vocal and Nitzsche’s string arrangement. Nitzsche’s production is spot-on throughout the album, ranging easily from ballads to guitar rockers to the steel-lined country rock of “Something’s Gotta Give Now.” This is the mix of sounds that made the transition from ‘60s jams to tighter ‘70s songwriting so riveting.

So what happened? Why isn’t this universally known as one of the era’s great rock albums? Reportedly, Nagle’s reluctance to tour and FM radio’s lack of support caused the album to disappear almost immediately. Looking at underground FM playlists from the era, it’s hard to imagine how this failed to gain major turntable time, particularly with Warner Brothers’ publicity machine and Tom Donahue’s connections. But disappear it did, and despite two more attempts at stirring some commercial interest (the post-album tracks “Berberlang” and “Francine”), Nagle’s music career moved out of the spotlight. He’d return with Scott Matthews in the Durocs and Profits, write with Barbra Streisand (“Don’t Believe What You Read”) and the Tubes (“Don’t Touch Me There”), produce, and create sound affects for film, but as a solo musical act, he never returned.

Omnivore’s reissue augments the album’s original eleven tracks with material mined from Nagle’s vault, including two alternate mixes, a pair of period radios spots and a full disc of demos. The latter includes both material that was later re-recorded and Nagle originals that have otherwise gone unheard until now. Among the former is the original version of “61 Clay” and an early take on “Saving it All Up For Larry” that differs markedly from the Durocs version. Of the fourteen demos, only “From the Collection of Dorothy Tate” and “61 Clay” have been previously issues – the remaining dozen are heard here for the first time. As with the album tracks, Nagle drew heavily on his personal life, mining his relationships and emotions, and sharing his perspectives on the people he knew.

The production quality of the demos is surprisingly thoughtful and full, sounding more like outtakes than writer’s samples. Omnivore’s deluxe reissue spans two full discs housed in a tri-fold digipack with a twenty-page booklet. Gene Scalutti’s liner notes include fresh interviews with Nagle, and provides details on each of the demos. The booklet also features lyrics to the original album’s eleven songs. Bad Rice has appeared on most-wanted-CD lists for decades, and it’s hard to imagine a more fitting renewal than this lovingly crafted set. Though it’s only February, this may be the set to beat for reissue of the year. [©2015 Hyperbolium]

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