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Liner notes to I Died Today

by Ellery Eskelin

Reprinted from the liner notes to the Rodd Keith compilation CD, I Died Today (Tzadik)

cover design by Kimsu Theiler

This music is the result of those "send us your lyrics" come-ons that you've probably seen in magazines. Lately there's been a growing interest in this type of music, now being recognized as a genre wholly unto itself. People from all over the world sent in lyrics and poems about popular topics of the day: astronauts, politicians, love, hippies, dance crazes, exotic locals and revisionist history. These lyrics were then set to music, recorded and pressed into records by companies that offered to "send them around." For a fee, of course.

Rodd Keith (aka Rod Rogers) wrote music, sang and played keyboards for several of these companies on and off during the '60s and early '70s. You may already be familiar with Rodd's astounding recording "Beat of the Traps." Thanks to the efforts of Tom Ardolino (drummer for NRBQ), who has been collecting these kinds of records for years, "song-poem" music has finally come to light. Tom's collections Beat of the Traps and The Makers of Smooth Music (both on Carnage Press) contain some of the most bizarre examples of this type of music ever heard. Over the years Tom tried many times to find out just who Rodd Keith was, but to no avail. Rodd remained an elusive figure.

Rodney Keith Eskelin was my father. He was, however, an elusive figure in my life as well. My parents separated when I was young, and Rodd and I never had a chance to meet before his tragic death in 1974. I began playing saxophone at age ten and as I became serious about it I was told that my father was a great musician. It was said that he could do anything. This had a profound effect on me. I knew a little bit about the kind of work he did, but it wasn't until recently, when I heard Beat of the Traps, that I realized that this strange music had turned Rodd into a cult hero.

I've been doing a lot of research on Rodd lately. In talking to people who knew him, the one comment I always hear is, "Your father was a pure genius." It's usually the first thing out of their mouth. It seems that Rodd possessed an almost unbelievable "natural" talent for music. He's remembered as a guy who could pick up just about any instrument and quickly learn to play it.. He could hear a piece of music only once and play it back perfectly. He had a great ear for harmony and was a big fan of "progressive" jazz, particularly Stan Kenton. I think Rodd may have been kind of frustrated by the fact that his playing was sometimes "over the heads" of some people. I'm not sure that Rodd ever documented what he was truly capable of as a musician, although there may be some hints in these recordings.

On a personal level, Rodd was a loving and well-loved human being. He was, however, more than a little eccentric. He possessed his own ideas about life and impressed those around him as being unlike anyone they had ever met. Rodd was always known for his odd behavior, and I suppose that's a part of the reason why my folks split up. It wasn't until later, though, that Rodd discovered hallucinogens and started doing drugs with an almost religious fervor. By the end of his life Rodd became almost impossible to understand, constantly speaking in cryptic word-play and even speaking backwards. He would spin long stories to his friends about all sorts of far-flung ideas and notions. The wife of one of Rodd's associates remembers Rodd going on about "what if" someone were to make a film in which someone jumps off a freeway overpass. That not being anything too radical for Rodd to say, no one thought much about it. Two weeks later on December 15, 1974, Rodd either jumped or fell from a Hollywood overpass into oncoming traffic. No one can agree on whether this was intentional or just an accident. Rodd was 37.

What we're left with today are these records. These pieces were taken from Rodd's own collection of 45s and LPs of his work. Rodd wrote all the music, sang (except for the female leads and one male vocal) and played all the keyboards. Of particular interest are the pieces using the Chamberlin (a forerunner of the Mellotron), the first analog keyboard sampler.

I've been told that Rodd considered this work ("song-sharking," as it was called) to be a form of prostitution. He knew he was capable of much greater things in music, but for him it was an easy way to make money and pursue an "avant-guard lifestyle" in Hollywood. Hid did, however, take this work seriously and tried to do each job better than the last. It wasn't unusual for him and his musicians to crank out about thirty of these songs in an afternoon, usually first takes in which the band rarely saw the music before the tapes were rolling. It's just these circumstances, however, that make this music great. The juxtaposition of strange but sincere lyrics and twisted versions of every genre of pop music known at the time leaves me feeling dizzy and disoriented. I hope you'll feel the same way.

My mother, Roberta (who plays great Hammond B3 organ), tells me that Rodd used to play records in my room when I was a kid. I think Kenton's City of Glass was one example. Far out stuff. Stuff that she thought would scare me or something. It was Rodd's feeling that this would be good for me somehow. Well, maybe that explains a lot about how I turned out.

Around 1973 my grandmother began writing letters to me about Rodd and the family. There was even talk about me going out to California to meet him. However, this was not to be. Shortly before he died, though, Rodd told my grandmother that he thought I had good taste in music and that he was proud of my talent in the music field. Thanks, Dad.

-- Ellery Eskelin, New York City, 1995.

Ellery Eskelin plays tenor saxophone in New York and around the world. He is greatly inspired by his mother and father.

Read David Greenberger's excellent review of I Died Today from the December 1996 issue of Spin Magazine.

Track list for I Died Today

  1. Rodd Keith: I Died Today
  2. Rod Rogers: Hippy Happy Land
  3. Nita & Bonnie: The Graveyard Rock
  4. Rodd Keith: This
  5. Rodd Keith & The Raindrops: Our Senators
  6. Rod Rogers & The Film City Orchestra: Tahiti
  7. Rod Rogers & The Swinging Strings: The Hump Dance
  8. Dan Monday: General Custer's Story Remains Legend
  9. Rodd Keith: Do The Pig
  10. Bonnie Graham: T.V. Love
  11. Rodd Keith: Waiting For The High Tide
  12. Dan Monday: I Am A Real American
  13. Rodd Keith & The Raindrops: Don't Throw My Love Away
  14. Rick Russell: I've Been Hurt So Many Times
  15. Rod Rogers: Space
  16. Rodd Keith: I Dreamed Too Long Woke Up Too Late
  17. Rod Rogers & The Swinging Strings: The Music Man From Mars
  18. Rodd Keith: Do The Turkey
  19. Rod Rogers: In The Stillness Of The Night
  20. Rod Rogers: The Flitting Firefly
  21. Rod Rogers & The Swinging Strings: Elmer-21-Century-Hop
  22. The Downtowners: First Comes The Rain
  23. Bonnie Graham: Gardenia
  24. Terri Summers: Somebody Else
  25. Judy Layne & The Raindrops: Just Runnin' Wild
  26. Rodd Keith: Cloud Nine

I Died Today is available online from Tzadik Records.

Other song-poem compilations you may enjoy:

Carnage Press
I'm Just The Other Woman || The Human Breakdown Of Absurdity || The Makers Of Smooth Music || The Beat Of The Traps

Daddy, Is Santa Really Six Foot Four? || Do You Know The Difference Between Big Wood And Brush

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