San Francisco’s Toiling Midgets are the ultimate cult band. A pair of lengthy hiatuses notwithstanding, this predominantly instrumental entity has persevered for more than three decades and recorded sporadically for big-deal labels such as Matador, Thermidor, and Rough Trade. Configured from the remains of the scabrous punk quartet Negative Trend, the group compresses glam, psychedelia, and moody hard rock into cavernous riffs dripping with grandeur and yearning. Increasingly reclusive since the mid-1990s, the Midgets are nevertheless still extant, nonchalantly perfecting a euphonious wash that causes geezers to weep and young ladies to daydream.
But let’s rewind. From 1981 to 1983, basket-case savant Ricky Williams signed on as the crew’s first (and last) official vocalist. The notorious Bay Area eccentric had already cemented his legend, having played drums for Crime and been ejected from a nascent version of Flipper. Most prominently, he’d also fronted the Sleepers. With his stream-of-consciousness lyrics, street-person growls, and rich if tormented baritone, Williams channeled addled soul singers, accidental shamans, and a malignant decadence rooted in Iggy and Bowie’s ugliest fantasies. Originally documented for a radio broadcast by KFJC, Live at the Old Waldorf, July 21, 1982 catches the Midgets at the apex of their collaboration with this bewitching loose cannon, mere months after their pivotal debut, Sea of Unrest, arrived in stores.
The weeks preceding the show were hallucinatory and insane for guitarist Craig Gray. Unable to see what was transpiring, he had driven home shortly after depositing his girlfriend and her mother at a meeting with a Persian prince. Mama and her equally crooked beau were attempting to extort money from the wary royal, but undercover cops nabbed both women at the scene and initiated a search for the missing vehicle. Without realizing it, Gray had narrowly escaped arrest, and he was tooling around in a borrowed car on which local law enforcement had placed an APB. To boot, the automobile’s trunk concealed a wealth of stolen goods.
A sketchy vibe permeated the gig itself, as well, particularly once headliner and professional catastrophe Nico entered the club. She implored everybody within earshot to pay her taxi fare and engaged Gray in a game of pool, coolly eviscerating him until her drug connection waltzed in. When it came time to perform, Williams was MIA, off god-knows-where doing god-knows-what. Reeling from their perverse encounter with the Velvet Underground chanteuse, the Midgets took the stage anyway. Roll tape!
Chiming harmonics announce the previously unheard lumber of “India” as the stars slowly begin to align. Tim Mooney’s elastic, backwards-sounding rhythms and delinquent skateboarder Jonathan “Nosmo King” Henrickson’s drowsy bass frame Gray’s tight, circular hybrid of grainy chords and glimmering leads. Fellow guitarist Paul Hood rides waves of sustained feedback and scratches the musical canvas with all manner of abstract-expressionist abrasions. Several minutes through the opening tune, Williams finally materializes. Despite his volatility, he warbles with enough passion and lucidity to seduce your little sister. As the evening progresses, the Midgets fluidly replicate seven classics from Sea of Unrest plus a developmental arrangement of “Before Trust,” which would eventually appear on their 1985 sophomore LP, Dead Beats. Oddities in the set include the anthemic “Walk on Jesus”—a revision of “Aaron Song” from the cassette-only 4 Track Mind—and the delay-dappled “General Echo,” a raging aberration not actualized in the studio.
So there you have it. History in the making. Or something like that. In the early ’90s, Williams worked with the Midgets again, but his sudden demise truncated that reunion. By then, Mooney had left the fold; 20 years later, he, too, would leave this earth. Gray and Hood, however, continue to keep the fire burning. Which brings us up to date. In the near future, Ektro and I hope to compile an anthology of unreleased Midgets highlights spanning 1980 to the present. But for now, Live at the Old Waldorf should suffice as a fleeting recollection of an epoch steeped in truly debauched glory.
Jordan N. Mamone, New York City
July 14, 2013