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Music on the Margins

Inside the world of John Trubee, Sonoma County's strangest songwriter

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I got high last night on LSD

My mind was beautiful, and I was free

—'A Blind Man's Penis'

The mischievous musical creations of John Trubee are unlike anything else in the world of pop. Known by few and understood by fewer, the longtime songwriter, bandleader and now record-label owner has called Sonoma County home for more than 20 years, yet his hermetic lifestyle and rejection of all things commercial have kept him out of the spotlight—and he wouldn't have it any other way.

"My basic impulse is to make and create things; I'm not naturally born to self-promote and be like a politician," says Trubee from his modest home in Santa Rosa, sitting in front of a wall of 8-tracks, LPs and a non-functioning reel-to-reel machine. "And since I tend to be introverted, it's hard for me to go out and glad-hand or draw attention to myself."

If Trubee had become a filmmaker, he might draw a comparison to horror director and American Movie documentary subject Mark Borchardt. Had he taken the author's route, he might be another Charles Bukowski. As it is, Trubee is a music man, and his dark, profane and subversively hilarious songs have offended the conservative and mystified even the most progressive listeners for 30 years.

Born in Rapid City, S.D., and raised in Princeton, N.J., Trubee was a banker's son who describes his father as neurotic and overbearing.

"It was a torturous relationship with my dad. He was John Sr. and I was John Jr., so I became the focus of whatever psychological problem he had," recalls Trubee. "And it affected me. I grew up looking askew at his values, the normal 'all-American' stuff."

Trubee says his life was ruined at age 13 when he read The Beatles: The Authorized Biography by Hunter Davies in the late 1960s.

"I heard a lot of pop music and it started to intrigue me," Trubee says. "Pop music back then was really great rock and Motown and Phil Spector and all that."

Grounded for an entire summer around the same time for starting a fire in a friend's backyard, Trubee grew out his hair, learned to play guitar and joined his first band in high school, Gloop Nox & the Stik People. His fascination with music continued to grow.

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At the same time, his interest in normalcy went out the window. "I watched these suburbanites, like my dad, get up and take their briefcases and three-piece suits to their commuter jobs," Trubee says gloomily. "It looked pretty miserable to me."

Nothing interested Trubee except music, art and books. Yet, even as a teenager, he knew the chances of making a good living in the arts would be hard for a kid with his disposition.

"It's almost like consigning oneself to poverty and misery," admits Trubee. "It was a grim choice. I even knew that when I chose to go to Boston, to the Berklee College of Music, I did it in a state of dread and depression."

The summer before attending music college, Trubee jokingly penned what would become his most famous song, "A Blind Man's Penis." Trubee remembers that he was lying around one day, reading the Midnight Globe tabloid. On the back pages, Trubee saw an ad that read, "Send your lyrics to Nashville, make $20,000 in royalties."

Back in the day, the song-poem was a popular scam wherein publishing and recording companies with names like Hit Records International and Tin Pan Alley would entice the naïve to send in lyrics to be recorded by a band. The scam successfully convinced hundreds to part ways with up to $400 for the "opportunity" to have their poem turned into a bland, lifeless song.

Trubee saw the scam a mile away, but ever the prankster, decided to have a little fun with the Nashville folks. "I said, 'Why don't I type out the most ridiculous lyrics I can, offensive and idiotic and vulgar and silly, and send it in to get a rise out of these people?'"

All he wanted was a response that said, "Screw you." What he got was a letter back with a contract reading, "Dear Mr. Trubee, we find your lyrics very worthy of the full Nashville production, please send $79.95 in remittance." Startled by the absurdity of the situation, Trubee sent in the check and Nashville sent back an acetate, a one-sided record test pressing, and a reel-to-reel tape with a cowboy named Ramsey Kearney singing and half-speaking Trubee's lyrics about electric marbles and fornicating with Martians.

His first test audience was his brother Jay, whose laughter triggered something in Trubee: a sense of power, a way to express his eccentric and alienated worldview. "I think that's why I do music; it's how I identify myself to the world," Trubee says.

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