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Music on the Margins

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

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THE UGLY JANITORS OF AMERICA

You're the liars and the cheaters,

The dummies and the morons who run the world

—'Leper in the Shadows'

In 1980, after graduating from Berklee, Trubee grew a handlebar biker mustache, packed all of his possessions in his car and drove out to Hollywood. He worked a day job at a film vault and played in a band with Zoogz Rift, a vitriolic and radical rock performer in the vein of Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart. That first year in L.A., "A Blind Man's Penis" found its way to a producer, who put it on a compilation album for Enigma Records, Trubee's first record deal.

Though Trubee's "collaborative" debut turned out to be a country music number, his music is decidedly electric and rock. His punk and progressive riffs, with fiery guitar solos and extended jams, create a massive, pummeling sound that surprisingly retains a strong pop sense.

One of the first people who took notice of Trubee was a writer for the weekly alternative LA Reader by the name of Matt Groening, who reviewed Trubee in his "Sound Mix" column years before his own comic strip Life in Hell would lead to a television show called The Simpsons. Cassandra Peterson, aka Elvira, also played Trubee while working as a DJ at KROQ-FM. Still, Trubee's cult status never turned into dollar signs.

"I pursued music not because I wanted to be rich and famous. I didn't go along with that fantasy," Trubee says. "It was more of an intellectual exercise—how do I get a piece of music out of my head and into the world?"

In 1984, Trubee released The Communists Are Coming to Kill Us by John Trubee & the Ugly Janitors of America. At the time, the band didn't really exist, it was just a collection of tapes, a pastiche of recordings. Yet he loved the concept of a working-class band, and the Ugly Janitors of America became Trubee's longstanding project.

Santa Rosa musician, radio host and archivist Don Campau first heard of Trubee in the underground scene and remembers thinking of him as an artist ahead of his time.

"I've been involved in underground music and cassette culture since the 1980s, so I knew John's status for years," says Campau, who also acts as programming director at KOWS-FM, runs a recording studio and label, and hosts the long-running No Pigeonholes Radio Show, which is now a podcast. "He was always the kind of guy, like [cult musician] R. Stevie Moore, that I thought was always one step ahead of where I was.

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"We got in touch, became friends," says Campau. "From the outside, he appears very garrulous, very sarcastic and cynical, but he's driven creatively; it's just something he has to do. He sees this as a lifetime achievement."

Showing sparks of performance art in his work, Trubee also frequently performed poetry rants where he'd get up onstage, scream and yell, wear a gorilla mask and "just act like an idiot, like a buffoon, because I could get away with it," says Trubee. "A musician friend of Zoogz Rift and mine privately mentioned to him that they thought I was mentally ill."

After a decade in L.A., Trubee became fed up with the novelty and looked north to relocate. He landed in Santa Rosa, a perfect mix of city and country that meant he could keep a day job and continue to build his bizarre body of work.

These days, Trubee lives alone, travels by bike, obsessively reads a newspaper every morning and refuses to buy a cell phone or subscribe to cable TV. His signature mustache and long hair are now trimmed and turning a nice shade of silver, but his eyes still light up as he talks and his words are measured, though rapidly and candidly delivered.

"I live a simple hermetic life, and keep a lot of distractions and nonsense out," he says, looking over his record collection. "If I had too many things impinging on me or people making demands on me or what little disposable income I have going out to other things, I wouldn't be able to do this music stuff. It's a conscious attempt to keep my plate clear."

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