A little background: John Koerner, alias “Spider John,” alias “Creepy John,” has been a fixture on the Minneapolis/St. Paul scene since the Kennedy administration. Starting his career on the West Bank of the Mississippi in the shadow of the University of Minnesota, Koerner quickly hooked up with two other like-minded gentlemen, Dave Ray and Tony Glover, forming Koerner, Ray, and Glover. The trio went on to record a number of albums for Elektra during the early- to mid-60s folk boom, and also played numerous engagements around the region with another local folk player, a dude who I think moved to New York City and made some records for Columbia over the next 47 years. (KRG blew the doors off of that guy in the early 60s. They played honest to goodness blues in the style of Leadbelly and Josh White, rather than that Woody Guthrie stuff). (JK!)
Anyhow, ten years on, Koerner set up in a room above the Coffeehouse Extempore on Cedar Ave. in Minneapolis, and under the careful engineering ears of Dave Ray, worked out eight tracks of versions of songs he had written over the years. (Dave Ray’s typed notes for the record go into copious detail about the recording, the costs, and the politics—”The deal is bread ahead to us and the records to you by the shipper of our choice. No COD’s…The fat guys advertise mostly nothing while we are busy with mostly something and have here what you want to hear.”)
And it is what I want to hear, in fact, because it is fine stuff. Willie Murphy and the Bumblebees (also still working in MPLS) accompany Koerner on seven of the eight music tracks. The music is best described as sort of stompy, jug-bandy folk-blues, with Koerner’s hobo-ish vocals and his 12-string leading the way. There are not a lot of fireworks on the record, there’s not a lot of experimentalism, but what there is is just good, solid, straightforward American songs. “Ramble and Tumble” kicks off the set, setting the tone musically and thematically (songs about leaving town, failed relationships, etc.) “Don’t Terrify Me” and “Be Careful” continue in much the same vein.
Then something odd happens: nothing. The only sound to be heard is a sort of vague rumbling. This is the work of Tom Olson, who is clearly either incredibly unique and/or high as FUG. “Waiting for Go with Normal Dub” is the name of the track, and it’s a skit (Prince Paul, you didn’t invent nothin’). And it’s strange. The skits aren’t to everyone’s taste, but they are noteworthy for even being present on a record in 1972 that’s not meant to be a comedy record.
“Everybody’s Goin’ For the Money” kicks off the music on side 2; this is just Koerner, no band, and it’s a track that would be equally at home being sung by early 70s Ray Davies (honestly, he might be Koerner’s evil musical twin; they’re so similar, but where Davies tends toward rock n’ roll, Koerner tends towards folk. Tracks such as this is where they briefly and unmistakably intersect to the point that they’re the same dude with different hair). “Skipper and His Wife” and “Thief River Falls” (sung by Willie Murphy) lead into another short Tom Olson skit (high as FUG), then one more music track (“Taking Time”), then a last skit, with Olson and Ray (both high as fug).
Music Is Just a Bunch of Notes isn’t ever going to crack anyone’s top 500 list, sure, but it’s a solid record, perhaps elevated in my mind because of local associations/nostalgia. Koerner’s still spidery, he’s still riding the same bike to the same places, and he’s still making music the same way he has for darn near fifty years. That’s a darn long time, so I’m not going to argue with him.
— Theodore Harwood
Spider John Koerner: Music Is Just a Bunch of Notes (1972)
1. Macalester Don’t Stop Now
2. Ramble, Tumble
3. Don’t Terrify Me
4. Be Careful
5. Waiting For Go With Normal Dub
6. Cindy’s Numbers
7. Everybody’s Goin’ For The Money
8. Skipper And His Wife
9. Thief River Falls
10. Mr. Image
11. Taking Time
12. The Wall