It’s a Sunday afternoon in early December, and like any good Texpat, Mayo Thompson has the football game on in his hotel room. But it’s not the game you’d imagine the Houston native to be watching: at this Greenwich Village hotel, he’s watching Brighton & Hove Albion versus Wolverhampton in the English Premier League—suggestive of the many years he spent abroad in London and Düsseldorf. Clad all in black and a pair of Prada slip-ons, Thompson, now 75, moves with a slight limp around his room.
For psychedelic rock fans, Thompson’s name is synonymous with the Red Krayola, a band that’s grown and mutated for a half-century with him as its main catalyst and lone constant (though he’s quick to clarify that the group is “a nonmembership organization”). But even if he isn’t an instantly recognizable beloved Texas weirdo like his onetime labelmate Roky Erickson of the 13th Floor Elevators, Thompson has long been a critical part of avant-garde musical movements in the Lone Star State and beyond.
The Red Krayola evolved from being a sister band to the likes of the Elevators and Bubble Puppy on Lelan Rogers’s International Artists label in the sixties to rubbing elbows with young Brits at the height of punk in the late seventies. Thompson’s fingerprints can also be found on the production credits for several classic punk albums from Stiff Little Fingers, the Raincoats, the Fall, and Scritti Politti. “Mayo gave me confidence to use my instinct to make something, forging something out of nothing,” the Raincoats’ Gina Birch says. And in the nineties, Thompson and the Red Krayola popped up in Chicago just as bands like Tortoise, Wilco, the Sea and Cake, and more were beginning, in turn becoming a patron saint to the sound of post-rock. “He was certainly an oddity amongst the punks, skinheads, and mohawk-wearing customers that used to frequent the shop in the early days,” says Geoff Travis, Rough Trade founder and Thompson’s production partner in the late seventies. “Mayo had a mischievous, disruptive spirit that was often evidenced by a wide smile on his face.”
Krayola “nonmembership” shows off the many worlds in which Thompson has since traveled over his life: The author Donald Barthelme’s brother Frederick, a woolly hippie collective, a conceptual artists’ group, and London punks filled its ranks over the years. “Me, I go with the contradictions,” Thompson says. “That’s what I’m interested in. That’s where the action is.” The Red Krayola discography, which ranges from unhinged chaos complete with revving motorcycles to hushed acoustic numbers touching on Marxism, bears that out.
But Thompson’s in New York for the weekend to perform a sold-out concert for his one and only solo album, Corky’s Debt to His Father, first released in 1970. “It’s some irony of history that happens all these years later that Corky will limp onto the stage tonight,” he says with a wry smile.
For music fans who think of iconic Texas singer-songwriter albums like Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger, Guy Clark’s Old No. 1, or Billy Joe Shaver’s Old Five and Dimers Like Me, Corky precedes them all, though it may not ring a bell. “Corky’s Debt was such a beautifully accomplished collection of songs,” says David Grubbs, a Krayola collaborator in the nineties and now a professor at Brooklyn College and CUNY Graduate Center. “That it came after the rigorous experimentation of the first two Red Krayola records blew my mind.” The Austin-based singer-songwriter Bill Callahan is similarly in awe. “That record in particular is so unique and idiosyncratic,” he says. “To me, that’s what music is supposed to be.”
As Thompson tells it, Corky’s wasn’t well-received at the time of its release. “Corky’s came out and died a death,” Thompson states in his deep baritone drawl, while settling into his leather chair. “They didn’t know how to sell it. It went on the shelf and sat there.” And so it sat for decades and decades until the nineties, when his longtime record label, Drag City, reissued it for a new generation. But a long, strange musical trip predates that renaissance.
The only child of an attorney father and a beloved art teacher mother at Bellaire High School, Mayo describes his upbringing as middle class and calls his childhood in postwar Houston a “white world.” That is, until he first encountered the music of Sam John “Lightnin’” Hopkins. “Lightnin’ was a wonder to me, a perfect abstract relationship to the problem of music,” Thompson enthuses. “He figured it all out and everything.”
Underneath the prickly surface and discordance of Thompson’s music you can still hear that boyhood love of Hopkins shining through, from the playful language to ever-evolving contours of guitar that shadow and complement such thoughts, as found on far-flung Krayola songs like the spiky funk of “Black Snakes” and tender “Victory Garden.” “I found things in Lightnin’ that I had never found in other people’s music, which was that the phrase goes on as long as it needs to and then the music changes this way or that way,” he says.
As a teenager and college student, Thompson never quite settled on a path or career, in part because of his self-admitted “lazy” character. He picked up a guitar at age nineteen, and after a sojourn through Europe returned to Houston in the mid-sixties. He persuaded friends Frederick Barthelme and Steve Cunningham to form a band, which Barthelme recalled in a post on his website as being “remarkably incompetent.” The trio soon focused on feedback and “free music,” and Thompson remembers that at their shows “it was not uncommon for a fight to break out,” a fact that he attributes to their sound spurring “‘primitive’ feelings in people rather than concentration on the music.”
They became the house band at the local club Love and attracted a hippie following the band soon dubbed “the Familiar Ugly.” The trio took up the name the Red Crayola (though a K was soon added when Binney & Smith’s lawyers came calling), suggestive of their simple, messy, free music. Famously, Lelan Rogers discovered the group playing a “Battle of the Bands” at Gulfgate mall (where they lost to Johnny Winters’ band), and over the course of two days in 1967, their first album The Parable of Arable Land was born.
In it, the band’s psychedelic sounds sank into the chaotic sludge of “free form freak-outs” then cohered back into song form. Thompson made up lyrics on the spot, and the names of various fighter jets shouted at shows became the opening lines of “Hurricane Fighter Plane”: “I have in my pocket / A hurricane fighter plane / And it takes me where I want to go / It doesn’t matter if it rains.” While their labelmates (the Elevators) espoused the gospel of psychedelic drug use, Red Krayola’s music was the acid trip itself, even if the band members shied away from psychedelia’s own hippie trappings. Thompson says he’d tried LSD but “it was too scary,” and he still speaks kindly and with a touch of sadness about Erickson, who contributed to Red Krayola’s first album and became one of LSD’s early casualties. “Hippiedom was beyond me,” Thompson says.
While Parable sold upward of 50,000 copies, their second album, Coconut Hotel, embraced sparse, noisy John Cage experimentation. 1968’s God Bless the Red Krayola and All Who Sail With It was a model of economy, with no song topping three minutes. A generation on, that album would be a blueprint for punk rock, but the first iteration of the Krayola disbanded later that year.
Over the years Thompson had kept ties to many other Houston players, be it Guy Clark and Frank Davis, the Hill brothers of pre-ZZ Top band American Blues, or session players (bearing what Thompson calls “dab hands.)” And after the Krayola’s contradictory moves, Thompson decided to make a solo album in 1970, Corky’s Debt to His Father, and shockingly played it straight. The result was keen, whimsical, cowboy-song-spiked pop—and for all his fondness for free jazz and John Cage, Thompson also has a penchant for fare like Fred Astaire’s “Cheek to Cheek,” Ray Charles, and Randy Newman.
“That’s the one time I really wanted to make a record,” Thompson says. While Red Krayola albums were often created quickly, he and his band had spent three months fine-tuning Corky’s quirky charms. “Corky’s was considered in great depth,” he says. “Those songs are tied to some real feelings. They’re hard to sing, in a way.” Akin to other beloved yet misunderstood singer-songwriter classic albums like Van Dyke Parks’s Song Cycle or Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea, Thompson’s quivering, pitchy vocal delivery makes his work an acquired taste. “I’ve been told all my life I couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket,” he says. “But music is better for being more open; everybody has a tune in them somewhere.”
Corky’s opens with “The Lesson,” a waltz that finds Mayo’s nasal falsetto in partnership with fiddle and slide guitar: “I’m a student of human nature / And all my lessons I have learned for free.” In Callahan’s opinion: “I think it has the best opening line of any record I’ve ever heard. Mayo set the bar impossibly high with that.” In other moments on the album, where he describes the likes of the goddess Venus taking a lover at a barbecue, a sexualized unlaced shoe with its tongue hanging out, and a dog trick done on the edge of a lawn, Thompson cheekily alludes to primal urges with seemingly every line. Clever and eloquent as its lyrics are, an animalism lies just beneath the album’s surface. In fact, Thompson named Corky after a cat that laid perfect, cigar-shaped turds (and the text on the record spine cheekily reads “Corky’s Cigar”).
Between the personal aspects of the album and its poor reception in the world, Thompson has never since approached this particular sound again in over fifty years of music-making. It was only at the determined prodding of Sohrab Mohebbi, an associate curator at the Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater in Los Angeles, that Thompson even considered revisiting the album.
Thompson admits to feeling nervous about revisiting some of the songs on this December night, at Le Poisson Rouge in New York City (he also recently performed them in Los Angeles, but has no dates set for Texas at the moment). “‘Dear Betty Baby’ kills me. ‘Horses’ kills me. The rest I can manage,” he says. “But those two are tied to something I can still feel.”
A packed house awaits Thompson and band later in the evening. It’s a mostly bookish, bespectacled audience that no doubt first encountered Corky in its nineties reissue, the crowd including a member of Interpol as well as Neutral Milk Hotel’s Jeff Mangum. With little ado, Thompson—still clad in black, now with a black sports jacket on top—perches on his stool and starts “The Lesson” in that same quavering, high voice. He rustles in his kit bag midsong, pulling out a white bandana, which he then wraps around his throat. (It’s less a performative act than a way to keep his throat warm as he goes deeper into his baritone and toward the uppermost reaches of his register).
The five-piece band delivers on all of the original’s quirks: the barrelhouse piano of “Venus in the Morning,” the bass curlicues of “To You,” the Lightnin’-like blues of “Black Legs,” the wobbling harmonies of “Around the Home,” the burnished horns of “Dear Betty Baby.” Thompson furrows his brow and closes his eyes during “Betty,” turning his back on the audience to fully take in its mournful melody. By the time he and the band reach the rollicking last song on the album, “Worried Worried,” Thompson gets up and shimmies, gesticulates, and even makes a happy leap–the mark of a septuagenarian very much still feeling his oats.