Mystery Man

Who is Ralph Gean, and why is he the latest hero of Denver's musical underground?

Following his stint as a busker, Gean put together an actual band, initially dubbed Rockin' Ralph Gean & Dreamsteam. (Other names for the combo and its offshoots include Ralph Gean & Country Curfew and Big Bang & the Boulders.) The outfit played vintage rock and roll throughout Utah and Wyoming--and when it petered out in 1984, Gean participated in another series of acts, alternately called Rockin' Country, Kickin' Country, Heritage Revue and Flashback. These combos ran aground in 1986, leaving Gean on his own again. He subsequently was asked by the son of a musician friend to write several songs for The Nuthouse, a film production he was trying to get off the ground. "Homicidal Me" and "Hard to Be a Killer" (about a psychopath too inept to actually knock anyone off) both date from this period. "People kind of wonder about me when they hear me do those ones," Gean allows. "But I did them on assignment."

When financing for The Nuthouse fell through, Gean spent the next year playing outside Salt Lake City doughnut shops. Frustrated, he decided to follow a pal to Denver, where his job overseeing John Spencer suddenly erased the threat of financial insolvency for the first time in his life. He also had the luxury to add to his Presley collection, which is dominated by original pressings of virtually everything the King ever committed to vinyl.

Among the places Gean haunted during his periodic searches for Elvis manna was the Wax Trax oldies store. Shannon Dickey, the jazz buyer at the branch and the man Gean considers to be his manager, remembers that Ralph was already a Wax Trax regular when he first started working there in 1990. "I didn't hear his music until '92 or '93," Dickey points out. "But one day I started talking to him about his old recordings back in the Sixties, and he brought one of his tapes in that had some of his killer material on it. And it knocked me out."

After that, word spread quickly among Wax Trax staffers about Gean's dark musical side. Around this same time, Gean got the itch to perform in public again. "I don't know what prompted it," Dickey says. "But a friend of mine told me that he saw him playing in front of a Dairy Queen on East Colfax. And then one day he asked if he could play by our store. And he did."

Beginning in 1994, Gean made a pilgrimage to Wax Trax virtually every Saturday afternoon; he would stop into the oldies branch, chat with Dickey and the other employees, then settle on the sidewalk to serenade anyone he encountered. He no longer needed to panhandle for money, so he didn't actively solicit donations, but donations came nonetheless. He'd usually end up with around ten dollars for a couple of hours' work, and just as he used to do during his time as a Salt Lake City street musician, he'd spend his earnings on food. To wit: Gean would buy a steak at nearby Bastien's Restaurant, then go back home to watch Hercules and Xena: Warrior Princess on television. His love of these syndicated adventure shows fomented "Goddess of Love," Gean's latest two-minute epic. "It's kind of my version of Greek mythology," he says--but this highfalutin subject matter didn't stop him from rhyming "Aphrodite" with "flighty."

The fecundity of Gean's imagination eventually became too much for Dickey to ignore. He began actively promoting him to club bookers such as Michelle McManis at the Lion's Lair, and he brought Gean to the attention of Boyd Rice, a performer whose work has been known to provoke alternately shocked and angry reactions. Rice, a lover of obscure Sixties pop, was immediately smitten by Gean--so much so that he's just announced his intention to release the first ever Ralph CD on his own label, Hierarchy. Its rather unwieldy title? A Star Unborn--What Would Have Been If What Is Hadn't Happened: The Amazing Story of Ralph Gean.

Right now, the disc, which may be available as soon as early 1997, is being conceived as a history of Gean, from "Here I Am" to "Goddess of Love." The latter was recorded this year at Sun Studio, the facility where Presley birthed rock music. "I've always wanted to do my own Sun session with my songs," Gean says. "So when I was in Memphis in May, I was able to put together a little band with a couple of the engineers at the studio." In just a few hours, Gean and his pickup group laid down six originals, including such peculiarly charming cuts as "Teenage Woman," "The Tipper Blues" and a twisted salute to another of his preferred TV programs, "Star Trekkin' Rock & Roll Cowboy." In addition, he recorded three Sun-era covers, including a take of Jerry Lee Lewis's "Great Balls of Fire" with Gean on piano. "I couldn't believe how good it all turned out," Gean admits. "Just to be standing where all those greats stood--it was wonderful."

Whether any of the Sun recordings will ever be available for purchase is unclear right now. So, too, is the prospect of a full-scale Gean band, even though several prominent Denver musicians, including Eric Allen of the Apples and Kurt Ohlen of the Dalhart Imperials, have made it known that they'd happily participate. But Gean doesn't mind having his future up in the air. Right now, he's content to use his voice, his guitar and exuberantly macabre songs like "Granny's Grave" to remind himself and others around him that he's not dead yet--even though many of the folks he sings about are.

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