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Mystery Man

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

At the Lion's Lair during the waning hours of a Thursday in late August, the hipsters have gathered. Knots of musicians, fans and hangers-on cluster around the venue's bar, patting backs, exchanging gossip and otherwise epitomizing all that is fresh and modern and now about nightlife in the Nineties. In other words, they look nothing like the man they've come to see.

"I just got a request for a murder song," says Ralph Gean. As the crowd lets out a cheer, Gean, 53, offers an orthodontically suspect smile. He's wearing a gaudy Hawaiian shirt that disappears under the waistband of stretch pants that are belted around his considerable midsection, and his stoop-shouldered stance and non-threatening demeanor don't exactly cry out "rock intensity." But when Gean begins flailing away at an acoustic guitar so timeworn and flimsy that it threatens to snap in his hands, the effect is curiously riveting. And so, too, are his lyrics, which he croons in a deep, rich Texas baritone:

Homicidal me
The man you see
Yes I'm gonna be
On a killing spree
Underneath the moon
The full and shining moon
Homicidal me

As the Lair's patrons whoop, Gean bugs out his friendly, hangdog eyes and chuckles. The words to his ditty are dangerous, but its simple melody, which bespeaks the influence of early rockabilly, is almost impossibly jaunty. Soon, everyone in the joint, from dour poseurs to grimy derelicts taking a brief respite from the sights and sounds of East Colfax, are swaying along to the beat. By the final verse, Gean is practically leading a sing-along.

I need a thrill
A perfect kill
Carrie Lee or Jane
Or Jack and Jill
Anyone will do
A doctor, nurse or you
Homicidal me

Amid the applause that greets Gean's final chord, a young woman wearing a skintight black minidress and smoking a cigarette dangling from the tip of a lengthy holder greets three friends who've just entered the room. "Hurry up, hurry up," she urges them. "You've got to hear this guy. He's like nothing you've seen in your life!"

Just before the evening's engagement, Gean is holding court near the Lair's entrance when John Spencer, a stocky, middle-aged man with a soft handshake and a thousand-yard stare, pushes a pack of smokes to within an inch or two of his face. "Look at these," Spencer says in a quiet but edgy voice. "These are the best-priced cigarettes in town. The best."

"That's good, John," Gean replies gently. He backs up a step, then asks, "Are you sure you can't stay?"

"I can't stay," Spencer confirms. "I can't stay. I need to go and have a cigarette."

As Spencer rumbles into the night, Gean explains, "John is my friend, but he's also my line of work. When I first got to Denver back in 1987, a friend of mine spotted an ad in the paper looking for somebody to take care of a guy. I thought he might be an invalid, which was okay with me, since I worked as an orderly back in 1974. But it turned out to be John. And he's rich."

In fact, Spencer is the heir to a mining fortune. "It's probably in the millions," Gean guesses. However, Spencer has what Gean describes carefully as "some emotional problems"--and because of his condition, the money willed him by his parents at the time of their deaths was placed in a trust. The overseers of these funds subsequently decided that while Spencer was self-sufficient enough to live outside an institution, he still needed some supervision. Hence the hiring of Gean, who lives with Spencer in a condo on the east side of the metro area.

"All I have to do is make sure he doesn't get into trouble or accidentally hurt himself," Gean says. "And really, it's the easiest thing I've ever done in my life, since John is able to do just about everything for himself. He works at Bayaud Industries, and he spends every dime he makes on the Lotto. He's won a few hundred dollars that way, and when he wins, it makes him really happy--I don't think he has any idea how much money he really has. And they pay me to take him on vacations, too. We recently toured the sites of famous Western gunfights--I went to 204 different places, and John was with me for 186 of them. I'm telling you, this is the kind of job I've always dreamed about."

Actually, Gean's dreams more often revolve around music. With a few more breaks, he feels that he might have given Elvis Presley, whose recordings and memorabilia he avidly collects, a substantial amount of competition; as he states in the title of one of his typically eccentric numbers, "I'm What Would Have Been If What Is Hadn't Happened." But even if he hasn't yet reached his goals, Gean has lived an idiosyncratic life while shooting for them. He was a recording artist in the Sixties. He was a polygamous member of an outlawed Mormon group in the Seventies. He was a street musician living off the kindness of strangers in the Eighties. And in the Nineties, he's the latest favorite of the local music-scene intelligentsia, thanks to his ability to mix disparate covers (he does both "That's All Right" and "The Tide Is High") with his own exceedingly quirky compositions. "I don't know how I got here," Gean confesses, grinning, "but I'm glad to be where I'm at."

"I've never really told my story to anyone like this before," Gean notes from the basement of the oldies branch of Wax Trax Records, his unofficial headquarters. "Maybe it's something I've been wanting to do for a long time."

Gean's autobiographical sketch begins in Port Arthur, Texas, where he was born in October 1942. The family was musical: His mother was an accomplished pianist and singer, and although his dad couldn't carry a tune in a bucket ("He always said that he sang in the key of R," Gean says), he worked for a time as a jukebox salesman and Victrola repairman. "One of my first memories as a little kid is of sitting down in front of the family record player and listening to those old 78s," he rhapsodizes. "I just loved music." His mother, in particular, encouraged this interest. In November 1945, when Ralph was only three, she took him into a studio to cut his first recordings--a cappella renditions of "Jesus Loves Me," "Have Thine Own Way, Lord" and two other traditionals. "I still have the record," Gean reveals, "and to me, there's a parallel between it and Elvis. In October of that year, just a month before I made my record, he made his first public appearance during a talent contest in Tupelo, Mississippi. So he made his live debut before me, but I made my studio debut before him." He pauses before adding, "Of course, he's sold millions."

Both Presley and Gean were raised on a Southern blend of hillbilly airs and rhythm-and-blues stompers. By 1956, Gean was so in love with the hybrid of these genres--rock and roll--that he obtained his first guitar and, after figuring out the ax's rudiments, began making up novelty songs with which he entertained his schoolmates. No provocation is required to spur Gean to belt out one such rhyme, sung to the tune of "Home on the Range:" "Oh, give me a home where the teachers don't roam/And the schoolbooks are all packed away/Where seldom is heard the principal's word/And the schoolroom is closed for the day."

During the years he attended Thomas Jefferson Sr. High (Janis Joplin's alma mater), Gean regularly played for passersby at a neighborhood shopping mall and made occasional appearances on a hometown radio station; he was billed as "Port Arthur's own version of Pat Boone" because of his skill at rendering such lachrymose favorites as "Love Letters in the Sand." These activities didn't help his scholastic record, and he eventually dropped out of school at age seventeen to join the Air Force. Within weeks, he says, he realized that the military wasn't for him ("I like to be more diversified in what clothes I wear," he explains) and used a loophole in the rules to win his release. Shortly thereafter, his family--which was in desperate financial straits as a result of a heart attack that left the Gean patriarch almost entirely debilitated--moved to public housing in Houston, and Ralph moved with them.

Upon settling in Houston, Gean landed a job as an office clerk, and once he'd earned enough cash to spiff up his wardrobe, he made the rounds of local music companies in the hopes of scoring a recording contract. He eventually made a single, "Here I Am," under the auspices of Ray Doggett Productions; among his sidemen were B.J. Thomas (of "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head" fame) and Thomas's then-band, the Triumphs. Unfortunately, the result of these labors never saw the light of day, at least to Gean's knowledge. "I have a copy of the A-side, but they never called me in to do the B-side," he says. "I don't remember if they ever gave me a reason why not."

His luck improved in 1962, when Charlie Booth, owner of Lori Records, asked Gean to record "Weeping Willow Tree," a song written by Gean's mother, and one of his own tracks, "Experimental Love." The main backing band on the session was Freddie Koenig and the Jades, supplemented by a female vocal trio known as the Lively Sisters and future country star Mickey Gilley on piano. The record hit stores in the early Sixties and enjoyed modest success throughout the region. Embol-dened by this response, a new company, Gallant Records, financed another recording: "One Night in San Antonio," also written by Gean's mother, backed with "Hey, Dr. Casey," a Gean-penned novelty tribute to the TV series Ben Casey. Gean has reworked this last piece repeatedly over the years. For a while, it was "Hey, Dr. Marcus Welby," and later "Disco Doctor." Today it's "Hey, Dr. Kevorkian," a guaranteed crowd-pleaser.

Too bad "Hey, Dr. Casey" didn't please more radio programmers. "I understand it got a little airplay," Gean says, "but by the time it finally came out, we were in the middle of Beatlemania. All I ever heard was Beatles, Beatles, Beatles." Although Gean expresses a fondness for the Fab Four, he blames the British Invasion that followed in the band's wake with washing away his career. Suddenly, old-style rock and roll wasn't hip anymore, and neither was Gean. He put up $200 of his own dough to record two more songs--his own "Electricity," and "I'm Counting on You," from Presley's first album--but he couldn't convince any entrepreneurs to press or distribute them. As a result, Gean says, "'One Night in San Antonio' was my last release. So far, anyway."

In 1964, at around the same time as his music career took a downturn, Gean married Sadie Onetta Slaughter, a young woman he met at a dance in Pasadena, Texas. Because he now had to take care of someone other than himself, Gean did whatever he could to make ends meet--short-order cook, cafeteria manager trainee and so on. In search of better prospects, the couple headed to Idaho in 1967 and joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. As Gean puts it, he and Sadie were "remarried for time and all eternity" in a Mormon ceremony. Two weeks later, Evangelynn Rosalie, the first of four children he had with Sadie, was born.

The pressure was on Gean to provide for his family, but the best he could manage was another series of odd jobs. "I was a TV repairman's assistant, I worked digging foundations for patios, and I laid seismograph wires for oil exploration out in rattlesnake country," he says. "I'd get so hot and tired out there that I'd find myself hoping a rattlesnake would bite me, just so I could get some rest." Later, he returned to Texas, where he earned enough money selling Procter & Gamble soap samples to afford to relocate his brood to Salt Lake City. But Utah's capital didn't prove to be the land of milk and honey for Gean. Though he was employed for a while as a laundry attendant, he eventually wound up on the welfare rolls.

During this difficult period, Gean found himself missing music more than ever. While he was receiving a regular paycheck, he made occasional forays to Las Vegas to see his hero, Presley, live on stage: "He shook my hand once," he recounts, "and when we touched, I had an odd, elated feeling, like an electric shock. I'd like to think that at that moment, he transferred just a little bit of his power to me." When Gean was on the dole, though, he had to satisfy his creative urges by making cassette recordings of new songs and old. His personal life certainly gave him plenty to write about, for by the early Seventies, he had become involved with a fundamentalist Mormon sect led by Rulin Allred that had splintered off from the main church. And one of the fundamentals Allred's followers believed in was polygamy.

"It was very controversial, and it confuses a lot of people," Gean allows. "Bigamy is when a guy is married to several different gals who don't know about each other. But polygamy is where everybody knows about it and accepts it. And I believed in that idea at that time. I'd like to think that if I'd stuck with it, I'd have had a minimum of eight wives."

As it turned out, Gean had two--Sadie and the former Ruth Evans, whom he met at a workshop that he was required to attend in order to receive welfare benefits. The three were united in a ceremony at Allred's Murray, Utah, office and lived in a polygamous relationship from 1974 to the spring of 1976. But despite the initial commitment of all parties to the concept, the situation quickly deteriorated.

"We started out in the same house, but things got worse and worse," Gean concedes. "So we moved out to the country, but that didn't last, either--one wanted to stay in the country, and the other one wanted to stay in town. So then we moved back to Salt Lake into the same apartment building. One was in an apartment upstairs, the other one was in an apartment downstairs, and I was spending three days with each of them. And that's really a crazy way to live."

Sadie agreed; she split from Gean, taking Evangelynn and her siblings (Melissa, Ralph III and Charles) with her. As for Gean, he stayed with Ruth, who gave birth to a daughter, Spring, in 1976. But a year later, Allred was assassinated in his office by people associated with a rival Mormon splinter organization, the Church of the Lamb of God, headed by the late Ervil LeBaron. (LeBaron died in prison in 1981 while serving a sentence for his part in the Allred killing.) Like others associated with Allred, Ralph and Ruth were excommunicated by the LDS church but were told by members of church hierarchy that they could be reinstated if they went through a long-term process of repentance. This procedure was interrupted when Ruth decided to follow Sadie's example and leave Gean, too. "But I still hope to get back in good standing with the LDS church," says Gean, who adds that he now is on good terms with all of his children. "That's something that's really, really important to me."

With the collapse of his family situation, Gean went into a funk, drifting from Utah to Texas, where he was treated for depression in 1979. He was back in Salt Lake City the next year, living in a near-hovel with a friend whose nickname, Gean divulges with a chortle, was "Busted Rubber." The conditions were rough, but because he was on his own, Gean was able to return to his first love--music. He made his living for the next year and a half by playing his guitar on the streets of Salt Lake. "In a lot of ways, it was great," he says. "It tightened up my playing and really broadened my repertoire. And there were some really nice moments. One time, a guy liked me so much that he cashed his whole paycheck and gave it to me. Another guy gave me the jacket right off his back." More often, his payment came in coin form, "although some people tried to give me drugs. I'd have to tell them, 'I can't do that. Playing on the streets, I'm in enough trouble with the police as it is.'"

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.

"I'd never want any of my songs to inspire someone to hurt or kill anyone," he says. "I'd rather hang it up and not even be a singer if I knew that something like that caused the death of someone. But I know that a lot of younger people are exposed to a lot of violence in contemporary music. It's kind of weird to be liked for that kind of thing. But after all I've been through, it's just nice to be liked at all."

Ralph Gean. 10 p.m. Monday, September 16, Lion's Lair, 2022 East Colfax, $2, 320-9200.

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