Soul on Ice

Legendary sideman Moris Tepper fronts his own vision, with chilling results.

With an almost cheerful inability to differentiate between the ridiculous and the sublime, Moris Tepper somehow remains as focused as a bird of prey. At times his mind rests assuredly in a few of life's less popular givens: Don't trust anyone who burns incense; evil comes from the "big brain"; Mother Nature is a bitch gone crazy. Then, without warning, he gets as serious as a triple bypass.

"I do note that lions torture other lions," he says. "And I note that dolphins rape other dolphins. I don't delve too far into this, because I don't think it's useful. But the animal world is very brutal. I don't think it spends a lot of time trying to hide that fact. And I think that man tries to constantly run from his truth. Man's nature is pretty twisted and inverted, pretty cancerous. That this particular species seems to be toxic to everything around it is my humans-get-me blues."

Somewhere between animal, vegetable and mineral, Tepper's affinities lie outside his own kind: Give him the beasts of the field, the monsters of the sea, the winged creatures and the crawling things. By surrounding himself with a decidedly non-Homo-sapiens menagerie in his Mar Vista, California, home -- where he lives with a cat named Rooster, two tortoises and a parrot -- the unmarried musician/painter seems unusually content communing with his shirt-tail relatives from the wild kingdom. "I wish I had more," he says. "I never had much in the way of parents. A firefly and a seahorse taught me most of what I needed to know."

Moris Tepper today
Moris Tepper today
Tepper (second from right) with Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band in 1980.
Tepper (second from right) with Captain Beefheart and the Magic Band in 1980.

Then along came a guy named Captain Beefheart to throw a wrench into Tepper's continuing education -- anointing him, fresh out of high school, as an honorary member of the Magic Band, Phase II. As the Captain's ace guitarist from 1976 to 1982 (the year the ever-prolific Beefheart stopped issuing albums in order to concentrate on painting), Jeff Moris Tepper, as he credited himself then, contributed to 1978's Shiny Beast (Bat Chain Puller), 1980's Doc at the Radar Station and 1982's Ice Cream for Crow.

"I was in art school and painting when I met Don [Van Vliet]," he says. "He once had a poem called 'Seaweed Beardfoam Bonetree,' and I showed him a painting I did when I was about fifteen called 'Bonetree.' It was like skeleton bones making up a tree. He was flabbergasted at the parallel of our work -- from the time I was a child and the time he was a child. Although the parallel of our work only goes so far, he was a visionary genius at a very young age. And it took a lot of visionary geniuses like himself to help me begin to form my own vision."

As the group's longest-lasting member, Tepper brought something the Captain dubbed "nerve guitar" (both slide and electric) to a raucous and structurally contorted style of blues jamming. Peppered with all manner of lyrical wordplay, that late period of Beefheart's work concerned itself with everything from hypersensitive totem poles to vampire/monkey sexcapades. Beefheart -- whom Tepper describes as "childlike but intimidating" -- spoke a musical language that was at once cryptic and scholarly. In addition to demanding that his young apprentice adhere to endlessly rigid compositional frameworks (half notes, semi-quavers, the whole do-re-mi), the Cap was just as likely to instruct him to play a piece "like a smoky yellow room" or like "a bat being dragged out of oil, dying of asphyxiation."

Tepper's time with Beefheart provided the rare kind of experience that would prove useful in 1987, when Tepper recorded and toured with Tom Waits, helping to bring a stage rendition of Waits's Frank's Wild Years to Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre.

"I think there are a lot of similarities between Waits and Beefheart and my first record," Tepper says of Big Enough to Disappear, his solo debut from 1996. "Bob Dylan is another major source of inspiration in my life. There's different areas where my influences, my favorite forefathers, live."

Issued on U.K. imprint Proper Records, Big Enough draws from conventional, heartfelt American balladry ("Bankshot," "Beside Me Once Again") as well as plenty of rum-soaked nautical themes ("Then We Sail," "Man Overboard"). Tepper's vocals sound tubercular and semi-Waitsian one minute -- like he gargles with turpentine and sand -- then warm and playful the next: a bogeyman shaking bags of leaves on little kids. The album was more structurally focused than his previous studio efforts with a trio called Eggtooth, which released Sundownerin 1994 and expanded into a ten-piece during live performances. Eggtooth featured what Tepper catalogues as "hurdy-gurdies, marimbas, a weird horn section, two drummers -- one on metal chairs" (plus women dressed as sunflowers!). The circus-flavored Big Enough, meanwhile, met with disaster. "I had a record company that sold 7,000 records, and I didn't get paid on any of them," Tepper says. "Because first their distributor [Indie] went bankrupt and wouldn't pay me for anything that they'd sold. And second, because my computer at home was stolen. I stupidly, at that point, had no backups, and it was my entire record company: all the contacts, all the records -- everything. I just stopped."

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