Sometimes rock and roll is stranger than fiction, and when you add experimental electronics to the equation, life can get downright hallucinogenic.
That’s certainly the case with Simeon Coxe, better known simply as Simeon—the synth-playing half of the influential late-1960s group Silver Apples (who will be performing on Wednesday, April 1 at Gabe’s as part of the Mission Creek Festival lineup).
In the early 1960s, he left home hoping to become a famous artist and settled in New York City’s Lower East Side neighborhood. It was a magnet for painters, poets, actors, writers and musicians—where the rents were cheap and the part-time jobs were odd (Simeon proofread dog tags alongside Pop Art-painter Robert Rauschenberg and two future members of The Velvet Underground).
As a singer and guitarist, he gigged around Greenwich Village in nondescript rock groups like The Overland Stage Band, but Simeon’s bandmates lost interest when he began fooling around with oscillators and other electronic devices. The only member who remained was drummer Danny Taylor, who formed Silver Apples with Simeon in 1967.
Silver Apples were pretty far out for their time. Taylor’s hypnotic, looping rhythms and Simeon’s use of electronics was unprecedented in American rock music, but they still somehow got signed to a major label (KAPP, a subsidiary of Decca). Unfortunately, that company had no idea how to market Silver Apples, so they were booked on the most random of live bills.
“They hooked us up with Jethro Tull, MC5, Procol Harum, Blue Cheer, 1910 Fruitgum Company, T. Rex, Tiny Tim,” Simeon said, “The whole spectrum.”
Silver Apples felt more at home serving as the house band at Max’s Kansas City, a restaurant-bar frequented by various musicians, scenesters and artists. It was at Max’s where underground theater provocateur John Vaccaro caught their act with his Play-House of the Ridiculous troupe in 1968.
“After a while, he asked if we would be interested in doing an insane musical,” Simeon said. “Right up our alley! What a beautiful but bizarre bunch of folks.”
The musical, Cockstrong, featured glitter-slathered drag queens singing filthy, hilarious lyrics in a Broadway-type style while Silver Apples supplied their unique sonics. This outrageous musical also broke the fourth wall in a novel way: with a giant water-spraying penis.
“On the end, facing the audience on the head,” said Michael Arian, a Theater of the Ridiculous cast member, “there was a big eyeball where the pee slit was.”
“At the end of the show,” Arian continued, “we did an arousing song called ‘Get It Up, Get It Up,’ where we’re all parading around the penis and carrying on. That ends with all of us on the floor, on our knees, hands stretched towards the penis chanting, ‘Come, come, come, come!’ And of course, it did. It sprayed the audience.”
“After the first show, people came with umbrellas,” Simeon added. “And you can see—when that cock started to come out of the stage and go out over the audience—everybody would pop their umbrellas.”
Implausibly, Silver Apples found a fan in New York Mayor John Lindsay—who labeled them “The New York Sound”—and his parks department regularly booked the duo at free outdoor shows. Mayor Lindsay even commissioned them to perform a composition called “Mune Toon” in Central Park next to giant television screens that showed a live broadcast of the historic 1969 moon landing. (Take that, Mayors Giuliani and Bloomberg!)
The group’s star was rising, but Silver Apples soon tripped and fell back to Earth. The trouble started when Simeon and Danny Taylor shot the cover photo of their second album, Contact, in the cockpit of a Pan Am airplane.
“They thought they were getting a lot of free publicity, so they put their logos all over the place,” Simeon says; however, company officials didn’t realize that the back cover would feature the two musicians amidst the wreckage of a plane crash.
What could go wrong? A career-killing lawsuit filed by an angry multinational corporation—that’s what went wrong.
“They got an injunction, and they managed to get all of the records pulled off of all the shelves nationwide,” Simeon says. “And they forbade us from performing any of the songs live.”
Pan Am’s henchmen repossessed Danny Taylor’s drums and were coming back for the synths and oscillators, but Simeon and Taylor hid the equipment at a friend’s loft and “laid low.”
When Silver Apples called it quits later in 1970, Simeon made an unexpected transition into television news reporting—landing a string of jobs in cities around the South.
“I was just a standard news reporter standing out in the middle of the street saying, ‘Simeon Coxe, Action News.’”
“Then I got fired for telling the truth about Santa Claus,” Simeon deadpanned.
Apparently, his exposé of a local mall Santa was a little too hard-hitting for the viewing audience.
“When that came out on television,” he said, “mothers started calling that station, said their children were on the floor screaming that I had ruined Christmas.”
Simeon kept his music career on hold until the mid 1990s, when he discovered that Silver Apples’ music was undergoing a revival. “I figured I’d better get back in the game or it would get away again,” he said. Simeon initially couldn’t locate Danny Taylor, so he began playing with another drummer, but it didn’t quite feel right.
Meanwhile, Taylor had been going about his business as a Bell Atlantic telephone repairman until, one day in 1996 during a lunch break, Silver Apples came on the radio. He was miles away from his office phone, so he hopped on the closest telephone pole and patched in a call to the eclectic New Jersey radio station WFMU. Perched above the ground, he was surprised to learn from the station’s DJ that Simeon had been looking for him and—bam!—they started playing again as Silver Apples.
Sadly, this reunion was cut short when Taylor died in 2005, though the drummer lives on in Simeon’s live performances (he now plays as a solo act).
“Basically,” he said, “I sample his drumming that I have on a reel-to-reel tape of him, about an hour of him practicing in my studio.”
Taylor’s drum patterns also appear throughout a new Silver Apples album that has already been recorded.
“It’s in London now for final mixing and production and will be out early summer if all goes to plan. It’s called The Alabama Sessions.”
Please join Kembrew McLeod and several of Iowa City’s most talented musicians, young and old, for a free concert release party at the Englert—celebrating the release of the free CD For Kids and By Kids—at 3 p.m. on Saturday, March 28. Admission is free!