John Trudell had no designs on being a poet or performer until personal tragedy and a chance encounter with veteran guitarist Jesse Ed Davis brought him into the rock world.
Trudell, who appears with Davis and the Grafitti Band at Club Lingerie on Monday, was an Indian rights activist who participated in the occupation of Alcatraz Island in 1969. He was national chairman of the American Indian Movement from 1973 to 1979--years when the militant organization was involved in a series of confrontations with federal authorities.
His life was shattered in 1979 when a fire of undetermined origin at his Nevada home claimed the lives of his wife, three children and mother-in-law.
"One world ended abruptly and completely and could not be resurrected or re-put together," Trudell said during a recent interview at his publicist's Venice apartment. "It was like I was in this exile of feeling that there was really no safe place, and a lot of disillusionment set in.
"I was going mad. One day I just started writing and it was like therapy, because I was in a position where I couldn't rage. I never expected to be a writer; it's a different world than I ever expected to be in."
But it's a world where Trudell, 40, has already won some prominent admirers. Bob Dylan cited "aka Grafitti Man," a mail-order cassette by Trudell and Davis, as the best album of the year in a Rolling Stone interview earlier this year. Jackson Browne, whom Trudell met during the "No Nukes" campaign, is another staunch fan.
Trudell had released a 1982 tape, "Tribal Voice," which set his poetry to traditional Indian singing and drums. He planned to make another tape employing synthesizers and drum machines, but couldn't find a suitable collaborator. Then Davis volunteered his services after hearing Trudell at a 1985 poetry reading in Long Beach.
"The thing that struck me was a Bob Dylan imagery consciousness and I immediately heard music behind this poetry," recalled Davis, 42. "I thought there's nobody else that can put music behind this Indian poetry besides another Indian. The music I heard was rock 'n' roll and I seemed tailor-made for the job, so I introduced myself to John."
A product of the Oklahoma music scene that also spawned Leon Russell and J. J. Cale, Davis first attracted attention in Los Angeles working with bluesman Taj Mahal and as a studio musician. He performed at the Concert for Bangla Desh and worked with George Harrison, John Lennon, Eric Clapton and other rock giants during the late '60s and early '70s.
Davis soured on the session scene in the mid-'70s and in 1977 moved to Hawaii for four years. He returned here broke and struggled to overcome a series of alcohol-related problems that left him with a tainted image in music circles.
"I've got a real reputation as a lunatic, a madman," he admitted. "There was always that suspicion lurking in people's minds: 'Will he show up? Will he show up drunk or will he not bother to come at all?'
"When John allowed me to create the music for his poetry, I had nowhere else to turn. My back was to the wall, but I had all this music inside me that just came gushing out. I can't tell you how great a release that was, and letting the Grafitti Band loose on this music is just great rock 'n' roll fun."
Recorded in co-producer Rick Eckstein's garage studio, "aka Grafitti Man" spotlights Davis' blues and rock guitar licks behind Trudell's imagery. The themes range from straight love poems to street-level political commentary. "Baby Boom Che" and "God Help and Breed You All" are centered around rock icons Elvis Presley and John Lennon, respectively.
Davis and Trudell have virtually completed another album, "Heart Jump Bouquet," which features more complex arrangements. The duo expects to go the mail-order distribution route again, but Trudell's paramount concern is having his poetry accepted on its own merits.
"When one lives in a society where people can no longer rely on the institutions to tell them the truth, the truth must come from culture and art," he observed. "Every culture has art and probably the first form of art is the spoken word, making pictures with words and communicating it.
"Because we are all of an oral tradition in our beginning histories, the voice of the poet in this particular society will be heard. I feel fortunate in the sense that I'm one of those voices now and my poetry, if it's recognized as poetry, is just that. I'm not a musician making words to go with my music."
(Information: The Peace Company, 7095 Hollywood Blvd., No. 104-432, Hollywood, 90028.)