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A Gem From L.a.'s Rock Monster

August 16, 1987|ROBERT HILBURN

Thelonious Monster's new album, "Next Saturday Afternoon," isn't going to cause a stir in executive suites around town.

Recorded for a minuscule $2,600 in an age when journeyman bands routinely spend a hundred times that much, the LP is a stubbornly independent account of post-teen alienation; a record that mixes folk, jazz, blues and high-speed punk styles without regard to radio programming dictates.

No big-time promotion man is going to be able to walk into a powerhouse station like the vacuous KWVE or the air-headed KPWR and say, "Boy, have I got the record for you."

Yet "Next Saturday Afternoon" (Relativity Records) will be prized by those who crave penetrating and perceptive rock 'n' roll. In its best moments, the LP explores questions of identity and self-worth in stark, unflinching ways that recall the passion and purpose of some of rock's classic collections.

We're not talking here about the polite, poetic alienation of Simon & Garfunkel or the full-scale extravagance and drama of the Who. The parallels are closer to the shattering despair of Neil Young's "Tonight's the Night," the naked revelations of John Lennon's first solo album or--for a more contemporary model--the natural innocence of the Replacements' "Tim."

Bob Forrest, the lead singer and lyricist for the Los Angeles band whose name is a tip of the hat to jazz great Thelonious Monk, would probably laugh somewhat anxiously at that praise--as he should.

"Next Saturday Afternoon" is too modest and deliberately unstructured a work to be lumped in the same category as Young and Lennon, though it's not hard imagining fans of those artists identifying with the raw, unfiltered emotions of the Monster's music.

In a Technicolor pop world, this is a very black-and-white album, one whose truths unfold with the understated insights and unhurried pace of Peter Bogdanovich's film "The Last Picture Show." These songs have a sense of having been lived, not just imagined.

Some of the tales are about the monotony and absurdities of being in a rock band, while others are about the monotony and absurdities of life itself. To Forrest, the dividing line is almost irrelevant.

"People say our music is discouraging and negative, but I think it is hopeful," Forrest said. "I think it's hopeful in the sense at least you understand your problems. Most people don't make it that far . . . they don't even know what is wrong with their lives.

"The songs are always about me. I can't look at life from someone else's point of view because I don't really know what they are going through. It's easier to trust what you are going through . . . and the reason our songs are the way they are is that I have a lot of unsettling feelings."

Forrest, 26, looks like a mischievous leprechaun as he sits in a Fairfax area restaurant, smiling broadly as he takes shots at the record industry while tugging at the long, stringy hair sprouting out from beneath a black bowler.

"So many (commercial) bands sound the same . . . Starship, Heart, Journey. You can't tell one from the other--even though one of them has a girl singer, doesn't it?" Forrest says.

"I hate all those bands. If there was a revolution, I'd like to be musical ambassador or something and line all those people up and put them in jail."

A Los Angeles native who spent many of his teen years in Huntington Beach, Forrest takes glee taking potshots at anonymous hit makers because it relieves some of the frustrations of his own career.

Many of those frustrations are channeled into a song, "Lookin' to the West," that outlines his early love for music (beginning as a kid listening to Kiss and Led Zeppelin) and the bitterness he feels about the way his band has been ignored by so much of the music industry.

Sample lines:

This business tears right at your soul

Turns you inside out, flips you upside down

Takes you all around

Till you don't know you anymore.

Though the Monster has received considerable critical support over the last two years, Monster couldn't get a local record deal, partly, Forrest believes, because of the outlandish nature of its live shows. "Drunken anarchist" is Forrest's description of his reputation on the local club scene. He has been known to show up on stage drunk and get in fights with everyone from band members to club owners.

"I guess we have been our worst enemy," he said. "That squabbling you see on stage is the real thing. We're always on the verge of breaking up. I never thought we'd make it through this record. We argue about everything, but I love the music the band makes and I want to be part of it.

"But you learn to deal with the problems inside the band. It's the outside problems that get you, the way the industry makes you feel like dirt sometimes."

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