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A Musical Whirlwind

Robbie Rist will play with 16 bands during a 17-day festival. Now, can we just forget that 'Brady Bunch'- Cousin Oliver stuff?

July 18, 2002|KEVIN BRONSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Seconds after the calamitous final performance by the eminently likable but unfortunately named pop band the Masticators, Robbie Rist was a shambles.

Guitars had been thrown, drumsticks hurtled. The small, raucous crowd at the Galaxy Theatre in Santa Ana pleaded for an encore, unaware that on this night last summer, the Los Angeles foursome--like the relationship between its charismatic drummer, Rist, and prepossessing frontwoman, Lisa Mychols--was breaking up.

Rist bridged an awkward moment with an a cappella interlude, and the band soldiered through one more number. Then he marched offstage, disheveled and emotionally drained, with the hollow eyes of a man you'd reckon would head straight into seclusion.

But the next night the former child actor, drummer, guitarist, vocalist, hyperkinetic showman and 5-foot, 6-inch power-pop warrior was sitting in with another band, bouncing around as if he just returned from a five-star first date.

"Music is the only thing that has gotten me through everything," Rist says, waving his hand at the travails of being a fringe player in the entertainment business. "And when it comes right down to it, I just want to play."

And play he does. Besides his primary focus as guitarist for the Andersons, Rist is working on a new project with Steve Barton of the '80s new-wavers Translator and filling in with Cockeyed Ghost, the Last, Cosmo Topper and myriad other scrappy blue-collar bands that populate the L.A. community.

In fact, at the 17-day, 180-band International Pop Overthrow festival that begins Friday, Rist is scheduled to perform with no fewer than 16 acts.

"He's ubiquitous, and that word applies in a number of ways," says John Borack, a musician and journalist who has tracked local pop. "He's been a magnet for the whole L.A. pop scene."

Now if folks would simply put "The Brady Bunch" behind them.

Cousin Oliver is 38 now, and he thinks you should get out more. Walk the dog, check out the neighborhood garage band--anything except sprout roots in front of the television.

Rist laughs at his three-decade conundrum: When he was 9, he appeared in the final six episodes of "The Brady Bunch," kicking off a career that would ensure him a degree of celebrity, at the expense of a few degrees of normalcy.

"I entered the cultural zeitgeist, and it wasn't even 'Donna Reed' or 'All in the Family,' " he says. "But think about how big that is. I've been recognized, in Italy.... Let something I achieved myself receive that kind of notoriety."

Not that it's easy living up to constant Cousin Oliver expectations, especially if you've gotten on with your life.

"I remember on a long road trip talking to Robbie about the Cousin Oliver thing," says Walter Clevenger, a veteran pop musician with whom Rist has performed, "and I came away thinking, 'I wouldn't want any kid to go through that.' "

Rist has moved on, with an attitude chirpier than you'd expect from a guy who totes around his music gear in a Ford Aerostar van with more than 300,000 miles on it.

After his early work in TV, which included a few episodes as Ted Baxter's son on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," Rist had sundry small- and big-screen roles and has done extensive voice work, notably as Michelangelo in the "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" movies.

"But music has always been the one thing that's mine," he says.

*Rist didn't plunge into music in earnest until he was almost 30, but his influences were in place long before. "When I was 14, I saw the Knack and said, 'Holy cow, I wanna do that,' " he says.

Of course, 2 1/2 decades later that brand of pop is about as cool as plaid pants. Still, fashion fascism does not stop Rist from championing the cause or pontificating on perceived crimes against melody.

"High hip quotient I have no time for," Rist says. "There's a wealth of music out there that people have never heard because they were too busy buying Trent Reznor records that were created in a vacuum. That's not music, it's collage, and I learned in kindergarten that collages belong on the refrigerator.

"But then again," he adds, laughing, "I have half-baked theories about everything."

"That's Robbie," says David Bash, the International Pop Overthrow promoter. "He's very precocious, just like Cousin Oliver was. Part of his charm is that he still has that precocity. He can get away with saying things that other people couldn't.

"But even so, he's not as impressed with himself as other people are with him."

Indeed, Rist's skill at any number of instruments--and the energy he brings to the stage--make him a welcome addition to many bands.

The Florida power-pop outfit Nice Guy Eddie needed a bass player on its trips to the West Coast. Frontman Chris Jackson found Rist.

"I sent him a tape of our songs, but I don't think he listened to it," Jackson says. "We practiced twice. He was like, 'Just go ahead, I'll get it.' And he did."

"And he's not just a quick study," says Ken West of the L.A. band Receiver. "He gets 100% behind it. He more than just produced our record--he literally grabbed my hand and told me what we were gonna do. It's a complete mystery to me why Robbie's not just huge."

Maybe when the cultural spinning wheel stops on skinny ties and Rickenbackers again, he will be. "I'm not as big as Bill Gates," Rist says, "but sometimes I bet he says, 'I wish there wasn't so much stuff involved."

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