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POP MUSIC

A Few Wrinkles

The Electric Prunes could've stayed happily disbanded, but their fans had other things in mind

September 29, 2002|BOB BAKER

In 3 1/2 decades, the Electric Prunes, those kids from the Valley who brought you the distortion-filled, neck-snapping, what-the-heck-was-that? hit "I Had Too Much to Dream (Last Night)," have advanced about 50 feet.

Back in '66, when they were discovered, the Prunes practiced in the garage of a home that bass player Mark Tulin shared with his parents.

These days, Tulin, 53, two other core members of the band and three newer additions practice at the same house. But since Tulin's parents are dead, the musicians get to blast away in the living room.

For this, the Prunes are grateful. Enough aging, anonymity and alienation will do that.

Rock bands often splinter, wander in the desert for a while and reunite. But the original Prunes took a 30-year exodus from performing, walking away from their record company and largely from one another in 1968. They took little pleasure in having made that rare '60s record, so distinctive or odd that (like "Louie Louie" or "Wild Thing" or "Dirty Water") it outlived the band and became part of some listeners' DNA. Lead singer James Lowe was so disillusioned, he would not even answer the questions of his own son, an aspiring keyboard player.

Finally, a few zealous fans, with some help from the Internet, engineered a series of happy accidents that pushed the Prunes back into one another's arms. Three years ago they resumed their conversations, then gradually went back into the studio and last year onto the stage, where they revel in playing the same raw, sonically weird, psychedelic-tinged music.

"The way we play is the way we played," says Lowe, 58, the band's affable leader who recruited Tulin and guitarist Ken Williams when the pair were seniors at Taft High School. "It's like dialing the time machine back to 1967."

The Prunes' expectations are charmingly modest. They hated the way record companies force-fed them pop lyrics, arrangements and touring schedules, so they're using the Internet to independently distribute their 2001 album of mostly new material, recorded at Lowe's Santa Ynez Valley home studio. They've played only three concerts so far but head for a series of nine dates in Britain and Greece on Tuesday.

"When they play, man," says Steven Van Zandt, the longtime guitarist of Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band, "I swear to God within 10 minutes you are transported."

Van Zandt, who hosts a syndicated radio show dedicated to garage-style rock, was so effusive about the Prunes' reunion that he pressured the reluctant musicians to play last fall's Cavestomp festival of veteran and young garage bands in New York, which he co-produced. "No movie, no record can capture being in that room and having them play."

On a Saturday afternoon in Tulin's Woodland Hills home, the Prunes crowd into the green-carpeted living room and fill it with distortion and percussion that vibrates in a listener's gut. Lowe, his white bangs hanging over his forehead the way they did in 1966 when they were blond, shakes a pair of tambourines above his head without a trace of self-consciousness as the band gleefully thunders through "You Never Had It Better." It's one of the Prunes' favorites. It's also one, as Lowe points out when the last note dies, that their producers failed to put on any of their three albums.

Much of the joy in this reunion is centered on finally regaining control of the music. But it's also about a deeper awareness of mortality.

"After all the recent events [in the world], you look at your life and say, 'I'd rather be doing what I wanna be doing when it all goes down,' " says Lowe, a freelance television commercial producer.

"I spent many years convincing myself I didn't need to play music, that I could do something else," says Tulin, a former screenwriter and psychologist who said he stopped working two years ago to concentrate on music. "The lesson I got was, if it's your passion, do it--you don't even have to be good at it.... It's about, if you're loving what you're doing, do it."

The bristling opening cut on "Artifact," their new album, grapples with the struggle for redemption:

I was lookin' at some photographs

We looked the way we used to be

I never dreamed they'd be my epitaph

And I'd be drowning in a sea

Of lost dream

James Lowe had a boyhood friend whose father had a home recording studio. Lowe was fascinated by the process. He was also fascinated by surfing and guitars, but at 19 he married a girl he'd met while attending Canoga Park High and they started a family. Lowe worked as a nighttime aerospace X-ray technician, desperate to get out, convinced that music was his only escape route. He hooked up with Tulin and Williams and another young musician in 1965, and seven days a week--after the boys got home from school and before Lowe went to work--they practiced in the Tulin garage, concentrating on original material.

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