GARY STEEL excavates a thing about Snakefinger for a tour that never happened from his mouldering vaults.
Originally published 12 May 1981
Sometime in 1971, Briton Philip Lithman decided that the primal boogie monster he was playing virtuoso guitar solos for wast at an end: “I just felt that rock’n’roll was dying a horrible, decadent, slow death.”
He promptly left the band, dropped out and by ways both ironic and coincidental found his way to America to check out an obscure band whose unreleased tape a friend had played him.
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The band was the now-legendary Residents, which christened Lithman ‘Snakefinger’. His initial stint with the band lasted nine months – nine months of massive drug-taking, marathon concerts with no audiences, and unprecedented music-making weirdness.
When Snakefinger’s US visa ran out in early 1972, he returned to Britain and formed “a dirty boogie blues” pub rock band, Chilli Willie And The Red Hot Peppers. In their time, they released two albums and created a substantial following. Success looked imminent when they landed support slots for Elton John and Rod Stewart tours.
In 1975, Snakefinger was so upset by the group’s death-throe antics that he broke up the band and returned to the United States.
He reiterates his feelings on the subject: “Any close visual with the top and you realise that the top is nowhere to be. The top is death.”
He has lived in San Francisco and worked constantly with The Residents since.
The Residents go for heavily permutated, cryptic reorganisations of sound, often not identifiable as particular instruments or human voices, but Snakefinger makes the craziness accessible. His sounds are more familiar, less alienating. One paper described it as “weirdly r’n’r”.
Influences on Snakefinger are “ethnic-type music, reggae, blues, Chinese, Rumanian, Japanese, all the atonal and different tonal type of stuff.”
Snakefinger’s two albums on Ralph Records are Chewing Hides The Sound (unavailable in New Zealand) and Greener Postures (released in New Zealand by RTC). The latter is the best – a weird but instantly accessible bunch of tuneful tracks. Nothing too heavy to think about. Greener Postures is darker in character and a more disparate album. It lacks the cohesiveness of Chewing… but is an excellent album.
Despite the darker moods circulating on Greener Postures, Snakefinger claims to be an optimist. “It’s the dark side of life that makes optimism interesting, makes it a challenge to be an optimist.”
The titles of the songs (on which The Residents help with the lyrics) are alone worth perusing. ‘Jesus Was A Leprechaun’, ‘Here Comes The Bums’, ‘Concerto To A Dying Prune’, ‘Golden Goat’ and ‘Smelly Tongues’ to name a few.
Playing concerts is a problem because The Residents rarely perform live. They have never been seen in public – at least not without paper bags on their heads.
Snakefinger has solved that dilemma by hiring a three-piece band, Blast, to accompany him on his Australasian tour. Blast are Miguel Bertel (guitar), John Paul George (bass) and Johnny Ryan (drums).
Strangely, there is no synthesiser in the band: “You don’t have to use a lot of strange-sounding instruments when you have a strange-sounding music in the first place.”
Snakefinger plays a custom left-hand guitar and a stand-up steel guitar and jumps around a lot.
He is playing small venues and in contrast to the usual blasé attitude of overseas artists, he has specifically requested that support acts at each venue be local artists doing something different with music.
Snakefinger is part of a movement demanding both energy and fun out of new, experimental music. So what are his goals? “To change music. To put music back into the state where it’s experimental, interesting and unpredictable.”
Lofty goals maybe, but the level of interest his visit will generate from Wellington’s considerable underground following should be some measure of the man’s success.
- Snakefinger with Blast plays the Last Resort on May 23 and 24.
14 May 1981 –
Guitarist sick: not coming
Cult musician Snakefinger has cancelled his New Zealand tour after suffering a heart attack in Australia.
The British guitarist, famous for his weird and wonderful music with American group The Residents, was due to play Wellington on May 23 and 24.
Snakefinger suffered a heart attack after his third Australian date and is still in hospital 10 days later.
* These pieces originally appeared in the now-defunct Evening Post newspaper. There is some debate over whether Snakefinger finally made it to New Zealand for The Residents tour in 1986 (we’d love to be enlightened). Sadly, Snakefinger/Philip Lithman died of a heart attack in 1987, just 38 years old. Ironically his single, ‘There Is No Justice In Life’, was released that very day.