Lazy Friday Playlist: Owen Maercks, from Teenage Sex Therapist to Kinds of Blue

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Avant rocker Owen Maercks (which sometimes rhymes with barracks) was the comeback artist of 2014. His vinylite 12-inch “Teenage Sex Therapist” was released to great critical acclaim that year. What made it even more surprising is that it had been recorded nearly four decades earlier.

When Owen cut the LP in 1978, no record label in America would release it. Only about 150 promo copies were made, according to Henry Kaiser, the famed free-thinking guitarist who played on it.

One of those promos ended up in the possession of Cuneiform Steve, topper of the Wayside Music mail-order company in suburban D.C., who officially defined it as a “musically clever release that fuses new-wave, no-wave, rock, pop, and hard-core free/squonk noises that predates the downtown scene that came along doing much of the same thing significantly later.”

Another copy fell into the hands of Ric Ocasek, the gangly frontman of The Cars, who swiped Owen’s adaptation of the garage band nugget “Little Black Egg,” and gave it to Playboy Playmate-turned-singer Bebe Buell for her warbling debut EP.

A few more of the promo platters turned up over the years, but the whole thing remained clouded in mystery. Was it the soundtrack to a B-movie about a precocious high school freshman who seduces his female classmates by convincing them that he’s a sex therapist? Maybe.

A suspiciously blurry Henry Kaiser discography added to the mystique by listing it as “Owen Marx’s Teen-age Sex Party.”

Over the years, the legend of the Teenage Sex Therapist slowly grew. Finally, the folks at the enterprising Feeding Tube diskery unleashed it five years ago. It was instantly hailed as a lost classic and sold out its small run. You can download a copy here.

Suddenly, the free market saw dollar signs and wanted more Teenage Sex Therapist product to push. But where was Owen Maercks after all these years? Rumor had it that he was in Saturn, Alabama, driving the highways and byways with a traveling reptile show, and singing the blues to anyone who would listen.

But in fact he was busy running the East Bay Vivarium in Berkeley, and serving as head curator for Trad’r O’s in nearby El Sobrante.

In September 2017, he sat down to dinner with yours truly at Threadgill’s in Austin. (The one where the Armadillo World Headquarters used to be — not the original location uptown where Janis Joplin sang folk songs.) While a big-ass rat ran from the kitchen right past our table, Owen told me that Feeding Tube had given he and Henry the go-ahead to make “Kinds of Blue,” one of the most adventurous blues records since Captain Beefheart ran down behind the knoll and slipped on his wooden fish head.

The title and jacket design pay homage to the landmark 1959 Miles Davis album that Americans can either love or leave the country. But instead of blowing a trumpet, Owen is kissing a California king snake.

“I wasn’t even sure going in to these sessions that I could pull off being a blues singer,” Owen told me. But I’m here to tell you that he does, while Henry’s blues guitar solos sound kind of like an electric kayagum player duetting with a Theremin virtuoso while tripping on acid aboard Outer Spaceways Incorporated. Not to mention the emancipated rhythm section and world-class sax squonkers.

On display at the East Bay Vivarium.

“The blues to me is beyond a simple genre,” Owen explains in his liner notes. “It’s a template to which a musician of almost any style can adapt and find a way in. And so this record is about bringing a lot of approaches to that template. It is indeed kinds of blue.”

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