“Greaser’s Palace”: An absurdist acid western with a Jack Nitzsche soundtrack

By on May 14, 2015

Robert Downey Sr.’s Greaser’s Palace has often been described as one of the first “acid westerns” — which are also commonly referred to as “hippie westerns” and “electric westerns” — a neologsim that may have been coined by the American critic and theorist Jonathon Rosenbaum in a piece he wrote on the film Dead Man, which was directed by auteur Jim Jarmusch.

Countercultural movies like this don’t often cycle back up in the pop zeitgeist, and rarely do you ever see them on the Turner Classic Movies channel, for instance (although they’ve aired it before, usually in the wee hours of the morning, and we’ll be posting something about that below), so I thought I’d bring it back by returning to a conversation I had, many years ago, with Denny Bruce, who at one time was good friends and a roommate of the movie’s soundtrack composer, Jack Nitzsche. You might recognize Nitzsche’s name from his work as an arranger on dozens of classic girl group tracks produced in L.A. by Phil Spector — some say Nitzsche’s role was often times more like than of an engineer-producer, not just arranger, and Spector is frequently given credit for the ideas that Nitzsche had — or from his orchestral work and arrangements for the Rolling Stones (“You Can’t Always Get What You Want”) and Neil Young (“A Man Needs A Maid”, “Expecting To Fly”). He was even in Young’s touring band for a time and was a full-fledged member of Crazy Horse during the recording of their first record. Honestly, Nitzsche’s résumé is so vast I could fill a blog with just his credits alone. GREASER'S PALACE 8 Let’s pause here, however, to tell you a little about Denny Bruce: Denny — who told me a little about Nitzsche’s involvement about a year after Jack Nitzsche died, on August 25, 2000 — was the one of the drummers in Frank Zappa’s band, the Mothers (Zappa was experimenting with a two-drummer band at the time). He later played the drums for Western Union, a band featuring Jay Ferguson, Mark Andes, Matt Andes (Mark’s brother) and Michael Fondelier. How he met Nitzsche initially is a pretty interesting story in itself: In 1966, Nitzsche dropped into a Hollywood rehearsal hall, near the Capitol Records tower on Vine Street, to check out a band he had actually been told were pretty good, who might benefit from his skill set. He was scouting bands for a label he was starting and dropping in on a lot of bands, and that’s how he ended up listening to Western Union, thinking they were an entirely different band, called Thorinshield, and didn’t know it until they told him he’d just heard the wrong band. Nitzsche nonetheless offered Denny’s band their own record deal on the spot, contingent upon the ability of his new record label to be backed by a major. The band jumped at the offer, but unfortunately Nitzsche’s label deal fell through, and Western Union ultimately disbanded with Ferguson and Mark Andes moving on to form Spirit. GREASER'S PALACE 4 Guitarist Leo Kottke (left) with Denny Bruce (center) and Jack Nitzsche (right), circa 1975. Photo courtesy of Denny Bruce. Later, Denny became an A&R consultant for the Blue Thumb Records label, and he also worked at Vanguard Records, producing and managing artists like John Fahey (Fahey was signed to Takoma but was able to record solo albums for other labels; Denny produced two albums of Fahey’s for Reprise Records) and Leo Kottke (Denny produced all seven of Kottke’s albums that were released on Capitol Records). He later partnered with Chrysalis Records to purchase and sign artists to Fahey’s Takoma Records label; he managed and produced numerous releases by the Fabulous Thunderbirds, T-Bone Burnett, ”Sir” Douglas Sahm for Takoma (he produced two Sir Douglas Quintet albums as well). Denny also signed and produced Mike Bloomfield, Swamp Dogg and Charles Bukowski for Takoma/Chrysalis. Over the years, Denny and Nitzsche remained close friends and they were even roommates for many years too, living atop Mulholland Drive in George Raft’s old mansion, where Denny says Mick Jagger and Keith Richards wrote “Sister Morphine” while lounging beside their skinny-dip pool. Denny actually came to my attention when I was working at Rhino Handmade in 2001, through a mutual contact, and he became crucial for the liner notes I compiled for Jack Nitzsche’s Rhino Handmade CD collection Three Piece Suite: The Reprise Recordings, and it was during those many conversations that I came to have the following discussion with him about Greaser’s Palace. GREASER'S PALACE 3 I suppose I should also tell you a little about Greaser’s Palace here too: firstly, it’s a revisionist, slapstick-influenced absurdist western, a stoner’s goof on the story of Jesus Christ with over-arching and underlying religious themes forming the basis for a loosely-woven plot ripped directly from the pages of the New Testament. During the early 70s, it was fairly typical for revisionist westerns to re-tell Christian parables and fables and such, setting those stories in the Old West, and Greaser’s Palace is no exception to that, although it does take it further than most westerns did, which is why I suppose it is now branded as an “acid western.” GREASER'S PALACE 6 In TCM’s Notes for Greaser’s Palace (which also list the scenes they’ve omitted from broadcast, due to various issues including the spewing of obscenities), they inform us that, Robert Downey Sr.’s wife Elsie, and son Robert Downey Jr., were both featured in the movie. Also, according to TCM, quoting Time Magazine, Mrs. Cyma Rubin, a fledgling Broadway producer who was the wife of the former owner of Faberge, gave Downey $1,000,000 to produce Greaser’s Palace. Downey had only made one movie before that, the 1969 advertising/race relations satire Putney Swope, which had brought him the adoration of the hippie counterculture. GREASER'S PALACE 15 Here’s more from TCM: A December 1972 Variety news item added that the film was initially distributed independently in New York in the summer of 1972. It was then picked up for national distribution by Donald Rugoff’s Cinema 5 company. Filmfacts noted that the picture was shot on location in New Mexico. Although a June 1971 Variety news item stated that Eddie Carmel was in the cast, his appearance in the completed film has not been confirmed. “Jessy’s” agent “Morris” was an in-joke referring to the William Morris Agency. GREASER'S PALACE 17 For the incidental soundtrack music, director Robert Downey Sr. reached out to Nitzsche, and that’s where we’ll pick up with Denny Bruce’s recollections. Denny Bruce: “Because of his work on the Performance soundtrack, all of the directors in Hollywood who liked rock music wanted to work with him, but I can tell you that back then, most of the directors thought they knew more about music than composers did, they were all dilettantes. I’m talking about guys like William Friedkin. Downey [Robert Downey Sr] wasn’t like that at all. He admitted that he never really had listened to that much rock music. He was born and raised in Greenwich Village, but he felt L.A. was a better place to make movies, so he came out to the west coast and when this project came around, he started asking people about composers and somebody recommended that he speak to Van Dyke Parks. So, Downey met with him and after that meeting, he realized that Van Dyke wasn’t what he was looking for, but he had really liked Performance and so he got Nitzsche’s phone number and just called him up. Jack was blown away — Jack and I had seen Downey’s movie Putney Swope together and we both loved it, so Jack said ‘Count me in.’” GREASER'S PALACE 11 Denny says that Downey had wanted a particular feel, and told Nitzsche ‘I’m not musical at all. I’m a vision guy, not a sound guy,‘ so he was given a lot of freedom to do whatever he felt was necessary. Denny Bruce: “Downey told Jack he had an independent backer and so he had some money to work with. I think it was a woman who had gotten a lot of money in a divorce, and she told Downey that she’d back him with $1.2 million, and so Downey told Jack, ‘Hey, there’s money here, we can have fun.’” Downey wanted Nitzsche to be involved on the movie from the beginning, rather than coming in later to work on the project after the film was shot, so he and Denny Bruce flew to Santa Fe, New Mexico and from there, they went to the sets that were being built near Camel Rock, which is located in Pojoque, between Santa Fe and Espanola. GREASER'S PALACE 16 Camel Rock, incidentally, gets its name from a large rock formation that looks like a camel sitting down. Denny says that Downey had found a “really hippie looking carpenter, with a bandana and patchwork denims and shirtless” to build the sets for Greaser’s Palace. This same guy had built the stage at Woodstock a few years earlier. Denny says that he and Jack stayed about four days, and often visited Downey at a Spanish adobe house where the director had members of his family staying with him, including his wife, Elsie, who is also in the movie. Denny Bruce: “Their son, Robert Downey Jr. — who we knew as Bobby, he was about seven years old at the time — was there, as was their daughter Allyson. People dropped by that house all the time, including Dennis Hopper, who once pulled up in his pickup truck, with a shotgun in the back window. He was real stoned and he came into the house, wearing a pistol on his hip, and he was carrying a whip. Downey told him to ‘get the fuck out of here’ because he didn’t want Hopper around his family. GREASER'S PALACE 9 ‘”There were a lot of really interesting people who worked on the movie, including Alan Arbus, who you might remember from the TV show “M*A*S*H” [Arbus was often featured on the show as Major Sidney Freeman, the M*A*S*H* unit’s psychiatrist]. Arbus was the husband of the famous photographer Diane Arbus, who had just committed suicide two weeks before Greaser’s Palace began shooting in New Mexico. He didn’t want to do the movie, but Downey worked him through it.” GREASER'S PALACE 12 There were other interesting character actors in the movie, Denny says, including Don Calfa, who also appeared in The Rose, and Pablo Ferro, who had co-directed (along with Hal Ashby) the Rolling Stones’ documentary movie Let’s Spend the Night Together. Ferro played an Indian named Chief Cloud In the Head. GREASER'S PALACE 14 Denny Bruce: “Pablo was actually Puerto Rican but he looked like an Indian, and he had waist length hair and he wasn’t really an actor, but in this movie he’s there, without a shirt, for pretty much the whole movie. In fact, I think he’s just wearing an Indian breechcloth, that’s it. But Pablo was a famous designer of title sequences for movies like Dr. Strangelove, The Thomas Crown Affair, A Clockwork Orange… he did that great split-screen opening sequence for Steve McQueen’s movie Bullitt too.” Denny also points out that Toni Basil plays an Indian princess who only communicates through sign language with Chief Cloud: “She is topless the whole movie. She’d been in quite a few movies by then too, including Easy Rider and Five Easy Pieces. GREASER'S PALACE 7 Nitzsche himself ended up appearing in one scene, as one of the town’s mariachi musicians — he’s one of the guys kept in a cage by Seaweedhead Greaser, used as an instrument of torture, but the other mariachis — who were real authentic Santa Fe-area mariachis — were upset that his appearance in the movie meant another of their own group couldn’t be in the movie, and to show their disapproval, Denny says that Nitzsche told him the mariachis kept farting on him while they were in the cage together: Denny Bruce: “Jack was really a beatnik and he liked mariachi music, and Downey said to him, ‘You wanna be in the movie as part of the mariachi band?’ And Jack said ‘Yeah.’ So they got him a mariachi outfit to look like the other guys. He was thrilled to be in the movie, but the mariachis didn’t dig him being there, and they were all fat assholes, and the main mariachi guy told him that he had to stand in the back of them. He explained that the horn he was playing was typically placed in the back, and so they just backed him into this corner, and they just stood there and farted on him. Jack couldn’t take it after that and so he’s not in the movie very much, but if you look closely you can see him.” GREASER'S PALACE 10 Denny says that Nitzsche came back to California and began working on the music at Sunset Sound, using the same studio musicians he’d worked with on many of his previous projects. He completed the soundtrack and soon moved on to other projects.

Greaser’s Palace didn’t really have much success at the box office, and it even screened four years after it was made, at the 1976 Telluride Film Fesitival, but after that is seems to have disappeared until it was revived later by cinéastes who could appreciate it for what it was.

Nitzsche stayed in touch with Downey over the years, and they continued to be friends, hoping to work on something new together. Nitzsche also continued working on demos which he often recorded right there at the home on Mulholland Drive. Then, in late ’73 — the same year Nitzsche composed the full symphonic score for The Exorcist — Nitzsche and Downey were trying to get financing for another movie, and they had set up a meeting with Warner Bros. A&R exec Mo Ostin, who decided to give Nitzsche and Downey a shot at working on a solo album. Downey and Nitzsche both wrote lyrics.

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Denny, in the Three Piece Suite liner notes, said this about the Downey/Nitzsche project: “I don’t know much about it, truthfully, but I do know that the album was assembled from recordings he did sometime in early 1974, with some of Downey’s lyrics. To these, they added a track, “New Mexico,” which was recorded by Elliot Mazer for Greaser’s Palace, and “Marie,” the demo we had recorded in 1971.”

Unfortunately, Nitzsche was often his own worst enemy, and his drinking exacerbated his relationship with Mo Ostin. One of the songs he and Downey wrote, “Little Al,” even included the line, “Hey Mo, where you gonna go with that rock in your hip pocket?” You’re free to interpret this however you wish, but one thing is clear: Ostin was not pleased, and unsurprisingly, he opted not to release Nitzsche’s solo album.

In the liner notes to Three Piece Suite, Denny says: “There was no call to me, his manager, from Mo, saying ‘Denny, could you come out to Burbank? We really need to talk about Jack’s album.’ Jack was just dropped from Warner Bros. and that was it.”

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, assistant editor for the When You Awake blog, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.