For what is effectively a major-label release, information on this little beauty is remarkably difficult to find. The only way to get your hands on the nine-track album these days is via the 2008 CD reissue by controversial semi-bootleg Radioactive offshoot Fallout. It’s up to you.
Suffice to say, it’s worth hunting down. Biographical details about its creator are starting to seep through thanks to the efforts of his niece, Ali Boyd, who is putting together a documentary about the man she met only once. In the mid-1960s, Kelley was wanted by the FBI for selling acid on the University of Rhode Island campus, so he abandoned his family and fled to New York. He began to write and perform his songs, and was considered a contender in the music scene by Seymour Stein and Richard Gottehrer, who signed him to the fledgling Sire Records. Some claim Kelley’s debut album, 1969’s Path Of The Wave, is notable as the first release on the now-global record empire – it was certainly amongst the first, and features contributions from Rare Earth’s Eddie Guzman and the E Street Band’s Danny Federici. Problem was, Kelley had simultaneously established himself as the head of a huge hash-smuggling empire, selling to some of the most influential music acts of the time. His only other release, in 1971, was ominously titled Dealin’ Blues – over the years, he became haunted by guilt about abandoning his daughter in Rhode Island. He developed crippling stage fright and anxiety, became an addict and lost everything, including his career in music. He returned to Rhode Island, and began work as a fish cutter. He apparently died in a car crash in 1983.
Path Of The Wave is stark, eerie, intense, and utterly compelling. Broadly speaking, it’s typical of the late-60s downer-folk sound – blues-based, with psych flourishes – but the songs are beautifully and unusually constructed, while Kelley’s extraordinary vocals demand attention. Paranoid, haunted lyrics are mainly delivered in a forceful whisper – somehow what you might expect from a man fighting his demons while on the run from the law. Occasionally songs are coloured with touches of haunting violin or flute, but otherwise the backing is sparse and mainly acoustic; only ‘All I Needed Was Time’ and ‘The Man Is Dead’ feature muffled drums and fuzz guitar. The latter is the album’s atypical centrepiece, a seven-minute jam built around a rollicking garage beat, psyche organ and Kelley’s most overtly circumstance-led words: “Look out the window, there’s cops in the trees / Nobody knows but my business and me / Don’t give a damn if it’s the narcos or feds / Listen to me brother, the man is dead”.
Elsewhere, the mood is one of quiet confession, a gentle yet disturbed glimpse into the shadows of a troubled mind. ‘In My Own Secret Way’ could (potentially) be interpreted as an address to his lost daughter: “In my own secret way / In lonely nights and empty days / I often dream of you and then of all the many people I’ve been”; while the sing-song melody of ‘Christine I’ sweetens a fragmented, poetic narrative: “Time was always paint to me / The canvas was my life”. The title track is a rolling folk shanty that closes the album on a musically upbeat note, but which hides another painfully personal tale: “I will never delight / In your being uptight / Or that the best I can tell you is ‘So long’”.
There’s little doubt that fans of Pearls Before Swine will find plenty to love here, as will anyone who appreciates the idiosyncratic outsider charms of Jandek. Here’s hoping the upcoming documentary prompts a proper reissue, and a reappraisal of Peter Kelley’s rare talent.