Review Revue: Zoogz Rift - A Historical Retrospective

Who -- or what -- is Zoogz Rift? I had no idea when I started pulling out record upon record by this mysterious character from the shelves at KEXP, and I’m still not really clear. Suffice it to say he’s a man, born Robert Pawlikowski in New Jersey in the 1950s, who made many very strange albums, influenced musically by Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart and (allegedly) philosophically by Salvador Dali and Ayn Rand. Listening to his music now for the first time, I definitely hear those musical influences (as did the KCMU DJs), and see this music as a possible bridge between Zappa and Beefheart and later bands, such as Mr. Bungle and Melt Banana (if Mike Patton isn’t a Zoogz Rift fan, I’ll eat my hat). The sheer volume of records by this artist who had been previously unknown to me, yet who obviously had a thriving career for many years (about 18 LPs that I can count, 11 of them on the stalwart SST records), made me want to post as many of his records as possible and bring this conversation into the 21st century. Let’s go!


ISLAND OF LIVING PUKE

“Dischordant often exotic aberrations from the musical landscape. A modern day ‘Mothers of Invention.’ This is a story of what happens to a certain person after a safe from 13 stories up drops on his head. Must have been some amazing drugs in that safe. Henry Kaiser does guy-tar on 3 of these. P.S. Lots of rudeness and red dots abound.”

“‘The Breather’ is safe enough. They’re coming to town. Give it a spin!”

LOOSER THAN CLAMS... A HISTORICAL RETROSPECTIVE

“Zoogs has been recording for ten years and this is the definitive Zoogz in all his glory. Reminds me of John Trubee. Some inspired cuts and some truly stupid songs. An interesting cover of Elvis Costello’s ‘High Fidelity.’”

“Look out for red dots!!!”

“An Elvis Costello song on here. Really.”

WATER

“Zoogz Rift wants to make music of the same caliber of Zappa or Beefheart. He lacks the musical and lyrical insight and ends up sounding silly. Some of this is pretty good, but most of it is fairly infantile.”

“Watch out for red dots.”

NONENTITY

“Who is this guy? Side 2 first song, upbeat, ditzy and odd and fun. Then Zappa-like improvisations, I think he’s worth playing.”

“This is Bill Hartnett’s soul brother.”

“Nifty record.”

TORMENT

“Zoogz my man! M+”

“Me too! A lot of this reminds me of Frank Zappa stuff. So there you go. Pretty interesting. Careful: most of the songs run right into each other.”

“The fat ass geek shit - I love him. Ah yesssss.”

“This guy and Bill Hartnett are related. True!” [Two references to this Bill Hartnett, and I have no idea who they mean. Any KCMU alums around to help out with that?]

“That looks like 2 Ms to me.”

“Captain Beefheart, not Zappa. In fact, a pretty blatant Beefheart ripoff in spots.”

“That’s what I meant.”

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14 Comments

  1. John V. Scialli, MD
    Posted September 2, 2010 at 7:58 pm | Permalink

    I’ll pass this on to ZR who is very ill in a care facility. Maybe it will cheer him up.
    Zoogz has done great work in his 57 years. When starting out as a rock critic,
    Matt Groening considered Zoogz Rift and His Amazing Shitheads the best act in
    the LA area.

    Dr. John (I named Planet Zappafrank)

  2. Zrug
    Posted September 3, 2010 at 9:47 am | Permalink

    Didn’t Zoogz and John Trubee make an album together? Or am I just thinking of some mention in a track on TIOLP? “awwww mannnn, those prank phone calls are reaaally funny!” “well what did you think about the music?” HUH?? MUSIC??

  3. Levi
    Posted September 3, 2010 at 11:53 am | Permalink

    John, thank you so much for the update. I’m very sorry to hear about his illness. Please send him the best from all at KEXP/KCMU.

  4. Damon Creed
    Posted September 3, 2010 at 7:34 pm | Permalink

    Bill Hartnett is alive & well. He was a top tier KCMU dj back in those days and quite the reviewing machine at the time. The reviews on these discs initialed “BH” were written by Bill.

  5. Posted September 7, 2010 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

    Hey, this is Bill Hartnett (KCMU 1986-1991) and the Zoogz comments were part of a running joke by former fellow KCMU alum Tim Muck who loved to compare me to Zoogz for no reason other than he thought it was funny (I guess you had to be there). I definitely played some Zoogz on my show, but I bear little resemblance to Zoogz in talent or personality.

  6. James Simcoe
    Posted November 20, 2010 at 8:42 am | Permalink

    JimSim Co. here, of ‘Idiots’ &’Amputees’ ‘'’fame''’.
    Promted by a call from a journalist working on a history of SST records, I’ve located
    Zoogz, Mako and Mr. Trubee in cyberspace and will re-connect.
    Zoogz - generous, funny, opiniated and, yes, idealistic, hence prone to intense frustration and impatience - imagine! in this place....
    My chance to be in a studio, be onstage AND have my first live viewing of Beefheart due to him. Richard Haas, consumate musician. John Sharkey, astute and committed. Trubee...Trubeee...eh, um, once ordered and ate 5 deserts at once. Later he said, “I don’t feel too good”. Latent metaphysician is my diagnosis.
    To which he would reply, “Blah,blah, who cares”!

  7. Chris
    Posted December 1, 2010 at 6:32 pm | Permalink

    I recently bought a copy of Looser Than Clams from a friend’s collection. Never heard of him before, but instantly one of my all-time favourite musical lunatic geniuses! This guy was great, so unrecognized for so much talent.
    Get well soon, man...

  8. Michelle Klein-Hass
    Posted March 20, 2011 at 8:16 pm | Permalink

    Heya. The Hass part of my name is from the fact that I was married for 20 years to long-time ZR associate Richie Hass. Today actually is the 3rd anniversary of his departure after a struggle with a blood cancer called multiple myeloma.

    I didn’t get along very well with ZR in the beginning, but gradually we were able to get around our strong personalities and befriend each other. Richie actually was out of the band for a few months because ZR and I didn’t get along. Anyway, I grew to really appreciate Zoogz. He is one of the brightest people I’ve ever come across, and one of the most creative.

    Diabetes has taken its toll on him...folks, get your fasting glucose checked, it’s important...but he has already created an artistic and musical legacy that will one day be rediscovered and he’ll get the credit he deserves.

  9. Willie Lapin
    Posted March 23, 2011 at 6:27 am | Permalink

    Sad to let you all know that Zoogz passed on this week. Organs just kind of gave out and he went with no pain. He will be missed by all of us. I spoke to John Sharkey, Tom Brown, and Scott Colby last night. I would like to think I was his favorite bass player and best friend.
    -Willie

  10. Tom Brown
    Posted March 23, 2011 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

    I can’t say enough nice things about ZR. It’s a shame he was never really recognized as far as album sales go. I’ll never forget our first phone conversation, when after speaking with him for ten minutes he told me, “Okay, you’re in the band.” Just like that. Amazing. I wound up playing on everyone of his albums from 1988 until the last in 2001.
    I’ll miss him dearly.
    Tom Brown

  11. Peter Baum
    Posted October 28, 2011 at 8:43 am | Permalink

    I discovered Zoogz Rift at a low point in my life (’86) and hearing a few of his albums cheered me up immediately, as I’m a big fan of Beefheart and Zappa (and I
    thought Zoogz’ music in the Eighties was better than Frank’s.) Where Zoogz had a significant advantage over his “mentors” was that he seemed far less aloof and more lovable. Although cerebral and advanced, his music often showed him as a humane and even soulful individual, especially when he started doing things like “When My Ship Comes In” and “Look at the Fool.” His music was always intelligent (as were his writings that often accompanied the records) and frequently hilarious. And his bands were always really good. It’s great that he was so prolific - he left so many records and I wish more people would have bought them. Thanks Zoogz; you will not be forgotten.

  12. Zoot Horn Rollo
    Posted December 1, 2011 at 7:40 pm | Permalink

    Zoogz was the ultimate idiot on the minature golf course, Play that long shithead rift you Liquid Moamo... Art rock is dead

  13. Chris McLean
    Posted September 6, 2013 at 10:02 am | Permalink

    Man, this guy made some great music. So sad to hear of his passing... He must be remembered through reissues. Is anybody working on that?

  14. london
    Posted November 10, 2013 at 11:21 pm | Permalink

    who played keyboards for zr?

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