Commander Cody, a True Original, Breaks the Bonds of Earth

The San Francisco mainstay and trucker rock icon who defied categorization was 77 years old

Farewell, Commander Cody (Images: Discogs)

The tragic toll taken on the music world seems to continue unabated. The latest loss comes with the passing of Commander Cody (A.K.A. George Frayne IV), who died Sunday after a lengthy bout with cancer. He was 77. 

His wife Sue made the announcement on Facebook.

“Early this morning, as I lay my head upon his shoulder, George’s soul took to flight. I am heartbroken and weary, and I know your hearts break, too. Thank you so much for all the love you gave and the stories you shared.”

 

VIDEO: Commander Cody and his Lost Planet Airmen “Hot Rod Lincoln”

Cody’s band, the Lost Planet Airmen, provided the vehicle that advanced his career, beginning in the late ‘60s. They scored their sole top ten hit, “Hot Rod Lincoln,” in 1972, but their real success was as a popular cult band that made its name in their native San Francisco. They were initially embraced within the Bay Area’s thriving counter culture, often opening for the Grateful Dead.

While their mix of country, roots, swing, and rockabilly helped summon in the crossover from rock to country — and vice versa — it was their blend of humor and satire that found them standing apart from their like-minded peers. Their album Live From Deep in the Heart of Texas, one of seven albums released on the Paramount and Warner Bros. labels between 1971 and 1976, more or less set the standard, courtesy of rollicking reboots of such standards as “Diggy Diggy Lo” “Riot in Cell Block #9,” “Good Rockin’ Tonight,” and a song that served as a trademark tune given Cody’s professed love of weed, “Down to Seeds and Stems Again Blues.”

 

 

Indeed, that stoner image served the band well, especially with the flourishing college market.  Cody took the band’s name from a series of classic sci-fi movies in the late ‘40s that eventually led to the introduction of a character named Commander Cody, a would-be hero who helmed a band of troopers called the Lost Planet Airmen. Given the times and the trend towards nonsense and nostalgia, the name seemed a perfect fit.

Cody’s early influences — Jerry Lee Lewis, Buck Owens, Fats Domino and Bob Willis, among them — and his unabashed love of pot naturally found a fine fit. An astute piano player, as well as a talented visual artist, he was adept at any number of seminal musical styles. Although his goal was always to entertain his audiences, he also made it a point to worship at the altar of early American music.

Not that it was easy. With an audience that was often dominated by rednecks and truckers, it was a challenge to find a wider national following. He was booed off the stage at the Country Music Association confab in 1973 and often accused of usurping a sound that had been respected and revered for decades. Likewise, younger listeners weren’t quite sure what to make of a band that was so committed to country. Nevertheless, the band’s stoner attitude and clear commitment to cause paved the way to a bigger breakthrough. Despite having only one hit in wider realms, Cody continued to enjoy the music he made while fronting an ongoing number of bands under the aegis of the Airmen. He freely admitted that they never changed their tact, telling one interviewer,  “It’s like ‘The Rocky Horror Picture Show’ without the gay attire and dancing.”

Which, of course, was fine. Hopefully now, the good Commander is flying high amongst the angels and enjoying a good toke or two along the way.

 

VIDEO: Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen Live at SUNY Stonybrook 3/9/75

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Lee Zimmerman

Lee Zimmerman is a writer and columnist based in beautiful Maryville Tennessee. Over the past 20 years, his work has appeared in dozens of leading music publications. He is also the author of Americana Music: Voice, Visionaries, and Pioneers of an Honest Sound, which will be published by Texas A&M University Press early next year.

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