Keep on the Sunny Side

The enigma in gold

P.J. Proby is not his real name. James Marcus Smith (born Nov. 6, 1938, in Houston) performed for a short time as Jett Powers before being renamed P.J. Proby by songwriter Sharon Sheeley. She had just written “Poor Little Fool” for Ricky Nelson and was Eddie Cochran’s girlfriend, so it must have seemed like she knew what she was doing.

P.J. Proby sounds like a name you would try to get rid of rather than willfully take on, but what do I know? Conway Twitty’s real name was Harold Lloyd Jenkins, which is much less creepy and therefore much less memorable than Conway Twitty.

P.J. spent the late 1950s in Hollywood working as an actor and songwriter. During this period, he wrote one of my favorite songs of all time — the early emo-core hit “Clown Shoes,” wherein the narrator recounts the receipt of a particularly humiliating birthday gift. “Oh no, not clown shoes! I’m in for some mighty bad news!”

I bought a Johnny Burnette CD containing the song at ear X-tacy. The next day, a pair of giant rubber clown shoes appeared hanging by their bright red laces from the power line in front of my apartment building. If you are the person responsible for this clever bit of “gas lighting,” I hate you.

I first saw P.J. Proby’s name spinning on a well-worn 45 of his 1967 hit “Niki Hoeky.” When I finally got this single a few years ago, I wore it out! I could hear that song every day and never get tired of it. Maybe it’s the enigmatic, faux-Cajun lyrics, or just the fact that I can’t understand what the hell he’s talking about. Actually, I’m pretty sure he’s talking about drugs. “Talkin’ bout your boulah weed” — or is it “Buddha wig”?

When Bobbie Gentry sings “Niki Hoeky,” she’s definitely talking about sex. Check out the video! Everybody’s gonna want to tie their shirt up in a knot, hop on a pirogue and “get hip to the cogitation.”

P.J.’s website doesn’t even mention “Niki Hoeky”! He’s got so many other things to talk about. In 1960, Proby played triangle with the Hollywood Argyles on their caveman novelty hit “Alley Oop.” Kim Fowley, the song’s producer, went on to manage and produce the Runaways.

In 1964, Proby moved to England. In 1965, a scandalous wardrobe malfunction caused him to be banned from most theaters and BBC television. He was rockin’ tight velvet bellbottoms and a freaky Fletcher Christian ponytail, and the trousers split. When accidental trouser splitting became a regular part of his act, Proby was briefly deported. Mott the Hoople’s Ian Hunter called Proby “a fucking pirate in this world of drudge.”

In 1968, Proby declared bankruptcy. That same year, he recorded Three Week Hero with all four future members of Led Zeppelin as his backing band.

Proby continued touring and making very odd records — ranging from a dramatic recitation of T.S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland” to a cover of Joy Division’s “Love Will Tear Us Apart” to Focus con Proby, a collaboration with Dutch prog band Focus. His 1987 single “Hardcore: M97002” claimed backing vocals by Proby’s child bride were actually sung by Madonna. Lawsuit, right? It seems like alcohol was a factor.

Soft Cell’s Marc Almond produced P.J.’s 1996 album Legend. In 2002, Van Morrison wrote the extremely depressing “Whatever Happened to P.J. Proby?” P.J. supposedly told Van, “If you find out what happened to me, let me know.” But Proby is still at it. He’s up on Twitter right now, talking about his new record, The Enigma in Gold: Volume One.

There’s a story in here somewhere.There may be a moral or a cautionary tale in P.J.’s wild and sprawling life. Probably not. Sometimes there are things you want to do, and sometimes there are things you just can’t stop doing even if you wanted to.

Catherine Irwin’s band Freakwater is currently collaborating with the Mekons on a mash-up called the FREAKONS. They’re working on a coal mining-themed record designed as a benefit for Kentuckians for the Commonwealth.