'Bad Rice' Gone Good: Ron Nagle's Cult-Classic Album Reissued

Ron Nagle in 1970. (Photo: Bill Brach)

It took more than a decade of dedicated efforts to get Ron Nagle’s 1970 sub-cult classic album Bad Rice reissued in its new, lavish, expanded edition, including archivist/fan Alec Palao going through…. well…

“Alec crawled around in my basement, literally in rat [droppings], to dig out boxes of old tapes, demos and stuff,” Nagle says.

That sure as heck beats the kind of support the album got from Warner Bros. president Joe Smith when that label put out the original version.

“Joe Smith said, ‘My wife really likes the record,’” says San Francisco native Nagle now. “Nothing against wives. I’ve had one for 45 years. But why bring the wife up? She likes it, and you don’t?”

To be fair, Bad Rice was a tough sell at the time. It’s an odd mix of styles — Stones-y rockers and quasi-Tin Pan Alley ballads — around Nagle’s melancholy, character-driven tales. Not the kind of stuff you’d hear on AM pop radio of the day, or even the insurgent, freer FM side. Not to mention that the cover featuring Nagle artwork depicting a pile of, uh, rice wasn’t exactly a sexy draw for impulse buyers, and the artist didn’t tour to support the album. Not surprisingly, it sunk with nary a trace, save for a handful of glowing reviews (one by Rolling Stone’s Ed Ward) and an even smaller clutch of devoted fans (eventual producer-to-the-stars T-Bone Burnett among them).

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It wasn’t so much ahead of its time. It never really had at time. But perhaps it just took 45 years to throw some perspective on this album. Heck, it took Nagle a while to get perspective on it himself.

Cover for Ron Nagle's "Bad Rice," featuring and titled for one of the artist's visual works
'Bad Rice' album cover, 1970. (Courtesy Omnivore Records)

“It’s weird,” he says. “I went through ups and downs over the years where I personally hated it and then loved it. It’s taken a long time to understand what I was doing myself. No. 1, I was in a pretty oblivious state, drinking and drugs. I’ve been sober more than 30 years now, but most of these songs were created in an altered state. I listen to it now and, yeah, some of this writing is pretty interesting. I don’t mean that egotistically. But something was going on I wasn’t aware of when I was writing this. I don’t know if it was ahead of its time, but it was out of step.”

So was Nagle. He pulls no punches with his disdain for the hippie music and culture of his hometown in the time leading up to the making of the album. When he went to the acid-fueled shows at the Fillmore, with their endless solos and such, he sniffed derisively.

“I wasn’t raised at that time. I was from the ‘50s — black music, doo-wop, soul, later R&B and then Motown,” he says. “I couldn’t identify with San Francisco music at all, or art. I was born and raised here, but couldn’t dig it. Beatnik era, yeah. I was in North Beach. I saw all the great jazz acts. I saw Lenny Bruce in person. I was out of step.”

Still, DJ Tom Donahue, the godfather of free-form FM radio, took him under his wing and got him connected to producer Jack Nitzsche (the Phil Spector protégé, then fresh from his work on Neil Young’s solo debut, and the remarkable soundtrack for the Mick Jagger-starring movie Performance) and then Warner Bros. (Donahue also produced three songs that wound up on Bad Rice).

In the two-CD reissue from Los Angeles-based Omnivore Records, the original album, lovingly remastered, is bracing both for the songs and the production. The rockers (“61 Clay,” featuring slide guitar from a young Ry Cooder) have a biting fury. The lush, strings-adorned story-songs (“Frank’s Store”) match well alongside what Jimmy Webb was writing for Glen Campbell in those days, somehow mixing the wryness of Randy Newman with the pop knack of Burt Bacharach. And at the core is a visionary writer, telling quirky tales of oddball characters with remarkable depth. The unreleased tracks and demos add context, many standing on their own considerable merits. And liner notes by ultra-fan (and veteran music journalist) Gene Sculatti dig deep into and behind the music.

The merits of the original struck UK native Palao on first hearing. A born obscurist, he heard tracks by Mystery Trend, a fringe San Francisco group from the '60s in which Nagle played piano, and via that became aware of his solo album. A brief vinyl reissue in England in the mid-'80s gave him the chance to check it out, ironically when he found a copy at Aron’s Records in Hollywood on his first visit to the U.S. in 1987. When he moved to San Francisco a year later and started a pop-culture magazine, he tracked down Nagle for an interview.

Ron Nagle in his ceramics studio , 2014. (Photo: William Pruyn)
Ron Nagle in his ceramics studio , 2014. (Photo: William Pruyn)

“This is a record that came out in an era of the James Taylors and all that, and it sticks out like a sore thumb — a Rolling Stones thing going on, a Randy Newman thing going on, a Burt Bacharach thing going on,” says Palao, a Grammy Award nominee this year for his liner notes on the Sly Stone collection, I’m Just Like You: Sly’s Stone Flowers 1969-70. “I always loved that dichotomy of a lush arrangement and sardonic lyrics. He nailed it on the head.”

Palao sees Nagle as someone who, had things gone just a bit differently, could have been on par with the band Big Star — still a cult figure, but with a bigger, more prominent cult.

Nagle doesn’t worry about what didn’t happen. When Bad Rice came out, he’d already been established as an innovative ceramics artist and teacher at the San Francisco Art Institute and UC Berkeley, and later enjoyed a long stay at Mills College before retiring a few years ago. He continues as a noted figure in that field today, with several gallery exhibits coming in Europe. (A 2009 KQED Spark feature focused on that legacy as well as the music.) Along the way, he kept his hand in the music world, including work on “The Exorcist” score with Nitzsche and a still-ongoing collaboration with drummer-writer Scott Matthews, the two making another cult classic album in the late '70s as the Durocs.

Now, at 76 and living in the Bernal Heights neighborhood he’s called home since the '60s, he’s quite content.

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“Things have been good since I retired,” he says. “So great. When I finally meet my maker, I hope it’s slumped over the piano or work bench.”