Odds are, you’ve seen or heard singer/songwriter/actor/comic Creed Bratton in one venue or another sometime over the past 40 years. Most famously, back in 1967, Bratton became a member of the third line-up of The Grass Roots. Lou Adler and Dunhill Records had created two previous ensembles to primarily perform the songs of P.F. Sloan and Steve Barri, resulting in the hit, “Where Were You When I Needed You.” But the hits really began when Bratton and his new band mates signed on for “Let’s Live for Today,” “Midnight Confessions,” and more. However, in 1969 Bratton left. Not until 2001, when the first of his solo albums (Chasin’ The Ball) debuted, did he have another pop music presence.
Along the way, however, Bratton’s other career, acting, bore its own sporadic fruits. He appeared in many episodic TV series, films like 1985′s Mask, and in 2006 he appeared several times on The Bernie Mac Show. But he’s best known for his playing a fictionalized version of himself on The Office.
While these are his most famous credentials, Bratton’s biography is full of many unique stories. According to a profile and interview in Jeff March and Marti Smiley Childs’s 2012 Where Have All the Pop Stars Gone—Vol 2, Bratton was born with the name William Charles Schneider, which was changed to Chuck Ertmoed when his mother re-married after his father’s death. Allegedly, it was his grandfather who invented moveable scenery for the movies. Bratton got his stage name after a night of heavy drinking in Greece when a batch of suggestions were written on a tablecloth in 1966. He apparently still has that tablecloth.
Before The Grass Roots, Bratton toured Europe, Lebanon, the Sahara, and Israel as an itinerant folk singer in the trio The Young Californians. While in Israel, Bratton had his first taste as a film actor in Cast A Giant Shadow, where Bratton met the film’s stars, John Wayne, Frank Sinatra, Kirk Douglas, and Michael Douglas. Then, Bratton hooked up with Warren Entner in California to form the 13th Floor, which became the Grass Roots and the rest, well, you know the rest. Or maybe not…
In his interview for Where Have All the Pop Stars Gone, Bratton revealed in 2012 he was working on his sixth solo album, a concept album he called Move To Win, the title of one of the songs to be included. By the time the collection was released in 2013, the title had changed to Tell Me About It with the sub-title “An Audio Autobiography about LSD, Unemployment, and Third Acts.” That’s a good summation of the collection.
According to publicity for the album, Bratton claims it was producer Dave Way who listened to tracks Bratton had recorded with his band, The 3DVB’s, and suggested the songs be made into the story of Bratton’s life. The players are the same as on Bratton’s 2010 Bounce Back, including Way, Dan Schwartz, Dylan O’Brien, Val McCallum, Brian MacLeod, with the addition of Billy Harvey on lead guitar. The result was something of a montage with songs interspersed with spoken word clips organized into three very distinct “acts.” In fact, each of the acts are being released separately between April 16 and May 28 as EP downloads before the full collection will be available in one package.
You’ll think the ’60s, but not The Grass Roots, in the four-track “Act I – Let’s Start Dancing.” The program opens with “One Guitar,” in which Bratton announces in a spoken word narration that he’s a soldier in an army, but armed with six strings, not a gun. The obvious single for the set, “Faded Spats,” looks back to the California of his youth in both lyrics and jingle-jangle guitars. Sonically and lyrically, “Chemical Wings” is about what you’d think, psychedelic in every way. The strange “Yeah, Hi” is a spoken word food order in an exotic restaurant with a Middle Eastern musical background. Was this a nod to Bratton’s Young Californians tour?
“Act II – The Orange Juice Tastes Like Water” is very different in its musical approach, with songs that are primarily character sketches of down-and-outers. “Pablo” is a spoken word narration with an electronic musical setting about a man who ends up in a trailer park with his best days behind him. After a comic conversation with the actual “PF Sloan”—the songwriter responsible for many of The Grass Roots biggest hits—Bratton gets acoustic, singing the bluesy, country folk “Unemployment Lines” about garbage-eating social outcasts. He observes that if Jesus were to apply for food stamps, “they’d probably turn him down.” “My Name Is Leon” is another honky-tonk, piano-set character sketch about a man of limited vocabulary who decides to go underground after life offers him futile fruits. Act II concludes with a sad ballad about people descending into the “Heart of Darkness.”
The tone shifts completely once again in “Act III – Funny Thing Happened On The Way To Obscurity,” with the dramatic instrumental, “Old Ruminations.” Now, Bratton isn’t telling stories of loss and despair, but instead, as in “Move To Win,” every time the singer falls, he also flies. The theme of shooting for the sky reappears in the jaunty “Better On Top” where, again, he’s giving advice to younger generations about going for the top and not settling for anything less. Finally, the set concludes with two different takes on aging. “Emmy Awards (Featuring Rainn Wilson)” is another playful bit of dialogue between the two The Office stars about being too old to have a late night party. This is juxtaposed against the album’s summation, the gentle “When I Settle Down,” wherein the singer says he has more life to live.
Are most listeners going to be able to match Bratton’s known biography with these songs? Very few, I’m sure. Most lyrics are too personal, the images too poetic and oblique for a literal reading of Bratton’s life story. True, various online interviews include Bratton’s memories of acid trips, so the origins of “Chemical Wings” isn’t hard to figure out. Likewise, Creed’s well-known efforts to push for a role on The Office seem credible inspirations for “Move to Win” and “Better on Top.” On the other hand, he’s telling interviewers it was music, not television, that saved him, so it’s clearly not safe to make any assumptions.
In the end, trying to match history with art is always an elusive game, even if the artists tells us a project is his intended autobiography. In this case, listeners can enjoy a varied musical experience with very distinct tones and approaches in the three acts and not worry overmuch about what each track refers to. Act I should appeal to anyone with a fondness for late ’60s California psychedelic pop. Act II is more folk rock, a more contemplative look into disappointment and pain. “Unemployment Lines,” on its own, is relevant to anyone observing what’s going on in America today. Act III is Bratton’s affirmative rebound, in which an old-timer offers positive advice for the coming generations. Put together, we do get a bit of an audio play with a cryptic collage of songs, narrations, and dialogue clips that continually surprises, even after repeated listening. So far, Tell Me About It is one of the best and most original releases of 2013.