Commander Cody Launches from Earth, RIP George Frayne (1944-2021)
SARATOGA SPRINGS — George Frayne has resided in the Saratoga area across four decades. Until Sunday morning, Sept 26, 2021, that is, as he passed away at his home here after a gallant fight versus the Big C.
For the few Nippertowners recognizing that name, it is most likely because of his slashy-flashy, colorful paintings of pop-inspired imagery and personalities that hang in museums, galleries, private homes, and public spaces. It’s great, smile-inducing stuff, all part of a lifelong love affair with the brush that included achieving an MFA from the U. of Michigan.
But it was at that institution of higher learning where George picked up an intriguing nickname; one that labeled his presence in another form of artistic expression and from which he gained wide national acclaim and recognition:
That name was Commander Cody.
Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen sprang from the Ann Arbor college bar & frat house scene in the late ’60s as a good time, rollicking funhouse of a throwback rock & roll band that quickly gained coast to coast radio play via a humorous yet long forgotten cover song called Hot Rod Lincoln; the tale of that era’s young male fascination with big motors and fast speed. It was a big hit!
As is often the case, however, a chart-busting song with the type of quirkiness heard on this single will hang like an albatross on the offending performers’ neck and very often stamp them as both a novelty act and a one-hit-wonder. Such was the case here; at least in the hearts and minds of the American Top 40 crowd.
But as the AM pop radio world shifted into the heavier and more serious FM/ Rock Era of the early ’70s, Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen played a different role in that emerging and glorious soundscape. As the group’s leader and pianist, George would lead them onto a different path.
With the British Invasion making room for more Americanized formats, country roots-rock and cosmic cowboy music emerged as the particular styles dominating the playlists of that timeframe for the more in-the-know members of the nation’s youth. Whether they be college kids, military grunts, backyard rednecks or wandering hippies, the consensus among them all made for a new and mostly unified music scene. Acts like the Dead, Allmans, Eagles, CSN, Skynyrd, Hot Tuna, and Marshall Tucker became major-major attractions, both over the air and (more importantly) in the live music halls, sheds, arenas, and stadiums throughout the land. It was big, wide, deep and spectacular ; dominating the radar screen of the Youth Culture of that faded day.
Floating just under the cloud of those giants were support players that, while not eventually gaining similar superstar status, were still recognizable enough to make a good living and to ride the tiger’s tail of the high life and big time fun. There were acts like the New Riders of the Purple Sage, Poco, Flying Burrito Brothers, Charlie Daniels … and the Lost Planet Airmen. All were important cogs in that machine; recognizable contributors to the scene.
The Commander and his crew made for a most interesting member of that field, given their very off-center and outside the curve musical styling and vibe. For here was a wacky ensemble of weed smoking degenerate longhairs getting off a Kesey-style bus and playing old time Texas swing and roadhouse boogie woogie. It shouldn’t have jibed. But it did, likely because it WAS something different while still being delivered by a bunch of regular guys (and the occasional Airgirl like Nicolette Larson) that one could easily hang out and party with. Plus, they made it all incredibly fun.
That ‘fun’ part can not be over-emphasized. From the opening notes, this was a band that let the audience know a celebration was starting and there would be no naysayers along the route. The ensemble aspect of a lot of different things happening up on stage by a lot of different people added to the impact. CC&HLPA were once described as “the perfect opening act” for any headliner of any genre.
Along the way, they released a worthy catalog, including the famed Live From Deep in the Heart of Texas (at the Armadillo World HQ), which is consistently ranked as one of the top in-concert albums of all time and which spawned deep-cut original singles. Shows were performed around the globe, often with those previously mentioned superstars. They toured with the Dead during the over the top Wall of Sound days. Cody got into some sort of hotel trouble with Hunter Thompson (something about fireworks and a stun gun). Heck, they even warmed up for Led Zeppelin in the UK before 100K people. As always, it somehow worked out just fine. Imagine what this life was like?
But then began a fade to gray. Of course, it did. The Airmen were too numerous, too talented, too adventurous, too costly and too weird to hold together. Plus, arena rock, disco and punk/new wave were moving in and waving warning flags. The Scene was over. Those dope-smoking college kids with all the time in the world had now turned off the radio, junked the old VW and taken jobs downtown or in the Valley.
But the Commander himself soldiered on under his own name, playing smaller and smaller venues as the years rolled on while the visual artist within him became the more passionate pursuit. It was during this transition that he made the move to the 518, while still climbing stages in a scaled-down format with a revolving cast of comrades and a more portable electric piano. But it didn’t feel quite right to anyone that knew of him from “back in the day.”
For the inherent unfairness of the Music Game is that it doesn’t usually reward those that actually deserve it. That very case can be made with George and Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen. History has forgotten them, to a great degree.
That may be because History has also somehow forgotten those days of many dozens of original bands playing five shows a week, jumping from college to college and roadhouse to roadhouse and of young people having as their primary recreational outlet getting to those venues after hearing the recordings communally with their friends. Maybe it’s because it sounds just too unbelievably good to be true vs the troubling landscape of the current music world’s distressing reality? But leave all that analyses to the sociologists’ grad school theses – if THEY even care.
Sure, that handful of big timers became permanently enshrined in the annals of fame and went to the bank forever and ever and ever and a day. Their nostalgia tours still roll into Vegas and the big rooms, whether any of their members are still a part of the charade or not. Likewise, the royalty checks overfill their mailboxes and the plaques on the wall sometimes require additions to hillside mansions.
But the second-tier players like George and the gang deserve a better legacy than they have (or haven’t) received. Heck, the only shrine dedicated to them seems to be a small, booth-side shout-out in Clancys Tavern here in the Spa City, courtesy of its owner and longtime Cody pal Tommy C.
But at least Mr. Frayne had that other equally loved artistic passion of painting to keep him rolling and to keep making people happy. Let’s, therefore, chalk that part up as a blessing and a good thing. We just hope he looked at it that way and it kept him happy, as well.
Tell Saint Peter at the golden gate
Lord, you hate to make him wait
You just gotta have another cigarette