Upon hearing of the passing of Ray Manzarek, my first thoughts were not of The Doors or Jim Morrison, but of the keyboardist’s role in one of the weirder albums ever released. The record was called Men Are Made In The Paint, a spoken word project by Bill Walton in which the former UCLA great and NBA analyst shared his thoughts on the game of basketball at length. At great length, in fact, because Men Are Made In The Paint is a double album, clocking in at almost 2 and a half hours of Bill Walton’s witness protection voice talking about hoops.
This is bit odd, but a Bill Walton spoken word album is not especially strange in and of itself. What puts Men Are Made In The Paint over the top is who Walton made the album with, and who released it.
If you’re a former punk rock kid of a certain age, you no doubt remember the little catalogs that came in every SST release, printed on Bible-weight tissue paper and strategically folded so they could hold listings for every record that label put out yet still fit between the CD and booklet for Damaged or Double Nickels on the Dime. One of my former bandmates swore he would one day own every single item in that catalog, and so he made it a point to learn every last release printed thereon, memorizing the backlist of obscure bygone groups like Tom Troccoli’s Dog and Fatso Jetson.
While studying the catalog with talmudic dedication, he discovered a tiny section for something called ISSUES RECORDS. Its only listing was Men Are Made In The Paint. The existence of a Bill Walton double album should have been crazy enough, but it was made doubly (quadruply?) crazy by the fact that Greg Ginn was somehow responsible for its existence. My friend, who worshiped Ginn, would often point to this as a sign of his quixotic genius and proclaimed this thing must be worth listening to it because Ginn deemed it so.
He did not acquire the album, however, and I went years without thinking about it until I saw an HBO documentary about the UCLA basketball dynasty of the 1960s and 1970s. Walton figured heavily in that doc, talking about his triumphs on the court, his anti-war activism, and his clashes with coach John Wooden. Ray Manzarek also had a few segments in the film, during which he talked almost exclusively in Doors references, a trope so forced it made my teeth itch.
However, something about seeing Walton and Manzarek in quick succession reminded me of that tiny section in the SST catalog, and so I googled to see if Walton’s album really existed. The interwebs revealed that not only did Men Are Made In The Paint really come out in 1994, but it contained musical accompaniment from…Ray Manzarek.
Now I really needed to find out how this thing was made. The extant record was not helpful, however. The biggest press Men Are Made In The Paint ever received, near as I could tell, was in a Billboard article from 1994. Spoken word blew up in the early 90s, alongside the rise of “alternative” music; it was featured prominently on Lollapalooza sidestages, along with another Early Clinton Years artform, slam poetry. SST put a lot of weight behind spoken word, not only releasing a good deal of albums in the genre but also hosting Word Wednesday events at its LA superstore. However, most their spoken word output had some tangential relationship to music, often performed by people who were currently or formerly in rock bands. A spoken word album by Bill Walton was another thing entirely.
The Billboard article gives a few tantalizing glimpses into the origins of this strange endeavor. Ginn is quoted at length and professes to love basketball; at the same time Issues Records put out Walton’s record, it also released another spoken word project by Walton’s old coach, John Wooden. Manzarek shares his thoughts on what he contributed to the project:
I played what I thought would be the appropriate music for the different moves of the sport….For defense, the player will hunker down. He is low and mean. I played low, choppy piano chords to convey that feeling. For free throws, the game can move from fast and chaotic to very composed, and the music speed reflects that, at times taking on a very tranquil quality. When I play this music, I feel like I am really playing basketball.
The article also touts future releases from NBA coach Jack Ramsay, football play-by-play man Charlie Jones, and veteran jazz saxophonist Buddy Collette. The Ramsay album seems to have been released at some point, but the fate of the others is murky.
The trail went cold after that, save for a 1991 LA Times profile of Harvey Kubernik, producer of Men Are Made In The Paint, in which he discussed his sports-related spoken word omnibus called Innings and Quarters. Kubernik had previously recorded spoken word with Exene Cervenka and Charles Bukowski, among others, but had always dreamed of doing something in the sports vein. “I knew all of these poets with who had sports poems in their cages, and I got to pull them out,” he said. From this, I could assume that Kubernik’s background in spoken word and love of sports was what ultimately led to the Bill Walton/Ray Manzarek collabo.
I dreamed of writing a “making of” piece about Men Are Made In The Paint. Had Walton, Manzarek, and Ginn ever been in the studio at the same time? If so, how come the earth didn’t just explode at that very moment?
It was not to be. Despite months of furious google-scouring and emails to any lead that sounded remotely promising, no one involved in the project ever got back to me. This may be just as well, since I can imagine myself locking up if I’d actually gotten Bill Walton on the phone and had to ask him, “What’s the deal with this weird spoken word thing you did 20 years ago?”
Perhaps Men Are Made In The Paint is best left as an unexplained artifact. Future generations may puzzle its origins and its meaning but never know for sure, always hoping to discover some truth in its mystery.
For the curious, I’ve added a playlist below containing the entire double album of Men Are Made In The Paint. As you’ll hear, Manzarek’s contributions are fairly limited, just little touches in between tracks. He can’t resist the temptation to throw a little snatch of “Light My Fire” into the intro, of course. But the vast majority of the work’s running time is given to Bill Walton talking about basketball, so if that floats your boat, you’re in for a treat.
Listening to Walton’s voice at this length is an almost hypnotic experience. I recommend listening to it in a quiet, unadorned space where you can zone out for a while. Think of it as meditation, with a guru who loves hook shots and hates dunks.