by Henry Myers
About a year ago, I was driving alone through New York state on vacation. With Niagara Falls still a few hours ahead of me, I had been trying (with partial success) to stave off boredom by listening to music. Typically when I’m on the road, I like to listen to the 90’s band Stereolab, which is great driving music for two reasons: first, their music is very mood-driven, which works particularly well with changing landscapes; and second, their use of Motorik beats gives me the sensation of forward motion, of going somewhere. But between the monotony of driving and the discomfort of being a tall person in a tiny car, the music wasn’t doing a whole lot for me.
That is, until “International Coloring Contest” came on. With lyrics about traveling to the moon, and a groove that makes you feel like you’re gleefully cruising through space in a rocket ship, I swooned. How had I not heard this before? If ever there were a song for me, it would be “International Coloring Contest”. I must’ve given the track at least five consecutive listens before shutting off the music and enjoying the passing scenery in silence, still glowing from my discovery. But what was the song even about?
ENTER LUCIA PAMELA
It turns out the song was written as an homage to an eccentric entertainer named Lucia Pamela, a woman whose story walks a fine line between truth and hyperbole. Born in St. Louis in 1904 (same as the waffle cone), Lucia was exposed to music from a very young age, her mother both a composer and concert pianist. A talented multi-instrumentalist, Lucia claimed to have been kicked out of music school in Germany for being “overqualified” (she also claimed to have been the first person on both television and radio). She was, however, cited by “Ripley’s Believe it or Not” for having memorized in the ballpark of 10,000 songs. Musical achievements aside, Lucia might also be considered a feminist: she hosted two radio shows for young women and founded and early all-female orchestra, “Lucia Pamela and the Musical Pirates”. She was also a former ‘Miss St. Louis’, and the mother of Georgia Frontiere, who would go on to own the St. Louis Rams.
But Lucia is best remembered for being fascinated with the moon. Her one-and-only album Into Outer Space with Lucia Pamela is, hands down, one of the most bizarrely charming things I’ve ever heard. Despite having a lo-fi, 1920s jazz sound, I was surprised to find out that it was actually recorded in 1969, just two months before the Apollo 11 moon landing. Each song begins with an introduction: at the beginning of the album, she announces “We’re taking off for the Moon! Fasten your seat-belts—let’s go!” Our first stop on the Moon is the delightful “Moontown”, a place known for its great weather and genial citizens (“Eeny-meeny-miney-mo, Moontown is a place to go!”). Soon afterward, Lucia urges us to take a walk on the Moon, where we encounter a number of talking animals (“Moo Moo Moo Moo Moo Moo Moo Moo Moo Moo!”). Our other Moon adventures include dancing the “Flip Flop Fly”, and attending a Native American wedding in “Indian Alphabet Chant (a-i-iddy-i-o-o-o)” (though this is, admittedly, an uncomfortable listening experience).
While Lucia’s singing is endearing, she’s certainly no Ronnie Spector. Often she’s off pitch, and occasionally she sounds like a lawnmower—though in her own defense, she later commented that “the air is different up there [on the Moon], you know.” Still, there’s absolutely no disputing her enormous talent: keep in mind that every single thing you hear on the album was created and produced by Lucia. The drums, percussion, theremin, piano, guitar, clarinet, accordion, and every other instrument to be heard—all played by her, and at a high level (I’m particularly a fan of the percussion grooves and her clarinet playing). The resulting coherence of energy is what makes Into Outer Space a fabulous album.
As if the music weren’t ridiculous enough, the 1976 version of the album came with a coloring book by Lucia, entitled “Into Outer Space with Lucia Pamela in the Year 2000”. In the book we discover a number of places not to be found in the music, including Nutland village, a small town where all the people are made of nuts (such as the esteemed Monsieur Walnut). Oeen the far side of the Moon we meet igloo-dwelling Eskimos. Truthfully, the coloring book isn’t the most organized or intelligible thing—the narrative is all over the place, and it’s full of non-sequiturs (such as the “Sacred word God/Dog spelled backwards” region on the above map of the Moon)—but it doesn’t really need to be either. If anything, its stream-of-consciousness only adds to the appeal.
Though there’s a great deal more I could say about the book itself, of even greater interest is the contest promoted at the end. Inviting the reader to mail their colored-in copies to her home address in California, Lucia advertises that “there will be three prizes for the four best colored books”. Much like her music, there’s something very joyful about this competition and its attempt to encourage creativity in others. Following a revival of interest in the album after a 1992 re-release, it was this spirit of joy that inspired Stereolab to record “International Coloring Contest” (I wonder if they sent in their colorings). According to her website, the contest never ended: while Lucia passed away in 2002 at the humbling age of 98 (she lived to see the year 2000!), you’re probably still welcome to send in your entry.
In writing this post I was reminded of a few things. I thought of the “great” faux-soprano Florence Foster Jenkins, who had no talent but, for better or (most likely) worse, loved to sing. I also thought of Daniel Johnston, another lo-fi, outsider musician who, despite his life-long struggle with mental illness, has a particular joy and innocence to his music. Like Johnston and FFJ, I guess Lucia’s Moon dreams are more for the sake of joy and imagination than anything else. So if you’re looking for something virtuosic, meticulously made, or artistically profound, you won’t find it here. But if you can disengage from your expectations and just try to have fun with the music, you’ll probably enjoy yourself. In the end, that’s what Into Outer Space is about—simply put, joy. Have a hap, hap, happy heart!
P. S. Following her death, American playwright Tony Kushner was inspired to write a short play about Lucia meeting the also-freshly-deceased Queen Geraldine of Albania.
P. P. S. Here’s Into Outer Space on Spotify: