THINKING AHEAD: The piece of paper shown at the bottom right was included in the ‘Heavy Mental’ package, David Petri says, for listeners to use in case they wanted to take notes while the album played.
By Gabe Meline
It all started with Gary Brandt, our copy editor, who usually sits quietly in the Bohemian office correcting run-on sentences and pining for the serial comma, and who approached me with those nine magic words that will never fail to pique my interest. “Hey Gabe,” he said in a stealthy tone, “I’ve got this record you might like.”I put on my poker face. “Really?” I asked, casually. “What’s it like?”
“It’s this funny little 45 made in Santa Rosa by mentally disabled people,” he said, “with a catchy synthesizer riff and lots of people saying ‘I Love You’ over and over. It comes in this hand-drawn box with a shirt, a poster and some other stuff. I’ll bring it in.”
I couldn’t believe my ears. The next day, Brandt bequeathed unto me the weirdest, strangest, most incredibly unique record ever made in Sonoma County. I looked at the box, with its felt-pen scrawl and faded rubber stamps reading “Heavy Mental Music.” I rifled through its contents—a silk-screened Heavy Mental Music T-shirt, a few photocopied Heavy Mental Music stickers, a couple Heavy Mental Music posters and a solitary sheet of notepad paper, upon which was diminutively typed, in the corner, “Heavy Mental Music.”
I took it home, slid the green-vinyl record out of its handmade sleeve, and put it on the turntable. The A-side was exactly like a demo button on a Casio synthesizer: analog-electronic, repetitive and interrupted occasionally by some out-of-time percussion. It sounded amateur but captivating, and Brandt hadn’t been kidding: at the end, people say “I love you” into the microphone 36 times.I flipped the record. An aggressively psychedelic sound collage, the nearly five-minute B-side was full of backwards loops, interviews, echo effects, electronic noises, power tools, bass rumbles and incomprehensible singing. It was called “Tour,” and it was the weirdest thing I’d heard in a long time.I checked the date on the label: 1981. Between the DIY aesthetic of the homemade shirts and stickers, the fanzine-like quality of the booklet and the experimentation of the music itself, this was decidedly a record ahead of its time. It was made by somebody who worked with the developmentally disabled and probably took drugs.
I was determined to find him.
Brandt, a forty-something who was once a huge Nazareth fan, had read about the record at while still enrolled at Slater Junior High. Misreading “mental” as “metal,” he talked his dad into driving the family station wagon after school to the Manual Skills Training Center, where he was the record’s first customer. Alas, the building is no longer in use at the address listed. Strike one.The record’s booklet listed three dozen local businesses and a short list of people, including Congressman Don Clausen, who’d attended a “press party” for the record. My best bet looked to be Becoming Independent, which ran the training center that provided the chorus and which still serves the needs of the developmentally disabled. I walked into their Santa Rosa offices, explained my quest, and presented Heavy Mental Music to a series of surprised employees, all of whom were entranced with the artifact and none of who worked there in 1981 or even had a copy of it. Strike two.
But within minutes, I was on the phone with Jeff Shaver, who had worked at BI for 35 years. “Jeff,” I asked, “do the words ‘Heavy Mental Music’ mean anything to you?” Shaver let out a laugh of recognition. “Yeah,” he said, “definitely.”
Shaver told me to find David Petri. As the producer, engineer and overseer of the record, Petri apparently lived and breathed Heavy Mental Music nonstop for a year, because, Shaver explained, “it was fraught with problems. It took a lot of time.” In 1981, the whole idea was groundbreaking, he added, “because it was back in the days when people didn’t think of people with disabilities contributing to things artistically.”Considering the bizarre nature of the record, I asked, did anyone at the Center think Petri was a little too peculiar? “I don’t remember that being the case,” Shaver said. “David looked very straight, he always dressed well, had short hair. I think that people accepted it as something Jim did.””Jim” would be Jim Weber, the developmentally disabled client who wrote the song, loved to golf and who once ushered at a staff member’s wedding; he left Becoming Independent in 2001 and moved away. But the name David Petri rang a bell. He was, it turns out, the singer for a Santa Rosa band called $27 Snap On Face, whose very weird album Heterodyne State Hospital I’d researched previously. Last I’d heard, he lived in Middletown.
Two miles up on a remote hill in Lake County, I park in the driveway to Petri’s mobile home next to a collection of broken TVs. He emerges, a tall, commanding man wearing cutoffs, flip-flops and a Paul McCartney 1991 Tour T-shirt, and he apologizes for the stark décor of the house. He’s only moved in the most important things, he says, like guitars, a drum set—he’s currently looking for a female drummer—and in fact, right inside the front door, the actual TEAC reel-to-reel player used to record Heavy Mental Music.
Petri saves things. He has a two-foot pile of reel-to-reel tapes from the ’70s on his kitchen table. He has an old 1950s acetate from Stanroy’s Music Center. He has an autographed Johnny Cash record from when he played Santa Rosa in 1984. Among his archive, he also has two folders dedicated to Heavy Mental Music, full of news clippings, photos, letters, videotapes and telegrams. One of them, I note, is from the White House.
“Of all the things I’ve done,” he says, “I’m most proud of this project. I didn’t like the idea of disabled art, or handicapped art. I thought art; it doesn’t have a disability.” So when Jim Weber approached Petri with a song he’d written, the idea to record and release it seemed only natural. Petri sent many of the 3,000 copies to politicians and local media, making sure Weber was listed as the published songwriter—the first developmentally disabled songwriter on BMI’s roster.
“It won the Santa Rosa City Merit Award for Cultural Enrichment, and at that event, we got to read a telegram we received from Ronald Reagan,” he says, “who referred to it as a ‘musical message of hope.'” Weber traveled south and won an award at Disneyland presented by Walt Disney’s daughter, with “Heavy Mental Music” playing over the theme park loudspeakers. Evening Magazine and other news outlets spotlighted the record. It was submitted to the Grammy Awards. Publicity was heating up, and Petri started negotiating with Johnny Carson’s producers for a slot on The Tonight Show.
Then the center’s director, Rae Pivonka, called Petri into her office.
“I’ve never told anybody this, ever,” he says, shifting in his chair. “She accused me of using these people for my own personal gain. It broke my heart.” She told Petri he’d pushed the program on company time, had used the company facility and that she wanted him to stop promoting Heavy Mental Music and give over the master tapes. “I NEVER surrender my masters,” Petri booms.”Rather than bring negativity to the clients and the integrity of the project,” he adds, “I pulled the plug that day and rounded up every single copy in the school.” In a few months, he left the Manual Skills Training Center, but sitting in his living room in Middletown 27 years later, it’s obvious he’s still saddened by the accusation.Pivonka passed away in 2006, but she was no doubt aware that any time art and the developmentally disabled converge, there’s a tricky line walked between advocacy and mockery. I could see how Heavy Mental Music could be seen by a cautious director as the latter, especially the B-side. I pull out a tape recorder, and we listen to “Tour”—Petri says he hasn’t heard it in years—and he can still point out the Skilsaw, the metronome, the typewriter, the air conditioning unit and he remembers the name of every client involved, even the ones whose voices are sped-up like chipmunks or slowed down like monsters. But was it drug-induced? Petri takes a breath. “I never record and create my music on drugs,” he declares.
Petri still has about 25 copies of ‘Heavy Mental Music’, and he’s glad to hear that there was some genuine amazement and interest around BI’s offices when I’d stopped by with a copy, providing a sort of closure with something that had always bothered him.”I’ve always wondered what Becoming Independent thought, honestly, about this in hindsight,” Petri says. “How they felt. Were they proud of it? Do they wish they had a copy? I’d be honored to take it to them, but I’ve always been hesitant to go back.”
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