“All An act” (2005) by Wayne White. Acrylic on offset lithograph, 18x22 in. Photograph by Neil Berkeley. Courtesy of Marty Walker Gallery, Dallas
Scenes from the Chocolate Orchid Piano Bar
By Andy Zax
On the afternoon of April 9, 1987, a man stood outside the United States penitentiary in Atlanta, Georgia. He had been convicted of one count of willful failure to file an income tax return and sentenced to a year in prison. His orders from the court were to surrender himself to the institution before April 10. While an accomplice rolled videotape, the man outside the prison, who was both a literalist and something of a showman, held up the day’s newspaper and announced: “I surrender to the institution!” Since he was nowhere near the entrance of the penitentiary, where guards or wardens or doors might be found, nothing happened. He repeated the announcement again. Still nothing. Having fulfilled his instructions to the letter, the man folded up the newspaper, declared that he was leaving, and walked away into a new life as a federal fugitive. The videotape was sent to a Chattanooga television station, where it aired on the evening news. This was the last anyone saw of Tupper Saussy—under his own name, at least—for the next ten years.
The first time I tried to find Tupper Saussy was in 1994, during the late Ante-Google Age, before everyone knew everything about everybody, when I was asked to write about him for a reissue of his late ’60s chamber pop ensemble, the Neon Philharmonic. I had discovered Tupper Saussy’s music during the great vinyl glut of the late 1980s—when everyone ditched their records for CDs and the thrift stores were swollen with forgotten bits of vinyl arcana—but apart from the liner notes on his albums I knew nothing of the man himself, or what had become of him.
I phoned Acuff-Rose, the Nashville music publishing firm for whom he had once toiled as a songwriter and recording artist, and asked if they knew where he was. They didn’t. I was transferred from department to department. They made me spell his name three or four times. Several people said “I’m sorry, sir.” Was there anyone in the office, I inquired, who might have been working there in the ’60s? There was, and they put her on the line, a woman who sounded like she’d spent the last half-century with a mentholated Kool dangling from her lip.
“Tupper Saussy?” she said. There was a long pause. “He’s gone.”
Dammit, I thought. He’s dead.
“You mean he, uh . . . passed away?” I asked.
“Oh, no,” she said. “He ran off. Didn’t pay his taxes. The FBI’s lookin’ for him.”
That was my introduction to Tupper Saussy’s post-musical career.
Tupper Saussy was a great American iconoclast. In retrospect, much of his life now seems to have been given over to a refutation of the famously stupid observation that there are no second acts in American lives. It was a line with which he would have been familiar; in 1969, he had referred to its author in the title of one of his finest songs, “F. Scott Fitzgerald and William Shakespeare,” which sets a seventeen-line short story without rhymes, verses, or choruses against a backdrop of escalating symphonic melancholia. The song’s narrator, a man in midlife, weighs the prospect of a reunion, decades later, with his onetime best friend. “I don’t think I’ll call,” he finally concludes. “I think I’ll leave all that behind me.”
Tupper Saussy’s life was like that, too. A series of restless reinventions, a continuous set of decisions to light out for uncharted territories. By the time he walked away from his jail sentence in 1987, he had already walked away from his lives as a jazz prodigy, an advertising genius, a classical composer, a restaurateur, a dramatist, a polemicist, an assassin’s ghostwriter, and the Grammy-nominated creator of some of the most ornate and literary orchestral pop songs of the 1960s. The man whose albums had carried the inscription “Borges Forever!” in tribute to the author of “Pierre Menard, Author Of Don Quixote” was himself a kind of American Don Quixote, one who spent his life searching as urbanely as possible for newer, bigger windmills at which to tilt.
Frederick Tupper Saussy’s antiauthoritarian streak manifested itself at birth: “My grandfather delivered me from his daughter at home,” he wrote. “He was an M.D. When he hoisted me high to examine my parts, I peed in his face.” Classically trained on piano as a child, he threw himself into jazz as a teen. In 1957, while still in college, he studied with Oscar Peterson and John Lewis at the Lenox School of Jazz. He made a fan of Dave Brubeck. (“When I was first introduced to him,” Brubeck said, “I misunderstood his name to be Cup and Saucer.”) He seemed poised for tremendous success. And then he quit. “I think I was afraid that if I didn’t succeed, I would lose everything because I loved it so much,” he said. “I became a businessman, taking comfort in the example of Charles Ives. I liked the idea that an insurance executive could go on and become a legendary composer.”
In 1958, Tupper Saussy moved to Nashville, where he taught prep-school English and then founded an advertising agency. He swiftly developed a Don Draper-esque reputation for brilliant work. Anyone who grew up in Nashville in the early ’60s can still quote the recurring tagline—as delivered by a pugnacious cartoon cow—of a celebrated TV campaign he created for a local dairy: “Don’t pay no ’tention to kangaroos.”
David Halberstam, then working as a reporter at the Tennessean, knew Tupper during this period. Decades later, Halberstam recalled: “He came and charmed Nashville. He played the piano and married a beautiful woman. They were the golden couple. Everything seemed to be his.”
Tupper Saussy had rejected music as a career, but music provided him with one anyway. Impressed by his adman’s piano virtuosity, Monument Records founder Fred Foster signed Tupper to his label, footing the bill for three artistically formidable albums—tight, muscular sessions packed with hairpin twists, classical flourishes, and inside-out rearrangements of the music from Mary Poppins. (“I was the advertising agent for the label, but I wouldn’t play gigs or any of that kind of stuff, so it was very strange, very weird. Very Ives-ish.”) Tupper had moved to Belle Meade—Nashville’s answer to Beverly Hills—where the president of the Junior League used her clout to get him a series of commissions from the Nashville Symphony. He played on some Chet Atkins albums, wrote tunes for Al Hirt, and arranged strings for Mickey Newbury.
Pop music was not Tupper Saussy’s first language, but once he became intrigued by it, he learned to speak it fluently, albeit with an accent. Watching Leonard Bernstein defending the Beatles on television was a turning point. “Lennon and McCartney liberated me,” Saussy said. “They just single-handedly turned me into a guy that wasn’t afraid to write lyrics.” Even so, he admitted, “it was really George Martin that I liked even more than the Beatles.”
Tupper’s first attempt at pop songwriting was tentative, a “Penny Lane”-ish tune (“The Earl of Stilton Square”) that he wrote and arranged for his neighbor Ray Stevens, but a chance encounter with a bogus mentalist named David Hoy—who claimed he could predict the future—pushed him into more ambitious territory. Tupper had the idea that a song featuring Hoy reciting his predictions could become a novelty smash, so he went ahead and wrote one. Released as a single credited to a nonexistent group called the Wayward Bus, and sporting a picture sleeve drawn by Mad Magazine’s Jack Davis, “The Prophet” is one of the great unsung 45s of the psychedelic era. Powered by a spindly-sounding electric harpsichord that Tupper used extensively during the next few years, it features Hoy declaiming bombastic visions of the future (“I prophesy a pair of Hollywood stars will die by violence in April or May”) over music that sounds like a cross between Igor Stravinsky, “Eleanor Rigby,” and the Addams Family theme.
In 1968, Tupper quit the advertising business and signed a songwriting deal with Acuff-Rose. It was an odd match: the firm had a massive share of the country music market, but it had nothing at all like a Tupper Saussy. At Acuff-Rose he found an ally in producer Don Gant, with whom he joined forces to create the most audacious single of Roy Orbison’s career: “Southbound Jericho Parkway,” a seven-minute mini-opera (in five parts) about a bummed-out middle-aged man who commits suicide by driving his car into a wall. Needless to say, it was not a hit, but Gant went on to become the vocalist for the new baroque-pop project that Tupper was dreaming up.
The Neon Philharmonic was Tupper Saussy’s attempt to cram everything he’d ever loved about music, regardless of genre, into a new kind of pop. Jump-cutting between styles with fizzy abandon, its songs were garnished with a small chamber orchestra, Tupper’s fuzzed-up electric harpsichord, the Nashville equivalent of the Tijuana Brass, assorted choirs, and the same rock & roll rhythm section that had backed Bob Dylan on Blonde On Blonde—often playing at the same time. The 1960s had been defined in large measure by songs of innocence, but Tupper’s Neon Philharmonic songs were about experience. Rather than flower-power euphoria, they were charged with grown-up emotions—regret, loss, outrage, despair, nostalgia—and an autumnal, September-of-my-years feeling that time was running out. The songs referenced Bach, Beethoven, and Barbara Walters; nodded to Tom Wolfe and Tolkien; borrowed phrases from a box of crayons. There were ballads, boleros, saloon songs, pirate oratorios, and a “rococo protest” epic about the firebombing of Dresden. In short: there had never been anything like this.
Released in early 1969, the first Neon Philharmonic album, The Moth Confesses, was subtitled “a phonograph opera.” It came out two months before the Who’s better-known rock opera of the same year, and spawned an improbable Top 20 hit single, “Morning Girl,” in which an older man attempts, over breakfast, to tell the young woman he’s just deflowered to eat her Cheerios and go away. “There’s a certain cruelty there, a certain heartlessness,” he later admitted. (In 1977, Shaun Cassidy had a hit with it, too.)
“Morning Girl” and The Moth Confesses should have established Tupper as a rival to Burt Bacharach, Jimmy Webb, and Van Dyke Parks, but the follow-up single (the ominously titled “No One Is Going to Hurt You”) and album both tanked, despite boasting from Warner Bros. that “we’ve sicked our publicity flacks on the project, so America’ll soon know that Tupper Saussy is not the name of a sticky fish dish.”
As his moment in the spotlight faded away, Tupper Saussy diversified. In 1972 he opened the Ritz Café, which brought serious French cuisine to Nashville for the first time. He was still nominally part of the music business: there were lucrative offers from advertising agencies—jingles for Hardee’s with Mama Cass, a Florida orange juice campaign with Anita Bryant—and song placements for Perry Como, Brenda Lee, and others. Increasingly, though, his attentions lay elsewhere. He ran the Ritz Café on a purely cash basis, and he kept no books. When the Internal Revenue Service inevitably turned up, the results were uncomfortable and expensive.
Most people, confronted with a substantial bill for back taxes and penalties, would pay up and move on. But Tupper Saussy was not most people. He didn’t move on. Instead, he threw himself into an intensive study of the history of currency and taxation in America. He came to the conclusion—based on a strict reading of Article 1 Section 10 of the Constitution—that the monetary system of the United States was a kind of fiction: it was like Wile E. Coyote suspended in mid-air, protected from the forces of gravity only because no one had yet bothered to look down and perceive that there was nothing there. He began sending out a newsletter, making speeches and organizing symposia, and became a pivotal figure in a burgeoning income tax resistance movement. (He disliked being called a “tax protestor,” opting for “Bill Of Rights advocate” instead.) As his son Haun recalls, “He really did think that a few thousand like-minded people and he were going to bring the Federal Reserve to its knees.”
In 1980, Tupper consolidated his arguments into a book, The Miracle on Main Street: Saving Yourself and America from Financial Ruin. It was a compelling polemic—dramatic, easy to understand, persuasive to people already inclined to be persuaded—and it sold more than 50,000 copies. It was also a one-sided text that selectively omitted crucial data; there is not a single mention of a well-known 1884 Supreme Court decision that renders the book’s entire thesis null and void. Haun Saussy: “He didn’t have that lawyer’s instinct to build up the opposing case as well as you can so that you can demolish it.”
The IRS is an organization not traditionally known for engaging in high-spirited debates over its right to exist. It went after Tupper Saussy for nonpayment of taxes. During a lengthy battle in Federal court in which Tupper acted as his own attorney, the judge assigned to the case told him: “you’re so intelligent that it hurts you.”
Part of the reason Tupper skipped out on his jail sentence had to do with his other activities at the time. From behind bars, James Earl Ray, the convicted assassin of Martin Luther King, had read of Tupper’s exploits and wrote to him requesting his aid. After researching the case, Tupper concluded that Ray had been framed by a government cabal, so he ghostwrote Ray’s autobiography in an attempt to exonerate him. He corresponded with Jim Garrison, the JFK conspiracy theorist, who told him: “The intelligence community, which murdered Martin Luther King, is not above taking desperate measures to prevent the truth from surfacing.” Fearing that being incarcerated might make it easier for him to become the victim of some of those desperate measures, Tupper, as he later put it, “went into seclusion.”
His decade on the lam was spent quietly. “It was not the miserable existence one’s imagination is prone to depict,” he later told a reporter. “If you had walked through Rainier Center Mall in Seattle’s downtown during the summer of 1988, you’d have seen me playing Bach’s Goldberg Variations on the Steinway grand that sits in the atrium.” Aided by an underground railroad of fellow tax protestors, he moved around the country, achieving folk-hero/martyr status in fringe circles.
By 1997, a man named Colin Schaeffer had been living unobtrusively in Los Angeles for several years. He was the sort of kangaroo no one paid attention to. Colin Schaeffer had a driver’s license and a social security card—and also a clerical collar, which he wore when he traveled. He’d learned that no one in an airport ever bothers a priest. One day, Colin Schaeffer walked out of his home, got into his car, and was surrounded by federal marshals demanding to know if he was Tupper Saussy. “That name,” he later remarked, “had not been uttered for ten years.” Tupper Saussy had been gone. But suddenly he was back.
Tupper served twenty months in prison. After his release in 1999, his activities were varied. He wrote plays. He painted an extensive series of watercolors depicting brown-paper bags. He chased crop circles. He made a film linking sugar consumption with cancer. And he wrote and published Rulers of Evil, an elaborate historical study positing that most of what we think of as American history is the product of a Jesuit conspiracy.
The second time I tried to find Tupper Saussy was in 2002, after a decade of pestering record company executives to let me assemble a complete anthology of his Neon Philharmonic recordings had finally paid off. I phoned him at his home in Santa Monica and left a message. I was nervous about it because by that time I’d read his books. I knew that I wanted to meet Tupper the musician, but I wasn’t sure if I wanted to meet Tupper the Bill of Rights advocate. Thirty seconds later, he rang back and invited me over. I went to see him the following day. He handed me a mug of yerba maté mixed with heavy cream and stevia—his daytime beverage of choice—and we began to talk.
Two unexpected things happened as a result of that meeting. The first was that Tupper and I became friends, despite the fact that we agreed about very little apart from music and food. The second was that he became excited about music again. Tupper hadn’t thought about his old records in a long time; he assumed that since they hadn’t sold well, they must not have been very good. He was surprised to learn that there was at least one person in the world—me—who felt differently. That was all it took to encourage him to make some more. He began writing songs again and moved back to Belle Meade.
Warren Pash—a songwriter and producer best known for Hall & Oates’ “Private Eyes”—was another person who’d had a thrift-store epiphany after stumbling upon a copy of “Morning Girl.” With his help, Tupper recorded his first album in thirty-seven years. The Chocolate Orchid Piano Bar was conceived as a set of almost-standards performed in an almost-nightclub of the imagination. It consists entirely of Tupper’s piano playing and—for the first time—his vocals. Less ornate than his previous work, the songs have a kind of ramshackle grace that a younger Tupper might not have allowed himself. He previewed the material at a series of triumphant gigs in 2006. For the first time in decades, people were talking excitedly about his music instead of his politics. There were plans for a tour. In London, the Times published an enthusiastic reappraisal of his work. “Edith Piaf meets the Grateful Dead,” the Wall Street Journal opined. But on March 16, 2007, a week before what was supposed to be his record release party, Tupper Saussy died of a heart attack in his apartment on Belle Meade Boulevard. He was seventy years old. The world is a far less interesting place without him.
That’s not quite the end of the story. While Tupper had publicly sworn off anti-tax activism, in private he was still thinking about how to win over hearts and minds. When Wesley Snipes was charged with tax evasion, Tupper had a “Eureka!” moment: At last! The new face of the movement had arrived! His final work, completed days before he died, was “Mistaken Identity,” an anonymously posted eighteen-minute web video in which a Justice Department lawyer and his tax attorney father—both of them voiced by Tupper in a triumph of Altman-esque overlapping dialogue—argue the merits of the case against Snipes. (You can probably guess which side wins.)
At the time of his death, Tupper Saussy had not filed a tax return since his release from prison eight years earlier.
Enjoy this story? Subscribe to the Oxford American.