"You see that guy?" people would ask me every few years in various bar settings where Chris Gaffney played, and they'd be pointing at a lanky, silver-haired man in the crowd who had the look of a mad mechanical genius. Then the pointer would say, "Yeah, that guy. He's supposed to be some mad mechanical genius." Once in a great while, the guy would get onstage with Gaffney and play strange music on a lanky, silver-hued plastic Casio electric sax.
There's one in every crowd, it seems. He's a recluse. He's a rich eccentric Howard Hughes type. He lives in a shoe. The rumors just keep rolling.
The real Richard Moser, however, is pretty much your average guy who designed a legendary racing engine, lines his ceiling with fast-food cartons, and records bubble noises and engine purrs.
His Four Men, 32 Angels and a Princess CD is possibly the strangest bit of plastic ever to come out of Orange County. There are tracks with lush orchestration and echoey, eerie chanting voices worthy of an experimental Gavin Bryars composition; there are tracks that sound like Beverly Hills Cop outtakes, burbling with anachronistic synths; there is an ode to fat chicks, "Love Your Size," with such lines as "I love your power/I love your grace/I love the way you take up space"; there is loopy cantina reggae; there is the jaunty, Randy Newman-like "national anthem" of Santa Ana:
We got a jail, we got a zoo,
We got a freeway, got a river, too . . .
A wonderful water tower!
In Santa Ana
A decade ago, Moser ran for mayor in the town. As you can gather by the municipal buildings' lack of Styrofoam-container ceilings, he lost. He's lived in the town for decades—in a house attached to his studio in a former antique shop on a busy, rundown avenue. The place has that hobbit-hole look of '70s studios, with strange patterns of carpet samples on the walls. Amid piles of old musical gear—an Arp synth is chained to the ceiling in one spot—are art projects: junk Styrofoam constructs or massive trombone-like metal sculptures, along with chunks of old engine blocks.
The Milwaukee-born, Atlanta-raised Moser did indeed design the legendary four-valve, overhead cam Moser racing engine, which made the cover of Hot Rod and five other racing mags when it came out in 1971. He has designed other car, boat and plane engines and even worked on a steam race-car engine for Bill Lear. ("It was pretty much an exercise in learning why steam-powered cars don't work," Moser said.)
He made an abrupt career switch in 1976, quitting engine design to build a recording studio and take crash courses in songwriting and piano.
"I planned out my life when I was 16 in high school," he said. "I decided I'd go to Georgia Tech, then into the exclusive Chrysler Institute master's program, then work for Chrysler, then come to California and get into racing, and then at 35 change careers. Except for being a year late, that's what I did."
He chose music as "a counterbalance to what I'd been doing, which was this consuming, exact work with numbers down to four decimal places, so that the finished product would produce a desired number, which would mean, for example, that the airplane would stay in the air. It got to where I never wanted to do that again, and music seemed the opposite because it's all feeling, and what works or doesn't is a mystery."
Illustration by Mark Dancey
Contrary to rumor, his genius with engines didn't make him rich, but it left him with enough to get started in music. The studio became close to self-supporting for a time, yielding songwriter demos, punk-band recordings, commercials, opera singers' audition tapes and old ladies singing children's songs.
Between these sessions, Moser and his friends would record their own material. The tapes just gathered in piles for two decades until his mathematician brother, Dave, asked him for a compilation cassette. Moser set to work culling the recordings and ended up with Four Men.In somewhat typical Moser fashion, the four men listed on the CD are actually nine men, though the chief four on the recording are himself, guitarist Danny Ott (of Gaffney's band), composer/string arranger Mike Harrison and composer/keyboardist Danny Timms. Also featured are Gaffney and the rest of his band, some 27 string players, and sundry musicians. And credited in the liner notes is a '55 small-block Chevy V-8—which, Moser found, purred in 6/8 time.
The 30-page CD booklet includes a list of pursuits that accompany certain tracks. Track 11, for example, is listed as good for cleaning miniblinds to, while track 18 is best played when "buying a bus ticket to get out of town."
As an afterthought, Moser linked the tunes as the soundtrack to a nonexistent movie, the plot of which occupies most of the booklet pages. In it, you'll read of a band called the Chrome Potatoes; of the Ottco Corp., "known for their line of dog-related products beginning with the original Pug Press and their Giant Dog Tongs"; of "Heroic Couple No. 4" making sandwiches for each other.
It's a whimsical package, given the 20 years and nearly $100,000 Moser sank into the music. When it came out in 1995, the Los Angeles Times' Mike Boehm gave it a positive review, but the paper's policy of not listing the sale price meant anyone interested in it had to write to Moser twice to get it, finally resulting in one sale to a guy who already knew him. Car and Driver reviewed it, and Moser sold 40 more copies through that.
He thought he had an in with Capitol Records, but just before the CD came out, his contacts there were canned. A prominent music-biz lawyer he knew had retired, and the one adventurous commercial station of the time had changed formats. He is still sitting on hundreds of copies of the kinda splendid, musically rambunctious CD.
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Moser has occasionally gone back to engine design to support his artistic efforts, which for the past five years have focused less on the music and more on writing a book. The result, which he titled A Book: A Story With Some Facts, got its best rejection notice earlier this year on the same day that Moser realized he was flat broke and, coincidentally, began to suffer from what turned out to be a major heart problem. Mechanical engineer that he is, when he lungs filled with liquid, he'd invert himself for a couple of hours to drain himself. Thanks to the county's Medical Services for the Indigents program, he is now a literal Captain Beefheart, with genuine bovine aftermarket parts in his ticker.
His new valve is expected to last 10 years, during which time he plans to return to music after knocking out a rewrite of his book.
"I raced cars for a while, and it seemed like you'd put in 2,000 hours of work for 10 hours of actual racing, and out of that, you might get 10 minutes that made it all worthwhile—30 seconds here or a minute there when you're totally alive, usually when you're in the middle of a crash," he said. "It's those moments that are indelibly burned into my 60 years of life. That's what I also sometimes find in music, this mystical moment, and there's a lot less wear and tear."
You can get your very own copy ofFour Men, 32 Angels and a Princess by sending $12 to Moser Sound Productions, P.O. Box 6202, Santa Ana, CA 92706. Tell 'em the LA Times sent you.