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Saturday, March 3, 2007 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Jester of jazz guerrilla theater will be missed

Seattle Times jazz critic

The last time I saw Charlie Gocher we were in line at Sea-Tac in December, waiting for a plane. Charlie and his trio, Sun City Girls, were on their way to an avant-rock festival in Somerset, England.

"Remember when I called you about that Coltrane thing?" he asked.

Indeed, I did. On the 30th anniversary of John Coltrane's death, July 17, 1996, Charlie arranged to have Coltrane's "Live in Seattle" recording played at an Indian restaurant on First Avenue, the site where the famous album was recorded, at the old Penthouse jazz club in Pioneer Square. The customers were a bit confused, but no one complained.

That was the kind of eccentric theater Gocher (pronounced Go-shay) was notorious for.

Charlie died Feb. 19, of cancer. He was 54. Hardly anyone except his band mates, brothers Rick and Alan Bishop, knew he was sick.

"We performed in January in Berlin," says Alan. "We knew it was his last show."

Gocher grew up in Glendale, Calif., and Yuma, Ariz., played drums in high school then apparently turned his back on his past. He and the Bishops — Alan, bass; Rick, guitar — joined forces as Sun City Girls in 1982, in Phoenix. The name was a joke they decided to stick with after a Los Angeles paper wrote them up that way. The band grew out of a confrontational punk scene but was more about avant-garde jazz, world music and guerrilla theater.

A friend and fan from Phoenix days, Francine Ruley (a Times desk editor), recalls, "Charlie put Alka-Seltzer tablets in his mouth with green food coloring and chugged water, foam dripping all over the stage. Sometimes they'd throw 'gifts' at the audience. Some were good! One was a necklace I wore for years."

The band once walked into a New Orleans radio station and told the student DJ they were William Burroughs, Alfred Hitchcock and Henry Kissinger and demanded an interview.

In Seattle, where they settled in 1993, the band gave a decidedly demonic performance one night at Moe (now Neumos) involving masks and spooky electronics. Their influence, says Alan, was less the high avant-garde of Dada and Fluxus than a "curiosity about odd, ritualistic, ceremonial behavior from around the world."

The band traveled a lot and often played in Europe. At a 2004 Bumbershoot show, the trio taunted the audience.

Sun City Girls recorded prolifically but in small quantities. Many of their albums are rare, though some can be bought online (www.suncitygirls.com).

The band's fugitive opus, restless esthetic and music-as-critique were reminiscent of avant-garde band leader Sun Ra, says their longtime engineer, Scott Colburn.

"I've always thought of Sun City Girls as the ultimate culture filter," he says. "They pulled pieces from all kinds of musical strains, then spit it back out. It was like a spray of bullets."

Sun City Girls is finished as a band, but the Bishop brothers will continue to perform. A public memorial for Gocher will be held in Seattle later this spring.

Paul de Barros: 206-464-3247 or pdebarros@seattletimes.com

Copyright © The Seattle Times Company

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