Some time in the mid-90s, reputed psych mafia don Rich Haupt made first contact with the Justen O’Brien record at PDQ Records in Tuscon, Arizona. Some weeks after that road trip, Haupt finally had a listen.
Haupt writes, “The LP was a personal journey that visited the depths of loneliness and the heights of Alien abduction. I was at a loss at how to describe the music I was hearing… Loner Disco… Extraterrestrial SSW… this music was in its own non-existent category. I was hooked. I began to play it for friends… one night I had a buddy over who was a record collector and biker in the literal sense. I played the record and it took a hold of him like an inexplicable emotion. His mind was melted… it almost brought him to tears. He still tells me today that there are times when he can’t listen to the LP because of the aura that it creates and his mood has to be just right to be able to “handle” it.”
Haupt eventually located Jake, aka Mark Jacobson, the record’s drummer, who told him that O’Brien had passed away years earlier. Jake spoke of UFO sightings Justen and/or he had witnessed (see below), and the album’s legend spread from there. An lousy-sounding vinyl repress appeared in the late 90s, along with a CD in 2005 so shoddily put together that it went out with sides one and two reversed. By then clean originals were trading for $400-500.
As is often the case, there was a cult around the record with nothing more than conjecture about its meaning. It clearly had something to do with transcendence, but to date no one has published anything like a coherent analysis of the album’s sometimes confusing, sometimes inscrutable lyrics. In 2008 I decided to find Justen O’Brien. Like Haupt, I felt there was a mystery that needed solving, even if I didn’t know exactly what that mystery was.
I talked to Jake. He wasn’t a fan of the record or Justen. He claimed to have skeet shot half of the 1,000 copy run. Jake said that he was the one who had the UFO encounter, not Justen. Apparently a small spacecraft had come to rest in the sky in front of him and a buddy and seemed to be trying to communicate through its flashing lights, then followed into town like a hovering stray puppy. Everyone in town saw this, and Jake was interviewed about it by representatives from various government agencies the following day. Talking to Jake was frequently a bewildering experience.
Because of the outlaw spirit of the record, I had never imagined Justen O’Brien as the marrying kind. The one truly piece of useful information from Jake was that Jolene O’Brien (cover design) was not, as I had always assumed, Justen’s mom; she was his wife. I got Jolene on the phone and she began to fill in some details.
Justen had a tumultuous childhood and moved several times growing up. He was a gifted painter. He loved his cats Piewackett and Jenny (who raised her kittens in a TEAC tape deck shipping box). He was known as a dreamer in all the good and not-so-good senses, but people liked him and many believed in his music career. Justen was an avid cook. He was a huge fan of the Alan Parsons Project and The Eagles and Natalie Cole’s album Thankful, of all things. He was heartbroken when Elvis died. He deliberately misspelled his chosen stage name to make things more interesting. The album was his obsession; he spent two years on it and used the back cover to thank everyone for putting up with him during its creation. The pictures from this time show Justen, Jolene, and Jake as great friends above all else. When the album was completed, the three of them traveled together to the fabled Sound 80 studio in Minneapolis to do the final mix and cut the platters.
Unfortunately, it was not to last. In 1983 the marriage ended and Justen split, first to Arizona, then Hawaii, and a couple places in between. He didn’t make any other records. He lived hard and disappeared. No one from the old days had heard from him since the mid-90s and he was assumed dead.
Contrary to legend, Justen lives. Finding him was a tale unto itself. It took eight months, 400+ phone calls, and a good deal of social engineering. A wild trail starting in North Dakota wended its way all over the map and found its conclusion in a motel in Wasilla, Alaska, the town of 10,256 folks best known as home of former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin.
Today Justen works as a DJ at radio KMBQ, streaming live over the internet and taking requests. Justen exhibits none of the brooding seen on the original cover of Time Will Tell, or the searching, almost operatic glimmer heard in the voice on Time Will Tell. He resembles a jocular uncle who scandalizes the adults and delights the kids. We talked about the album, briefly. He’s a dude living for today, not one to be concerned with the past, or much interested in answering my “abstract questions.” He’s working on a second album of material written contemporaneously with the first. He’s grateful to have been found, and irritated at having been bootlegged twice, something he never knew about until I found him. (Note — the cover you see on this reissue was meant for the original and scrapped due to the extra cost of printing in four colors.)
As for Time Will Tell? It speaks for itself to a point, and its deeper qualities can only be appreciated by those with extrasensory hearing — trendhoppers need not apply. For those with ears to hear, time has proven it to be one of the five or so best private press rock records of all time, every bit the equal of the best of Justen’s many better-known influences. It’s likely that no description will ever capture the record more memorably than Patrick Lundborg did in The Acid Archives, the bible of American psychedelic music.
“The total effect us like driving around in late-night Minneapolis looking for some action, but instead ending up alone in an airport hotel lounge; a desolate 2 drink-minimum neon light trip of creeping originality.”
I asked Justen to write about the album. After many technical mishaps and long delays, he delivered a rambling set of notes via text message to Jolene. I told him that longtime fans would want to know more about the supposed alien abduction theme in the album. He wrote:
“Everyone in the seventies was either watching for aliens, or probed by aliens, or checking their watch, waiting for them to come back. I spent many nights deep in the Minnesota woods doing just that… (Sshh, was that sasquatch or aliens? Stay close to the campfire!) You just had a feeling. People like Jean Dixon were no help. Neither was Chariots of the Gods. I just got my 1-A draft card, and a snoot full of Mesh macon and Alg with the rest of the country. I was scared. My band had booked a large party in a large barn. Next, a very large herd of cows… The first song was ‘Are You Ready To Leave’. We were known for being a loud band and the first chord sent one hundred cows into orbit. They came right at us, mooing and thundering over the stage, and over kegs of beer and cars, scattering people into the cornfields. It took two airplanes, and then many cars and pickups surrounding the fields, to herd the cows back home, one by one. Who knew? Our PA and speakers and lights were ruined. Many cars were dented. We went shopping for a new PA system, and with the cops and the farmer’s son, and my bass player, we called it “even.” Later the song was finished on acoustic guitars. And so the tales of aliens.”
Dreams played a central role in the album’s genesis. Justen says he wrote ‘The Way’ in his sleep, then copied it down at the breakfast table. ‘These Moments Now’ refers to consciousness within the dream world, says Justen, “Ambrosia Moments, when you don’t want to come back. I had a near death experience before I wrote this song. The Dr. said it was very close. It gave me the real side of my spirit; not scary, but the reality of my life itself, the wonderful light in us, and the tradeoff we make to experience the world and its peoples. It’s bittersweet.”
Douglas Mcgowan, April, 2010
Special thanks to Rich Haupt, Patrick Lundborg, Jack Fleischer, and Joel Selensky.
Remastered by Jae-Soo Yi for Riverman Music
Reissue produced by Douglas Mcgowan for Yoga Records and Antoni Gorgues for Guerssen Records.
This reissue would not have been possible without the kind help of Jolene O’Brien-Evenson.
Justen O’Brien would like to dedicate this reissue to his mother, Viva O’Brien Bush, who invested her time and money into the album and has stood by him through thick and thin.