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Zilch Fletcher’s 1970s novelty folk album finds new life in digital era

 "Nobody's Dreamboat," the 1977 psych-folk album released by John Martin, left, as Zilch Fletcher, gained national notoriety with support from Barry Hansen, best known as novelty deejay Dr. Demento.
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"Nobody's Dreamboat," the 1977 psych-folk album released by John Martin, left, as Zilch Fletcher, gained national notoriety with support from Barry Hansen, best known as novelty deejay Dr. Demento.

In the late 1970s, Medina musician John Martin recorded an album called “Nobody’s Dreamboat,” a collection of 14 psychedelic folk songs partly inspired by science-fiction films. They had titles like “The Ballad of Bloody Guts” and “Armpit Farts,” which fit with the mysterious musical alias he used: Zilch Fletcher.

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The initial release of “Nobody’s Dreamboat” was limited to 1,000 records, but certain songs found national airplay on the syndicated radio program of popular novelty DJ Barry “Dr. Demento” Hansen. His spins made Zilch Fletcher a name to remember among loyal listeners.

“I have a split personality,” the 76-year-old Martin says with a laugh about his pseudonym.

Decades later, the moldy, damaged master tape of “Nobody’s Dreamboat” sat dormant in Martin’s attic in Medina. But last winter, his daughter Katy finally dug it out and decided the time was right for “Bloody Guts” to go digital.

 The Zilch Fletcher tape prior to restoration.
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The Zilch Fletcher tape prior to restoration.

“I just realized, I need to do this now,” Katy says. “The people who know Zilch — the quirkiness of it and the obscurity of it — there's a strong audience there. And because it hasn't been online, I just feel like there are more people, new generations, potential new audiences. I think it's worth preserving the history.”

Nearly a year later, “Nobody’s Dreamboat” is available to stream on Spotify, Apple Music, and Amazon Music. On Dec. 17 at Lovin’ Cup, Zilch Fletcher himself will be there to celebrate that digitization and hear area musicians — including his daughter’s band, The Local Hang-Ups — breathe new life into his 1977 songs. It’s a fitting resurrection for an album that boasts tales of coffin theft, mole men, and mistaken identity, all of which come back to life with a remastered sheen.

 John Martin's daughter, Katy Martin, was instrumental in getting "Nobody's Dreamboat" digitally restored and putting the influential novelty album online.
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John Martin's daughter, Katy Martin, was instrumental in getting "Nobody's Dreamboat" digitally restored and putting the influential novelty album online.

Even by the time he recorded “Nobody’s Dreamboat,” Martin had lived a storied itinerant musician’s life. The early ’70s found him gigging with his band Sarofeen and Smoke before heading down to Tennessee on a friend’s advice.

There, he took on the name Zilch Fletcher, opened for Townes Van Zandt and Marshall Chapman, and recorded songs with country star Ray Stevens. “When I first got to Nashville, I just wanted to be quiet about my real name,” Martin says. “I just wanted to be a mystery.”

Dr. Demento gave that mystery a boost. In July 1977, he invited Martin to perform live on his show from California; Zilch Fletcher picked up his guitar and sang “The Ballad of Bloody Guts” and two other tunes, sending his sounds across the country. Zilch’s songs remained favorites on Dr. Demento’s program, even reaching a young "Weird Al" Yankovic, whom Martin later met at a Dr. Demento party. “He remembered listening to me before he made his first deal,” Martin says.

 Matthew D. Guarnere.
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Matthew D. Guarnere.

In the intervening decades, Zilch Fletcher’s music had largely become a collector’s curio. Katy Martin’s rediscovery of the master tape spurred her to salvage it, so she called around in Rochester, where she lives.

When she rang Bop Shop Records, she got in touch with Matthew D. Guarnere, a local archivist who specializes in digital restoration. He had seen the record come through the store but hadn’t heard it. Katy brought him the tape, and Guarnere, though excited to dig in, saw he had his work cut out for him.

“It had things growing on it,” he says. “There was a question as to whether or not the tape would even play. I've had tapes in pretty awful shape, but this one was exceptionally rough in appearance.”

 The restored tape containing "Nobody's Dreamboat" by Zilch Fletcher.
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The restored tape containing "Nobody's Dreamboat" by Zilch Fletcher.

What followed was about a week’s worth of special restoration processes: a warm-air tank to clear out the mold, dehydrating the tape, and correcting major audio issues. Katy received regular status updates. “I was laughing because it looked like a sci-fi movie [with] the different machines,” she says.

With Guarnere’s diligent work — including pulling restored bits from the original vinyl to fill in the tape’s missing pieces — “Nobody’s Dreamboat” has been remastered and digitized. At Lovin’ Cup, his work continues: He’ll cover “Bloody Guts” in tribute to the man who wrote it, further connecting the thread from past to present.

“That's what's so great about Zilch Fletcher — he still walks the earth,” Guarnere says. And his message, he adds, remains universal: “At the end of the day, the bottom line is we all are a bunch of bloody guts.”

Matt Guarnere, The Local Hang-Ups, Bunch of Bloody Guts, and the "A" Blues Band perform songs from "Nobody's Dreamboat" as part of the album's digital release party on Friday, Dec. 17, from 6 to 9 p.m., at Lovin' Cup, 300 Park Point Dr., Rochester. Free. 585-292-9940. lovincup.com; facebook.com/zilchfletcher.
Copyright 2021 WXXI News. To see more, visit WXXI News.