Thanks to Jerry Kranitz for hosting this article by OP Magazine writer Robin James, who was also the creator of the Cassette Mythos project in the 1980s.
Click on the tape covers below to go to the discography page for that album on
Eugene Chadbourne's website.
A few months ago I agreed to host the sizable collection of cassette tapes that Robin James could no longer store himself. Like a kid in a candy shop I spent the following weeks pouring through the treasure trove of globe spanning goodies from the 1980s-90s.
One of the last boxes turned out to be dominated by an enormous number of Eugene Chadbourne homemade cassettes from the 1980s. I was so bowled over that I emailed Robin with the Subject line: "Chadbourne MANIA!!"
Which led to the following article by Robin...
Eugene Chadbourne, The Guitar Wildman
by Robin James
At KAOS, the radio station where I was doing some volunteer work in the early 1980s, an album arrived, entitled There'll Be No Tears Tonight. It has a very strange album cover, a black and white sort of a collage, it looks very inexpensive to produce which becomes a never ending tale in itself. The cover is a photograph showing a pudgy grinning young man wearing glasses, holding a guitar and sitting on his bed, and there are various collage elements randomly scattered about. This guy pioneered a whole huge revolution in self production.
He started as a child prodigy, turning on his fans by being an adorable child with a monster in his hands, the guitar towers over what you think you see. He is fast and thrillingly sloppy but you can usually recognize what he is imitating from real life hits, if you can't recognize it, it must be original sound art. He would appear to be a young common garden variety boring normal lumpy looser with a sloppy grin and Clark Kent glasses. No, not Clark Kent, more like an anthropomorphic toad from The Wind in the Willows, wearing round spectacles. The main thing is that he just takes that guitar and tears it up, he does things that nobody should ever do. That is a guitar wildman. Besides the usual strings and fingers thing there is percussive squeaking made by his nervous sweaty hands on the back of the guitar, there is slapping and whacking the top of the guitar, there is bashing the neck and twisting the head. Twisting the tuning pegs and spazzing out on the pickguard, sliding various objects up and down the strings. Sticking things in the strings or pushing various small objects into the f-holes for added percussion
But why stop at the guitar? Take that humbucker out of the guitar and duct tape it to various unlikely household objects, the birdcage, which can also be worn on your head. The electric plunger. How far can this go? The Rake. Let that sit in your mind for a minute. You can't get Freddy Krueger's hand with its deadly steel fingers, but you can get a garden rake with its rattling tines, it’s right there in the garage, waiting innocently for autumn or spring cleaning. Under the Eugene Chadbourne influence that sleeping garden tool comes to life and threatens the entire planet.
Perhaps the most disturbing road tale was of the electric dog skull, which seemed to have a powerful hold on Kramer. They would keep it in canvas and secured in an old cooler, you can hear more about this strange musical instrument in their own words in the song "The Secret of the Cooler." This next part I am going to tell you here is not on any song that I know of. The last time the old dog skull was seen was during a tour in New York City. The gear was locked in the van overnight, in the morning the van's window glass was found broken, the cooler had been tossed around and the skull was missing. The glass was found not on the inside of the van indicating that someone broke in and went into the van after it, but on the outside, lying on the street. It broke itself out.
Norm has always been a big fan of music but certainly not a professional wheeler-dealer. He did come upon the same album in the radio station library, and was gobsmacked. Somehow he heard that Eugene was now touring with a new band, Shockabilly, and he had to do something. But what? He is more of a madrigal and hurdy-gurdy type fellow, specializing in recorders and lutes and what elite classical music fans at the radio station call "Early Music," so what was he doing at the 4th Ave Tav? Because of Norm, Shockabilly first played in Olympia at the Tav. And because the band needed someplace to spend the night, they came to our house (Norm said that he had no room at his place, so he asked us to put them up, a house of five or six college students), so they slept in the living room on the floor.
I was up in my room where I had spent the entire evening pondering my place in the variances of the universe, from deep within a tasty cloud. They came in from the show, gear safely locked in the van with the windows intact, and the team of Eugene, Kramer and Licht were eagerly seeking a place to crash. I had my light off hoping that nobody would notice me, but somehow from the darkness of the stairwell I hear the voice of Eugene Chadbourne calling out, asking for me by name. "Robin James, come out. Robin James, come down here." Me? Why would a visiting superhero of strange music with actual albums in the radio station library ask for me? Now I know it was really all about the tasty cloud, but at the time I was lead to believe that he really cared about me and wanted to explain that a few bar fights were no big deal, people often fight when he plays, and I had nothing to fear so come on down and meet the band and oh yeah, bring some of that you-know-what so they can properly relax after a hard day's night.
That is how it began. In the years to come I made a tradition of making them pancakes with strawberries for breakfast, and still they would return for more.
Eugene wrote a song about me, commemorating the time we all went out to dinner after a show. "Robin James yer gonna die, for taking me to the Rib Eye." I still get emotional about that one.
We did a radio interview, me interviewing the great one. I had no idea of what to ask him as I was, well, to be fair, we both were pretty far gone on the tasty cloud. He knew what to do, he started shrieking in his "Wife of Jesse Helms" voice (her name was Dorothy Helms, God rest her soul) which completely put me over the edge and strangled any possible hope for my part of the clever banter and live broadcast dialog we were there to accomplish. That was an interview that will live on far after I am forgotten. You are reading this, so it is mostly completely true.
Shockabilly came to the Op conference in 1984, the conference was promoted as a melding of international independent music culture type folks, where mingling musicians would talk shop and in the evenings entertain each other for free (they paid to get into the conference, but we did charge the public to come to these evening shows), just to make it democratic and fair and square it was promoted as an act of pure love, nobody performing would get paid. We had to pay something like $25 for gas and whatnot to get Shockabilly to come and play after their Seattle performance, the funds of which was taken from the conference's evening concert door ticket sales. I got yelled at for that one but the crowd loved it, mostly. Around midnight the tenant in the adjacent apartment above the stage who was trying to get some sleep before an early morning work shift came down for the fifth time to reason with us, and said in an outdoor voice that he had already called the police, so please pack up and get the hell out so he can get started with his sleeping. I gently broke it to the Shockabilly as they took the stage that the police were coming and please don't let anybody get hurt. That added lots of atmosphere to their perspective that night. They loved it! The police never came during the performance or while the band was in the house, but the band kept a secret watch out. The audience had no idea of the pending bloodbath when the SWAT team would take the house and kill everyone, but we few knew.
It was at that show that Eugene introduced his new Batman-influenced concept, Rakeman, using his improvised electric deflowered garden Frankenstein crowd pleaser/sonic torture device. Some of the women in the audience thought he was saying Rape Man. That was awkward.
There was the time I had Chad booked in the fabulous Rainbow in Olympia, and as we were finishing our dinner just before showtime he asked me what kind of equipment there was at the venue. It was at that moment that I realized there was no amplifier and it was my job to get one. So I somehow got something together from a guy who looked like someone I knew who I saw on the street, he was carrying an amp, a Fender Reverb, and I somehow talked him into letting us use it for the show. I had to find some cables to connect some things together, but it worked well enough for a guitar wildman.
The crescendo performance of my career as an amateur musical booking agent was "People Want Everything" a performance that invited local musicians to bring their stuff and join in. On the same spot that very night Dr. Chadbourne whipped up a libretto based on the musician roster, plus a score that was distributed to the participating musicians present, if you want to call it a score. It was more of a very crude map than a traditional music paper type staff with notes and all that formal stuff, it appeared to be a bunch of stick figures and arrows, with drawings of the instruments to be featured at any given moment as the performance progressed. A famous local jazz singer sang the libretto (thanks Connie Bunyer!). There were congas and fiddles and DJs with turntables for scratching, and a string quartet (a real one, they later became locally famous for their classical concertos) there were jazz musicians and folk musicians and rock musicians and flutes and tambourines and tangerines and flying zebras.
The night before in that venue was a poorly attended performance of Fecal Matter, where the trio otherwise known as Nirvana (before Dave Grohl and the fame) performed giggling and wrapped in plastic, lying doggo right there on the very same stage floor. I knew this would be a hot one-of-a-kind once-in-a-lifetime type of a musical... no, a Cultural Experience, so I borrowed a fancy half-track recorder for the event. For those who do not know or would otherwise not have any chance of remembering, a half-track is different from a common quarter track recorder, which was at the time the most popular reel to reel tape recorder available for fancy looking low-budget consumer use. A half track is a professional recording device used to create master mixes in a big pants non-amateur recording studio. These devices are quite expensive. With a quarter track for efficiency you can record a spool of stereo signal, flip it over and go again, getting so much more out of your tape investment. That was not my intention, I was looking for the half track super double quality and was looking forward to using a razor blade and splicing tape to create the most incredible audio document of the event, for all of eternity to marvel at. My place in history was now secured because of this plan. If you have a quarter track recording the sound goes both ways on the spool and there is no way to cut the tape because you would lose the recorded signal on the reverse tracks. I was not able to operate the half track because I was busy managing the event. A half track tape recorder operates exactly like a quarter track, but you would never flip it over because that would be foolish, it would ruin both recordings. I keep harping on the "never flip it over" part for a reason, you can probably guess why. After the show my friend proudly showed me how he saved me a fortune in spite of my detailed specific instructions, because he did not need to use the second or third reel of tape I provided him to use when the first spool was finished recording.
That was my last time producing a performance, but my story goes on. I saw Dr. Chadbourne playing at the Magic Stick in Detroit, a pool hall with a sound stage at one end. This was later in his career, when he started showing his latest crown of wizened white hair, and instead of winging it as he usually does, this time he had music stands set up so he would not flub any of the lyrics. He played and sang magnificently of course.
One of his contributions to cassette culture was his innovative way of using his own household trash in his packaging. The envelopes that his utility bills come in, for example, turn up as paper cassette covers, with photocopied titles and strange crude artwork plastered on the outside. He has a special label name exclusively for his cassette-only releases, Parachute Recordings. One of his strangest items available for sale to the general public was in the form of a gigantic joint, almost three feet long. It was just his trash cleverly rolled into the classic pre-roll form with pointy tamped ends, smoking it would obviously be fatal as it’s all paper from the trash, not hash for the bash.
Quality is never an issue, it’s all about quantity. To Eugene it’s more important to get that product out and start on the next one rather than agonizing over production details and proper remastering and all that nonsense. He was able to record an evening's performance and have a supply of fully packaged releases with artwork and playlist, housed in his special covers, ready for sale to fans by that same night's dawn.
Looking at his discography on Discogs.com he has over 348 CD type releases credited to his name, this includes collaborations, solo works, contributions to anthologies, and so forth, a busy guy. I personally collected 57 Parachute releases, but he never gave me any cassettes for free until that performance in Detroit where he did give me one (the first one as Camper Van Chadbourne which features "Evil Filthy Preacher" one of my faves in his Country-Protest ou-ver-ah), I had to buy all the rest and they were expensive. I wonder if I can get any consideration? Not the right kind of consideration, I fear.
GREAT article/memoir Robin! This will enhance the listening experience as I work my way through these tapes!
I lived in Greensboro, NC and saw Mr. Chadbourne perform a few times. I never realized until I moved away what a great treasure he was.
And IS, I realized my comment sounded like he had passed.
great article--I know more about Dr. Chadbourne now than ever before... and in the small world department, holy shite, his version of "Honey Don't". That became one of my regular numbers in live Walls Of Genius performances. If we had known of Chadbourne at the time, you could have claimed an influence. Something must have been in the air. On top of that... he is accompanied by bassist Tom Cora. I remember running into him in Charlottesville in the 70s, when I was a college student struggling to learn HOW to play the bass. At the time, I was in a prog-rock band, Tom Cora knew one of my room-mates and the contempt I felt was palpable. Okay, so I wasn't as cool as Tom and HIS scene, whatever that was at the time. Small small world...
C. Goff III
Unique artist for sure... always good to hear stories about Sir Chadbourne. Thanks for sharing, Jerry. Regarding the fast produced, "very expensive" cassettes of his, what I witnessed at the various shows of his that I attended personally was some truly unique PACKAGING for his recordings. The varieties of containers and the decor that ornamnented them were truly eye-catching. Also impressive were the various implements and preparations the man used to coax sounds from his guitar. Unique artist for sure...
Great article Robin and many thanks Jerry for sharing!! I have seen Shockabilly numerous times, We back in the day Viktimized Karcass played a gig with Chuck & Eugene. I remember he wore a bird cage on his head during some of his performance. They also crashed at my house following the show.
Thank you very much for this amazing essayl and its images!
I had a great time reading!
I have unopened copies of Chicken on the Way and one I don't see even on Chadbourne's own site: Live at the Occult Bookshop. I bought them from him in KCMO. Do you need them, or images of them? Does he?
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Jerry Kranitz published Aural Innovations: The Global Source For Space Rock Exploration from 1998-2016. AI started as a printed zine (nine issues from 1998-2000) and then went online for the duration. The web site also included regularly broadcast editions of Aural Innovations Space Rock Radio.