Why Don’t I Listen to New Music?
by Evan Cantor
Why don’t I listen to new music? It’s not like I don’t hear it. I hear it all the time, on television, in movies, out-and-about, at friends’ houses. And I must admit, a lot of it sounds damn good. But am I really listening to what I hear or is it just “Muzak” to my ears? Even when I hear a new song that I like, I don’t have the same enthusiastic responses I exhibited in earlier phases of my life. The last time I remember hearing music in a public place that piqued my interest and caused me to prick up my ears was many years ago. When I asked, for the third time, “who was that?”, it turned out to be Nirvana. I’m not talking about the variety of underground sounds that you might hear via Electronic Cottage. I’m talking about the mainstream music culture, which all of us over a certain age happily grew up with in the 1960s and 70s, a culture that, to a certain extent, still exists today. So, for me, questions remain. Was it a golden age of pop music? Is my generation (the baby-boomers) prejudiced, self-absorbed and self-important? Is it a psychiatric phenomenon? Does today’s music really suck? Is celebrity culture out of control? I’m not surprised that my lack of interest in new music may be related to all of these things.
Let’s start with psychology, as it seems to reflect my own experience most accurately. Some research studies indicate that people develop individual tastes in their youth and carry them through the rest of their lives. So the crowd that jitterbugged to Glenn Miller may have objected to Elvis, Sinatra fans certainly recoiled at the Beatles and hippies dissed Disco while twirling to the Grateful Dead. Certainly adolescence is an important time in developing one’s character. Neurological research indicates that while the emotional centers in the brain are well-developed by adolescence, the rational centers are not. Reason matures in the brain around age 30, which accounts for the extreme behavior of teenagers, from bullying and heart-break to suicide. So when it comes to music culture, the adolescent is absorbing all kinds of wonderful new things in a highly emotionally charged state, as is the young adult, having no real experience or attachment to the past. There is a kind of imprinting upon the brain that has consequences for the remainder of a life.
University of Rochester Medical Center
Perhaps at some point in such a life, one has heard all the new music one’s brain can possibly absorb and a mental ‘canon’ is established (as opposed to a ‘mental cannon’). At this point, new music presented to the brain is absorbed via a postmodern relativistic process. The brain attempts to categorize something into areas with which the listener is already familiar and understands. While this idea reflects my own experience and may be the case for many, it is certainly not the case all across the board. I know a lot of folks my age (60+) who are, like me, focused and obsessed with the music of their past, and by extension our own youth, but I also know an equal number who quite enthusiastically listen to new music.
As a concept, however, rejection of new things has historical precedents. For instance, Mahler was rejected by fin de siècle (19th century) Vienna. Shakespeare was not considered “classic” until well after his own time. How about the Impressionist painters? A lot of new stuff goes unappreciated by the establishment. Which is one of the reasons so many of us were motivated by Rock music in the 60s. It pisses off the parents? Good! I’m not a parent, but a lot of my friends are and I can attest that we’re not all entirely happy about the music our children embrace in 2018. As Brett Kavanaugh so toxically reminded us, ‘what goes around, comes around’. He may as well have said ‘the more things change, the more they stay the same’. Today’s kids have found musical forms to which ‘we’, the geezers, now object. If my parents’ generation found 60s pop music to be excessively and overtly sexual, how would they respond to today’s hip-hop? As an adolescent, I thought the sexualized world of the 60s was exciting. I was myself awash with hormones and desired that action myself. But really, did I know what Eric Carmen was singing about when he asked us to “go all the way”? No—primarily it was the sound of the music that I liked. Who knew what Mick Jagger was singing about as he drawled his way through all kinds of salacious material. “Brown Sugar” was about sex with slaves? It took me years before I got that. Thanks to developments in recording technology, lyrics can be understood quite clearly, if so desired, in 2018. As sex is timeless, “Let’s Do It” has become “Let’s Fuck”. I might not like it or think it particularly elegant or romantic, but I didn’t grow up in this culture, so I can’t condemn it out of hand.
Joe S. Harrington in his book “Sonic Cool: The Life And Death Of Rock’n’Roll” puts forth a corollary to these notions. His primary thesis is that “Rock’n’Roll” is defined by its opposition to mainstream culture. Thus, Elvis was rock’n’roll in his early days, as he experimented and discovered a way to bring the enthusiasm of black rhythm’n’blues to the white audience (if indeed that was his intention). But when he became uber-popular and over-produced, he was no longer rock’n’roll because he had become the mainstream at that point. Sold out, so to speak. So it has been with various movements in fin de siècle 20th century music. Psychedelia, prog-rock, heavy metal, disco, punk, grunge, hip-hop: all of it has become mainstream. New genres have not appeared, only post-modern mash-ups of various classical influences. Harrington is talking primarily of the music of my youth, so not only did I develop my taste as an adolescent, my youth was awash with the exciting developments of these genres.
As a boy, I fondly recall my parents’ Dixieland jazz and bombastic classical records, but it was 60s rock’n’roll that brought me to the table. I was too young to be energized by the emerging Elvis or to sneak into blacks-only clubs to hear Louis Jordan’s jump blues. But the Beatles surely energized my formative years. The developments of popular music in the 60s was in itself a precursor to postmodernism, as it led many of us, myself included, to the exploration of our generation’s musical predecessors. We dug deep in cut-out bins for blues, rockabilly, rhythm’n’blues, jazz, country and bluegrass. We listened to Cab Calloway invoking us to “rock”, Louis Jordan declaim that “they were rockin’” and Hank Williams urging us to “rock it on over”. Improvisatory psychedelic music led my generation to explore experimental areas, like John Cage and Arnold Schoenberg, Philip Glass and Terry Riley. Our tastes developed on parallel lines as popular music itself grew and evolved. But was all this music really better than the music being made now, in 2018? Probably not, but it did come first. Because of its priority in the linear time-line, “classic” defines the genres. Whether or not today’s music is the equal of its classic predecessors, it cannot help but be postmodern by definition. Thus, the entire twentieth century remains a golden age not just of rock music but of modern music altogether. So, no, today’s music, postmodern as it is, doesn’t (probably) actually suck. I know full well that there are countless contemporary proponents of all these styles doing tremendous work.
But back to contemporary pop music. A lot of it certainly does seem manufactured in a revolting, overwrought, over-produced and over-the-top manner. Why do I take little notice of the Beyoncé phenomenon when I was more than happy to ingest manufactured music from Motown, Stax and the Wrecking Crew back in the 60s and 70s? Weren’t the Monkees a manufactured product, created to fill a niche in the market, an American faux-Beatles a-la-Hard Day’s Night? Of course they were, so the question remains why over-production and commercialization are sometimes obnoxious and sometimes not.
We all seek authenticity in our lives and perhaps that is the difference between well and over-produced music. David Byrne, in his book “How Music Works”, asks us why good production is viewed as ‘inauthentic’. In terms of sincerity or authenticity, production shouldn’t make any difference at all. For instance, I like Willie Nelson’s songs, but I find most of his ‘classic’ period to be obnoxiously produced. Willie doesn’t need to be slick. Does he really need a string section? When the Grateful Dead finally got smooth crystalline production, I thought the soul had been sucked out of their music, the authenticity lost. We all accept some commercial entities, but not others. The Beatles were transformed from leather-jacket rockers into a commercial juggernaut complete with matching suits and blow-dried haircuts. Why was this not objectionable? Perhaps it was. How many die-hard Liverpudlians happily accepted their local boys selling out and going global? And why do I react so poorly to the parade of clearly manufactured divas and manically rhyming rappers on Saturday Night Live? For starters, I appreciate what I perceive as a good song. I’m not disgusted when I hear a good song. I can groove to Lady Gaga, even if I’m not paying much attention to her. And yes, I’m the judge, jury and executioner of my own taste.
What constitutes a good song? That’s a dissertation for another time.
Another element of authenticity, or the idea of it, is “soul”. Are Beyoncé’s entertainment spectaculars bereft of soul? If so, how did the Monkees obtain it? Henry Miller once wrote “Everything has soul, including minerals, plants, lakes, mountains, rocks...everything is sentient…” (Tropic Of Capricorn) And I agree with him. So Beyoncé is not a soul-less automaton and her creations must have some kind of spirit or soul. They clearly appeal to a great number of people. Am I an elitist snob who sees my own taste as morally superior to that of others? I’d like to think that’s not the case. In many ways, James Brown’s spectacular performances in the 60s were no less choreographed and manufactured than Miss B’s, but I love those recordings and don’t doubt the amount of soul injected into them.
So, is my rejection of new music and lack of attention caused by disgust with a celebrity culture that has spun far out of control? This is a distinct possibility, but it should be noted that celebrity culture is not a new phenomenon. Mass media has simply made it more global and ubiquitous in nature. Charles Dickens and Lord Byron were both hounded by 19 th century paparazzi and caused female fans to swoon at readings. I was as fascinated by Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix and Jim Morrison as any other 60s rock listener. I don’t resent Elvis’ celebrity, just as I don’t object to Benny Goodman’s, Django Reinhardt’s or Glenn Miller’s from a previous era. But as our economy (at least in the USA) grows ever more dependent on consumption as opposed to creation and production, our worship of celebrity seems to have grown into a collective neurosis.
Such a collective neurosis as celebrity worship may only be a natural phenomenon in human cultures. After all, we have always sought leaders, heroes, martyrs and saints. In the 20th century, mass media brought these heroes right into our homes, moving before our eyes on television, speaking to us over the radio, their photographs plastered in magazines and newspapers. We only had so many newspapers and so many television and radio stations. The early age of mass media was, in many ways, despite specific demographics left out, a collective culture. What was once collective has devolved into parts, no longer unified by common experience. Modern tribalism runs the gamut from right-wing Aryan-nation freaks to pinko libtard snowflakes. Celebrities play right into this, perpetuating the tribal identifications, political, artistic and athletic. I know that celebrities are people who put their pants on one leg at a time like the rest of us. One can admire a person’s work without indulging in hero obsession. So it might be that my disinterest in new music has something to do with rejection of celebrity culture. I wouldn’t rule it out. It is wise to remember, too, that sometimes you’re better off not to meet your heroes.
My interest in music started, at least consciously, with Dixieland Jazz in my parents’ record cabinet. Along came the Beatles and the discovery, via short- wave radio, stations out of Detroit playing the music that the Beatles had emulated. I embraced the American Top-40, subscribed to Billboard Magazine, and fell in love with the rock music of the sixties. It was certainly postmodern in the sense that pop musicians were re-visiting earlier sounds such as jug bands and the blues. That world of popular music kept growing, year-after-year, from the British Invasion to Prog-Rock, Heavy Metal and the psychedelic San Francisco Sound. Punk and Disco came along. I embraced Punk, but Disco? That was my first rejection. I was a ‘Disco sucks’ post-hippie punk. But there was more coming. I liked New-Wave, ska and reggae and found myself interested in Grunge when that came rolling by. I had never liked Hardcore Punk and while getting into the avant-garde missed the era of Big Hair Rock altogether.
In retrospect, Disco sounds pretty damn good to me. Hair Rock just sounds silly, although I’ve turned up some good songs whose production was clearly over-the-top. Heavy Metal has long been excessively overwrought for my taste (think too much operatic scream-singing) and I hardly listen to any punk rock at all despite being a 70s enthusiast. Not that I’m listening to a lot of Disco, but it’s out there and I hear it, here-there-and-everywhere. I hum along and tap my foot. I’ve even jumped up onto my desk at the workplace and danced to it. Why did I dislike it then, but accept it now? Perhaps I’ve come full circle with the psychiatry. I can’t help but like it. For good or for bad, it was part of the music of my generation and I no longer think about it as something divorced from the music I liked best at the time. It was all wrapped up together in the package that was my youth. But still, that doesn’t explain it entirely. Witness my response to Hair Rock and Heavy Metal.
I recently read Eric Von Schmidt’s “Baby Let Me Follow You Down”, about the folk music scene in the late 1950s and early 60s, a scene that went far in creating the foundations of the folk-rock I loved so much in the 60s. I did some poking around on Youtube. Bob Dylan had infamously “stolen” Dave Van Ronk’s arrangement of “House Of The Rising Sun”, so I googled Ronk’s version, which I found to be slow, drawn-out and lachrymose. There’s no way he was going to generate excitement outside of a devoted folk scene, no matter what he thought of Dylan. I listened to Von Schmidt, a ‘revered’ figure of the scene, known for his blues renditions and was equally unimpressed. Carolyn Hester found herself a bit useless as she was eclipsed by Joan Baez. After having given tips and taught songs to Joanie, she had become just another ‘Baez imitator’. I listened to her as well. Not bad, but not electrifying in the Baez sense. The microphone hears nearly everything, except maybe the vibration of the live performance experience. But recordings of Howlin’ Wolf in those same years sparkle with excitement. So I’m clearly not equally enthused about everything from my generation’s musical past.
I am, however, strangely enthused about Disco retroactively. I like funk and Disco fits the mold. But I exhibit little or no enthusiasm for some other contemporaries of the time. As a teenager, I loved what passed for heavy metal: Alice Cooper, Deep Purple, Steppenwolf, Led Zeppelin. I dabbled in Black Sabbath, but never really got into it. Those groups were arguably far less bombastic than later versions of the form, whose players were clearly virtuosic and exciting, but whose music failed to move me nonetheless.
Another contemporary to whom I never warmed was Bruce Springsteen. He’s hugely popular, I acknowledge his songwriting prowess and realize that he is friends with personal heroes like Patti Smith, but still… The first I ever heard of Springsteen was when, after a Grateful Dead concert, I was hitch-hiking from Richmond to Charlottesville, Virginia, and the people who gave me a ride were singing his praises. I heard his music and went “feh”. Thirty years later, a co-worker attempted to convert me to the church of Bruce and I bought a couple of the man’s albums. They’re not bad, but they continued in failing to grab me at an emotional or visceral level. This is part and parcel of just how ineffable our tastes can be. Why do some people love ice-cream sundaes but others want chocolate cake? Bourbon or Scotch? IPAs or Belgian Saison? The answer must lie somewhere below the level of consciousness, a place that is damnably difficult to explore and understand.
Of course I had my own tastes and I was never afraid to exhibit them at high volume. In my first-year dorm at University of Virginia, I got embroiled in a stereo war with a fellow resident. He played the Beach Boys endlessly at maximum volume and I thought the Beach Boys’ music was overly-white-bread, bland insipid bubble-gum. I knew better than to listen to that crap. I listened to bracing, intellectual stuff like Blue Oyster Cult, Yes and Tchaikovsky. So I blared my stereo, too. In retrospect, damn don’t the Beach Boys sound good. So do Blue Oyster Cult, Yes and Tchaikovsky, for that matter. Which brings me full circle once again to having grown up in some kind of a Golden Age of Music, witness to some of the most fabulous developments in pop music ever. Maybe today’s music will be remembered that way sometime in the future, but I’m not holding my breath.
The bottom line emerges for me despite a novel’s worth of intellectual palpitations. No matter how I parse the matter, I actually do believe that today’s
popular music sucks. Sure, there was something magical about growing up with the developments of fin de siècle 20th century popular music, getting a year older with every birthday and waiting for the new Beatles album to point the way for another year of pop music. I’m grateful for that experience and I loved the music. Teenagers in 2018 may or may not be growing up with comparable sociological developments in trip-hop, Nashville pop, house music or whatever. As I find this music of little interest, I can’t begin to follow its developments, but I suspect it’s not the same.
I’m glad that the wonders of recording technology have made the past available to be explored. If the samplings of today lead people back to a glorious musical past, then no doubt the classic music will live on. What would my generation have thought if there were actual recordings of Mozart playing the piano, improvising endlessly on compositional elements that we could only know from the static page of sheet music? We’ll never know, but when it comes to the 20th century, the recordings are there for all to hear and we’re still listening. I can honestly accept that enthusiasts of today’s music may dismiss me as a cranky geezer. It’s my gut feeling that the recordings will continue to justify my opinion. And opinion is all it really is.
I can remember the feeling of the first time anyone in the alternate media of the 1980s reviewed a Walls Of Genius cassette album. “We exist! We’re for real!” Not all the reviews were un-critical. Although “critique” by definition means critical analysis both good and bad, we mostly associate criticism with negativity. And who wants to be criticized? Haven’t we all had enough of that in grade school, middle school, high school, college, the work place, etc? Like the would-be artist Philip Carey in Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage, we would all prefer a little praise for our work instead of criticism. But most of the time the world doesn’t work that way.
When Anne Addison described Walls Of Genius as “the new sound terrorists of America” in the sixth issue of Unsound Magazine, we were overjoyed. But not all of WoG’s reviews were equally enthusiastic. We were also accused of being derivative and sophomoric, as if those were bad qualities. Sometimes they are, but we weren’t worried about wearing our influences on our sleeves and joyfully indulged in low-brow humor. For every listener who was appalled by the idea of sophomoric humor, there was another ready for every laugh, giggle and guffaw. The industrial music folks of the time were particularly serious about their music and Walls Of Genius may have struck some of them as a buffoonish affront. Our efforts, however, were all in the service of satire and parody. Perhaps we had been inspired by Mad Magazine’s 1960’s opus “It’s A Gas”.
One of the major tropes of criticism is comparison. “She sounds like Joni Mitchell on a bad trip…imagine Leonard Cohen on speed…etc.” It’s only natural to compare and contrast, a process that can be quite illuminating when attempting to communicate the sound of something solely through narrative. Influences are regularly cited by those writing about music. But sometimes the influence cited is something manifested only in the critics’ mind. Over at the Halls of Genius, we would scratch our heads in wonder. Zappa wannabes? Sorry, none of us were Zappa wannabes. I had owned some Zappa albums over the years, but traded most of them away, realizing that I didn’t really enjoy listening to them. Yes, we had employed sophomoric humor, but it wasn’t Zappa-derived and we were far less scatological. That critic may as well have said we were Mad Magazine wannabes. That would have cut closer to the truth. Most of the time, we were amused and gratified by simply being worth the reviewers’ consideration, even those who didn’t understand us.
Critical misunderstanding has got to be the largest elephant-in-the-room when it comes to academic analysis. How many college classes did I sit through where some professor droned on about what the author or artist “meant”, only to believe that this was all in the professor’s head? Sometimes they just get it entirely wrong. Consider Rolling Stone’s initial response to Led Zeppelin, arguably the most popular rock band of the 70s: “Jimmy Page is…a very limited producer and a writer of weak, unimaginative songs, and the Zeppelin album suffers from his having both produced it and written most of it”. The Zep could take solace in knowing that at least they were worth the trouble of reviewing. Who wouldn’t sacrifice limbs for a bad review in Rolling Stone? To be insulted on the national stage, now that would be something to write home about.
Fueling critical misunderstandings was the fact that Walls Of Genius was a little different than most of the groups or individuals pursuing the “cassette culture” of the 1980s. While some were rock-music oriented, the vast majority of the scene was about performance art, noise music, sound-collage, industrial, ambient drone and other aspects of experimental and non-commercial music. As has been pointed out to me, some local cohorts saw Walls Of Genius as nothing more than old folkies who dared dabble with experimentation, attempting to worm our way into their world. Walls Of Genius pursued all these genres in the course of our career, but first-and-foremost, I think WoG could be characterized as being a rock-band at the core. But we were also an experimental performance-art improvisatory comedy ensemble. We never shied away from pursuing sound collage, industrial, noise music or even musique concrète. By running the gamut like that, we also ran the risk of being reviewed by individuals who didn’t understand or appreciate our pan cultural perspective. If what you expected was industrial noise and you got the Fabulous Pus Tones instead, you might not “get it”, even though the philosophical intent of cultural deconstruction originated in the same impulse. Thus we found ourselves presenting the Fabulous Pus Tones at Denver’s “Festival Of Pain”, a primarily industrial noise-music event.
The discussion of what constitutes “rock music” and “rock bands” is a dissertation for another day. The point here is that the cassette culture didn’t always know what to make of a Walls Of Genius album. Both that “confusion” as well as clear- eyed assessment led to many different kinds of reviews and a few that were far more critical than celebratory. And, of course, it was a public arena. No point in getting pouty about it. Nixon and Barnum notwithstanding, there’s no such thing as bad publicity.
Towards the early days, the punk-rockers at Warning Magazine (Anchorage AK) warmed up to our cassette “Sunday Monday Or Always”, despite the fact that it wasn’t “hardcore at all”. Own The Whole World called it a “bent and twisted smorgasbord, just my cup of tea.” Objekt described our album Sunday, Monday, Or Always as “demented damage that brings new meaning to the word ‘annoying’.”
Robin James in the “T” issue of Op gave The Many Faces Of Mr. Morocco a mixed review, alternating between having his socks knocked off by my recitation “Bugs”, but notes that the remainder of the music wasn’t as good. The Fortnightly College Radio Report called Walls Of Genius “Bar Mitzvah music for Martians”. We ate it all up quite willingly. The reviews encouraged us to think that our activity possessed value in the underground marketplace.
Turned down by Ralph Records, we got a nice letter from them indicating “we do our best but it often is not enough, nice try guys”. Attempting to garner distribution from Wayside Music, we got a grumpy note indicating “not the sort of thing that I am personally fond of.” Turned down, again, by Rough Trade Records, we got a nice note saying “found to be quite entrancing…(but) more suited to a literary audience”. Well, perhaps not entrancing enough for a record contract.
After a while, the reviews grew consistently positive as the community of reviewers became accustomed to the onslaught of titles from Walls Of Genius. By the time of Before…And After, we received copious praise. Turning the corner was the follow up, a self-consciously sophomoric ode to desire, The Mysterious Case Of Pussy Lust. It didn’t really matter at that point whether reviews were good or bad because it was the publicity that counted. The fact that it was even worth discussion was the main thing even if we disagreed with the assessment (‘Zappa wannabes’).
We can all get pouty sometimes receiving criticism where we had hoped for praise. Especially vicious criticism can be quite disarming and disillusioning. I once lashed out at an old friend because I thought his new music was ridiculously pompous, aggressively self-indulgent and too self-consciously smart for its own good. In retrospect, I regretted my response. After all, he had long been on a self-ordained mission as a prog-rocker and, in the process, had once taught me an awful lot about how to play the bass guitar. When it came time many years later to pen a critical response to a manuscript written by yet another talented friend, I made every effort to be as gentle as possible. The crux of the critique was how to make a villainous character believable to me as a reader. Nevertheless, that response ended the conversation and that particular novel was never mentioned again. What was the psychological reaction to such critical responses? Did my friends think I was a high-handed git? Maybe I was, but we’re all still friends.
Music criticism is not the monopoly of the reviewer. Musicians themselves can be as cruel as six-graders on recess. Note George Harrison’s petulant comments to McCartney in the Let It Be film. How many times at band practice has somebody stopped in the middle of a song and cried out, “you’re speeding it up… your phrasing is wrong… you’re singing the wrong harmony… that’s not how it goes…No no no!” I have always taken an experimental approach to see what works and what doesn’t. When it comes to others’ parts in a band, I’m willing to provide direction at times, but mostly I’m in favor of letting each musician figure out his or her own proper role in the song, to discover that role via an organic process and to correct their own errors before having them pointed out. Nobody likes to have their errors pointed out, especially if they’re in the process of correcting them by experimentation already. Not all musicians see it this way.
Even worse is when the criticism comes during performance. With an audience before us, an acquaintance once tried to educate me about what he thought the correct chords should be in the song I had just played, “Sunny Side Of The Street”. It was my stage at the moment, I was the primary performer and he was helping along with bass-lines on the side. I was livid: “You don’t correct a performer in front of an audience!” I never played with that acquaintance again and we’re clearly not friends anymore. I thought that on-stage intervention was about the rudest thing ever. Until we took a break.
After my short set on acoustic guitar, I had moved over to the bass, playing with
a chops-heavy drummer and his keyboard protégé. During the break, I overhead the drummer tell the keyboard player, “There’s just no good bass players on the Front Range”. Hey, I’m playing the bass tonight and I’m standing right next to you, Ass-hole! How is that supposed to make somebody feel? Maybe my jazz chops
weren’t up to his standard, but at least I was trying. Was there anything he could do to improve my confidence, to help me play better? No. In fact, he was determined to go so far as to discover and uncover my limitations, as if it was a
“cutting contest”. That’s no fun unless you’re a virtuoso and who wants to play with musicians who aren’t any fun?
A third story I’d like to tell here is about the legendary Walls Of Genius show at Pearl Street Music Hall in Denver with the group “Fish Music”. We had invited a bunch of friends, thinking we would be opening for Fish Music, but arriving at the venue, we were informed that we would go on afterwards. Which meant an unexpected midnight start-time. By the time we got on stage, after what proved to be an interminable extended set by a C-grade noise band, we only had a few stalwarts left in the audience. Jimi West of Denver punks Rok-Tots called out for “Magic Carpet Ride!” So I launched into my arrangement, which had been on one of our cassettes. It was nothing that we had ever practiced. Ed stopped playing and said, “that’s not how it goes…” What do you mean, that’s not how it goes? It’s my arrangement! It was on the cassette album! Play through, my man! But Ed wasn’t on that recording and he didn’t know the arrangement and he lacked sufficient imagination to roll with those punches. Since we had stopped in mid phrase, I hit the opening of “Born To Be Wild” and we played that instead. I hate being corrected on stage! Who wouldn’t?
And what about “constructive criticism”? As far as I’m concerned, that’s an oxymoron, nothing but a euphemism for “if you don’t change your ways, you’re fired”. One of the philosophical problems of criticism is that the critic gets to criticize, but the victim seldom gets a venue to critique back. Typically, the “boss” gets to criticize you, but you don’t get to criticize the boss. So it’s a one-way street at the workplace. With music, it’s a little different. There is no expectation of critiquing the critic. Sometimes you’ll get ‘constructive criticism’ that helps develop a piece, from both critics and fellow musicians, but most of the time you don’t want to hear it. The challenge is to issue that criticism in a positive manner, unlike the the time I unloaded on my prog-rock friend back in the 80s and, having learned my lesson (I hope), why I tried to be so gentle with my novel-writing friend in the 90s.
Criticism…can’t live with it, can’t live without it. In the long run, without it in the form of reviews, how is anybody to know what they might want to give a listen? At the very least, when you read those reviews, both negative and positive, in the underground press, they gave you an idea of what you might like to try next on your stereo. There were very few radio stations playing the underground music back in the 80s and most of that was between the hours of midnight and dawn. In the 21st Century, the problem is just the opposite—more hours of on-line radio than any one listener can accommodate. The cassette culture of the 80s somehow found just the right balance and the critical reviews were a big part of it.
Some bands turn on a tape recorder to capture every moment, every spontaneous outburst of creativity, every stray sound. One hopes that such bands have the discipline to edit their product to their very best moments. In Walls Of Genius’ heyday, we sometimes did, but not always. Other bands have such a hard time getting a recording made that it strains the imagination trying to figure out why. I’ve been in several of those over the years. My reading of music biographies and analysis leads me to believe that my experiences as a “non-professional” are not unique to the amateur element. Even the professionals deal with the same crap that we do.
I’ve only been in two bands that recorded every moment: Walls Of Genius and Strange New Worlds. This was the primary driver behind the incredible three-year run of over 30 WoG cassette albums in the mid-1980s. Strange New Worlds, in less than 2 years and with tightly disciplined editing, produced over 20 album-length compact discs, very few of which were ever reproduced in any significant number. This is what can happen when you record everything. But what is happening when you can’t?
From the very beginning, it was a challenge to get recordings of the bands in which I played. At the outset of this journey, in 1973, we barely had our own tape recorders. The holy grail was to get a record contract. Fat chance! People like myself were lucky to own an old-fashioned cassette player with a built-in mic. You could put that in front of Grandpa and get him to tell stories of the immigrant experience (which we did). One of the gigging bands I played with never got a recording made, another managed a track or two out of pure luck. The challenge of recording reflects the capabilities and limitations of equipment and people both. But the primary obstacle is people, because you can make recordings on the humblest of equipment, but you very rarely make them with the humblest of people. As Jean-Paul Sartre might have said, “hell is other musicians”.
In high school, I sang the role of “Mr. Bumble” in a stage production of “Oliver!” (Senior Class Play). That was the last time I ever remember being able to sing beyond two octaves. Ah, Youth!! I weighed 145 pounds, 40 pounds lighter than I do today, a walking popsicle stick. Somebody, somehow, recorded this theatrical performance and I was offered, a few years later, a cassette. About fifteen years on, my home was burgled by a musician I had once replaced in a band. A pound of Thai-stick disappeared along with a box of cassette tapes, some of both of which I managed to recover. But not that tape of me singing Mr. Bumble’s songs. I let it go. It doesn’t seem worth the trouble now to track it down, even though the internet is at my command in 2018 and somebody, somewhere, probably has a copy.
I also played the bass and sang some lead vocals for a garage band that started in high school and ended first year of college, Long Lost Friend. I learned how to play the bass and sing at the same time: “Johnny B. Goode”, “Sweet Jane” and “Riot In Cell Block #9”, amongst others. Again, somebody, somehow recorded a bunch of our songs in my parents’ basement, as we wanted a demo tape to get gigs. We got some, including a memorable party at Balz Dorm in Charlottesville, where shortly thereafter I very appropriately sacrificed my virginity. If I had ever owned a copy of that recording, it was long gone long ago. When my friend Tom and I got to UVa, we practiced in the basement of the now-defunct Charlottesville TKE fraternity house, where our lead guitarist lived, and we were occasionally reminded that we sucked. We had some moments, but as the internet caught up to me years later and Tom sent me a cassette, I had to acknowledge that maybe we did suck. The recording is embarrassing in more places than I’d like to admit.
When Long Lost Friend imploded, I spent a semester playing in another dance-party band, Wishing Well. I don’t remember us playing any gigs, much less recording any of our cover tunes. At the end of that semester, Wishing Well morphed into the lead guitarist’s dream, a prog-rock outfit, Dreamer Easy, and I dropped out of school. This was a band with ambition. We practiced 8-hour days in the drummer’s family’s Waynesboro basement, as if it was our job. The band leader (and my musical mentor, he taught me the bass lines) schmoozed up local musicians and industry people he could locate. Happy The Man was a nearby ‘local’ prog-rock band enjoying a modicum of success at the time. We had hoped to ride their coat-tails and we hung out with their stage manager.
Our “recording engineer” was a hippie with a 4-track reel-to-reel machine, but nobody seemed to know what they were doing with this equipment, much less the guy with the machine. We would crowd into a tiny little room in a dilapidated house out in the countryside, all elbows and guitar necks and attempt to make recordings. There was hillbilly junk liberally spread all around the property and I recall one day when we all took turns with a sledge hammer on a junked automobile out back. None of this work produced a thing, nor did setting up the 4-track in the basement, not to mention taking LSD at practice sessions.
Dreamer Easy had, at one time, a “5-day” tape of which we were very proud, probably made on a little cassette recorder, subsequently among the ranks of the disappeared. We attempted to record our one full concert, at Old Cabell Hall on campus at University of Virginia in Charlottesville, the same auditorium where I had taken a musical history course, but the recording failed. Not only had our “engineer” loaded a used tape into the reel-to-reel machine, it was a tape that had been spliced backwards. We got one song recorded. After that, the band split up, too many different directions to be pursued under one banner. One track was all we had to show for 6 months of intense work.
Back in college again, I joined the fraternity where I had formerly practiced (TKE) and played in a series of pick-up groups in the house basement. These weren’t bands, per se, just jam sessions featuring at least one hot guitarist and a drummer who went on to do professional work. We were “The TKE-house Blues All-Stars”. Nothing was ever recorded or expected to be. This is where I met the someday-to-be Little Fyodor.
After graduating, I fell in with a pair of acoustic guitarists who had migrated to C’ville from Madison, Wisconsin. We formed The Folk Grass Blues Band, an acoustic-oriented group playing all the styles in the name. This was a time when you posted 3”x5” index cards on the bulletin board at the local music store, musicians looking for musicians, a hard-copy version of today’s Craigslist. The Folk Grass band endured for nearly a year, with a full-on band-house and paying gigs, but not a single recording exists of this group. Why, I have no idea nor recollection. One of our room-mates was a purported witch and astral traveler. This woman complained about stereo noise from the living-room. I suppose it disturbed her meditations. I came home from work one fine day to hear that she was in Tibet. At a conference of astral-projecting spirits. My first thought was: “If she’s in Tibet, she won’t mind if we play the stereo, will she?” Whether or not she was actually attending such a conference, she never came out of her room to complain. This same ‘witch’ claimed to have put the shine on us in the first place and then took credit for our dissolution as well. Perhaps this kind of aggressive metaphysical madness prevented us making any recordings. It was after the band dissolved that I moved into my folks’ basement for a year (1980-81) and bought a reel-to-reel tape recorder.
The first one was only 2-track, but I could record on those 2 tracks separately if I so desired, hence my first experiences with over-dubbing. I used this machine to record The Mystic Knights Of The Sea, a jazz duo led by a horn-playing friend, and The Blitz Bunnies, a punk-rock band that lasted maybe three months’ time. I was playing the electric guitar now, not the bass. The 2-track worked well for recording 2 instruments without vocals, so the Mystic Knights got a pretty good recording, albeit with cheapie-cheap microphones. Not so much with the Blitz Bunnies. I’ve got recordings, but they’re very rough—the band didn’t last long enough for us to really master anything we attempted and I’ve never been much of a lead guitarist. Perhaps if I had had better effects devices I could have simply roared along in full punk grandeur, but I was still learning. That can present a problem with recording—the microphone hears everything and listens impartially, whether the sounds are great or crappy. Good equipment can’t make bad music good, but good, even great, music can be made on bad equipment. That’s not to say, however, that the Blitz Bunnies made great music.
Prior to my move to Colorado in August 1981 (accompanied by the soon-to-be Little Fyodor), I obtained a 4-track Dokorder reel-to-reel machine and a 6-track TEAC mixer. I was frustrated by the the litany of experiences with recording engineers who didn’t know their heads from holes in the ground, who screwed everything up, wasting time and leaving us with no recorded legacies, if only for our own nostalgic purposes. I decided that instead of playing in a band, I would be the recording engineer myself.
It wasn’t long before I was introduced to some people in the neighboring suburb, a band called Stand In The Yard. They had a song I liked, “Amerika Futura”, which I appropriated for WoG many times in the years to come. I set up the recorder and started to see what I could do in terms of recording a live group in the living room. One day, the bassist and rhythm guitarist didn’t make the session and I piped up, “I can play the bass”. In that moment, I replaced two musicians that day (one would later burgle my home and steal my cassette of Mr. Bumble). I was even recruited by the two deposed musicians to form another group with them, but I could see where the talent lay. At that point, I recruited the soon-to-be Little Fyodor to man the recorder, but he was having so much fun that he wasn’t paying attention to the board. So it became a challenge to get decent recordings of what was now called Rumours Of Marriage. Fyodor improved and we eventually managed to get a listenable collection of our songs, but these recordings lacked on-air quality. We never tried our hand at over-dubbing, so the vocals were always muddy and unintelligible. There was so much bleed from track to track that you couldn’t isolate anything. Nothing was miked separately, no direct outs went into the board. It was just 4 cheapie microphones in front of the band and with me playing in the band, there was nobody truly running the board. We only had 4-tracks and the band was a five-piece with two vocalists. In retrospect, I probably would have done better to have had a few very high quality microphones to place in front of the band, get the mix adjusted at the amplifier level, and simply turn on the machine, recording the band the way it is done with orchestras. But who had the money for microphones like that? And that process would have forced the musicians to discipline themselves. How do you make young and inexperienced musicians discipline themselves? For that matter, how do you make any musician discipline him or herself? It’s always a challenge. Who could afford a collection of cool instruments or high-quality microphones? In those days, we had to sell a guitar in order to buy another. So the band sounded good and showed promise, but the recordings were of poor quality.
Once again, I was frustrated by the recording process, not to mention the egoistic perturbations of charismatic musicians (read: egomanic shit-fits) causing yet another promising ensemble to implode within 6 months’ time. As my house-mates in 1983 Boulder were devotees of soft-rock icons, turning their noses up at anything resembling Punk or New Wave, I started visiting the Rumours Of Marriage lead-guitarist’s place on the weekends, sleeping on his couch. I finally found someone who could drink me under the table. After partying and jamming on a Saturday night, we would recover by watching Broncos games on Sunday afternoons, unintentionally sparking a future traditional subject for Walls Of Genius material. Ed Fowler and I would jam with a boombox recording our efforts. Some of these tracks are the earliest bonafide Walls Of Genius items, the era of the Dirt Clods. Crappy equipment, yes, but some really cool material emerged from those sessions, not that we knew what to do with it.
In the Walls Of Genius era, I managed to cobble together a few actual ‘professional’ microphones (Shure 57s and 58s mostly). We could overdub on 4 tracks or record all-4 tracks simultaneously. For large spaces and groups, like Architects Office and Miracle, I would place microphones, hooked up with monumentally long cables, at 4 corners of the room, whether it was the empty Woolco store space or The Pirate Gallery. But we weren’t always finicky. There was no electricity available at the soon-to-be-demolished Pleasant View school, so in order to record the initial Miracle sessions, we had little choice but to go the boom-box route. We still used a little cassette recorder for screwing around. You could always take that 2-track tape and transfer it to a track on the Dokorder, thus having 3 more workable tracks for overdubbing. This was how I was able to make Walls Of Genius sound like a full band, with bass, rhythm guitars, drums and keyboards. The miracle of overdub tech solved many of the problems resulting from too many sounds bleeding together.
A constant concern was the loss of fidelity when moving from tape-to-tape. If you bounced tracks on the same tape, you’d lose something too. When you finally wanted to mix the Dokorder tracks, that had to be mixed down onto a “master” cassette. Then the master was used to make dubs, the so-called ‘commercial’ product that others in the world would hear. I had the capability, using three cassette decks, to dub two at a time, in real time. At that point, the recording was already third generation. So there were practical limits to this practice.
And then Walls Of Genius disbanded. I still had the 4-track for some time and used it for future projects, but it took some years before those projects took shape as I was focused on grad school and then visual art. When Polyester Prophecy first got going, we used the Dokorder and 6-track mixer and got pretty good recordings. But still, I had to suffer the drummer’s displeasure at having only two or three microphones to record the drums. At 6-foot-something, David the drummer was a vision of the seven-arms-of-Shiva and he wanted a mic for every arm, which, by the time of Motosapien, he had acquired.
When Ed Fowler (formerly of WoG) refused to play live, Polyester Prophecy ditched him and morphed into Motosapien. We played Denver and Boulder nightclubs and were getting better all the time, so the time came for “the discussion”. Here we are, we’ve got a band, we’ve been practicing, we think we sound pretty good, we’ve got gigs, we need an album, right? That was where we could all agree. After all my experiences with recording, I recommended that we pool our resources, go into a professional studio, and bang out a good 2 hours of songs and pick the best ones. David insisted we could record the album ourselves. I reminded him that it wasn’t always easy to be both the performing musician and recording engineer. And that I didn’t want that responsibility myself. I made it clear that I was not going to take this on. I said there was a lot of pressure on the recording engineer to produce a good recording. You can’t monitor the recording equipment at the same time you’re playing, so that’s a problem. There was also preparation, mixing, examining the results and all the subsequent criticism to come from the participants. This became a rather heated exchange and I backed down. This was in the era of the first digital recorders that could take up to 8 inputs at a time. David bought one, a Yamaha 24-track, and we started recording ourselves.
I can’t help but feel that my prophecies had come true. Not because I sabotaged the project. They were mostly my songs and arrangements, so I had a vested interest in having it sound as good as possible. But no matter how hard he tried, David could not get a decent mix out of that machine. I believe he came to hate that machine. Every now and then we’d revive Polyester Prophecy for a jam session and one track stayed buried in David’s machine for almost ten years before I ever heard it. The biggest problem in the Motosapien mix was the drums. David had obtained the requisite 7 microphones for his drums, but consider that David is as tall as Abe Lincoln, with simian-length arms. His drum-set was huge with double-kicks, so the microphones on one side were getting an out-of-phase signal with the mics on the other. Finally, we had little choice but to pay $1000 to take the recordings to a mastering engineer and have it mastered professionally, at which point none of us could complain about the mix. It was a long, drawn-out process that didn’t need to be. If we had paid a studio up front, the entire misadventure need not have happened.
As I mentioned earlier, Strange New Worlds recorded every second. Our drummer, Eric Hoaglund, had microphones placed in the room and made multi-track recordings of every session on his Apple computer. He had good mics and happily mixed these recordings, efficiently producing compact discs of the work. His mixes were good and the recordings were, too. No problem! We got gigs on their basis, including one at a famously premier jazz club in Denver, Dazzle Lounge.
With New Cosmic Americans, we got some decent recordings by going into a semi-professional studio. I say “semi” because that’s what looking for a bargain can get you and the bargain-seeking was the result of “the discussion”. We had to ‘settle’ for less than perfect circumstances, accepting bleed from one mic to another as we mostly performed our songs live all in the same room. The recordings were pretty good, but they were only ready for public consumption at the time of the band’s dissolution.
My latest bar-band incarnation, the CBDs, has been together now for five years. We have tried to get recordings, but have not yet managed to get something of ‘radio’ worthy quality. We have documents, but not an actual ‘album’. Nothing I’d give a ‘straight’ dee-jay. I long thought our best option would be to record live, but a friend with the requisite studio and equipment who tried found it too challenging. When the band sounded good, the recording wasn’t and vice-versa. When he did succeed, I realized that maybe we weren’t as ready for recording as I had thought. It’s amazing what the microphones hear that you, the musician, do not. So at a certain point, we had to have “the discussion”, which took me back. I made my recommendations and warnings, but despite the wisdom of those experiences, one of our guys insisted that he could do it. After all, he had the requisite equipment and space in his basement and he wanted to learn how all of that equipment worked. That should have been a warning to us all and I once again found myself in a basement with a recording engineer who didn’t know how to work his own board. Those recordings, some seven months later, have not surfaced. They’re still in the can with no promise of emergence. We’ve got a plan to try the live thing again—it ought to be easy to record straight out of the PA mixer. “Ought to be”, eh? At least we’ve got the documents.
Now, don’t get me wrong, this shouldn’t come off as one long rant about the inadequacies of recording engineers and musicians. It is a litany of experiences that cause me to pause: why was it so easy for Strange New Worlds to record over 20 album-length discs of worthy material, but not a single recording survives to document the Folk-Grass-Blues Band? How come I could record hours of Walls Of Genius, but Motosapien had to go through hell-and-high-water to get one album made? The simplest explanation is often the best. With Strange New Worlds and Walls Of Genius, there was no expectation of how the recordings ought to sound, since neither band was standard in any sense. With Dreamer Easy and The Folk-Grass-Blues-Band, we were all likely too stoned to do anything other than rock on. And with Motosapien, we expected to sound like a standard post-punk rock band. Expectations can be daunting and it’s sometimes hard to live up to them.
It wasn’t just us all being young-and-inexperienced, because these experiences span my musical career from beginning to end, from teenage years to senior living. And it’s not just me either, because I was in all those bands and some were successfully recorded, some not. Like so many things in life, there’s no one single answer. A trained psychiatric professional could probably provide a more in-depth analysis on the basis of my testimony, but that’s not a direction I feel qualified to take. I can, however, attest to “ego-driven delusions-of-grandeur and self-importance” syndrome amongst musicians, but that also cuts across the board. Ultimately I come back to the same place I started: what ought to be ain’t always is.
by Evan Cantor
I grew up in an age when the idea of a rock band as a democratic unit or institution was very much in vogue. The Beatles, for instance, were just four happy-go-lucky guys who happened to luck into musical magic. The Grateful Dead was just one big happy family. The Eagles were an outlaw band of Jesse James’ musical heirs. I even thought The Monkees were a real band.
These misconceptions were the result of successful image marketing and, in retrospect, we all know better. The Beatles were a Freudian stew of competing interests. The Grateful Dead were led by one particularly charismatic individual. The Eagles all hated one another and stuck around because of the money. The Monkees were little more than studio musicians with a rotating cast of vocalists, a formula used widely by Motown and Stax. The illusion of a democratic band unit was appealing, especially to the hippie generation espousing Woodstock, freedom, peace and love, but it was very rarely an actual reality, if ever. There was always a “leader of the band”.
I never became one until Walls Of Genius was formed. Up until that time, I had been in any number of bands, all of which had dissolved primarily due to issues arising from poor leadership or lack of it entirely. Poor leadership itself was likely due to the fact that we were all young and inexperienced. Shaped by the illusions of our generation, we didn’t understand the need for leadership skills, how to provide them if we had known, nor how to respond when it appeared. Even the formation of Walls Of Genius was an organic process. In its earliest incarnations, Walls Of Genius was nothing more than casual jam sessions, a leaderless response against the traditional band unit as I had known it. But eventually it became ‘my’ band and I was (and remain, for better or worse) the undisputed leader of the band.
Leading a band is fraught with obstacles, pitfalls and prat-falls. On one hand, it is an exercise in convincing others to manifest your personal vision. On the other, it is a means of encouraging and enabling others to contribute to something greater than the sum of its parts. At the end of the day, it is almost inevitable that leadership is an attempt to find a working middle ground between these two poles. If you are despotic about your vision, your collaborators will bristle, develop resentments and ultimately sabotage the product. If you allow your vision to be completely subsumed, this dynamic is reversed. The leader becomes resentful of collaborators’ demands, bristles at having to accommodate so many different interests and ultimately loses initiative as a result. When a band-leader is no longer motivated, the end is near unless leadership emerges from elsewhere. That’s how Ed Fowler and I morphed a dissolving new-wave band into the eventual Walls Of Genius.
In those ‘lost’ years, between the dissolution of Walls Of Genius and its subsequent re-birth, I played in a number of bands where this dynamic was played out in different ways. Polyester Prophecy could have been a Walls Of Genius spin-off, as its primary feature was the incandescent guitar playing of WoG’s own Ed Fowler (“Red Ed”). In typical fashion, Polyester Prophecy started casually, a jam session suggested. I didn’t realize it at the time, but the de-facto leader of this group would be the drummer, who had no appreciation of Walls Of Genius, didn’t understand it. In Polyester Prophecy, we played what he would, or could, play, dictated by one part chops and one part perspective. His vision was focused on heavy-rock and death-metal, mine on folk-&-jam-rock. Meeting in the middle-ground of post-punk, we morphed Polyester Prophecy into Motosapien, wherein de-facto leadership fell onto my shoulders as the lead singer and primary song-writer. The dissolution of Motosapien a year later was due either to my failure as a band-leader or my failure to comprehend just how much the drummer wanted that role for himself. I know that my accepting the reins of leadership bumped up against his aggressive control issues, but I’m still not sure, to this day, what I did wrong. It must have been something. My drummer friend told me that the bassist and lead guitarist viewed me as a dilettante or diva, a perspective that mystified me. But they were suffering from limitations in both imagination and chops. What’s a band leader to do?
After that, I joined Strange New Worlds, an all improvisational group that never played the same piece twice, combining elements of Miles Davis with Pink Floyd. The leader was clearly gifted keyboard artist Luke Palmer, who had placed the Craigslist ad seeking musicians in the first place. Although I got the gigs and drummer Eric Hoaglund recorded the massive studio improv sessions, it was clearly Luke’s show. His improv chops made him, in my eyes, a 20th century Amadeus. None of the three of us could have done SNW without the other two, but like Lola in “Damn Yankees”, what Luke wanted, Luke got. When Eric left for adventures south of the border, we never found another drummer to fit this mold. SNW finally dissolved when Luke declared that “playing with Bob just wasn’t fun”. Despite Bob’s monster chops, I had to agree. But it was already over, the leader no longer interested.
At that point, I decided to return to my roots, to articulate a version of Gram Parsons’ Cosmic American Music and formed New Cosmic Americans. My vision was to create a folk-rock group playing all genres, from rock, jazz and soul, to bluegrass, country and fifteenth-century ballads. As the self-proclaimed creator of the project, I was the self appointed band leader. We sounded good and played a lot of gigs, but it wasn’t without its challenges. Our female vocalist would only sing jazz songs a certain way, the way she had learned them at lessons, had difficulty counting measures, refused to play incidental percussion and took forever to figure out harmonies that I thought should have been no- brainers. The percussionist refused to learn more bluegrass or country songs, overplayed and sang very little. The bass player was excellent, but didn’t sing, so my dream of three part harmony mostly dissolved. As the band-leader, I began to resent my cohorts as we devolved into an amalgamation of their interests. As the leader, I felt that they had every right to their desires. In the interest of pursuing my own vision, they needed to be kept happy, so we would pursue their interests as well as my own. But this meant going in directions that so diverged from my own that it became stressful for me. Was it still fun? Not as much as it should have been. A medical diagnosis gave me the perfect excuse to dissolve the band without further discussion.
My current bar-band, the CBDs, functions more as a democratic institution than any other band I’ve ever been a part of. Clearly, as the most prolific song-writer in the group, the primary lead singer and ‘front man’, I am the de-facto leader of the CBDs. But we’ve been together in this incarnation for over 5 years and keep getting gigs. How come this band hasn’t dissolved after a year or two like all those others? I attribute the success and longevity of the band to a number of things, including the fact that we are all over the age of 50, so we can no longer use ‘young-and inexperienced’ as an excuse. But ultimately the reason for this success is the fact that I attempt to provide as little overt leadership as possible. I willingly share that responsibility with our keyboard player and everything seems to work out just fine.
How is it that I can do this? How can I discipline myself, hold back, keep my mouth shut, refrain from smarting off, to provide as “little leadership” as possible? Perhaps I’m a more mature dude at age 62. While I’m never entirely sure about maturity, it’s also because I know it won’t work any other way. I accept the fact of ego as a huge black dog barking up my backside. I also have other creative interests where I take more control of my own vision: visual art, solo-music, gardening, photography, the outdoors and writing. I also have Walls Of Genius.
The other members of Walls Of Genius never disputed the fact of my leadership. When we decided to bestow titles upon ourselves, I became the “Head Moron” and Ed and Fyodor were “Assistant Head Morons”. Ed was very likely grateful that somebody provided him a structure within which to pursue the electric guitar. He has never subsequently played with any other musicians besides myself and those that I assemble. Little Fyodor had a personal vision that predated Walls Of Genius. But he hadn’t yet created the fully-realized entity that we know as Little Fyodor and he sublimated his vision to the group when he discovered how much fun we were all having in our collaboration. The parameters of Walls Of Genius provided him with an avenue to develop Little Fyodor, but that never was the full scope of Walls Of Genius. What do you do when your vision must be sublimated to the demands of others, whether they are collaborators, colleagues or the audience itself? It’s a conundrum that is not always easy to swallow. Leadership means you’ve got to sometimes put your ego aside. It’s a balancing act, finding the sweet spot between trusting your own judgment and that of others.
After the initial dissolution of Walls Of Genius in 1986, I dropped out of the “cassette culture” and its subsequent incarnations for 30 years. So it would be inaccurate to credit myself with “successfully” leading a band that has survived for 35 years. However, it has been happily revived in the 21st Century. I remain the leader of the band. Little Fyodor kept the WoG flame alive for many years, but never overtly expressed any desire to be the band leader. I suspect this is because he has been quite successful pursuing his own thing and he has always had as much veto power and influence on Walls Of Genius as he ever desired. Obviously he no longer needs Walls Of Genius as an avenue to pursue Little Fyodor music. I, on the other hand, have appreciated having the Walls Of Genius brand available for creating ‘outside’ music. I readily admit that there could never have been a Walls Of Genius that was just me alone. But since Walls Of Genius can be many things, my solo efforts are legitimately within the scope of the whole.
The take-away from all of this is that leadership is not easy to get ahold of. It’s slippery, a fluctuating thing, a will-o-the wisp, evanescent (pun intended) and ever-changing in its approach. A lot depends on who you’re trying to lead and how you approach each of those individuals, with a strong determinant hand or hands-off, laissez-faire. When you’re attempting to create a whole greater than the sum-of-its-parts, you’ve got no choice but to keep those parts happy. Unless, of course, you’re generating a boat-load of revenue, in which case nothing else seems to matter. Witness Fleetwood Mac, the Dead or the Eagles. However, those of us who are creating for reasons other than revenue must hope that each individual part is happy in order to maintain the whole.
by Evan Cantor
I sometimes wonder how marvelous it must be for so-called “solo artists” to do their thing. Independent of anybody else’s opinions, wishes and desires, the solo-artist can do as they like, collaborate with whomever they wish and create at will. In a band, one must deal with multiple points-of-view, numerous opinions, ego-driven differences, leadership struggles, musical and philosophical differences, wildly disparate kinds and levels of talent and general madness. Nonetheless, there are rewards in having a band and operating, to varying degrees, via “group-think”.
Although I may have run Walls Of Genius relatively despotically in the 1980s, it would never have been what it was without “group-think”. We jammed, improvised, assembled and performed as a group. Nonetheless, a Walls Of Genius track was periodically something I made all by myself, something made by Little Fyodor alone, or that very rare something generated primarily by Ed Fowler, the third ‘founding’ member of the group. Since these “solo” creations became Walls Of Genius tracks, it provided a great variety of sounds and a great deal of freedom to create at will, regardless of “group-think”. This is one of the reasons that you never knew what you might hear when you saw the name Walls Of Genius. We relished that freedom and unpredictability. Of course, with time, certain of these elements became predictable. The classic Walls Of Genius ‘formula’ emerged, a melange of solo materials combined with the three of us improvising together. Little Fyodor would not have been Walls Of Genius all by himself and neither would I. So the unpredictable became itself predictable. I should note that veto power was invested in all three primary members of the group.
Working to expand the limitations of 4-track technology, Fyodor and I would employ overdubs in tandem. Two persons recording on each track gave us up to eight things going on. Thus Little Fyodor assisted me with percussion, synth and background mania on various pieces. I provided some lead guitar, percussion and bass on a variety of Fyodor songs. We both provided back-up vocals for one another. A third approach was in true experimentation in which we very consciously worked together to create something unusual that reflected neither participant dominantly. A fourth was the Fabulous Pus-Tones, wherein Fyodor and I sang unhinged duets, mostly in the service of deconstructing old pop tunes but sometimes on originals like “I’m Falling In Love With Ellen”. Finally, a fifth approach was simply uninhibited improvisation by whichever musicians happened to be there that day. Such sessions could only exist as a result of a ‘group-think’ approach even if the thinking was unconscious, below the floorboards so to speak.
It wasn’t always happy days group-thinking in the living-room studio. Little Fyodor wasn’t always overjoyed to play percussion on one of my Joe Colorado songs. For him, this could be like doing-the-laundry. It was just boring to do it, but he soldiered on in support of the larger project. I wasn’t always happy playing lead guitar or bass on Fyodor songs. He knew what he wanted, wasn’t happy until he got it ‘just right’ and I would get frustrated by the perfectionism. His approach was, and remains, sufficiently unique that it wasn’t always easy to adjust to it. Was I just a robotic bass player to be programmed? I soldiered on as well. In the long run, the results were good.
Group-think helped in assembling our albums and with the marketing of them. As a dee-jay with some years of experience, Little Fyodor always had a good ear for song order, so he organized as much of that as I did. When he thought I had gone too far with my obscene cartoons, he spoke up and I respected those wishes. Ed was most of the time blissfully unaware of the entire world beyond our living rooms. But finally he objected to the inclusion of my song “Ballad Of A Patriot” because it contained the refrain “so fuck you, Ronald Reagan”. He wanted to give our albums to his friends and family whom he thought would be offended. He was not concerned, however, about Little Fyodor’s multiple versions of “Everybody’s Fuckin’” on the Pussy Lust cassette album. Go figure, right? So the “Ballad” went to a compilation and didn’t appear on a Walls Of Genius album until 2017, as a bonus track on Bandcamp. Times have changed. Plus, since Ed doesn’t own a computer, he has little to say on matters involving the digital world.
There were times when Group-Think broke down completely, especially in the case of ill-considered collaborations with outside musicians. Passive-aggressive manipulation proliferated all around and generated falling-outs. These relationships would have benefited greatly from actual “group-think”, if we had only been able to communicate more effectively. We were all young and inexperienced in this world, so what did we know? None of us can be blamed for having once been young and inexperienced.
What about artistic freedom? Because of the “formula”, we essentially had all the artistic freedom we might ever have wanted in a band situation. Nonetheless, with a ‘band’, you must subsume some of your own wishes and desires in order to reach a compromise with others’ wishes and desires. When Little Fyodor and I experienced artistic differences in ‘86, it never occurred to me that Walls Of Genius could be anything other than it had been, a group consisting of at least Ed, myself and Little Fyodor. It’s not like I “owned” the name Walls Of Genius. I could have, if I so wished, had Walls Of Genius “present” me as a solo artist, just as we had “presented” Little Fyodor (“Slither/Sloth”). But at that time, I had no wish to do so as I had lost interest in the avant-garde. And now that I am once again interested, I use the revived Walls Of Genius “brand” as my outlet for that expression, as well as nearly-conventional songs with rather pointed lyrics (i.e. “Make America Mexican Again”).
Make America Mexican Again
Intro: D G A D (2x) (mariachi horns) 3/4
We are all rapists and criminals, now we can say it out loud D G, A D
It’s no longer subliminal, we’re brown, illegal and proud. D G, A D
There’s no way to keep us all outta here, D G
go right ahead with yer wall A D
You can pass more laws but for all you fear, D G
It makes no difference at all. A D
Let’s make America, F G
Let’s make America, F G
Let’s make America, F G >>Bb-Stop
Mexican Again! (n.c.)-to break
break: D G A D (2x) (mariachi horns)
Aye aye aye, yo soy un gringo borracho D G A D
Me gusto cerveza y tequila tambien D G A
Me gusto margaritas y mescal Yucatan! A D
Let’s make America, F G
Let’s make America, F G
Let’s make America, F G >>Bb-Stop
Mexican Again! (n.c.)-to break
break: D G A D (2x) (mariachi horns)
California, Nevada and New Mexico, they used to be part of us D G, A D
From the Oregon coast to El Paso, we ride in the back of the bus D G, A D
We pick your veggies and we pick your fruit, D G
We make your guaca-mo-lay A D
In rags, in pee-jays and Savile Row suits, D G
You know we are here to stay. A D
Let’s make America, F G
Let’s make America, F G
Let’s make America, F G >>Bb-Stop
Mexican Again! (n.c.)-to break
break: D G A D (2x) (mariachi horns) (END G>D!)
Such songs have historically disturbed fellow members of my straight bar-band and folk-music ventures. For Little Fyodor, it’s a different ball o’wax. He has a successful avant-garde career as a solo artist. I imagine it’s more of a challenge for him to determine if-and-what he’d like to bring to Walls Of Genius that isn’t simply an extension of his successful solo career.
Ultimately, Walls Of Genius benefited, and continues to do so, from the fact that it is a group and no one individual’s solo project. The radical differences in our approaches created excitement and vibrating tension to Walls Of Genius. With Little Fyodor and me, it’s a little like the Lennon/McCartney dialectic. Or the Louis Armstrong & Ella Fitzgerald collaboration, voices like silk and gravel intertwined. When Fyodor and I get crazy singing together, channeling Wild Man Fischer and The Shaggs, it’s a unique thing unheard anywhere else, hence Walls Of Genius. Because there is a group dynamic, we are forced to discipline ourselves in our solo contributions. Although we had complete freedom to create such things, there’s only so much space available within the ‘formula’ for any one album. It’s possible that this categorization or pigeon-holing is antithetical to the project. Our beginnings emerged from the desire to cast away all discipline, to simply go wild and create, unhinged and uninhibited. Well, times changed and still do. In the process, I’d like to think we created our own tradition.
Notes For “Just Sittin’ Around The House”
by Evan Cantor
Original cassette liner indicates:
c. 1987 all songs by Evan Cantor
all instruments by Evan Cantor; recorded in March & April 1987
1005 Marine St. Boulder CO 80302 (postal address at that time)
SOP 106, Sound of Pig Music c/o Al Margolis, 28 Bellingham Lane, Great Neck NY 11023 USA (address of course no longer current)
At the time of WoG’s break-up, I was concerned about how my musicianship was being perceived by the underground. Despite all the myths about Walls Of Genius being idiot-savants wailing away with no musical background or chops, I was feeling un-appreciated for all the musical chops I brought to the table. For instance, I could sing in many different voices, but everybody seemed to think those voices were Little Fyodor, or so I perceived. So I was ready to assert a part of myself that had been subsumed by Walls Of Genius.
“Just Sittin’ Around The House” became a sort of “All Things Must Pass” for me, music that had been literally been ‘sittin’ around the house’ for years. Although I received positive reviews for this album, I realized, or thought, that this wasn’t really the kind of music that was in synch with the cassette underground of the 80s. For me it may have been experimental—yes, I was experimenting with different tunings, but primarily the tunes are very conventional. A lot of tunes like this were incorporated into Walls Of Genius titles, but they had always been engineered to be “odd” or “off-beat” in some way, something “experimental”.
At the time of the WoG break-up, I needed something conventional. Not only was I concerned over the perception of my musician-ship, I also feared that the Walls Of Genius “scene” would banish me forever to a life lived on the fringes of society, that if I continued with it I would never have a satisfactory sex life again and never meet anybody but the weirdest members of a small segment of society. So, in some sense, “Just Sittin’ Around The House” was an effort to counter-act all that. But not long afterwards, I dropped out of the underground scene, believing that nothing would ever come of it in the future. I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again: I was wrong.
In any case, the recordings I made subsequent to this album were not, as far as I can recall, introduced to the Cassette Culture underground. I made a series of recordings starting with “Hell Is Empty…”, which focused on more original material, and then “Chestnuts” and “Straight Covers”, both of which were cover versions of classic rockabilly and top-40 songs. My recollection is that none of these recordings were presented to the Cassette Culture, although I would have distributed some of them to friends and family. As I have a nagging memory of somebody saying something nice about my version of “Love Potion #9”, I may be remembering this inaccurately.
- Evan Cantor
May 18, 2018
Is it Little Fyodor or is it Walls Of Genius? Or is it both? Ironically, although officially a Walls Of Genius release, the Slither/Sloth cassette represents the first, um, serious stab at my Little Fyodor solo career that was really my first musical ambition, at least since previously giving up music after playing two gigs in a cover band in high school.
This seriousness is reflected in the fact that I put out a 7 inch vinyl EP concurrently with the WoG cassette, the music of which takes up most of the first side of the tape that got released by Walls Of Genius as WoG025 in 1985.
The last piece of that first side (Slither) and the entirety of the second (Sloth) are made up of material recorded at the Hall Of Genius in much the same manner as I recorded much material for WoG releases, overdubbed on the home studio, the heart of which was Evan's four-track reel-to-reel recorder and six-track mixer. The Slither EP material was recorded in an 8-track professional studio.
I first entertained this Little Fyodor solo ambition before Walls Of Genius even started, and I continued it long after WoG (originally) ended. I've worked with a number of musicians over the years on this project, but for this first excursion, it was, as Evan puts it, the Walls Of Genius house band. So it was really a co-mixing of currents.
I've written about the making of this cassette in much greater detail at Hal's Walls Of Genius archive page (and also made mention of the motivations behind my solo music making in a prior EC blog post), so I'll just say now that I'm proud to have it presented in the Bandcamp format to the Electronic Cottage community!
by Evan Cantor
The success of Walls Of Genius, regardless of how you define it, was not solely due to the work itself. That product would have never been noticed by the “Cassette Culture” if it had not been for the persistent and successful creation of a number of mythologies, both self-conscious misinformation and unintended misconceptions, that added value to the product. Don’t get me wrong—Walls Of Genius would have existed regardless of the existence of a “Cassette Culture” and essentially did prior to our discovery of the scene. But the potential of an audience and/or market was a large motivator for development. Inspired thusly, Walls Of Genius reached out to the world in its own unique way.
The first mythology pursued was the illusion of an active underground music scene in Boulder, Colorado. This evolved innocently from the original jam sessions. Disgusted with previous band experiences, I gave each recording a different “band” name. This was prior to the project coalescing as “Walls Of Genius” proper. There were The Dirt Clods, The Have Mersey Beats, Jerry’s Kids, The Ed’n’Evan Hullabaloo, Big Man On Campus, Good Enough For A Hell-Hole, et. al. These groups were eventually “presented by Walls Of Genius” on cassette albums before the truth was fully revealed, namely that they consisted of the same three core musicians: Evan Cantor, Little Fyodor and Ed Fowler. With the addition of guests (most notably Dena Zocher at the cello) and the strapping on of different musical instruments, each of these groups had a different “sound” and the illusion was complete. We allowed the illusion to perpetuate itself, as both a joke on the Cassette Culture scene and a marketing ploy to attract attention. There was an element of irony involved since Boulder’s music scene had previously been primarily associated with white-bread soft-rock acts like Dan Fogelberg and Firefall. Creating interest and curiosity, the ploy worked and when the illusion vanished, interest and curiosity remained. Eventually an actual underground scene in Boulder developed and we were a part of it.
An illusion that took forever to vanish was that of Walls Of Genius as musical naïfs, primitives who didn’t know how to play their instruments but wailed away nonetheless. We encouraged this, going so far as to proudly name ourselves “Head Moron” and “Associate Morons” and issuing “Certificates of Genius” in childish, error-laden script. The emergence of Little Fyodor as one of Walls of Genius’ “acts” is a prime example musically, as were our collaboration as “The Fabulous Pus-Tones” and my autistic deconstructions of Creedence Clearwater
Revival and Hank Williams titles as “Joe Colorado”.
Little Fyodor (and he will likely disagree with me) had long been insecure about his chops on the guitar, but there’s no doubt the man can play. Of course, he has his own inimitable style, love it or hate it as you will. Before there was Little Fyodor, there was John Leningrad, writing distinctive songs before we ever teamed up as Walls Of Genius. In the process of creating the illusion of a scene, and partially as a result of the emergence of the Little Fyodor persona, I attempted with both music and literature (mail-order catalogs) to create the personas also of Joe Colorado and Red Ed. Ed never really warmed up to this, but I pursued Joe Colorado’s autistic deconstructions. So while we never had much in the way of Ed Fowler “solo” selections, there was plenty of Fyodor and Joe. Fyodor and I assisted each other with these constructions as that was the only way we knew to stretch the limits of 4-track technology. Two people recording simultaneously on each track gave you eight things going on instead of only four. It took concentration and cooperation. (I will discuss the perils and rewards of ‘group-think’ separately)
Since Little Fyodor’s music (as well as my own) expressed a good deal of angst, romantic anomie and social alienation, I ran with those themes hyperbolically in the Walls Of Genius catalogs. I drew obscene cartoons, which Fyodor wisely chose to nix. But meanwhile, I drew more appropriate cartoons, wrote various over-the- top, patently ridiculous promotions and even had a tongue-in-cheek essay published, “The Curse Of Little Fyodor”. Perhaps I had gone too far. But in the long run, the persona of Little Fyodor was a successful creation, as evidenced by his long solo career as a performer and recording artist. The persona, or myth, of “Little Fyodor” that developed during that 80s heyday remains firmly in place.
Further, Walls Of Genius’ parodies of top-40 rock music, jazz deconstructions, folkie madness, extended improvisations and Wild-Man- Fischer-stylized autistic explosions could not have been accomplished if I wasn’t already an experienced musician, having played the bass and electric guitar in a number of bands since high school. Those bands, in no particular order, performed fraternity party pop (Long Lost Friend, Wishing Well), folk, blues & country (Folk Grass Blues Band), jazz (Mystic Knights Of The Sea), punk (The Blitz Bunnies), prog-rock (Dreamer Easy) and new-wave (Rumours Of Marriage). This experience was brought to bear when I decided I had had enough of the straight music business and started in with what eventually became Walls Of Genius. So if you listened carefully, you’d hear all of that experience manifested. But we allowed the illusion of
musical naïfs to grow because it created more curiosity and interest in what we were doing, perhaps lending a strange kind of legitimacy to it, like outsider art. Of course there is the myth that we were just screwing around, that we never took what we were doing seriously. There is a grain of truth to this idea, but only a grain. The myth appears to live on to this very day, as if considering Walls Of Genius seriously is antithetical to the nature of the project itself. Proof that myth can sometimes be indestructible.
Last on my list of myths is the one that developed all by itself in the years after our 1980s heyday, the idea that Little Fyodor was the prime mover and motivating force behind Walls Of Genius. This myth culminated in a recent review lauding Little Fyodor for vocalizations that issued from my own mouth and no other. Upon notifying the reviewer of this factual error, he published a retraction, adding the disclaimer that he hardly believed it.
This stubborn myth evolved quite naturally out of circumstances. When I dis- banded Walls Of Genius in 1986, I dropped out of the Cassette Culture shortly afterwards and disappeared for almost 30 years, pursuing graduate school and then the visual arts, most notably in wilderness conservation. I truly believed that nobody would ever give a damn about Walls Of Genius or Little Fyodor. I am happy to report that I was wrong. I was unaware of the interest in Walls Of Genius that Little Fyodor had kept current in service of his continuing career in avant-garde performance. So it was his ongoing effort to keep Walls Of Genius alive that led to this particular misconception. Note that Fyodor himself never self-consciously promulgated this myth, it just arose all on its own. It’s an easy misconception to get. When one refers to “my old band from the 80s”, there is an element of ownership expressed that is both on-and- off the mark. I felt that Walls Of Genius was “my” old band from the 80s. I started it, produced it, recorded it, and ran it, sometimes despotically I admit. But as a primary member of the group, it was also Fyodor’s old band from the 80s. I credit Fyodor for having always been quite gracious about our collaborative efforts.
by Little Fyodor
Evan’s essay reminds me of an age-old debate. Is everything we do done for the sake of pleasuring the ego? Are even the likes of a Mother Theresa helping the poor just to feel good about themselves and maybe even superior to others? Evan wraps up by saying it would be disingenuous to deny that such ego satisfying motivations “were not somewhere on our minds” when creating and distributing Walls Of Genius, and of course if “somewhere” on the mind is the standard, that’s hard to dispute. I’ll fully cop to feeling warm and fuzzies over favorable reviews (and feeling a bit of the sting at the not so good ones!) as well as from recognition in the street and compliments from friends and in letters and nowadays online, etc. It’s even better when people tell me how my music affects them, how they relate to it, what it means to them. After all, the first thing that got me into wanting to do music in the first place was -- well wait, actually let’s back up. Cause I first started writing songs when I was around 12 or 13 or so. Bad shit. “Watch Out for That Buoy” about the family houseboat trip and an urgent plea for world peace and pollution solutions called “What Are We Gonna Do?” and a song about growing old called “Songs of the Past.” YECCCCH!!!! I wonder why I did all that? That’s hard to say! I guess perhaps some of the notoriety seeking of which Evan speaks may have played a role. I looked up to rock stars and wanted to be one. Guess it seemed “cool”? Sometime-WoG participant and artist Leo Goya liked to say there’s just a great appeal to creativity, and I think that’s part of it, too. The will to power of putting something into the world that’s something you did. Evolutionary psychologists may say it’s a sexual selection thing. It’s ultimately pretty mysterious, don’t you think? I mean, even if we’re trying to gratify our egos, why do it via art or music? Just cause we’re too short to be a basketball player? Or is there more to it? I don’t know if we’ll ever really know for sure….
But I do recall feeling a desperate need near the end of my college years and the beginnings of being on my own to express a deep sense of loneliness and alienation and of generally feeling lost. And the sense I had that I wanted to tell the world what that was like and maybe somehow cosmically connect to people who felt the same way, like what The Who’s “Quadrophenia” was ostensibly about, and maybe parts of Alice Cooper. I picked my “pen” back up and started writing short stories and a novel (that I never finished) -- and songs; eventually I found the songs were more fun and a lot easier! This led to the start of the Little Fyodor repertoire that spanned several LP’s and CD’s. These sentiments only occasionally poked their head up in Walls Of Genius cassettes, but wanting to record these songs with Evan led directly to my joining the burgeoning project that became WoG, as both of us preferred to do WoG than record my songs. It was just FUN! The open endedness, the way anything was possible. We could goof around and make it art! Community and non-commercial music can be realized by having a regular live local band, but home recording opened up all sorts of possibilities that weren’t available with a regular setlist or while trying to get your sound out to a crowd in a bar. I remember the excitement I felt when WoG was first starting out, and again, I don’t know if I can explain it rightly, but it was just exciting to me. I remember telling Evan that I thought “I could contribute something,” as in to the world of experimental music. Whether that was a lot or a little, it meant something to me for it to at least be something.
I also remember Evan suggesting around that time that in a few months we could maybe make enough money for him to cut back his job to part-time, and I was naïve enough to consider that possible. Being able to quit your job always seemed like the Holy Grail. I’ve often liked to say that my wet dream was to become half as big as Jonathan Richman. Was that too much to ask? Haha. Hah. I don’t think that formed the entirety of my motivation as it became fairly clear fairly quickly that nothing of the sort was likely to happen. But it was still fun, and it was still, well, something to do, something to give my life meaning and purpose. Something to be part of. Something to make people look at me like I meant something. I won’t deny that the factors Evan speaks of play a role in this, but I don’t know if they say that much about the cassette movement per se as you can ultimately say that kind of stuff about doing almost anything (as I averred above). Maybe this was just the activity that worked out for me, the only way I knew to find that satisfaction. Regardless, it was definitely nice to have an outlet like that for us weirdos who didn’t necessarily fit into the world any other way. To do something we could call our own and be admired for it. I’ll say at this point that while I cop to much of what Evan speaks about in the plural, I don’t think I did any of that examining of what “the scene” wanted or would most respect us for, or any of that worrying about just being thought of as so much screaming (not that I want Evan to change his essay, and I hope he won’t!). I even worried we were selling out by screaming less and being less ridiculous! I did get into overdub projects once I could get my mitts on Evan’s four-track, but that’s just because it was fun and exciting, just like the drunken jams were!
Then again, I didn’t mind it when Evan suggested releasing shorter tapes, as I did get the feeling our long ones kind of lost people, and I did want people to like what we did and I liked the idea of our music gaining notoriety and leading to greater acclaim and maybe even possibly the outside, outside, outside, outside possibility of rising above the underground and making it something real and slightly profitable and day job killing, like Eugene Chadbourne when he said he hoped his music could someday put a thousand dollars in his bank account. Our next project when we broke up was going to be a record, an LP. Sort of a “step up.” But, well, we broke up instead. What would a record have brought? Most, most, most, most likely just more of the same, the kind of burden that clearly soured Evan on the endeavor, and I always warn people to this day that it takes me a good long while to get to doing the next thing I promised. I’d just as soon watch Gunsmoke! We’ll never know if that record might have done anything for us career-wise, and maybe that’s just as well….
by Evan Cantor
It is often claimed that the Do-It-Yourself scene of the 1980s (a/k/a “Cassette Culture”) provided opportunity for all comers, that there existed no hierarchy and no “star” performers. In one sense this is quite obviously true. If “star-dom” equates to celebrity in the wider world, participants in the scene could not achieve it since the scene was underground by definition. However, it would be disingenuous to assert that there were no “stars” of the underground. Amongst others, a few names illustrate this: Minoy, R.S. Moore, Campau, Smersh, Camper Van Beethoven, Viscera, Margolis. As its prime mover, I have always believed that Walls Of Genius were equally ‘stars’ of this scene.
One of the marvelous aspects of the scene was that anybody could fire off cassettes and materials to various reviewers working in ‘zines, flyers and magazines of the age. You could be reasonably assured that the materials would be received and perhaps listened to or looked at, as opposed to being tossed into the trash by the mainstream media. But it would be, again, disingenuous to claim that we were indifferent to the response. It was easy enough to submit materials, but there was no guarantee that they would be reviewed, much less lauded by the reviewer. With Walls Of Genius, we cherished even the negative reviews, because they made us laugh, and, as Richard Nixon so famously asserted, there is no such thing as bad publicity.
Just as people today wait with baited breath for their Facebook ‘likes’, we at the Hall Of Genius waited on tenterhooks for responses to our latest releases. We examined the market, such as it was, and responded in kind. Thus we evolved from simply turning on a boom-box to record drunken afternoons of musical revelry to more serious premeditated pursuits. Found sound and sound collage was popular with the underground, so we did that. Industrial noise-music was popular, too, so we did that also. Sado-masochistic themes were popular with the scene, so we went there as well. It’s not that we had no interest in these things. We had pursued elements of them before discovering the scene, but noting their prevalence, we pursued them more aggressively. This was a self-conscious effort to both attract attention and earn respect within the parameters of the underground. For those who thought Walls Of Genius was just a lot of crazy screaming shit, these efforts were a part of the program to demonstrate that the crazy screaming shit had an intellectual background, a kind of musical sociology. We wanted to not take ourselves seriously, but we were truly serious about our product and that particular attitude. Personally, I had “had it up to here” with pompous, self-important ego-maniac musicians.
Not everyone understood this perspective, but still, people wanted to be known, to be appreciated and to see it in print, and we were no exception. Thus was born the ill-conceived collaboration of Walls Of Genius and Architects Office. The Architects wanted attention and knew that distribution by Walls Of Genius as a ‘cassette label’ would open doors to the underground press that might otherwise take a much larger effort. And I thought that our position in the underground hierarchy would be enhanced by the association. So we opened those doors, but the two groups’ attitudes toward marketing of the material was so divergent that animosities linger to this very day.
This is not what most people consider when they think of “star-dom”. Underground celebrity is by definition under-the-radar of mainstream culture. The cassette culture’s proprietors could count themselves lucky if several thousand individuals heard their recordings. As for “star-dom”, this would count for almost less than nothing in today’s Youtube culture. In three years’ time, Walls Of Genius distributed nearly one-thousand cassette tapes. This was not a virtual effort, it was live flesh-and-blood product. We had to dub tapes, put together packages, create catalogs and do the mailings. It became overwhelming and superseded our acts of creation as the flood of traded materials flowed through the mail-box. This was a boon to the underground dee-jay, but only one of us in Walls Of Genius filled such a role (Little Fyodor’s midnight radio show “Under The Floorboards”).
What is required of traditional “star-dom” or celebrity? Think of the sacrifices, the demands, the persistence, the self-importance, the dedication, the very lifestyle itself. It would be completely disingenuous of me to say that we didn’t hope the underground would succeed beyond its own small parameters. The ego within me would love to see Rolling Stone feature Walls Of Genius on the cover with an article about the forty rock-stars claiming WoG as a “seminal influence”. And yes, I admit to being an egotist. But the realist within me knows better. Both “star-dom” and the failure to achieve it can be totally destructive. I have known those for whom the lack of fame led to self-destruction and, by the same token, the roll-call of “A-list Celebrity” tragedy is legion. So one must maintain equilibrium in order to remain sane. The ‘stars’ of the underground achieved the approximate dream of artist Edgar Degas: to be both famous and anonymous, known within the underground, but not outside of it. Was this really our dream?
During the heyday of Walls Of Genius (1983-1986), we performed live. Each show was an amalgam of the many types of things we were recording. In order to pull this off, I had to bring bass, bass-amp, acoustic guitar, electric guitar, guitar amp, various percussion devices including drums and trash-can lids, cassette machines with pre-recorded material, microphones and P.A. equipment to each show. And then there was Ed and Fyodor’s equipment as well. That was true dedication and I wouldn’t do it now without a hefty pay-check and roadies. Because of those performances, we were occasionally recognized on the street and we were always gratified by the recognition. So you can’t tell me that ‘star-dom’, fame’ or ‘notoriety’ were not somewhere on our minds. Who would even read my reflections on the subject if some element of notoriety had not been achieved? It would be disingenuous of me to claim otherwise.
Walls Of Genius
Walls Of Genius formed in 1982, a musical performance-art comedy experimental noise ensemble, featuring everything from musique concrete, sound collage and extended rock improvisation to demented top-40 parodies, free jazz, industrial and audio experiments of all kinds, mostly fitting in no category whatsoever.