Back in the 80s, when Walls Of Genius was in it's so-called 'hey-day', our fellow avant-garde and experimental musicians were always amazed that Little Fyodor and I were both such enthusiasts for wilderness activity: hiking, backpacking, camping and all that. It seemed as if underground music was perceived by its practitioners as an exclusively urban pursuit. We did occasionally set up microphones outdoors, but that was only in the backyard, to capture the sounds of South Boulder Creek at the Eldorado Springs house. So, yeah, most music of any kind, really, is an urban pursuit. Once in a blue moon you hear of an orchestra recorded at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, but it doesn't happen very often. The truth is that neither Fyodor nor I had moved to Colorado with the intention of making avant-garde music. We came to Colorado for the mountains and the associated outdoor sport. The music was something that developed over time.
Fast Forward to 2019 and the outdoor wild is still a passion for both of us. We came west primarily for the mountains, but an added bonus, of which we were unaware at the time, was the southern Utah canyonlands. This is a part of the country that has an almost fanatic fan-base and is currently embroiled in national monument controversy, as well as suffering the degrading onslaught of industrial tourism. Back in the 80s, it was an empty quarter and we both quickly discovered this incredible landscape, falling in love, like so many others in the wake of Edward Abbey's "The Monkey Wrench Gang", with redrock canyons. If the controversy and/or the landscape interests you, the Canyon Country Zephyr is the place to check in (www.canyoncountryzephyr.com).
This particular image comes from a photograph I took underneath Tower Arch, what was in the 1990s a quiet corner of Arches National Park. I'm not sure there are any quiet corners of this park anymore. Arches is now so popular and crowded that they're talking about instituting a permit system simply for access. You'd have to make a reservation just to get in! Among other things, I hope this painting reflects why so many people might want that access. It's a truly incredible landscape, but sharing an arch like this with a noisy crowd is very different than having it to yourself on a dry balmy desert afternoon.
You might ask why is this this image being posted to Electronic Cottage? After all, it's not mail-art, nor is it a socially relevant collage. Neither is it avant-garde, digital, weird, 'out-there' or experimental in any way. It's a traditional, nearly impressionistic or fauvist landscape oil painting. It's relevance to Electronic Cottage is that I painted it while listening to the Racket Fest #2 in its entirety, from beginning to end. It must have been just the right inspiration, because this painting came fast and easy. It was completed in less than 3 hours, needing no tweaks after the initial notan (sketch), underpainting and fine adjustments. I enjoyed the Racket Fest, amazed by all the fascinating and psychedelic sounds made by this eclectic collection of musicians and I was pleased by the results of my effort as well. You can see more paintings in this vein at my website: www.evancantor.com
Thanks for taking a look!
Walls Of Genius' 1986 compilation of Cassette Culture artists,
"Son Of Madness", is now available on Bandcamp:
When we put out the call for "Madness Lives" in our catalog "The Gift Of The Geek" (approx. March 1985), we had no idea that the response would be so enthusiastic that a sequel would be warranted. But that was in fact the case.
Some of the materials were out-takes from the first go-round. We were sent more material than we could use for each artist and wanted to include as many artists as a 90-minute cassette would hold. We requested that artists limit themselves to 5 minutes. "Restrictions (were) limited to questions of recording quality (we're not super finicky) and content (we're partial to peculiar stuff...)". We asked contributors to not "be afraid to go psychologically naked for this project, let it hang down to your knees and, above all, to take effective measures to unleash your inhibitions." The response from the Cassette Culture was a tsunami of fascinating and diverse material, from sound collage to demented rock'n'roll.
Why "Son Of Madness" now? Why not the original "Madness Lives" first? That's just a quirk of circumstance. In the course of conversation I discovered that Little Fyodor had already digitized almost all of Walls Of Genius' titles at his end, so I asked him if I could get copies of "Son" and "Live Improvisations". I started checking out his digitized version of "Son" and one thing led to another. So, eventually, of course, "Madness Lives" will also be available via Bandcamp, but for the moment, only "Son Of Madness" appears on the Bandcamp site (along with other WoG titles).
The most comprehensive discussion of all the tracks on "Son" appears on Hal McGee's website, haltapes.com, in the Walls Of Genius archive section:
Briefly, thirty different artists each have a track. I've broken the 90-minute cassette into volumes one & two for convenience because that's a lot of tracks! Some of the artists are just Walls Of Genius in different incarnations. Cowtown is Walls Of Genius backing up Cowtown's only actual member, punk dee-jay Peter Tonks. Wally Bob Colorado is WoG's own Head Moron putting on his cowboy hat. Meichenbaub was the teenage brainchild of one of our Boulder pals, Bob O'Connor. Russ Stevens, imploring us to "slap the buttocks", was one of the
original Dirt Clods from the proto-Walls Of Genius period in Ed Fowler's living room.
Many others were stalwarts of the scene, like Problemist, from Unsound's
William Davenport. Dino DiMuro gives us the first of two Hitler related pieces, while the salacious Roberta Eklund gives us the second. The prolific Don Campau appears, as does Schlafengarten (a Psyclones associated group), Minóy, Smersh, Tom Furgas, Ken Clinger, Booed Usic (a/k/a tENTATIVELY ... a cONVENIENCE), John Wiggins, and Master/Slave Relationship (Debbie Jaffe of Viscera and Cause & Effect). Others were artists getting airplay on Little Fyodor's radio program "Under The Floorboards", Johnny J. & The Diversatones for one. All of the artists on the comp represent individuals who had either received our catalog or knew somebody who had. Some of those artists remain quite mysterious to this very day.
In any case, "Son Of Madness" is a real tour through the classic 80s Cassette Culture scene and is filled to the brim with gems every bit as worthy as those found on the original "Madness Lives". We here in WoG-land hope you enjoy!
(by Evan Cantor and Little Fyodor)
When Hal McGee started gathering Walls Of Genius materials in 2012, I (Evan Cantor) had been out of the underground loop for over 30 years. In the years following Walls Of Genius’ 1986 dissolution, I was unaware of how current Little Fyodor had kept the flame burning. I truly thought nobody would ever give a damn about Walls Of Genius. I've said this many times and I'll say it again: I'm glad I was wrong. But why should anyone give a damn?
Walls Of Genius, ostensibly an avant-garde music ensemble, was a prominent participant in the 1980s Cassette Culture. We pursued and experimented with a wide variety of musical styles, everything from lengthy psychedelic improvisations, free-jazz, punk-rock, lovingly crafted, uninhibited and manic deconstructions of pop, jazz and country-western standards to poetic ravings, recitations, musique concrète, industrial noise and sound collage. Walls Of Genius was reviled and loved in equal measure by the Cassette Culture.
For instance, an Unsound magazine review of one release (Before ...and After) indicated "Simply Genius...the new sound terrorists of America". In a later edition, another review (The Mysterious Case Of Pussy Lust) was not as
impressed: "This is music made by zealous fans who want to imitate, not by musicians who want to create and be original". You may well imagine our disagreement with that.
Walls Of Genius was active from 1982-1985
(the 'classic' period)
and subsequently revived in 2014.
As both a live-performing and studio-recording band,
as well as a cassette-album "label", we released over 30 titles of our own and others' music in the mid-1980s.
We were featured on numerous compilations
and issued two of our own,
Madness Lives and Son Of Madness,
representations of the best that
the Cassette Culture had to offer.
As Electronic Cottage is the direct descendent of the Cassette Culture of the 1980s, in fact existed in its first incarnation at that time, it is relevant to review the music of Walls Of Genius for insight into the overall network of underground artists participating. Because Walls Of Genius bridged as many gaps as possible in the differing underground scenes at the time, our music represents the many different perspectives noted two paragraphs above. We worked across the board, dismissing nothing, deconstructing broadly and experimenting, mostly successfully, with everything.
It was truly gratifying that, in 2012, Hal McGee contacted the former members of Walls Of Genius, interviewed us and collected materials for a comprehensive archival collection on his haltapes.com website. This revival of interest led to a Walls Of Genius reunion session, which in turn led to the revival of the group in 2014 as an active concern.
Where to start with the archive? The Main Page will give you an idea of what is here, a table of contents at:
Check out Walls Of Genius' most popular and best-received release, Before…And After. Writing for the Allmusic.com website in the 90's, pop music professor Richie Unterberger claimed it was our only release that "truly hit the mark" and deemed it "ripe for excavation on CD reissue by some company that doesn't mind losing money for art's sake". (No one has yet taken him up on this idea, can't imagine why….)
You'll find a link to Before …And After on a page listing all of their cassette releases (click link or pic below):
Walls Of Genius - a survey of their cassette releases
On that page click on each cassette title and you will go to dedicated pages for each cassette, where you can stream all the music from Walls Of Genius' 'classic' period. Each cassette release page features in-depth recollections and analysis by the two primary movers of the group, Evan Cantor and Little Fyodor. These two haven't always seen eye-to-eye about these things and like so much seen through the filter of memory, their recollections don't always match, but they always illuminate.
A favorite of both was Crazed To The Core, the ultimate foray into the bat-shit bonkers, screaming, hollering, psychologically naked, takes-the-piss-out-of-everything side of what we did. So you may alternately want to start there (click on link or tape cover above).
There’s a lot more than just the cassette releases here. There’s a rare video from 1985 of Walls Of Genius performing live in concert in a room beneath the bleachers at University of Colorado’s Folsom Field.
Evan’s Walls Of Genius scrapbook is reproduced in full, filled to the brim with images and artwork, much of it never before seen elsewhere, collected all in one place.
There are interviews discussing the times, places and influences relevant to the music
as well as a page dedicated to the wacky
snail-mail-art catalogs generated by Walls Of Genius to market their work in the pre-digital era.
Additional pages focus on the instruments used,
the recording gear
and the Walls Of Genius band-house itself,
the "Hall Of Genius".
Yet another potential starting point for exploring the archive would be the very beginning.
If you think you have what it takes, the gumption and the granular fortitude to plow through this entire dense resource, start with The Dirt Clods (1983), the so-called proto-WoG cassette that arguably started it all.
Then you can proceed tape-by-tape, taking in the full story. Not only did Electronic Cottage's own
Leslie Singer (Girls On Fire) do just that,
she enjoyed it, to boot!
Proof that it can be done.
This process is made easy by links to the next tape
on each page.
Whether or not you believe that Walls Of Genius matters, we think it's damn good story. Both Cantor and Fyodor dove headfirst into the project, providing all the music, art and memories that Hal McGee had requested. It's possible that we overwhelmed him, but he rose to the task and created a thing of beauty (at least to those who think it matters).
Little Fyodor muses that if Hal McGee thinks this matters, then readers of Electronic Cottage should also, essentially asking the question: "What would Hal listen to?" Even if you don’t care about "us" specifically, the entire voyage constitutes a microcosm of the human condition. You might see yourself in there.
So! The HalTapes Walls Of Genius archive
is a comprehensive and lovingly-constructed collection of everything you could ever want to know about these seminal do-it-yourselfers.
In the America of the 1980s,
a time strangely relevant to our own,
these guys attempted to crush, mutilate
and take waffle-stompers to society's norms
through the power of music.
That they succeeded in their mission
is why Walls Of Genius matters,
then and now.
by Little Fyodor
Yes, you know what apeshitness you're going to get with a Little Fyodor show, but if you look closely, you can catch some variations....
I'm gonna follow up on Evan's post, in which he makes some assertions that I don't dispute about the limits and ultimate recursiveness and paradox of going apeshit bonkers till you can't get any more apeshit bonkers.
I certainly agree that such a goal can only go so far as an end unto itself -- hell, look what it did to GG Allin!!! Within Evan's declamation he contends that "you know what you’re going to get at a Little Fyodor performance. He may be 'out-of-the-box' by definition, but he’s not busting the envelope anymore simply by being Little Fyodor." Again, I don't dispute that, yet there's often more than one way to look at the same phenomenon, and since a picture's worth a thousand words and y'all should be the ultimate judge (and I feel like showing off), I offer the following examples of my "Dance of the Salted Slug," which climaxes most every Little Fyodor & Babushka performance, so much so that I once was going to leave it out (I had forgotten the backing track!), and the audience called for my blood were I not to exhibit it somehow!! And yet at the same time, well... I said I would leave it to you and so I shall! I'll only add that one of the things I missed most about Walls Of Genius was being able to dance and prance about while not having to worry about fronting or carrying the band as I'm inevitably required to with my solo material. I guess I took all of that side of what I liked to do and squeezed it into this Dance. We don't use the backing track anymore, and I'm surprised and disappointed to only find one good example of that version online, but here's a few examples from over the years, including one at Hal's 50th birthday party....
by Evan Cantor
Walls Of Genius did many things, but the single most unique and defining element of the band was the three of us going bat-shit bonkers. This resulted not only in a lot of freewheeling improvisation, but a good deal of screaming, hollering and weirdness, all discipline abandoned. Self-consciousness was thrown out the window, self-indulgence embraced. Noise, cacophony, sounds of all kinds and dissonance gleefully explored, even over-done. When we solicited contributions to a compilation of the leading cassette artists of the mid-1980s, we specifically requested that participants not “be afraid to go psychologically naked, (to) let it hang down to your knees and, above all, take effective measures to unleash your inhibitions.” I went further and admonished participants to give us the “most intense sort of insanity, be it dark or delightful.” We called it Madness Lives. We wanted the participants to embrace, as Leslie Singer (Girls On Fire) has called it, their personal “bonkers”. Whatever happened to mine?
Let’s acknowledge that the 1980s were a different time, a long time ago, as far away from 2018 as a Star Wars galaxy. We were almost forty years younger, meaning that the parts of our brains governing rational thought had only just matured very recently, if at all. So we were, like so many young people, highly charged over the things we felt strongly about. For me, there were two over-riding elements in my life that prodded me into going bonkers. One was my frustrated experience with the business of music itself and two was frustrated sexual or romantic ambitions.
No doubt another motivating factor was watching the liberal developments of the 1960s and 70s get washed down the drain by resurgent regressive conservatism (i.e. Reagan). This is not to claim that there isn’t reason enough today to respond energetically to resurgent regressive conservatism. There’s just as much crap as ever. But my response as a 20-something to Reagan/Bush was different from my response as a 60-something to Trump and his America. It’s not that age necessarily mellows one about these things. The things are equally, or more, objectionable than ever. Walls Of Genius has taken on Trump specifically with a number of pieces, including Little Fyodor’s unhinged and angry “Man Of Instinct” and my own satiric faux-mariachi song “Make America Mexican Again” (both on the WoG title All Trumped Up, 2017). But in the bigger picture of letting one’s marbles slide, roll and rebound, the same crazed perspective on our overall society is not the same as it once was. I’m still a smartass, just not an unhinged one.
To be honest, the seeds of my own willingness to shed inhibition via craziness were already there, just waiting to be watered. The proof is in a recording made in the Spring of 1981 with Kevin Landes (formerly of Washington D.C.’s Young Turds and a future member of The French Are From Hell) playing one of his pieces on an upright piano. It’s interesting to note that L’Enfant Suckling was an imagined band that only had one session, not unlike the many one offs that eventually turned into Walls Of Genius a few years later. Towards the end of this short piece, you can hear me raving extemporaneously in the back-ground, “I’ll kill him, I’ll beat him...” accompanied by the pounding sounds of the imagined beating. As the demo ends, Kevin asks “Have you lost your mind?” Perhaps I had, but I wasn’t yet ready to do so on a regular basis.
As for the business of music, as a young man, there was one thing I really wanted to do in this world and that was to be a musician. By the time Walls Of Genius coalesced, I had played in numerous bands pursuing numerous styles. One had dissolved in crazed misplaced recriminations over band politics (Long Lost Friend), another fell apart with accusations of my being ‘childish’ (Blitz Bunnies). I dropped out of college to play in another, a band that worked like the devil for months, played one concert and promptly fell to pieces (Dreamer Easy). I kept going, though. After college, I played in a group that started making money (Folk Grass Blues Band). We all worked construction by day, lived in a band house, and did our gigs at night. But still, it dissolved, again into misunderstandings and acrimony. At least this time, nobody was angry with me. In Colorado, I helped form a new wave band that promptly fell into more misplaced recriminations and accusations (Rumours Of Marriage). By that time, I had had it. I concluded that musicians were the weirdest and most difficult bunch of mercurial idiots I had ever known. I wasn’t particularly happy about the people who booked the venues, either. Liars, frauds, cheats, self-aggrandizing ass-holes arrayed in all directions like airborne Whack-A-Moles. Sick of charismatic leaders losing their shit and destroying all the work done by their fellow musicians, I decided to just chuck it. It was 1982 and I had a day-job and music had never paid the rent anyway.
Chucking it meant heading to Ed Fowler’s place on the weekends, drinking copiously and sucking on the bong, watching the Broncos, win-or-lose and jamming in the living room. We were both avatars of the “so-bad-its-good” aesthetic. Years before the world discovered and celebrated the cheesy wonder of the Great William Shatner, Ed had records (lps) of Telly Savalas, Shatner, Leonard Nimoy and plenty of others who thought to turn their fame into music in
the wild-and-woolly 1960s. He even possessed a recording of Gene Tracy’s version of “The Great Crepitation Contest”, a/k/a “Battle At Thunderblow”, a farting contest between Lord Windesmear and Paul Boomer. This would have us rolling on the floor with delight. “It’s a triple flutter blast!” We thought we were pretty hip because not only had we seen Plan 9 From Outer Space, we had also seen Glen Or Glenda and were conversant in John Waters’ movies from the years before he went Hollywood (Desperate Living, et al). We hadn’t yet heard The Shaggs, but we were very impressed with the naïve foolishness (and overblown self-importance) of Savalas, Shatner and company, not to mention Wild Man Fischer, who was the real thing, sans self-importance. So we were well prepared for silliness and abandon.
On top of this, we were geeks. You’d think that since we were in a band, we must have been getting a lot of action, what with all the groupies, right? The truth is that Walls Of Genius wasn’t particularly sexy. A lot of people thought that Little Fyodor and I were a gay couple, which didn’t help. I myself was in the midst of a multiple-year drought. Yes, there had been some opportunities, but being a nice guy (and a geek), I didn’t want to take advantage of women who were only of interest to me as sex objects. There would have just been more bad feelings and animosity to toss in the pot. ‘Free love’ had been floating around since the 60s, but I never found any that was actually ‘free’. For me, there had always been a price. For some, the price was far higher in the free-wheelin’ coke-fueled 80s. Looking back at the AIDs crises of the 80s, it was, perhaps, a good time to renounce promiscuity. Not that I had renounced it. It was something I just could not locate and the “hook-up” culture was thirty years into the future. It’s not fair for me to speak of others in this regard, but I think it’s safe to say that there wasn’t much happening for any of the three of us, our prospects appeared slim and we were pursuing one of the strangest band projects of all time. So we had plenty of energy and anomie available for railing against society and its norms. Put all of these elements together and, voila!, the boys go bonkers.
And yes, there was Ronald Reagan. Having grown up in the 60s and 70s, I was a member of a generation that thought it had fixed the world. There would be no more war, no more discrimination, no more environmental degradation, we were
all so enlightened. Then along came Reagan and the conservative backlash. This energized me to get in a political mode, in ways that Little Fyodor either didn’t understand or simply felt was irrelevant to our music-making. Trump, on the other hand, motivated Little Fyodor at a time when he was questioning his interest in music outside the Little Fyodor model. Ed objected to political content back in the 80s, although today he has morphed into a rabid, mouth-foaming liberal and I’m the one who has mellowed out. Trump? He doesn’t bother me. He’s no good, of course, but I don’t take him personal. Having survived a round with lymphoma, I’m not interested in letting that asshole enter my life in the way of stress.
We had some pretty good opportunities for letting it all hang down, too. Boulder still had a counter-culture vibe in the early 80s. There were even old, famous beatniks in Boulder courtesy of the then-Naropa Institute. I must admit that the old beatniks did not care for Walls Of Genius. Maybe they were stuck on be-bop jazz. But plenty of us were in revolt against the conservatism of old beatnik culture. So what if you had hung out with Jack Kerouac twenty years ago? This is 1984, Man! The future is now! We’re pushing the boundaries, NOW! This very revolt against the generation that “howled”, despite having actually inspired our own, was yet another reason to go bonkers. Going bonkers was itself a statement of cultural independence and a reasoned response to cultural stasis.
The battle sometimes took place on the air. During a KGNU fund-raising drive, on-air, an old beatnik who had his own talk show insulted the avant-garde classical show. I had the temerity to respond by making a disparaging remark about the old beatnik’s talk-show, emphasizing different strokes for different folks. That old beatnik regards me with the stink-eye to this very day. But on the other hand, consider the Friday night “Go For It” show on KGNU. You could call in and say almost anything you wished, right on the air. Sitting around on a Friday night in Eldorado Springs, Little Fyodor and I would call “Go For It” and as the weeks rolled by, we got crazier and crazier. I invented an insulting faux-redneck character named Roy Watkins who would ramble on about all the perversions of humanity, Boulderites in particular. I would play autistic screaming versions of Hank Williams and Creedence songs. I would channel “The Voice of God” and admonish Little Fyodor for his sins, mostly something to do with lusting in his heart. It was all in good fun and the timing, after a week of miserable toil at crappy jobs, was perfection itself. Of course, with the advent of YouTube, we could do all this today if we so wished. And therein lies the crux of the matter. Do we so wish?
So why my lack of interest in going bonkers as a reasonable and reasoned response to the madness of today’s world? I had asked myself a similar question years before, upon ending Walls Of Genius in 1986 (it was revived in 2014 with Now Not Then). The problem with going bonkers is how far will you, or can you, go? It’s kind of like the workplace exhortation that you should “exceed expectations”. How many times can you exceed expectations before that exception becomes the expectation itself? So, going bonkers. How crazed can you be before it becomes the “new normal”? Walls Of Genius established itself as a group going beyond-the-norms, unleashing our ids, dismantling our inhibitions and destroying them. Using what chops we had in the service of going ape-shit.
It worked and it was fun. And, lo-and-behold, people responded positively to it. Well, not everybody. But enough to keep us going, at least for a while.
Another question concerns the material to be explored, dissected and deconstructed. In the mid-80s, the music with which the three of us had grown up was sufficiently fresh enough in collective memory that the exploration was relevant. Exploring (and exploding) that material in 2018 is a different proposition. I have already expounded via a previous ramble on the various reasons for why I am mostly unaware of “new” music. So it’s a limited audience who would understand bonkerizations of classic rock. Of course, it was a limited audience in 1984 as well, but at least it was relevant to that limited audience and, through live performance and local media, there was a small overlap into the world of the normals. Thusly, our commentary was made known and available to the very society we were spoofing.
The truth is that I am no longer motivated to go ape-shit. Like the revived Walls Of Genius title of 2014 indicated, that was then and this is now.
I don’t seem to have much of the ape-shit left in me anymore. Maybe Little Fyodor does, although having perfected his shtick, going ape-shit doesn’t seem to be on the menu. He certainly performs with a lack of inhibition, but you know what you’re going to get at a Little Fyodor performance. He may be “out-of-the-box” by definition, but he’s not busting the envelope anymore simply by being Little Fyodor. Ed is only running wild with his traditional Coors Light in the living room, still refusing to sing and barely touching his instruments due to terrible arthritis. And me, oh sure, I’m still a smartass wisenheimer. But a lot of those things that I did back in the 80s, well, they happened and that was that. I’m glad they happened and I’m proud of the work we produced, but there’s just no way I can hope to channel the same energy that I had then. I can only channel what energy I might have now. I’m no longer an angry young man, mad at the world, sexually frustrated, freshly ticked off and pissed off at society. After 62 revolutions around the sun, I have accepted that society is fucked-up beyond repair and that, at best, human beings are a flawed experiment. At worst, we are the planet’s most dangerously destructive animal. If there’s a God, we are His or Her’s biggest mistake. I have no great expectation that the world is going to be a better place in the future than it is now or was in the past. Anything that I or Walls Of Genius might have to say about it will be heard by only a precious few and while it’s a good thing to do your best to make the world a better place, I have no illusions that my opinion counts for much in that regard. The world keeps turning despite our best efforts and will only be the same fucked-up place it always was, albeit with more technological devices stuffed into our hands. I don’t mean to say that there’s nothing good in the world. There’s plenty of good and I know where to find it. But still, the absurdities that energized me to go bonkers forty years ago no longer do. More power to those of you who still have it.
A lot of what we did in Walls of Genius was improvised, either partly or in full, essentially creating something out of thin air much of the time. Sometimes it was live on stage, other times right in the so-called studio. Even when we were doing “songs”, we would often launch into lengthy improvisations related to the song structures only by virtue of (usually) staying in the same key. How is this done and can anybody do it? Well, it’s not necessarily easy to explain and as for the second question, it’s sort of yes-and-no.
I’ve known many musicians who are uncomfortable with improvisation, especially where no previous song structure exists. They apparently require (or prefer) a structure to support the whole, as opposed to creating that structure on the fly. For the structural approach, think Miles Davis’ cool-jazz period, where the band improvised on extended song structures. For the unstructured, start-from-scratch approach, consider his electric years when he quite often showed up in the studio with two chords written on a paper bag and set the musicians on ‘play’. There’s nothing better or worse with either approach and at Walls of Genius we pursued both quite gleefully. Note the example below, a live version of the Alice Cooper song “I’m Eighteen”. The improvisatory section, while remaining in key, takes off from the song structure into a crazed chant.
It’s nice to know the structure of a song and have the chops to play it, but I’m not talking about live jukeboxes churning out note-for-note covers for wedding receptions. If you’ve got the chops and discipline to do that, more power to you, but I know that I would find it boring. The only way I can understand how a musician could possibly enjoy playing in a “tribute band”, churning out note-for-note covers of somebody else’s music, is to liken it to classical music. The classical musician, in an orchestra or string quartet, is playing the music verbatim from sheet music, note-for-note. That’s a tough nut for me. I like putting my own spin on things. In fact, it’s hard for me not to put my own spin on things. It’s always fun to learn a song correctly and it’s even more fun to do it “my way”. Improvisation lets you go further. That’s where you get a chance to go exploring.
Starting your adventure from scratch, however, you will find something magical and different in the creation of something out of nothing. A note here, a note there, some rhythm added and a new piece is spontaneously created. If it’s “on tape” (or was the result of particular combinations of riffs in the first place) it can be re-created. But if not, even if it’s a complete and total “one-off”, there it is, on tape, recorded for posterity. Listen to Hal McGee’s collages of daily life—they are all improvised one-offs, not designed to be re-created.
With my improvisatory band, Strange New Worlds, we took it to the far limit, never playing the same thing twice. We would set up and compose from scratch every time we played, whether in the studio or on the stage. We didn’t even discuss what we were aiming for or where we wanted to go with it. Our only plan was to start messing around until something jelled and it almost always did. Without recording technology to capture those bursts of creativity, it would be lost for all time. If we were playing the Burning Man Festival, that might be the point, but we weren’t.
Bassist Victor Wooten, in his book “The Music Lesson: A Spiritual Search For Growth Through Music”, articulates so much of what I already believed about improvisation that I would recommend it to anybody who loves making or listening to music. It might be a little airy-fairy for some readers when it comes to his spiritual pronouncements, but there’s a great deal of truth in it, especially for those wishing to pursue improvisation. The italicized passages below are culled from Wooten’s book and provide points of departure for my own reflections.
“Music is real, female, and you can have a relationship with her…like one-hand clapping, a one-sided relationship never works.”
Of course music is real. We’ve all heard it, so we know that it exists. “Music” (with a capital M), however, is a spiritual concept, a continuum and a channeling of energy. This is not something that can necessarily be measured, but is manifested quite clearly when we say a band or a player is “on” or “hot”. The channeled energy flows like a river through the artist into the audience and back. If the energy (a/k/a “xi” or “chi”) isn’t flowing, the musicians are either incompetent or having an off-night. I couldn’t say whether or not “Music” is female, but I agree that you must have a relationship with it conceptually in order to make it work as effectively as possible. It is a kind of magic, like karma. You only have to put a little bit into it to get a lot back.
How do we know this energy exists? Well, we don’t, not really. It’s a metaphysical explanation for a common experience that cannot be fully quantified scientifically. It could simply be the stimulation of adrenaline, endorphins and serotonin. But does it matter? Either way, it’s a physical and mental state sought by both musician and audience. When musicians feel like a “bird in a flock”, a sensation created while a band is “on”, that is not a measurable phenomenon. You could score a band on whether or not they were having a good night or were sluggish, but how would you go about it? What would it mean to grade a band on a scale of 1-to-10, with ten being the best concert ever? Would that score be meaningful? “Guys, we need to up our game, we were only about a 7 tonight…” If anybody told me that, my first instinct would be to tell them it wasn’t my fault and could you just fuck off? But this phenomenon can be experienced.
“You should never lose the groove in order to find a note…Once you find the groove, it doesn’t matter what note comes out; it will feel right…You are never more than a half-step away from a ‘right’ note.”
I learned this lesson playing the fretless bass. When I worried about hitting the right note at the exact spot on the neck, I couldn’t do it. But when I gave up worrying and just let the groove happen, it didn’t matter if I hit the exact “right” note or not, it sounded just fine. The groove was more important. One of the magic tricks in improvisation is that a “wrong note” is often just an opportunity to go in a new direction. If your music is sufficiently experimental or avant-garde, notes might even be superfluous. Noises or abstract sounds might suffice.
What does it mean to only be a half-step away from the ‘right’ note? Well, you can always slide a note up or down to arrive at the so-called correct note. Your audience will think you intended to play it that way. There are other tricks as well. For instance, if you look at the shape of chords on a guitar neck, you may notice that a Bb6-barre shares many of the same notes as a G-minor-7th. If you only play the four highest notes in the chord (strings 1-2-3-4), those chords are identical. One benefit of looking for these kinds of cross-overs is that you can give your fingers a break by abbreviating the chord. Another benefit is that you can make the music richer harmonically. Maybe a Bb6 will fit in that place where the sheet calls for a G-minor-7th .
“Repeating the ‘wrong’ note allows the listener to know where it’s going so that it begins to sound ‘right’… it’s a great way to correct mistakes after they’ve already been made… We can’t avoid making mistakes, but we can get comfortable with them.”
When you’re performing, you must never stop playing simply because you made a mistake. You have no choice but to play on through and most listeners won’t even notice, especially if you’re comfortable doing so and don’t make an awful face. In an improvisatory context, you may be able to turn the mistake into a fabulous new musical journey. I can’t tell you how many times this happened with Walls of Genius. Artists call these mistakes “happy accidents”. In a song context, if you just keep going, nobody will know you even made a mistake in the first place. Of course, if you are recording, the microphone will hear the error and you will very likely want to correct it in some manner. But when you are practicing or playing live, keep going so that you learn what it feels like to play through a mistake.
What happens when you stop in the middle of a song? The energy flow shuts off and you lose both your groove and audience. This once happened to a friend of mine. He had wangled his way into a fabulous venue opening for a famous name act. It could have been a tremendous opportunity for him. Halfway through one of his songs, he stopped and explained that he was recording the concert, had made a mistake and was going to start the song over again. The audience very likely hadn’t noticed anything because they had never heard his songs previously. He didn’t really need to have every song recorded perfectly. So what if one wasn’t perfect? I never heard that recording and he never got that gig again, losing multiple potential connections in the process. God rest his soul, Bob was a tragic victim of his own demons.
“A true musician plays Music and uses particular instruments as tools to do so.”
Making music does not depend on what instrument you play. Music is not about technique or virtuosity (although that can certainly be an interesting part of it). It is about the larger concept, “Music” the spiritual continuum. As far as my chops are concerned, I am a strong vocalist and can play (well) rhythm guitar, blues harp and the electric bass guitar. I can play lead guitar if I have enough distortion and you don’t mind a kind of crazed punk approach. I can play (middling) the baroque recorder, keyboards, upright bass and percussion. I have played numerous other instruments as well, regardless of how poorly. Put it in front of me and I’ll give it a try. Sometimes only one or two notes is all you need. When I played the saxophone with Leo Goya’s group The Miracle, I didn’t know squat about playing the sax, but I could apply what I knew about “Music” and thus contribute to the free-jazz chaos. When it comes to my vuvuzela (in the colors of the Mexican soccer team), I can make one note. Granted, it’s a loud note and it sounds like a dying hippo. I have not yet used it in a recording…
With Walls of Genius, we would try any instrument at hand. Frank Zygmunt once pulled an old warped autoharp from a dumpster and gave it to us. Both Little Fyodor and I managed to make very interesting and spooky music with it. Not that either of us “knew” how to “play” it or bothered to tune the warped old piece-of-crap autoharp. Frank also gave us a big sheet of plastic, very likely a lens for a fluorescent light fixture. We would wave the thing around and make a wonderful “woop woop” sound with it. It wasn’t even a musical instrument in the first place. A lot of the earliest incarnations of WoG were made with children’s toy instruments in Ed Fowler’s apartment. More recently, Ed came to a WoG
session with three ukuleles. I thought he must have been practicing the uke, but no, he said that I would have to play them! I had never played the ukulele before. So I looked at his ukulele song book, practiced a few chords. In minutes we were off and running with “All My Loving”. Does that mean that I am one of Wooten’s “true musicians”? Maybe. I’d like to think so.
“The bass guitar… is understated and underappreciated, yet it plays the most important role. The bass is the link between harmony and rhythm. It is the foundation of a band. It is what all the other instruments stand upon, but it is rarely recognized as that.”
As a bassist myself, I have always known that I was doing more than just holding down the time signature. The bass is continuously laying down a foundation for the harmony and melody, not to mention taking single-note leads since it rarely plays anything resembling a multi-note chord. I suppose it can be overdone, though. When I saw Mr. Wooten in concert, outside his progressive bluegrass context and doing his lead-bass thang, it was a bit over the top. Some restraint and good songs wouldn’t have hurt him. It certainly wouldn’t have hurt him to have taken his own advice. But yeah, I concede the fact that he had the fancy gig and adoring fans, so whatever he was doing must have been right for him.
“Imagine if we allowed beginners to jam with professionals on a daily basis. Do you think it would take them twenty years to get good? Absolutely not! It wouldn’t even take them ten. They would be great by the time they were musically four or five years old. Instead, we keep the beginners in the beginning level…There are professionals you can bring here to you… (on CD)”
Playing with others is always a learning experience. Wooten asserts that letting beginners play with accomplished players would heighten the learning experience and I agree with him. But this is not always possible and, in many cases, not even desirable, especially to those accomplished players. I use the skiing analogy—if you can whiz down the double-black-diamonds, you’re going to get bored really fast out on the green runs with the novice. A run or two, maybe, but more? Probably not. But beginners, don’t despair. You can use your stereo or computer and play along with anybody you wish. It’s not the same as playing live with better players, but it’s fun and is always a learning experience. With YouTube, you can even see (some of the times) how a musician is playing certain parts. This is why Django Reinhardt was famously nervous about being photographed while he performed. He didn’t want people to see how he did his thing. Nowadays, you can learn, from one source or another, how to play almost anything. But chops are not soul.
Learning how to play well with others is the real trick in improvising, both live and/or in the studio. When you’re playing with others, you need to scale back and play less. The more players in the room, the fewer notes each player needs in order to fill the room with music. Five players, all restraining themselves, can create an incredible sound together. Without restraint, the result will usually be cacophony, which is, admittedly, sometimes a desired end. But not always. Most of the time, the players around you will appreciate it if you restrain yourself.
I eventually gave up playing with The Miracle because I felt too many players were involved. When we lost George Stone’s jazz piano as a touchstone and lined up as many as six saxophone honkers all in a row, it had morphed from music into cacophony. This didn’t stop Little Fyodor, though, and he kept The Miracle alive through many more sessions, many of which produced credible free jazz and avant-garde music.
What if you’re handed a recording that was itself an improvisation and asked to overdub additional parts? I approach this by improvising with the improvisation. I know I’ve found the parts that fit when they sound like they were improvised in the room alongside the original improvisation. The excerpt below began as a percussion track. Inventing a part on the spot, I added bass and then finished up with electric guitar.
“The way you play notes causes them to sound different… changing the duration allows your ear to hear and respond differently…”
There’s a real difference between playing legato (slow), staccato (pointy) or allegro (fast), for instance. Or cutting a note off abruptly versus letting it ring. Think about the endings of songs, for instance. Even after long improvs, a good solid ending is better than a fadeout. It makes your group sound “tight”, “competent” and “together”, even if the improvisation is itself sloppy. Witness the success of numerous jam bands. Whether you stop a note abruptly or let that note ring makes a difference, but only you can tell which is best in the situation. If you pound on your keyboard, it sounds different than if you tickle the keys. If you finger-pick a G-chord on the guitar, it sounds different than wailing away on the same chord with a heavy plectrum (pick).
“Most people play louder to get someone’s attention, but getting quieter can stop a bull from charging… Most artists think the louder they play, the more emotion there is. Actually, it is the other way around. The emotion has to be real when you are not hiding behind loud volume.”
Dear Lord, Yes! Most musicians let volume get out of control. Rather than get louder in your effort to communicate your message, take it down and explore the subtle mysteries of minimalism. Can you say more with less? If not, you are limiting yourself as a musician and making it more difficult for other musicians to play with you.
“I could tell that the drummer had chops, but the fact that he wasn’t showing them off was impressive…If you don’t play the rests (and) give them the same attention that you give the notes, you’ll rush.”
Drummers are notorious for volume, but they’re not the only musicians who chronically overplay. Think of those players who must exhibit every note, every lick or run that they have ever learned, and play them all at once. They think that they must impress the hell out of you (or, in some instances, make you go away). They take up too much space. They are not necessarily egotists, but they have an egotistic or narcissistic approach. Maybe they just don’t know any better. They don’t leave room for other musicians to travel along with them. As a bassist, I learned this lesson intuitively. For one thing, when I started out, I didn’t have the chops that I had later on, so I had no choice but to simplify. Later on, as my facility improved, I could pick-and-choose those passages in which to lay back or step up front. I had to learn it a little more consciously with the blues harp and the guitar, but as soon as I started laying back and stopped showing off with the blues harp or dominating the moment with too much rhythm guitar, my playing jumped up a level, was more rhythmic, and it was more fun as well.
“Exercise mind and body control… don’t think about it. Allow it to happen. This is the time for ‘not concentrating’.”
What you “intend” to do is different than what you may be “trying” to do. This is basic Yoda-101: “There is no try, there is only do”. For instance, don’t “try” to learn a part or a song, just “do it”. As far as the “not concentrating” is concerned, don’t worry about what you can or cannot do technically. Let it go and go with the flow. Chances are you’ll be learning on the fly and play better than you did previously.
“Play me (Music) all you want, but you must know this: it is only when you allow >me< to play >you< that you will know me completely because then we will be one and the same.”
This is airy-fairy new-age-speak about getting in “the zone”. All musicians seek that magical experience of letting the energy of the universe flow through them, or into them, or in and out of them, or whatever it is they think is going on when they find themselves in “the zone”. You don’t even need to warm up before a performance if you know how to get there already. Are you confident that this will happen shortly after you begin playing? When I perform, I know where “the zone” is and don’t hardly need any warming up. Not everybody is like that—most people need to get warmed up before they get in “the zone”. If you already know where the zone is, there’s no particular reason that you won’t get there almost
instantly. My ability to get in “the zone” is why I almost always sing the first two songs of the first set with my bar band, the CBDs. This is not true for everybody, though, and I’ve always wondered why that was the case.
“Don’t try real hard, try real easy. Treat it like a game.”
They don’t call it “playing” for nothing. If it isn’t any fun, you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place. If it feels like work, something wrong is going on. In many ways, music is, as Wooten claims, a game or a puzzle.
“Play quieter to make (an audience) listen…When you’re playing to an
inattentive audience, you and your bandmates are the background noise… you can make them listen without their even knowing it. The best way to do that is through dynamics, or even better, through space. Create silence…Learn how to make a rest speak louder than a note. Play a musical line and start leaving notes out, putting the emphasis on the rest.”
Dynamics is about varying the volume and intensity of different parts of a piece, and “space” refers to the empty spaces between notes. Both are essential to making music work effectively. This is, again, about leaving space for both the “Music” and the other musicians. Moments of silence between notes keeps rhythmic parts more well-defined and leaves spaces for other sounds. This is essential in most improvisation. If the music remains at the same volume throughout, it can generate ear-fatigue and eventually become nothing more than background noise or Muzak. Note the predilection of grunge bands to contrast quiet contemplative sections with raging mania from one verse to another. Perhaps they learned this trick from the bombastic classical composers of earlier generations.
“(Frogs) listen all right, better than most humans do…Each animal made a sound that somehow supported the other sounds while leaving enough space for all to participate.”
Wooten may overstate the ‘ability’ to communicate with animals, especially when a frog hops up onto his knee and a deer rubs her moist nose on his cheek, but animals do listen. I have had numerous conversations with ravens, swallows and swifts in the Utah canyon-lands over the years by mimicking their calls on the baroque recorder. It certainly attracts their attention and they definitely have something to say about it. They don’t seem interested in the blues harp at all. The chorus of frogs that Wooten talks about is a good metaphor for a band context, the leaving of “enough space for all to participate” and listening to one another to find the right places in which to play.
“Most musicians seem to reserve their ears for themselves rather than open up their ears to the rest of the band.”
This is because most musicians are worried that their playing is insufficient and it’s all they can do to keep up… or they want to show off their fabulous chops. Either way, it is an egotistic and narcissistic mistake not to listen to the rest of the band. Once you open your ears, you are in position to make both yourself and all the other musicians sound better. Not every song needs to feature YOU above all others. When you make the musicians around you sound better without self-aggrandizing grandstanding, you’re really getting it.
“Practice while you play so that you can make the most of both…Music should not feel like work. If it does, you know you are going about it the wrong way.”
Or make practice play… remember, it should always be fun. You can ‘work’ on stuff without feeling like you’re at ‘work’. If it’s not fun, why would you even bother? I suppose this is easy for me to say. As a hobbyist who dabbles in professional music, I’ve never had to make my living from it. Walls Of Genius certainly kept me busy and at a certain point I became admittedly overwhelmed. But I was never forced to work so hard, promoting and performing endlessly, that music became like a “job” to me. I would advise anybody making music, from the total amateur to the professional, to keep as much “fun” as possible in the picture. When the performer is having fun, the audience is, too.
“Music is a part of who you are.”
In a way, you are a conduit for “Music”. At its best, it flows through you,
energizes you and takes you to ecstatic heights as both a listener and a
musician. It must be a part of you always if you are to appreciate it as fully as possible.
“When have you ever truthfully said ‘thank you’ to your (instrument of choice)?”
This was a new one to me. I had never before “thanked” my bass, my guitar, my harmonicas. But really, they deserve our thanks. We work them really hard when we play them. Some of us maintain them very carefully, cleaning and polishing, changing strings and all that. But thanking them? Hey, it couldn’t hurt. We always thank our audiences, don’t we? Gratitude is a good thing. We wouldn’t even be on stage if there was no audience who wanted to hear musicians getting in the groove. So thank you for reading this… And thank you, Fender Jazz Bass for facilitating a life in “Music”.
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.
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.