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.
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.