by Evan Cantor
It is often claimed that the Do-It-Yourself scene of the 1980s (a/k/a “Cassette Culture”) provided opportunity for all comers, that there existed no hierarchy and no “star” performers. In one sense this is quite obviously true. If “star-dom” equates to celebrity in the wider world, participants in the scene could not achieve it since the scene was underground by definition. However, it would be disingenuous to assert that there were no “stars” of the underground. Amongst others, a few names illustrate this: Minoy, R.S. Moore, Campau, Smersh, Camper Van Beethoven, Viscera, Margolis. As its prime mover, I have always believed that Walls Of Genius were equally ‘stars’ of this scene.
One of the marvelous aspects of the scene was that anybody could fire off cassettes and materials to various reviewers working in ‘zines, flyers and magazines of the age. You could be reasonably assured that the materials would be received and perhaps listened to or looked at, as opposed to being tossed into the trash by the mainstream media. But it would be, again, disingenuous to claim that we were indifferent to the response. It was easy enough to submit materials, but there was no guarantee that they would be reviewed, much less lauded by the reviewer. With Walls Of Genius, we cherished even the negative reviews, because they made us laugh, and, as Richard Nixon so famously asserted, there is no such thing as bad publicity.
Just as people today wait with baited breath for their Facebook ‘likes’, we at the Hall Of Genius waited on tenterhooks for responses to our latest releases. We examined the market, such as it was, and responded in kind. Thus we evolved from simply turning on a boom-box to record drunken afternoons of musical revelry to more serious premeditated pursuits. Found sound and sound collage was popular with the underground, so we did that. Industrial noise-music was popular, too, so we did that also. Sado-masochistic themes were popular with the scene, so we went there as well. It’s not that we had no interest in these things. We had pursued elements of them before discovering the scene, but noting their prevalence, we pursued them more aggressively. This was a self-conscious effort to both attract attention and earn respect within the parameters of the underground. For those who thought Walls Of Genius was just a lot of crazy screaming shit, these efforts were a part of the program to demonstrate that the crazy screaming shit had an intellectual background, a kind of musical sociology. We wanted to not take ourselves seriously, but we were truly serious about our product and that particular attitude. Personally, I had “had it up to here” with pompous, self-important ego-maniac musicians.
Not everyone understood this perspective, but still, people wanted to be known, to be appreciated and to see it in print, and we were no exception. Thus was born the ill-conceived collaboration of Walls Of Genius and Architects Office. The Architects wanted attention and knew that distribution by Walls Of Genius as a ‘cassette label’ would open doors to the underground press that might otherwise take a much larger effort. And I thought that our position in the underground hierarchy would be enhanced by the association. So we opened those doors, but the two groups’ attitudes toward marketing of the material was so divergent that animosities linger to this very day.
This is not what most people consider when they think of “star-dom”. Underground celebrity is by definition under-the-radar of mainstream culture. The cassette culture’s proprietors could count themselves lucky if several thousand individuals heard their recordings. As for “star-dom”, this would count for almost less than nothing in today’s Youtube culture. In three years’ time, Walls Of Genius distributed nearly one-thousand cassette tapes. This was not a virtual effort, it was live flesh-and-blood product. We had to dub tapes, put together packages, create catalogs and do the mailings. It became overwhelming and superseded our acts of creation as the flood of traded materials flowed through the mail-box. This was a boon to the underground dee-jay, but only one of us in Walls Of Genius filled such a role (Little Fyodor’s midnight radio show “Under The Floorboards”).
What is required of traditional “star-dom” or celebrity? Think of the sacrifices, the demands, the persistence, the self-importance, the dedication, the very lifestyle itself. It would be completely disingenuous of me to say that we didn’t hope the underground would succeed beyond its own small parameters. The ego within me would love to see Rolling Stone feature Walls Of Genius on the cover with an article about the forty rock-stars claiming WoG as a “seminal influence”. And yes, I admit to being an egotist. But the realist within me knows better. Both “star-dom” and the failure to achieve it can be totally destructive. I have known those for whom the lack of fame led to self-destruction and, by the same token, the roll-call of “A-list Celebrity” tragedy is legion. So one must maintain equilibrium in order to remain sane. The ‘stars’ of the underground achieved the approximate dream of artist Edgar Degas: to be both famous and anonymous, known within the underground, but not outside of it. Was this really our dream?
During the heyday of Walls Of Genius (1983-1986), we performed live. Each show was an amalgam of the many types of things we were recording. In order to pull this off, I had to bring bass, bass-amp, acoustic guitar, electric guitar, guitar amp, various percussion devices including drums and trash-can lids, cassette machines with pre-recorded material, microphones and P.A. equipment to each show. And then there was Ed and Fyodor’s equipment as well. That was true dedication and I wouldn’t do it now without a hefty pay-check and roadies. Because of those performances, we were occasionally recognized on the street and we were always gratified by the recognition. So you can’t tell me that ‘star-dom’, fame’ or ‘notoriety’ were not somewhere on our minds. Who would even read my reflections on the subject if some element of notoriety had not been achieved? It would be disingenuous of me to claim otherwise.