lecture & listening by Ian Nagoski, recorded in Philadelphia, PA at the Rotunda, sponsored by Bowerbird.
I’m leaving for tour in a few days and will be mostly out of touch and unable to enliven your internet hours. So, I’m leaving behind as a going-away present one of my all-time favorite records. It was recorded around 1914 or 1915 in Europe and issued in America by Victor records, credited to Hubertus and titled “In a Zoological Garden.” (It may have been marketed to an ethnic audience, given the designation “Polish Comedy” on the label, despite language being a non-issue.)
I hope to see you when I’m on the road.
Following his successful and much talked about tour of Europe last year to discuss and share the treasure trove of lost music he unearthed in producing the collection To What Strange Place: The Music Of The Ottoman-American Diaspora 1916-1929 (Tompkins Square), Ian Nagoski crosses the Atlantic again to reveal more beauty he has found amongst crates of forgotten 78s and that led to the creation of 6 more collections of music from various continents and for such great labels as Dust-To-Digital, Important, Mississippi and others. Once again, Ian will share found sonic treasures with audiences and reveal the sometimes tragic, sometimes magical stories of the songs and those performing them.
He is the Special Guest of the most recent issue of SoundAmerican.org (featured in this month’s issue of The Wire), where he is described as, “one of the most singularly important young voices in the preservation of music in America”
His new lecture, titled The Widow’s Joy: Pride, Genius, Grief & Lies from International 78rpm Recordings, seamlessly presents recordings from the mid-1910s to 1950 across a wide geographic area. Musicians, famous and obscure, “classical” and “folk” alike are presented side-by-side as Nagoski describes one life after another of a creative person whose biography was marked by displacement, tragic circumstance, great opportunity, and forces of history beyond their control.
In the process, Nagoski shares rarely-heard and often deeply touching performances, some joyous and some heartbreaking, while asking questions about the value of life and meaning of music.
“Like [Harry] Smith, Nagoski is a Walter Benjamin visionary, using his collection of 78s to hallucinate a history that actually happened but which remains hidden beneath official dogma and nationalisms.” -Marcus Boon, the Wire
“It’s almost in a mystical way. He’s not just talking about: ‘Here’s this item I own.’ When he talks about or writes about these items, they’re discs that can really transport you.” - Ben Chasney, Six Organs of Admittance
“a beautiful and labyrinthine Americana, one that stretches confines of the definition of the word itself.” - Thom Jurek, AllMusic
“work of great beauty.” - Jace Clayton, DJ /rupture, WFMU
“I was entranced. I was FASCINATED.” - Henry Rollins, KJFC
“his work is so rare and important that it should almost be treated as a ritual object, a pathway to the past and a voice for ghosts of a forgotten part of American musical history… He is not an academic, but a street corner preacher. His milieu is probably a bar or rock club as much as it would be behind a lectern, but that’s the point of someone like Ian. His work lives in two places at once: in the mind of the academic and in the heart of the public. For that reason alone, he is special.” - Nate Wooley, Sound American
Special event: April 22 at Museum fur Naturkunde in Berlin, Germany, opening of a new exhibit in collaboration with the Center for Postnatural History.
9, Rue Des Amis
8.30pm 10 swiss francs
Tweede Walstraat 5/6511 LN
+ Zoikle ft. G.W. Sok + Johns Lunds (DK)
Huis23, Ancienne Belgique
4:30 pm, start 5:00 pm
Free, but please subscribe: email@example.com
Summerhall, Red Lecture Theatre
Summerhall, 1 Summerhall Place
Back Stowell Street
+ Asmus Tietchens
11 Gillett Square
8 Kings Road
(very limited tickets - advance purchase essential, call 01424 428 223)
Colchester Arts Centre
+ Nathaniel Mann
A LUTHER BLISSETT, CASF, “ACTIVITY”
DURING THE NEXT HEAVY SNOWFALL:
1.) Pick out a single snowflake to watch and follow it urgently with your eyes until it hits the ground.
2.) Do this again.
3.) Do this 27,000 times.
4.) Pull a small pen knife and menace passers by.
5.) Challenge them to tell if you are ghost or human.
6.) Make up a little chant about Dancing Your Animal and whisper it on the street and in theaters.
7.)Notice how small and cold and like porcelain your hand seems, besides the slashed seat cushions.
8.) Look inward and see what can be done about these great dark splashes that go unexplained in the snowy barnyard of your soul.
9.) Whip it.
The first thing that those of us who knew Blaster will usually tell folks about him is how deeply he was committed to a unique vision of humanity. There’s a line in the intro to his Omnibus about his stories and images being populated with “ghoulish fools.” And there’s always something said by us acolytes about how incredibly funny he is, accompanied by descriptions of the tears or, among his drinkier friends, pee lost in the process of enjoying his ohmygod harharlarious stuff . And then, at some point, there’s the earnest admission that after going down the rabbithole of his output, that the world looks different and that, although you can never really hope to be as good as him, that there’s been a successful seduction, and now you find yourself seeing with Blaster-colored glasses at times and prideful when you’ve said or done anything vaguely Blasterish, usually in prosaic terms like, “he was such a huge influence on me.”
Since he’s been gone, I’ve been thinking about this little speech, the structure of it as I’ve heard it given and given it myself, and the ways in which I’m bound to hear it again in the inevitable celebrations of him in the months to come. There’s a lot I don’t know about how he transmitted to us because he operated as an anti-guru, teaching without teaching and studiously swerving much sense of lineage. But because I was lucky enough to see him in his off-hours on a regular basis during a few years in the mid-00s when we were roommates in a one bedroom apartment (he had the back room and the alley entrance; I had the living room with the tiny kitchen and bathroom and his always-closed panel door between us), a few things do seem worth sharing out loud for the sake of celebration of the man he was and for comfort in the face of the grief that we feel for a friend and hero now gone. He was such a good pal and a great help to those of us who knew him.
Exhibit A: Dogs, Children, and the Creeps who Care for Them
I don’t know if it was ever published, but I recall Blaster reading at a Shattered Wig night a story in which he described himself as a one-man cheering section for the dogs he saw defecating on lawns around the neighborhood. The idea was that each time he saw some pooch taking care of business, Our Man would root him on with the encouraging proclamation that, “that boy’s moving his bowels pretty good!” And the thing was, he was just that kind of a booster for anyone he saw as innocent. Dogs and kids were alright with him, and he gave a lot of credit and warmth to people, although he was keenly discerning in the behaviors of the cast of characters that surrounded him. He stayed friends for ages with people whose behavior was unjustifiably chaotic or even dishonest, summing long-time friends up in moments of sad forgiveness simply by saying, “everyone knows he’s goofy,” or something equally diffusive of hostility or conflict. I mean that he was kind and compassionate, but I’m not saying he wasn’t clear about who was who. His shuddering revulsion at the simple presence of certain humans, characterized, for instance, with a summation that, “when that guy walks into the room, it feels like all the oxygen has just been sucked out,” made it clear that he’d been working all his life on a study of character. So, although he was never someone who shouted about anyone’s greatness much, if there was some laconic remark of approval or the opposite, you could believe it. I remember how he disliked seeing friends fall out, and while he and I had our ups and downs due to my chaotic behavior (while Blaster, meanwhile, was steady as a rock) the meanest thing he ever said to me, as I was on the precipice of some genuinely terrible decision was the sharp derision, “you FOOL!” Maybe he was capable of meaner words when he was younger or older, but during the time we were close, it was the worst insult I can imagine coming from him, and it saved me then from really fucking up.
Exhibit B: Endless Details of Tertiary Characters
If you ever talked with Blaster about books or movies, you’d notice that he rarely recommended anything unless he felt you were asking for it. He’d pass favorite recent reading and viewing along happily, but as a literary conversation progressed, the vastness of his knowledge became clear, startling, and intimidating. I once described a mutual aquaintance to him as being “like a character from a Russian novel,” to which he replied, genuinely annoyed by my indistinctness, “which novel?” And the truth is that if I’d named a book to him at that moment, he would have known just what I meant. He retained characters, in minute detail, in his memory banks from things he’d read once decades ago. I never heard him say, and can’t now imagine him saying, “I don’t remember.”
Exhibit C: A Letter for a Letter
Because he self-promoted to the tune of deathlike silence, whenever I met someone who might benefit from his work, I asked him if it was alright if I passed his mailing address along. “Sure, baby,” came the inevitable reply. And as far as I know, he sent a postcard for a postcard and a letter for a letter to everyone who wrote to him. When I moved away, I got from him just as good as I gave and slightly - just slightly - more. (And goddammit, my greatest regret in our relationship was that I didn’t give more, partially because he deserved more from me and partially because of the chuckles and bafflement and fun I could have gotten in return.) I know it was that way with lots and lots of people.
Exhibit D: It’s a Loose Shoe
Often repeated, the advice to “Always Try to be Lucky Enough to Work in a Despised Medium,” was credited by Blaster to Frederic Brown from correspondence from Blaster’s youth. Blaster, of course, left little in terms of a paper trail that anyone could nail down and fucked around with who-did-what-when so much that Emily Fussleman’s Rabbit only knows whether Brown ever wrote any such thing, but it was a deeply sincere motto for Blaster. Freedom meant everything, and that meant sacrifice and self-attunement. Of the latter, I remember particularly a moment when arriving home one evening to find Blaster standing over the open, blue flame-peaks of the gas range with his hands held steadily a few inches from their tops. Peering into the otherwise dark kitchen, I quietly asked after his well-being, “Blaster? Are you cold, man?” Without moving his downturned palms, his gaze came dreamily toward me as he greeted with his traditional, “hey, baby.” As he moved his eyes back down to his spidery, white mitts and the quiet surrounding them, I tried again: “Y’alright?” “Yeah,” he said, “old Indian trick. If you feel like you’re getting sick, you hold your hands over a flame and focus on the warmth entering into them. I’m fine.” Meanwhile, evidence of years of deprivation overflowed in our kitchen around him. Anything he didn’t eat from any meal was retained assiduously for some unknown eventuality. Dozens of empty peanut butter jars eventually filled the cabinets, each with only bare scrapings inside. A few swallows of Coke and a third or a bottle of Heineken stayed for months, lined up like clay Chinese funerary sculptures in the fridge. The last two bites of any sandwich were carefully wrapped in tinfoil and stowed in the freezer until it was overflowing in graying, shiny packets of inedible crusts, and the top of the fridge was stacked in a tower of cardboard tubes from the insides of the tinfoil rolls. Eventually, I got the nerve to ask, “Blaster, how would you feel if I threw away those cardboard tubes or the peanut butter jars?” “Sure thing,” he replied, “you can do it. But I can’t. It’s no problem. I’m crazy, but I’m not THAT crazy.” Which is one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever heard anyone say.
(Once, after I’d cleaned the kitchen and bathroom, Blaster was so alarmed that I got a full-on Redd Foxx about-to-have-a-heart-attack panic attack as he genuinely feared we’d been robbed of our grit and mold by bandits before I explained to him what I’d done. “What a homecoming! I’ve got to lie down!” He was fine an hour later.)
Exhibit E: What a Great Liar!
We were talking about possessions and moving once, and Blaster told me that he’d helped a woman move and that among her effusion of stuff, he had carried a box labeled “Junior High School Sweaters.” I got a good laugh out of it. Years later, I met the woman in question, and told her smirkingly of Blaster’s divulsion of that intimate detail of her personal inventory. In no uncertain terms, she replied that she had never had any such box. It was clear that he’d made it up on the spot just to make a point and to make me laugh. Her name had simply worked in the moment as the character in the story he was creating.
On another occasion, I staggered into the apartment mid-afternoon after a catastrophically grim weekend-long date with a woman at my parents’ beach condo. Standing in the doorway of my room, Blaster listened fixedly to me as I unwound the tale from my slumped position on a chair. My pathetic estrangement from this girlfriend had come about gradually as I had repeatedly noticed her gazing at me from behind a cloud of weed smoke with a terrified and puzzled expression. He retreated to his room, energized, and poked his head back into my space a couple times to ask again about her facial expression. “Would you say that she had a look of suspicion and vague hysteria?” Yeah, I said. That’s about right. Later, “Would you say that she looked like a were-cat-badger-hawk?” I laughed. You know, she kind of did. The next day he, presented me with my own story, filtered through his own set of images and incongruities, titled “Hussrl” (who I was reading at the time) and, a blessing on his head, dedicated to me. (It wouldn’t surprise me if in a hundred years that dedication weren’t what I was best known for.)
Blaster’s voluminous, voracious reading habit included bits of what he referred to as members of the “Poetry-Death Crowd,” in other words, the poetry establishment, the kinds of people who were recognized in their own time as being Serious Poets for poignant images and downy styles. But he knew – KNEW – and showed by example that poetry is a behavior, a coping mechanism, and a way of being. It’s all of the playfulness and decent, kind fucking-around that you do because if you don’t, it all starts to feel like “nah.”
What’s happening, man?
How’s [that thing] going with [that person]?
Blaster’s voice in my head saying stuff like that are the core questions in every piece of work and every relationship I have undertaken since knowing him, just as much as:
Titans Be Pondering
Are You My Daddy?
Here, Have a Peanut
You Are the Entity.
The Search for Puffy Treats
Why Did You Steal My Watch?
I Taught my Dog to Shoot a Gun
All Different All the Same
Or any of the other lugubrious gibberish that changed the world for me and my friends, feabs, floaters, and lurkers.
Margaret McKee (b.1898; d. 1960), around the time of her professional debut, in 1917, when Sarah Bernhardt wrote that she was “Wonderful! I have heard the greatest artists in Europe and America, but I’ve never heard her equal. She is a little jewel - ‘the Queen of Whistlers.’”
McKee specialized in bird imitation, drawing from both an artistic whistling tradition of theater performers and from naturalist observation, going back, in a sense perhaps tens of thousands of years.
This performances is from around the time of the peak of her popularity in the late 20s:
Rev. Charlie Jackson & Brother James of Baton Rouge - Come Into My Room
Recorded Rosedown Baptist Church, St. Francisville, Louisiana, July 7, 1974.
Released on the LP Lord You’re So Good: Live Recordings, Vol. 2 (50 Miles of Elbow Room #6, 2012). www . 50 miles of Elbow Room . com
Production by Adam Lore.
Sound restoration by Ian Nagoski.
HOTEL HIBISCUS CITY - is a 14 part video involving “Agent Kupa” an alien, ultimately incompetent, inter galactic investigator sent to earth to investigate an outbreak of ‘tarantulism’ or ‘dancing madness’. His investigative adventures take him on a trip around the world visiting Australia,…
Photo: “Kesarbai Kerkar” and “The Widow’s Joy - Eastern European Immigrant Dances in America, 1925-1930” LPs on Canary Records.