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autoclip: one-man bands

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  • Wilson, Carl
    For tomorrow s Globe & Mail in Toronto, Canada. What do you think: Was I too harsh on the world s brave one-man bands? ... One-man bands: only the lonely? CARL
    Message 1 of 4 , Apr 30, 2003
      For tomorrow's Globe & Mail in Toronto, Canada. What do you think: Was I too
      harsh on the world's brave one-man bands?

      -----Original Message-----

      One-man bands: only the lonely?

      CARL WILSON
      SCENE

      Dick Van Dyke - so much to answer for.

      If the one-man band is the ultimate form of do-it-yourself punk rock, as
      proposed in a new documentary screening in Toronto tonightthurs, then what
      is the squeaky-clean actor's appearance in Mary Poppins, little cymbals
      between his knees, harmonica to his mouth, blowing a horn with his chin,
      squeeze box in his hands, drum and cymbals on his back and strung to his
      leg? That scene seems to be like the first Ramones album, enticing countless
      walleyed children to chase an alternative future.

      Or so say two Canadian participants in Let Me Be Your Band by novice
      Mississauga filmmaking couple Derek and Heather Emerson, showing tonight at
      11 p.m. at the Bloor Cinema in the current Hot Docs film festival. One is
      Mayor McCa, a guitar, kazoo and foot-driven-drum act who works the lonelier
      side of the indie-rock tracks; another is Washboard Hank, long-time
      percussionist for alt-country hero Fred Eaglesmith and now a solo performer
      for adults and children, who bangs bells and pieces of metal all over his
      body (including a helmet) to accompany melodies on such instruments as the
      hub-cap guitar and the kitchen-sink tuba.

      To be precise, Hank specifies in the film: "Dick Van Dyke ruined my life!"
      It's only stage banter, but the undertow tugs when you see this handsome man
      out of his show gear, remarking on how all his former romantic partners have
      become resentful of his Washboard Hank persona: "If you ever have all your
      instruments in the room at once," he laments, "goodbye, wife."

      Of course, the chimney sweep shouldn't shoulder all the blame. The
      documentary's major subject, veteran rockabilly singer Hasil Adkins of Boone
      County, W. Va., had never seen a one-man band on stage or screen when he
      came up with his "wild man" guitar-drum-and-harmonica-ravaging style. He
      just heard Hank Williams hits on the radio and didn't realize the band sound
      was being made by more than one person; by the time he found out, he decided
      he'd gone too far down the one-man road to turn back. Adkins has been a
      one-man band (or 1MB, as I'll call it from here on) for 40 years, inspiring
      tributes from garage-punks like the Cramps in the 1980s.

      Others were too willful, musically inept or antisocial to do it any other
      way, from blues-rock 1MBs King Louie and Bob Log III (who thumps drums with
      his feet, plays a mean slide guitar and wears a motorcycle helmet rigged up
      with a telephone receiver for a microphone) to Boston's
      guitar-drums-dobro-banjo-etc. bluegrass 1MB Eric Royer - who performs on his
      "guitar machine" at tonight's screening, along with Mayor McCa (both also
      have gigs at Healey's on Bathurst St. this week, Royer on Saturday and McCa
      on Wednesday).

      And some, such as Chicago keyboards-drums-and-guitar multitasker the
      Lonesome Organist (a.k.a. Jeremy Jacobsen), are simply self-admitted
      showoffs.

      The 1MB story goes way back, as the film quickly glosses: Medieval
      troubadours played drums and pipes simultaneously, and from there stems a
      line of Elizabethan clowns, vaudeville comedians, buskers, patchwork
      inventors and blues and hillbilly musicians who, allowing for ornery
      dispositions or scarce resources, found ingenious means to fill out their
      solos.

      Sun Records, home of Elvis, Johnny Cash, B. B. King and other 1950s stars,
      had three separate black 1MBs on contract. Folk-blues 1MB Jesse Fuller rose
      to fame with his "footdella" (a foot-pedal-run string bass) and classic
      tunes such as San Francisco Bay Blues. (Unfortunately unmentioned are the
      likes of 1960s jazz innovator Rahsaan Roland Kirk, who would play percussion
      and three saxophones all at once, less for novelty value than as a symbolic
      link to those bluesmen, and for sonic exploration's sake.)

      Today, hundreds of buskers, circus acts, instrument engineers and sheer
      oddballs carry on the legacy. In October of 2002 (too late to be filmed for
      the movie), there was a 1MB festival in Chicago, tied to the fanzine
      Roctober's' "One Man Band Encyclopedia" issue. It featured dozens of
      performers beyond the handful celebrated in this endearingly amateurish
      documentary.

      The film's profiles gradually grow indulgent; what's more, it doesn't do
      much digging. For instance, "one-man band" is no misnomer. One-woman bands
      are \rare - the only one in the movie, from Peterborough, Ont., performs in
      a duo with her 1MB boyfriend and says she would hate going it alone. Solo
      woman singers are hardly unusual, so why 1MBs? The film mostly neglects to
      ask, save to mutter, "Goodbye, wife."

      Nearby, there lurks the question of 1MB's ties to the troubled category of
      "outsider music," often patronized like a carny sideshow for supposedly
      primitive, socially outcast, mentally ill or otherwise freaky creators.
      There's plenty there to explore, but the film ignores it and revels in
      Adkins's tarpaper-shack backwoods roots, often romanticizing lone "kooks" as
      punkish rebels against consumer culture. (Well, maybe, but should they be
      drafted by hipster fiat?)

      And finally, who and what and why is a 1MB in a time of sound effects,
      multitracking and digital sampling? The issue's raised by the inclusion of
      Tokyo busker Jason Degroot (a.k.a. 6955) - whose axe is a suitcase full of
      effects pedals hooked into a Nintendo Gameboy - but never addressed.

      Were studio wizards such as Brian Wilson or Todd Rundgren 1MBs? I just got
      a glorious carnival-jazz album by Ralph Carney, Tom Waits's clarinet player,
      who plays every part on it, sometimes a dozen instruments a song - is he a
      1MB? What about bedroom four-track artists in every genre, or the
      Casio-playing singers who tease symphonies from a rinkydink synthesizer?
      Hell, what about Aphex Twin, Moby or Dr. Dre?

      Asking such questions might have hinted why nearly all new old-style 1MBs
      seem to be white, and few seem to write worthwhile songs: Are they
      tinkerers, less about music than gimmicks or gear? Do they rouse curiosity
      because they've carried on trying to solve an obsolete problem, or because
      they're preserving the noble secrets of the handmade way? For all its gaps,
      Let Me Your Band may be a shaky sign to a higher road - or just a few sweet
      flowers on an empty grave.

      cwilson@...
    • Carl Abraham Zimring
      --On Wednesday, April 30, 2003 2:10 PM -0400 Wilson, Carl ... Would this be equating Adkins with, say, Daniel Johnston or Wesley Willis? ... Or *any* hip-hop
      Message 2 of 4 , Apr 30, 2003
        --On Wednesday, April 30, 2003 2:10 PM -0400 "Wilson, Carl"
        <cwilson@...> wrote:

        > Nearby, there lurks the question of 1MB's ties to the troubled category of
        > "outsider music," often patronized like a carny sideshow for supposedly
        > primitive, socially outcast, mentally ill or otherwise freaky creators.
        > There's plenty there to explore, but the film ignores it and revels in
        > Adkins's tarpaper-shack backwoods roots, often romanticizing lone "kooks"
        > as punkish rebels against consumer culture. (Well, maybe, but should they
        > be drafted by hipster fiat?)

        Would this be equating Adkins with, say, Daniel Johnston or Wesley Willis?

        > And finally, who and what and why is a 1MB in a time of sound effects,
        > multitracking and digital sampling? The issue's raised by the inclusion of
        > Tokyo busker Jason Degroot (a.k.a. 6955) - whose axe is a suitcase full of
        > effects pedals hooked into a Nintendo Gameboy - but never addressed.
        >
        > Were studio wizards such as Brian Wilson or Todd Rundgren 1MBs? I just
        > got a glorious carnival-jazz album by Ralph Carney, Tom Waits's clarinet
        > player, who plays every part on it, sometimes a dozen instruments a song
        > - is he a 1MB? What about bedroom four-track artists in every genre, or
        > the Casio-playing singers who tease symphonies from a rinkydink
        > synthesizer? Hell, what about Aphex Twin, Moby or Dr. Dre?

        Or *any* hip-hop DJ? Or does there have to be a novelty aspect to the live
        performance of the music?

        (By the way, is the Carney record the one on Black Beauty I asked about a
        few weeks ago?)

        > Asking such questions might have hinted why nearly all new old-style 1MBs
        > seem to be white, and few seem to write worthwhile songs: Are they
        > tinkerers, less about music than gimmicks or gear? Do they rouse curiosity
        > because they've carried on trying to solve an obsolete problem, or because
        > they're preserving the noble secrets of the handmade way? For all its
        > gaps, Let Me Your Band may be a shaky sign to a higher road - or just a
        > few sweet flowers on an empty grave.

        I wonder if the filmmakes would put New Zealand
        multi-instrumentalist/onetime Mecca Normal drummer Peter Jefferies in this
        category. He's not a novelty act by any means -- more like John Cale in
        Cale's more severe moods -- but he does a similar thing to the one-man
        bands onstage. Jefferies from an 1996 interview:

        "On a lot of the new songs I play the piano and the drums at the same time.
        It's a pianodrum. The piano runs through a distortion unit and delay into
        an amp. I have a kick drum which I use with my left foot, I play the
        keyboard with my left hand and the snare drum with my right. There is a mic
        over my left shoulder that I sing into. Sometimes I just use the kick drum
        and use two hands on the keyboard.

        "The first time I ever did it was in Wellington and had an excruciating
        headache by the time I finished the show. I'd make a mistake on the
        keyboard and I have to take my hand off, and my foot would stop working. It
        was like my body didn't know what to do. One day it dawned on me that it
        was a new instrument. Like when I sit down to play the drums, I'm not
        playing a drum and a drum and another drum and a cymbal. It's a drum kit.
        It's one thing. The brain thinks it's one thing, not nine things. When that
        dawned on me, it was a new instrument, everything including the microphone
        over my shoulder that I had to sing into, is all one instrument. When I saw
        it as one thing, I stopped and I was able to play it."

        His definition differs -- he is not a one-man band, but rather he has
        designed a new instrument from two existing instruments. Does that way of
        looking at his tools (much as a DJ would) place him apart from deliberately
        kitsch one-man bands? (And if it does, does that make Carl W.'s criticisms
        of the style even more damning?)

        Carl Z.
      • Wilson, Carl
        ... I don t mean that I am, but that a lot of the appreciation of him and other 1MBs, as represented in the film, seems to come from the same human-oddity
        Message 3 of 4 , Apr 30, 2003
          I wrote:
          > > Nearby, there lurks the question of 1MB's ties to the
          > troubled category of "outsider music," ...

          and Carl A.Z. wrote:
          > Would this be equating Adkins with, say, Daniel Johnston or
          > Wesley Willis?

          I don't mean that I am, but that a lot of the appreciation of him and other
          1MBs, as represented in the film, seems to come from the same human-oddity
          perspective. The maddening Irwin Chusid, for instance, generally lumps 1MBs
          in with his head cases and/or misunderstood geniuses in Songs in the Key of
          Z... I wonder if that guy was some kind of bully as a kid or whether this is
          just reverse projection.

          Anyway, personally, I'd argue the reverse case -- that what makes both
          Johnston and Adkins interesting is a genuine musical strength, to which
          their eccentricities are as secondary as any other musician's biography is
          (though likewise not entirely separate), and that there's something smug,
          condescending and anti-artistic in reversing those terms, regarding the
          music as a kind of pathological epiphenomenon.

          In cases where it's hard to take it any other way, like Willis's or some of
          the more talentless 1MBs, it's worth wondering what we're doing staring at
          the car wreck or sneaking into the sideshow tent.

          >> And finally, who and what and why is a 1MB in a time of
          >> sound effects, multitracking and digital sampling? <snip>... Hell, what
          about Aphex Twin, Moby or Dr. Dre?
          >
          > Or *any* hip-hop DJ? Or does there have to be a novelty
          > aspect to the live performance of the music?

          That's exactly my point: I don't think the one-man band as a musical genre
          should get folded entirely into the "novelty" category, because there's more
          legitimacy to it than that. The film's interest seems to be mostly in the
          novelty (I didn't even mention the obnoxious Asthmatic Avenger from France,
          who does goofy shtick in the latter half of the movie, because he's too
          stupid to mention). They try to be respectful of the artists, and the
          directors seem genuinely impressed and adoring of them, but they don't look
          at it as music nearly as much as spectacle. That's why they miss the whole
          electronics and studio angle, which in music history seems to render moot
          most of the previous legitimate reasons for old-style one-man-band music
          (such as, as many of the blues guys used to say, that it was better to go
          solo because bands were too often full of undependable drunks and gamblers
          -- just the reverse of the too-weird-to-collaborate image that the movie
          presents).

          Although turntablism of course has its own novelty factor, so it's not even
          outside the tent in those terms -- not to mention human beat boxes, who seem
          to go at it with a similar lone-inventor spirit. Rather than spend 20
          minutes on each of a few overlapping subjects, I wish the film got into some
          of those interconnections.

          > (By the way, is the Carney record the one on Black Beauty I
          > asked about a few weeks ago?)

          I was away when you asked about it, Carl, but yes, it is. I thought it was a
          reissue when I spotted it - it's in seventies-style jazz-album design style
          - but it seems to be a new recording, and it's really delightful. (I found
          out on AMG that he has a couple of previous solo recordings, at least one of
          which looks worth having too.) I don't know anything about Black Beauty
          itself, though.

          > I wonder if the filmmakes would put New Zealand
          > multi-instrumentalist/onetime Mecca Normal drummer Peter
          > Jefferies in this category. >

          They probably would if they knew of it, because they seem to be really
          hooked by the instrument-inventing side of the 1MB -- at the same time as
          being unaware of that tradition in all kinds of music *aside* from the
          one-man versions, which is another case of them jumbling up their
          definitions and not really looking closely. They also miss out on
          one-man-bands who work within bands -- even though they had one in the film,
          Washboard Hank, for instance, they never asked him about his role in
          Eaglesmith's band, which I think would have been an interesting
          sub-category.

          That description you quoted was great, and I wish I'd known about it when I
          was writing, because the likes of Jeffries seems to be too subtle for them.
          The Lonesome Organist, who I think is impressive technically but mostly
          sucks musically, is the closest they get to performers with any
          sophistication. They seem to have done all their research on the Internet -
          they've got some well-informed commentators on Adkins and a couple of other
          subjects, but otherwise don't seem to have gone beyond novelty acts (in whom
          their tastes are decidedly retro).

          Which is really too bad, as the film's quite enjoyable otherwise and their
          hearts seem to be in the right place - or at least a well-meaning wrong
          place. I'd still recommend seeing it. I just wished I'd had more space to
          consider all this stuff, rather than firing off a list of issues and
          questions in the second half, because after a day of research I found the
          one-man-band's place in music a pretty fascinating subject. The movie did
          that for me, and maybe it'll lead to a bigger project on the subject
          someday.

          carl w.
        • Carl Abraham Zimring
          ... Which sells, at least to a point. Anyone remember Life, Sex & Death? The rock band that fraudelently passed off their front man as a homeless guy in
          Message 4 of 4 , May 2, 2003
            Carl W., making me think about one-man bands more than I ever have, wrote:

            >> > Nearby, there lurks the question of 1MB's ties to the
            >> troubled category of "outsider music," ...
            >
            > and Carl A.Z. wrote:
            >> Would this be equating Adkins with, say, Daniel Johnston or
            >> Wesley Willis?
            >
            > I don't mean that I am, but that a lot of the appreciation of him and
            > other 1MBs, as represented in the film, seems to come from the same
            > human-oddity perspective. The maddening Irwin Chusid, for instance,
            > generally lumps 1MBs in with his head cases and/or misunderstood geniuses
            > in Songs in the Key of Z... I wonder if that guy was some kind of bully
            > as a kid or whether this is just reverse projection.
            >
            > Anyway, personally, I'd argue the reverse case -- that what makes both
            > Johnston and Adkins interesting is a genuine musical strength, to which
            > their eccentricities are as secondary as any other musician's biography is
            > (though likewise not entirely separate), and that there's something smug,
            > condescending and anti-artistic in reversing those terms, regarding the
            > music as a kind of pathological epiphenomenon.

            Which sells, at least to a point. Anyone remember Life, Sex & Death? The
            rock band that fraudelently passed off their front man as a homeless guy in
            order to get signed to Warner Brothers? Elements of their marketing
            reminded me a little of the promotion around both Johnston and Willis.

            > In cases where it's hard to take it any other way, like Willis's or some
            > of the more talentless 1MBs, it's worth wondering what we're doing
            > staring at the car wreck or sneaking into the sideshow tent.
            >
            >>> And finally, who and what and why is a 1MB in a time of
            >>> sound effects, multitracking and digital sampling? <snip>... Hell, what
            > about Aphex Twin, Moby or Dr. Dre?
            >>
            >> Or *any* hip-hop DJ? Or does there have to be a novelty
            >> aspect to the live performance of the music?
            >
            > That's exactly my point: I don't think the one-man band as a musical genre
            > should get folded entirely into the "novelty" category, because there's
            > more legitimacy to it than that. The film's interest seems to be mostly
            > in the novelty (I didn't even mention the obnoxious Asthmatic Avenger
            > from France, who does goofy shtick in the latter half of the movie,
            > because he's too stupid to mention). They try to be respectful of the
            > artists, and the directors seem genuinely impressed and adoring of them,
            > but they don't look at it as music nearly as much as spectacle. That's
            > why they miss the whole electronics and studio angle, which in music
            > history seems to render moot most of the previous legitimate reasons for
            > old-style one-man-band music (such as, as many of the blues guys used to
            > say, that it was better to go solo because bands were too often full of
            > undependable drunks and gamblers -- just the reverse of the
            > too-weird-to-collaborate image that the movie presents).

            And a lot of blues singers played on street corners, where perhaps space
            and revenue issues might combine to give incentive to go it alone. Jimmy
            Lee Robinson, for instance, played guitar and used spurs on his boots to
            supply percussion to his songs as his accompaniment up until his death last
            year.

            > Although turntablism of course has its own novelty factor, so it's not
            > even outside the tent in those terms -- not to mention human beat boxes,
            > who seem to go at it with a similar lone-inventor spirit. Rather than
            > spend 20 minutes on each of a few overlapping subjects, I wish the film
            > got into some of those interconnections.

            Though turntablism also have a large popular community, which runs counter
            to the outsider image that -- from your review -- would seem necessary to
            the one-man-band-as-spectacle slant of the film. Would a popular (writ
            large, beyond the cult level of the artists we're discussing here) act fit
            the aesthetic the filmmakers are defining?

            >> (By the way, is the Carney record the one on Black Beauty I
            >> asked about a few weeks ago?)
            >
            > I was away when you asked about it, Carl, but yes, it is. I thought it
            > was a reissue when I spotted it - it's in seventies-style jazz-album
            > design style - but it seems to be a new recording, and it's really
            > delightful. (I found out on AMG that he has a couple of previous solo
            > recordings, at least one of which looks worth having too.) I don't know
            > anything about Black Beauty itself, though.

            The only other release of theirs I have heard of (but haven't heard) is a
            Gary Floyd & Mushroom (the old Sister Double Happiness vocalist and the San
            Francisco prog group) album of covers. Looks like an interesting label.

            [Peter Jefferies's pianodrum]
            > That description you quoted was great, and I wish I'd known about it when
            > I was writing, because the likes of Jeffries seems to be too subtle for
            > them. The Lonesome Organist, who I think is impressive technically but
            > mostly sucks musically, is the closest they get to performers with any
            > sophistication. They seem to have done all their research on the Internet
            > - they've got some well-informed commentators on Adkins and a couple of
            > other subjects, but otherwise don't seem to have gone beyond novelty acts
            > (in whom their tastes are decidedly retro).
            >
            > Which is really too bad, as the film's quite enjoyable otherwise and their
            > hearts seem to be in the right place - or at least a well-meaning wrong
            > place. I'd still recommend seeing it. I just wished I'd had more space to
            > consider all this stuff, rather than firing off a list of issues and
            > questions in the second half, because after a day of research I found the
            > one-man-band's place in music a pretty fascinating subject. The movie did
            > that for me, and maybe it'll lead to a bigger project on the subject
            > someday.

            I have to say, I had never thought much about the topic, but there's some
            meat to pick off these bones. Thanks for sharing the autoclip, Carl.

            Carl Z.
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