04.06.2013, Words by Aimee Cliff

Essay: Have You Heard of Eugene Chadbourne?

So far, I’ve only ever heard the question in the title of this essay answered with a “no”. I’ve asked several of the most enthusiastic indie and underground music fans I know. “Eugene Chadbourne… Eugene Chadbourne…” Sometimes it rings a faint bell – it did for me the first time I heard it. If your answer to the question is “yes”, or “of course I have!” then my best guess is you’re in the minority of readers, and furthermore, that there’s a decent chance you were born earlier than 1970.

It’s curious that so few have come across avant-garde-country guitarist Dr Eugene Chadbourne, and that his name doesn’t come up a lot more often both today and in histories of independent pop music. Curious because Eugene Chadbourne was – or seems to have been – one of the biggest and most critically acclaimed stars of the independent scene during its nascent phase in the 1980s. In the course of my academic research on that era, his name kept coming up over and over and over again, though I barely recognised it at first.

Chadbourne was described as America’s “only anarcho-paramilitary-electro-folkie-troubadelic-matador”, his music as “gonzo audio journalism” that “pushes traditional music to its edge and makes it jump”. At the height of his fame between 1986 and 1988, you almost couldn’t pick up an underground pop magazine without reading a review, article or news item featuring him, and he never needed an introduction. Chadbourne and his picture made it into the pages of Spin three times, even before that magazine became a bastion of alternative culture. One issue of Sound Choice in 1986 included no less than ten separate reviews of his releases. The same magazine made the (probably dubious) claim that “major labels are falling over themselves to pick up the newest release from guitar/home-tape wildman Eugene Chadbourne.” There were even cartoon strips that relied on his notoriety for effect. Nor was his fame limited to America. Chadbourne toured Europe a number of times, and British magazine Melody Maker reviewed his albums by talking of his “crazed genius”, calling his “analysis of America’s presidency problem… witty and astute.” It’s difficult to compare visibility and listenership then and now, since the internet allows subcultural connectivity and listenership to flow much faster and more easily than it did in the 1980s, but by modern standards he seems to have stood somewhere between James Ferraro and Lil B in underground fame.

In many cases, Chadbourne took up more space in print and on air than contemporaneous acts Sonic Youth, Daniel Johnston, Half Japanese, Beat Happening, Meat Puppets and Mudhoney, now Olympian gods of 80s indie. Chadbourne even collaborated with acts who are now better known than he is, such as John Zorn, They Might Be Giants, Derek Bailey, Sun City Girls, Violent Femmes, Camper Van Beethoven and Kramer. So I was surprised that a nerd like me wasn’t familiar with his music or even just his reputation, and that nor were any of the similarly afflicted nerds I asked about him.

Of course, Chadbourne isn’t completely AWOL. He still performs and records – his style is more or less the same as ever – and he undoubtedly has a great many fans. Although his 80s records can be difficult to find elsewhere, they can be ordered from Chadbourne himself on CD-R through his website, which also includes detailed histories and discographies of his work. Last year, Chadbourne placed number 69 in Spin’s greatest 100 guitarists of all time, and Pitchfork TV have a great video interview with him that serves as a decent introduction to the guy. Chadbourne, who started out as a music journalist, is also responsible for a great deal of the reviews on allmusic.com. The site was responsible for an enormous proportion of my pop music education as a teenager, and this is where I’d heard his name before. All the same, there’s a vast contrast between his reception and visibility as it was then and as it is now.

“While canons initially feel like a great way of sifting the wheat of music history out of the boundless sonic chaff of the past, they’re effectively also oppressive aesthetic regimes that all too easily dictate taste”

Despite his 80s fame and that of Shockabilly, the “high-speed electric-dada-bluegrass” band he led between 1982 and 1985, Eugene Chadbourne has not really entered the canon of indie music. Much like the canon of Western literature, Western music and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the canon of indie music is an imaginary museum containing the tradition’s greatest artists and bands together with their records. The aesthetic supremacy of all that lies within is practically beyond question. While canons initially feel like a great way of sifting the wheat of music history out of the boundless sonic chaff of the past, they’re effectively also oppressive aesthetic regimes that all too easily dictate taste, constrain possibilities by ignoring avenues every time they point the way, and render inaccessibly obscure any artists or works that don’t measure up to their very particular standards. Simply put, a musical canon is a relatively narrowed set of ideas about what constitutes “good” music, with works and recordings of the past to support its arguments. They’re surprisingly powerful and often regarded as trans-historically absolute.

Canons usually form slowly over time as the sum total of choices, value judgements and practices, but in the case of indie music, which experienced something of a gold rush in the 1990s, canon formation was swift and literal. Key books and discographies from the 90s such as Rolling Stone’s Alt Rock-a-Rama, The Trouser Press Guide to 90s Rock and The Spin Alternative Record Guide produced dozens of lists of the greatest indie rock albums and artists as a way of mapping out and capitalising upon the new territory. Chadbourne is seldom found in these tomes – at the time he was swiftly disappearing, crowded out by the consequences of all the new money and attention for the scene. Magazines were becoming glossier and glossier, the bands in them bigger and bigger, and even though lo-fi was very fashionable, the leading artists (Pavement, Beck, Guided By Voices etc) were predominantly released on widely distributed vinyl and CD rather than the mail order of the previous decade. Besides, their music was usually significantly less challenging and unconventional than Chadbourne’s and the avant-gardists within Cassette Culture. Most importantly though, Chadbourne’s whole aesthetic, to the extent that it ever was in fashion, was quickly falling out of it. Alternative rock in the 90s was cool, and Eugene Chadbourne was not cool.

For this reason, the majority of younger, contemporary listeners born into this age of indie and unaware of Chadbourne’s music would not, I think, easily warm to it. The guy goes against the most fundamental tenets of today’s indie and underground cool so completely that the initial reaction is, unfortunately, likely to be one of embarrassment. Although I very much admire his achievements and stance (and I really liked Shockabilly’s debut EP, The Dawn of Shockabilly), the canon remains strong and I can’t say I’ve grown particularly fond of what I’ve heard over the last few months. So, I’m sorry to say, this is not primarily an article about how much you’re gonna love his work. This is not to say we shouldn’t listen, however, and consider how it came to be that such an extraordinary and critically acclaimed musician was positioned so firmly beyond the pale – we soon learn quite a lot about how narrow-minded the contemporary scene really is.

“Except for a gentle vogue for kitschy exotica in the 90s, a few moments of silliness in alt rock, and that odd flash of new rave, the zany era has been entirely amputated from indie and underground music, with no revival on the cards any time soon.”

First and foremost, Chadbourne is zany. Old-school eccentric. Alongside a few forgotten bands and home-tapers, Chadbourne and Shockabilly were something of a last hurrah for the zany prog/art rock tradition pioneered by Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart and maintained into the 80s by bands like Devo, The Residents and The Mystic Knights of Oingo Boingo, DJs like Dr Demento and Irwin Chusid, and of course, “Weird Al” Yankovic. (If you’re not familiar with these acts, the names alone tell you practically everything you need to know). This tradition was crucial to the early years and aesthetics of independent music, binding together folk, avant-garde, dada and satire in a bizarro parallel to punk. It was popular on American campuses in the early 80s and provided much of the atmosphere for WFMU, one of the college radio stations most important to the indie scene of the time. Its influence can even, arguably, be felt upon indie-head Matt Groening’s The Simpsons. Except for a gentle vogue for kitschy exotica in the 90s, a few moments of silliness in alt rock, and that odd flash of new rave, the zany era has been entirely amputated from indie and underground music, with no revival on the cards any time soon. It’s not difficult to see why – the wacky personas and impressions, nutty stage antics, irritating facial expressions, and the voices, oh God the voices, either high, strained and nasal or deep and gulping… To contemporary eyes and ears all this is grating in the extreme, like the mortifying frolics of sad dads witnessed by kids getting too old.

Eugene Chadbourne – I Hate The Man That Runs This Bar / Evil Filthy Preacher

“From the early 80s on, Chadbourne was perhaps most famous for playing an instrument of his own devising, an electric rake”

I’m not saying the apparent awfulness of much of this is a permanent aesthetic truth, that the zaniness was somehow regrettably “mistaken” at the time. My point is that it has been scrubbed from the indie aesthetic agenda so hard that it’s difficult to imagine it as a viable creative possibility today. As early as 1989, one music critic referred in a live review to “Chadbourne’s stale fruitcake routine”. The bands that came to define alternative rock were about as far from zany as they could get. Mainly reacting against the excesses of corporate hair rock, they also set themselves and their behaviour against the underground’s previous generations. Neither clowns nor hippies nor hardcore punks, their demeanour was frank, sincere, understated, streetwise, minimal, a cool passivity, whether it was Beat Happening, R.E.M., grunge, or the notoriously subdued shoegazers. In the main, indie has barely looked back, and hip hop experienced a similar shift. But one key figure in the underground world very much embodying the zany era and using it boldly and productively is Nardwuar the Human Serviette, the Canadian rock musician and famous video-interviewer. Nardwuar is an absolutely amazing and thoroughly welcome presence in underground music. The contrast (or disarming harmony) between his wacky shtick and the cool or punky shtick of his interviewees, and the way he uses his own nerdiness to resonate with their own rarely aired nerdiness, is regularly incredible. Try his astonishing interview with A$AP Rocky and the Mob, for example.

More generally, direct humour is uncommon in indie music today, being pretty incompatible with both classic cool and the Romanticism that has long driven independent and non-commercial music. Chadbourne addresses this in the Pitchfork video, noting aptly that in music history, “if somebody is funny they’re not taken as seriously. It’s appreciated but it’s just not considered to be as serious a work… but it’s not an easy thing to get people to laugh.”

Then there’s the strong political content of so much of Chadbourne’s work. The man is staunchly left-wing, and constantly satirises the American right and mainstream in his lyrics. I wouldn’t be the first to bring up the almost total political silence that characterises today’s pop music both over and underground. With the possible exception of some underground hip hop, pop is increasingly devoid of political statement and argument. This contrasts with the scene in the late 80s and early 90s, and in fact some of the most visible and vocal political musicians of that era are at best peripheral figures today, such as Diamanda Galas, Jello Biafra, Billy Bragg and Sinead O’Connor. Politics was constantly and directly discussed in music magazines in Europe and America, even when it didn’t relate to music. In 1990 there was even a compilation album against the poll tax featuring some leading bands of the time, including Lush. And again, it’s difficult to imagine such things being possible today – imagine an album of guitar bands or house producers against the tripling of student fees, or the privatisation of the NHS, or the cuts in benefits, or the bedroom tax. Arguably artists who make hi-def pop art are rediscovering satire and critique, particularly Fatima Al Qadiri, and this is encouraging. But on the whole, music’s potential as a powerful and articulate political tool seems like a far-off dream, with the mode of so much of today’s music reducible to “just chillin’”. To a significant extent, the increased capital within indie music has played a part – politics doesn’t sell. But with so much of the underground music community aligning with the left, it must be put down to a much broader, epochal inability to express political alternatives and urgent opinion.

“It seems like practically everything about Eugene Chadbourne goes against the grain of pop music fashion. The kicker is that that’s exactly what made him so important to the underground music community in the 80s.”

Something else challenging about Chadbourne’s music is how experimental it is. Underground pop has always had a strong experimental streak and non-classical avant-garde music has been a tradition since the 50s, but in the 80s a much greater proportion of the indie conversation appears to have been devoted to noise music, electronic music, musique concrète, hardcore punk, free jazz and improv. Ornette Coleman, Frank Zappa, John Lurie, Pere Ubu and Chadbourne’s collaborator John Zorn all appeared on the cover of Option magazine between 1987 and 1988. Beat Happening reviews would sit in between those of Throbbing Gristle clones and middle-aged contemporary classical trombone improvisers. It’s difficult to say how much the individual listener reflected the broad horizons of the magazines, but such equality of attention and discursive unity is not the norm today.

Chadbourne is doubly challenging, though, because he mixes avant-garde instrumental solos with country music. He started off firmly within the experimental improv tradition in New York City in the late 70s, before plunging into rock ‘n’ roll with Shockabilly. From the early 80s on, Chadbourne was perhaps most famous for playing an instrument of his own devising, an electric rake. Had Chadbourne stayed within avant-improv and not combined it with vernacular idioms, he might have become a mainstay of that scene. Instead, it can’t be easy for its often ascetic, abstract-only and ultramodernist adherents to accept the country elements, while Chadbourne is clearly not going to hit the bull’s-eye for most country fans either. Further compounding his barriers next to the zaniness, politics and experimentalism is this country dimension – it’s yet another thing that rarely goes hand in hand with indie or underground music, especially in Europe. There’s alt-country out there, bands like Calexico and Japancakes, and so many American folk and rock bands have a rural twang, but in the past few years at least, none have shot up the international underground hype ladder.

Eugene Chadbourne playing his electric rake during an appearance with Shockabilly.

And the list of black marks against Chadbourne’s name goes on. He was so thoroughly prolific, flooding the underground with full-length releases on cassette and vinyl, that it’s difficult to know where to begin with his intimidating oeuvre. No one album truly seems to stick out for the critics. Classic, canonical bands and artists are required to leave classic, canonical albums by which the student commences the tutelage of Greatness. Tied into this is how so much of Chadbourne’s and Shockabilly’s appeal seems to have come from seeing them live. With the proliferation of mp3s online today, the appeal of recordings is the primary concern in building a fan base. Chadbourne’s were usually lo-fi and/or live recordings, and not in the evocative, Romantic, Jandek or Daniel Johnston way.

Chadbourne’s high level of technical ability on guitar was and is also a huge part of his appeal, both live and on record. One critic even claimed that EC could ‘out-Hendrix Hendrix’. Dazzling technical ability is no longer much of a draw, and though it’s no bad thing that this is the case, it might in fact turn some indie or underground listeners off today. Then there’s Chadbourne’s appearance and age, him being in his mid-thirties in the late 80s. Since the 90s, indie musicians have often been significantly more youth- and image-led, though the further you go underground, the more and more exceptions you can find to this principle. But with successful indie music fronted more and more by thin, milk-skinned women or gloomy, chiselled men (which is not the fault of these usually very genuine people), the odds are against the Chadbourne look.

It seems like practically everything about Eugene Chadbourne goes against the grain of pop music fashion. The kicker is that that’s exactly what made him so important to the underground music community in the 80s. Today’s indie is so often slick, toned-down, chilled, and even pretty yuppie-fied in places – in other words, precisely what the 80s indies set themselves against. Chadbourne stretched the boundaries of pop music and stayed true to the real possibilities and alternatives within them. Now that they’ve almost completely collapsed around him again, he becomes more than ever an emblem of what we’re fighting for.

Artwork by Louis Labron-Johnson.

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