Robert Crumb is a curmudgeon nonpareil, and a man of idiosyncratic fetishes. One of them is the music of Leroy Shield. Until the 1990s, Shield, a prolific composer/conductor most of his life (1893-1962), was relatively unknown for what was arguably his greatest musical achievement: composing hundreds of themes for the 1930s Hal Roach comedies of Laurel & Hardy and The Little Rascals. In the early '90s, a Dutch orchestra called The Beau Hunks (christened after a L&H feature) recorded three albums of Shield's compositions from the Roach era, thus reviving a prodigious legacy.
After the Hunks released their first album in 1992, Crumb wrote them a fan letter, exclaiming, "This is music I've been looking for all my life!" He later elaborated: "Shield's music first got me interested in old music. I was hearing it on TV when I was a kid. I searched for that music." His hunt was a predestined dead-end because, until the Hunks recorded the Shield themes, they had never been commercially available. The composer hadn't even received screen credit. Along with legions of Roach film fans, Crumb was elated to discover the reconstructed versions. "It's my favorite music of all time," he affirmed. "I never get tired of it. I guess Shield was not too concerned with getting credit. He just did his job, then went out and played golf. There's a certain kind of Indian shaman that works his magic behind the scenes. I guess that's what Shield was."
Crumb was so enamored of the Beau Hunks' masterful performances of the Shield charts, he rendered a portrait of the composer (at right) and offered it free of charge to the band to use as CD cover art.
Now Steve Cloutier, working with Shield historian/graphic designer Piet Schreuders, has launched a new site devoted to the composer.
"The site's purpose is both a tribute and the means to satisfy a widespread curiosity that many have about the composer," Cloutier emailed. "Piet's diligent research and advice have been the most important ingredients in building this site. Thank heaven the Beau Hunks recorded this wonderful music. Leroy Shield's name could well have slipped into obscurity."
UPDATE (August 10): A short video that demonstrates how Shield's music filtered into your subconscious via Roach comedies.
"The human race is going to die in 4/4 time," Moondog reportedly told fellow rhythm-seeker Sam Ulano in the 1950s. The quote comes from the new Moondogbiography by Robert Scotto, about which
I posted three weeks ago. I then learned it is a forthcoming biography, since publication was postponed a month or two.
Meanwhile, if you prefer rhythms in "snaketime," you can hear Moondog's music in two evening concerts in New York City, November 2 and 3. Scotto will talk about Moondog's life (1916-1999) and legacy on Saturday evening, and the Eupraxia Music and Arts Collective will perform both nights. Oh, and there's something called the Moondog Madrigal Mini Puppet Show.
I'm halfway thru the fascinating book and it's well-researched and beautifully written. During a cross-country jaunt in 1949, the blind musician, who dressed in hand-made Viking garb and performed on street corners, turned heads coast to coast. Though he encountered little harassment, he was asked to leave Willow Springs, California, by a cop who diplomatically informed the visitor, "You're too rich for our blood."
For the latest Moondog info and activity, check out Managarm.com.
No, I haven't read it yet — it arrived in the mail yesterday — but Robert Scotto's long-awaited biography of the idiosyncratic music visionary Louis Hardin (1916-1999), better known as "Moondog," is now officially between covers. Subtitled The Viking of 6th Avenue, the book includes a 28-track CD. Publisher Process Media's site says the book's coming out in October, but Amazon.com, which lists the book with a November pub date, has it in stock.
Scotto appeared on my program twice in commemoration of Moondog's birthday. Hear the interviews and music, and view the playlists:
An intrepid band of so-called "film preservationists" attempt to recreate and restore a long-lost medium, derisively referred to as "flatties." These cinematic artifacts are neither virtual nor immersive, but involve documented action embedded on sequential frames of transparent strips of photographic stock. Historians claim that these relics served as "entertainment" vehicles generations ago.
"What survived, survived piecemeal," according to researcher Sky Hepburn. "We work with a variety of binary source materials which are themselves re-encodings of long-obsolete single-perspective external media. Sometimes we have just one channel of information to work with, so we can only approximate the original experience."
Hepburn described the difficulty of trying to reconstruct an artifact from 1968 entitled Planet of the Apes: “We have the picture element and a commentary track by Roddy McDowell, but all attempts to recreate the original dialogue through lip reading have come up empty."
Hepburn also explains the mysterious process known as "maltinization."
The Old Codger will always be a sort of one-lunged animal, never rounded and perfect, as a cockroach, say, is perfect. — H.L. Mencken, 1926
He's an ageless radio legend who has outfoxed the actuaries, but he's a far from commendable role model. WFMU's third-string program host Courtney T. Edison, a.k.a. The Old Codger, has been called many things during his century-plus life, and the consensus can be distilled in four words: increasingly, unremittingly, irredemptively unhinged.Ugly and Uglier, rolled into one. He's been around too long and nobody knows how he got here. He won't quit and he won't die. But we refuse to concede the Codge a regular air slot. If you ignore pests, they go away, right? Eventually??
When you're dealing with an obsessed, post-geriatric 78 rpm disc-hoarding Ukulele Ike fan, "eventually" is a theoretical concept. One WFMU staffer (who wishes to remain anonymous) speculated that the Codger will attend each of our funerals.
Today is a propitious day: The Hannah Montana Soundtrack I pre-ordered months ago from Amazon.com finally arrived. La Montana is portrayed on TV (dramatically and musically) by spunky tween-queen Miley Cyrus, 13-year-old daughter of (program co-star) Billy Ray. Maybe I should watch the show, but gravity can't pin me to the couch even long enough to enjoy complete episodes of would-be faves like South Park and Chappelle. (Say what you want against ADD—it cures TV addiction!)
Pending victory over videophobia, the Hannah CD will do. As a 55-year-old AARP-registered male with a Seussian distance from kids ("You have 'em, I'll amuse 'em") and 30+ years airtime here at the free-form factory, I'm not Radio Disney's target demo. (Turning 49, I sighed, "Advertisers no longer care about me"—then realized: When did they?) Hannah's lyrics evoke the hopes, dreams, and rockstar fantasies of prepubescent girls, but the music is captivating to these pre-senescent ears. It's everything catchy pop should be: frothy, harmonic, propulsive, memorable—that is, it's formulaic. And irresistible. She's The Monkees in a pleated mini.
Miley is young, glamorous, and probably makes enough money in a week to support WFMU for a year. Not that we're expecting her pledge.
Bury the haunting 1970 vocal under a garbage scow's worth of New Age crap and retitle it "Parallelograms 2005." Then compound the embarrassment with a stock-footage psychedelic Straight-to-YouTube video.
The problem with the original recording was — er, what exactly?
The Old Pump Organ (LP) Played by Naomi Barfield
Forum Records 7GS 2510 (no date, ca. 1950s)
The old pump organ, as its codgery modifier implies, wheezes and snorts like a village elder, sauntering unsteadily as if fueled by demon whiskey. There's something quaintly sinister about this creaky musical relic: the spooky undercurrents, the musty parlor aura, the summoning of poltergeists. It's out of date and out of joint, emitting a charming silliness that betrays not a hint of self-consciousness, nor a note of embarrassment.
It casts a spell. Who wouldn't want one of these eerie anachronisms in their living room? And Naomi Barfield on call to play it.
"How to explain radio? You see, wire telegraph is a kind of a very,
very long cat. You pull his tail in New York and his head is meowing in
Los Angeles. Radio operates exactly the same way: you send signals
here, they receive them there. The only difference is that there is no
cat." -- Albert Einstein (attributed, unsourced)
Given a choice between gummint and the private sector, I default to the free market 96% of the time. I defend Wal-Mart -- though I don't shop there. Three times I've bought and sold Philip Morris stock after shares spiked -- and I don't smoke. If Exxon Mobil rakes in "windfall profits," good for them -- even though I don't drink the stuff.
And yet, every week for 30 years I've suffered a cognitive disconnect with my walking, talking entrepreneurial self.
Since February 1975, I've worked at WFMU -- for free. It's fun. But there's labor involved, as well as time, effort, commitment, and sacrifice. In some ways, it entails a small measure of compromise. As a WFMU DJ, despite the "free" in "free-form," you can't do anything you damn well please. Ask Kenny G. We are a station of by-laws, which impose restrictions and penalties for violations. The paradox of WFMU policymaking is that most of those who make and enforce rules are bigger troublemakers than the rank and file.
But let's talk economics. How much money has a weekly radio program put directly in my pocket over the past three decades? Not enough to pay the rent from here to the next paragraph.
I love money. I'll work for it. Scheme for it. Conspire for it. Occasionally whore for it. I cheat the taxman. So do you. A drunk, wiping drool from his whiskers, once sputtered to me in a PATH station: "If you had all the money you paid in taxes back, you could have a really good time." The man looked and smelled like he was in the 90% bracket.
There's tremendous value in what WFMU offers, in the public service it provides. To operate, we must pay bills, which entails generating income -- but the phenomenon we've created is not about money, nor is there a cost-based calculus that determines our programming.
Senior staffer Irwin Chusid wrote a couple of short articles about radio back in the mid-1970's which I pulled out of the WFMU News Clipping Security Vault and present here for your infotainment.
In this article (120k jpg) Irwin talks about the state of New York area radio, and how commercial needs forced most radio stations at the time to appeal to the lowest common denominator in order to secure as vast an audience as possible, but that WFMU (at the time tucked under the wing of Upsala College) was in a lucky position to be able to experiment and explore the boundaries of radio as an art form. Sez Irwin in his own words today:
Hoo-boy! I don't disagree with anything written here -- in March 1975 -- but cringe at the hippie overtones. At the time, I was serving an indefinite suspension for -- well, too complicated to explain, but I was deemed a threat to the WFMU status quo and somehow management had to sideline me. They found an excuse to suspend, because the reason they used to fire me ("You're not an Upsala student") was dismissed by the dean overseeing WFMU at the time as no violation of existing policy. Instead of taking a hint and going elsewhere, I stuck around, infiltrated the staff and propagandized on behalf of what was then an unthinkable (viz., archaic) concept of "free-form" radio. WFMU at the time was basically a sex-drugs-rock'n'roll album-oriented prog station. Trust me, it was less fun than that sounds, and boring to listen. I circulated this "manifesto" at staff meetings, but there were few takers among then-current staff. The only folks receptive were newcomers. BTW, the original sheet was mimeographed. Smelled great!
In June 1978, Irwin wrote this article (65k jpg) addressing the question "What is freeform?" As he talks about it now:
Soapboxing in 1978, when free-form at WFMU was emerging from a 6- or 7-year doldrums. Don't recall the precise context, but this was probably intended for circulation to new staff and auditioners, encouraging them to expand their concept of radio, and to take advantage of the relative freedom afforded at a non-commercial station. In those days I was in pre-emptive propaganda mode -- get to new staff before old staff got to them. Ironic, because I wasn't in the vanguard against the rear-guard -- I was trying to get WFMU to revert to a programming (non-)format that pre-dated (late 1960s) the arrival of the "new old guard" (early 1970s). Not the birth of free-form -- the "rebirth."
TERRY "TK" FOLGER was an eccentric misanthrope, and one of WFMU's more mentally unhinged staffers. As a personality profile, these characteristics imply that TKF (by which he self-identified) was fun, when he wasn't self-destructive, and could be an unforgettable programmer, when not jeopardizing the station's license.
He arrived here around 1982. He would never have made it to WFMU had he not been a suicidal failure. In 1981, distraught over the murder of a Beatle, Folger leapt from the roof of the Chelsea Hotel, but miraculously wasn't united with his hero. What the 23rd Street pavement couldn't claim, AIDS did in April 1994, his infection reportedly traced to a contaminated blood transfusion. TKF was one of two staffers to die of immune deficiency syndrome just months apart (Val Sebastiano passed away in late 1993).
In his radio twilight, probably early '94, when his illness -- or meds -- triggered dementia, Folger spent a half-hour of late-night airtime haranguing listeners to send him drugs -- any drugs. "Haranguing" is euphemistic for screaming, pleading, cursing, and venting -- a tsunami of agitation. I heard the rant. It was shocking -- all the more so because his insistence was genuine. Folger had courted radio brinksmanship before; this time, he spiraled into the abyss. A suspension followed, largely for his own good, after which he quit or was dismissed. Don't know if there's a tape of his me-want-drugs tantrum, but audio exists of another legendary TKF debacle.
Having too much free time one evening, I fed some names and phrases thru WFMU's site search. It was revealing. If you have too much free time.
Backtrack: A few weeks ago (with the encouragement of too much cachaça) I proposed that WFMU's puppetmasters hire a qualified clinician to compile a psychological profile of station staff. Such a survey would provide valuable insight into the WFMU psyche -- and, perhaps more importantly, spark a Seven Second Delay episode in which Andy Breckman could further ridicule his colleagues (I suggested Andy fund the study). Besides chronicling our common delusions, such a profile would extend to our volunteers and listeners. The WFMU family -- strange DNA, yes? We could data-mine the results to our advantage -- improve fundraising outreach, or fine-tune next year's T-shirt motif. The emerging character patterns might prove useful to the Department of Homeland Security. WFMU: Confronting paradigms of hegemonic conformity with a near hesychastic acuity.
Mix me another, Hank.
We estimated the study would cost around $25,000 -- a sum that might require actual labor on Andy's part to earn -- then the cachaça wore off, and we came to our senses and dropped the idea. By "we" I mean "they."