‘Mad Man’ is a Maestro
PHOTOS BY TODD TURNER
From the Electric Rake to Bach on the Banjo: A Conversation with Eugene Chadbourne
Few people realize Eugene Chadbourne is famous. That’s the paradox of Greensboro’s Secret Cult Music God.
I first heard his name in Tate Street’s long-gone Record Exchange in the early 90s, when a tall Japanese guy and an even taller German one announced they’d come to America to meet him. The manager, Anna Gibson, is now a prominent naval historian, but then she was the Dark Goddess of Tate Street. When the character Death was introduced in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comic, I showed it to my roommate Tim Blankenship, who said “why is Anna in this?” Before that, everybody thought she looked like Kate Bush.
Anna said Eugene would be playing in a couple of hours at the Nightshade Café. They picked up their backpacks and went outside to wait. Who, I asked her, is Eugene Chadbourne?
Anna said he was brilliant and crazy, that he’d invented the electric rake, and that he liked to hook up a Fred Krueger glove to an amp and “play” the audience with it. The glove was an original prop from A Nightmare on Elm Street, given to him by the director Wes Craven, who was a big fan of his. Somebody walked up to the counter with a used LP of the Violent Femmes’ self-titled debut album. “They’re fans of his, too. He’s played with them.”
That night, I saw Eugene not only play the rake and the glove, but, after some wag requested it, perform the most maniacal version of “Free Bird” I ever heard. But he was more than a gonzo provocateur. I recently discussed this with several of The Violent Femmes.
Brian Ritchie, the band’s bass guitarist, praises Eugene’s musicianship. “Eugene could have been a heavy metal shredder or straight-ahead jazz musician. But he chose the less traveled path, which was good for him and us. He’s very capable on guitar and banjo. His acoustic sound projects like crazy. People have lost that ability due to laziness. One of my favorite memories of Eugene was when he stayed at my house in Brooklyn. He was sitting in a chair, looking out the window, practicing Erik Satie. He looked at me and said ‘I like practicing.’ That’s Eugene in a nutshell, a music lover who can play anything with anyone, anytime, anywhere.”
I ask Brian about playing concerts with Eugene, as the Violent Femmes have done many times, including downtown Greensboro in 2006. “Performing with Eugene is fun and ridiculous. On the one hand, there are challenging musical demands. On the other, it frequently devolves into chaos. This is the model and it produces music that requires skill and willful amateurism at the same time. He is always working on new material, so it never gets boring. He experiments with unusual and homemade instruments and encourages us to as well. Eugene has a knack for choosing great collaborators and I’ve met some fine musicians and longtime friends as a result.”
Drummer Victor DeLorenzo is equally effusive. “I’ve known Eugene for quite awhile and have had the pleasure of exploring music with him in the recording studio and on stages worldwide. He celebrates music without putting it into a rarefied place devoid of humor and raw improvisation and expression. He makes music by and for the human spirit, without the confines of genre or commerce. Eugene will always be one of my musical heroes and I always look forward to a new direction in music from him.”
A couple of weeks ago, I sat in the window of Tate Street Coffee with the musician Brian and Victor admire so much, a man Spin magazine called one of the 100 best guitarists of all time. Looking out at the strip that’s changed so much since he first came here, Eugene told me about growing up in Colorado and dodging the draft.
“My father was a professor of French literature and my mother was a refugee. She met him in Providence after he got back from the war. He was offered several positions with universities and took one in Boulder. My mother’s parents had come over from Germany and really liked shit like the mountains. It was an exciting place to grow up.”
His eclecticism came early. “I got exposed to things like [the avant-garde composer] George Crumb. And later, crazy hippie stuff. Listening to ‘Revolution 9’ on the Beatles’ White Album was an eye-opener, and I and my friends kept getting into weirder music. Long form radio was popular in Boulder. I’d hear an interview with the Byrds talking about Coltrane and go ‘who the Hell is that?’ The deejay would play Jethro Tull and then Roland Kirk and I’d hear where Ian Anderson got his flute style. I’d read an interview with Zappa and he’d say to go get Edgard Varèse. That was probably the last good advice Zappa ever gave me.”
He learned to improvise. “I don’t know what it’s like for a band starting now, but when I was a teenager playing at parties, we were expected to do really long versions of songs with fifteen-minute improvised parts. For what I ended up doing, this was all really important stuff. It was a really good time period to be growing up, especially if you were heading in the direction I was.”
The first direction he went was North. “When I was eighteen, my father got a position in Canada, just when I had to choose to leave the country or join the Infantry. I went to Calgary with my parents and started working at a daily paper, where I spent seven or eight years in a news room.”
Eugene, who wrote about this in his 1989 memoir Draft Dodger and returned to it in his recent Dreamory, says he was lucky his family shared his feelings about Vietnam. “My friends had parents pressuring them to join the army, but my family protested the war. This caused a riff between my mother and her folks. My maternal grandfather got really rightwing, really frightened of the hippies. There was a photo in the Boulder paper showing my mother in a protest march and he called her a communist.”
While in Alberta, he produced and hosted a program on the 104.5 cable FM pirate station Radio Radio. “That was a really fun thing. The history of pirate radio is really fascinating, and this was a blatant example of it. There were four or five radio channels that were supposed to be turned over to local people. We’d go to the station, often in blizzards, and play our records. There was a whole group of people trying to keep this enterprise afloat. It basically consisted of the broadcast equipment and the tape machines we kept going.”
Eugene felt the ache of the exile. “Living up there was great, but I wanted to be able to go back. All the expatriates kept talking about New York. The music I was into was all American, especially after I met [composer and instrumentalist] Anthony Braxton. He really encouraged me to return to the East Coast. I wanted to get somewhere where lots of musicians were playing.”
In 1977, his exile ended. “Jimmy Carter pardoned all the draft dodgers. I moved to NYC as fast as I could, and within a week of being there I’d met people I’ve played with for years. That’s New York for you. My brother had an apartment I was able to move into. I was very fortunate about a lot of things. I started a total boob amateur, but by the time I left NYC was a professional earning my living and doing what I wanted to, and by that I mean NOT doing commercial music.”
So what brought him to Greensboro, where he’s been since 1981?
“Starting my own band. The only drummer I could find able to handle the music I wanted to do lived in Greensboro. That was David Licht, the drummer in Shockabilly and all the versions of the band we had before that.”
The Greensboro music scene was different in the 80s. “It had a lot of aspects of smaller cities that you really appreciate after you’ve been living and working in New York. Most people I played with in NYC were renting facilities and if they were really lucky they might break even. Here, we could play at the Nightshade Café [the club under Tate Street’s legendary Hong Kong House] and people would pay at the door and I could actually pay my musicians.”
Eugene worked hard for that money. “Bookings were easy, but the trick was getting people to show up. I spent so much time at Kinko’s making flyers, then putting them all over campus. People talk about how Greensboro had a real music scene back there, but actually, there were a lot of separate little scenes. I knew all the musicians, but they were all so different from what I did. Dave had played with most of them. It was a hard job finding a bass player. One guy who could do it is still around, Tom Shephard, Shep the Hep! He was great, but didn’t want to go on the road. Another bassist I hooked up with quit after I played my guitar with a screwdriver.”
That band became the brief-lived but fondly remembered Shockabilly (1982-1985), with Eugene on guitar and vocals. Mark Kramer, also known for Bongwater and touring with the Butthole Surfers and Ween, was on bass and organ, with David Licht, who later founded the Grammy-winning Klezmatics, on drums. The band got its name at Fridays, the tiny but legendary Tate Street hamburger-joint-by-day, live-music-venue-by-night, where REM regularly played before that establishment closed in 1983.
“If you’re local, it was hard to get a weekend booking there. Steve Hayner, the owner, let us play one Saturday night, which was a major coup for us. Halfway through the set, he took me aside and said “what the Hell is this, Eugene? You’re scaring people away! Why did you tell me this was rockabilly?”
Eugene improvised. “I lied and said ‘oh, you misunderstood me, I said Shockabilly!’ Kramer and Licht heard that and later said “Oh, now we have a name for the band.” We were calling it the Chadbournes, but people thought it was gospel or something. Nobody would ever figure out what we were. They called it Deconstructionism, but nobody knew what that meant.”
He chuckles ruefully. “Music writers said I was deconstructing stuff. I thought we were just improvising, a musical technique old as the hills. But writers have to come up with fancy shit all the time. So when I get questions like, ‘When did you start deconstructing things.’ I want to say ‘never, I was just improvising!’”
I ask Eugene about his friendship with Jimmy Carl Black, who died in 2008 and was the vocalist and drummer for the Mothers of Invention, calling himself “the Indian of the Group.”
“One of the great experiences of my life. He was my best friend. I really liked the idea of helping someone who’d given me so much pleasure growing up. I taught him how to make records at home, which helped him get by as he got older. Musically, it was amazing. I played with a lot of drummers who had a lot of technique, but he played really simply. He said you need someone just to keep a beat. He would sit on a pillow that was inscribed with the words ‘Sweet, Sweet Steady Beat.’ Unless really drunk, he never missed a beat. He was the first drummer I ever played with who played an actual Blues beat right. He could also play Chuck Berry style, although it was hard to get it him to, as he’d worked with Berry, whom I gather was a difficult man. But he was the only guy who knew how to play it.”
I ask him about playing with the Violent Femmes and Camper Van Beethoven.
“I have my own kind of band with some of the members of Camper Van, but it was very different. Our Camper Van Chadbourne was probably the best-selling record I ever made. We did a very successful tour during the first Gulf War. Partially because every other band cancelled because they were afraid of terrorism. I played with Jonathan Siegel last year. He’s in Stockholm and I had a concert with him.”
“The Violent Femmes, I worked with in a very different way. In 1986 I made a record of them backing me up on my own songs. But for a few years when they were touring again I played with them. Up until they got into a huge lawsuit and stopped working for a while, they had a very professional tour going. It was a really luxurious and easy thing for me and I had some memorable shows. I really liked the surfing competition we played at in Virginia Beach.”
I tell him how much I loved their free outdoor show with him on Elm Street in 2006, and how I was impressed by the way he and the Femmes would stop whatever they were playing and switch to a vintage train song every time a train went on the trestle behind them.
“That was great. I’m told it drew the biggest crowd they ever had in Greensboro, but there was nothing about that in the paper. We loved playing beside the train trestle. We’ve also played in Greece and Ireland. I’ve put out feelers because they’re back touring again. They do a really improvised show. They don’t have a set list and don’t know what they’re going to play from night to night. And they usually have a lot of interesting international people sitting in. And they PAY people to sit in, and don’t expect them to do it just for the exposure, which is also really cool.”
He frowns when he turns to the subject of the lawsuit which led them to disband from 2007 to 2009, after Gordon Gano angered Brian Ritchie by selling “Blister in the Sun” to Wendy’s. “There’s a classic example of what happens when people sign something or make business deals when they’re teenagers, and they have one song that makes much more money than everything else, and that song is credited to one person. You get into a discussion about what makes a rock and roll song. If you contribute, say, a base line, you don’t get credit and it ends up in lawsuits and rancor.”
Fortunately, Eugene’s own experiences were much happier. “Everywhere I went with them, everyone loved their songs. They transcended generations. And their audience was always respectful when you opened for them. Not like Delbert McClinton’s, who almost rioted when I played Coltrane.”
Plunging further into the past, I tell Eugene the first time I ever saw him perform was when he played the rake and glove at the Nightshade.
“I invented the Electric Rake here in Greensboro. Obviously, people don’t do mulch with rakes in New York. One broke in the yard, so I decided to put a pickup on it. It was the first thing I did that got a big local reaction, becoming almost a cult thing.”
He looks wistful for a moment. “But it also shows how stupid people can be about things. I mean, it’s wonderful if you like horrible noise, but it’s not something you want to be remembered for. It reminds me of Samm Bennett’s drum set made out of cheese, which of course sounded horrible, but which they wanted him to play on the Tonight Show.”
“On the other hand, taking the rake and attacking the performance environment with it, I’m proud to have been involved with. Going to the guys at the pool table, crawling under stages, that was fun. I was doing a show with my daughter Mollie in Austin when she was seven or eight. In one of these horrible rock clubs on Congress Avenue, we stuck the rake into an air conditioner fan and dust flew out into her face. I was horrified. One paper said my face turned from an insane avant-garde musician’s into a concerned parent’s.”
Then there was the Nightmare on Elm Street glove. “I still have one of the real props from the movie. The late writer and director Wes Craven gave me that. He was a guitar player who really liked other guitar players. He went to a lot of my shows. He said really gratifying things like ‘I liked that solo you played on that Thelonious Monk tune.’ He was a great deep listener.”
When I ask him how the Greensboro music scene has changed, he suggests “changed” is too neutral a term. “There’s a real dearth of live music. In 1981, there were five venues on Tate Street. Now there aren’t any. When you tour, you’re lucky if there’s one in the capital of the state you’re visiting. Back in the day, there’d be one in every town.”
“Merle Haggard once was asked how he developed his musical style. He said the same damn way people learned how to do anything in this country, or used to, back when we had trades — by playing the same damn thing every night, six or seven sets a week. That’s much harder to do now. These days most of my energy is devoted to figuring out where I’m going to play. And I’m someone who still gets some good opportunities. So many new people never get those at all.”
Speaking of opportunities, I mention that his daughter Jenny said I should ask him about the German music festival he’s playing this Fall. His face lights up.
“That’s the Donaueschingen Festival that takes place every October in the small German town of that name. It’s very famous. They’ve asked me to play Bach on the banjo, something I’ve been working on for years. I got interested in doing that as a way of passing times in dressing rooms. Somebody who heard it asked me to make a CD and I finally did. And then this very prestigious festival reached out and asked me about doing the Goldberg Variations on the banjo. I’m going to see if I can do it fretless.”
Eugene is an excellent writer as well as a musician, although he’ll probably scoff when he reads that. His I Hate the Man who Runs this Bar (1998) remains one of the best books ever written on being a professional musician, even though it dates from the early days of the internet. Sadly, it’s out of print and Eugene doesn’t own the rights, but aspiring musicians should still buy it from Amazon or American Book Exchange resellers. His autobiographical Draft Dodger is also out of print, but that period in his life, and much else, is covered in his career-spanning Dreamory, published in late 2015 and is available from his website.
“I worked at least twenty years on that. Actually, longer, as it includes stuff I wrote in high school. It uses material from family diaries, filling in things in things I couldn’t remember. It’s basically an attempt to record all the dreams I’ve had, my background, and the adventures that have happened doing what I do.”
I ask Eugene a question I’ve also asked other local luminaries like Fred Chappell. “If you could snap your fingers and magically bring a defunct Greensboro establishment, what would it be?”
“Hong Kong House, of course,” he says without hesitation, referring to Amelia Leung’s beloved Tate Street restaurant that closed its doors in 1999. “Such a nice family place. It was a community, the heart of the street. And all the record stores we used to have here in town, like Crunchy Music Stuff and the tiny nook William Trotter presided over, don’t remember the name, but he bought one of two copies I created of a tape recording of Billy ‘Ransom’ Hobbs hacking a piano up with an axe alongside a rural road.”
“And Nightshade, the club under Hong Kong House. I did a lot of weird stuff there, but they’d also have straight-ahead blues like the Alkaphonics, or heavy rock. I love the places where musicians get to organize things. We need more spaces like that.”
He suspects those days may be gone forever. “One of the big problems is just getting younger people out to live events. Most places that don’t serve alcohol don’t stay in business, and the ones that do serve it are always getting closed down because somebody underage snuck in. There’s also the hidden assumption that if you want to play music, you better do it for free, because who do you think you are? So many people just assume that nobody should be paid for music, so there’s always a fight about that aspect of it.”
Which may be why Eugene has been playing more regularly in Raleigh than Greensboro. “We, by which I mean me and my daughters and some friends, have been doing these Monday nights at Neptune’s there, with Raleigh drummer Joe Westerland , Dave Menestres on bass, Dave Doyle on French horn and guitar, Carrie Shull on oboe, Jimmy Gilmore on guitar, and Laurent Estoppey on saxophone. Laurent is a Swiss sax player who lives in Greensboro.”
But he’ll be playing a free acoustic concert with Laurent Estoppey at Greensboro’s Glenwood Community Bookstore on 1212 South Grove Street at 4 p.m. on Saturday, March 18. Eugene’s music can be purchased at http://www.eugenechadbourne.com.