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Take This Tradition and Shove It 

Experimentalist Eugene Chadbourne reworks country and jazz, sticks it to the KKK, makes guitars out of rakes and toasters -- and dreams of working with Willie Nelson

Wednesday, Sep 9 1998
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Eugene Chadbourne plays the guitar. More precisely, he plays with the guitar. The 44-year-old musician and composer treats the instrument like his own personal romper room: His fingers scamper madly along the fretboard, teasing out atonal breaks in the middle of a country song or a Thelonious Monk tribute, plucking at the guitar's body and its strings, using small inflated balloons or random household objects to squeak out odd noises. But the noise has its heart in song, and it always seems to return there, rooted in Chadbourne's sweeping knowledge of music history. Onstage or on record, he's just as likely to tear into a bluegrass version of the Dead Kennedys' "Nazi Punk Fuck Off" as a Gershwin tune. Like a toddler working on a jigsaw puzzle, Chadbourne hammers the pieces together in ways that are -- supposedly -- wrong. But the final results have their own beauty.

Chadbourne's been playing and recording music this way since he was 21, when he released the ambitiously titled Volume One: Solo Acoustic Guitar in 1976 on his own Parachute label. It was music for "prepared" guitar, the first example of his odd chordings, rhythms, and playing style. The record's back cover shows him tying pipe cleaners onto the strings and playing the guitar's back with a brush. Over 100 albums have followed since, from the lysergic noise-pop of his early '80s band Shockabilly to freewheeling stabs at country music to collaborations with avant-jazz stars John Zorn and Derek Bailey and college rock icons Camper Van Beethoven and They Might Be Giants. "I think he's among the very most important living composers and performers," says Berkeley saxophonist and composer Dan Plonsey. "Historically I place him among the finest American maverick musicians: Sun Ra, Charles Ives, John Cage."

His wide array of musical tastes and experiments has given Chadbourne a reputation as a deliberate absurdist, and saddled him with the title of "Dr. Chadbourne." "It's just a made-up thing, like a mad doctor," he says from his home in Greensboro, N.C., where he lives with his wife and three daughters. "I also like to tell people that it's short for 'dropout.' "

When he was 17 he quit school and moved with his family to Canada to avoid the Vietnam draft. Struck down by the thunderbolt of John Coltrane's music, he began to incorporate jazz themes into his guitar playing. Ever since, he's refused convention, although every once in a while he'll make an album like 1980's There'll Be No Tears Tonight -- his first record with vocals -- and romp through Johnny Paycheck and Merle Haggard covers with a more traditional feel. Still, his focus is on exploring new sounds instead of mimicking known ones. For one recent project, Chadbourne -- who's a little vague about his intentions -- put together an ensemble to play "insect and western music." "It was just a subject matter that would be interesting to write a lot of different types of music about," he says. As for his unconventional playing style, there's even less explanation. "I don't really see a reason," he says. "If you don't [play traditionally] you just don't. I don't understand why people play it straight, as opposed to not playing it straight."

His stint in Canada also marked the beginning of his side career as a writer -- he's written three autobiographical books -- rising up from copy boy at the Calgary Herald to a brief, and somewhat unethical, stint as a music journalist. "I got asked to write reviews, and I made a point to write reviews of stuff I didn't listen to, because I wanted to show people that there are no standards, it's bullshit. But I was the only music journalist to give Miles Davis' [early '70s] electric band a good review. I have to say I'm proud of that accomplishment as a critic." (He called Davis' On the Corner "pure arrogance" in a review that was quoted in the album's liner notes as an example of the Davis backlash of the time. Chadbourne says he meant it as a compliment.)

If Chadbourne cares little about critics, he cares even less about sales. Much of his music never makes its way to CD. Instead, it often appears on cassettes self-packaged in shoes or empty boxes of food from the Chadbourne home pantry. "It's just so easy to release something on cassette, that there doesn't have to be any standards at all. Just release whatever you want, it's not such a big deal. I try to release everything on cassette first," he says. A chapter in his book I Hate the Man Who Runs This Bar: The Survival Guide for Real Musicians is proudly titled "I Sold 300 Records in 25 Years!" although that's something of a falsehood. His 1987 collaboration with Camper Van Beethoven, Camper Van Chadbourne, did well by most experimentalists' standards. "They just went through boxes of those," he says. "It still sells. I'll bet you 15,000 copies of that have sold." The album is also one of the best (read: most accessible) introductions to Chadbourne's work, and lays out many of the themes that are hallmarks of his music: a goofball cover tune like Pink Floyd's "Careful With That Axe, Eugene"; the strikingly tender leftist protest ballad, exemplified by "They Can Make It Rain Bombs (But They Can't Make It Rain)"; jazz improvisations; and "Fayettenam," a funny, justly harsh folk commentary on the Ku Klux Klan, a subject that he's visited many times. In his high, reedy voice, he sings:

The Ku Klux Klan runs a car wash down
in Fayetteville
They call it the Kwik Kleen Kar Wash
The owner gets his thrills
Beating up white women with
black boyfriends

His politicized take on folk and country music stems from Chadbourne's faith in the music's hard-bitten roots. "I like bringing that theme into bluegrass and country music, give it a tougher edge," he says. "It helps when it happens. It's not like I'm the only guy who's ever done that: Merle Haggard, with his very sarcastic stuff that you could take either way; Johnny Paycheck, with 'To Hell With the IRS.' That was really good for country music; it could use more stuff like that now, I think. Country music should be more like film noir. It can be songs about sleazy activity. It doesn't have to be all these nice-looking people."

Which helps explain why, when asked what musician he'd most like to work with, he immediately says Willie Nelson. Though he's never approached Nelson, Chadbourne's work has taken him into Nashville recording studios, as well as on tours through most of North America and Europe. When he titled his 1988 record I've Been Everywhere, it was only a half-joke. His travels somehow led to a friendship with horror movie director Wes Craven. Chadbourne appears for a nanosecond in Craven's Shocker, and he shot a scene for Scream 2 -- playing a film professor -- that didn't make it to the final cut.

His travels have also placed him in Greensboro elementary schools where he performs for children. "The tendency is to play some kind of children's music, but I get sick of that. One time I just went in, and I wasn't sure what to play, so I just played what I felt like: standards, Gershwin, stuff like that, and they really like that stuff. They really liked the guitar solos that I had going on. Sometimes I take requests. That's a drag with kids, because they just ask for whatever's really popular. If you went into a sixth-grade class, they'd just ask for Matchbox 20 or whatever. I remember when they would ask for the theme to Dukes of Hazzard, or Michael Jackson. And I thought, 'Those sort of people already ruled the airwaves, why do I need to play them too?' "

Chadbourne has moved beyond the guitar over the course of his career. He plays piano and drums on occasion, and he's also notorious for the creation of the electric rake, an amplified garden tool that makes a jarring, distorted noise to punctuate his improvisations. For his Bay Area shows, he says he's designed a combination guitar/toaster/pencil sharpener. "It's a part of my musical world," he says of the hybrid instruments. "I could be a typical type of guitar-banjo instrumentalist and just be known for that, but I have other things that I do. Building instruments also relates a lot to performance art. It's not like you're creating some pristine, beautiful-sounding instrument. I just keep recycling the same junk now and then. Sometimes I'll see something lying by the side of the road and I'll think, 'No, I have enough already.' "

Eugene Chadbourne plays Thursday, Sept. 10, at Amoeba Music on Haight Street; Friday, Sept. 11, at the Edinburgh Castle; and Sunday, Sept. 13, at Beanbender's in Berkeley.

About The Author

Mark Athitakis

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