When the cigar-shaped object designated as ’Oumuamua — Hawaiian for “a messenger sent from afar” — was first spotted in October 2017, it spurred a flurry of astronomical speculation. The odd-looking body was neither an asteroid nor a comet, and it accelerated as it approached the sun (but not because of a gravitational interaction). Spinning through space along a bizarre trajectory, its uniqueness was such that some people even thought it might be an alien probe or craft, possibly a defunct one. While the object is probably more like interstellar flotsam, it forced scientists to come up with a brand-new classification for wanderers from outside the Solar System. There may be hundreds if not thousands of ’Oumuamua-like entities out there, and our surveys of the heavens are only now becoming fine-tuned enough to detect them, tumbling blindly as they make their way across the universe.
Against the background noise of all other street performers busking in the Bay Area, The Space Lady stands out as a sort of musical ’Oumuamua. Susan Dietrich Schneider performed under that moniker (and under a winged Wagnerian helmet) for about two decades, 16 years of which (1984-2000) were spent in the Castro or the Haight or in BART stations. She played the accordion or the keyboard, covering songs like “Across the Universe” and “Major Tom,” Peter Schilling’s quasi-sequel to David Bowie’s “Space Oddity.” Earning $40 on a good day to support her children and her conscientious-objector first husband, she was a fixture of the urban fabric, even if every merchant on Haight Street disliked her presence — except for an older African American man who’d run a shoe shop since the 1940s.
The Space Lady isn’t an aggressively extraterrestrial performance artist like early-’70s Bowie was. Rather, she’s a kind prophetess of peace and love who plays hymns of cosmic benediction on the same Casiotone MT-40 keyboard — plus a Casio VL-Tone whose tinny prerecorded rhythms have become so prized by reggae artists. And instead of a battery-powered amp on the mezzanine of Montgomery Station, Schneider plays at the Verdi Club this Friday, March 22. Her best-known original song, “Synthesize Me,” has some slightly bawdy lyrics if you listen closely enough, but with lines about “A strange planet a zillion light years away / Through a black hole across the Milky Way,” it could be the ’Oumuamua national anthem — if a space rock needed one. Like that interstellar visitor, Schneider is an outsider’s outsider, gentle and disarmingly simple and deserving of a category all her own. Life-affirming and pantheistic in a wise, hippie-grandma way, she even opened for the Sun Ra Arkestra in Seattle earlier this year.
“Playing for an audience that actually listens, and playing through these tremendous sound systems — it just about levitates me right off the stage when I hear the power I have at my fingertips,” Schneider tells SF Weekly from her home in southeastern Colorado, before admitting that this is what terrified her the most during her busking days. “I just loved the casual-ness, the casual nature of setting up on a street corner or wherever I could eke out a little niche.”
It took a “leap of faith” to transition to proper stages, something she credits to her first husband, Joel. Calling him a “mad genius,” who was affectionate and jovial and loving three-quarters of the time but who would “fly into rages at the least provocation,” Schneider says she abandoned the Space Lady upon returning to Colorado — until her second husband, Eric, started to wonder why she was still getting emails from fans around the world years later. All he knew was that she’d been a street musician, but when she finally came clean, he prodded her to come out of retirement. Schneider has gotten a fair amount of attention since, with a segment on Far Off Sounds being immensely watchable, but she and her slightly sorrowful voice stand apart from the culture of memes and Instagram feeds. For her, that’s not what music is for.
“I think it’s so important that music unites us again,” she says. “We’ve lost our tribal nature, to a great extent, living in these little cubicles and stacked-up boxes. We play our music, but we don’t play our music together as much as I think we evolved to do.
“I am still a stan for love and peace,” she says. “Even though I’m not explicit about it in my songs. How does ‘Born to Be Wild’ convey love and peace? I don’t know, but people get it. They somehow get it.”
They sure do. Comments sections tend to be sulfurous cesspools, and YouTube is generally among the worst, but look how much everybody loves her.
Living in a rural place with a slowly falling population invites another conceptualization of space, not so much as the starry cosmos as the sense of emptiness tethered to place. Everything is space, she says, down to the subatomic level.
“It’s such a conundrum how matter exists, the matter that is our very bodies,” she says. “And I think that contemplating space just slows you down to a standstill — and that’s important. To stop.”
There’s a lot of Yoshimi-era Flaming Lips in the Space Lady’s work, and a fair amount of Zen Buddhism, with lessons about compassion for all living things, even minerals. (“If you think about how we’re mining the earth for minerals, and if the earth is alive, it would behoove us to take care and be more sensitive to the earth’s needs and balance,” she says.) But there is also a specific kind of openness to the world, cultivated over many years of playing for a public that was in all likelihood hurrying past and maybe pretending not to hear.
Asked about the best piece of criticism she ever received, Schneider replies with an anecdote about two businessmen who all but called her a buffoon as she was setting up at Fisherman’s Wharf one evening. It was a lesson not to take herself too seriously, if a harsh one. But several days later, she emails another story from a winter night in “February of 1990-something” when she was playing on her accordion and she had such laryngitis that she could barely sing. A guy with an operatic tenor joined her on “My Funny Valentine,” telling her that, as a soprano, she should sing an octave higher than she was and use her head voice.
“I discovered he was absolutely right,” the Space Lady wrote. “The ‘head voice’ is far less straining on the larynx and projects much better, even over the volume of an accordion. And although he was just visiting San Francisco, he came back every day for the next two weeks to give me further coaching and critiquing — not pulling any punches either, by the way — but at the same time being very loving and supportive. His name is Joe Williams, and he is now a renowned Descartes dance instructor based in New York. And happily, he still coaches me from time to time on Skype.”
The Space Lady, with Muscle Drum and Aetatis Suae, Friday, March 22, 8 p.m., at the Verdi Club, 2424 Mariposa St. $20, verdiclub.net