Eugene Chadbourne: If you take care of your music, it will take care of you
by AMY KENNA
old onto your seats. Things are gonna get weird but comfortable when the subversive strings of Eugene Chadbourne’s banjo rock the Alternative Library this month.
Longtime war protest singer and inventor of the electric rake, Chadbourne has been free-improvising jazz, rock and country for decades with a noisy, avante-garde flamboyance that can only be understated as “eccentric.”
Chadbourne was once labeled a “direct threat to the American people” by the Reagan Administration – perhaps not for his penchant to push the limits of noise rock with plungers and shopping carts, but for his anti-war messaging and absurdist parodies of national leaders.
But before we get into politics, let’s get to the electric rake. The instrument came into existence when Chadbourne broke a garden rake in Greensboro, North Carolina (his home since 1981), mounted a contact microphone on it, and debuted the invention at a local bar.
“This was something I had been experimenting with for years, but despite having amplified rubber bands and a Slinky, it was the rake that really caught on,” Chadbourne said.
Later in his career, Chadbourne played the electric rake with an East German flag in Leipzig, to the applause of soldiers. Before returning to American soil, Chadbourne spent his show earnings on the best quality East German banjo he could find.
“It was a step up from the crap hillbilly low budget banjo I owned,” Chadbourne said. “I was on my way to becoming a serious banjo player.”
These days though, you have to catch the Rake on Youtube – enthralling footage abounds – as Chadbourne has edged away from the novelty of homemade instruments in his shows.
“I would get invited to some prestigious event but they didn’t want me to play guitar, they just wanted me to band around on the rake,” Chadbourne said. “So these days I say the Rake went on its own, or joined Crosby, Stills Nash and Rake.”
Born in 1954 in Mount Vernon, New York, Chadbourne began his musical career playing garage rock – Kinks, Stones and Beatles. He fiddled with various electric and acoustic sounds and delved into country blues in 1969 in Boulder, Colo., where he was influenced by local musicians Jimmy Towne and Otis Taylor. Chadbourne also found inspiration in the scale-defying solos of Lee Underwood, lead guitarist for Tim Buckley.
“All of this led to an interest in all styles of jazz, and as any musician knows, when you get into that, you either learn to play really or turn into an asshole,” Chadbourne said.
Though he draws from many muses, Chadbourne’s sound is often classified with Captain Beefheart and the Mothers of Invention, the backing band for Frank Zappa . In 2012 Spin Magazine counted him among the 100 greatest guitarists of all times and dubbed him the “Groucho Marx” of the guitar.
Chadbourne was inspired as a youth by protest singer Phil Ochs, and fled to Canada in the 1970s to avoid the Vietnam War draft. During that time he hosted a show on Radio Radio 104.5 FM in Calgary, a station which remains the last quasi-pirate radio station in Canada.
Chadbourne then resettled in Greensboro, founded Parachute Records and formed the fringe trio Shockabilly. In 1980 he dropped the album There’ll Be No Tears Tonight, which mischievously blasted the boundaries of free improv and country music in one fell swoop.
Shockabilly hammered out 100 shows in 1983, during which Chadbourne unleashed comic attacks on Reagan and occasionally sported a rubber mask of then-Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. The band saw its share of road mishaps, played for an eclectic variety of audiences and opened for hardcore punk heroes Corrosion of Conformity.
“On one hand it could be said the band did not fit in anywhere, so in most American towns it would be the question of where would we try to fit into a live program,” Chadbourne said. “We slept in the van and on the beach in Los Angeles and someone spray painted, ‘Shockabilly Go Home,’ on the side of the van.”
Chadbourne’s affinity to country music shines in visceral ditties such as “God Made Country Music for Good Folks Like Y’all,” which he describes as “an attempt to fold film noir elements into a roadhouse tune.” Unsurprisingly, his bending of the notoriously straight-laced genre has befuddled some purists.
“Some of the amusing incidents with actual Country and Western musicians that have come up are pretty technical – a mandolin player for example will tell me I shouldn’t use a particular set of chords in a turnaround, nobody would ever do that!” Chadbourne said. “Musicians though generally like the variety of songs I play, how they are played and the things happening when we play.”
Accounts of Chadbourne’s extensive overseas adventures fill the lines of his 1,200-page memoire, “Dreamory.” Most poignant was his 1992 European tour during Desert Storm, during which Chadbourne recalls a “huge paranoia involving international terrorism” for touring musicians.
One night during the tour, on the edge of Croation territory, Chadbourne recalls refugees being trucked in from over the hills to an outdoor rock and roll show in a small village.
“There was so much emotion in the music on nights like this, combined with the strangeness of the settings and bizarre antics of the concert organizers,” Chadbourne said.
Chadbourne latest releases include Monks Dream With Words, a collection of Thelonious Monk tunes with new lyrics recorded in Degenfeld, Germany, and Let’s Get Weird but Comfortable, recorded live in Boston.
“Old friends of mine brought their young Japanese live-in exchange student to the show; he had never experienced this sort of music before and described it as “weird but comfortable,” Chadbourne said.
The album features a mix of jazz, country and western and original Chadbourne absurdism, including “The Look of Strumpf” – a parody that combines the behavior of Donald Trump with a sophisticated Burt Bacharach sound.
Chadbourne has appeared on hundreds of albums over the years, released more than 30 of his own, and currently heads his own label, House of Chadula Records. After four decades of recording and touring, he shows no signs of slowing down his non-idiomatic ways.
“If you take care of your music, it will take care of you,” Chadbourne said, reciting advice a friend gave him in the 1970s. “After that I actually didn’t need to hear anything else.’”
Catch Eugene Chadbourne live at the Alternative Library on June 16. For more about him, see http://eugenechadbourne.com.
Published in the June 2017 issue of What’s Up! Magazine