EUGENE CHADBOURNE biographical sketches and reviews
The task of describing the life and work of Eugene Chadbourne (aka Doc Chad) is more than daunting. His music is so unique, and his output over more than 40 years of music-making is so vast, as to defy description To that must be added so many other skills and important contributions to music. He is truly a Renaissance man, a rebel among rebels.
He began playing guitar at an early age. Noticing that girls liked The Beatles, he thought perhaps learning to play the guitar could lead to getting a girlfriend. Having rejected the other two paths to this desirable outcome, beating people up and being good at sports, he began to teach himself how to play. What began with a simple boyish dream and a Herman's Hermits record turned into a musical odyssey that has connected the dots between the Appalachians and the edges of the known musical universe. Along the way, he's taught himself the banjo; in the winter of 2017 he was asked to perform his variation on Bach's Goldberg Variations at the Donaueschingen International Festival of Music, one of the most important forums of contemporary music in the world.
Eugene is a music lover who listens to the world with an open mind, which is reflected in his sets. A typical one could include the music of Thelonious Monk, Eric Satie, Merle Haggard, Phil Ochs along with his own. Some of the departure points may be familiar, but even if you have heard him play a song before, you won't hear it the same way again. Each performance and each listening is unique. It has to be. To paraphrase an old saying "you can't play the same note twice" and at the heart of improvisation is an awareness of music, the instrument, the place and all that has led up to that moment. The improvisational music scene can sometimes get a bit rarefied and oblique, but Eugene's guiding star is his ongoing love for country music. It is not a repertoire customarily heard in New York's The Knitting Factory or the avant-garde festivals of Europe, but Dr. Chad has made it so.
The list of artists he has collaborated with runs into pages. Camper Van Beethoven, John Zorn, Aki Takase, Jimmy Carl Black, and the Violent Femmes are just a handful, appearing in clubs, galleries and festivals and in one case, a command performance with Tony Trischka for William S. Burroughs. His favorite setting besides solo is in duo with a reliable drummer, a list that from him not only includes the aforementioned Black but Han Bennink, Paul Lovens, Ed Cassady (Spirit), Monty Oxymoron (The Damned), Famoudou Don Moye (The Art Ensemble of Chicago), Manni Neuimier (Guru Guru) and Ernie Durawa (Sir Douglas Quintet, Texas Tornadoes).
He has also written widely about music, inventing the touring diary when he described his travels with Shockabilly in 1984, and creating books including I Hate the Man Who Runs This Bar and the 2016 autobiographical Dreamory. He is one of the founders of the "low-fi" or "low tech" movement that came to see thousands of artists creating and releasing their own cassettes (and now CDs) on their own labels. He has also inspired many as a creator of instruments. His electric rake has motivated many artists to build new instruments and expand the sonic landscape. When you combine all of the above with his penchant for speaking out loud and clear about what exactly the hell seems to be going on, you have an unforgettable artist whose connection to folk is both deep and wide.
Eugene Chadbourne is a special kind of celebrity. You may know him as the frontman of the rock-revisionist trio Shockabilly, which gained some acclaim in the early '80s, or you may know him for playing free-jazz, country or some strange chimera of the two. Maybe you've heard of the guy who plays the electric rake or who ranked among Spin Magazine's 100 Greatest Guitarists of All-Time in 2012 "the Groucho Marx of the guitar," they called him. Or you may know him as a music critic for All Music Guideand Maximum Rocknroll.
But chances are, despite his worldwide micro-celebrity, you won't recognize Chadbourne at all.
At Common Grounds, a coffee shop in Greensboro, where Chadbourne has lived for more than three decades, he seems to be just another regular. The 60-year-old wears a comfortable blue T-shirt, stretched at the collar. His curly gray hair splays out like he's auditioning for the role of Doc Brown in Back to the Future, framing a round face with a sly grin. As he orders, Chadbourne chats with the barista about maybe playing a gig at the shop soon.
He reminisces about sets here in the '80s, like when he opened for hardcore heroes Corrosion of Conformity. He had fun, but the crowd of toughs who'd traveled to the show from Fayetteville looking for a punk-show fracas didn't.
Playing an electric rake engenders some degree of ignominy.
"Eugene Chadbourne wasor seems to have beenone of the biggest and most critically acclaimed stars of the independent scene during its nascent phase in the 1980s," critic Adam Harper wrote in a 2013 Dummy Mag essay. "In the course of my academic research on that era, his name kept coming up over and over and over again, though I barely recognized it at first."
During the last 40 years, Chadbourne has played on hundreds of albums, even founding the influential Parachute Records in the '70s. His résumé includes work with avant-garde icons from Anthony Braxton to John Zorn, college rock bands from Camper Van Beethoven to the Violent Femmes. Mothers of Invention drummer Jimmy Carl Black and Dead Kennedys frontman Jello Biafra count among his collaborators. The list forms one of the most impressive curricula vitae in the international music underground.
"I think it's just amazing," he says. "Not from a point where I'm blowing my own horn, but for me, it's amazing that I've gotten to play with all these different people from different styles of music."
On November 17, 2017, Jay Hammond and the Forum for Scholars and Publics hosted a reading and performance by Eugene Chadbourne and friends. Chadbourne kicked off the event by reading passages from his tome Dreamory and was joined on stage by David Menestres and members of his family band, The 13 Society. Hammond reflects on the evening.
Jay Hammond is a graduate student in Cultural Anthropology at Duke University. His doctoral research examines historical and contemporary patterns of circulation between New York and New Orleans among early jazz musicians. He was the Anne Firor Scott Public Scholars Fellow at the Forum for Scholars and Publics during the 2017-2018 academic year.
On November 15, 2017, Greensboro-based musician Eugene Chadbourne intertwined readings from his book Dreamory with a musical performance that spanned the stylistic shifts of his long career. The performance took place at The Nightlight Bar & Club in Chapel Hill, NC, and was sponsored by the Forum for Scholars and Publics (FSP).
FSP facilitates unexpected collaborations between academics and members of the broader public, such as journalists, artists, and activists. Chadbourne’s writings have always struck me as the kind that should be brought into dialogue with more traditional scholarly work. Given the opportunity to coordinate an event for FSP, I sought to facilitate a conversation between Chadbourne’s voice as a musician and his voice as a writer and interpret his work through an anthropological lens.
I had been aware of Chadbourne’s music for a number of years. From his early solo guitar albums through his work on the New York downtown scene and up to his longstanding obsession with early country and old time music, he has a singular voice as a musician. Who else would have decided to move their musical home base from the jazz lofts of 1970s Manhattan to the dive bars of 1980s Greensboro? Who else plays free jazz solo breaks on Johnny Cash songs? Who else would have invented the electric rake?
I came across his writings later, though. About a year ago, I saw him perform for the first time at the Nightlight. The Nightlight has been artist-run for many years, and the extent to which co-owner Charlie Hearon manages to support acts across genres and mediums is truly exceptional. After the show, I noticed Chadbourne’s enormous, recently published book Dreamory on the merchandise table. I have always been taken by the possibilities created by working across different artistic and intellectual mediums, so it was exciting to see that an accomplished musician had devoted such effort to publishing his writings.
When I initially approached Chadbourne, I asked him if he’d like to do a reading, take a break, and then play a set of music. He thought it better to combine the reading and music into a single performance. By the night of the event, he had prepared, in his words, "a two-hour music and reading trip with no break." Backed up by daughters Lizzie and Molly and longtime bassist David Menestres, he treated us all to a two-hour odyssey through his playful creative restlessness as both a writer and a musician.
The night started with Chadbourne reading for nearly 25 minutes. (He read so feverishly that I worried his voice might give out before the music began.) Dreamory is part memoir, part dream journal, part tour diary. I sometimes refer to Chadbourne as a master ethnographer of the sh*tty gig, and this is precisely where he started.
He was traveling with a Russian band that didn’t have the documents to get into Italy. Somebody has an idea for an alternate route, but before we can get to the details, the band is at a hotel preparing for the next day’s travel. Finally they’re off to bed, and for the rest of the reading we’re in and out of a dream world. It starts with a canal doing "normal canal stuff" but gives way to a decreasingly coherent reality in which his feet seep into the mud, giraffes appear in the snow, and he dies and returns from the dead. The reading churns on. Many moons later and in a different hotel room, likely in New Orleans, he’s awakened from his dreams by the sound of an electric bass.
It’s the electric bass of the house hotel band. He lies in bed, perhaps awake, pondering the incommensurability between the sound of the electric bass and the upright bass on the Charles Mingus album playing in his room. He wonders who was the better upright player, Charles Mingus or Charlie Haden. Hearing the two sounds together is "like oil and water." The intimacy and precision of the acoustic bass seems to have nothing to do with the invasive tones of the electric bass currently plundering through the walls of his hotel room and into the streets, completely de-contextualized from the rest of the band.
The next day he’s at a rehearsal for a Charlie Parker tribute at Tipitina’s in New Orleans. The bass player is so frustrated by the lack of structure that he walks out. "The reason I play music is that I don’t know what’s going to happen," Chadbourne says. "The lack of bass was a problem, though, since our bebop playing required the walking bass line." These final lines of the initial reading gave way to a bass solo from Menestres. The epigraph has come to a close.
Chadbourne’s writing is in the style of surrealist ethnography. He doesn’t bother with transitions between dreams and reality, much less citations, but that doesn’t make his observations any less intellectual. "Eugene has been doing this kind of writing for years," longtime Triangle musician Jim Watson of the Red Clay Ramblers remarked to me after the show. Like Chadbourne’s writings as a jazz critic  and his musical output, his primary objective, it seems, is to transcribe the entire world. But not just any world — his world.
As Menestres walks the bass line, Chadbourne picks up his guitar, and the two launch into an interpretation of Thelonious Monk’s song "Think of One." One of Chadbourne’s favorite approaches to Monk compositions is writing lyrics to the instrumental melodies. I interpreted his original lyrics as referring back to the depleting reality of life on the road as a working musician: "Think of one itinerary, Think of where I’ve stopped, Remembering the order, Dismembering til numb."
After the Monk tune, he leans into the microphone: "This is in memory of Hans Reichel." The percussive atonality of the piece reflects Chadbourne’s first releases as a musician. In both this concert recording and in those early instrumental recordings, the whimsical satire of his speaking and singing voice is absent. But isn’t banging and twanging on the guitar as if it were a drum from some bizarre universe inherently and radically absurd enough? Chadbourne has a way of making just about anything funny, even atonal instrumental guitar pieces, and this one inspires chuckles in the audience.
The night after I first saw Chadbourne perform at the Nightlight two years ago, I went home and ordered his now out-of-print book I Hate the Man Who Runs this Bar: A Survival Guide for Real Musicians. The book is a hilarious, insightful, and poignant set of advice and warnings to musicians determined to survive producing work that does not, and likely will never have, mass appeal. Like Reichel, Chadbourne hears bazaar music in his head — a lot of it — and everything he does is aimed at bringing that music into being. Chadbourne refers to himself as "selfish" because he only plays the music he wants to hear, not what he thinks his audience might want. Such lack of creative compromise requires a unique approach to the music business.
Chadbourne was one of the early producers of independent cassette tapes of his music in the 1980s, and the majority of his albums continue to be self-released, often home-burned CD-Rs with homemade artwork. This unorthodox approach has provided Chadbourne a base level of security, enabling a musical life that prioritizes playful exploration. Classical musicians speak of the enormous sense of relief they feel when meeting and working with him.
David Menestres told me about encountering Chadbourne for the first time when he was a student at UNC-Greensboro: "Eugene Chadbourne was the perfect antidote to music school. His sense of humor and determination to have fun while being a virtuosic performer who played only the music he wanted to was the exact opposite of music shcool, where having fun and a sense of humor about music were roundly discouraged." In an interview in Indy Week, oboist Carrie Shull agrees. "It was very liberating. He was immediately very encouraging and positive, just kind of, 'No matter what you do, it's great!' He was very welcoming and open-minded. I was ready for that." 
The playful openhearted approach came across clearly in the second half of Chadbourne’s set. His daughters Lizzie and Molly joined on vocals and banjo to form a band they call "The 13 Society." The style shifted from jazz and solo guitar pieces to the country, old time, and rock repertoire that he began to develop after his move to Greensboro in the 1980s. The move coincided with the birth of his daughters, and it was clear that they had been singing some of these songs together for many years. There was a medley of rare novelty Johnny Cash songs, including "I’m a Nut" with the IWW anti-capitalist classic "Hallelujah I’m a Bum." There was a long reading from Chadbourne about his German Jewish mother’s narrow escape from Germany in 1939 with a song based on that story. The event closed with a hilarious version of Frank Zappa’s "Take Your Clothes Off When You Dance."
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So far, I’ve only ever heard the question in the title of this essay answered with a “no”. I’ve asked several of the most enthusiastic indie and underground music fans I know. “Eugene Chadbourne… Eugene Chadbourne…” Sometimes it rings a faint bell – it did for me the first time I heard it. If your answer to the question is “yes”, or “of course I have!” then my best guess is you’re in the minority of readers, and furthermore, that there’s a decent chance you were born earlier than 1970.
It’s curious that so few have come across avant-garde-country guitarist Dr Eugene Chadbourne, and that his name doesn’t come up a lot more often both today and in histories of independent pop music. Curious because Eugene Chadbourne was – or seems to have been – one of the biggest and most critically acclaimed stars of the independent scene during its nascent phase in the 1980s. In the course of my academic research on that era, his name kept coming up over and over and over again, though I barely recognised it at first.
Chadbourne was described as America’s “only anarcho-paramilitary-electro-folkie-troubadelic-matador”, his music as “gonzo audio journalism” that “pushes traditional music to its edge and makes it jump”. At the height of his fame between 1986 and 1988, you almost couldn’t pick up an underground pop magazine without reading a review, article or news item featuring him, and he never needed an introduction. Chadbourne and his picture made it into the pages of Spin three times, even before that magazine became a bastion of alternative culture. One issue of Sound Choice in 1986 included no less than ten separate reviews of his releases. The same magazine made the (probably dubious) claim that “major labels are falling over themselves to pick up the newest release from guitar/home-tape wildman Eugene Chadbourne.” There were even cartoon strips that relied on his notoriety for effect. Nor was his fame limited to America. Chadbourne toured Europe a number of times, and British magazine Melody Maker reviewed his albums by talking of his “crazed genius”, calling his “analysis of America’s presidency problem… witty and astute.” It’s difficult to compare visibility and listenership then and now, since the internet allows subcultural connectivity and listenership to flow much faster and more easily than it did in the 1980s, but by modern standards he seems to have stood somewhere between James Ferraro and Lil B in underground fame.
In many cases, Chadbourne took up more space in print and on air than contemporaneous acts Sonic Youth, Daniel Johnston, Half Japanese, Beat Happening, Meat Puppets and Mudhoney, now Olympian gods of 80s indie. Chadbourne even collaborated with acts who are now better known than he is, such as John Zorn, They Might Be Giants, Derek Bailey, Sun City Girls, Violent Femmes, Camper Van Beethoven and Kramer. So I was surprised that a nerd like me wasn’t familiar with his music or even just his reputation, and that nor were any of the similarly afflicted nerds I asked about him.
Of course, Chadbourne isn’t completely AWOL. He still performs and records – his style is more or less the same as ever – and he undoubtedly has a great many fans. Although his 80s records can be difficult to find elsewhere, they can be ordered from Chadbourne himself on CD-R through his website, which also includes detailed histories and discographies of his work. Last year, Chadbourne placed number 69 in Spin’s greatest 100 guitarists of all time, and Pitchfork TV have a great video interview with him that serves as a decent introduction to the guy. Chadbourne, who started out as a music journalist, is also responsible for a great deal of the reviews on allmusic.com. The site was responsible for an enormous proportion of my pop music education as a teenager, and this is where I’d heard his name before. All the same, there’s a vast contrast between his reception and visibility as it was then and as it is now.
“While canons initially feel like a great way of sifting the wheat of music history out of the boundless sonic chaff of the past, they’re effectively also oppressive aesthetic regimes that all too easily dictate taste”
Despite his 80s fame and that of Shockabilly, the “high-speed electric-dada-bluegrass” band he led between 1982 and 1985, Eugene Chadbourne has not really entered the canon of indie music. Much like the canon of Western literature, Western music and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the canon of indie music is an imaginary museum containing the tradition’s greatest artists and bands together with their records. The aesthetic supremacy of all that lies within is practically beyond question. While canons initially feel like a great way of sifting the wheat of music history out of the boundless sonic chaff of the past, they’re effectively also oppressive aesthetic regimes that all too easily dictate taste, constrain possibilities by ignoring avenues every time they point the way, and render inaccessibly obscure any artists or works that don’t measure up to their very particular standards. Simply put, a musical canon is a relatively narrowed set of ideas about what constitutes “good” music, with works and recordings of the past to support its arguments. They’re surprisingly powerful and often regarded as trans-historically absolute.
Canons usually form slowly over time as the sum total of choices, value judgements and practices, but in the case of indie music, which experienced something of a gold rush in the 1990s, canon formation was swift and literal. Key books and discographies from the 90s such as Rolling Stone’s Alt Rock-a-Rama, The Trouser Press Guide to 90s Rock and The Spin Alternative Record Guide produced dozens of lists of the greatest indie rock albums and artists as a way of mapping out and capitalising upon the new territory. Chadbourne is seldom found in these tomes – at the time he was swiftly disappearing, crowded out by the consequences of all the new money and attention for the scene. Magazines were becoming glossier and glossier, the bands in them bigger and bigger, and even though lo-fi was very fashionable, the leading artists (Pavement, Beck, Guided By Voices etc) were predominantly released on widely distributed vinyl and CD rather than the mail order of the previous decade. Besides, their music was usually significantly less challenging and unconventional than Chadbourne’s and the avant-gardists within Cassette Culture. Most importantly though, Chadbourne’s whole aesthetic, to the extent that it ever was in fashion, was quickly falling out of it. Alternative rock in the 90s was cool, and Eugene Chadbourne was not cool.
For this reason, the majority of younger, contemporary listeners born into this age of indie and unaware of Chadbourne’s music would not, I think, easily warm to it. The guy goes against the most fundamental tenets of today’s indie and underground cool so completely that the initial reaction is, unfortunately, likely to be one of embarrassment. Although I very much admire his achievements and stance (and I really liked Shockabilly’s debut EP, The Dawn of Shockabilly), the canon remains strong and I can’t say I’ve grown particularly fond of what I’ve heard over the last few months. So, I’m sorry to say, this is not primarily an article about how much you’re gonna love his work. This is not to say we shouldn’t listen, however, and consider how it came to be that such an extraordinary and critically acclaimed musician was positioned so firmly beyond the pale – we soon learn quite a lot about how narrow-minded the contemporary scene really is.
“Except for a gentle vogue for kitschy exotica in the 90s, a few moments of silliness in alt rock, and that odd flash of new rave, the zany era has been entirely amputated from indie and underground music, with no revival on the cards any time soon.”
First and foremost, Chadbourne is zany. Old-school eccentric. Alongside a few forgotten bands and home-tapers, Chadbourne and Shockabilly were something of a last hurrah for the zany prog/art rock tradition pioneered by Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart and maintained into the 80s by bands like Devo, The Residents and The Mystic Knights of Oingo Boingo, DJs like Dr Demento and Irwin Chusid, and of course, “Weird Al” Yankovic. (If you’re not familiar with these acts, the names alone tell you practically everything you need to know). This tradition was crucial to the early years and aesthetics of independent music, binding together folk, avant-garde, dada and satire in a bizarro parallel to punk. It was popular on American campuses in the early 80s and provided much of the atmosphere for WFMU, one of the college radio stations most important to the indie scene of the time. Its influence can even, arguably, be felt upon indie-head Matt Groening’s The Simpsons. Except for a gentle vogue for kitschy exotica in the 90s, a few moments of silliness in alt rock, and that odd flash of new rave, the zany era has been entirely amputated from indie and underground music, with no revival on the cards any time soon. It’s not difficult to see why – the wacky personas and impressions, nutty stage antics, irritating facial expressions, and the voices, oh God the voices, either high, strained and nasal or deep and gulping… To contemporary eyes and ears all this is grating in the extreme, like the mortifying frolics of sad dads witnessed by kids getting too old.
Eugene Chadbourne – I Hate The Man That Runs This Bar / Evil Filthy Preacher
“From the early 80s on, Chadbourne was perhaps most famous for playing an instrument of his own devising, an electric rake”
I’m not saying the apparent awfulness of much of this is a permanent aesthetic truth, that the zaniness was somehow regrettably “mistaken” at the time. My point is that it has been scrubbed from the indie aesthetic agenda so hard that it’s difficult to imagine it as a viable creative possibility today. As early as 1989, one music critic referred in a live review to “Chadbourne’s stale fruitcake routine”. The bands that came to define alternative rock were about as far from zany as they could get. Mainly reacting against the excesses of corporate hair rock, they also set themselves and their behaviour against the underground’s previous generations. Neither clowns nor hippies nor hardcore punks, their demeanour was frank, sincere, understated, streetwise, minimal, a cool passivity, whether it was Beat Happening, R.E.M., grunge, or the notoriously subdued shoegazers. In the main, indie has barely looked back, and hip hop experienced a similar shift. But one key figure in the underground world very much embodying the zany era and using it boldly and productively is Nardwuar the Human Serviette, the Canadian rock musician and famous video-interviewer. Nardwuar is an absolutely amazing and thoroughly welcome presence in underground music. The contrast (or disarming harmony) between his wacky shtick and the cool or punky shtick of his interviewees, and the way he uses his own nerdiness to resonate with their own rarely aired nerdiness, is regularly incredible. Try his astonishing interview with A$AP Rocky and the Mob, for example.
More generally, direct humour is uncommon in indie music today, being pretty incompatible with both classic cool and the Romanticism that has long driven independent and non-commercial music. Chadbourne addresses this in the Pitchfork video, noting aptly that in music history, “if somebody is funny they’re not taken as seriously. It’s appreciated but it’s just not considered to be as serious a work… but it’s not an easy thing to get people to laugh.”
Then there’s the strong political content of so much of Chadbourne’s work. The man is staunchly left-wing, and constantly satirises the American right and mainstream in his lyrics. I wouldn’t be the first to bring up the almost total political silence that characterises today’s pop music both over and underground. With the possible exception of some underground hip hop, pop is increasingly devoid of political statement and argument. This contrasts with the scene in the late 80s and early 90s, and in fact some of the most visible and vocal political musicians of that era are at best peripheral figures today, such as Diamanda Galas, Jello Biafra, Billy Bragg and Sinead O’Connor. Politics was constantly and directly discussed in music magazines in Europe and America, even when it didn’t relate to music. In 1990 there was even a compilation album against the poll tax featuring some leading bands of the time, including Lush. And again, it’s difficult to imagine such things being possible today – imagine an album of guitar bands or house producers against the tripling of student fees, or the privatisation of the NHS, or the cuts in benefits, or the bedroom tax. Arguably artists who make hi-def pop art are rediscovering satire and critique, particularly Fatima Al Qadiri, and this is encouraging. But on the whole, music’s potential as a powerful and articulate political tool seems like a far-off dream, with the mode of so much of today’s music reducible to “just chillin’”. To a significant extent, the increased capital within indie music has played a part – politics doesn’t sell. But with so much of the underground music community aligning with the left, it must be put down to a much broader, epochal inability to express political alternatives and urgent opinion.
“It seems like practically everything about Eugene Chadbourne goes against the grain of pop music fashion. The kicker is that that’s exactly what made him so important to the underground music community in the 80s.”
Something else challenging about Chadbourne’s music is how experimental it is. Underground pop has always had a strong experimental streak and non-classical avant-garde music has been a tradition since the 50s, but in the 80s a much greater proportion of the indie conversation appears to have been devoted to noise music, electronic music, musique concrète, hardcore punk, free jazz and improv. Ornette Coleman, Frank Zappa, John Lurie, Pere Ubu and Chadbourne’s collaborator John Zorn all appeared on the cover of Optionmagazine between 1987 and 1988. Beat Happening reviews would sit in between those of Throbbing Gristle clones and middle-aged contemporary classical trombone improvisers. It’s difficult to say how much the individual listener reflected the broad horizons of the magazines, but such equality of attention and discursive unity is not the norm today.
Chadbourne is doubly challenging, though, because he mixes avant-garde instrumental solos with country music. He started off firmly within the experimental improv tradition in New York City in the late 70s, before plunging into rock ‘n’ roll with Shockabilly. From the early 80s on, Chadbourne was perhaps most famous for playing an instrument of his own devising, an electric rake. Had Chadbourne stayed within avant-improv and not combined it with vernacular idioms, he might have become a mainstay of that scene. Instead, it can’t be easy for its often ascetic, abstract-only and ultramodernist adherents to accept the country elements, while Chadbourne is clearly not going to hit the bull’s-eye for most country fans either. Further compounding his barriers next to the zaniness, politics and experimentalism is this country dimension – it’s yet another thing that rarely goes hand in hand with indie or underground music, especially in Europe. There’s alt-country out there, bands like Calexico and Japancakes, and so many American folk and rock bands have a rural twang, but in the past few years at least, none have shot up the international underground hype ladder.
Eugene Chadbourne playing his electric rake during an appearance with Shockabilly.
And the list of black marks against Chadbourne’s name goes on. He was so thoroughly prolific, flooding the underground with full-length releases on cassette and vinyl, that it’s difficult to know where to begin with his intimidating oeuvre. No one album truly seems to stick out for the critics. Classic, canonical bands and artists are required to leave classic, canonical albums by which the student commences the tutelage of Greatness. Tied into this is how so much of Chadbourne’s and Shockabilly’s appeal seems to have come from seeing them live. With the proliferation of mp3s online today, the appeal of recordings is the primary concern in building a fan base. Chadbourne’s were usually lo-fi and/or live recordings, and not in the evocative, Romantic, Jandek or Daniel Johnston way.
Chadbourne’s high level of technical ability on guitar was and is also a huge part of his appeal, both live and on record. One critic even claimed that EC could ‘out-Hendrix Hendrix’. Dazzling technical ability is no longer much of a draw, and though it’s no bad thing that this is the case, it might in fact turn some indie or underground listeners off today. Then there’s Chadbourne’s appearance and age, him being in his mid-thirties in the late 80s. Since the 90s, indie musicians have often been significantly more youth- and image-led, though the further you go underground, the more and more exceptions you can find to this principle. But with successful indie music fronted more and more by thin, milk-skinned women or gloomy, chiselled men (which is not the fault of these usually very genuine people), the odds are against the Chadbourne look.
It seems like practically everything about Eugene Chadbourne goes against the grain of pop music fashion. The kicker is that that’s exactly what made him so important to the underground music community in the 80s. Today’s indie is so often slick, toned-down, chilled, and even pretty yuppie-fied in places – in other words, precisely what the 80s indies set themselves against. Chadbourne stretched the boundaries of pop music and stayed true to the real possibilities and alternatives within them. Now that they’ve almost completely collapsed around him again, he becomes more than ever an emblem of what we’re fighting for.
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