Bloomfield, NJ- My mentor and sage, the Great Abdullah, disappeared into the Adirondacks a few years ago. But before he left, he imparted to me these rules by which to live.
"Kid, treat people right and don't ever get a job with the federal government. And remember-- there ain't nothing like a dame, there ain't nothing like a cheesesteak and there ain't nothin' like an R. Stevie Moore gig."
Well, dames I knew about and cheesesteaks I discovered, but I didn't know what Abdullah meant about R. Stevie Moore. Until tonight.
All seriousness aside, the gent is an authentic, bona fide, certified underground legend. He has fans across the U.S. and around the world.
It's not from his records--he hasn't got many. It's not from his gigs--he doesn't play that often.
What the Moore cult is mainly based upon are his tapes (and in these parts, Moore's freeform broadcasts over WFMU-FM in East Orange). There are over 1,000 R. Stevie Moore originals on tape, a great many of which can be had on cassettes available from the R.S.M. Cassette Club.
The tapes are, for the most part, do-it-yourself affairs that Moore cooks up on his home machines. A multi-instrumentalist, Moore is the proprietor of a musical philosophy which explains (in part) his fecundity: "Write a song. Record it. Then forget it."
Indeed, Moore might have completely forgotten most of his songs were it not for his constant compiling of album-length cassettes over the years, without regard for the niceties of sequencing.
His rare gig this eve suggested one of those tapes. Songs followed one another in no particular order. It was quite a casual show, with Moore sitting through most of the set and rolling an unlit More around in his mouth at one point.
Moore's relaxed demeanor, however, was the eye of a hurricane of his own making. The man and his band, The Biggest Names In Show Business, put out some of the most bracing music I've heard lately.
What kind of music was it? Goddamn, don't even ask. Take every record ever recorded, put the discs into a giant Cuisinart and turn the thing on. You'll get the idea.
How many bands can you name who sound like the Beach Boys and the Mothers of Invention--at the same time?
Hard rock, jazz, power pop, country--it's all in there. I know that doesn't sound like a sensible mixture, but Moore keeps it all together.
Abdullah was right--Moore writes songs like you've probably never heard. They're weird if you consider any song that doesn't concern familiar subjects "weird."
True enough, most of your bigtime rock songwriters don't pen ditties dealing with guitar strings, putting away groceries, going to the dogs, or hating people. But if these are topics that seem of only trivial concern, then maybe the observer's senses are numbed.
On top of all this is Moore's voice. Like everything else herein, it is unique. It sweeps down to a whispery growl from a shrill falsetto.
A song such as, "You Are True" might well outdo the Romantics at their own game. It does, but I guarantee you'll not hear anything resembling Moore's vocals on a Romantics lp.
Even Moore's covers were idiosyncratic. "I Love You So Much It Hurts" was done in a relatively straightforward way, except that Moore grabbed his crotch after announcing the song.
But the Big Bopper would not have recognized Moore's version of "Chantilly Lace," although he would've appreciated its humor and energy. ("Lace" is a huge hit in France, whence come import copies of the latest Moore compilation, Everything You've Always Wanted To Know About R. Stevie Moore But Were Afraid To Ask.)
The Jetty audience certainly appreciated the humor and energy lavished upon the entire set And well they might've, as Moore said, "We don't do this too often. We're going to be doing it more often, but we don't do this too often, which makes it all the most enjoyable for you."
I was surprised to hear that The Biggest Names haven't played together long, and that Moore's stage show was pretty much thrown together. While each player was in his own orbit, the band also made a tight ensemble.
None of this would've come to pass, you understand, if Moore had been able to stomach the country music recording sessions his dad got him booked into the early 70's. (Dad is Bob Moore, bassist with Elvis Presley for 10 years and currently wielding a four string for Jerry Lee Lewis.)
As a reaction to the cut and dried Nashville sound, Moore began composing in his own style. Maybe I should say styles--I was told that the band had rehearsed enough material to have played a completely different set.
Complaints? Yeah, I had a couple. For one thing, Moore was miked too low; as a result, many of his singular lyrics were lost in the mix. I guess I'll have to pick up some Moore tapes and discs to find out what he sang.
Moore isn't for all tastes, mind you. Some people don't dig an individualistic, often mocking approach to pop. They take it soooo seriously. So does Moore, in his own way. He's not a parodist and his off center manner isn't a calculated image. It's just the way he is; more power (and fans) to him.
Up top were the Modern Pioneers, whose musical focus is a bit narrower than Moore's (but then, that could be said of damn near anybody).
Smile, it's only rock and roll.
I'M ALWAYS THINKING OF what it meant to grow up in New Jersey during the waning years of the '50s, and the halcyon days of the early '60s. I recently found a photo of myself in a 1961 wedding party. Can you see my starched white dinner jacket and the cream colored Cadillac against the violent red roses of that cloudless June sky?
I remember sweet, tender corn, and tomatoes the size of grapefruit. And fine, silky sand that squished between your toes.
Growing up in Jersey then was all about material comfort and spiritual destitution. It was the promise of a world whose doors would swing wide open for us if we got the right education, smiled a sincere smile, and offered a firm handshake. It was about earning money and maintaining the status quo. Eisenower had a lot to do with that. So did the school system. But a society's leader and schools are but manifestations of where its heart and mind are dwelling.
When I think of my Jersey schooling, I remember one of the last bastions of Democracy, and not a happy one--the kind where everyone was supposed to be the same--a system that tried its damnedest to file the rough edges off of anyone truly different.
If everyone was supposed to be the same we naturally wouldn't look here for any substantial creative challenge. We'd look to Manhattan, and beyond, for innovative realities.
Springsteen and his school started to change that. Finally, we had a homegrown product to equal the richness of our crops. But before Bruce, a collective inferiority complex shed its baleful light across the width and length of our shores.
Before The Boss, creative musicians had few chances to be heard. Think of the splendor of their proud and solitary confinement--ever rolling on without hope of finding open ears--monuments of patience in the face of the world's indifference. I see them bend over their four tracks, or trying to wring music from the reluctant bowels of an old piano that's been pounded into a discordant mess. Can you smell the burning of their midnight oil?
I know one of these people. As the '70s faded, I worked by his side in a record store. For a moment I stared into his lonely heart. His name is R. Stevie Moore, and his emergence into the light, and the machinations that brought him here constitute one of the more remarkable stories of our time.
Steve is not a native son but an expatriate of the Nashville tradition. He was born there, 31 years ago. His father, Bob Moore, has played bass on scads of the most reputable Nashville releases. For a time Bob was one of Elvis' karate partners. Depending on Dad's mood, he'd bring home mono reel-to-reel tapes of choice sessions of which he was proud. Elvis. Connie Francis hits. Things like that. It was all taken for granted. Then came the Beatles. Suddenly, Steve forgot the glamour of Music City, U.S.A. Rather than inherit his father's mantle, Steve chose to go his own way. He got real gone. He made music he couldn't play for his family.
For a time, Moore led the life of an itinerant rocker. Boarding with his band. Undertaking a grand tour of the Midwest. All that dustbowl glamour and fleshly gratification.
As fate would have it, Steve found the ear he was afraid to ask his family for in his uncle, Harry Palmer, of New Jersey. Steve mailed tapes to Harry, who responded with encouragement and enthusiasm. In mid 1976, Harry compiled an album of his own favorite tracks. He had 100 copies pressed on his own label, H.P. Music. Entitled Phonography, it was not intended for public consumption, but fell into the hands of several journalists.
Scattered reviews appeared, all in the "hoping to hear more from this young maverick" school. Harry convinced Steve to move North to feel New York's heat. In 1978, Moore relocated in Upper Montclair. H.P. Music then released several items for public consumption: Stance, a 12-inch ep; Four From Phonography, a seven-incher; Delicate Tension, and a reissue of Phonography, the last two released in pressings of 1,000. Reviews appeared. A cult following was building.
European labels soon beckoned. Recommended Records of Britain distributed Stance and Delicate Tension. Both discs sold well, and the firm became hardcore fans. They released two songs by Steve on a sampler album, featuring him on the same side as the Residents. Fast Forward cassette magazine of Victoria, Australia, featured Moore on two of their releases. An interview was included.
Steve receives letters from fans in France, Germany, the Netherlands, England, Poland, Mexico, Canada, and Australia. A favorite note came from a radio broadcaster in Poland: "I was borrowed from my friends your record, Phonography, and I was presented some fragments from it last month ago. I was talked with people, and they say that you are playing very good, new pop. It is uncanny music, and it is not meeting."
With the blossoming of the cassette revolution, Steve's affairs shifted into high gear. As the records that had been released became unavailable, the R. Stevie Moore Cassette Club was born. Each mail order is dubbed, decorated, and shipped personally. Some 100 odd cassettes of varying lengths are now available. A catalog can be obtained by writing to the club at XXX XXXXXX Rd, XXXXX XXXXXXXXX NJ XXXXX.
Now a double ep (sic) on the French label New Rose is available in shops. An LP is coming soon on Cuneiform (USA).
The shift in tastes away from corporate rock to the vitality of the Do-It-Yourselfers gave a boost to Moore and other undergrounders, and pulled them, at last, out of their exile. Moore has received a favorable notice in the new edition of the Rolling Stone Record Guide. Another article, part of a feature on the home recording revolution, appeared in the June 1983 edition of Musician magazine.
We recently talked to Moore in his Upper Montclair home--nestled amidst the towering elms, in the balmy air--far from the madding crowd, and above all those Mercedes. I ascended three flights of winding stairs to reach Steve's flat. I felt that I had entered another zone.
To enter R. Stevie Moore's world is to receive the tender benediction of the greatest pop icons of the past three decades. Elvis, Marilyn, Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee, and a host of lesser lights, all bid you welcome. Long out of print LP sleeves, magazine clippings, and glossies beckon. The accumulated paraphrenalia of three decades of pop. And it seems like it all happened yesterday. This homage to pop is essential in understanding Moore's work. Pop is more to him than disposable culture. It's what we measure our desires and date our lives with.
The styles of the past and present are fodder to be strained through Moore's imagination--inspirations that emerge as something new and wildly different--as part of his style. A mind boggling variety of material reposes in Moore's archives: pop and rock in all permutations; ballads, neocountry, piano improvisations, synthesizer experiments, guitar solos, cover versions of famous oldies, percussion ensembles, organ pieces, and spoken word excursions, like this excerpt from the 1961 World Book article, "Music": "...People do not make noise because they want to make another person feel good..."
In an important departure from tradition, the formerly elusive Mister Moore answered some direct questions.
R.S.M.: One of my main attributes, more than anything, is the ear.You want to be influenced--to take in different styles?
Well, yeah, certainly. And I also want to create my own too, which is, these days, pretty hard, because lots has been done; almost everything, we think has been done, right? And then there are variations on those too.But you strain the influences through your own style, through your own technique.
Right, but what I was gonna say is funny. Because of the ear, the quick ear for arrangement, to be able to pick up, instrument by instrument, I've found it very much fun, and almost a novelty, to copy people. To copy, song by song. But I wouldn't do a whole tape simply because that week I was loving Band On The Run. It's a self gratification thing, but it's also something that hasn't been shown by any other pop artist that they can. It's beyond being influenced. It's like a kaleidoscope--to be able to relate to all pop culture and music that way, and not to say, 'I like listening to jazz, but it's too heady for me.' No way! I can do that.
One of my biggest ambitions is to finally have that album that costs $50,000 to make, but that has a song of every genre on it. Actually get the Nelson Riddle Orchestra to do "Darn That Dream," and to do bluegrass with my Dad playing bass, and all the fiddlers; and to do something punk, hardcore punk, and to follow that with...it goes on and on. And that's something nobody's ever really done. The Beatles were close on The White Album. To start out that way--to have a first album that has every style. And that's more or less a fantasy: to be the first to do that kind of thing.
Nothing is safe from this underground legend's sonic Cuisinart and spiralling sense of humor. No musical idiom of the rock and roll language is spared, no facet of daily experience (even such mundane realities as a warm kitchen or Doan's pills) remains unexplored.(The legendary RSM performs at THE JETTY, 426 Bloomfield Ave. in Bloomfield, this Tuesday Oct 8, as very special guest of industrial band "Borbetomagus.")
Therefore, listening to Greatest Hits is tantamount to hearing a parody of such eclectic, two-record tours de force as the White Album, London Calling, Zen Arcade or Tusk. It's a miniscule fraction of the music Moore has released on cassette and disc over the years, but on its own it's a worthy sampler of what Moore is about--which is, to borrow one of his song titles, "Everything," put together in ways you likely won't expect.
His newest compilation, R. Stevie Moore Is Worth It, finds Moore going way out and way in. Since Moore works essentially solo, he follows no guidelines except his own. So anything can happen, and does.
The result can be an irresistable riff like "Shaking In The Sixties," a murky odyssey into electronics like "Tip Of My Tongue," an almost conventional jazz/pop piece like "Pink Litmus Paper Shirt," or whatever else the end product.
The one end product never produced in the course of this sometimes maddening, sometimes hilarious tape is boredom. One of the parameters of Moore's music is the size of his home studio---since it's not a 48-track cavern, the scale remains intimate no matter what form the outcome takes. That's part of its charm, along with its singular way of eliciting both recognition and bewilderment.
Genius at work? Could be.