R. Stevie Moore Is a Lo-Fi Legend.
What, You've Never Heard of Him?
But can you dance to them? R. Stevie Moore in his home studio in Bloomfield. He has recorded more than 400 albums in 26 years.
By TAMMY LA GORCE
Not all eccentric recluses care for that label.
Take R. Stevie Moore, a musician who owns a cult following of international rock snobs and a self-maintained catalog that bulges with more than 400 difficult to classify – and often just difficult – albums. At age 52, with 26 years of record-making behind him, that translates to more than 15 releases a year.
That productivity may sound impressive in a Calvinist kind of way, but Mr. Moore, a bass, guitar, drum and keyboard player who earned the solemn praise of make-or-break critics like Kurt Loder and Ira Glass early in his career, is not particularly proud of the feat.
"People tell me I'm shooting myself in the foot, releasing so much – I've heard that for years," Mr. Moore said in a confessional tone over a cheeseburger at a downtown tavern here in Bloomfield, where he lives. "But I can't help it. It's who I am. I have this prodigy talent I was born with."
He shrugged, then exhaled a tobacco cloud of volcanic proportions that temporarily obscured him. When the smoke cleared, he was still there: hair King Lear wild, Hawaiian shirt, plaid shorts and Nirvana baseball cap. Eccentric? Oh, come on.
"I don't need fancy cars," he said. "I hate the whole greed thing. But I do live in poverty, compared to how it ought to be."
For those who crave a rare taste of Mr. Moore live, he is scheduled to play Feb. 21 at the Serena Bar and Lounge at the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan in support of "Tiny Idols" (Snowglobe Records), a compilation of early-90's indie rock. Mr. Moore's peers on the CD include not-quite-household-names like Strapping Fieldhands, Bunnygrunt and Medusa Cyclone.
Mr. Moore's unconventional methods – since 1978 he has been playing and recording in a single, stuffy, equipment- and artifact-choked room in the one-bedroom apartment he shares with his longtime girlfriend – has been "artistic suicide, a running joke for decades."
"I'm still bitter, and I'm still waiting for recognition," he sniffed, adding that, despite the Lenny Bruce-inspired comedy bits he works into many of his CD's, the most recent of which, "Save R. Stevie," came out in July, he is often "suicidally depressed" over the so-called arc of his career.
Mr. Moore's is a life mired in the maddening fringes: artistic, celebrity, socioeconomic. His ambivalence about his station in life is sometimes reflected in the titles of his albums: "Contact Risk" and "Nevertheless Optimistic," for example.
In talking with him, the sense that the right kind of documentarian – an indie filmmaker with a flair for the tragicomic – would have a field day with him is inescapable.
So is the certainty that Mr. Moore, who comes across as a character straight out of Harvey Pekar's "American Splendor," would welcome that kind of exposure.
"Lately it's been snowballing, with a lot of my stuff selling on eBay and my name getting mentioned a lot," he said, momentarily brightening. In fact, All Music Guide, an online reference bible for music industry types, calls Mr. Moore "a true original" and says that "entire generations of lo-fi enthusaists and indie trailblazers, from Guided by Voices to Apples in Stereo, owe much to Moore's pioneering."
Of that kind of praise, Mr. Moore said, "I milk it for all it's worth."
And he acknowledges that the same strategy applies to anything remotely milkable. He eagerly links his "prodigy talent," for instance, to his father, the Nashville session musician Bob Moore, a highly regarded bassist who played with Elvis Presley and with whom he is still "sort of in touch" after what he calls an abusive relationship.
"I could have followed in his footsteps," Mr. Moore said of his father, "but I played in live bands and it wasn't my style. I did some three-hour sessions" as a bass player before moving to New Jersey, "and for the amount of money, I couldn't stand it. I'd go home and get stoned."
Plus, he hated the music: "Now, Hank Williams is a god to me. But then, in Nashville, I couldn't stand all the hillbilly Delta blues, the 12-bar blues. I took it for granted."
The degree to which Mr. Moore's music is taken for granted, on the other hand, depends largely upon your criteria of what music is. Dabble in his CD's, and everything from sunny California melodies to repeat toilet flushes emerges.
What some call cutting edge others call weird, of course, but from Mr. Moore's perspective, "people are so narrow-minded in the arts. I feel very much like a Renaissance man – I was brought up to appreciate everything, from Sinatra crooning to 'Hello, Dolly.' It's difficult, it's avant garde. I'm the ultimate amateur, and I've been called directionless, but when it comes to smooth musicality, no one can touch me."
Fans of barbershop quartets – even fans of boy bands – might disagree. But Mr. Moore's uncle, Harry Palmer, a former music executive from the Bloomfield area, was fully sold on the smoothness of the Captain Beefheart- and Todd Rundgren-influenced material when Mr. Moore started sending him homemade tapes from Nashville in the late 1970's. "He took me under his wing, brought me up here," Mr. Moore said. "He said, 'How are we going to get Stevie's music out there?'"
As it turned out, Mr. Moore said: "I showed up in New Jersey right when punk was hitting, and I was an instant celebrity. I bleached my hair and I spiked it out, and I was Johnny Rotten from hillbilly land. It was so innocent then, total lo-fi."
That initial notoriety helped establish the cottage industry he still runs – and that is sinking him deeper and deeper into credit card debt. The R. Stevie Moore Cassette Club (at www.rsteviemoore.com) lists hundreds of individually dubbed CD's and MP3's available by mail order; it was started by "me trying to make a better quality demo, waiting for a phone call from a record label that didn't come. I became the original do-it-yourselfer."
Mr. Moore records, dubs and then packages his CD's in whatever cardboard he has sitting around – a recent bundle arrived protected by cut-up Girl Scout cookie boxes – the same way he has since arriving at the one-man recording industry concept. He says he counts more than 100 dedicated fans who buy the music at least monthly.
"They keep ordering, these weirdos all around, my fan base," he said. "They love getting product directly from the artist. Around 70 percent are in the States and about 30 percent in Germany, France" and other European countries. "Sometimes they'll disappear, and then come back five years later."
All of which is part of the mystique that those who follow Mr. Moore's music – a more marginal breed of the same rock vultures who consumed Frank Zappa's every recorded utterance – delight in.
Yet the lone wolf allure is sometimes disrupted by a live gig. Mr. Moore has played with the Smithereens' Dennis Diken and, last August, opened a show for the radio host Dr. Demento at the B. B. King Blues Club in Manhattan.
But despite the coveted credibility it confers in elitist rock circles, he could generally do without the below-the-radar buzz.
Now, "I play mind games with myself over whether I should continue recording," he said. "I don't know how much I'm imagining this – I feel on top of the world with my ego and my talent – and how much is sheer optimism. I've ridiculously chosen this avenue of being my own vendor, and in some ways maybe that's backfired. I'm like a helpless little kid working out of his bedroom, a modest humble Southern boy.
"But," he added, "I'm still hyping it up."
photo by Nancy Wegard for the New York Times
AND his new BLAHg too.
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