R. Stevie Moore
Play Myself Some MusicA RECORDING ARTISAN
by Nuno Monteiro
"How often the highest talent lurks in obscurity."
"aren't we, after all
all better actors than even Marlon Brando?
Show Biz is obsolete"
RSM, "Show Biz is Dead" (1984)
What if the Beatles never existed? This thought might produce a minor headache - but bear with me, dear reader - for there is a revelation of historical proportions behind this poor attempt at making justice to one of the most brilliant and unsung characters of XXth century's music.
In order to contextualize the current issue, I will now present you with another unprobable scenario... What if the Beatles were a group of anonymous musicians recording masterpieces in a studio/attic, waiting all their lives for a break? How would you feel listening for the first time to Sgt Pepper or the White Album, knowing that you're sharing a precious secret with the few others who had the chance of coming upon such wonderful and unknown music? You would probably feel a lot like me when I first discovered the unsung genius of R. Stevie Moore.
Some of you might say that my fantasy of the Beatles producing in obscurity makes no sense - because, after all, someone that good can't stay unsung for so many years. Well... if you never heard R. Stevie Moore, you might be proving my point. There is no question here of fatuous admiration, nor am I suggesting that all of Moore's work is perfect and beyond reaproach. But inasmuch as his achievements have, until now, been grossly underrated, I feel it is high time RSM was granted the privileged position he deserves. A talented multi-instrumentalist, Moore has created a prolific body of work composed of more than 400 albums, home-recorded in the time-lapse between 1968 and now (his latest release is dated July 2005 and according to the news' section in his site there's already a new one coming up).
His music can range from pristine pop architecture to wild tape manipulations, all glued together in amazing sound collages. Moore sings, plays every instrument, records, mixes, makes the covers, burns it in CD-R's and sells them through his own bedroom label, CDRSMCLUB. He likes to think of himself as a recording artisan. The albums are as fluid and fragmented as a deranged and highly creative radio show. Psychedelia, Synth Pop, New Wave, Found Tape, Punk, Prog, Country, Power Pop, Electronic, Folk, Spoken Word... There seems to be no end to it. Referring to Moore's obscurity, the perhaps-imaginary R. Christgau (not the Village Voice critic) said: "Someday the world will be pleasantly surprised." That time may be far (or not), but one thing I can assure you: it is inevitable.
Not only for the original and eclectic quality of his music, but because R. Stevie Moore has an undeniable historical importance. Besides being a pioneer in home-recording (in a pre-personal computer era), he is the father of "Lo-fi" (he might hate this term) and one of the first artists to be completely immersed in the DIY ethic, selling his music directly via mail, without the ever present middle-man.
RSM has that rare quality of creating a sound almost impossible to label. The term Lo-fi might serve as a generalization to describe his unique work. And probably that's why he hates the damn word. "I'm not just putting out cassettes because they're cheaper or because American Record Companies are ignoring me. My cassettes are a diary of sound. A very personal kind of thing; this is what I do, writing songs and building soundscapes. It's almost a kind of sickness." curiously, it started as an hobbie.
"All it takes is insane persistence and a total disregard for everything but getting the Yamp out if you gotta howl at the moon. And obviously most folks aren't gonna howl at the moon just to prove a point."
Born 1952 in Nashville, Tennessee, R. Stevie Moore grew in the middle of America's Country scene. His father is Bob Moore - Nashville's top session man - who worked with the likes of Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and everybody in between. Following his dad's footsteps, young Stevie took piano and guitar lessons. At the age of 10 he sang a duet with countrie's superstar, Jim Reeves (the amusingly corny "But You Love Me Daddy", featured in 2004's retrospective Tra La La Phooey). Moore spent most of his teenage life absorbing the wonders of 60's music: Beatles, Zappa, Beach Boys, early Pink Floyd, Hendrix, Kinks, Zombies, Traffic... Everything but country music. He couldn't stand it.
He formed garage bands with his friends and goofed around with the instruments that laid all over the house. In 1966 he started experimenting with home tape recording. Although quite rudimentar and immature, early tapes like On Graycroft and Grease (both from 1968), include some fascinating moments like the Lo-fi Bossa-Nova of "Ill (Worst)" and the brilliant "Grease Theme" - a musical collage that sounds like an out-take from the Mothers'We're Only In It For The Money.
R. Stevie also began working for his dad as a studio musician in what he described to be "inane country sessions". When it was over, he would return home to light a joint, put the earphones and let the V.U. meters swing to his unique brand of creative music.
In 1971, Moore quit college, got his own pad and started taking his tape recording seriously. From '73 to '77, R. Stevie collected a unique and fascinating diary of sound and music. Dozens and dozens of tapes were recorded and stored. While his recording methods were improving his musical influences were broadening with the advent of Glam, Prog, Punk and New Wave. Groups like Roxy Music, Sparks, XTC, P.I.L. and Talking Heads started to play an heavy influence in his music.
It wasn't until 1976 that Moore's uncle, Harry Palmer, helped compile and finance his first vinyl LP - a selection of songs and sounds from RSM's extensive musical diary called Phonography (a term meaning "sound-writing"). Palmer's label, the independent HP Music, released it as a limited edition of 100 copies.
That was enough to get the attention of New York's underground magazine, Trouser Press. A review applauding the LP made Palmer release more copies, as well as a single featuring 4 songs.
Phonography included such gems as the dazzling "I Wish I Could Sing", a very peculiar cross between a garage Brian Wilson and a Prog Rock Orchestra; the highly addictive Power Pop of "Why Should I Love You"; the breathtaking simplicity of "Hobbies Galore"; and the weird and beautiful "Goodbye Piano", a farewell song to an out-of-tune piano sung in a twisted high-pitched Mickey Mouse voice.
In 1976/77, his eclectic genius reached a peak with Returns, Swing and Miss and Sheet Rock. These tapes would be the last ones to be recorded in Nashville. They featured a handful of RSM classics like the Baroque Synth Pop of "Don't Let Me Go To The Dogs," sounding like the Beatles playing with Brian Eno in a parallel universe; the brilliant Sparks-like "Sort of Way" and the bouncing New Wave rhythm of "Compability Leaves."
Tired of Nashville's cultural hollow, Moore moved north to New Jersey, near Uncle Harry's house. Together they would release another album, 1978's Delicate Tension - a compilation of later Nashville songs and early Jersey recordings. Inspite of his frustrated efforts to achieve recognition, the tape recording was getting more and more prolific, namely with 1978's other masterpieces The North and Pow Wow.
In 1979, RSM got a studio gig in New York, where he recorded Clack - a cleaner version of his craft that included his "best known" song, a driving Power Pop version of the Big Bopper's "Chantilly Lace" as well as instant classics like "Conflict of Interests," "Bloody Knuckles" and "Teen Routines."
During the early eighties, R. Stevie Moore launched the RSM Cassette Club. He made a catalogue that included practically everything he had ever recorded. A xeroxed list with selected song titles and listenability quotient was the road map to Moore's Tapography. And by that time, it included more than 60 cassettes.
"The very concept of having too much to choose from is really not of interest to me. That's the rub! Ya gonna approach Beethoven's Greatest Hits CD, or are ya gonna do some research? Ask around? Experiment?"
In 1984, the independent label Cuneinform, released What's the Point, one of Moore's most concise albums. In the same year, French label New Rose compiled a double album from the RSM vaults titled Everything You Wanted To Know About R Stevie Moore But Were Afraid To Ask (still one of the best introductions to the work of Nashville's reclusive genius).
Throughout the end of the 80's, more records would be sporadically released in France and in the UK (Verve, Hamster Records and (1952-19??), Cordelia). A small cult was starting to form in Europe. In 1987, New Rose released the quite accessible Teenage Spectacular, which included the hypnotic pop-mantra of "Everyone, But Everyone," a brilliantly haunting cover of Dylan's "Who Killed Davey Moore" and the pure pop perfection of "Play Myself Some Music" ("a heartbreaking ode to the restorative powers of music").
"While unsold copies of his records languished in the import bins, Moore worked a series of music store clerk jobs throughout the 80's and 90's, inhabiting a modest third-floor apartment in suburban New Jersey."
Mojo Magazine, Sept 2003.
NAME TAG THE ENTERTAINER
"Good people are good because they've come to wisdom through failure. We get very little wisdom from success, you know."
Around 1988, Moore ceased his tape recording to become curator of his own musical museum. With almost 200 releases, it was time to try other things. He began using video. According to himself, his VHS tapes (now DVD's) were collections of "visual tomfoolery, intimately revealing soliloquies & rants... classic RSM songs lip-synched or performed...many live concert gigs, tv appearances... low-quality editing... questionable redeeming social values, homemade uncontrolled mayhem."
With the '90's came the recordable CD, and the CDRSMCLUB was born. He would burn his 90 minute tapes into 2 discs, in order to maintain their original double-sided format. Along with the CD revolution came affordable home-recording technology, and so Moore acquired a home portastudio. And with that his composing re-emerged.
Throughout the '90's and until now, dozens of new CD's were recorded and released. After a 5 years pause, the recording artisan is again exploding with fresh ideas. Technical improvements in home recording gave way to new genre-breaking classics - songs like the hauntingly beautifull "Linger Longer Lucy," the existencialist Funk of "I Wish Marvin Gaye's Father Had Shot Me Instead," the trip-hop delight of "I Go into your Mind," an electrifying power pop version of the Shaggs' "Philosophy of the World" and much, much mo(o)re.
In 1999, R. Stevie went online. The internet turned out to be a blessing to the old DYI pioneer. His Tapography was now fully available to the world, as well as his albums. Eventually, the web became another medium for his creative impulses: "like my foray into video, I've used the internet to become a diarist".
When asked about the Internet's potential to bring forth a second DIY era, Moore answered: "For me? Emphatically yes. For DYI in general? I haven't noticed. Everybody else in the "www.underground" continues to appear aiming for the mainstream... All style, no content... I firmly believe that what I'm now doing with my website, runs smoothly parallel with what I was doing 25 naive years ago. The exact same vision, whatever it may still be."
Inevitabilly, the web brought new awareness to Moore. The cult has grown significantly. But, like so many other unsung genius, recognition arrives late. Old age his starting to find it's way into Nashville's boy wonder. When recently invited to play in Europe, R. Stevie gently declined:
"Thanks so very much for the incredible offer... but worsening health problems simply don't allow that much of a stretch in my travels. I can barely get down to the local store these days. You shoulda asked me 10-20 yrs ago!"
SAVE R. STEVIE
"Drawing upon a kaleidoscope of influences - Pop, Folk, Psychedelia, Country, Funk, Noise, Experimental... He created a body of work that was wildly unpredictable, vibrantly messy and bursting with ideas. He was unquestionably a product of the Media Age - a synthesist whose concoctions were pasted together from bits of the past and present, in a way that could only occur to an overexposed Pop-Culture Junkie."
This early description of Beck seems to resume very eloquently R. Stevie's unique musical character. But while 53 year-old RSM still produces a "wildly unpredictable" and "vibrantly messy" work in near poverty, an apparently dryed-out version of Beck rides in limousines and jet planes, doing the endless summer festival routine and paying his dues to the industry.
Even though history travels through twisted roads, there's a strange kind of lesson to be learned here. Something about the inevitable struggle between creativity and fame. Ultimately, Moore's obscurity gave him the possibility to remain true to his unique artistic vision - away from the anxieties of stardom and it's high expectations.
"He shone with the greater splendor, because he was not seen."
RSM survived through more than 3 decades of obscurity. During that time, he fervently did the only thing he could do. He created.
Like some kind of ragged messiah that followed an enlightened vision to it's bitter end, Moore arrived safely in the XXIst century as an uncrowned king of persistency. A strong inspiration to everybody creating in the shadow of the mainstream machine.
In the meantime, R. Stevie Moore stands in the back-roads of history as a dangerous secret. If he became famous, the record empire would inevitably collapse. Money's corruptive influence over art would dissipate like a bad cloud. Thousands and thousands of R. Stevie Moore's around the world would come out of their holes to dance gladly over the same headless corpse that once kept us marching to the factory beat.
Until then... "I gotta DIY 'till I bleed...for 100% quality control... No assembly-line product here. (RSM fans) expect to get a personalized package completely dubbed, assembled, wrapped & mailed by the artist himself."
Fortunately, there is still an open end to this story. After decades of prolific creation, RSM is still expecting his well-deserved recognition. Now it's up to millions of music lovers and "interpreters" around the world, to dive into this "awesome and seemingly bottomless world of talent."
In www.rsteviemoore.com, you will find a section called "Free Music Downloads". Inside there's an extensive list of unsung masterpieces waiting to be heard: "Play Myself Some Music," "I Wish I Could Sing," "Goodbye Piano," "You Are Too Far From Me," "Don't Let Me Go To The Dogs," "Alecia," "Linger Longer Lucy," "Why Can't I Write a Hit," "Conflict of Interests," "No Know," "Hobbies Galore," "Norway," "Dates"...
For a glimpse at his most recent, check out "Positively 4th Street," "If You're Already On Your Way Keep Going" and "Places, Too" from 2005's Aesthetic. There's also entire albums like Tra La La Phooey and Hobbies Galore available in mp3 format. But above all, there's his historical Tapography, as well as the albums/compilations and DVD's, all available at very affordable prices (for beginners, there's a Best-Sellers' section). Dig in.
"You are now in the know."
Dennis Diken, Smithereens
RSM, 1999Almost all RSM quotes are from an interview by Alfred Boland - Do-It-Yourself Till You Bleed
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