It was Halloween night, 1997 at the Old Canal
Inn in Nutley. It was sometime after midnight,
and after the first annual Weird NJ Halloween
party was just beginning to wind down. Feeling
a bit relieved that the evening had gone so
well (not to mention a little drunk), I decided
to strap on a guitar and join the band for a
few numbers to close out the night. As we
launched headfirst into some prehistoric three
chord chestnut, I did my best to croak out what
lyrics I could remember. When the third verse
somehow escaped my recollection, I turned the
mic over to the man standing at my right
shoulder for a solo of some kind. Without
missing a beat he wailed out a twelve bar lead
on the one inch long harmonica which he wore on
a string around his neck. It was then that I
noticed the overturned plate that rested on top
of his head. Food oozed out from beneath the
plate on all sides like lava escaping from an
erupting volcano. It slid through his wiry
grey-blonde hair, and made its way down behind
the heavy frames of his thick glasses.|
I don't know if it was the grease from the chicken or the sausage. Perhaps it was the spicy tomato sauce from the baked ziti, but some of what was dripping into the man's eyes was causing him noticeable discomfort. Despite the minor setback though, he would finish his solo, drawing a spontaneous round of applause from the audience. "This guy," I thought to myself, "is a star!"
Sometime earlier in the evening, as he sat eating his dinner with a plastic grocery bag pulled down over his head, totally obscuring his face, someone turned to me and asked, "Is that guy messed up or something?"
"No," I replied with a quiet sense of awe, "that's R. Stevie Moore!"
I first became aware of Stevie in the late 1970's when I was about sixteen, and he worked in a record store in my hometown. I had gone to the mall with a friend of mind, who grabbed a record from one of the bins and handed it to me.
"Yeah," I said, bewildered, "so what's this?"
My friend then pointed to the picture on the cover of the record of the bespectacled, somewhat deranged looking artist. Then he directed my attention across the aisles of record racks to a red-vested salesclerk.
"That's him!" he said.
I glanced down again at the album cover in my hand, and then at the other albums in the stack with that same face on them.
"That is him," I said, somewhat confused but intrigued by this revelation. Growing up in suburban New Jersey I thought of recording artists as beings that inhabited some kind of alternative reality, some other worldly dimension than myself. Yet there he stood, looking somehow out of place in the middle of my Livingston Mall universe--R. Stevie Moore. It said so right on the Sam Goody name tag pinned to his lapel. Being far too self conscious (not to mention too broke), to bring one of those records up to his cash register that day, it would be several years before I would actually hear some of Stevie's music.
When I did, it would be played over the airwaves of WFMU which broadcasts from East Orange. It was the mid-1980's and R. Stevie Moore's music was a staple of the station's free-form format. It was not always easy to pick out one of Moore's tunes however. His apparently bottomless catalog of material was matched only in volume by the seemingly inexhaustible variety of his musical styles. The songs, most of which were home recordings, ran the gamut from spaced-out electric bombardments of noise, to catchy melody driven pop ditties.
If I were to try to describe Stevie's music to a stranger, words like "eccentric," and "quirky," would probably be the obvious choice adjectives. But there's something deeper here than just another off kilter singer/songwriter--something weirder. Putting on an R. Stevie Moore album is like taking a journey into another world--Stevie's world. The listener gets the feeling that they are voyeurs into the private mind of the artist. At times it almost seems as if you are bearing witness to his descent into a kind of self indulgent madness, and you are invited along for the ride. In this respect, listening to Moore is not unlike listening to a mid-sixties Brian Wilson recording, made during lengthy mental breakdown. The main difference though (and some might argue this point), is that Stevie is in control of his faculties here. He's driving, and those who choose to accept his invitation to tag along for the ride will explore some pretty strange new territory. Swirling, hypnotic musical passages might give way at any instant to a stark spoken-word refrain proclaiming, "Your glistening lips grin, then turning green, oozing sugared rum, coating the paper that I write on, read from, go to. Insomnia welcomes meringue on my head. Quick--take my photo!"
Weird NJ accepted Stevie's invitation recently, to visit him for a chat in the old Upper Montclair house where he lives. The first thing one is struck by upon entering Moore's third floor apartment is the vast clutter of memorabilia that gives the place almost a museum-like appearance. Every square inch of wall space is covered with a poster, handbill or photograph. On the floor, rows of record albums lean against available vertical space. Homemade wooden shelves strain beneath the weight of countless LP's, singles, CD's, cassettes and video tapes. Well-worn guitars and keyboards rest against garage-sale furniture. Off to one side of the dimly lit living room, a muted TV set glows, unwatched. In one corner about half a dozen old tape recorders surround a cheap plastic chair which is illuminated by a small desk lamp. This is where R. Stevie Moore's music is made, and that's where we asked him some questions about it, and himself.
Weird NJ: You're from Nashville originally, what brought you up here to New Jersey?
R. Stevie Moore: Car. No, that's not what I mean. My mother's from Paterson. I used to come here many times as a child visiting relatives.
How old were you when you started coming here?
I was born in '52, and I must have been visiting through the 60's.
What is the first impression that you can remember about New Jersey?
It was Weird! (laughs) It was always a great escape, and I loved it. I must have been here before the Rock and Roll Renaissance of 1964, which was my renaissance. This story is so long and involved. My dad played with Elvis but I didn't care 'cause I was 8 years old!
Who was your father?
Bob. Bob Moore is his name. He was a session bass player in Nashville, and he had a top forty instrumental hit in 1961 with a song called "Mexico."
What Elvis songs did he play on?
He played with Elvis from '58 to '68 in the studio. That's a lot of records! He also played with Roy Orbison, Roger Miller, Brenda Lee, Connie Francis, and Patsy Cline. The Nashville connection was huge, you know, and I had this awful 60's upbringing to where I was rebellious and didn't care a thing about country music and Nashville. I just wanted Rock 'n' Roll. It was a horrible childhood because The Beatles and Brian Wilson, Frank Zappa and the whole sixties thing I was hiding away. I used to come up here to buy my music. I got my first Mothers Of Invention album at the Bergen Mall.
So you were drawn to the studio when you were young? Did you ever hang out while your father was recording?
Yeah, I was hanging out all the time as the young son. Then at one point in the early seventies I got old enough to take over and do sessions for him as a bass player. Session that he couldn't do, he got me in on.
At what age did you start playing?
Did you ever take any formal lessons?
Piano, the typical way, theory.
So why did you relocate to New Jersey permanently?
My mother's brother is Harry Palmer, who is now the president of BMG Classics. He's worked for Atco and Polygram, all in executive positions. I had been sending him tapes of my home recordings, and he was very supportive. He would say, "It's great! It's brilliant! I don't know what to do with it..." But he was always very supportive. He was the one who financed my first album Phonography. We just took the tapes of the home recordings I'd been doing into the studio and tweaked them up a little, and did some editing. We had one hundred of the records pressed on our own made-up label. That was in 1976. Then in '78, Ira Robbins gave the record a rave review in Trouser Press Magazine. It was the biggest thing that we had going for us. Uncle Harry called me up and said, "You've got to come up here now!" I was on tour at the time with a cover band playing Ramada Inns in Iowa, living in a van and starving. So I said, "No question, I will." So I moved up to Jersey, got a job at Sam Goody, and started recording again.
So you started your home recording career in Nashville?
Oh yeah, that was the golden age. That all started around '73-'74. Actually the home tapes go back to '68, but most of that stuff was just chaotic.
What kind of machine were you recording on at the time?
I have no idea, all kinds of cheap, cheap crap.
Was it a multi-track recorder?
Not quite, the overdub thing came around '73, when I was able to use two decks. I'd overdub by bouncing from one deck to the other.
Were there other musicians involved in these recordings?
No, it's always been a "boy in his bedroom" kind of thing. That's why so many people have said that I was ahead of my time. Because I was doing the home recording thing long before people like Guided By Voices and Pavement, and all of those '80s and '90s bands that were "D.I.Y." (do it yourself). I was D.I.Y. before there was such a thing. And I'm D.I.Y. after there's such a thing! They've all moved into their studios, and I'm stil sitting up here in my bedroom.
Why do you think you're so popular in France?
I'm not, that's another story. A guy named Patrick Mathe with New Rose Records, a major indie label with great distribution worldwide, took me in and put out some of my records. He owned New Rose, which was not only a record company, but also a record store in Paris. He financed a trip for me to go to Paris in 1984, for a one week promotional tour. I played solo, using tapes, and it totally bombed! There were these mohawk punks in the audience who were just not ready for me. Or maybe I just wasn't any good, I don't know. But over there a rumor got started that I was Scotty Moore's son! (Elvis Presley's original guitarist). There was a French press thing that said "R. Stevie--son of Scotty Moore!" I had a ball with it, I wasn't going to say no. It was the Elvis connection, my father did play with Elvis, and was named Moore.
Although you've released records and CDs, you're really best known for your cassette tape output. How many cassette albums have you recorded?
Two hundred and thirty-three, all double albums, 90 minute tapes!
How do you distribute them?
Right from here. I get a piece of mail with a check, and I dupe a tape. I have no back stock, every one is custom made to order.
So none of the albums have ever been discontinued?
No, some have deteriorated, and others I can't find, but they're all still in my catalog.
Do you have any idea who, aside from yourself, has the largest collection of R.Stevie Moore tapes?
That's a good question. I have a file here in this card catalog, but it's not on computer or anything. The people who own the most tapes though are usually the most whacked, scary people of all. I've got this love/hate relationship with dozens of people through the mail. One of my best customers, who lives in New Hampshire, would freak me out. He would send me $500, without any specifics of what he's ordering! So what is that, a lifetime membership? Do I send him my first born child? He loved my music, it made him cry. He had every tape. So I sent him tapes, and sent him tapes, and thought, "okay, I'm about finished here, I only owe him twenty-three more tapes, then we're even." So then he sends me this vicious letter, with a dollar bill all chopped up into tiny pieces, and a note that says, "Send me my fucking plastic, you fucking fake! You misrepresent yourself and take advantage of people like me!" I finally located him on the phone and he just melted. We patched the whole thing up.
Do you consider yourself someone who actively sought commercial acceptance?
Sure, in my own way I have. Don't we all? Aren't we all looking for that next big break?
So you don't think of yourself as someone who has shunned success to satisfy his own artistic aspirations.
No, I've become influential, yet ironically I can't get the phone to ring. But I get mail from people who have five or six of my tapes, and want more. That's what makes it all worthwhile for me, thinking about those people out there who have stacks of R. Stevie Moore cassettes.
Do you see your music as being too eclectic to appeal to a broad audience?
I think that's correct, but I'm not going to try and fix it.
Do you have any plans as to where this is all going, or where your music will be in the year 2000?
No, not at all. It's all on auto-pilot. I'm in a sort of semi-retirement right now, but I could get right back into it at any time. We're in 1998 right now, we've got to remember, this story is the classic artistic failure!
Is that the way that you would like to be billed?
I don't see why not, because that's the weirdness of it! That's my New Jersey experience!
So Steve, is there anything that you'd like to say to other aspiring New Jersey home recording artists?
Don't do what I did! (Laughs) That's what it would be. I'm here doing this for you guys. (Long pause) It's chaos! It's beautiful chaos.
Is it worth it though?
I would say not, but I have no choice. This is it, I'll die doing this, making the homemade stuff.
PHOTOS BY MORAN...
Compilation CD features RSM track
Video narrated by RSM
MOORE PLAYS MAXWELLS 12/98