In Homage to an Underground Guitar Hero
The time has come for people to recognize the genius of Dr. Eugene Chadbourne
Dr. Eugene Chadbourne is not your typical ‘guitar hero.’ The underground icon possesses an extensive knowledge of rock, blues, folk, and country music and has literally hundreds of songs in his repertoire that explore the depth of possibilities within each of the aforementioned genres. But the artist may be better known – if he is recognized at all – as the inventor of the “electric rake,” as someone who has been known to perform onstage with an amplified bird cage, and as a true madman when bending the strings of an ordinary chunk of wood and steel.
After the break-up of seminal 1980s underground rockers Shockabilly (formed by Chadbourne with fellow sonic terrorists Mark Kramer and David Licht), Eugene built a loyal cult following across the country and overseas through constant touring throughout the late ‘80s, releasing a ton of records (many for dodgy “here today, gone tomorrow” indie labels), and even running his own basement-based “tape racket” selling live recordings and the like via mail order. Chadbourne also developed an audience among fellow musicians, often collaborating with them in the studio as he has with members of Camper Van Beethoven and Violent Femmes. Although he’s slowed down somewhat during the new millennium, Chadbourne still cranks out music at an alarmingly prolific rate.
Feeding Tube Records has recently released two vinyl records of a planned four-volume series of Chadbourne’s solo guitar work, with the other two albums coming later this year. The Massachusetts-based indie label was formed by Ted Lee and rock critic Byron Coley and specializes in vinyl reissues of oddball subterranean music that doesn’t quite fit neatly into any pre-conceived pigeonholes – which is Chadbourne’s specialty, really – and the label’s catalog features small-batch limited-edition runs of albums from obscure artists like Bridge of Flowers, Dan Melchior, and David Fair (brother of Jad and co-founder of Half Japanese), among many other convention-defying talents.
Needless to say, Chadbourne’s Solo Guitar Volume 1 1/3 and Solo Guitar Volume 2 1/3 fit nicely within Feeding Tube Records’ chosen milieu, both albums released on vinyl in a limited edition of 400 copies. In an email, the label’s Byron Coley stated “this project was something I’d mentioned to Eugene over the many years we’ve known each other. He was heading up to Canada to go through some archives, and I suggested pulling a few albums worth of material together from this period. Ted Lee (who actually runs the label) was super enthusiastic about the idea, so it just came together quite easily.” In an email interview, Chadbourne goes a little further in explaining the project.
“They inquired about the existence of unreleased material from this period,” he explains, “of which there was quite a bit because I had such a good relationship with Wade McGregor of the CBC. I called him ‘my Bob Thiele’ and I had to be so stingy about what I could release on vinyl originally.”
Eugene tells Rock and Roll Globe the story behind the recordings that comprise these solo guitar albums: “I record whenever possible. Most of these recordings come from live concerts; when I would go back to Calgary to visit my parents, there would be a concert and Wade would record it. He started recording me about 1977 after my first acoustic guitar album came out and continued up until the early ‘90s when he moved to the West Coast.”
What were Chadbourne’s goals when he originally recorded these performances?
“I don’t think I could tell you my goal today other than being able to pay the power bill,” he says. “I always liked recording, but at this point it had become a career so I got very critical about the recordings, especially from the point of view of what I should release next. Once I had a few solo albums out and got into an ensemble in New York City [Shockabilly], documenting that became a priority; the solo work got neglected.”
Chadbourne’s Solo Guitar Volume 1 1/3 proves that he can coax noises and emotions out of a guitar like nobody else on the planet. “Parker’s Mood” opens the album, the song a bluesy composition that takes the odd right angle with a few jazzy interludes. “Memories of Hanover Lodge” offers naught but pure, unbridled six-string chaos while “Golden Dragon” displays Chadbourne’s fleet-fingered fretboard runs and creative improvisation. The first side of the LP closes out with “High School,” a feedback-laden root-canal of a song with notes that blink in and out of consciousness like a UFO darting in and out of sight, possibly piloted by a drunken ET. Side two opens with the deceptively-titled “Love,” with cryptic ‘found’ vocals of unknown origin punctuated by bold, resounding single-note picking.
The aptly-titled “BB’s Jazz Blues and Soup” starts out with the sounds of an old radio broadcast that are, in turn, obliterated by raucous random notes and mysterious noises that sound like a wild boar rooting through a patch of psilocybin mushrooms. “Miss Ann” is even more up-tempo, if that’s possible, torrents of notes flying from Chadbourne’s fingers creating a maelstrom of cacophonic turbulence. Any damn fool can shred the strings or mindlessly copy Stevie Ray Vaughan…it takes a maestro like Chadbourne to make a guitar talk, scream, and cry for its mama. This is Muzak® for the hard of hearing: adventuresome and challenging stuff that may not sit well with those “dedicated followers of fashion” yoked to mainstream pop music.
The recently-released second volume in the series, Solo Guitar Volume 2 1/3, offers only a slight broadening of the Doctor’s sonic palette. “Piazza del Duomo” is an exercise in percussive guitarplay; Chadbourne’s sparse picking creates a lull which is shaded by bursts of sound that explode out of your speakers. By contrast, “Preparation Dimafbay” is more metallic in nature, barbed wire on a chalkboard bouncing between your eardrums like buckshot off a scrap-metal target. The performance is tempered by odd hums and buzzing that only adds to the song’s desolate soundscape.
Side one closes out with “Father (You Opened),” a somber instrumental reflection that mixes brief melodic moments with frightening silence. Eugene’s brief introduction to “That’s All Water Under Bridge” leads into a one-of-a-kind audio experience with shards of chainsaw fretwork and buzzing strings that dive-bomb your ears like an angry hornet while “Rocket!” finishes out the album with an energetic, anarchic performance that will take a few spins to discern its meaning. Overall, Chadbourne’s Solo Guitar Volume 2 1/3 is more subdued than the first volume, but still pretty amazing in its breadth of innovative noisemaking.
So who were the ‘guitar heroes’ that inspired Chadbourne’s playing?
“The first guitarist I noticed was Les Paul, from my dad’s records,” he remembers. “After that it was Chuck Berry, who remains one of my basic heroes now along with Derek Bailey, Jimi Hendrix, and Charlie Christian. Hendrix, of course, I knew as a teenager, but Christian and Bailey I didn’t discover until my 20s. Randy California was a favorite in high school and I still think is one of the best. I also liked Alvin Lee, Kim Simmonds, and other British blues jazz/rock guitarists. John McLaughlin I liked for a couple of years, then he turned into a vindictive twit who claims Derek Bailey can’t tune his instrument. Imagine being a musician and saying that!”
Just how many records has Chadbourne released during his lengthy career? Are there any you wish that you had back? “I stopped counting them a long time ago,” he says, “one could probably throw out any number above 200 and basically be right. ‘Had back’ is not the real problem, getting the fuckers released can really be a pain in the ass. In a given year, there might be several really nice recordings I worked on for people that never saw the light of day…who knows why? Pretty much anything I have had a hand in releasing I am proud of; there is the odd thing done without my permission that is usually shit. Someone that does something like that really doesn’t have the intellect to understand what is good or bad. Someone overdubbed me and Thurston Moore without our permission, gave it a dumb-ass title, and put it out on a compilation.”
With the four solo guitar LPs being released this year by Feeding Tube Records, what’s next for Dr. Chadbourne? Any plans for a new studio album or more archive releases? “That is always going on,” he tells Rock and Roll Globe. “Right now I am working on ‘Banshees’, which is an electric guitar adaptation of the Henry Cowell piano piece of this name as well as indulging in heavy manipulation from the Vincent Price flick Cry of the Banshee.”
Deep in a career that has now spanned five decades, Eugene Chadbourne remains a visionary talent continuously finding new ways to challenge both himself and his audience.
Hear samples of Chadbourne’s music at Feeding Tube Records.
Check out Dr. Chadbourne’s “House of Chadula,” for more information on the artist.
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