Monday, November 26, 2012


© Copyright 2012 by Gary Lee Joyner

Doctor:  And how are we today

The images I mount around me
Don’t work anymore
They don’t quell the burning flame
The rising volcanic pressure
And I remain Invisible

Doctor:  Invisible, you say

Invisible as a magician’s hidden payload
Invisible as pre-miracle silk scarves stuffed up a sleeve
Invisible as a terrified rabbit beneath the false bottom of an upturned hat
A blinding burn of flash powder and I remain Invisible

Doctor: I want to hear more
As a person, aha
As an artist, oho
As a creator
Whose gift and contribution
Is ignored by society, oh my
On the street people look through you
At a party people walk through you
At home your girlfriend sees through you
So you must be Invisible
Ah, but have you considered
The benefits of invisibility
You can live in a fog
You can come like the wind
And slip away in a mist
Think of what you can achieve
Think of what you can get away with
Most important of all
Think of….
But our time is gone
We’ll take it from there next week

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Exquisite Media Corpse

If...if !!'d like to feel an impact of media (a plural word) bizarreness...

Put on a television broadcast with the sound down (you choose which, but a "news" show is a good place to start) a CD/mp3 album of your choice while watching...enjoy the ensuing antics/displacement/expanded-awareness that ensues with this truly surrealistic game in play.

It's not a comfortable activity of the sort the media (a plural word) want you to "enjoy"...

I'm doing it at the moment with ancient replays of The Lawrence Welk Show mixed with "today's news" while listening to Nic Bartsch's Ronin...

Wednesday, April 25, 2012


Oligarchy...look this word's important to live in an oligarchy.

Friday, April 13, 2012

A Balloon Reflecting the Moon

I practice meditation and I forgo sessions at my own risk.

Passing thoughts can seem to be invasive and disruptive during a meditation session. One learns that they needn’t be a problem. Passing thoughts can become part of the flow by letting them do just that—pass through. Rather than confront and combat the thought that intrudes one just looks at it with mild interest as the benign bit of nothingness that it is and then one watches it move on. It’s no more or less interesting than a balloon that floats through one’s field of vision and is then forgotten. Thirteenth century Zen master and poet Dogen described the situation beautifully and with characteristic brevity:

The moon reflected
In a mind clear
As still water
Even the waves, breaking,
Are reflecting its light.
(Translated by Steven Heine)

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Liquid Architecture

“…an aspiration for me as a musician: to create an aural space, if you will, that is not only structurally and esthetically satisfying, but that also allows for the individual listener or player within it to have her own experience—an experience that perhaps leaves one feeling alone, but that brings one back to one’s Self, that affirms one’s deepest feelings and longings.”
Myra Melford in “Aural Architecture: The Confluence of Freedom”,
Chapter 8 of Arcana: Musicians On Music, edited by John Zorn, page 119

I open with this quote for a couple of reasons.
First of all, it aptly mirrors the experience and resulting motivation that I recently described in a blog entitled “The Lamb Played Piccolo.” (C.f. my blog on April 2, 2012.)
Secondly, her title references architecture. I’ve been thinking a lot about architecture-music connections of late. Consistent with my normal modus operandi the energy of my thinking attracted a source of further thought and inspiration. (Sort of the opposite of school where you are plied with sources that all too often don’t stimulate energized thinking.)
I’ve long had a fascination with architecture in a very practical sense. I love to be in built spaces. The ones that work best for me create a response very much like the music experience that Melford and I have described. The experience is most sublime when I am the only one in the structure. I very much enjoy walking through downtown indoor urban labyrinths on Sunday mornings when the only ones there are me and a few homeless folks seeking shelter. There’s nothing like rounding a corner and coming upon a fabricated canyon that stretches above and below me with snakes of stilled escalators reaching from one level to another. I could spend time analyzing and contemplating my response, and have done so, but it has virtually nothing to do with my appreciation.
It’s been said that architecture isn’t “about something.” A rich man may build a mausoleum in memory of his wife, but it isn’t “about” her. An overpass may be constructed to be graceful and to fit the landscape (wouldn’t that be nice?), and it can be fun to traverse a cleverly made one, but it’s not “about” a trip across town. The “meaning” is in the use.
There’s a wonderful old adage that gothic architecture is like frozen music. An inversion of that thought also makes sense to me—music is liquid architecture. The comparison leads to a reasonable question. Why are we constantly deluged with the insistence that music is about something? Someone might say “because music is emotional”. My proposition is that architecture is, too. But it doesn’t matter because emotion isn’t a meaning it’s a response.
Igor Stravinsky famously said, “Music is powerless to express anything at all,” and “My music is best understood by children and animals.” I like the implication that arises when these two quotes are brought together—while music can’t express anything it can be understood. It can be understood in the same way that a child “understands” a toy, or a dog “understands” a head stroke, or that I “understood” the Cathedral Basilica of Salvador in Bahia, Brazil or a mosque I entered in the city of Male in the Maldives or the center court of the old Marshall Fields in Chicago.
            It’s a virtual deal breaker when I hear someone say that their instrumental composition is “about this great breakfast my girlfriend made me,” or “about the faint smile on my father’s lips when we reconciled at his deathbed.” At that point I’m back in grade school trying to see sheep on a hillside.
            This has nothing to do, of course, with the effectiveness of sounds from “real life” used in music. It’s not contrary to the beauty of Don Vliet using the rhythm of windshield wipers to create a song, or Harry Partch using elements of his hobo life to structure his music, or Steve Reich’s applying recordings of street preachers and the pulse of train rides for musical form. The music isn’t “about” these things; it uses them as raw material.
            This all leads to issues of intention that we’ll address soon.

Monday, April 2, 2012

The Lamb Played Piccolo

“The trouble with music appreciation in general is that people are taught to have too much respect for music; they should be taught to love it instead.”
Igor Stravinsky

I was in fifth grade when buses pulled up at my grade school one day to haul us off to Northrup Auditorium at the University of Minnesota so we could experience a matinee concert by the Minneapolis Symphony. Someone took to the stage before the concert to explain what we were about to witness and how we should experience it. She told us that the composer intended for us to see specific pictures when listening to his music. We were to close our eyes and try to get an image in our minds of what the composer was seeing. She even helped us out by telling us that in the piece of music we were about to hear the composer wanted us to see sheep on a green hillside. I gave it my best shot—my brow furrowed and eyes tightly shut, desperately trying to summon up the predetermined picture. Nothing. I could hear the music. I could feel the hard arms of my chair and the kid squirreling around next to me. But the smell of our wet wool jackets was the closest I could come to anything ovine. And no green grassy hill.
            I was subtly and thoroughly convinced that day that I was not equipped to properly experience music…and certainly not classical music. I already played four musical instruments—accordion, flutophone (a plastic recorder), trombone, and cello—but if I couldn’t see the pictures I must be kidding myself. I wasn’t aware at the time of how demoralized I had been by the concert experience.
            Former U.S. Poet Laureate Billy Collins has spoken of how our school system installs a poetry deflector shield in students that stays in place for a lifetime. Music appreciation classes did the same thing. I had been drawn to music since infancy. My first toys were a cardboard guitar and a plastic Emenee accordion (later replaced by a 120 bass Italian instrument). But classroom experiences of “Blow the Man Down” and rounds and descants and invisible sheep on hillsides were deadly dull and disappointing.
            I had two other experiences at that time, experiences that redirected my life and saved my soul. They were so natural and organic that it took me many years to figure out their importance.
            My parents went out one evening and I babysat my two younger brothers. After I got them tucked into bed I settled in to wait for our folks to come home. The house was filled with a quiet, deep, and ominous loneliness. I turned on the radio…a hefty plastic pre-Bose-System high-fidelity tabletop radio with a great sound. I searched for distant mysterious AM stations like the one from Little Rock. Instead I came across the most amazing sound I’d ever heard. I’d never been transported by anything in that way before. I floated and bobbed on some distant sublime bed of cloudy, comforting loneliness for what felt like an eternity. I didn’t want to ever come back. I didn’t know or think about what style of music it was. I’m certain now that it was something “classical.” I didn’t need instruction on how to appreciate it.
            Soon after that we moved to a farm in southern Minnesota for a year. My brothers and I spent a summer exploring woods, trails that had never been seen by human eyes, and abandoned pig and chicken sheds—literal farm animal ghost towns. My favorite things to do that summer were reading and going alone to my private outdoor spot. Behind some barns there was a gigantic galvanized grain storage bin. It had some sort of mechanical fan/drying unit at its base. I would sit nearby, listen to its endless drone, and sing long tones in unison or harmony to it. Time would stand still.
            I had no concept of the musical or meditative implications involved, or the way that drones and repetitive music would dominate and compel me throughout my life. And when I fell completely in love with Joe Zawinul’s eponymous album in my 20’s it never occurred to me that it matched in some way my late night fifth grade radio experience.
            The fact is, all my energy since those days has been aimed at recreating the sensations I've described. My music listening, playing, and “teaching” (not to mention my endeavors in other art disciplines) are based on the deep belief that others have had experiences that are similar in some way to the ones I've related here. The sensibilities engendered by those experiences may be deeply buried, but they are sending out a homing signal. If people can be diverted from the input coming from teachers, lessons, magazines, and marketing it’s possible to find the music that is calling to them. The music deflector shield can be uninstalled.

BTW, this is what my Emenee accordion looked like. What a beaut’!

Wednesday, March 28, 2012


anytime I hear the word “justice” I put my ear to the ground and hear a commercial comin’ down the line

Sunday, February 5, 2012

A Link To The Exclusive New Mr. Limbo In Purgatory Blog

Mr. Limbo In Purgatory now has his very own blog! Follow him and get into purgatory on the ground floor. Tell your friends so they can visit Mr. Limbo In Purgatory, too. Things are starting to heat up for Mr. Limbo:
Mr. Limbo In Purgatory

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Sheet Music For Behave Yourself #1

Here is the sheet music for the brief guitar exercise, Behave Yourself #1. It's a jpeg file that you can drag to your desktop, save, and print.
You can hear Behave Yourself here:

The Blind Tongue Libretto

A video  of The Blind Tongue by Gary Lee Joyner and Mark Warhol can by found at this YouTube link (I wrote the libretto and directed this production):

Here is the libretto:



Gary Joyner
© Copyright 2000 by Gary Joyner

“Our motions resolved the landscape into concentric circles revolving at different rates depending on the distance.”  Witold Gombrowicz

Flute enters and begins playing. Flute is joined by He, She, and Marimba in a ritual circle.  He gravitates to the center of the circle.  Flute stops playing, turns to him, leans over and extends flute toward him .  They can’t quite manage to touch.

He:            (Sings to Flute)Some stammering god spit
And I was hurled into being
Against my will
            Hesitant, unsure
            (Spoken)  No, that’s not right
            (Sings to Marimba)  Existence was injected into me
            An inoculation of enthusiastic quickening
            Immunized against this daily disease
            (Spoken)  Try again
            (Sings to She)  Someone sent a message
            That never arrives
            In a language I cannot read
He looks at the message, but the language is in the music, the flute repeats sounds from the opening of the play.
            In the beginning was the word
And the word was night
            And the night was a stammering circle
            Of repetition
(He stops singing, looks to the left, to the right, and down.  He suddenly looks straight ahead and says clearly)  Begin

Flute enters, followed by He.
He:            Ah, this one
I haven’t seen it for weeks
The message will be in blood
On the wall

He continues to explore the area and follow Flute.  Flute points out a new development.  A woman has appeared.  Her head is draped with a large cloth.  She takes a step one way, stops, takes a step another way.  Her fingers individually move as if they possess vision.  Through the rest of the scene he moves around her in a diminishing spiral until he is near enough to remove the covering from her head.
He:            (Spoken)  Something new
She:            He had the head of a rooster
With aquarium eyes
A leaky birdcage heart
That beat da-DA, pa-PA, da-DA, pa-PA
His hands were military parades
He was simplicity
He was a museum coat rack
He was an open window
He was the stillness at the center of a chessboard
He:            Sister
Your fingertips
Alter the walls of this cave
They draw hunger and the hunt
They give shape to desire and need
(Whispers)  Come to me
She:            What do you see?
He:            I hear the decay of ice
She:            What do you see?
He:            My nostrils flare
The stench of rotting snow
She:            What do you see?
He:            Mouth inside of mouth
Beyond the cave door
I see the horizon lift its lip
            Exposing teeth smeared with blood
            They laugh like a startled jackal
She:            You confuse me
He:            I see yellow eyes of wisdom
She:            (Moans)
He:            I see a heaving breast
She:            Temptation

Music builds to the instant when the man reaches out and whips off the drape.  A red sash is bound around her head and eyes.  She remains blinded.

He:            (Looking out)  Begin again.


The woman is at a table.  She is a seer of some sort.  She studies a layout of fortune-telling cards.    He enters.

He:            I return.
She:            Return?
He:            I was here last night
She:            It means nothing to me
He:            (He holds up a picture of himself)  What do you see?
She:            I see a man
He:            (Spoken)  Ha!  Your are wrong
            (Sung) As always, you are wrong!
            It is the image of a man
            How can you help me
            If you can’t get this right?
            (Presents himself)  What do you see?
She:            Now I see a man
He:            (Spoken)  Wrong again!
            (Sung)  You are hopeless
            I too am an image
            A phantom of the night
She:            What do you want?
He:            To throw light on a mystery
She:            Light creates shadow
Illusion is its child
            (Looking into the cards)  A dying red ember in a bowl of darkness
He:             (He looks over her shoulder)  What do you see?
She:             First you must confess.
He:             There is nothing.
She:            Confess!
He::             (thinks a moment)  In my home
            Not one thought remains
            I am naked
            Before I undress
She:             More.
He:             (Looks at Flute, who has moved near him)  I met a woman in a bar
            She had the eyes of a cat
            Her teeth were torn from a wounded fox
            Her scars screamed blasphemies
            I followed her into the night
            She leaned against a tree
And wept like a lion in church
The flesh is weak.
Wash it away!
            Now, what do you see?!
She:            (laughs at his pretension as she repeats his words)  The flesh is weak
He:            (Spoken softly.  He kneels before her at her table)  Tell me what you see.
She:            Rubies drip from a blue cloak           
While a tongue is numbed by ice
            No more
He:            What do you see?
She:            No more!
He:            Say it!
She:            (She stands, looms over him, he crawls away and she follows, towering over him)
A locked door
            Lonely thirst
            A blade of steel
            Hidden in a block of ice
            Numbing cold
            Painless, a tongue is shredded
            The taste of blood excites flesh-lust
            Ribbons of scarlet
            Cascade from an unbelieving mouth
He:            I don’t understand
She:            (Laughs long)
He:            (Looking out)  Again


He is down stage, throwing cards into a hat in utter and lost boredom.  She moves around an altar up-center.  It has a candle and a wolf’s head with an open maw.

She:            No icons
No alters that rage
Only brilliant shadows
Across a landscape of holy need
He:            (Spoken)  She wore a silver amulet
            In the shadows below her neck.

He:            (Moans)  The torment
When she bent forward
            I ran my tongue over her body
Tracing unknown letters on her breast

He:            First it was dry
Caught and dragged across her skin
Then pink streaks appeared
In a moist trail.

She:            I melted with each pass of his tongue.

She:            (leans toward him and laughs sensually deep in her throat)
No icons
No altars that rage
Only brilliant shadows
Across a landscape of holy need

She:            A noise at the door.
He:            It’s nothing
            A messenger who never arrives
She:            We embraced
            In a fury of snaps and snarls
He:            It’s only natural
            It’s only…

He:            A yelp
A bellow
A howling

She:            A yelp
A bellow
A howling

He:            I bite a bellow
A howling
I am natural
I bite nature on the thigh

She:            Midwives revolt
Infants give
Midwives revolt
Infants give birth in the

He:            Revolt
Infants give birth in the sunlight
And are sunlight
And are dragged beneath the revolt

She:            Infants give birth in the sunlight
And are dragged beneath the sky

He:            By red sunlight
And are dragged beneath the sky

She:            By red veils

He:            Coyotes crawl from their turbans

She:            Coyotes crawl from their holes

He:            And are dragged beneath the sky
By a red snare

She:            Coyotes crawl from their holes

He:            And erupt in their holes

She:            And erupt in support

He:            Another yelp at being holes

She:            And erupt in support

He:            Another yelp at being reborn

Both:            With a broom to dust off
The yelp at being reborn
With a broom to dust off the moon
And howl again at the moon
And howl again at something beyond

They sing together wordlessly, in the new language.  The music that finally fades up and away like the howls they described.  Then, an uncomfortable silence.

He:            (Looking out)  Again…

Slow fadeout

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Layers of Creativity

I don’t tend to do breakfast. I don’t like breakfast, much to the consternation of health and nutrition minded friends. “Think of what you’re doing to your pancreas!” Of course, breakfast occurs whenever you eat your first meal of the day, but we’re speaking here of that top-of-the-morning affair that you think of when you hear the word. Fasting brings a crystalline mental clarity that is quickly dispelled when food begins to draw blood to the stomach. Even the brief and minor overnight fast can have this effect in a mild way and I hate to give that up for the day. I like to prolong it.

Today, when others would have been consuming a breakfast, I indulged in a first-thing-out-of-bed extended phone conversation with my old friend David…in truth, more brother than friend. David is a likeminded and highly creative artist who lives across the country from me. When neither one of us is as cranky and depressed as we can tend to be we inspire each other in various ways. I came off the phone today revitalized and raring to go. It was about noon. I decided to make a breakfast of pancakes. Those health minded friends of mine would have been tucking into a nice lunch right about then.

I decided to listen once again to Thomas Moore’s audio lecture, “The Soul of Creativity,” while I whipped up the hotcakes. I have listened to this recording many times. I could recite some of it from memory, but I always get something new and fresh out of it. Like all ideas that have legs Moore’s are amplified by whatever is on my mind at the time I listen to them. Today I focused on the section having to do with the sentimentalization of creativity. He talks about the various ways that this can play out. For example, when someone falls in love with the idea of themselves as a creator/artist more than the act of creating things. Or when we get hung up on whether we “feel” creative in a given moment, beating ourselves up when we don’t. He suggests that classes on how not to be creative would be as or more useful than the umpteen classes that are offered on how to be creative.

Moore went on today to speak about another way we sentimentalize creativity by imposing the need to come up with something novel and supposedly never done before. [This apparently preordained concept of creativity has actually only been prevalent since the latter 19th century.] He suggests that taking ideas that have been explored already and presenting them in a way that is meaningful today is also a highly creative activity. This brought to mind a great book I’m reading right now. Avant Rock: Experimental Music From the Beatles to Bjork by Bill Martin, published in 2002. A more accurate subtitle would be “from Sibelius to Bjork,” because Martin delves deeply into jazz and “classical” avant-gardes as well as rock to make his profuse and profound points. He is a philosophy professor at DePaul University with a number of books to his credit. He knows how to find nuances in the ideas he examines and to communicate them effectively. One of his observations has to do with the proposition that most or all music is rooted originally in song, dance, or worship activities. He suggests that rock music experimentation over the years has connected to and been accepted by the populace because rock has clung to its roots of song and dance. Jazz and concert hall derived avant-gardes have lost their audience because they have wandered away from those roots. Rock experimenters also fit the model that Moore presents when they base their movement forward on foundations that were already established.

I find these ideas to be endlessly stimulating. Bill Martin has joined the ranks of Thomas Moore and some others in showing me things about the activities I’ve pursued intuitively for the past 40+ years.

As I mentally played with and pieced together these layers of thought regarding creativity it occurred to me to add some powdered ginger to the pancake batter and layer banana slices on the cakes as they cooked in an attempt to recreate some pancakes that a local restaurant used to serve. It worked wonderfully. I recommend trying it. Or something else that occurs to you as you build on the recipe…

Comments Appended to One of My Recent YouTube Items

Solo prepared electric guitar and voice recorded by Gary Lee Joyner in Mill Valley, CA in 1983. It was recorded into a two-track Walkman Professional cassette recorder. The sound quality has been cleaned up a bit. Other than that this is precisely how it sounded that day. The first half of the recording is an improvised guitar solo. It moves directly into the song performance.

Photo: GLJ, 1972. Here are some loosely related anecdotes to read while you should be focusing on the nuances of the guitar solo for which I still have great affection. The photo was taken ten years before the recording playing now. It was taken at a session at Moon Sound in Minneapolis, a session of the first and wildest version of The Fixation Band. The music played that day was very much in the same vein as Pretty Black Marks. Sadly, the tapes are lost. I was working with a particularly crazed saxophone player at the time, a fine lead guitarist who did some creative mods on the guitar in the picture, a drummer who later worked with me in San Francisco, a keyboardist who committed suicide soon after the sessions, and Grosse Johann Divine who played bass with me for years.

As it happens, I was the first person to record at Moon Sound. The studio at that time was a dark smelly coal bin in the basement of an old house, but Chris already had a window between the bin and his control booth. He was using a Teac 4-track that ran at 15 i.p.s. By the time of this picture the studio had moved into a larger cellar room. That's burlap hanging on limestone walls for sound absorption.

A huge party was held at Moon Sound on my 25th birthday. Someone poured beer in the studio piano, someone else set my bongos on fire, the crazed sax player took the stage for a wigged out solo and wouldn't get off...then things began to get out of hand.

A couple of years after this photo was taken rumors started to float around the Moon Sound scene that Chris was recording a 16 year old kid who was writing his own material and playing all the instruments. A real monster who showed signs of going somewhere in the biz. And he had a weird name...Prince...

Monday, January 9, 2012

A Messenger In the Hand Is Worth Two Babies Thrown Out With the Bathwater

People in conversation have a habit of confusing someone attempting to identify and describe a particular point of view with someone stating an advocacy for that point of view. As a result, instead of "thinking about" they "argue with". This is very tiresome to an idea explorer. It is a dualistic, challenging method of facing off with concepts that has been mistakenly taught as "critical thinking".

Sunday, January 8, 2012

That Sound is John Cage Grunting in His Grave

I hear some people use the term "noise guitar". I don't us it. For one thing, it implies a false dichotomy...a fundamental difference/conflict between noise and music. I don't trust the person with the chalk drawing the line.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Carl Jung With a Bone In His Nose

The job for artists and poets today is to dream for a society that’s forgotten how to dream. We’re failing miserably. We have preachers, not poets. Preaching kills dreams. Telling others to think like us is the easy way out. It’s for simpletons.  Direct force creates resistance. Meanwhile corporate media gods treat us like puppets on strings with cartoon images of shouting, ranting, raving lunatics of vulgarity on a soapbox. Can you say Poetry Slam? Or the other caricature—a limp-wristed, tea-sipping, simpering whisperer of lavender words crawling out of a dusty lair to bore us to death. Neither one is of any use to real people except in mockery.

Our education system does a damn good job of installing a poetry deflector shield for life.

We need real dreamers, real dreams, witch doctors who find our fears and desires and bring them to light—display them in all their multicolored, frightening, lustful power. We are thirsting for Carl Jung with a bone in his nose, sweat pouring down his naked bulging belly, beating the dirt in a primal rhythm with his dusty feet, a dripping red paintbrush in one hand, a stone symbol of the subterranean Lord Priapus in the other, singing loudly and off-key about the foul thing he saw fall from the sky onto a tall, thin steeple.

That’s what we need right now. Leave your application and a resume at the door.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Twenty-Five Interchangeable Sketches Toward a Portrait of Michael Yonkers

I originally began this piece when I was asked to provide liner notes for the Michael Yonkers 2007 Sub Pop/De Stijl CD release, Grimwood. My writing quickly grew in scope to become a personal memoir that was too extensive for the space available in the CD packaging. Facts and truth intermingle. Michael has called it his favorite thing ever written about him. It’s based on a friendship spanning 40 years as of 2012, through times of obscurity and international notoriety on his part and poverty on both our parts. It’s been freshly edited, updated, and expanded for this blog publication. It will continue to grow if I keep coming back to it because the stream of memories doesn’t subside. As Picasso said, works of art are never completed, merely abandoned.

Twenty-Five Interchangeable Sketches Toward a Portrait of Michael Yonkers
A Memoir by Gary Lee Joyner
© 2012 Gary Lee Joyner

Sketch #1
This fellow calling himself Yonkers is a unique combination of self-invented elements. He’s a valued friend, a gracious host, and an encouraging supporter of artist colleagues. At the same time, he is a determinedly private individual. He is careful about who knows where he lives and even his phone number comes with firm instructions that it be passed on to no one. He’s a master at creating his own mythology. He can make you feel that you and he share some essential wisdom, some clarity and common sense that would be available to the rest of the world if it could only wise up and listen. Ironic humor peppers his impassioned diatribes. He has an endless stock of skewed anecdotes. The wackiest things happen to him--not always pleasant, but always fodder for a good story. His move from relative obscurity to being the object of worldwide reverence as a prescient music visionary is a remarkable trajectory in the saga. Those of us who have witnessed a lot of frustration over the decades smile and say, “It’s about bloody time.”


Sketch #2
Michael Yonkers was born in 1947. He got his first guitar when he was fifteen, a Harmony electric archtop. The first song he played was Miserlu. His first big influence, The Trashmen.


Sketch #3
The self-produced album, Grimwood, was recorded in 1969-during an era swollen with the atrocities of the Viet Nam war, violent draft resistance, civil rights conflicts, and heart-rending assassinations. We embrace the romance of an artist as product of his time, and so there is a temptation to seek out social commentary in the album. Yonkers disavows any intention along these lines. He participated in demonstrations and marches, but he didn’t see his music as a pulpit for sermonizing. He worked in isolation. There was no Internet. There weren’t even cassettes. After his unhappy experiences with the Michael Yonkers Band in the world of major record labels he escaped to his basement with an acoustic guitar to write songs by himself, for himself, figuring that the results were only likely to reach a few friends. The tapes sat in a box until 1973 when he borrowed $1500, a significant amount at the time, to finance a vinyl pressing of the songs. He says of this gutsy move, “It was downright stupid. I did it pie-in-the-sky, eyes wide open, brain closed shut, thinking I’d certainly be able to sell enough to make my money back.” He ended up giving records away at nursing home gigs and selling new copies for 25 cents apiece. He paid twice that every time he bought back copies that he found in used record bins.


Sketch #4
In 1974 Michael showed me a box of jumbled, neglected reels of tape. Being an obsessive archivist I was concerned about cool things in that dilapidated box that might be deteriorating and eventually lost. I asked if I could take the tapes home, straighten them out, and rerecord them. This was fine with him. The tapes contained music that was very different than what he was currently performing. They contained songs like Microminiature Love and Puppeting. I spent the next 20 years listening to the songs and marveling at a world that hadn’t found its way to this work. Eventually some of the songs did get public attention via the Sub Pop release, Microminiature Love. Meanwhile, I have recordings of concerts MY and I did together through the 1970’s where he played music unlike anything that has been released.

Sketch #5
MY: There’s a lot of hope now [i.e. 2007] because kids are hip. I’ve given up, personally. In the Grimwood day I firmly believed. I really did. A lot of people thought, “All we have to do is say it doesn’t have to be this way, and everybody will realize ‘oh yeah, you’re right.’ And everything will change and the world will be great.”
GLJ: Those things seemed self-evident. The last lines on this album are “if you want to live in dark, keep love to yourself.”
MY: I’d forgotten about that. Whew!
GLJ: You say the kids today have hope, but at the same time we’ve all become so jaded. We laugh at the naiveté of those days.
MY: They are definitely jaded. How could they not be? But they’re very aware.
GLJ: Nobody’s thinking that love will solve all our problems.
MY: Absolutely not. And you know what? It ain’t gonna. Not now, anyway. It’s gonna take the Lord coming down in a spaceship with guns ablazing and saying, “Get it together, or else.” And what’ll we do? We’ll shoot at it!


Sketch #6
In 1972, a musician friend named Clancy who was a fan of my music and performance forages into the unknown (the term “performance art” wasn’t around yet) told me about another buddy of his who I simply had to meet. He regaled me with enticing tales of lunacy and way-out music. For example, the guy--it was Michael Yonkers, of course--had been kicked out of the local musicians’ union because of a performance of a song called Big Balloon during a downtown outdoor event. A giant elongated balloon inflated behind him while he played. At some point, as the story went, he crawled inside the balloon and started to squirt whipped cream from a can. The powers-that-be were offended by the imagery, hence the yanking of the card.

We did eventually meet at a backyard summer barbecue. I remember being a bit intimidated by the stories and wasn’t sure what to expect. Certainly not the low-key friendly guy I was introduced to. We sat on folding chairs drinking beer and exchanging pleasantries, both being uncharacteristically shy.

Soon after that Yonkers played a set at One Groveland, a popular local venue, and I got my first taste of the singularity of a Yonkers performance. Amidst typical rock acts tricked out in trendy clothes and sexy guitars, Yonkers came on in blue coveralls sporting an old Fender. Not a cool Strat or Tele, but some student model. That hardly mattered because it had been severely mutilated, chopped down to a shadow of its former self. He had a kazoo connected to a long piece of plastic tubing in a harmonica neck rack. He pulled out a large can of baby powder and began to shake it vigorously over his entire guitar, creating a thick cloud around himself. (It particularly resonated with me because a year earlier I had used baby powder in a different way. I filled my hair with it and put a paper bag mask over my head. While my band played a maniacal vamp I danced on stage and at the proper moment I tore the bag in two from the top down creating a cloud of “smoke” around my head that dissipated to reveal fiendish greasepaint make-up. I hadn’t counted on the effect of airborne talc on my lungs and I was choking which added to the bizarre effect. Incidentally, I was also known to abuse my audience and throw things at them. In those prehistoric days before self-conscious rock and roll theater hit the pop market my performance ideas were decidedly marginalized. I was accustomed to rejections such as, “You can do your own thing, but not here. Not here!” As I watched Yonkers I began to see parallels that Clancy perceived between us.) And then Michael slammed into Swamp of Love. The guitar was distorted--not the honey-smooth Clapton or Hendrix distortion that everyone else aped, but a noisy, nasty, barbed distortion with attitude. There was nothing trendy about him, but he exuded a sort of hipness that was all his own. He was more concerned with his ideas and executing his energetic performance than he was with our reaction to it.


Sketch #7
Yonkers had a job in the 60s repairing amps and speaker enclosures at a music store. About that time, he became interested in the distorted guitars on albums by old time blues players. They got the distortion by overdriving small amps. Effects pedals that emulate the sound were not yet available so he began to experiment. First he cut slits in a speaker with a razor blade. An on/off switch was used to bring the wounded speaker in and out of the sound loop. Later he experimented at his repair bench.

MY: Mine was the first full out fuzztone that I’d ever seen. It blew everybody’s mind because there was nothing that sounded like that. I didn’t know anything about electronics theory, but I had access to stuff to play with. I’m sure I was doing things that would be considered wrong. I started building them into boxes and selling them at the store.
GLJ: Were they noisy?
MY: Yeah! (Laughter.)
GLJ: What did they sell for?
MY: Fifteen or twenty bucks. I wish I would have kept some of those. The were called “Fuzz ‘n’ Barks,” ‘cuz you could also set them to make a barking sort of sound.
GLJ: Could you recreate one now?
MY: No, because they were made out of a specific circuit that was made back then. And what would be the point? Now you can get the same thing through any digital box.


Sketch #8
Yonkers has a sixth sense for uncovering fascinating flotsam and jetsam of the consumer society, things that have been produced and discarded by the corporate world. His home is a combination of sleeping quarters, warehouse, recording studio, health center, and museum. You never know what you’ll see there--rare reel-to-reel tape recorders, a perfectly functioning high end laser printer found in someone’s trash, a vintage Japanese pinball machine, an ancient lathe for cutting your own records at home, or strange Victorian medical devices that glow with a lavender light.


Sketch #9
MY: Around ‘69 a man in Minneapolis, Herb Pilhofer, had one of the first Moogs in the country. Five of us got a grant through the Children’s Theater. We were able to go over to Pilhofer’s home and hang around while he played with the Moog. It was huge, with more knobs and patch cords than you could believe. I was attached to every word he said. One thing knocked my mind into kingdom come. He said, “The way the Moog works is--beat and pitch are all the same knob.” That was a musical revelation to me. It’s all beats and cycles. You slow down the beats and the pitch goes down. Beat and pitch are the same knob! I knew enough about electronics to realize that on the Moog that knob was a potentiometer. It somehow clicked when I saw a toy called the Sketch-A-Tune in Woolworth’s one day. It was a plastic box with a little electronic thing and a speaker, and there were paper templates. Each one had notes stamped on it. You would take a lead pencil, connect the notes to make a circuit, and clip it to a speaker in the box. Depending on where you put a probe you would get a different note. I realized that the piece of paper and the probe were a potentiometer! I bought every damn one they had, took them home, took them apart, and built a box. You could put the probes in your mouth, on your skin, hook them up to anything you wanted and make all these wonderful sounds. The sounds on Grimwood are the Sketch-A-Tune. I built a bunch of them into a box and performed with it in the coffeehouses. People these days aren’t amazed by things. There’s nothing to be amazed about anymore. But back in those days people would show up just to hear Mikey with his box. It was filled with all kinds of stuff, but the tone generators were the Sketch-A-Tune.


Sketch #10
Yonkers clearly appreciates the dramatic effects of his choices and actions. At the same time, there is always some practical motivation behind his maneuvers. His chopped down guitars look great in a bizarre and Frankenstinean way, but they are necessitated by a back injury. Baby powder made a good visual, but it also made the neck of his guitar slippery and fast. When he attaches a long fishing rod to the end of his guitar it looks like some outer space insect, but any savvy guitarist quickly realizes, “Hey, it keeps him from tripping on the cord.” When I met him he drove an old Mercedes sedan that he had painted flat black. His bicycle was hand-painted flat black. His nylon-string guitar was painted flat black. I asked him why he would lower the value of these possessions in this way and he said, “Who’d want to steal a Mercedes with a cheap flat black paint job?” He also laughed about people who would spend hundreds of dollars to get a bicycle that was a few ounces lighter in weight and then carry a ten pound lock to protect it.


Sketch #11
I once produced a concert based on the theme of Tupperware. As usual, Yonkers was game to participate. But he never showed up. Instead, a tall woman appeared with a deep voice, in full Max Factor make-up, and dressed in a Jackie Kennedy style business suit complete with pillbox hat. She said her name was Pam-Pam, the Tupperware Lady. She had Yonkers’ guitar and sang his songs. She never broke character all night, on stage or off.


Sketch #12
MY: One time in those days I opened for a friend’s country band in northeast Minneapolis at a hardcore bar. The stage was about a foot high. I started doing Puppeting. A guy walked over from the bar. He was so big that even though I was on a small stage we were looking face to face. I’m playing and singing and he says, “I got a request.” I looked at him. He snarled again, “I got a request!” So I stopped playing and said, “What’s the request?” “Shut the fuck up!” I did. What are you gonna do? They were all sports guys. They were all watching sports and they didn’t want this music shit getting in the way.


Sketch #13
Yonkers has been heavily involved in theater and dance. He has done sound design and walk-on parts for Minneapolis’ Children’s Theater Company. I acted opposite his powerful performance as an evil priest from the Spanish Middle Ages at Olympia Arts Ensemble, a 1970s Minneapolis loft theater. He has worked in a number of dance forms including modern dance, belly-dancing, and ballet. During the 1980s he created a set of experimental dance/video pieces. He appeared in Minnesota Ballet productions of The Nutcracker for over 20 years.


Sketch #14
The Answer, a track on Grimwood, has a theme of dance, song, and love as harbingers of peace. I suggested to Yonkers that this theme might be seen as the essence of Grimwood.

MY: That song was prophetic for me on a personal level. This whole album was done before I broke my back in 1971. Around the time I was writing these songs I would go to the Black Forest Inn and drink beer, have some food, write poetry, and draw. One night I walked out with a very disturbing drawing which I still have somewhere. It was of me and these two giant birds with huge pointed beaks that were jammed into my back. That was in ‘69. When the accident happened in ‘71 I broke my back in the exact spot where the birds were putting their beaks. As it turned out, when I got into dance as therapy it was the thing that saved my sorry butt from real big trouble. I was into dance before that, but more as defiance. I had tried hard to study martial arts in ‘67. One day my instructor said, “You can move, but you have no killer instinct. I suggest maybe dance for you.” I was so mad I stormed out. “Dance! What the hell are you talking about?” I don’t know what came over me, but when I was registering for the next quarter at the U of M I decided to take a modern dance class, and I really liked it. But then I broke my back and didn’t dance for many years until I got back into it as therapy. So on a personal level, dance was The Answer. The song also works on the cosmic level that you are talking about.

Sketch #15
I used Tripping Through the Rose Gardens from Grimwood as the theme music for my KFAI-FM radio program in 1978-79. (The lovely Rose Gardens near Lake Harriet in Minneapolis continue to be a popular area for visitors today.) Yonkers was a guest on my show several times. We would jabber and converse on the air in exactly the same way we did in our homes and continue to do in the 21st century. Someone else must have been at these sessions because there are photos of us drinking beer over the studio console.

Sketch #16
Yonkers worked on a sheep farm and had to pry open frozen sheep muzzles on harsh northern Minnesota mid-winter days.


Sketch #17
Yonkers laughs about expectations from people when he plays shows around the world. He senses that his age makes people expect an overweight, bearded Jerry Garcia-like figure in a tie-dye T-shirt when they meet him at the airport. They are startled to find a youthful man in good physical shape. He reaffirms that if he didn’t work hard to stay in shape his injuries would have killed him long ago.


Sketch #18
Grimwood was recorded on Viking tape decks that were made in Minneapolis. They used 7 inch reels mounted upside down that ran at 7 1/2 i.p.s. in a 1/2 track format. The preamps were close to the motor. It vibrated the tubes causing a microphonic response with a resulting hum that occasionally appears in the recordings. Overdubs were created using two machines. Yonkers played all the instruments, engineered, produced, and prepared the original tape for the mastering process.


Sketch #19
The lonely atmosphere pervading Grimwood fits the current 2007 interest in loner music. There is a slow, time-warp feel to the whole project. The opening and closing songs have an Elizabethan quality that he attributes to the escapist climate of the era in which they were written.


Sketch #20
Yonkers loves and never misses the Minnesota State Fair.


Sketch #21
The crowd noise in Grimwood’s The Big Parade came from a library sound effects record.


Sketch #22
Yonkers performed the songs from Grimwood in coffeehouses when the album first came out. Half of the show was done with acoustic guitar and half with electric guitar and electronics. He mounted a device in his guitar that generated the sound of applause when audiences were small.


Sketch #23
Yonkers on songwriting: “I tell people it’s not that big a deal, but you know what? It is. It hurts.”


Sketch #24
The painful truth is that world-wide artistic success doesn’t ensure wealth, prosperity or comfort. Yonkers affirms that his basic realities, motivations and intentions haven’t changed much from when he recorded Grimwood. He sites a difference--back then he chose to lock himself “in an egg in a basement”, but now his counter-cultural existence is an ingrained life style.

GLJ: You talk about the fact that your current fame hasn’t brought you financial reward. So why the hell do you go on doing this? Why give your life to the struggle of being an artist?

MY: I don’t even know. I was thinking about that last night. I’ve got it down to a science. I come up with the ideas--a sound or a chord progression. I usually start with the music and add the words. I play them every day. At a certain point I realize enough is enough and I have to write this down. I just hate that. How do you decide when that point is? Well, I don’t decide. It just happens. Yesterday I came in here and without even thinking I went to the computer, turned it on, and got out my pages and pages of scribbles and scratches. That’s when it starts to flesh out into something where I can say, “That’s a song. And that’s song 2. This is song 3.” As I was doing that I wondered, “Why the hell am I doing this? Shouldn’t I be out walking? Shouldn’t I be sleeping or eating? Shouldn’t I be watching television, something other than this, which is probably not going to go anywhere accept a few people will hear it and like it?” But I’ve been working on this for weeks, spending all tonight typing and printing it out, putting it in order, putting notations on it. And then I’ll practice it and practice it and practice it. Then I’ll record it. Then I’ll record it again. Then I’ll listen to it for a week. Then I’ll record it again. Then I will go through the whole process of putting it onto a CD, coming up with the photograph. And I think, “Why am I doing this?” I have not a clue. I have no answer. It’s the same for all the arts. You can get some heady answer from people who are heady. I’m not very heady and I have no answer.

GLJ: Do you think about your audience, who’s going to hear this, that they will hopefully enjoy the work and find it meaningful?

MY: Not in the least. Couldn’t care less. If you’re American Idol you have to think about the audience because they want a specific kind of singer and performer, a specific look. But what I do--it doesn’t make any difference. The audience finds the stuff. Getting back to your original point, probably a lot of this has to do with escaping from constant fricking pain. It takes my mind off it for awhile. I don’t have any preconceived notions. If I do what’s coming from the heart the right people will find it. If they dig it and take something away from it, great. If they want to eat it for breakfast, that’s just fine and dandy, too. I’ve never been less concerned in my life about whether something’s going to get played on the radio. I really am not concerned about it at all, and at this point in my life more of this stuff is being played on the radio than ever. It’s a hard core attitude, but on the other hand, after doing it for forty years I have the right to a hard core attitude.


Sketch #25
2007 bears too many similarities to 1969. Media representations have evolved, the names of the guilty have changed, but the state of world affairs continues to decline. Power mongers promote wars, people under their control are manipulated, maimed, and killed, and we have become perversely accustomed to living under the threat of imminent destruction. The crimes didn’t stop during the years between 1969 and now, but maybe we were more easily diverted in the intervening years. We were so pleased to be out of Viet Nam and so distracted by our increasing number of electronic gizmos that we happily ignored Indonesia, El Salvador, Grenada, the Falklands, Panama, Nicaragua, Bosnia, not to mention other atrocities that we weren’t even told about. We had a nice tidy War on Drugs to occupy us. The means used to distract us are more obvious now for those who are paying attention. As Neil Postman observed and predicted over 20 years ago, the Huxley model of the future has overtaken the Orwellian model. Books don’t need to be banned if no one wants to read. Our downfall is not in what we fear but what we love. Yonkers quotes comedian George Carlin in saying that we are just circling the drain, and adds that we can retreat into our homes to watch pictures of that swirling drain on television. Do artists have an answer for our dilemma? If so, I suggest that it is in the act itself more than the content of the work. One can cite Yonkers’ perspicacity in carrying on through constant pain, legal battles, and little recognition. In one sense, the act of making art is a giant middle finger flipped in the face of the insanity around us. In another, it might be appreciated as a meditative release allowing illusory existence to pass through one’s consciousness in a Zen-like flow. In fact, those senses co-exist.

The truest thing an artist can do in the face of challenging realities is embrace the work with a hunger for excellence. Not to preach or bully, perhaps not even to communicate. Rather, a line drawn in the sand that signals our belief that we are better than this. Simply an act, an existential act. Michael Yonkers continues to act now as he did when he recorded Grimwood.
Sketch #26, a 2012 update
I saw Michael a couple weeks ago. He has once again stated his intention to retire from performing. He has done so a number of times in the past. This time he riled some folks by canceling scheduled appearances. The drama of the announcement always makes for good press coverage, but I don’t believe that this is his motivation. Physical developments make it harder and harder to play the guitar. By the way, his broken back is usually blamed for his decades-long health problems. In fact, botched treatments as well as asthma are significant contributors.
A movie is being made or has been made about Michael Yonkers and his work with The Blind Shake. (Hey Hey What: a film about Michael Yonkers and the Blind Shake.) He tells me that his renewed withdrawal means that the film doesn’t include intended footage of Yonkers and the band on stage together, although there is some in-studio video. I haven’t seen the movie yet, but eagerly await it. I send Michael my love and the hopes that he will once again find a way to mount the stage. Nothing about him surprises me. And I look forward to carrying our ongoing conversation into its fifth decade.