Loren MazzaCane Connors
Unaccompanied Accoustic Guitar Improvisations Vol. 1-9, 1979-1980
Up in Flames
By Monica Kendrick
Oddly for a lifelong night owl, I'm touched with seasonal affective disorder: I tend to get depressed and agoraphobic when the day disappears into an unsatisfying little pinprick of sunlight. Conveniently, in neopagan cosmology the period between Samhain (October 31--a sort of combination of the last-harvest festival and the Day of the Dead) and the winter solstice is the spiritual dead of winter, a time not for direct action but for meditating, for taking stock of the harvest and remembering the dead and listening to the wind shuddering in the desiccated cornstalks. They say dreams take precedence over waking awareness; I sure do sleep a lot.
And while I sleep, Loren MazzaCane Connors records breed in my apartment. Of the dozens of the guitarist's recordings I've found there, a third of them I don't remember getting. Here's the new Airs, his solo abstractions of traditional tunes, stripped to ghosts of their former selves; over there is Calloden Harvest, a wordless but venomous evocation of Cromwell's invasion of Ireland so full of terror and rage and grief you'd think the travesty had happened yesterday. And there's Mercury, a collaboration with Alan Licht, which inspired this stream-of-consciousness tale from my dad when I took it home for the holidays: "Last of the wooden steamers, caught in the ice, which is scraping and crushing. Sailors glancing to each other, no one wants to say anything. Captain says whatever captain says to keep spirits up, but the boards are groaning. Not too far away a pod of whales calls to each other. Frost on the walls of the interior of the ship. Resignation is dawning. They might be spending the winter on the ship, if it doesn't crack. My guess is it gets pretty dark in Antarctica."
They come on a handful of small labels; on CD, LP, and seven-inch vinyl; in solo, duo, trio, quartet arrangements, they seem to spring out of the air like thoughts. It's as if Connors breathes through his guitar, generating records like most people produce carbon dioxide. Maybe he's playing his guitar constantly and someone is simply following him around, recording. This theory has only been supported by the live performances I've seen. A couple years ago in Chicago, on a program of duo and quartet sets, he stepped up onstage during intermission--apparently to sound check, but he started playing and just kept playing until, a good ten minutes later, Licht joined him, officially starting their set. Connors seemed hardly to notice.
The records aren't all created equal: some are full of around-the-corner epiphany, sudden ice storms of tears; some are just another goddamn Loren MazzaCane Connors record. But now is when I need them--all of them--the most. For having one foot in one world and the other in another, Connors's piercing, instantly recognizable keening is eminently right; one can hunker down in the deepening gloam with it, even with the awareness of how short life is relative to how much other music there is in the world. At the night before its own solstice, the nadir of its own sunlight, Connors's music is a dancing skeleton of the blues, making one as aware of what's not there as of what is.
It is the blues he's playing, though I'll be damned if I could tell you how. But what makes Connors a bluesman isn't his form--it's his pitch and his pace, the sheer density of every plangent string bend. The way the first note he plays clears the room of everything but its own presence. The blues is about making everything you got count for a lot, but it inevitably reminds you what you ain't got--what you had once but lost, what you know you'll never have, what you've been cheated out of.
A lot of people are music fans, even music obsessives, amassing huge record collections and spending their nights in smoky clubs. And some of them come to find that just listening isn't enough. They become critics, archivists, future-tense historians: people who know that the popular history of music is full of empty spaces, injustices, and blind spots, and sense that the richness of what's fallen between the cracks is probably light-years beyond what's out there blinking in the spotlight. One of them, Harry Smith, was proven so correct in every more-or-less educated guess on his 1952 Anthology of American Folk Music that he got to brag, in a speech just before he died, that he had lived to see his dream come true: "I saw America changed by music." But did he actually have such a master plan--or the idealism to believe it could happen--or did he just have a fabulous ear?
In the liner notes to the 1997 reissue of Smith's anthology, three contributors indicate that upon its initial release the songs sounded so otherworldly and so ancient it was assumed that every one of the voices must be dead and silent. How could such archetypal sounds come from people still alive in the Eisenhower age? But by the end of the decade, Harry's heroes had started showing up to wow the whippersnappers at folk festivals. Imagine the amazement--as if the ground beneath Robert Johnson's crossroads had opened up and belched forth a handful of souls, skills intact.
Since then, undeserved obscurity has been a treatable, if not curable, disease. Master unearther Byron Coley began campaigning for Guitar Roberts, aka Loren MazzaCane, aka Loren MazzaCane Connors, in Spin and Forced Exposure in the mid-80s. While Connors was never the Delta-farmworker, Pentecostal prophet, or few-fries-short-of-a-Happy-Meal visionary troglodyte of the folkies' fantasy, there was (and is) something about the aching sense of isolation in his soundworld that made him seem archetypal, mythical. He had been self-releasing records since the 70s, both solo and with collaborator Kath Bloom (daughter of literary scholar Harold Bloom). Shortly after Coley's rhapsodies started flowing, a string of tiny labels--New World of Sound, Road Cone, Menlo Park, Lotus Sound--provided further conduits for Connors's prolific stream, but Connors continued to keep a few coming himself on his own Black Label.
Obscurity's not the issue for Connors now. Though music as grueling and elusive as his will always be a bit of a niche market, nearly every indie-literate household winds up with one or two of his recordings just by osmosis. (And sooner or later, everyone in those households will meet the sort of night of the soul where nothing else will do.) In fact, it's getting (relatively) easy to take him for granted, which is why the unthrillingly titled Unaccompanied Accoustic Guitar Improvisations Vol. 1-9, 1979-80 four-CD set, released by Coley's Father Yod label in a joint venture with Thurston Moore's Ecstatic Peace label, is such a revelation.
The story is this: when the recordings were made, Connors was living in somewhat self-imposed isolation and poverty in the run-down section of New Haven, Connecticut, where his grandparents--Irish immigrants--and parents had lived. (Family history is a running obsession in his work; he would later do similar stints in the Hell's Kitchen neighborhood of New York, probing Irish folklore for the roots of a true white man's blues.) According to his liner notes, he was immersed in not-unjustified fears of a break-in, and slept with a hammer, listening to blues music wafting through the window, mingling with the howls and yowls of fighting dogs and mating cats, and remembering his grandmother's stories of banshees. He's very articulate about exactly how his physical and psychic circumstances figured into his music: careful footsteps on unreliable floors, mice but no rats, the wind, the skylight above and the rusty nail below. He released volumes one through eight on a label he named for his street, Daggett Street, spending days gluing his own artwork onto hundreds of covers. "There was no network like there is now, no distribution network except for New Music Distribution in New York, who I used to send most of mine to, and a few radio stations," he writes. "I never thought that they would end up reaching very many people, and they never did, really."
But they did reach a key few. Glenn Jones, leader of the band Cul de Sac, was a buyer for Rounder Records' distribution arm, and recalls always being interested in solo guitar records, especially self-released ones--he'd discovered John Fahey and Derek Bailey that way. In the early 80s he came across one of Connors's handmade sleeves in a Boston used record store. "The music was unlike anything else I'd ever heard, then or since," he says. "It seemed to be born of isolation, late nights, and pain. Listening to it was not easy, partly because it was so depressing and raw, and partly because it was so intimate. Listening, one felt like an eavesdropper or a voyeur. Was I really meant to hear this?" He immediately contacted New Music Distribution Service to order anything else they had by Connors. "They sent me the couple volumes they had on hand, but the rest were marked 'out of stock--please reorder.' When I called again a couple months or so later, I was told [Connors] had been by their offices in the meantime and had taken back all his records 'in a huff.'"
According to Coley, what really happened was that New Music Distribution was in dire financial straits. Connors's records weren't selling, so he'd been called to pick up the stock. When he saw the size of the boxes, he realized he could neither carry them nor store them, and so he simply chucked them in the nearest Dumpster. Masters? Fuhgeddaboutit.
Coley himself discovered the recordings during his Spin tenure. "As a fan of extremely personal and hermetic musical visions, it was immediately appealing on an aesthetic level, and the music was so weirdly otherworldly that I was immediately won over," he says. "Although he was obviously coming from a blues background, the tone and attack of his guitar work were clearly emanating from another dimension. People had sometimes spoken of Beefheart's bands playing a kind of martian blues and Loren's playing evoked that for me as well."
Coley wrote to Connors in an attempt to locate more of his out-of-print music, and the two became friends. He thought about reissuing the Daggett records for five or six years, but never had the money for such an ambitious project. Then last year Sonic Youth guitarist Moore--a friend, admirer, and sometime collaborator of Connors--decided to pull out all the stops for Connors's 50th birthday, this past October, and he ponied up the cash. Cassettes dubbed from Connors's own copies of the records (or possibly from other cassettes) were "severely" cleaned up and remastered in Chicago by fellow Connors advocate and collaborator Jim O'Rourke and his assistant, engineer Jeremy Lemos (who did a hefty share of the work but whose name was accidentally left out of the credits). "Jim got these eight or nine cassettes from Thurston and they just wanted to put them out just the way they were," Lemos says. "I believe that they just sent them to Jim to compile them together on CDs so they could be pressed. Well, they were terrible.... There was one that was recorded at such a low level that you could barely make it out over the cassette hiss.... It's kind of a fine line between getting it right and doing it too much and having it sound really 'processed'--it's acoustic guitar, ya know. So this denoising would take three times the length of the audio to process, per channel."
The long pieces are mesmerizing strings of unanchored blue notes, plunging one into the illusion of excruciating inarticulation. Connors's recent records--which are all electric--have an expansiveness, an airiness within them and a trust in silence that perhaps indicates a growing faith in the universe to fill in the gaps. But these early recordings are claustrophobically dense, bristling with lonesome, frustrated nervous energy and shot through with Connors's sublinguistic howls and moans, a technique he's mercifully dropped since. Listening to them is like sitting in Connors's lap while he sobs uncontrollably, for reasons he can't explain, for days.
As an additional birthday gift, Moore used his guest curatorship of the new-music series at the New York club Tonic to give Connors an unprecedented residency--four nights a week for the entire month of October. There was some muttering, but no one was shocked. Connors has released maybe half a dozen records this past year alone, not including the box set; oversaturation was not a concern.
But Connors's health was. He suffers from Parkinson's disease, which he's at times attributed to the glue fumes he inhaled while assembling the covers for his early LPs. While this is highly unlikely, it seems inevitable that there be some connection between his disease and his uneasy music: a degenerative illness a constant reminder of time's passage, a hellhound on the proverbial trail. It's certainly no mere metaphor, though, and Connors's friends and collaborators take a deeply protective role, particularly when the side effects of his medication are strongest.
I was in New York for the last week and a half of this stand, and was pleasantly surprised to see Connors looking healthy and rocking harder than plenty of strapping youths half his age. Many of these nights he played with his new band, Haunted House, an improv-rock quartet featuring Atlanta transplants Andrew Burnes and Neel Murgai on guitar and percussion and Connors's wife, singer Suzanne Langille, on eerie wailing vocals that don't lose their ethereal quality even in their lower registers. Their debut, Up in Flames, is a pretty dramatic step for Connors--for the first time I've heard, from behind the veil of distortion and reverb he's fond of these days, he subjugates his haint-ridden compulsiveness to someone else's groove. Murgai is the secret weapon here, doing more with a simple Persian daf than most rock drummers can with a whole kit. Their 23-minute version of Lonnie Johnson's "Blue Ghost Blues"--which Connors and Langille have sketched out before, on the 1989 album In Pittsburgh (reissued in 1996 by Dexter's Cigar)--is a stealthy tour de force that in a better world would leave a whole generation of electric-blues wannabes gibbering in the dust.
The first of the nights I saw paired Haunted House, weirdly, with poet, filmmaker, and (as he'll never let anyone forget) Former Warhol Superstar Gerard Malanga. Though I regretted Haunted House scaling back their assault to give Malanga room, his photographs of empty houses created a visible framework for Haunted House's music--Connors and his incorporeal company scraped their bony revenant fingers and battered their avenging winds against actual sagging, blank windows. The otherworldliness of Connors's ghostly blues acknowledged an ectoplasmic chill in the room that materialism wants to write off to faulty ventilation.
On the night of his birthday proper, the 22nd, Connors not only played a smoking Haunted House set but responded gleefully to being kept onstage for hours by a tag team of collaborators that never gave him a chance to sit still--Licht, Moore, Kim Gordon, O'Rourke. In the same week he also matched wits with Zeena Parkins, Dean Roberts (aka White Winged Moth), Tom Surgal, Lin Culbertson, and Keiji Haino (whose pairings with Connors are still never quite as awe inspiring as they ought to be: two deeply intuitive players who inhabit such highly developed individual soundworlds tend to neutralize as much as inspire each other).
One of Connors's steady collaborators since 1993, fellow guitarist Licht says he was struck at first by "the intensity of [Connors's playing], and the fact that the intensity was achieved through bending strings and vibrato, not from speed or effects or any kind of freneticism, and that the music was so deceptively placid. The kind of off-handed violence of it was a nice variation on the violence of the free jazz and punk stuff I was listening to and playing at the time." Licht's nearly 20 years Connors's junior, and his side of their duo matches began as something like deference to Connors's unadorned focus: "I think at first I was sort of spontaneously accompanying him; later I started being more subversive. We often played through the same amp at first; later when we used separate amps, I began using effects pedals, which he picked up on. At first it was all clean tones, later it was distortion and delay. His style has changed a lot over the years, so the collaboration has changed a lot just because of accommodating that....He says he plays better early in the morning, that as the day goes on he gets tired and his playing gets worse, consequently playing at a club at 11 PM isn't ideal for him. But I don't hear a drastic difference between his playing on record (which he does in the mornings) than live. I think being embraced by the indie rock contingent has changed his playing more than his illness has."
In his famous book Awakenings, which deals with his experiences treating both victims of the encephalitis epidemic of the teens and 20s and of the less virulent forms of Parkinson's, Oliver Sacks writes: "There is an aphorism of Novalis which I particularly like: 'Every disease is a musical problem. Every cure is a musical solution.' One finds this is literally and even sensationally so, with Parkinsonian and post-encephalitic patients: one finds patients unable to take a single step, who can dance with consummate ease and grace; patients unable to phonate, or utter a single word, who can sing without any difficulty, bringing to the music all the volume, all the richness and delicacy of intonation, all the feeling that it demands....It is in this realm too, that the commonest and most important phenomenon is seen--the importance of other people....Many a Parkinsonian cannot walk by himself, will either freeze or stutter or festinate uncontrollably; yet he may walk perfectly if there is someone with him--not necessarily touching him, for visual touch is enough. Much has been written about 'contactual reflexes,' but it is certain that these are not enough, these are not in the realm where explanation resides."
Whether he's alone or with collaborators, Connors's musical triumphs are at least partly about distillation. Each note, each cry, is a microcosm, a condensation of emotional force that another player might milk for a whole record. Licht points out: "Loren trained as a painter, and I think the different phases he's gone through...are a lot like those a painter goes through. The harmonic materials he works with are pretty limited, but he keeps developing new ways of restating them, the same way a painter could paint the same subject any number of different ways over time." Connors's new chapbook, Autumn's Sun (yet another "gift" from Coley and Moore, who issued it in a limited edition on their Glass Eye imprint) consists of poetic journal entries from around 1987; their treatment of the minutiae of weather, plants, children, light, and water are raptly attentive to detail: "June 21. When I lived in downtown New Haven on the corner of Church Street and Chapel, I would watch the trees on the Green....I sit on Nash Street, looking at the street light on the catalpa hearts. Nothing is touching me--no, probably everything is."
With this kind of focus comes suspension of cares, of the ego, of intruding or painful external realities, a loss of sense of limits, whether personal or physical--in other words, a nearly bottomless reserve. Langille insists that her husband simply doesn't think about his illness when he's playing; perhaps the details he's so intensely exploring leave little room for anything else. Contrary to what Hollywood will tell you, the blues is not about the triumph of the human spirit over isolation, grief, rage, oppression, fear, and mortality. The blues is about the way in which the human spirit forever contains all these things, can never shed them or conquer them completely. But sometimes it expresses itself beautifully while waiting for the sun to return.