Dave Tompkins Explores Personal Space

Room available, inquire within. The author of How To Wreck A Nice Beach: The Vocoder From World War II To Hip Hop ruminates on the outsider electronic artists in need of Personal Space.

The living room of Omer Coleman II in Kansas City is preoccupied with motorcycles and motorcycle parts. There may be a carburetor in the kitchen sink. What began as a sound effects project for a mobile DJ rig turned into a 17-minute cosmically burnt synth instrumental called “Master Ship”, and a perfectly good reason for Mr. Coleman to call himself Starship Commander Woo Woo. He may have beaten Yellow Magic Orchestra to its own self, without even knowing it.

Up in Buffalo, Sylvester Cleary fooled with drum machines while designing women’s apparel, candy bars and bicycles. He recorded pet shop promos (violins for dogs) and bottled wine from the pear tree in his back yard. Cleary, and his frequent collaborator Jessie Key, made a forlorn instrumental called “Storm of ‘77”, in memory of the 29 people who died during a massive blizzard in Buffalo – including a carbon monoxide poisoning by snow blower. (The music for “Storm” was sufficiently devastating to also be used for their unreleased regret “Had Your Love”.) The song here is “I’m A Man” and Sylvester Cleary “breathe[s] to be understood.” The motto on one of their imprints happens to be shared by the city of Buffalo: “The Best Thing That Happened To Anybody”.

Things were less optimistic for Nathaniel Woolridge in Newark, where the hook is a constant worry, a refrain that runs throughout the song “All About Money”. Woolridge acknowledges that he can’t make this record without money, but they somehow did, barely. He still suffers from wounds, mental and physical, sustained from undisclosed ‘military service’, not to mention the music business. The group is Spontaneous Overthrow, named by a man besieged by himself.

You’ll encounter these characters in Personal Space, unpacked in the subhead as Electronic Soul: 1974–1984. A more helpful description, as stated by its Chicago-based curator, Dante Carfagna, would be “Parliament on fumes.” Where else could one find names like US Aries or a producer called Sylvester Island? These are small operations, from the backside of churches and de-industrialised rust belt ghosts – shuttered music that was forced to turn painfully inward when the rest of the world showed no interest. Being ‘out there’ may be a loaded wish. Way out, however, can be the ultimate escape. They weren’t in the basement checking their worth on eBay and Discogs — they were alone with a Maestro Rhythm King (Buy It Now! $445.50!), an organ and a surplus of demons. The liner captions are brief, ending on notes like “…completely ignored and vanished.” Or: “Heartbreak connected with the group’s dissolution prevents him from discussing it much to this day.” These are stalled, if not altogether junked careers, trying to find a way with new technologies but no budget. (The Johnnie Walker scuzzstrumental “Love Vibrator” is from an album called Farewell To Welfare.) Unlike Stevie Wonder, these artists could not afford to have a modular sprawl of a TONTO synth at their disposal. One man’s riff could be another man’s strain.

The only inclusion on Personal Space that achieved any success was a Russian living in Hollywood, Florida. Sometime between composing music for Johnny Carson and eating boiled duck while making claims on Eurodisco, Boris Midney recorded The Makers’ “Don’t Challenge Me”. This may be the most desired 45 on the compilation, a song where love and intimacy are a matter of simply being left alone. But being left to your own devices does have its benefits. It’s hard to imagine mindfuck treasures like “Shortest Lady” and “My Bleeding Wound” surviving a major label and being allowed out in public. It took a while for electronic music to get out of the bedroom, much less its own head, often relegated to bad porn and good slasher soundtracks. Fortunately, the Midwestern galactic ballad category is well represented here by Steve Elliot’s “One More Time”, letting bygones be booty calls.

As is often the case, the records are harder to find than the artists themselves. The closest you may get is Huntsville, Alabama, where G-Side recently rode a toothsome synth bass that originated in Chicago with Guitar Red’s “Disco From A Space Show”. I got into this bizarre subsector via 45s like True Desire’s “You Thought I Had It”, a wonderful lo-fi Nate Dogg thing from Wilmington, Massachusetts, not included here but worth its 808.

Carfagna is an old friend, so I’ve had the pleasure (and at times, utter confusion) of hearing many of these songs over the years. An evening at his apartment in Chicago could be spent listening to recordings of French huntsman horns (which sound like analog Radiophonic mating calls) and Fat Boys beatbox 45s (a new reissue of the Fat Boys first album is packaged in a customised pizza box, incidentally). As a birthday present, his father took him to the Dawn Of The Dead mall in Pennsylvania. Through Dante, I learned that some of the spare tubing from Roger Troutman’s original Golden Throat Talkbox was rumoured to be in the basement of a hardware store somewhere in Ohio (Ossified “Computer Love” saliva check!). And that some guy in Columbus is currently in possession of George Clinton’s Bop Gun, or one of George’s Bop Guns anyway, leading me to believe in the existence of a Bop Gun cabinet.

If not, we may take solace in any remote grasp on reality — like the fact that the guy behind “My Bleeding Wound” was involved with the group Sexual Harassment. More than five record dudes now have a chance to hear this spare haunted thing recorded in Way Out Studios in Cleveland. The decay on the vocals could be all that remains of Lynn Tolliver, leaving the word ecstasy to fill up the deeply affected darkness. He’s “alone without love,” but surrounded by his paramour’s moans, which, with all that reverb, seem to only exist inside his head. Something to think about the next time you’re feeling all alienated by technology in fear quotes.

If ever back in Buffalo, you should ask about Mr. Nature’s Treats, a Key & Cleary restaurant that allegedly frapped one of the best milkshakes in western New York. Unfortunately, Mr. Nature’s Treats was shut down by the health department. According to Sylvester Cleary, they thought the food was too fresh.

The New Year - My Bleeding Wound

Personal Space is available now from Chocolate Industries.

By Dave Tompkins on May 25, 2012

On a different note