The Space Lady, In Her Own Words

Terri Loewenthal

An outsider artist who got her start in the early ’70s, Colorado native Susan Dietrich, AKA The Space Lady, first began performing on the street with a dilapidated accordion. At the time, she was living off the grid with her then-husband Joel Dunsany, bouncing between Boston and San Francisco and even logging a stint in a cave near Mt. Shasta.

Eventually, Dietrich traded the accordion for a Casio MT-40 keyboard, started running her voice through an echo unit and arranging cover versions of otherworldly songs like “Fly Me to the Moon,” Somewhere over the Rainbow,” “Ghost Riders in the Sky,” and “Major Tom.” Performing with her signature winged helmet, she became known as The Space Lady and gradually found a modicum of success before retiring from music in 2000.

Nevertheless, interest in her music increased exponentially in 2002 when one of her tracks was included on the outsider music compilation Songs in the Key of Z. In 2012, Dietrich returned to the stage and the following year, UK label Night School collected a number of her tracks for a Greatest Hits album. For the first time, The Space Lady found herself performing in proper clubs all around the world, and in 2015, John Dwyer’s Castle Face imprint issued several more of her tunes on a split LP. In this excerpt from her recent interview with Frosty on RBMA Radio, The Space Lady takes us through the long journey that is her life in music.

The Space Lady


I’m currently living in La Junta, Colorado near where I grew up. I had a very idyllic childhood, very happy, very free. Nature all around. When you think Colorado you think mountains, but this particular neck of the woods was more like the desert, the south east corner of the state toward the border of Kansas.

My parents were musicians, so I was born into a musical family. My brother and sister played and sang and it was expected, I think of me especially, to be a professional musician. My mother had aspired to be a concert pianist, but instead she chose to get married and have children, so I snatched that glory from her. I still feel that she really would have loved for me to fill her shoes and become a classical pianist, but I was a very shy little girl and I dreaded recitals. I would be close to paralyzed on stage.

Fast forward, and rock & roll started emerging even through the limited radio stations we had out there. The Beatles, of course, hit the scene and I was just swept off my feet. Much to my parents’ chagrin I started working out tunes on the piano, just trying to recreate some of the rock music I was listening to under my pillow at night. My parents knew that I had been infected and they tried to be tolerant as best as they could but I know they hoped it was just a phase that I was going through and that I would soon see the light – that it was just shallow and nothing compared to their rich deep historical classical music.

By the time I became a teenager, it was starting to feel like a city of lost souls indeed, because we had only one TV channel. I couldn’t wait to get out of small town life and so I made a beeline as soon as I graduated from high school to the biggest college in the state which was the University of Colorado in Boulder. That was 1966, when Flower Power was starting to blossom around the world.

As I listened to Schubert, I realized I wasn’t just listening, I was watching the music dancing around the room.

I had been pretty isolated, I knew Bob Dylan’s music and Joan Baez was definitely well-known. I started trying to teach myself guitar and become the next folk singer on the scene, although I didn’t know how I was going to do that and avoid stages, so I just played for myself and picked out some of the folk tunes that my parents had taught us.

As luck would have it my older sister decided to join The Peace Corps and the training was in San Francisco, so she invited me to visit her there. She happened to have an apartment right in the heart of the Haight-Ashbury, and my eyes and mind were blown open when I saw the counterculture that was in full bloom and full glory. There were people sitting in Golden Gate Park and The Panhandle singing and dancing and wearing clothing like I had never seen before, beads and flowers, just so colorful.

The first time I got high my sister was playing a classical record of Schubert piano duets. I was sitting on the couch listening to this intricately beautiful music, and I suddenly appreciated classical music for the first time. As I listened, I realized I wasn’t just listening, I was watching the music dancing around the room and these waves of clefs with notes on them and full color. It was transformational.

I saw clearly into another dimension, that we’re living in multi-dimensions without even knowing it because our senses are so limited. We’re so well-trained to limit our senses, so we don’t veer too far off the beaten track. You don’t experience life fully if you don’t let yourself go to those extremes.

On the day that I was to leave and go back to Colorado I said, “I’m going to take one last walk through The Panhandle just to say goodbye and to smell the smells and see a few more hippies. I could see there were a lot of people up ahead of me in The Panhandle, where the trees were. They seemed to be gathering around something, and the closer I got I started hearing music and lo and behold I walked up on the Jefferson Airplane standing on a flatbed truck playing all the songs from their album. I just couldn’t believe a free concert and I’d happened on it, in the last minute of my stay. Wow, it was so great.

Terri Loewenthal

The Cosmic Man

I went back to Boulder, but I had changed my way of dressing and thinking and eventually dropped out of college and got a ride to New Mexico and joined a commune that was living in Placitas, which was a cluster of almost melted adobe huts that had been occupied by sheep herders back in the ’50s.

I made a friend there named Dove, and she took me under her wing and we decided we should hitchhike out to San Francisco. A few weeks after, we went out to explore the city and got lost in a sudden downpour. We didn’t know how long it would take to wait for a bus, so Dove stuck out her thumb and a guy pulled over and picked us up and it happened to be Joel [Dunsany, AKA The Cosmic Man]. He seemed to have fallen in love with me at first sight. He left me his number, and after a week or two I decided maybe I would call Joel back. We had had a little bit of a conversation and the rest is history: The next 30 years I spent living with Joel. He was a huge influence on me, as well as my protector and mentor and father of our three children.

Joel and I met in 1971. He had an acoustic guitar, but his real love was electric guitar and playing around with sound effects. He had an Electro-Harmonix phase shifter and later an Echoplex. He would play his guitar through that machine and make cascades of notes.

Eventually he created a one-man band called The Cosmic Man around the same time that we found a winged helmet in a costume shop in San Francisco. He was making big elaborate sculptures back then, and embedding those with little twinkling lights. And this helmet with a red ball on top just called to him to light it up as well. He started putting together a set. He was going to perform and change the world as The Cosmic Man, but he didn’t want to do it in San Francisco. For one thing, he was very worried about the draft and he had refused to go. He had tried to apply for the conscientious objector’s status and had been denied, so he was in no man’s land with the government and he was very fearful with the FBI finding out and throwing him in prison for what he said would have been ten years.

I don’t know if that’s actually the case, but I know a lot of young men were really living in terror of having to go to a small country on the other side of the planet and shoot peasants or be shot or burned with napalm.

At that point we decided to live like refugees in our own country: We went underground, destroyed our ID’s, cut off contact with our families and any form of friends and left San Francisco sometime in 1972.

We lost everything except the helmet.

We actually flew north, flew to Redding and hitchhiked to Mount Shasta, which we heard was a very New Age community with lots of healers and spiritual people. We camped on the mountain during that summer of ’72. In autumn, though, it was starting to get pretty darn cold at night, but we’d really formed a bond with the mountain and with nature itself that we decided we would stay. We were going to be true to our calling. We weren’t sure where it was going to take us, but Joel was definitely going to be The Cosmic Man and make a difference with his music.

That summer we met a couple of young men who had hitchhiked from Boston to Mount Shasta by way of Machu Picchu in South America. They had been on a quest to find enlightenment through contact with a medicine man down there, but they didn’t get the invitation to join him on Machu Picchu so instead they decided to make good use of their time and they bought a pound of cocaine and they brought it to Mount Shasta, selling it on the way and amassing quite a bit of cash.

Joel, in his inimitable way, overwhelmed them with enthusiasm and creativity and personality and just embraced them and absorbed them into his world and said, “You’ve got the money, I’ve got the music, let’s go north, let’s go to Alaska and I’ll play music up there.”

We eventually got up there, but Joel was incredibly disillusioned to discover that Alaska was very conservative, almost redneck. Everybody had a gun and and the music of the day was blues. Alaskans weren’t at all prepared for the space music and the cascades of echoed notes that Joel was doing. So the two guys from Boston said, “Well, why don’t we go across country to Boston? It’s September, everybody’s going back to school. There’s all kinds of colleges in Massachusetts and they’ll understand you.”

So we all loaded in a VW bus and drove cross-country, landed in Boston in September of 1972 and, again, we were shocked to discover how conservative Boston was. We had no money at that point because the Bostonian roadies had decided that Joel wasn’t actually ever going to do this. They lost faith in the whole operation, so they pulled out their support and so Joel and I ended up pawning all of his gear and living in a squat.

We lost everything except the helmet, which hadn’t been pawnable anyway, and started trying just to scratch out a living selling sketches I would draw and panhandling. Then Joel got into making collages and, for the next several years, I peddled Joel’s collages and my little pen and ink drawings for coins. We had a really hard time. Sometimes we’d pick wild apples from vacant lots or dig artichokes from backyards.

I had several accordions, but the best one was an Empire. We jokingly called it “The empire strikes back at poverty.”


For seven years my life consisted of getting up in the morning, going downtown and approaching people, which was just anathema to me because I dreaded people. I was so, so afraid to speak. All I could muster was, “Spare some change?” And if they would stop I would say, “Would you like to see my artwork?” Nine out of ten times, “No, thank you.” I was lucky; I was always pleased if they gave me a quarter or a couple quarters or a dollar even sometimes. Between the loose change and occasional sale, I would usually amass $17 or $18 before the day was over and I’d go home, we’d go to bed and I’d start over seven days a week. For seven years that was my life.

Then a miracle happened and I got pregnant, which I didn’t think was possible after so many years of not using birth control. I knew I had no business procreating under the conditions we were living in, but my animal instinct was just taking over and I also think subconsciously I wanted an ally. I wanted a reason to say, “No Joel, I’ve had enough of this beating the pavement. I want to be a mother. I want to have a nest and a little baby to hold.”

The Space Lady - Major Tom

My mind started working after that. “How can I make a living? How can I make money and be true to my muse, be true to our counterculture and objection to the establishment and the war machine? How can that be done?” Around that time Joel found this beat-up old accordion in a junk shop. He was crazy over instruments, he didn’t play anything but guitar but he wanted anything he could get his hands on, drums, melodica, jazz harp, thumb pianos, violins. Even if they were broken, he wanted them around.

I didn’t know how to play accordion and neither did Joel, so it sat around in the apartment for months until I started thinking, “Well, it has a keyboard on that one side. I wonder what the buttons do.” I picked it up and, sure enough, the keyboard was just like a piano. “Oh my gosh, there’s the three chords, just like on guitar.” I could play “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” and “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” and just a few little ditties and with much, much persuasion I finally talked Joel into letting me take it downtown instead of the artwork. He was worried that I would be robbed, not of the money but of the accordion, his precious accordion.

I took it down to Park Station and I stood at the top of a long staircase so people would be rushing by and not hear too much. And, sure enough, it was like magic. I quickly amassed $20 in change, and then this elderly couple stopped and listened and they put a $20 bill in my box.

I went home with $40, and that’s all it took to convince Joel that it was a good move. I played every day on that old beat-up accordion until I was able to afford a better one. I had several accordions, but the best one was an Empire. We jokingly called it “The empire strikes back at poverty.” And it did. It really sounded better. It also looked more respectable, so people started seeing me as a serious street musician, even an evolving one to the people who’d known me as a street waif and suddenly saw this transformation. “Oh, she’s trying something. This isn’t just begging, this is giving, this is offering.”

The Origins of Space Lady

I played accordion for a couple of years, and then I started realizing that I would maybe attract more attention if I sang. I started singing, but I couldn’t be heard over the accordion and so Joel suggested we get me a little mic and a little belt pack amplifier, a little tinny thing. And, sure enough, it turned more heads and I was making a little more money. Then Joel came up with the idea of a Radio Shack reverb, just a little more presence to my voice. We spent $40 on that. It was a big investment, but now I was sounding really kind of neat. It’s amazing what a little reverb can do to the flat tone of the naked voice.

About that time I had the misfortune of having a drunk come swoop by me when I was packing up my accordion to go home and he grabbed the accordion out of the box. He started swinging it around his head by the strap, and then he let go and it crashed into a concrete wall. I went home in near tears. I was just flabbergasted. “What now, what could I do now?” Joel in his infinite resourceful mind said, “Well, you still have your mic and your reverb unit and your amp. Just go out and sing. You don’t need an instrument.”

It was about Thanksgiving time and he said, “iIt’s a little early but start singing the Christmas carols. People will love it.” I was just horrified, “Are you kidding me? I’m not going to go out there and sing without my accordion. What do you think I am, brave or something?”

The winged helmet just seems to speak to more people in how it carries the message from the gods.

I didn’t have an alternative, so the next day I went downtown and stood on a porch of a church I think and just started singing “Away in a Manger” through that little bit of a reverb. I was down in the financial district, and it really sounded strangely austere and beautiful. I could hear it was beautiful, and sure enough people... Well, people in Boston are very generous at the holidays. They really take charity seriously during the holidays and they were so kind to me and encouraging.

“Oh, that sounds so beautiful. Oh, I didn’t know you could sing that that.” Money was pilling up and I just sang all the way through the Christmas season and then on Christmas Eve. In one day I made $200, which was the price of the new Casiotone that had just come on the market and was being played by another street musician.

I liked the MT-40 because it had 22 different voices, from guitar to banjo to cello and flute. The instrument was drawing its own crowd. That evolved into having a tripod keyboard stand and a little tip box with twinkling lights and a picture inside. A little twinkling flower in my hair later evolved into Joel saying, “Susan, why don’t you wear my winged helmet? You’ll really stop traffic.”

“Ah, you’re kidding me, that’s a man’s helmet. No, you’re not serious.” “Just this one time, just wear it one time, see what happens.” “All right, but just this once,” and it did stop traffic. Oh my gosh, people would just... They were mesmerized. Trains would go by and people would point, “Look, look, look,” and laugh and suddenly... Suddenly I got the joke. It was so funny, the winged helmet with the big red blinking ball on top like, “What a bright idea.”

It became my mainstay and pretty much my logo, although I did try other hats that Joel devised for me as you might see on my website. There’re pictures of the record hat and the birthday cake hat, but the winged helmet just seems to speak to more people in how it carries the message from the gods.

Back to California

We finally had enough money to get back to San Francisco. When I got there people started asking me who I was, “What’s your name?” I’d say, “Susan.” “No, what’s your stage name?” I was at a loss. “What do you mean? I don’t have a stage. Why should I have a stage name?”

Then people were offering me $100 to play for a party and what I’d experienced in Boston was magnified tenfold. So I started toying around with it. It probably took two years or so before I finally came up with the Suzy Sounds.” I thought, “Well that’s kind of catchy, easy to remember.” Not so much. People would call me Suzy Tunes or Suzy Songz. Anything but Suzy Soundz, especially with the z, like I wanted it spelled. Then there was a contest and the best street musician was one of their categories. I came in second place and they called me The Space Lady, so that caught on and stuck.

I played a few shows. But I would often turn shows, interviews and radio shows down, mostly because Joel forbade it. He still was undercover and paranoid. Even after Jimmy Carter pardoned the war resisters, he was still so untrusting of the government and the CIA and the FBI that he could never emerge again. He was afraid I would blow his cover if I did, so we kept a low profile all that time.

The Space Lady Live in San Francisco

We were living in a squat on Buchanan Street in 1987. Up above us in the habitable part of this three story apartment was a young man who had just bought a whole set-up of digital recording equipment and he wanted some practice using it. Joel was very outgoing and befriended everybody in the building, so he offered to record a tape for me while feeling his way around his equipment and doing us a favor in the meantime. That is what is now The Space Lady’s Greatest Hits.

His mouth dropped open and he said, “You have to do this again, you must bring The Space Lady back. This is so unique.”

The Return of The Space Lady

I gave up playing music on the street in the year 2000 because I thought I’d said my piece. I was playing mostly cover tunes from generations previous, and I thought it was time to pass the torch to the younger musicians, combined with the fact that my parents were approaching 90 and needing help back in Colorado.

I left Joel, I left California and I left The Space Lady behind and took care of my parents until they died. All that time I continued to get emails from people around the world, including one from Irwin Chusid, who wanted to put one of my tracks on his compilation album of “outsider music.”

I’d never heard the term before, but boy I loved it. It just really rang true. “That’s what I’ve been, I’ve been an outsider and especially an outsider musician.” I gave him permission and he really broke ground with the release of that second Songs in the Key of Z album. Suddenly I was getting emails from around the world. Australia, Europe, Japan. I couldn’t even believe it.

It settled down eventually and I didn’t do much about it. I had my cassette turned into a CD so I could send them one. Then, in 2008, I met Eric [Schneider] online because he had posted some of his songs and I loved the simplicity of the structures and the lyrics were so positive and so poetic. So I reached out and contacted him and we started emailing and pretty soon we were talking on the phone and then he invited me to come visit him in New Mexico.

I drove down from Colorado, and we really hit it off and a year later we were married and Eric and I started playing his music together. I was accompanying him on my accordion and my flute and vocal harmonies. We played gigs in Pueblo, Colorado and some churches in La Junta and that was about it.

The Space Lady - Ghost Riders in the Sky

We lost interest in that after a while, but he noticed that I was still getting emails about The Space Lady. Finally after two or three years he was insistent that I tell him more about The Space Lady because I was still getting emails. He said, “You can’t tell me. You just have to set up and play.” Well, I didn’t have any of my instruments anymore. I’d left everything behind in California. My whole life had been left behind, everything but the helmet. Something told me I needed to really keep it. (“It might go in a museum someday, who knows?”) So I got my keyboard back from eBay and the phase shifter, and I launched into “Ghost Riders” because that’s the only song I thought I could remember. His mouth dropped open and he said, “You have to do this again, you must bring The Space Lady back. This is so unique.”

Eric said, “I’ll manage you. I will do all the business, all the money, all the negotiating, all the interacting with people, the stuff that you don’t like. I’ll be your manager and we’ll team up and do this.”

Oh my gosh, who knew? I not only have fans around the world but they’re mistaking me for some kind of rock star and they’re treating me like a celebrity or royalty even. They queue up for autographs after each show, and I had no idea. I got a record contract with Night School Records, and I now have a vinyl version of The Space Lady’s Greatest Hits, a CD and I’ve toured the world. I guess the sky’s the limit. All this at the age of 67. So don’t give up. Don’t give up, you just never know.

By The Space Lady on January 11, 2016

On a different note