An innovative guitarist and a true maverick of modern American music, Eugene Chadbourne has spent his career both undermining and energizing the contemporary rock scene, ignoring all of the barriers traditionally placed between folk, blues, country, jazz, and rock. In addition to working within these Western formats, he feels just as comfortable exploring the sounds of various other cultures, often incorporating Asian and Middle Eastern styles and instrumentation into his creations. Likewise, his trademark electric rake—a lawn rake fitted with a pickup—further demonstrates the musician’s knack for discovering new sound possibilities. “One of the things I liked about the music in the ’60s was how weird it got and how many sound effects were on the records,” Chadbourne told Los Angeles Times writer Josef Woodard. “I really missed that when we started weeding that out of rock.”
Because of his penchant for combining various forms, as well as inventing his own sound devices, critics find it difficult to place Chadbourne and his growing discography neatly within the scheme of American music. “He is many things at once: a hillbilly improviser, a self-made raconteur, a pop gemologist and a new music eclectic who mixes up jazz, folk, noise and neovaudeville,” noted Woodard. Nonetheless, the frizzy-haired Chadbourne has remained one of the underground community’s most famous and well-regarded eccentrics since the mid-1970s. In the 1990s, he found a wider audience surprisingly more receptive to his music than in the past, and enjoyed growing success. A man of self-reliance, Chadbourne regularly performs in odd places, such as record and book stores, as well as in smaller clubs and fringe music festivals. With no set lists, anything is liable to happen at a Eugene Chadbourne gig.
Chadbourne, born on January 4, 1954, in Mount Vernon, New York, grew up in relative cultural isolation in Boulder, Colorado. Even as an adult, he made his home base in the rural community of Greensboro, North Carolina, where he lives with his family. Raised by his mother, a refugee of the Nazi death camps, Chadbourne took up the guitar at age 11 after watching the Beatles perform on the Ed Sullivan Show. In high school, Chadbourne played covers of Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix with various bands. Hendrix, in particular, became an important influence, prompting him to begin experimenting with distortion pedals and fuzzboxes, as did protest singer Phil Ochs, an early rival to Dylan. However, Chadbourne soon grew tired of the conventions of rock and pop. Thus, he traded in his electric guitar for a Harmony six-string acoustic and learned to play bottleneck blues.
Jazz, too, served as an important formative discovery. First came exposure to John Coltrane and Roland Kirk, whose music puzzled him initially. Before long, however, Chadbourne found himself hooked on the whole catalog of the 1960s black jazz revolution. Some of his favorites included Charles Mingus, Eric Dolphy, Pharoah Sanders, and Omette Coleman, as well as England’s free improviser, Derek Bailey.
Despite his love for music, Chadbourne first chose to study journalism as a profession, a decision that many speculate was prompted by Ochs’s radical songs. Chadbourne further delayed his decision to take up music full time, and also derailed his journalistic pursuits, by exiling himself to Canada in order to avoid the Vietnam War draft. In 1976, President Jimmy Carter declared amnesty for conscientious objectors to the war, and Chadbourne returned to the United States and settled in New York City. Here he focused on his music in earnest, all the while making contact with other downtown performers. That same year, he released his debut solo album, Solo Acoustic Guitar.
After recording his debut, Chadbourne delved further into more experimental music, building connections in New York’s “loft scene” of avant-garde artists throughout the 1970s. In 1977, he played on Frank Lowe’s Lowe & Behold alongside Billy Bang. Around the same time, the guitarist met two of his most significant collaborators, visionary saxophonist John Zorn and West Coast-based guitarist Henry Kaiser, who both shared Chadboume’s inclinations to uncover the possibilities of purely improvisational music. Among the albums Chadbourne issued of his work are the now hard-to-find School and 2000 Statues: The English Channel. Also during these years, Zorn and Chadbourne, along with cellist Tom Cora, made notorious
Born on January 4, 1954, in Mount Vernon, NY; raised in Boulder, CO.
Started playing guitar at age 11; played Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix covers in high school bands; moved to New York City after a self-imposed exile in Canada, released debut solo album Solo Acoustic Guitar, 1976; played with avant-garde artists such as John Zorn and Henry Kaiser, 1970s; fronted the band Shockabilly, collaborated with younger bands such as Camper Van Beethoven, 1980s; continued to record and perform extensively, 1990s.
Addresses: Record company —Leo Records, 3 Larchmont St., Dorchester, MA 02124.
ventures into the Midwest with improvised country and western implosions.
Although Chadbourne became a leading figure on the improv scene, he returned to his initial interest in the folk tradition as well, taking a stand against corporate America and worldwide militarization and industrialization. He would often forsake his instrumental abilities in favor of a hard-hitting approach, living up to his personal vision of rock as a revolutionary form of expression. Through his myriad influences, Chadbourne soon carved out his own unique style, one comprised of protest music, free jazz, and noise experiments.
Throughout the following decade, he continued to collaborate with a variety of artists and explore various musical genres, releasing countless records with other musicians and a lengthy string of solo albums, most on his own Parachute label. One of his most recognized genre-bending projects included 1980’s There’ll Be No More Tears Tonight, a reunion with Zorn, which was an album Chadbourne self-styled as “Free Improvised Country and Western Be-Bop,” as quoted by Robert Murray in Rock: The Rough Guide. During the early part of the decade, Chadbourne also garnered some mainstream attention for his work as the frontman of Shockabilly, a rockabilly/revisionist outfit that also featured well-known producer and power grunge guru Mark Kramer. With Shockabilly, the East Coast reply to the Residents, Chadbourne tapped into the energy of rock music’s folk roots and made rock covers into noise rides.
After the group disbanded, Chadbourne released the folk/country album LSD C&W in 1987. That same year, he joined the band Camper Van Beethoven for a cover project. He has also recorded with musicians ranging from Fred Firth and Elliott Sharp to Evan Johns and ex-Mothers of Invention drummer Jimmy Carl Black, with whom he virtually rewrote the songs of Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart. Additionally, the guitarist is credited with giving greater musical validity to 1960s psychedelic bands through his deconstructed covers of songs by Tim Buckley, Love, Pink Floyd, and others.
While Chadbourne himself says he would like to be remembered as the inventor of the electric rake and the dogskull harmonica, his noisy guitar, intelligent songwriting, and left-wing political stance have made him a somewhat unexpected cult hero. However, as Murray pointed out, “Chadbourne is most compelling as a live performer, switching at ease from electric guitar to banjo, zipping through a tune that sounds totally improvised and yet recalls something buried in the collective folk memory, like a punk Burl Ives, whipping off his spectacles to scrape them down the fretboard, adding another dimension to his wonderfully pixilated sound.”
Solo Acoustic Guitar, 1976.
School, Parachute, 1979.
Chicken on the Way, Parachute, 1983.
The President: He Is Insane, Iridescence, 1985.
Corpses of Foreign War, Fundamental Music, 1986.
Country Protest, Fundamental Music, 1986.
Country Music of Southeastern Australia, RRRecords, 1986.
Calgary Exile, Parachute, 1986.
There’ll Be No Tears Tonight, Fundamental Music, 1980.
Vermin of the Blues, Fundamental Music, 1987.
LSD C&W, Fundamental Music, 1987.
Dear Eugene, Placebo, 1987.
Megadeath, Parachute, 1987.
Third World Summit Meeting, Parachute, 1987.
Camper Van Chadbourne, Fundamental Music, 1987.
Kill Eugene, Placebo, 1987.
The Eddie Chatterbox Double Trio Love Album, Fundamental Music, 1988.
Wichita, Kansas, Parachute, 1988.
Country Music in the World of Islam, Fundamental Music, 1990.
Worms With Strings, Leo, 1993.
Terror Has Some Strange, Alternative Tentacles, 1993.
Electric Rake Cake, Overtone, 1995.
Pachuco Cadaver/Jack & Jim Show, Fire Ant, 1995.
Jesse Helms Busted with Pornography, Fire Ant, 1996.
Patrizio, Victo, 1997.
End to Slavery, Intakt, 1997.
The Hellingtunes, Intakt, 1997.
Chadbourne Barber Shop, Airline 61, 1997.
Volume 2: Solo Acoustic Guitar, Rastascan, 1998.
Beauty & the Bloodsucker, Leo, 1999.
Environment for Sextet, Robi Droli, 2000.
Young at Heart, Leo, 2000.
I Talked to Death in Stereo, Leo, 2000.
Buckley, Jonathan and others, editors., Rock: The Rough Guide, Rough Guides Ltd., 1999.
Los Angeles Times, October 16, 1997; November 23, 1998.
All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (July 16, 2000).
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