(Personal Archives, 2016)
Composer, pianist, improviser, teacher, collaborator, activist, and all-around good guy Thollem McDonas is no stranger to the hallowed electronic pages of Critical Masses – we posted a review of Bad News from Houston’s In the Valley of the Couldbuilder, Thollem’s collaboration with Deerhoof’s John Dieterich, back in 2013, and he is one of only four select guests that I’ve interviewed (before I realized that interviews are time-consuming and I have precious little of that luxury, blah blah blah). He’s released a metric ton of records (literally, probably, if you put the entire run of each together on a forklift), and he’s collaborated with the likes of Nels Cline, Mike Watt, Pauline Oliveros, Arrington de Dionyso, Theresa Wong, Jad Fair, William Parker, and many, many others. Dude gets around.
As it seems to happen at the beginning of every year, Thollem’s lined up a bunch of new records, and I’ve combined into one column his two releases on Personal Archives. The first, Always Put On Your Sincere Face, is yet another collaboration on Thollem’s CV, but it’s perhaps the weirdest and most outlandish one to date. It’s potentially the pièce de résistance of collaborations, as somehow Thollem’s mastered the magic of communing with the other side. I’m speaking of course about the late Andy Kaufman, comedian, genius, and utterly fascinating study. (I happen to have loved Jim Carrey’s Man on the Moon, even though it followed the rote biopic formula of bullet pointing the highlights of Kaufman’s life; still, the film didn’t bother me because I got to see a version of Andy Kaufman on a screen!) Here’s the backstory on the record: Andy came to Thollem in a dream in the early oughts, and over the course of several nights, Kaufman “collaborated” (Kaufman’s term!) with Thollem’s subconscious, laying the foundation for what would become Always Put On Your Sincere Face years later. (It was Kaufman’s idea to wait until the time was right.) Thollem concocted the music, while Kaufman provided the framework for the rest. (The liner notes are a delight and further expound upon how this whole thing worked.) The result is a playful mélange of one artist living within and through another, each experiencing the other with mutual respect and admiration in a spirit of artistic discovery. It’s pretty safe to say that neither has participated before in an experience anywhere close to approaching one like this.
Thollem is an adept medium for Kaufman, reciting the words that the two of them worked on while providing a typically Thollem-ian virtuosic piano backdrop. Thollem is projecting a series of characters envisioned to be emanating from Kaufman, and it’s hard not to picture the late comedian performing similar musical songs in some sort of avant-garde one-man theatrical performance, likely confounding, as is the Andy Kaufman way, the very audiences he seeks to entertain (or punish). Tracks like “Advertising Exists to Create Needs That Don’t” are miniaturized grand statements presented humorously, as if the obvious wink and nod Thollem and Kaufman direct at the audience belie an ultra-serious challenge to examine what it is the two of them are actually talking about. But it’s not totally heavy – “Zero Bottles of Beer on the Wall” is the logical extension of Kaufman’s “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall” bit: instead of starting at ninety-nine and counting down to zero, Thollem starts at zero and goes into negative numbers, doing some mathematical gymnastics in the process (to me anyway – I’m a writer, not a numbers guy). And who could escape the truly Kaufman-esque humor of “We Couldn’t Think of a Good Song for This Title”? It’s just eleven seconds of audience applause. In fact, Always Put On Your Sincere Face is such an Andy Kaufman thing to do (release an album of material recorded actually after your death) that I’m not convinced in the slightest that Thollem’s not putting one over on us. I’m buying that this is the real thing, and that Andy Kaufman is behind it.
The tone shifts to Machine in the Ghost, Thollem’s solo record of piano pieces recorded with effects pedals given to him by John Dieterich. Gone is good-humored Thollem, replaced instead by social-activist Thollem, an equally engaging musical flip side of his personality. From the liner notes and song titles alone we get the idea that Thollem is engaging his audience in political discourse. The album is dedicated to his friend Rick Bennett, fellow activist/songwriter/poet/philosopher/actor John Trudell, and the Black Lives Matter movement. Tracks like “Freedom Hoarders,” “Pride, Prejudice, and Fear,” and the closing triptych – “Around Them, To See,” “The World For What It Is,” “And Move To Transform It.” – don’t leave much to the imagination that Thollem is bringing some loaded topics to his art, or perhaps it’s the other way around. At any rate, dense sound experiments collide with organ-based blues tracks, sometimes within the same song, and lend an oppressive atmosphere that mirrors our current social and political fora. All of this is exhibited with Thollem’s masterful control of his recording environment, and each piece becomes a bullhorn through which anti-oppression vibes are broadcast to all who would listen. Machine in the Ghost is a protest record, leavened with the sense of tribute to those who were in the fight but are no longer (see “For Nina Simone” and “For B.B. King”), and the spirit of justice and reconciliation pervades it.
These two totally disparate entries into Thollem McDonas’s catalog are great reminders of his fluidity as an artist – which should actually be pretty apparent given the vast spectrum of his collaborations. He diverges on these releases down two wildly different paths and proves adept at each. Again, his lengthy career should prepare us as listeners for pretty much anything – the Kaufman record was therefore a nice surprise, an indulgence in a remarkable inspiration. And Machine in the Ghost reminds us again of Thollem’s roots in social activism, and thus it tucks itself quite neatly into the canon. Acclimating yourself to such an extended discography is worth the payoff if you fit pieces like these two albums into the puzzle of Thollem McDonas.