In 1974, while working as a graphic designer, Peter Grudzien quietly and independently wrote, performed, and recorded “The Unicorn”, a 14 song LP featuring an odd marriage of country and psychedelic music. Grudzien attempted to sell copies – of which there were a mere 500 pressings and no label involvement – in local bookstores and out of his briefcase after shows with little success.
To be fair, the record – a surrealist hillbilly psychedelic garage masterpiece exploring themes of religion, death, and sex – provided an uneasy space for most listeners to inhabit. The narratives contain often apocalyptic imagery. Distant tape manipulations echoing throughout songs like the epic “Kentucky Candy” sound like a choir of ghosts. Furthermore, the frequent allusions to homosexuality surely tested the average country listeners’ tolerance of gay culture at the time. The record went virtually unheard.
Grudzien was born and raised in Astoria, Queens, New York. In the 1950s, he developed a love for Christian and Hillbilly music, and soon found musical kinship in artists like Hank Williams and Johnny Cash. In the late ’50s, he started a band with which he wrote and recorded music.
As an art student in the early 1960’s, he developed a passion for Bob Dylan and hallucinogenic drugs, later documenting a peyote trip in his 1964 song “I Don’t Complain”. In 1969, he was involved in the Stonewall Riots, an event widely considered a precursor to the Gay Rights movement. He later recorded a song about the events, which began as a harsh criticism of the circumstances leading to the riots- claiming individuals were paid to incite violence – and eventually digressed into a paranoid claim that a government created clone was being used to erase his true identity (Grudzien apparently believed this clone theory to be true – he allegedly refused to give Johnny Cash one of his tapes because he believed he was a copy.)
A little over a decade after the apparent failure of “The Unicorn” LP, it was rediscovered by Paul Major, a collector/archivist and small label entrepeneur. A few years later, he met Grudzien in person.
“[I met him] in a downtown drag bar. He was like something out of the Addams family: really tall and skinny, in an obviously slept in tuxedo, 55 years old. He wanted me to go out to his car and listen to this song he’d recorded the morning before, and when we walked down the sidewalk in Greenwich Village, every head turned on both sides of the street! I got into the car, it was covered with cigarette stains and grease and smelled strongly of gas – I was afraid that when he turned the key in the ignition to play the tape deck, the car would explode. He turned out to be a walking encyclopedia of early country music, he had met a lot of big country stars.”
Grudzien remains unaware of his music’s strangeness by societal standards, a mark of a “true” musical outsider. “[He] doesn’t realize exactly how his music is perceived as being so strange. He’s still trying to break into the Nashville Country scene in a normal sort of way,” explains Major.
Though only two LPs (“The Unicorn” and “Garden of Love”) are commercially available through the Subliminal Sounds record label, Grudzien claims to have written over 900 songs throughout his career. He apparently still records and independently distributes music at his incredibly rare live gigs.