Out of the Loop 02: Esther Lee

March 11, 2009
Esther Lee

Esther Lee

The cover of this album warrants explaining. Let me begin…*ahem*:

As the story goes (allegedly, the details are unknown publicly), Esther Lee recorded Where Glory Began from her hospital bed while suffering from an undisclosed terminal illness. In her time of grieving, she recorded a collection of songs – a sort of final lament for a life lived and a therapeutic acceptance of the unknowable passage into death (When this happened we do not know – the closest I can find to an “official” release date is 1974.)

The subject matter, and mystery surrounding this record, means that we can fall into the back story regardless of its validity. All we know of Ms. Lee is this half hour of music, featuring, exclusively, her wonderfully delicate voice. It feels like finding the private recordings of a family member you were, by sheer will of time, unable to meet – a small artifact that contains the most intimate account of a life passed.

The first 10 minutes are intensely immersive. I am especially taken, even still, by “Dust on My Picture Frame” – her delivery sounds painfully restrained.  The lyrics, tethered with regret and loss, convincingly sound like the meditations of a woman staring her own mortality in the face. You believe Esther, and if you listen closely between the gaps in her singing, you may even hear your heart breaking (if hearts actually broke, that is).

As the album progresses, though, things start turning kind of funny. It begins with the first name drop of the big man in the sky (you know the one), which seems to trigger what was apparently a suppressed urge Ms. Lee had for singing unrelenting, dehumanizing, and tone-shatteringly upbeat worship music. From track 5 onward, our initial impressions are betrayed in favor of elbow pushing suggestions that, especially in times of mortal certainty, we owe our lives to said big man. In the process, the hurt, torment, regret, and fear that we so irrevocably associate with dying are undermined completely.

This shift is not to say that the songs are illegitimate, or that Esther had not handpicked the tunes herself, but it does not settle well with me on many levels. The sequencing of tracks, firstly, is incredibly jarring. That it started sounding very remorseful and then shifted dramatically into more “optimistic” worship songs suggests that there may have been an agenda here, if not from Esther, than the people producing the material. There also appears to be moments in which the production value shifts (ie, the recording sounds less scratchy or there seems to be a pronounced echo effect on Esther’s voice.) This could possibly be post-recording techniques later added, but the discrepancy is undeniably suspicious.

It is possible the story is sound (I write about this record in hopes that it is), but with some of my past experiences with “underground” religious music (see Forrest McCullough ‘s Flight F-I-N-A-L and the New Creation’s Troubled), I would not put it past a select group of religious fanatics to pull a stunt like this, or worse, to exploit a woman who is in fact dying. Regardless, Where Glory Began is a mysterious little oddity that is worth the initial discovery, if only to carry on the mystery.

More information about this record – perhaps the most you can find on the net – is available on WFMU’s Beware of the Blog website, as well as the entire album in mp3 format.  Its guaranteed to kill the mood of any party (I know this from experience) so be sure to show your friends!

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Out of the Loop 01: Peter Grudzien

May 24, 2008

THe Unicorn

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.

Peter Grudzien

“[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.

For the musically adventurous, “The Unicorn” provides a thrilling, unexpected experience. Download it here. The lesser known “Garden of Love” LP is also available for download here.


Out of the Loop – An Introduction

January 7, 2008

Out of the Loop is a series that considers the roles of the socially outcast.  This will include, but is not limited to, outsider/folk artists, famed celebrities who exhibit culturally unacceptable behaviors, and surviving victims of extraordinary circumstance.  It is my goal not only to tell stories that I myself consider wonderful or fascinating, but to understand how and why it is we are able to look at these figures with such awe.  I hope you will enjoy me in my quest to not only learn about the strange world around us, but also, in understanding our own response, to learn about ourselves.  Remember this, if you will, that we are all people united by a common uncertainty.

Thank you, and enjoy.