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.


The Third Gender

January 13, 2008

A few days ago, my friend and I had happened upon a television series on National Geographic called Taboo. This particular episode explored a few culturally based perceptions of death, including beliefs of the afterlife and appropriate funeral practices to honor the life and death of the deceased. It was interesting, so I decided to explore some other topics the series has covered. The one that immediately caught my eye was Sexual Identity (go figure). Unfortunately, not having the National Geographic channel myself, I settled with a 3 minute clip online (posted, fittingly, through the NationalGeographic youtube channel) that talked about a group of Samoans called fa’afafine.

Fa’afafine are generally involved in sexual relationships with other males who are socially identified as heterosexual. Without the possibility of a child, however, these relationships are considered much more casual than those between one male and one female. Rarely do two fa’afafine become romantically involved, and relationships between a fa’afafine and a female are virtually unheard of.

While the National Geographic program, or rather a small piece of that program, had originally sparked my interest in what is often recognized as the “third gender” of Samoan culture, I found a minimal amount of information regarding the topic elsewhere. After some digging I happened upon an essay written a few years ago about the fa’afafine and how Western influence has come to redefine what exactly that word means.

Western notions of gay and transgendered are not interchangeable with the social role of the fa’afafine (there is, apparently, no specific Samoan term for “homosexual”). Gender in Samoa is defined by certain roles. Domestic duties, such as cooking and cleaning, for example, are generally assigned to women. Your labour is what defines you, both at home and in your community.

Interestingly, the overt sexuality and physical emphasis we see in modern fa’afafine, the essay argues, is largely the result of Western influence. Images of femininity through film provided a gender-specific physical ideal that many fa’afafine, and biological females, could use to advertise their sexuality. But also injected into the culture were Western concepts of homosexuality. Distinction between gay and straight were not an issue until recent years for Samoans, and in a nation with a resoundingly conservative Christian populace, ‘deviance’ in sexuality can be particularly frightening. So while the identity of the fa’afafine was once multifaceted, under the outsider lens it became almost exclusively sexually-based.

Does this strike anybody else as a little bit sad? These new terms threaten to marginalize the fa’afafine, who consider themselves firmly rooted in their community. Furthermore, filing fa’afafine under the same category as transvestites or transgendered persons because it is the closest our culture can get to “understanding” what they are is an unfortunate and misleading oversimplification.

It is strange, but necessary, to think about the ways in which language falls short. After all, our understanding of the world goes only as far as words can take us.