They Showed Me Their Instruments of Recording
photo: Fernando Natalici
The Art of Copernicus in Five ActsConrad appeared on two Copernicus LPs, Deeper and Null, after which, as stated in No Borderline's notes, Smalkowski decided to go stage-solo. The abovementioned tour is cited by Copernicus in the lattermost CD, but in this way: he says the musicans had become ill at some point, and he found the solo gig put him into a greater degree of intimacy with the audience. If we were to read into that, we might find that ‘ill' meant “mentally ill” and that he was tired of working with flaming bungholes. Despite Conrad's many vilifications, which were by this time well known, having been in print for three years, Copernicus yet acted the gentleman. Who, then, may we suppose was full of shit and who innocent of charges? At any rate, while many other long-time musicians appeared on No Borderline, Conrad was conspicuously absent.
by Mark S. Tucker, continued
Someone who does appear, though, is stalwart Larry Kirwan, the guitarist. Kirwan's mildly interesting, playing a decent guitar and serving as the nucleus of several groups existing above and beyond his tenancy in Copernicus' band, side efforts that, while stone unknown on the Pac Coast, apparently had some degree of fame in New York and the tri-state area - either that or it's yet another case of self-aggrandizement to cover for a deeply detested embarassing obscurity, a fashion currently all the rage and exemplified nauseatingly on the West Coast by fellow ex-hippie/glamtwist/punker Johnny Carmone-Angel-Wendell, a cut-rate L.A. scribe and talk show host, glaringly Kirwan's soul brother. Kirwan penned a semi-fictional account entitled Green Suede Shoes - An Irish-American Odyssey, pawning his heritage for whatever diversity-gold it might cadge while purporting to preserve the NY punk scene, um, novelistically.
In it, he mentions Copernicus at odd moments but what might Kirwan's life-gig have been? Well, to read about punk is akin to excavating a lerper's feet for toe jam so the adventure hasn't been taken by anyone I know; if you, too, are spectacularly uninterested, you're not alone. The potential demerits of literary efforts can as easily be seen in statistics as in hazarding a perusal of said magnum jokus. The Amazon page for this brick is trying hard to move the damn thing, slashing the list price 30%. Why then is it not selling? Well, another almost unnoticed fact is the real cause for dread: Green Suede is one of the biggest returners available. Most tomes on Amazon also have one, or perhaps several, used copies for sale - Kirwan's boasts nearly 50! As was opined of Peter Frampton's Comes Alive LP: the damn thing shipped gold and returned platinum. Ouch! But that's not all. Kirwan emitted a predecessor novel, Liverpool Fantasy, as well. That one's selling for $1.84, against a list of $15. I'm searching my thesaurus for a synonym to ‘ignominious.'
To run an article purporting to chronicle Copernicus' trek but out of seven Freudian pages, end up with about four column inches on the guy, the writer monkeywrenching everything, was the height of inane editorial discretion, saved only by the fact that the tampon published across town, David Ciaffardini's Sound Choice, was even worse. Conrad's article wasn't as much as cursorily checked, just run as-is. Pathetic.
If you, in that period, knew nothing of the bizarrely brilliant Copernicus, look to the above for the explanation, then travel across the hall and flip the radio DJs the bird. While Smalkowski was prized for years on the indie air circuit, receiving quite decent rotation on college stations, the moment trends shifted, the disc spinners dropped him like yesterday's cod, moving on to follow lures Warner Bros. was setting for all and sundry, hunting in the grounds where artists formerly shrieked about how much it loathed exactly what it now stripped and undulated for.
Fortunately, though, while twits like Conrad eventually found their rightful place busting suds at Barney's Beanery, Copernicus yet prowled the shadowy fringes, surprising followers with a new disc this very year (2005).
Act 3: GUTENBERG'S GHOST:
Copernicus as Author
A new disc? Yes and no. Immediate Eternity had been a flawed gem, owing to engineering problems and II was the resolution. However, let's backtrack a bit and uncover why this unique feat of reissuing a previous LP in a new take - something never done before - was so vital to the artist. Four years earlier, he'd produced a book on his philosophy of nullity and atomic reality, Immediate Eternity, after which the CD had been titled, a strangely engaging tome falling somewhere between science, autobiography, rant, and the oddly captivating writings of an earlier mentioned religious commentarist: Nisargadatta Maharaj.
Though Copernicus is no one's acolyte, his viewpoint's abundantly Zen-slanted somewhat in a vein with modern Buddhists Ken Wilber and Philip Kapleau, authors trying to relate the higher stratosphere of consciousness in comprehendable terms, unlike Maharaj, who fascinates through obliquity. Copernicus though is convinced that only the atom holds truth and that “the way humanity has viewed itself for its entire history has been in error”. In this, he includes Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed and others as missing the point, with Democritus and perhaps a few others only accidentally stumbling into terra correcta.
Blasphemous? Not really, certainly no more so than any other intelligent mind that has posed solutions to the insoluble. After all, both the Christ and the Buddha were blasphemers in their day. Relating science as the proof of his ponderings, especially the Big Bang, Copernicus brings everything together many times, perhaps no better than in this passage:
“Only the discovery of the never indivisible changing subatomic particle can bring us an absolute authority. God could actually be the smallest nondivisable subatomic particle. This particle possesses infinite self-energy and it exists since it never changes, if such a phenomenon is possible. This particle has always existed throughout the entire Universe. It is the basic particle of which everything in the Universe is composed. Without that particle, we are condemned to chaotic relativity (we would be condemned to chaotic relativity, because in a world of constant change with particles moving at the speed of light, there would be nothing on which to hold or build. Nothing could exist).”
And it is precisely his point that nothing indeed exists, for that very fact. Before the incautious reader attempts to posit Luddite mentality, citing the seeming gaffe of predicating reality against an absence of change... that's exactly what the zennists and others have long pointed to and what science itself is bafflingly coming to the discovery of. Zen graphically represents reality as a circle with nothing in it - or, more to the point, with everything in it yet ultimately devoid of individually distinguishing characteristics. It's not that reality is a void but that it's void of any scrap of identity, with which Copernicus agrees.
Physically, his theory fits. The Big Bang occurred because of an incomprehensible compaction, after which the explosion was an orgy of creation. The point's hard to miss: this center directing the compaction of itself was the God particle and the explosion was just, as all religion cites, pure Creation. But wait a minute!, you may say, that's not the way it goes! Oh really? Well, how less figurative is this argument than one filled with talking snakes, seminal Edenic parents having only two sons who somehow find wives somewhere, hairy bearded thunderers more intensely venal than the most quintessentially pitiful humans, and the whole panoply of sick musings we call Christianity? Or, on the other side of the tally, how less credible is that than a set of Eastern idyllics espousing an inability to speak at all upon the subject in concrete terms while asserting that the new set of perceptual barriers they're bouncing their collective shaven psychic head against is the Alpha and Omega? You begin to see the problem.
The author has gone the route of all seekers, searching for what so few are able to put into such honestly Mertonic terms:
“I came one day to a dusty cantina and remembered and didn't know if I was doing right or wrong, but only knew that after I was tired and mind weary that perhaps I would be punished for my compulsive search to be joined in the ultimate moment that some miraculous event could take place, even as the brain and body were being assaulted, somehow the spirit would be set free in some wild and desperate gamble into somewhere.”
For him, that event occurred; thus, he now reflected the sentiments of the avatars when claiming that “[n]o human can truthfully stop and say ‘I am here!'." The Dalai Lama has spoken concerning this, showing how science has illustrated that we cannot determine where in space we are located, nor in what part of the body, if any, resides our essential I-ness. He, however, goes a little further than Copernicus, saying that the ancient scriptures are correct and all that exists are waves of light, even beneath the atom. Does this conflict with Copernicus' assertions? No. After all, Tenzin Gyatso would have to field the question “What's light made up of, then?” The answer, obvious from both he and Copernicus, is that existence seems to be a riddle of boxes within boxes within boxes within boxes within...
Copernicus calls what is otherwise seen as dualism "MAGOVA" and 'Illusiona.' The biggest difference between the two, the main impediment that keeps any from seeing reality, is a rootedness in identity; therefore Illusiona is that aberration while MAGOVA is the true perception that identity does not exist and that “there is BEING which is the nonstop spontaneous atomic expression through conscious and unconscious action.” Though Copernicus does not say so, this steps directly into one of the more frightening zen revelations: the claim that reality is recreated newly and completely thousands of time per second and that's what we see as motion and change. This action is, in our perceptions, like the still frames of a movie, run together to provide the illusion of a motion that's not really there, just a deception of the senses.
A chilling thought, completely non-human, yet Copernicus arrived at it just as the elder gurus had, agreeing in different terms, not in the least put off that the concord may not be seen. How could he be? It's reality. But the rest of us balk at such a bizarre notion. We don't like to entertain the concept that everything our lives are composed of is an inconceivably complicated succession of stills casting a weird glamour. Yet, if one checks into current string theory, the fractal sciences, and dimension research, one begins to see the welcome mat for the same thinking. In fact, there exists in science an adage that the composition of any event is affected by its perceiver, whether the perceiver is revealed or not. By these lights, how unusual are Copernicus' musings and revelations? In truth, not as much as they may at first seem, and that's what moves the open and inquiring mind, even the skeptic's, to come to be struck by his book. It's not for the squeamish or the lovers of dogma, but can't help but strike resonant chords otherwise.
Act 4 - DENOUEMENT?:
A Unique CD and...
Back to the new CD. Immediate Eternity II is, as said, a re-take on the disc from 2001 which shares the book's title. To my knowledge, other than live presentations - as in the Who's thankfully perpetual re-presentations of Tommy (all, goddammit, lacking the nonpareil “Underture”) - no one has dared a studio do-over of work already in the market, yet Eternity 2 is quite justifiable. The earlier disc showed Copernicus more relaxed than had ever been the case, no longer 100% perpetually engaged in fevered jeremiads, eschewing the dramas revolving around notorious fictional back-alley characters, instead inserting paeans to Man and the war between MAGOVA and Illusiona. Unfortunately, it had been preserved less than perfectly, containing distortion, mud, and other elemental flaws. This irked the artist and, understanding it to be a zenith statement, things needed to change.
In that freshly performed re-take, admirers can not only wallow in the contrasts between old and new but indulge every sonic omnivore's fetish for variations on themes. Much like such gems as King Crimson's Great Deceiver set, which bestowed multiple documentations on each of many songs, Immediate Eternity II yields new renditions of the previous CD. Once more, the guitar pyrotechnics of Cesar Aragundi can be enjoyed, ably abetted by the loungily delectable piano colorations of Newton Velasquez, with bassist and drummer providing rhyhmic baselines.
From the very first, Copernicus was never a singer but an orator, as finely honed and spookily affecting as the best any voice-talent house has ever come up with, a sprechstimme wundermensch. In this, especially when reviewing past pleasures, one is struck that when Hal Willner was creating his very dark Disney tribute Stay Awake, he never stumbled upon this guy, who easily outmatches the best of that select crew, save perhaps only for Tom Waits. Copernicus is the logically warped flipside successor to Ken Nordine (who was on Awake), not for bongo-beating hipsters but rather world-weary pissed-off Bedlamites. Once again, “The Stick” begins in a return of the Copernicus of yore, roaring out in Tiresian fashion, ceaselessly adumbrating outrages against Nature but collapsing into mellifluity, toning down the incandescent fury, ushering compassion and broadheartedness in. This is the essence of the new Copernicus.
Is it the last CD? It doesn't feel like it. He seems to have insisted on this event in order to reconstruct the stage for the next, to more elegantly reflect on man's baffling place in the universe, melding elder confrontationalities with profound respect and sympathy for those forced to dwell in ignorance.
But let's also skew a look to the side for a moment, re-hooking the Willner reference. One can't help but wonder what Copernicus' marvelous voice and inflectional abilities might lend to the previously mentioned audio-book world. Those who relish such things lick their lips at the possibility that some clever producer might possibly understand the unheard-of depths Copernicus could endow Poe or similar writers with. Commercial? Yes, but ungodly attractive to we who hope against hope for one mode of art being reflected well in another.
Until that and other unlikely events, though, the music connoisseur can only speculate that the four year gap between Immediate and this moment was just another long pause preceding a newer and stranger work. Art, in the day of Toilet-Seat DaDa Galleries, narrows with dismaying speed and we could use more true creatives.
ACT 5 - NEW WORDS:
Preparing for an interview with Copernicus is a bit unsettling. How does one go about a colloquy with a gentleman dismantling not only tradition but also taxonomy? Having read his book - a very pleasurable and mentally stimulating event despite its difficulties - the prospect of hitting the rounds of epistomology, phenomenology, and other realms of profoundly abstract metaphysics was a trifle daunting. Here, I've tried to stay decently within bounds that will not elude anyone curious enough to peruse the colloquy; if, however, parts of the conversation puncture that barrier, I can make no apology - to a degree, it was done purposely, to draw the reader out of consensus reality and expose him to what proceeds well beyond Kierkegaardian either/or double-binds. It may at moments get a bit thick, but it beats the pants off listening to some hair farmer extol his latest corporate sponsorship alongside fevered news of groupies pressing urgently for erotic attentions - as salaciously interesting as the latter may be - no?
Half the questions below addressed music and art, the remainder delved into Copernicus' philosophy of atomic nullity. The latter chases a very esoteric line of inquiry, yet arises properly from attentiveness to the content of his lyrics and what may have promoted their creation, elements in music not often addressed, modernly or otherwise, despite the manifold excellences of Keith Reid, Peter Sinfield, Richard Palmer-James, Jon Anderson, and many others.
It should be noted that I always write the overviews (above) before conducting the interviews. Thus, certain interesting disparities are explained.
PART ONE: ART
PSF: The bespectacled hippie on the cover of Nothing Exists was in complete contrast to the elegant gentleman shown on Deeper. What did the average audience see in early Copernicus performances and what do they see now?
COPERNICUS: The bespectacled hippie on the cover of Nothing Exists was actually, in the photo, performing for hippies, drug addicts, and muggers in a park on 8th street on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. These people were high, wild, and threatening, so I had to show I was wilder and meaner than they were. There were some standing at the foot of the stage with sticks. I think they softened up to me not only because I was wilder than they but also because I drew them into the pieces.
The elegant gentleman shown on Deeper was about five years later with a new evolution in the Copernicus concert where Copernicus actually left the stage briefly and changed clothing. Each concert had a possible six or seven clothing change. I am not sure what piece I was doing, but normally the only piece I did sitting at a table was "The Lament of Joe Apples." Normally, Joe Apples is done with worker's clothing, but I believe that, in this case, I made an exception. Everybody, no matter what class or social level they live on, bitches about his wife, his boss, and the frustrations of his life while he teaches his son in his own way.
The major difference in the two Copernicuses is that the first Copernicus never rehearsed. The music and words were made up spontaneously on-stage, maybe in a ten-minute conversation with the musicians before the show. We didn't even have an album when that concert was given. On the other hand, with the Deeper photo, there were already two albums released and the people always wanted to hear "Joe Apples." There were recorded pieces that we could draw upon. Like all artists, the earlier Copernicus was wilder, more spontaneous, and even more interesting on stage due to the greater extent of improvisation. Improvisation that works is the best thing in the world; improvisation that does not work is the death. It is much riskier to improvise on stage. A great deal of the old Copernicus stepped back when we did the tour of Eastern Europe, repeating the same concert in every city. We all missed the good old days of just being free and having fun.
PSF: Your live work has frightened timid souls, even amongst us critics, who already can count far too many fundamentalistic morons in our number. How much did reactive behaviors from the audience figure into your live expositions? Were, for instance, drunks pissed at the pugnacity of such confrontational presentations? Might conservatives have been alarmed at the anarchy? Did you field verbal or physical flak from socialites finding that feasting with panthers wasn't quite what they'd imagined?
COPERNICUS: The job of an entertainer is to take the feelings of the audience into consideration and generally make them feel good. The job of a serious artist is not to take the audience into consideration and just express himself or herself as if he or she were in a room all by themselves. The true artist expressing himself in front of an audience allows the audience to view this process. Once the artist crosses the line and starts to worry about the feelings of the audience, he is an artist who has become an entertainer. Copernicus has always tried to maintain the level of pure art with no consideration for the audience. Pierce Turner, in fact, once said that the performance of Copernicus was an attack on the audience. Copernicus has inspired and has attacked. Whatever it is.
PSF: How did you come to the attentions of the Judith Anderson Theater and SXSW?
COPERNICUS: The Judith Anderson Theater was just a theater on 42nd St. in Manhattan that I rented, doing my solo show for two weeks. As for SWSW, I met the founder in Berlin, and he invited me to do a solo show at the conference. I believe I performed there on two separate occasions.
PSF: How difficult was it finding musicians for your work?
COPERNICUS: It has never been difficult to find musicians. If I feel that there's a good vibration, we go into the studio. Musicians love to perform with Copernicus, because they get to be free in a world of total freedom; they generally have experiences that they never had before. They also grow as a result of one recording session. Black 47 was composed originally, and even today mostly, of ex-Copernicus musicians; in my opinion, they are still playing the music that I taught them to play. I showed them how to be free, how to improvise in freedom, and how be good at it.
PSF: What happened between you and Pierce Turner?
COPERNICUS: Pierce Turner has always been referred to as the Father of Copernicus' music and Larry Kirwan, now head of Black 47, is considered to be the mother of Copernicus' music. Nothing bad has ever happened between Pierce Turner and Copernicus. Pierce has his own career that he is interested in. He spends a lot of time in Ireland but also plays in New York City. If I called him today, he would love to play with Copernicus and I would love to have him. He has been a source of inspiration to Copernicus even until today. I call him "Pop."
PSF: Your writing process was at first either spontaneous or scripted - more the former than the latter - yet, had you not noted which was which, it's doubtful the listener could ever have known. Did you perform that way as a deliberate stream-of-consciousness effort or is that just the nature of your art and preference?
COPERNICUS: My faith in the stream of consciousness has always been high and, to this moment, stays high. New ideas and emotions for me come through spontaneity. When I got to a point where the stream of consciousness was weak, I had to rest. Stream of consciousness is like a well: if you take a lot of water from the well, it can run dry. It needs to replenish itself. I got to that point where all I had in me was a repetition of old material. That's why I spent three years writing that book, in which I was forced to dig deeper and, in digging deeper, beautiful, wonderful, new thoughts spontaneously came out, which I included. I'm about to start recording spontaneously again, because I believe the well is full once more. I have some of these thoughts hanging on a wall here: "Identity separates the mind from God," "Life is the same as non-life," “Humanity is an illusion created by its own nonexistent imagination," and "Infinite self energy". Stuff like this does not easily come from the top of your head.
See the final section of the Corpernicus article
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