Singer/Songwriter, Artist, Goddess Worshipper, Not Necessarily in That Order
Forty-Three False Starts
By Kurt Wildermuth
1. "There are places in New York," the New Yorker Janet Malcolm once wrote, "where the city's anarchic, unaccommodating spirit, its fundamental, irrepressible aimlessness and heedlessness have found especially firm footholds." The one-story junk shop that used to stand at the northeast corner of 43rd St. and 9th Ave. wasn't one of those places--except perhaps in its dustiest corners--but now and then you could find something worth buying there.
2. At a funky junk shop at 43rd & 9th I bought a sealed copy of an LP I knew nothing about. On the front cover was an extremely blurry black-and-white photo of a face on which someone had drawn dots for eyes and a curve for a smile. The front cover hadn't been defaced; the handwriting was part of the artwork and had been reproduced. The artwork was a little creepy, a little funny, a little sarcastic, and so inviting that it was hard to stop looking at.
3. When I say I knew nothing about the sealed LP I bought in a Hell's Kitchen establishment that purveyed used jewelry, watches, books, records, and bric-a-brac, I'm exaggerating as a rhetorical strategy. I knew the artist's name was Paul McMahon, because his name was printed on the cover.
4. When I say I knew nothing about the sealed LP I bought in a Hell's Kitchen junk shop except the artist's name, I'm exaggerating, downplaying my knowledge, for rhetorical effect. I also knew the album's title, because the artist's name appeared on the cover, and the album was self-titled: Paul McMahon.
5. When I say I knew nothing about the sealed LP I bought in a Hell's Kitchen junk shop but the artist's name, Paul McMahon, and the album's title, Paul McMahon, I'm exaggerating. I also knew the album was released by Neutral Records, whose address was 415 Lafayette St., NYC 10003.
6. When I bought a sealed copy of the eponymous LP by the artist Paul McMahon, I didn't open it and wasn't sure I would. These days, sealed albums can sell for more money than open copies, so I filed this record in my collection and did some online research on McMahon.
7. When I call Paul McMahon the artist Paul McMahon, I'm being ambiguous as a rhetorical strategy. Paul McMahon was the recording artist who released a self-titled LP in 1986, but he was also the fine artist who created the LP's cover image. At his website (paulmcmahon.tv), McMahon notes that he won a design award for the album cover.
8. The singer/songwriter Paul McMahon's eponymous LP was released by Neutral Records in 1986. Neutral was an independent record label at 415 Lafayette St. in Manhattan, although calling it a label seems grandiose. Owned and operated by the art curator Josh Baer and the composer Glenn Branca, Neutral existed from 1982 until 1987, and its twenty releases included Sonic Youth's first, eponymous EP and first LP (Confusion Is Sex), Swans' Filth, Branca's Symphony No. 3 (Gloria), and the aforementioned McMahon record, his debut.
9. The composer Glenn Branca emerged from Downtown Manhattan's no wave music and art scene. In the late 1970s, no wave artists such as Teenage Jesus and the Jerks (fronted by the singer Lydia Lunch), the Contortions (led by the singer and saxophonist James Chance), and DNA (featuring the keyboardist Robin Crutchfield and the guitarist Arto Lindsay) had been influenced by the noise, power, mayhem, confrontationalism, and do-it-yourself attitude of punk rock. They wanted to smash things up even further than the punks had. No wave music was deliberately nonmusical, even nonartistic. By the early '80s, artists such as Branca, Swans, and Sonic Youth were finding--or pointing out--that no wave wasn't the dead end it seemed but a route to larger, louder, more pulverizing noisefests. Out of that scene also came visual art in various genres.
10. The composer Glenn Branca was once in a band, Daily Life, that included the artist Paul McMahon. McMahon was subsequently in a band, A Band, that included the drummer, percussionist, engineer, and producer Wharton Tiers (best known for work with Sonic Youth, Glenn Branca, Helmet, and Dinosaur Jr.). A Band is among the no wave performers documented in Ericka Beckman's film 135 Grand Street New York 1979 (2009). By the early 1980s, McMahon had become the singer/songwriter he remains to this day.
11. Is it fair to say that Paul McMahon remains the singer/songwriter he had become by the early '80s? What changes has he undergone? According to a 2018 ARTnews article about him, McMahon believes that "it takes a while to figure out who you really are."
12. The singer/songwriter Paul McMahon sometimes performs as the Rock 'N' Roll Therapist. This persona, as McMahon puts it at his website, "makes up songs about problems audience members are having" and thus reportedly solves those problems. So if you see him perform, he explains, watch out what you tell him. You might lose a problem.
13. According to a 2018 ARTnews article about him, the artist and singer/songwriter Paul McMahon worships and has been visited by the Goddess. That is, he believes "in the Goddess as much as I can believe in something. . . . When she speaks in my head, I know whatever I think is not as right as whatever she thinks."
14. According to the singer/songwriter Paul McMahon's Bandcamp page, McMahon came "from a musical family" and "explored folk, jug, blues and rock" before "quitting music at 20 for art, returning as a punk rocker at 27." He then undertook a long personal quest "in search of the real real deal; the songs becoming a diary of psychological and spiritual experience."
15. If you visit the singer/songwriter Paul McMahon's Bandcamp page and sample his album Hymn to Her, don't miss "Liza Jane," "We're All Angels," and the stunningly beautiful "You're My Guts."
16. According to the artist Paul McMahon's website, his musical vision was transformed in 1977, when he heard the singer/songwriter Jonathan Richman. Richman is famous for having been an early, ardent fan of the seminal New York band the Velvet Underground in the 1960s; fronting the seminal Boston rock band the Modern Lovers in the early '70s; then, after a trip to Bermuda, going acoustic and getting increasingly quiet so as not to hurt babies' ears. By 1977, Richman had settled into his loveably eccentric acoustic rock and roll style, which is presumably what set McMahon on his current musical path. When I saw Richman perform a few years ago, he, like McMahon, seemed to be on a spiritual journey. Young rockers turn corners to end up old sages dispensing what some call crazy wisdom.
17. According to the artist Paul McMahon's website, McMahon was "the first person to book" shows at New York's legendary and influential venue the Knitting Factory. This would have been at the club's original location, on E. Houston St., around 1987.
18. If I open an article with a statement from the writer Janet Malcolm about "places in New York," I'm quoting Malcolm's "Forty-One False Starts." Published in The New Yorker's July 11, 1994, issue and available online at https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/1994/07/11/forty-one-false-starts, Malcolm's piece was a profile of the artist David Salle. Salle has long had an association with the artist, singer/songwriter, and Goddess worshipper Paul McMahon.
19. At his website, the singer/songwriter, artist, and Goddess worshiper Paul McMahon says that as the curator of Project Inc., a series of shows in Cambridge, MA, in 1972-75, he gave David Salle his first solo show.
20. A 2018 ARTnews article about the artist, singer/songwriter, and Goddess worshipper Paul McMahon shows The Valley of Art, a 1982 painting by McMahon and his then partner and collaborator, Nancy Chunn. Among the artists depicted in the valley are McMahon and Chunn's "contemporaries" Julian Schnabel and David Salle.
21. A 2009 exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Pictures Generation, 1974-1984, celebrated work by a "tightly knit group of artists" associated with New York's storied SoHo art scene, including Glenn Branca, Barbara Kruger, Sherry Levine, Robert Longo, Paul McMahon, Richard Prince, David Salle, and Cindy Sherman. These artists are known for their pop-culture referentiality and appropriation. According to the Wikipedia page about this exhibit, two artists not included, Julian Schnabel and Eric Fischl, should in fact be thought of as members of the Picture Generation.
22. The artist, singer/songwriter, and Goddess worshipper Paul McMahon runs the Mothership, an event space and bed-and-breakfast in Woodstock, NY. According to (the webpage for the Mothership, McMahon "love[s] swimming in mountain streams, beauty, creativity and nurturing." He has "worn a lot of hats; artist, musician, producer of satirical stickers, buttons, magnets, etc." His "favorite singer songwriters are michael hurley and bob dylan." (He has also created and sold cat toys, published a book of potato jokes, and single-parented twin daughters. For more information, visit his website.)
23. Having found the singer/songwriter, artist, and Goddess worshipper Paul McMahon an intriguing character with a story worth writing about for the long-running music webzine Perfect Sound Forever, and having discovered that McMahon's self-titled debut LP doesn't sell for a lot of money, I made the fateful decision to remove the shrink wrap from my copy.
24. On his eponymous LP, the singer/songwriter Paul McMahon performs songs he wrote by himself or in collaboration with the artist Nancy Chunn. According to Discogs, the style of this recording is "Art Rock, Punk."
25. If I claim that when I bought the Paul McMahon LP I knew nothing about it but the artist's name, the album title, and the name and address of the record label, I'm being deceitful. The artist's name, Paul McMahon, is on the front cover in the form of the album title, Paul McMahon. The record label's name and address are on the back cover, printed in black on a red dot, between photos labeled Josh and Glenn. But in fact, the back cover is decorated with red dots of various sizes, each with black printing on it. The red dots are a variation on red dot artworks that McMahon has exhibited. Here, they deliver information about the album, such as the musicians' names and photos and the song titles. One dot gives "special thanks to Nancy Chunn and Eric Fischl." The latter artist financed this album.
26. If I tell you the names of the musicians who played on the singer/songwriter Paul McMahon's eponymous debut album, released by New York's Neutral Records in 1986, they most likely won't mean much to you unless you were involved in the Downtown Manhattan avant-garde music scene of that time or you're a connoisseur of its cultural products. At Discogs, most of these people have a single credit: they appeared on Paul McMahon.
27. When you remove the shrink wrap from a 35-year-old album, it can be more like peeling layers of calloused skin than like taking an item out of a bag. Parts of the shrink wrap can remain stuck to the cover and to your fingers during the removal process. Proceed with caution. Using tape to remove bits of shrink wrap may also remove some cover, such as the red pigment from the dots. This situation is a perfect example of why LPs shouldn't be left in shrink wrap. At the same time, as documented or even reified by the project We Buy White Albums by the artist Rutherford Chang, time and events leave their marks on artifacts such as album covers, and we should consider such marks parts of the works or at least of the covers.
28. Luckily the good people at Neutral Records, Josh and Glenn and their minions if they had minions, spent the money to put the Paul McMahon LP in a plastic, not paper, inner sleeve. So when I unsealed my 35-year-old copy, the record emerged from the sleeve in pristine condition, not covered with detritus from dried-out and disintegrating paper. Luckily, too, despite whatever storage conditions, such as heat and tight packing, led to the shrink wrap's becoming affixed to the cover like skin, the LP itself was not warped. Warping is another peril long-sealed vinyl faces. Or perhaps it's another peril faced by record collectors. Vinyl faces no perils, being inanimate.
29. The Paul McMahon LP originally came with a black-and-white lyric sheet that shows the artist, Paul McMahon, in various guises, a bit like Nick Lowe on the cover of Pure Pop for Now People aka Jesus of Cool (1978) but with tongue less firmly in cheek and more desire to purely entertain. McMahon wears a short-sleeved polka-dotted shirt and holds a cat in his mouth; wears a dark top and holds a guitar upright, in a photo by the artist Robert Mapplethorpe; wears a tuxedo and plays a guitar; holds open his short-sleeved button-down to reveal a T-shirt bearing the image of a many-limbed figure (a goddess?); and wears a neckerchief, a striped shirt, and a vest, while playing a guitar. There's also a small photo of a turtle with its tongue hanging out.
30. The labels of the Paul McMahon LP reproduce the red-dot motif of the back cover.
31. To a record collector, few things are more beautiful, exciting, or full of promise than the pristine grooves of a new or well-cared-for vinyl LP. A 45 or 12" or 78 can excite the senses as well, but not as much because there are fewer grooves and fewer, if any, bands between grooves, and the grooves are bigger. It's sort of like the difference between looking at one's own smaller pores and one's larger pores, although pores aren't a manufactured means of representing and yielding aesthetic experience.
32. Just as a tour through the detailed personal history at the artist Paul McMahon's website or the capsule version of that history presented in the 2018 ARTnews article about him speaks to the man's eclecticism, so listening to his debut, self-titled album proves an intriguingly disorienting experience. It's hard to pin down what he does. This much is certain: He does not do the "Art Rock, Punk" promised by Discogs.
33. If you like the earliest recordings by Sonic Youth, Swans, and Glenn Branca, don't seek out the debut, eponymous album by their Neutral Records labelmate Paul McMahon thinking it will sound anything like those artists. If you're familiar with the catalog of New York's Shimmy-Disk label you might feel more at home with McMahon's album, which at his website he describes as "eclectic pop."
34. Paul McMahon's opening track, "Top Hat and Yellow Balloons," promises that the album will provide weird fun. "You said you didn't mean to harm me / But you had to join the Salvation Army." This song presents a Buddy Holly vibe until, toward the end, a surprising key change takes place, dissolving into dissonance as the song becomes a sonic submarine heading underwater. Later on the record's first side, "Emotional Tidal Waves" makes a similar underwater move, as the initial Lou Reed-ish languidness acquires tuba (played by Dave Hofstra, of the Contortions) and background vocals (by Denis Pessar and Kate Amendola).
35. Some tracks on Paul McMahon bring to mind other artists. The girl-group-meets-surf-rock of "Maybe" might be McMahon's fellow New Yorkers and CBGB's denizens Blondie on their second album, the downbeat Plastic Letters (1977); or Shelley Fabares's pop classic "Johnny Angel" (1961) or Little Peggy March's pop classic "I Will Follow Him" (1963) if either one were remixed by the team of filmmaker and recording artist David Lynch and composer Angelo Badalamenti for a Twin Peaks soundtrack. "Don't You Cry" is pure Beatles circa 1964-65, not pastiche, not faux-innocent; or something on Yo La Tengo's pop-covers collection Fake Book (1990), a little faux but with its heart in the right place. Indeed, McMahon's big heart is in the right place all over this album. "I Thought I Heard You on the Radio" is more '60s pop, maybe a less Texan Doug Sahm. "Because I'm a Fool" is a less Texan Willie Nelson, which might make it Ricky Nelson; or moody revivalist Ben Vaughn, or Nick Lowe without the acid wit. If you're thinking roots rock, then bingo! Fans of the Blasters will have--sorry, can't resist--a blast. A small one.
36. The closest that the singer/songwriter Paul McMahon's Paul McMahon comes to pastiche is on "Senorita," which seems connected to the Mexican garb the artist wears playfully on the album's lyric sheet. This track opens quietly, with piano and tuba presenting something like Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata, until operatic vocals emerge (by Stefanie Congiano). Just when you think that this faux-opera is the track, a drum roll brings in a Los Lobos-style canción sung, not mockingly, by McMahon.
37. Each side of the singer-songwriter Paul McMahon's eponymous debut album includes a short instrumental "interlude": one called strange and one called mysterious. Each suggests sound effects, movie-soundtrack percussion (by the album's producer, Mark Valenza). And indeed, "Mysterious Interlude" became a video starring the artist Cindy Sherman.
38. Perhaps the two masterpieces on Paul McMahon are side 1's "Diamonds" and side 2's "My Wish." The former draws on the early '60s pop classics "Be My Baby" (by the Ronettes), "Then He Kissed Me" (by the Crystals), and "Up on the Roof" (by the Drifters), plus a ringer, "The Ocean" (by the seminal New York rock band the Velvet Underground; recorded in 1969 but not officially released until 1985, although the band's leader, the song's composer, Lou Reed, released a version on his 1972 eponymous solo debut). However, Paul McMahon's "Diamonds" is no throwback or joke. Talent and craft went into its atmospherics, from McMahon's lovely singing (shades of Roy Orbison) to the finger snaps, cello (by Peter Lewy), piano, and acoustic guitar solo (by McMahon). The latter is the one track on this collection that sounds like Downtown New York rock, maybe a less manic The Scene Is Now crossed with a less adenoidal Television, with echoing vocal and repeating guitar lick. It also sounds like a distant cousin of the B-52's "Rock Lobster," and positing Paul McMahon on this album as a one-man B-52's helps explain the watery thematics.
39. On "Turtles," the 45-second final track on his debut album, the singer/songwriter Paul McMahon delivers a gem that suggests a childlike outsider artist doing a '50s ditty:
Turtles travel slower on asphalt
It takes their little feet longer to grip
They travel at a slower clip
It's not their fault
A less childish and far less mentally ill Daniel Johnston comes to mind. Also imagine Jandek if he could sing, play or even tune a guitar, and write songs.
40. In addition to an eponymous LP released by New York's Neutral Records in 1986, the singer/songwriter Paul McMahon has an eponymous CD, Mr. Paul McMahon, self-released in 1990. His eponymous 1986 LP is also available on CD. Don't be confused by the overlap of these titles, one of which includes Mr. and one of which doesn't. Check to see which album you want. Double-check. But it's possible you can't go wrong with either one.
41. The singer/songwriter Paul McMahon has released many recordings, as a solo artist and in bands, but only two of those releases are eponymous.
42. In the fortieth false start of her "Forty-One False Starts" (1994), the writer Janet Malcolm refers to an "art of fragments, quotations, absences--an art that refuses to be any one thing or to find any one thing more interesting, beautiful, or significant than another."
43. While I was writing about the eponymous debut album by the singer-songwriter, artist, and Goddess worshipper Paul McMahon, the photographer and teacher Barbara Ess died of cancer at age 76. Like McMahon, Ess had been a member of New York's no wave music and art scene, where she played in such bands as Y Pants, the Static, and Daily Life. The latter also included McMahon, the artist Christine Hahn, and the late composer Glenn Branca, who once--indeed, for two decades--had been Ess's companion and collaborator. According to her New York Times obituary, Ess once wrote: "I am something that cannot be photographed, cannot be named, defined, translated. There's experience and that's all there is."
(For Janet Malcolm, 1934-2021; "Her essay 'Forty-One False Starts' [about a contemporary painter I didn't know I cared about] is a better explanation of how to write than any book I know that actually sets out to explain how to write." -Jordan Ellenberg, New York Times Book Review, June 20, 2021)
See Kurt Wildermuth's website
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