Wednesday, March 25, 2009

R.I. P. Richie Shulberg and Bob Giuda: The World Suddenly Got Quieter

Sad news came my way this month. Two of the New York City folk music scene's loudest and funniest personalities passed away, Richie Shulberg and Bob Giuda. Both were old buddies of mine from the Old Time music scene that used to congeal around the Eagle Taven jam sessions South Street Seaport Museum concert series back in the 1970s and 80s, when lower Manhattan had yet to gentrify and CBGB's still booked Appalachian string bands and blues acts.Richie Shulberg finally left the boundaries of New York City on 14 March 2009 of a heart attack, aged 61. Richie was the epitome of the New York Jewish bluegrass musician, a manic combination of Lenny Bruce and uncle Dave Macon wrapped in a New York Cantonese Egg Roll skin and deep fried until the result was beyond recognition as anything other than pure Brooklyn. Known to much of the world as Citizen Kafka, the persona he adopted while broadcasting his dadaist radio show on WBAI in New York, Richie was a man of too many doubtful skills: broadcaster, opal miner, Theremin player, junk dealer, music archivist, art collector, bookseller, and musician. Above all else, he was a great Old Time fiddler, the de facto leader of the bluegrass band "The Wretched Refuse String Band. Possbly known best for their blugrass adaption of the Danny Kaye hit "Thumbelina" sung in broad, Brooklyn Jewish accents, the Wretched Refuse under Richie's "direction" were a uniquly unemployable icon of New York musical expression:The band's name came from the Emma Lazarus poem inscribed at the foot of the Statue of Liberty: "Give me your tired, your poor/ Your wretched refuse yearning to breath free." Which, Ritchie once told me, was the more acceptable band name than "The Coney Island Whitefish" (you have to be from Brooklyn to appreciate that one.) Richie's stage presence was that of the ranting new York Jewish poetic genius riffing on sounds that clogged his brain from being raised in the late 1950s and 60s: sort of a Firesign theater Meets Allen Ginsburg at a Knish stand in West Virginia. As one commentor on his memorial Facebook page said: Shulberg never met a social convention he wasn’t compelled to violate. The more tightly wound the promoter or client, the greater was the potential for comic riot (Margaret Dumont syndrome). His radio show on WBAI included fiddler Kenny Kosek and a Missouri newcomer named John Goodman who would go on to make himself a bit better known in Hollywood as one of the Coen Brother's favorite character actors.Although we all played Appalachian music, the Wretched Refuse String Band were one of the first bands that dabbled in reviving klezmer music. Andy Statman played mandolin with them, and it was fiddler Alan Kaufmann who first gave me cassettes of Jewish wedding music from Brooklyn in trade for tapes of Transylvanian fiddle music from the Palatka Band that I had brought home from Hungary. The Wretched Refuse were The String Band in New York's folk scene. Like many of New York's folk bands, the members were mostly Jewish or Italian, and not the easily assimilated, suburban type of ethnoid that America feels comfy with, but crazed, cross pollenated, ranting and raving Judeo-Wops with a penchant for singing archaic Black Sanctified Church music on period vintage guitars bought for pennies in Brooklyn junk shops. Which meant we all ate Chinese food, all the time. Richie was famous in Chinatown - he was a true gourmand of the now archaic classic American Cantonese cuisine, and he knew all the waiters by name, and all the Chinese waiters knew him by name: Litchie! After a gig it was always Ritchie who chose the after party venue (Wo Hop) as well as the menu (orange flavored beef). Richie had been suffering from a variety of ailments over the last decade, and the annual “Thank God the Citizen is Still Alive” concert is still going booked, as the Wretcheds would say, with or without him, at Brooklyn’s Jalopy venue on 9 May 2009. The Here's a taste of Wretched Madness from their regular gigs at the Jalopy in Brooklyn last year.Another pillar of the New York Folk Scene was Bob Giuda, the massive (400 pound) Brooklyn mortician and Blues guitarist who formed one half of the semi-fictional Otis Brothers alongside Pat Conte. Bob passed on on March 11, 2009, while setting up a gig at a library, holding his favorite fender bass guitar. Probably just as he would have wished to go.Bob and Pat performed as the Otis Brothers, and like a lot of the best traditional acts in the US, they were virtually unknown outside of New York, their recordings virtual collectors items of music that reaches into genuine American folk and popular traditions that just never crossed into the territory of hit music. They didn't care one bit. Bob and Pat were (and in the case of Pat, is) true Brooklyn originals. Both were huge, hefty men who enjoyed eating in a world dominated by skinniness. Bob and Pat used to go into a Brooklyn diner for lunch, scarf down the all you can eat special and then split an entire chocolate cake for dessert.Bob was famous as one of the loudest acoustic singers to ever vibrate a vocal chord. I last saw him around 1988, singing blues with an electric guitar cranked up, outdoors, with no mike and no need for one. Once, at a private reception, a woman came up to him and asked if he could possibly turn his mike volume down a bit. Bob stared at her and answered "I'm sorry, Lady, but there is no mike."That's Bob Giuda, Pat Conte, and Richie Shulberg at a gig last year. Pat and Richie used to share the amazing radio show "The Secret Museum of the Air" on WFMU playing only rare 78 rpm gramophone recordings from their collections. The Otis Brothers were, in a sense, the live performance version of the Secret Museum. Pat Conte still records and gigs around New York - I saw him last year with John Cohen and Peter Stampfel on the lower East Side, after having not seen him in about 25 years. After the gig he said to me "Man it's good to see you. I never thought I would see you alive again." Pat: keep a lid on the extra servings of ravioli. I want to see you next time I'm in New York.To Richie and Bob: keep the vintage 1950s tube amps in Heaven warm for us. And save me some chocolate cake and egg rolls.

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