Perfect Sound Forever

They Showed Me Their Instruments of Recording

photo: Fernando Natalici

The Art of Copernicus in Five Acts
by Mark S. Tucker
(April 2006)

Copernicus as a Diagnostic on Evolution

No matter how whacked-out a performer may seem, the difference between the fact and the masque is always knowable. When Jim Morrison crossed Baudelaire with whiffs of Ubu Roi, it was obvious he was a carefully plotted Bacchanalian, not a creature of divine madness. That is to say, the leather-clad toussle-maned player possessed his art, it did not possess him. 'Twas a means to an end, not the end itself; hence, despite tremendous powers as a singer, his lasting fame may well rest on his mysteriously pantherine poetry, not the rough and tumble of his singing. Too much was reliant there upon the depths of gargantuanly bottomless cups, whence the hyper-phallic minstrel plummeted to the bottom of a raging ego. The result wasn't pretty, as bootleg recordings with him, Johnny Winter, and Jimi Hendrix clearly show; hence, it takes no giant intellect to understand that the largest part of Morrison's myth is purest bullshit. Even he would agree, could he but.

From that same period, the Living Theater, a strange and brilliantly confrontational '60's/'70's art troupe which forced audiences to reconsider their safe expectations, also reached only just so high, not content to settle for the low-hanging fruit but curiously indisposed to clambering the most perilous branches, to where a mercilessly blazing orb shone nakedly in risky cosmic splendor. In any society, only every once in a rare while do we get the opportunity to stumble across an artist immolating himself in the service of Art, incising broiling cranial sutures to lay open the lid of creativity, spilling forth sizzling chaos and neural wormholes. Steven Berkoff's hideously brilliant staging of Kafka's Metamorphosis and Peter Greenaway's stunning Prospero's Books are two examples in a rather barren registry aching for a companionship almost impossible of proximity.

In 1984, Joseph Smalkowski assumed the name of a long-dead rebel scientist who had run the disfavors of an ecclesiatical Establishment, the Roman Catholic Church, and flown headlong into a fracas with consensus reality. Like that anciens venerable, Smalkowski conducted himself in certain ways in order to transcend the madness of the herd and pierce an implacable smog long laying 'twixt man and the heavens. Lineage nailed down, nameplate in place, the New York fractal raconteur issued his debut, Nothing Exists, whose cover betrayed a small indication of what the consumer might expect: a B&W snap of a tall bespectacled hippie grasping a mike, leaning forward to have a coffin nail lit by an audient. Behind him ranged several instrumentalists providing the matrix for what was soon discovered to be, as needle hit groove, coherent madness in leoninely elegant tones.

'Progressive rant' might be the best pigeon-hole for Copernicus' work. While the album emerged in that auspiciously infamous year, Smalkowski had, since 1978, been gigging with Pierce Turner, a man to become best known for an abortive mainstream musical "career" based upon a small association with Philip Glass, from which three LP's went straight into the remainder racks. The Copernicus ensemble was also far from a Billboard entry, favoring capricious exercises in controlled anarchy. Up to 20 musicians at a time sat in for the seemingly mad gentleman's concerts and recording sessions, producing spontaneous bursts over which Smallkowski would, most often equally extemporaneously, create poetry, tirades, and word-theater. The attraction of bohemians to such presentation is obvious: it occupied the far end of free-associational jamming, freaking out in loose song contexts. This independence resulted in free-for-alls, followed and guided by whatever the singer might begin pouring forth amidst the cacaphony and occasional euphony.

In this LP, though, "Quasimodo" is perhaps the best example of how the somewhat dangerous action could yield unexpectedly conformist paydirt. Larry Kirwan decided to base the composition in a stun-guitar ostinato while Turner plays organ behind, shifting from sunny skies and cascades to schizophrenic side tangents. Copernicus erupts in stream-of-consciousness sprechstimme neoprosody that up-ends the song's mood, language base, coherence, and personality. For him, that means going to ever greater degrees of outburst: from sinister to depressed to enraged. The cut's unusually mainstream for such a boiling aggregate, but that's not to say any established radio station would've even vaguely considered spinning the baffling one-off. Obscenity would be the least part of its worries, lunacy the largest, yet such is precisely what gained Copernicus the small but loyal audience he managed to begin to build.

"Let Me Rest" is more apposite to the bulk of the catalogue. Raging, sobbing, extolling, blubbering, spitting out fury, Smalkowski issues pronunciamenta and dicta in the blank verse that made Morrison's "Horse Latitudes" such a singularity, necessity and expression demanding the lines proceed thus and so. Flanking, the band scored everything telepathically, completely sympathetic to each shifting notion. A long association with the far side of sanity obviously provided the cues, as not a measure is misplaced, no matter how weirdly each bar mutates. "Nagasaki" shows the Pere Ubu (the Akron boys, not the literary character) penchant such groups seem to unavoidably acquire, blending fragments of endless genres into a whole, speaking as ersatz-culturally as the, um, "libretto." Here, the music takes over and Copernicus is content to shout and stomp secondarily, crazed by the din of crashing instruments, eventually emerging in the foreground to stamp-press the meeting to a close, imprecations inching towards nullity, his favorite theme.

Smalkowski, perhaps unknown to himself but probably not, was acting out a particularly nasty kensho, an awakening suffered via a profound shock while discovering, as so many of us did, the Roman Catholic Church was full of excreta up to its eyeballs. He never, though, abandoned the proto-Jesuitical quest for truth in either contemplation or experience, albeit while keeeping to it in a fashion Crowley and LaVey, to look to the far side of the equation, would have commented admirably upon. This meant that his post-Christian consciousness would have to consider zen-like immersions in far more radical truths, the better to keep any imprint of coherence, no matter how abstracted. Thus, "Atomic Nevermore" states not only that reality is based in the atomic and sub-atomic worlds but also that humanity will never find its peace in illusions fabricated above those levels. In fact, a march into the "atomic unknown" would be the only path to serenity and understanding. Here also is the clearest example of his continuingly (Richard) Burtonian delivery, a vehicle proving irresistable to those enamored of feverish and superlatively inflected oratory. In many ways, Copernicus became Hamlet finally gone completely 'round the cornerpost, holding thinly to tattered reality whilst supernal images and blazing electrons wreathed his sweat-drenched and dazedly astonished brow, dead kings parading before him from time unknown.

Victim of the Sky (1986), then, became unexpectedly surprising when it commenced with a highly abstract folk song, "Wanderer," which the band grinningly turned quasi-saccharine, followed by the nightclub-jazzy title cut, complete with a seductive sax not from any ilk John Klemmer ever had in mind. The whole schmear changes as "Black from White" ushers meteorically hot anguish to the front, almost as quickly retreating into its lyrics. "Not Him Again" descends into Machine Purgatory, hallucinogenic with viruses, while a cold steel background freezes gasping music quotes into claustrophobically small boxes. Larry Kirwan's "Desperate," a reggae paean, translates appropriately for its almost nerdily histrionic delivery, over which the maester rants with zero-point doctrine.

Not only is "From Bacteria" one of Copernicus' golden rants, bellowing and raw, harking back to a previously unrecognized Age of Microscopy, before humans or even dinosaurs began fouling the nest, it leads straight into one of his most cherished pieces, "The Lament of Joe Apples," a drunken Bukowskovian narrative by a fictional frothing bullman running his ego against the leash. Behind gravelly alleytrash, strange musical pastiches caper and prance in faded counter-narrative, glancing in and out of the auditory field. The most amazing element is not the pristine bizarreness of the cut but its complete moment-to-moment spontaneity, with not the slightest nanosecond of hesitation or contemplation, a demonstration of how an individual in the throes of insane inspiration can come up with the ego's script on humanity, crafting a dead-on psycho-medical portrait of grossly deranged alcohol brainworks skewing the sentient hunk of meat protagonizing beneath it.

Deeper (1987) found the singer as paranoiac and pissed as ever, wallowing in more Bedlamite personalities. The obsessive "Oh God!," consisting of just that single interjection repeated over and over, more berserkly each time, flows into "Son of a Bitch from the North," with its deadly Chill Faction (guitarist Kirwan's sub-group) music, a smorgasbord in Hell. Still based in Turner and companions, Copernicus adopted a gaggle of new personnel from the street, provoking a scintillating effort. As before, the preponderance of material is of-the-moment, but a healthy percentage is also prepared. Hardly matters, everything fits seamlessly. The atmosphere, as before, becomes thick and hot; with Smalkowski, there will be no chill-out, no rest... or will there?

He favors giving the world back what it gives him, and if the globe grants a moment's respite, as in "Disco Days are Over," then he too takes a ragged lungful. If however, you might imagine he'd temporarily stay rooted, yer nuts. What commences as introspection ends with lament, fangs, furrowed brow and finally, only momentarily, exhausted acceptance, then it's back into the firepit. This slice is Copernicus' most intense and elegant statement - brilliant in several ways, but mostly for fearless high dives flown from parapets, not to mention Freudian perversions. Oh, and Joe Apples meets his Maker on side two, a short hard life brought to an inglorious end via hospital sickbeds. By the time the disc is over, it's more than obvious Copernicus is imperishably unique, with no competition, now or ever. He's one of a kind and it took only two LP's to manifest the fact. Trying this sort of high-wire act, most would die of flopsweat, withering into inconfidence; Smalkowski merely draws in another ocean of air, juts his face into the muck of life, and begins anew.

Null (1990) featured his most highly rendered piece, "The Sound of the Mind," a Disneyland ride gone Stygian, lurking to burrow inside spectator synapses and do obscene things. It also contains "The Authorities," a pointed bird-flip to anti-anarchistic forces. The release isn't quite up to the powers of Deeper but still distinctly Copernican, full of unexpected left turns and unhinging viewpoints. The vocalist-composer is as confident as the moment he took up the task, born to it. "Touch" is an anguished paean to pitiful human ignorance, soon stomping around in gritty detritus, flying into subject matter ills, simultaneously occupying positive and negative forces in split flesh. The pianist-accompanist is his wife of 25 years, Marcella, and that knowledge is weirdly touching: the soulmate of this deeply fragmented artist sitting in the center of her mate's rational dementia, providing a subtly carnied Chopin as soundtrack. The idea warms the heart at the exact same moment it sends gooseflesh scurrying along the spine. At 16 minutes, the cut has a chance to clatter up and down the emotional tone scale more than once, the ensemble jumping behind the keyboardist through most of the span.

All that accomplished, it would now be a few years before No Borderline (1993) showed its face but the wait was worth it. "Joe Meets Copernicus" became the next step in his "Sound of the Mind" mode. Smalkowski seemed to be trying his hand at a bizarre form of audio book, showing what the damn things should be like, what the form is capable of if an artist would only have the chutzpah to quit recreating the box the art came in. The piece became a defining marriage of music, words, and emotion, continuously carried for the span of the opening triumvirate, all the way to the close of "The Voice," newly supported by a fabulous family band (the Nandayapas) showcasing, of all things, killer marimba. Copernicus, altering his personum to flesh the array, chameleons several characters, bending the narrative back into vastly more fantastic caverns.

The rest of the CD treads back to the past while retaining new levels. The full menu of musicians hails from various world locations, brought in as the singer performed solo in numerous cities, adjourning to recruit their company in the studio after live gigs. Turner also sits in, but this would be his last session with the man he'd aided for so long. The reason for the split isn't mentioned anywhere, neither on Turner's nor Copernicus' site, nor in outside literature, so we'll momentarily assume that the long partnership had come to an end, dying a natural death. "No Borderline," meanwhile, returned the disc to its beginnings in a Word Jazz/Stay Awake vein.

By this time, the artist had finally received a modicum of what was due him. Moving from small spaces, he gave a string of 10 solo performances over two weeks at the Judith Anderson Theater in NYC, followed by the release of a compilation in Korea, each selection decided by the faraway audience. Next came a tour with dates in Czechsolovakia, Austria, and especially Gemany, with, finally, a unique small honor: a request to perform at the SXSW music conference in Texas, in 1993.

Though he personally might have been achieving some degree of artistic recognition, Copernicus' work was yet confined to a very small audience, one possessing refined sensibilities and open minds, not the easiest beings to locate and gather in any form, let alone try to make a living from. Hence, eight long years would pass before his (so far) penultimate issuance would see the light of day: Immediate Eternity (2001), with the consistently best ensemble yet to backdrop him, the Ecuadorian impromptu The Nomadas, boasting the burning, high-flying, acidic guitar of Cesar Aragundi. This type of whole-cloth alliance had a cousin over in Terence McKenna's work with Spacetime Continuum. Though McKenna was miles away from Copernicus' enunciative powers, the two were inextricably bathed in high exotica and an ambition to awaken their peculiar audiences. McKenna, a psychoethnobotanist, had previously issued the mind-blowing Search for the Original Tree of Knowledge, a protracted dissertation on the severance of man's mental well-being from the plant kingdom, especially the psychotropics, a seminar that had prompted the space-rock group to later team with him. Listening to the bizarre but provable data, a workaday slob would think McKenna was Copernicus' cousin, so closely aligned are the radical materials of each.

By now, Copernicus' lyrics had grown intensely philosophcal, to the exclusion of all else. Every song was riveted upon the human plight and its stultifyingly destructive preoccupation with dwelling in illusion, as against the greater joys of accepting atomic reality. In a number of ways, Smalkowski had become a more comprehendable Nisargadatta Maharaj, another in a line of dwellers on the periphery of reality who spoke of matters well beyond understanding and precise verbalization. Copernicus' particular center of gravity was unshakably the atom but his ideations became little different from Zen, Taoism, Ch'an, etc.. As may be expected, the provocateur shouts, pontificates, trembles, wonders, contemplates... and, shock of shocks!, even sings, briefly during "Dust," something no one had expected. The band cooks and Aragundi takes every chance he's given to phase into higher energies. The liner asserts Smalkowski was sitting amongst some of the finest players Ecuador had to offer and there's little reason to doubt it.

Copernicus and the Twilight of Music Criticism

That disc was also Copernicus' gentlest. Despite Aragundi stoking up to a white-hot state, the whole is nothing like the singer's first few releases. Part of this even the orator attributes to the discovery of an overactive thyroid and subsequent prescribing of medication. However, his new "pacified" existence hasn't robbed him of an iota of personal genius. Immediate Eternity is easier for everyone to listen to but no less entertaining, striking, or artful...though not every ear will be appreciative. On a web-site devoted to some kind of mealy-mouthed Wiccan mish-mosh, the tritely pseudonymed 'Alan Cabal' makes an observation that "Copernicus [is] second only perhaps to G.G. Allin on the obnoxious meter." This ersatz Puritanical critic had apparently caught Copernicus at a NYC performance, then posited the ridiculous appraisal, just a molecule shy of complete assholery. Smalkowski and G.G. Allin in the same breath? Good Christ. Art, the adage tightly avers, must ever suffer fools and this one seemed to have taken a wrong turn while bushwhacking for Yanni recitals.

But first, Jackson Griffith, incestuous soul brother to Alan Cabal, and another no-name yob with grade school writing proficiency, provides a Web take on Immediate Eternity thusly: "Fans of such outsider-music landmarks as William Shatner's The Transformed Man should take immense delight in Immediate Eternity, a collaboration between a buffoon named after a 15th/16th-century Polish astronomer and a band from Guayaquil, Ecuador. But lest you think that this might be some insane guy bellowing theatrical gibberish over accompaniment from one of those Andean panpipe bands you occasionally see panhandling in shopping malls, it is not. No, Immediate Eternity sounds like some insane guy bellowing theatrical gibberish over feverish progressive-rock wanking. Which is to say that listening to this CD is like putting Scotch tape on a cat's paws before draping a banana peel across its back: If you're the cat, you're frightened that some idiot is torturing you; if you're the idiot, you're laughing at the hapless cat. To hear Copernicus is to experience both sides, and to understand."

Marvelous. As if the near-total of prog crits weren't already a malodorous gaggle of obese, bleating, yuckapuck trekkie squawkboxes, the condition now had to be sanctified in this moron. Despite spindly-shanked assurances to the contrary, alternate-culture mags ever aped MTV. Vulgarly unpatroned individuals became unworthy of coverage in such an alt-capitalistically sophomoric universe and OPtion, at best the breeding ground for writer-critic-musician wannabes, ran, in their March/April issue 1990, an article that summed up everything about the declining coverage of the musical arts in general and that miserable rag and its confreres in particular. Art was not envisioned, merely capital. Thus, in an issue that quietly posited Glenn Branca, Stephen Micus, and Copernicus as attractants, what greeted the eyes photographically? Kate Bush. Indie queen, hm? Yeah, right.

But that, friends, was just the beginning. The article on Copernicus was in reality no such thing at all, being instead a self-paean to a jerk whom Smalkowski had chosen to play bass in his Russo-Euro tour, a punker suffering from delusions of adequacy, David Conrad. OPtion abetted what became an assassination, readily displayed in the intro paragraph, wherein the scribbler lauds himself as bassist for "Copernicus, a 50-year-old poet/performance artist who calls himself a 'musical genius'." From there, it's all downhill. The bassist rags mercilessly on Copernicus, calling him "a frightening sight," "a Polish gargoyle" wearing "polyester shirts that look like Liberace's shower curtains," "a cross between a mad rhino and a participant in a Haitian voodooo ceremony," and so on. Following each trashing, the writer immediately inserts his beatific presence in an ensemble he claims "improvises Sun Ra-style art/funk."

The article abuts a snapshot of Copernicus and the band. Oh, did I say 'Copernicus'? My mistake. Although OP's cover distinctly heralded him, and the sub-title to this 7-page bilge likewise noted the gent, in the photo Smalkowski is barely distinguishable. Instead, his five treacherous flunkies are featured, metro-hayseeds standing in a field, smiling their mugshots - one even, f'Chrissakes, sporting a Batman cap. You know what you're in for, don't you? That's right: a cornucopia of ego. Copernicus is rarely mentioned; rather, we're mistreated to masturbatorily heroic passages detailing the privations suffered by yokel Conrad as he treads lands that are (gasp!) not American! The scribe pens himself as unable to avoid being dogged by swooning females every step of the way - cow-eyed, ditzy, Russkie Goth chix who apparently can't control their estrogen in the presence of a four-string, one-trick, Yankee Self-Doodler.

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