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Charlie Nothing and his dingulator
Wed Dec 12, 2007 6:28 pm (PST)
By Phil Campbell
In October 2007, legendary performer Charlie Nothing passed away at
his Soquel California home. The following article was originally
published in The Fretboard Journal, Number 6, Summer 2007. Charlie was
pleased with the story, saying "I've had interviews and articles
before but yours is the best by far… Thank you so much!"
Phil Campbell is one half of the progressive folk/rock duo,
Hobbyhorse. Hobbyhorse's music is in the spirit of experimentation and
the expansion of the imagination. They take psychedelic folk/rock into
the present day with their poetic songwriting and adventurous
arrangements. The duo has returned from a year in the studio recording
their latest full-length release "Break in the Clouds" as well as
building an online music and art venue called Hobbyhorse Cafe. In
addition to featuring their music and art as well as that of a growing
lineup of talented guest musicians, artists and poets, the Cafe offers
an innovative pricing system called "Conscious Choice Pricing,"
allowing fans to choose how much they pay for downloads and merchandise.
Thank you Charlie Nothing! We miss you.
According to his official biography, Charlie Nothing "was not born,
did not go to school, did not die," and his main instrument is the
dingulator. Obsessive record collectors may recall his name from the
1967 LP The Psychedelic Saxophone of Charlie Nothing, one of the only
non-guitar records released on John Fahey's Takoma label. Contemporary
listeners might know Nothing from his powerful performance of
dingulation, as he calls his music, in Chicago at the 2005 Two Million
Tongues Festival. Featuring a roster of difficult-to-categorize
musicians, it was the ideal venue for this difficult-to-categorize
performer. Josephine Foster, who was also on the bill, describes him
as being like "the incarnation of Ubu Rex" and says, "Charlie seems to
lose himself deeply in the raw spirit of performance."
In the years between 1967 and 2005, you might have crossed paths with
Nothing at any number of places. Perhaps it was in a New York loft in
the mid 1960s, when he gave a series of performances that had grown
out of the drug scene and the jam sessions around his house. Nothing's
first band included himself on sopranino sax, a classically trained
Indian tabla drummer and a young Japanese woman who recited litanies
of everyday items such as "underarm deodorant, soap, green shoes, pink
Next came the First Uniphrenic Church and Bank Band, a group that
included a young, pre-Blondie Debbie Harry in what must have been some
of her first vocal performances. Besides playing the Village Gate, the
Uniphrenic band put on a series of Friday night concerts in a friend's
Manhattan loft, where everything, including the toilet, was decorated
in always-fashionable black. The loft concerts were extremely
popular--perhaps it was the music or maybe it was the free beer--but
the fire department eventually shut them down.
Nothing then moved on to Los Angeles, where he performed at an arena
show with Frank Zappa; joined and then quit the cast of Hair; and
performed a flute concert at the Los Angeles Museum of Modern Art. The
museum curator assured Nothing that there would be no restrictions on
his performance, so the concert took place in the men's room after
hours for an audience of two.
After his stint in Los Angeles, Nothing went north to the Bay Area,
where he lived in a squat in the back of a Haight-Ashbury sandal shop
and played love-ins, North Beach jazz clubs and similar venues of the
era. Nothing recorded The Psychedelic Saxophone of Charlie Nothing
during this period. The album featured saxophone improvisation
accompanied by concert gong, conga drum and a banjo ukulele that was
borrowed from Tiny Tim for the occasion. Nothing also drew the cover
art. Not surprisingly, it never cracked the Billboard Top 100, but it
did attain some cult success in Europe among aficionados of free
Nothing eventually settled in Santa Cruz, California, where he became
a beekeeper and an expert in the removal of stinging insects. He did
not perform from 1984 until 2004, feeling he had "evolved past the
entertaining-monkey-jumping -up-and-down-on-the-stage stage." But
Nothing was not artistically inactive. He published books (under the
name Charles Martin Simon), created art in many different media and
even sent a tape of music to Ronald Reagan. The White House replied
with a nice letter that opened: "Dear Mr. Nothing, The President
appreciates your support..."
And he built dingulators, of course, a class of instrument he
invented. At first glance, a dingulator has superficial similarities
to a steel-bodied National-style guitar. The number of strings varies,
up to as many as 21, but seven or eight strings is typical.
Dingulators have raised frets akin to those on a sitar, and each one
is unique. Classic examples tend to have scrolls and curlicues
reminiscent of a Gibson Style 0 guitar or perhaps a Gibson H-4
mandola. They are made from old cars.
Why cars? "Cars have the right kind of steel," Nothing explains. "Cars
have got very soulful steel." But the steel has to come from older
cars: "Metal on new cars, whether it's American or foreign, is just
not up to quality." Nothing's current project is to make a dingulator
from a 1965 VW Karmann Ghia. There is a political message in his
artistic recycling. "It's a sword-to-plowshare kind of thing," he
says. "Cars to guitars."
Dingulators have steel strings and friction pegs. Their tuning is
variable, organic and evolving. "The ideal would be to never tune
them, to just find where they are going and go with it," he says. "But
sometimes I do make adjustments." Nothing is a highly skilled artisan
and welder. The form of each dingulator is hand-drawn in chalk
directly onto the metal.
Foster says, "Dingulators remind me of African instruments; they are
folk-art masterpieces." The African influence is probably real.
Talking about the origin of dingulators, Nothing demonstrated his
favorite kalimba, which had a broken tine that produced a note with a
deep, rich buzz. That one buzzing note had the sound he liked and
saved the otherwise unremarkable instrument from the trashcan.
What does a dingulator sound like? "They are tuned percussion to
animate and punctuate his spoken-word diatribes," Foster explains.
Another point of reference might be Hans Reichel's early,
pre-daxophone, modified-guitar recordings; Derek Bailey's music also
comes to mind. Nothing, though, is unfamiliar with both Reichel and
Bailey, so it seems that dingulation evolved on its own.
Nothing can be in-your-face confrontational, especially in his
explicitly political songs, but there are more facets to his music. As
he demonstrated the voice of each individual dingulator, Nothing
improvised music of great beauty, passion and intensity. He plays
completely in the moment and is sometimes possessed by musical
spirits. What are Nothing's musical influences? "Everything," he says.
"I'm influenced probably as much by the stuff I don't like as the
stuff I like. So I'd have to say I'm influenced by everything." One of
the things Nothing doesn't like is Muzak. You can believe him when he
promises, "Dingulation will never be on Muzak!"
In 2004, Nothing realized he was, in fact, "a monkey jumping up and
down" and he began performing in public again. After playing small
venues in the Santa Cruz area, he began to receive invitations to
various music festivals, including the Pauze Festival in Ghent,
Belgium, and the Two Million Tongues Festival in Chicago. There was,
however, one problem with launching this new phase of his career:
Dingulators aren't particularly portable. To get around that obstacle,
Nothing has started work on a smaller travel version. He's building a
dingulator with a removable neck that can be stored in the body,
making a compact and indestructible steel carrying case. All
dimensions were carefully planned to meet international airline
requirements for carry-on luggage. It remains to be seen if the
airport bureaucracies will be able to cope with dingulation.
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