Notes From the Underground
Denver's Little Fyodor doesn't care if audiences are laughing with him or at him. "That's what your parents tell you to keep you from doing anything foolish," he claims. "And what I'm doing is rather foolish."
Perhaps--but Little Fyodor's musical excursions are foolish in ways that are often fascinating. For more than a decade, Fyodor and his lovely assistant, Babushka, who says she met her beloved in an alley while tossing aluminum cans into a shopping cart, have been producing demented songcraft that will never be mistaken for mainstream fare. He also hosts Underneath the Floorboards, a program on KGNU-FM/88.5 that explores the outer limits of sound. Among the kindred spirits whom Fyodor airs from 11 p.m. to midnight the second and fourth Saturdays of each month are San Jose's Dan Campau, England's Adam Bowman, Kentucky's Implicit Order, Chicago's That People's Sleep, and the Colorado acts Luster and Cowtown.
So, does Floorboards prove that Fyodor, a singer-guitarist with spiraling hair that's positively Einsteinian, isn't the only musical madman in the world? "Well--yes and no," he responds.
"All these people are alone," Babushka deadpans.
Humor is this duo's saving grace; coming from them, fatalism seems unexpectedly endearing. In the tradition of Fyodor Dostoyevsky, the Russian novelist and despair master whose name they borrowed, their act is as absurd as life itself. Little Fyodor's take on cultural and personal ills--boredom, sexual frustration, alienation, angst--approaches existential nausea, yet he renders these themes with a goofy, unabashed zeal that simultaneously charms and disturbs. On his four albums (Slither, Beneath the Uber-Putz, Idiots Are Closer to God and Dance of the Salted Slug), his fearless warble and anguished groans enliven everything from warped, simplistic pop ("I Am Insane") and mutant techno ("Oh God I Feel Like Shit") to punk desperation ("Get Out of My Head") and sound collage ("It's a Job"). He's complemented by Babushka, who exudes an old-country sensibility even while playing her Casio keyboard.
In the beginning, Little Fyodor was plain old Dave Lichtenberg from New Jersey. He had relatives who had been vaudeville performers, but his immediate family was not artistically inclined. He received his first guitar at age twelve, but it took a while for his romance with the instrument to blossom; the bravura of Seventies prog-rockers such as Emerson, Lake & Palmer intimidated him. "It never occurred to me to actually do music myself until punk came along," he recalls. Instead, he tried to follow in the footsteps of authors such as Nathaniel West, whom he describes as "the Ramones of literature." But his attempts generally came up lame. "I'd freak," he explains. "I couldn't sit and watch the TV anymore, and I'd jump up and run into my room and try to be a writer. But I'd just walk around the room for a couple of hours and not really think of anything to write."
After graduating from a college in Virginia, Lichtenberg finally found his forum. At the time, he says, "my life was going nowhere. My brain was going nowhere." But then, in a flash of inspiration, a song called "Useless Shit" came to him. "And I wrote 'I Want an Ugly Girl' the next day," he notes. "So I was on my way." Tunes like these led directly to the creation of the Little Fyodor persona, which he believes had been bubbling beneath his skin all along.
"That's when he came out," Babushka jokes.
In the early Eighties, Fyodor moved to Boulder with a friend, and before long, these musical deviants joined with a third to form Walls of Genius. During the next three years the prolific combo released thirty cassettes filled with an eclectic array of racket: avant noise, improv jazz and cheesy rock covers like Alice Cooper's "Eighteen," on which Fyodor made his vocal debut. As he puts it, "We were as freeform as you can get, because we were too freeform to restrict what we did to freeform."
The group eventually became known in the nationwide community of home tapers and experimentalists whose activities were documented in Op and other magazines. Since setting out on his own, Fyodor has maintained his connections with such folks. "That's the only place where I've ever felt accepted--and only relatively there," he says. The primary purpose of his radio extravaganza, he insists, is "to expose this criminal element of our society, musically speaking."
Because of the extreme nature of his catalogue, Little Fyodor knows that mass success in the entertainment marketplace is unlikely, but he doesn't mind; he agrees with Dostoyevsky that "making money requires a certain dullness of mind." But he has not spent all his time seeking solace in the basement of the musical underground--or its fallout shelter, either. Several years ago Fyodor and Babushka toured with Negativland for a handful of West Coast dates, playing to crowds that numbered between 60 and 500. At a Long Beach appearance, he remembers, one woman called out, "We like you, we really do." In his opinion, "she seemed genuinely concerned for my mental health. Most people in the audience seem to be genuinely scornful of my mental health."
More notoriety has come Fyodor's way thanks to his association with the Apples, one of Denver's most acclaimed exports. "Let it be known that the very first time the Apples ever performed with a real drum set, they were opening for Little Fyodor and Babushka," he says. The Apples returned the favor by releasing Fyodor's 1994 Dance of the Salted Slug CD on their label, Elephant 6. More recently, "Eating the Office Birthday Cake," a collaboration between Fyodor and Dan Susnara that features Babushka's first lead vocal, was heard on the nationally syndicated Dr. Demento radio show. The track deals with a Kafkaesque bookkeeper's daily grind--a routine that Fyodor knows from personal experience. His collegiate training was in economics, "which never really did anything for me except to alienate me from all my liberal friends."
Some clubgoers have been equally put off by Fyodor's music. As an example, Fyodor says, "I was singing 'I Don't Know What to Do' and this one guy kept screaming 'Suicide!' Each time he screamed, it was with more and more vehemence, as if he was genuinely perturbed that I had yet to take him up on it."
Some performers might have difficulty dealing with such intense reactions, but not Fyodor. One of his role models in this regard is singer-songwriter Jonathan Richman, whom he once interviewed. "I asked him what he thought about people laughing at him," Fyodor reveals. "His answer was that a lot of the people who come to see him are at a very sensitive age, so they laugh as a defense mechanism, and that's perfectly okay."
Which is why the motives behind listeners' laughter doesn't bother him, right? Right. "That's the problem with the world," he asserts. "If Netanyahu and Arafat didn't worry about that, they could just party together."
Little Fyodor and Babushka, with Eric Bard and Moo Laka Moo. 9 p.m. Saturday, May 16, Lion's Lair, 2022 East Colfax, 320-9200.
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