"People have said to me, 'You could be as good on guitar as Al Di Meola if you quit screwing around,' " says Eugene Chadbourne. "Well, that's Al Di Meola's job, to come on stage and not screw around and not smile or anything. But mine, I do something different."
That's putting it mildly. Chadbourne, who will play solo shows at the Lingerie on Friday, McCabe's on Saturday and the Anticlub June 28, is a musical maverick whose subversive course has taken him from psychedelic garage-rock as a teen-ager to avant-garde jazz in the '70s to the mutated rock-country-folk hybrid that's put him on the rock underground map, both with his band Shockabilly and in his solo endeavors.
But Chadbourne's musical credentials tend to be overshadowed by his penchant for setting aside the guitar and performing on such homemade implements as his amplified rake.
"They kind of developed out of the avant-garde noise music," Chadbourne, 31, explained during a phone interview from his home in Greensboro, N.C. "I started using contact microphones that you can place on common, ordinary objects, like a rake. I put a microphone on it and it picked up the tines vibrating and turned it into a horrible din. What attracted me to it was the horrible din--that's what I really liked. But I found audiences really liked the fact that I was making this horrible din on a garden rake."
The rake isn't the only item in Chadbourne's arsenal--as an unfortunate burglar once discovered. "Can you imagine a guy breaking into your car," Chadbourne said of the incident, "and he steals your guitar case 'cause he thinks it's a guitar, and he gets it home and opens it up and there's a rake inside it, an electric toilet plunger and a dog skull? That actually happened."
Chadbourne's bird-cage solo was a big highlight of Shockabilly's Music Machine set here last summer. For shows in Greensboro, he's used less portable items, like a shopping cart filled with crowbars, telephones and other debris, and he's currently wiring up some old typewriters.
Chadbourne has a ready reply to the question of whether these "gag instruments" make it hard for him to be taken seriously as a musician: "I want to be taken seriously as the type of musician that plays stuff like an electric rake.
"I mean," he elaborated, "how seriously do you take someone like Spike Jones? They take him pretty seriously--a really good musician who made a great contribution in terms of humor, which is part of what I try to do too. He's definitely a hero. And Fats Waller, Roland Kirk--a lot of musicians I've really enjoyed who use a lot of humor."
Chadbourne grew up mainly in Colorado, then settled in New York before moving to Greensboro, where he lives with his wife and two daughters. While Shockabilly is on hiatus, he's busy recording "a massive onslaught" of country music, collaborating with musicians ranging from avant-gardists to rockers to the bluegrass group the Red Clay Ramblers.
He also manufactures cassettes at home and releases them in small editions on his Parachute label, and he's finishing a novel that may be published by Iridescence, the Los Angeles-based company that has issued his new solo album, "The President; He Is Insane," which features both topical protest songs and an electronic collage.
While Chadbourne's efforts have endeared him to experimental music fans, they've also inspired abuse from less tolerant observers. Chadbourne has been threatened more than once, and he doesn't like it.
"First of all," he says, "to make a hostile reaction at a performance in public you've got to be some kind of a boor. It's the same kind of person who makes a fuss in a restaurant or makes trouble in line at a movie. If you don't like it, you can talk about it with your friends or something. You're perfectly justified to hate any kind of music--music is out there to be loved or hated. But when people hassle you, they're just jerks."
Chadbourne has also had the opposite problem.
"Sometimes you have trouble because someone likes your music so much. They follow you around for hours singing little bits of the songs, or just freaking out. Some parts of the country, people that are really into psychedelic drugs come to hear me play, and they're in outer space during the whole show. Sometimes they can be nice to talk to, though. You never know."