If Illinois is Renaissance Italy, Urbana’s Paul Kotheimer is the Leonardo Da Vinci of the home studio. Originally from Chicago, he’s been making his home in Urbana for nearly fifteen years. A little story about Paul: once a local songwriter told Paul that she was interested in starting a collective of local musicians. Surprised, Paul responded that he had been acting, for years, as if there already were a collective of local musicians. He helps out everywhere, often for free: WEFT, Red Herring, The Channing-Murray, people’s weddings, loaning equipment, setting up PAs, playing for something, nothing, anything, nowhere somewhere anywhere, in the acoustic nightmare of local cafes, 6th and Green late Friday night, crooning to drunk jocks, singing louder than the MTD Green line, playing the WEFT sessions, having his music mixed through a blender, recording the Guerilla Parlor Ensemble, helping Beezus, helping me. Hoping somebody will occasionally toss the words “thank you” into his guitar case. Some guy from Herring Boys still hasn’t paid Paul for the Rickenbacker bass he took.
You should buy his CD and make an offer on his vintage Stratocaster. You should pay him for that Rickenbacker bass. Or give it back. You should hear his songs—the songs that make me feel nostalgic for Urbana-Champaign, even though I’m still here. Songs that make me nostalgic for dogs I never had, people I never knew. Songs that read like short stories, songs that don’t rhyme, songs with no chorus, songs that in no way rock. And even songs that rock hard about girls and cars. You should hear the songs he won’t let me play you. Ah, a couple beers, an upside-down 11-string, and Paul.
Paul Kotheimer has released highlights from the first two decades of his own work on one MP3CD, titled Song About Everything. This is a serious folking document—100 songs on one disc.
This album, however, is not a song about everything; it is everything about a song.
This essay won’t but touch on how Paul’s self-produced albums and The Hand-Made Record Label made it possible for me to do what I do, running Spineless Books. It’s funny how the act of self-publishing might be a desperate bid for artists who cannot connect with the industry, but is also a bold and courageous statement to the fans who appreciate the work as much as they would a commercial product with a distant corporate backer, and who admire even more that it came seemingly out the artist’s sleeve. It might even be a point of shame for some writers, not vanity publishing but humility publishing. But if art does not speak louder than labels then it isn’t art, it’s empty status. DIY or die; I’m just sayin’.
The MP3CD is my new favorite musical medium, because it allows the entire corpus of a favorite musician to coexist in one mammoth mix (a few, like Beethoven and Bowie, require more than one MP3CD). But it’s often too big a mix to arrange song by song, so I always fall back on the strategy of putting the songs in alphabetic order. This allows for the surprising, revealing albumless juxtapositions of shuffle play, but creates a certain dramatic architecture that mirrors that of the alphabet, starting strong, climaxing in the Ts, and with everything that follows a quirky coda (X songs, for example, are usually weird). It seems that Paul has, independently, hit on the same technique. So the mix ends with one of my most cherished Kotheimers—the relentlessly subtle, uncatchy, chorusless, hookless, devastatingly poetic and melancholy “Your Easy Chair,” a masterpiece I feel privileged to appreciate.
Songs like “Your Easy Chair” are penciled in margins, enter and exit silently in the wings of recorded music and activism and art and sex and power players and loudmouths crashing symbols. There is an economy of lyric that doesn’t rhyme, adhere to a consistent melody, or repeat a line, but is sung so well that you don’t notice. Musical prose. These concise and quiet songs tell portraits. I have never heard Paul play most of them live, and many listeners will never notice them, unable to pry open their hearts to the monstrous capacity for tolerance which these songs demand. These gems are dragged up from the dirty earth. Their performance, composition, and arrangement are indistinguishable. Uncalculated, true, neutral, they exist before and after, perfect, unconstructed. They are itchy fire ants crawling beneath the uncomfortable armor of coolness we must wear.
This disc spans Paul’s protest music, but activism isn’t all politics. It started with and might someday get back to people. When I hear some folk singers sing about the masters and victims of war, I can’t shake the feeling that they are singing about themselves: their concern, their chops, their courage, their gravelly voices. Any noble protest anthems empty out for me into hollow negotiations for power when they lack that capacity for compassion, compassion precisely for nobody, nobody who matters, those who aren’t aggressors or victims, who demand no attention, whom history rolls over without even crushing, the mammals who peer from roots during the age of the big lizard, the meek. hen Paul, however, sings “Strange Days Richard” or “Ghost Town Youths,” whoever he was has disappeared into a wisp of haze through which the wavering apparition of another person can be glimpsed. They take you, these songs, into the musty bedrooms, littered back seats of cars, the ashtrays and coffeepots of the lonely. Through these spiral notebook pages we enter a world of a few lonely people nobody knows.
What I mean to say here is if you need a rock star, and you don’t have time for Mitchell, Jack, John, Jesse, Josie, J.D., Franz, Joseph, Vladimir, Tom, Herman, Emily, Elisabeth, Susan, Johnny, Amelia, Therese, Jane, me and Dale and Sue, then this band of characters isn’t for you.
I still own the original typewritten lyrics to “Dead Friend.” It has grown on me almost as slowly as the movements of its nearly-static harmony and grammar. Hearing it on Song About Everything allows me to contextualize it among other story songs. Did “Josie” commit suicide? Or did she literally fly away like Supergirl? This mystery is a rift as sweet, sad, terrible and mysterious as the effect of missing the spoken intro to “Dog Heaven” and hearing this song about a dog named “Hard Times” as an oddly warm personification of misery. There is a cornucopia of poetry upended in “Waltz,” a rough and authentic dance of raw elegance and prole logos. Rich Krueger, as obscure as Paul, wrote that one and “Sheila.” The impossibly dense and clever words are a pile-up at the intersection of heartbreak and hysteria.
“Everybody Smokes in Hell,” recorded in the style of the golden era, with one mono take through a single old-timey microphone, the track mixed by literally rearranging the musicians (including Brandon T. Washington) around the piano, is charming, crafty, and clever. It should have been pressed to vinyl, but at least “Dear Abby” actually was. Paul has used vinyl, cassette, reel-to-reel, laptops, DAT, CD, and MP3, tracking two decades of changes in technology (and his oscillating finances), showing an earnest, opportunistic, tenacious, and always creative drive to make music. Stranded on a desert island, he’d beat sticks together and record it with a sewing needle in a coconut shell. Given a budget, he’d buy a Wurlitzer funmaker or have the frets removed from a left-handed guitar.
The song “Song About Everything” meant when it appeared and means again now. There is something Paul can do with his voice that could never be imparted through expensive lessons. He tweaks from it a microvibrato, a mountainous range, a willingness to be quiet sometimes, plunging you to the depths of his naïveté and relentless sweetness. Something that will always rub the local guitar guys the wrong way. The breathtaking disparity between presence of talent and absence of arrogance undermines the cock rock project, shaking it to its naked grumbling, drinking, smoking ruins. The voice, taut as a cello string, is here, wringing from nothing a cut-out horizon of optimism too nontoxic to touch. There is an orchestra of vocal chords and guitar strings with accelerando and pianissimo as effortless as a perfect first take improvised on the spot.
When you go to the ocean, whether you want to splash around, build sand castles, or swim out into the deep, it’s going to be about the waves. Emotion draws you forward, drags you back, knocks you down, sucks you under. If you fight it, you lose; you can only accept and dance with it, and hope it will take you where you thought you were trying to go.
Dear Paul, you don’t know how lucky you are, and never will. I, a guy who has more songs in his living room than you do days in your life, thinks you are for real, so pure I won’t even bullshit you, and I am prepared to bullshit any musician or friend or local artist just to be encouraging, because it’s the right thing to do, to bullshit people, to nurture art in this kind of world, whatever form it takes. But you, you, you have a gift. These songs go places nobody else can reach, and come at me from angles I am unprepared to defend myself against, puncture me in a spray of tears, and never, ever, for too long, get old. It never matters if you don’t get played on college radio, if fuckers steal all your bass guitars, throw you out of their bands, don’t pay you for the shit you did. You got a line on eternity; you are dialed in to the human soul. You got a thing compared to which none of this can matter, this puppet play we stage on the flimsy blacktop of this teetering world, with its brokers and buyers and jokers and liars. You are still my friend—your mind, your hands.
Dear readers, Paul’s aloft among the church spires and telephone wires. The TV antennas all gleam like whitecaps upon the sea. Paul has wandered the cavernous hissing fluorescent night. If he could get on a greyhound, you know he would in a minute. Paul looks starched into his Sunday clothes. He’s got a big fat black wallet full of cash when payday comes. And now he knows just what Tom Clancy would say. I’ll be happy when he croons to me on VH1. My mother says he’s dangerous. Paul looks at the funny pages without even a smile. He wrote this song in a minute. He feels like he’s been flattened by a truck but he managed miraculously to survive. He could send me breakfast through the U.S. mail. I can’t talk about it, Paul, please just buy me a beer.
Download a selection of free MP3s by Paul Kotheimer here. The album Song About Everything is available for purchase on iTunes.