He may not be a household name, but this Bloomfield rocker's gotta play
Story by JAY LUSTIG / Photos by JERRY McCREA
It's after midnight on a Saturday night at Surreal Estate, which is presenting a four-act concert billed as "A Pristine Pop Show." This isn't a nightclub, exactly, but a building in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn, where people live and collectively organize concerts and other events. There is a shower in the restroom, and homemade wine and cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon beer are sold out of the kitchen.
The headliner is on stage with his electric guitar -- and he couldn't look more out of place. With his bear-like physique, thick glasses, mane of unkempt hair and full white beard, he looks like he should be teaching a graduate course in physics to the twentysomethings in the other bands. But he is chasing his rock ¤'n' roll dream just as ardently as they are. Maybe more so.
He is R. Stevie Moore, 56, of Bloomfield, an artist who, over the last four decades, has made music on his own terms, developing a worldwide underground reputation in the process.
His specialty is quirky pop songs, but he has experimented with styles ranging from country to the atmospheric reggae offshoot known as dub. He rarely plays in clubs, but rarely stops recording. He estimates his output at more than 400 albums, many with puns or references to himself in the title ("Pleasant Tents," "Delicate Tension," "How Can You Resist R. Stevie Moore?"). All have been made with a low budget and with no support from the mainstream music industry.
He has a backing band for the occasional club dates. But he has done most of his recording on his own, writing the songs, playing all the instruments and doing the arranging, producing and engineering.
"I never threw my hands up in the air and thought, 'I wish I could get these sounds in my head on tape,'" he says, a few days later, in Bloomfield. "Quite the contrary. I couldn't stop."
Rock 'n' roll homebody
"I like to stay home, where it's safe and sound," Moore (full name: Robert Steven Moore) sang on his 1986, new-wave-style song "I Like To Stay Home." This isn't a sentiment voiced in many rock songs (with the exception of The Beach Boys' "In My Room"). But Moore is compulsively honest. And he really does like to stay home.
His cramped living room, filled with stacks of CDs, DVDs, cassettes and old reel-to-reel tapes, is where he spends most of his time. There is lots of personal memorabilia, too. A photo of his high school band, The Taxmen, in 1967. One of him playing with bluegrass master Randy Scruggs (they went to high school together, in Nashville). A recent photo of him with David Byrne, at a release party for a CD of songs inspired by Scottish artist David Shrigley (Moore and Byrne both contributed tracks).
The room is "a museum, and it's a scrapbook," says Moore. "Just like my music."
His recording studio is there, as well as his office. When orders come in via his website (rsteviemoore.com), he fills them himself, duplicating a CD, DVD or cassette, or grabbing an old vinyl album from his stash. He does most of the art for his releases himself. He stuffs the envelopes and writes the addresses, too.
"I can supply almost any demand," he says. "But, once in a while, somebody will order something that I can't even find because it's so obscure. No one's ever ordered it -- I have it for sale on the site and I should actually take it down."
He lives with Krystyna Olsiewicz, who uses the phrase "musical diarist" to describe him.
They have been a couple since 1987 and have lived together for 11 years. She works as an office manager, giving them the steady income they need.
Like Moore, she once was a DJ at radio station WFMU-FM, back when it was located at Upsala College in East Orange (it's now in Jersey City). She is also a musician and has sung on some of his albums.
It's hard to imagine Moore living with someone who didn't share his vision.
"I'm friends with the people he grew up with in Nashville," Olsiewicz says. "Some of them are still making music and some are not. For some of them, it's a once-in-a-while sort of thing. But for him, it's more like life."
This has been an unusually busy time for Moore, concert-wise. Over the past year or so, he has played about 15 shows. Many years, he will just do one or two.
One of the gigs -- at Maxwell's in Hoboken in November 2007 -- led to a promising recording project. Don Fleming, a producer who has worked with groups like Sonic Youth, Teenage Fanclub and The Posies, was in the audience and loved what he heard. Subsequently, he and Moore embarked on the first full-band, professionally recorded album of Moore's career; they hope to finish and release it at some point next year.
"To me, it gets back into kind of a Beatles thing," Fleming says. "He grew up on that kind of stuff, and that's what I grew up on. But then he adds a very eclectic, eccentric twist to everything.
"I like a lot of his improv stuff, and I think the stuff he does live is fascinating. But the songs that I got him to do for the record were more like standard pop songs. I think he writes really well-crafted songs in a way that not a lot of people still do."
Another upcoming project is a DVD compilation, put together by longtime friend and fan Michael Sheppard for his indie music and film label, Transparency.
"There's an irony and a satire to what he does, but it's still completely straightforward, and sincere and loving," says Sheppard. "It's weird how each time through, each song grows on you more. There's some genuine super talent at melody writing there."
There is music in R. Stevie Moore's genes.
His father, Bob Moore, is the bassist who anchored the A Team -- the leading group of Nashville studio musicians in the ¤'50s and ¤'60s. He played on Patsy Cline's "Crazy" and Elvis Presley's "Return To Sender." Also, Roy Orbison's "Crying," Roger Miller's "King of the Road," Loretta Lynn's "Coal Miner's Daughter," Simon and Garfunkel's "The Boxer" and countless other hits. Now retired, Bob Moore claims to have played on more than 17,000 songs -- and there is no reason to doubt him.
He also got his son some work. In the late ¤'50s, R. Stevie provided the cute-kid vocals for a duet with Jim Reeves, "But You Love Me, Daddy." The song was released a decade later, after Reeves died in an airplane crash, and became a Top 20 hit in England.
R. Stevie says his father was constantly busy with session work and "not around a lot." It was unspoken but assumed, he says, that his father wanted him to become a session musician, just like him.
He took piano lessons and learned to play other instruments. But once the Beatles hit, in 1964, R. Stevie got caught up in the rock revolution.
"Dad would be coming home from sessions, bringing rough-mix tapes of these country artists," he says. "And I really didn't have an opinion. I never thought, 'Oh, I hate that hillbilly, twangy stuff.' But I wasn't much of a fan either ¤'cause I was diggin' Top 40 radio. And not just rock.
"That was the joy of living back then. The hit parade was variety. Louis Armstrong -- 'Hello Dolly.' And the Singing Nun. And the Beach Boys. Allan Sherman's 'Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh!' -- that was a big part of influencing me. It's all about variety."
After graduating from high school in 1970, he attended Vanderbilt University for a semester, then dropped out. He did some sessions, playing behind easy-listening king Perry Como, among others. He also played in club bands and did some work for his father's publishing company.
He was putting most of his creativity, though, into the offbeat music he was recording in his own home. And while his father wasn't interested ("He was never very supportive of my creative streak," R. Stevie says), his maternal uncle Harry Palmer was.
Palmer, who was living in Verona, had been in a rock band, Ford Theatre. At the time, he was managing record stores. And he loved the songs his nephew was recording. "They were ingenious," Palmer says. "I couldn't believe some of the things he was able to do with the limited equipment he had."
In 1976, Palmer financed a pressing of 100 vinyl albums of some of R. Stevie's songs, called "Phonography." It wasn't an official release -- just something to send to people in the industry to generate interest.
Critic Ira Robbins received a copy and published a rave review in the influential rock magazine Trouser Press, describing the album as an "outrageous collection of musical brain spewage that sounds, at times, like Thunderclap Newman, Todd Rundgren and the Bonzo Dog Band."
With Palmer's encouragement, Moore moved to New Jersey to be close to the New York music scene. Palmer got him a job, too, working at a Sam Goody record store at the Livingston Mall.
After a stint at another Sam Goody at the Garden State Plaza in Paramus, he wound up at Crazy Rhythms, an independent record store in Montclair; he worked there from 1984 to 1999. He also DJ'ed at WFMU, from 1979 to 1985, and other FMU DJs championed his work.
Dennis Diken of the Smithereens remembers hearing his name on FMU all the time, and thinking it was Our Stevie Moore. "I know some other people that have said that," Diken says. "He was like a local, mythical legend."
Moore never got a big recording contract but continued to crank out music. For a while, he was self-releasing a 90-minute cassette every other month and selling them through mail order.
"I can make anything a release if I want to," he says. "It's shooting myself in the foot -- it's artistic suicide -- but it doesn't matter. There are those who always say, 'The man needs an editor.' And I'm totally in agreement. But that doesn't mean that I'm gonna do it myself."
Faced with the music industry's indifference, he found alternative ways to promote his music. He took out an ad in Trouser Press, offering to send an album to anyone who called his home phone number. He made frequent appearances on the wacky "Uncle Floyd Show," which was broadcast on a number of local television networks. (Clips of Moore's appearances, along with many other videos he has made through the years, are now viewable on YouTube.com.)
Palmer started working for major record companies and rose quite high in some of them. But he never was able to persuade anyone to release his nephew's music.
"I would often get someone off to the side and play them some of Steve's stuff," he says. "Anybody with good ears would recognize that this guy had some genius. But it was always difficult for anybody to come up with commercial viability because Steve wasn't on the road working, as a band. He wasn't building a live following.
"You present a band at a record company and they say, 'Well, tell us what's going on with the band. Let's send someone out to see them live,' and so on. Well, Steve was more like the mystery artist working in his apartment."
Moore hasn't done it all on his own, though. He has made collaborative albums with kindred spirits like Jad Fair and Lane Steinberg, and has a large circle of supporters and occasional collaborators among the local music community.
Members of the band Dr. Dog like his work, so much so they hired him to open for them this summer at the Bowery Ballroom in Manhattan and the Music Hall of Williamsburg. ("Two of the biggest gigs of my life," Moore says.) They also have released a collection of his work as a digital-only album on their Royersford, Pa., label, Park the Van.
Back in Brooklyn
The Surreal Estate gig did not go well. Since some of the members of Moore's band were not available, he decided to try something new: a trio format, with him and Michael Jodry on guitars and vocals, and Bill Janoff on percussion. They did not rehearse and it showed.
Later, Moore didn't pretend it worked, calling the show "one of the worst, ever" -- and emphasizing that he, and not his supporting cast, was to blame.
The next day, a scathing review appeared on a blog (rightawaydearreader.blogspot.com). Moore posted a link on his MySpace page, figuring it was good for a laugh, if nothing else.
He has never edited anything out, however embarrassing. And he's not about to start now.
"You either get R. Stevie," he says, "or you don't."
Favorite early records: Eddie Lawrence's "The Old Philosopher" and Buchanan & Goodman's "Flying Saucer," Tom & Jerry (singles), Ken Nordine's "Next!" and Chet Atkins' "Hi-Fi In Focus" (LPs)
Favorite book: "Haven't read full books since schooldays, only seek out reference books -- and often. Books have become obsolete, haven't they?"
Pet peeves: "All these huge jeepy SUVs replacing standard automobiles (and I don't even drive!). And worse, the new popular maniacal lifestyle of everyone constantly having to hold and use their cell phones so urgently, like a surgeon on call."
Three words that best describe yourself: "Stubborn, kind, Othello."
Next gig: Jan. 7 at Maxwell's in Hoboken
Published Dec. 28, 2008