Our writer, Meatball Fulton, continues his tale of the early years of ZBS. You may recall, we started as a commune back in 1970. We're located on an island in the Hudson River. Well, it's a sort of island. The Hudson River is on one side of the property and the Lake Champlain Canal is on the other side, three bridges connect us to the mainland. We're midway between New York City and Montreal. Yes, it gets cold up here.

The commune lasted for about 12 years and then people staggered out into the world to see if they could fit in. Meatball, however, stayed on. And, as you can tell by the stories he's written, he never did fit in anywhere. Well, we now continue the true story of ZBS, The Early Years.

Shanks

Shanks was one of the founders of ZBS. He used to have a radio show in New Orleans. After a few years of being our Master Organic Gardener, he returned to radio, deejaying on a Glens Falls country/western station up here in the North Country.

Shanks did things that would really tick off the local rednecks, like the time he was playing a country song about a baby that had died and was now calling to the mother from the grave. Right in the middle he ripped it off the turntable (you could hear the needle plowing vinyl), and switched on the mike and said, "This is the sickest record I've ever heard. Who requested this? You oughta be ashamed of yourself!" And he smashed it on the side of his desk, crunched it into little pieces and threw them into the waste paper bucket. People began to wonder whether he really liked country/western music.

Eventually Shanks got into talk radio. He was darn good at it. He amused the locals when an incident happened at Comstock Prison, a maximum-security prison located about half an hour north of the station. Shanks called the prison guards "imbecile pig headed fascists," or something equivalent. It seems they were not amused. One night about five beefy guards came to the station while he was on the air and demanded an apology. Shanks refused. The local paper picked it up. Management recommended an apology.... or else.

Meatball said, "It was a brilliant apology, I wish I could recall the exact words, because if you listened closely what Shanks really said was, 'I make this apology because otherwise I'd lose my job. And you're still imbecile pig head fascists'."

Because of his "style," Shanks had gathered quite a local following. But he felt it was time to move on. He found a job down in Florida, first a talk show on radio and then on TV. While he was down there, he did something that made him a local hero. That is, a hero with the locals up here.

What happened was this: three high school kids in Florida were expelled from school for mooning. (You know what mooning is, right?) Well, that afternoon, on his TV show, Shanks said, "There is nothing wrong with mooning and it certainly does not warrant such a severe punishment." And to stress his point, he then stood up, turned his back to the camera, dropped his pants and shorts, bent over and mooned the camera.

We've often wondered what some of those frail Florida retirees thought when they saw Shanks and his bare bottom filling their screens. Fortunately, there were no reports of anyone keeling over.

Shanks' full moon was picked up by the Associated Press and sent out across the country. The locals up here, recalling his lively talk show, were thrilled. Finally, one of their own had gone on to become famous.

ZBS Foundation is Formed

Way back in 1973 we started ZBS Foundation. First we had ZBS Media, founded in 1970, a supposedly for-profit corporation. Since we weren't making any money, we decided to start a not-for-profit organization. Roach, our business manager at the time, got the idea that maybe we could get our hands on some arts money. He contacted the New York State Council on the Arts and two people came up to check us out.

Meatball recalls, "I was working on Moon Over Morocco. We took them to the studio and played the first ten minutes. While it was playing, I was watching to see their reaction. As they listened their faces went through the most remarkable transformation ... from faint interest, to bewilderment, to consternation, and finally to thinly veiled disdain. What we had just played was obviously not Art."

"After a few civil words, they walked out of the studio into the light of day, grimaced, said goodbye, got into their car and drove away. Roach turned to me and said, ‘Gee, I thought it sounded pretty good.' "

But something did come out of it. They liked our studio, they loved our location (on the Hudson River), and they made an offer. They asked if we'd consider doing an artist in residency program. Artists would come up from the Manhattan area and spend a week in the country while working on experimental sound for their projects. There would be filmmakers, video artists, dancers, performance artists, writers, poets ... real artists.

Meanwhile, the legislators in Albany, the capital, were complaining that all the arts money was going into New York City (where all the artists lived) but they wanted the arts money spread around the state. We happened to be living in Washington County, a cow and corn county, and the Arts Council had never found a reason to give money to dairy farmers. So, the Council created a reason ... we were it. Now the Arts Council could say, "See, art dollars go to ZBS in Cow County." They failed to mention that we were hauling all the artists up from Manhattan.

We started the Artists in Residence Program and artists came up here for a week in the country. Bill Viola, a video artist, spent several days floating around in an inner tube in our pond. Using hydrophones (underwater mics), Bill recorded the sounds beneath the surface at various times of the day and night. Meatball: "I must say, we never did figure out what was making all those crazy noises, chirps, clicks, and snapping sounds. Made you think twice before you went skinny dipping."

Other artists took long walks down country lanes, recorded nature, or slept all day and worked all night.

A lot of neat people passed through in the years we ran the program, from 1974 until 1982. All sorts of artists came here, most you've never heard of, but there were a few that went on to be somebody. Phillip Glass worked on the music for his opera, Einstein on the Beach; Amiri Baraka read poems with a jazz combo; Meredith Monk sang songs inside a farmer's silo; Terry Fox created a symphony based upon the labyrinth at Chartres Cathedral using twelve cats purring; John Ashbery recorded poems; William Wegman came up with his dog, Man Ray; David Tudor created all kinds of strange instruments and sounds; Allen Ginsberg did a record and so on.

A playwright by the name of Ron Tavel wrote a radio play called, "My Foetus Lived on Amboy Street". There were about eight or nine characters. He said he was bringing a wonderful actor with him who would do all the voices. Meatball: "I was curious to hear how one actor would do all the voices because there were men and women, some very old, and children, and even the voice of the foetus. I figured, boy this actor must be something. I picked them up at the bus station, was introduced to the actor, his name was Harvey Feirstein (he's been in a number of movies since then). He has this great deep gravelly voice. I couldn't imagine how he was going to change that voice for each character."

"He didn't. In fact, he did all the characters with that gravelly voice. Even the voice of the baby still in the mother's womb spoke like a sort of gravelly voiced foetus. But he got so deeply into each character, he became the person. As he switched from the mother to the child to the old man all chatting with each other, you forgot it was Harvey's voice. Boy, was he good."

And then there was Laurie Anderson. Maybe you know of Laurie, a performance artist that's done a number of concerts and records. Laurie was one of the first artists to come up to ZBS back around 1974. She wanted to do a sound piece. Bobby and Meatball introduced her to the Harmonizer, a pitch shifter that could change her voice, drop it down, make her sound like a man, all sorts of neat things.

Laurie used to come up here fairly often. She walks very lightly on the earth, as though she'll float off at any moment. Sometimes she seems a little out there, not exactly 'spaced,' more like somewhere else, 'tranced' might be a better word. We'll give you an example.

Meatball: "Laurie arrived one evening when we were all gathered around the TV, it was some mini series that had been going on for weeks and this was the last episode. They were doing the usual recap at the beginning, about five minutes of quick flashes of everything that had happened; you'd see a shot of a plane landing, a shot inside the airport, getting in a cab, arriving at the hotel, checking in, in the room, on the phone, just bang bang bang, they condensed five hours into five minutes, and then broke for commercials. We cut the sound, started talking to Laurie, and realized she was blank, just sitting there wide eyed, silent, gone god knows where. So, we just sat there in silence, waiting. She came out of it, looked around and said, 'Oh, I thought that was the story.' Laurie hadn't seen television in so long she thought everything had speeded up and that was how TV now told stories."

"The first time Laurie came up here, Max was doing his ‘silence' thing, not speaking. It's a discipline that teaches you that if you shut up, you'll begin to realize there are all kinds of things going on that you weren't aware of, inside and outside of yourself. Max would walk around with a little chalkboard and write something when he needed to communicate, ‘What time is it?' ‘When's dinner?' ‘Where's my other sock?' things like that. He would do this for a week at a time."

"We didn't think anything about it when Laurie was first introduced to all the members of the commune. When we got to Max, he wrote ‘Hi, I'm Max' on his chalk board and we said, ‘oh, this is Max, he doesn't speak.' Laurie was here for a week. When she was leaving, as everyone said good-bye, Max said, ‘Nice meeting you.' "

"Years later when Laurie stopped by one day, she said, ‘I really believed Max couldn't speak. At the time I thought, isn't it nice these people take him in and treat him just like a normal person.'"

Thanks to Laurie

Meatball was writing, producing, directing, distributing these radio stories and the last thing he wanted to do was engineer. But, Bobby, our engineer, and Laurie hit it off and he left with her. We didn't have an engineer. MB: "We were a commune, we had no money to hire someone, and so ... I had to learn how to engineer.... Thanks to Laurie Anderson."

Bobby would still come up to do the Artists in Residence Program, but we figured it was time we also had a woman engineer. So we brought in Roma. Roma was a musician, produced folk records, and lived near by.

MB: "Around 1980 I was working on a pilot for the first Ruby. Roma recorded a rock band down in Manhattan and we were trying to fit the dialogue over the music (we failed, they were too loud). As we were playing the voice of Angel Lips, the sultry, slinky android, I was telling Roma that I wanted Angel Lips to sound really sexy, a real turn on."

"Roma listened to Angel Lips purring to Teru, and then said, ‘Well, you've succeeded, she's turning me on.' "

Later Meatball said, "When I wrote the character, I never considered the possibility that she might turn on a woman, too. Interesting."

Back to Laurie

One day Laurie borrowed a portable tape machine of ours, a Revox. She hung some blankets in her loft down on Canal Street and she and Bobby did a record, with Roma as the producer. It was a single, using a tabletop 4-track machine, an old vocoder she had, mixing down to that Revox. They even piped her voice into speakers set out in the loft to create a reverb effect.

The record was distributed by a very small company. Somehow it made its way to England and John Peel, a DJ in London, started playing it. It was called, "Oh, Superman."

Now, speak about luck, Laurie was trying to negotiate a contract with Warner Brothers but they wouldn't accept Roma as the producer, they insisted upon bringing in their own hotshot big name. Laurie wanted Roma.

Meanwhile, back in London, as the weeks stretched on, and "Oh, Superman" took off, stayed at number one for three weeks, and in fact, six weeks later was still in the top ten, Warners did a complete turn around. They said, "Alright, alright, you can have Roma, you can have whatever you want, just sign here." Laurie went on to do Big Science and several more for Warners with Roma as the producer.

Can you imagine, doing a record on a small tape recorder behind some blankets in your room and it becomes a number one hit? Yep, that kid's got talent.

If you are familiar with Laurie's work you probably know about her tape bow violin, something Bobby invented. On the bridge of the violin is a playback head from a tape machine. Replacing the hairs on the bow is a two-track tape with two different voices on each track. As she moves the tape bow back and forth across the playback head, the voice speaks, sometimes forward, sometimes backward, sometimes very slowly, as she lingers or strokes the word. It's an eerie kind of sound.

MB: "One year when she spent Christmas with us, she played her violin, the real violin, and a neighbor who had stopped by listened attentively. After Laurie finished and went out into the kitchen, he whispered, ‘I hope the poor girl isn't planning to make a living doing this.' "

There will be more, whenever our next newsletter comes out, as we continue ZBS, The Early Years.

Unfortunately for us all, there never was any more written to this. Sigh.... but we're glad to have what we've got, anyways! -ed.