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A Brief History of Nothing
Charlie Nothing and his dingulator
By Phil Campbell
(more articles from this author)
2007-10-09
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In October 2007, legendary performer Charlie Nothing passed away at his Soquel California home. The following article was originally published in The Fretboard Journal, Number 6, Summer 2007. Charlie was pleased with the story, saying "I've had interviews and articles before but yours is the best by far… Thank you so much!"

Thank you Charlie Nothing! We miss you.

According to his official biography, Charlie Nothing "was not born, did not go to school, did not die," and his main instrument is the dingulator. Obsessive record collectors may recall his name from the 1967 LP The Psychedelic Saxophone of Charlie Nothing, one of the only non-guitar records released on John Fahey's Takoma label. Contemporary listeners might know Nothing from his powerful performance of dingulation, as he calls his music, in Chicago at the 2005 Two Million Tongues Festival. Featuring a roster of difficult-to-categorize musicians, it was the ideal venue for this difficult-to-categorize performer. Josephine Foster, who was also on the bill, describes him as being like "the incarnation of Ubu Rex" and says, "Charlie seems to lose himself deeply in the raw spirit of performance."

In the years between 1967 and 2005, you might have crossed paths with Nothing at any number of places. Perhaps it was in a New York loft in the mid 1960s, when he gave a series of performances that had grown out of the drug scene and the jam sessions around his house. Nothing's first band included himself on sopranino sax, a classically trained Indian tabla drummer and a young Japanese woman who recited litanies of everyday items such as "underarm deodorant, soap, green shoes, pink shoes, lipstick…"

Next came the First Uniphrenic Church and Bank Band, a group that included a young, pre-Blondie Debbie Harry in what must have been some of her first vocal performances. Besides playing the Village Gate, the Uniphrenic band put on a series of Friday night concerts in a friend's Manhattan loft, where everything, including the toilet, was decorated in always-fashionable black. The loft concerts were extremely popular--perhaps it was the music or maybe it was the free beer--but the fire department eventually shut them down.

Nothing then moved on to Los Angeles, where he performed at an arena show with Frank Zappa; joined and then quit the cast of Hair; and performed a flute concert at the Los Angeles Museum of Modern Art. The museum curator assured Nothing that there would be no restrictions on his performance, so the concert took place in the men's room after hours for an audience of two.

After his stint in Los Angeles, Nothing went north to the Bay Area, where he lived in a squat in the back of a Haight-Ashbury sandal shop and played love-ins, North Beach jazz clubs and similar venues of the era. Nothing recorded The Psychedelic Saxophone of Charlie Nothing during this period. The album featured saxophone improvisation accompanied by concert gong, conga drum and a banjo ukulele that was borrowed from Tiny Tim for the occasion. Nothing also drew the cover art. Not surprisingly, it never cracked the Billboard Top 100, but it did attain some cult success in Europe among aficionados of free improvised music.

Nothing eventually settled in Santa Cruz, California, where he became a beekeeper and an expert in the removal of stinging insects. He did not perform from 1984 until 2004, feeling he had "evolved past the entertaining-monkey-jumping-up-and-down-on-the-stage stage." But Nothing was not artistically inactive. He published books (under the name Charles Martin Simon), created art in many different media and even sent a tape of music to Ronald Reagan. The White House replied with a nice letter that opened: "Dear Mr. Nothing, The President appreciates your support..."

And he built dingulators, of course, a class of instrument he invented. At first glance, a dingulator has superficial similarities to a steel-bodied National-style guitar. The number of strings varies, up to as many as 21, but seven or eight strings is typical. Dingulators have raised frets akin to those on a sitar, and each one is unique. Classic examples tend to have scrolls and curlicues reminiscent of a Gibson Style 0 guitar or perhaps a Gibson H-4 mandola. They are made from old cars.

Why cars? "Cars have the right kind of steel," Nothing explains. "Cars have got very soulful steel." But the steel has to come from older cars: "Metal on new cars, whether it's American or foreign, is just not up to quality." Nothing's current project is to make a dingulator from a 1965 VW Karmann Ghia. There is a political message in his artistic recycling. "It's a sword-to-plowshare kind of thing," he says. "Cars to guitars."

Dingulators have steel strings and friction pegs. Their tuning is variable, organic and evolving. "The ideal would be to never tune them, to just find where they are going and go with it," he says. "But sometimes I do make adjustments." Nothing is a highly skilled artisan and welder. The form of each dingulator is hand-drawn in chalk directly onto the metal.

Foster says, "Dingulators remind me of African instruments; they are folk-art masterpieces." The African influence is probably real. Talking about the origin of dingulators, Nothing demonstrated his favorite kalimba, which had a broken tine that produced a note with a deep, rich buzz. That one buzzing note had the sound he liked and saved the otherwise unremarkable instrument from the trashcan.

What does a dingulator sound like? "They are tuned percussion to animate and punctuate his spoken-word diatribes," Foster explains. Another point of reference might be Hans Reichel's early, pre-daxophone, modified-guitar recordings; Derek Bailey's music also comes to mind. Nothing, though, is unfamiliar with both Reichel and Bailey, so it seems that dingulation evolved on its own.

Nothing can be in-your-face confrontational, especially in his explicitly political songs, but there are more facets to his music. As he demonstrated the voice of each individual dingulator, Nothing improvised music of great beauty, passion and intensity. He plays completely in the moment and is sometimes possessed by musical spirits. What are Nothing's musical influences? "Everything," he says. "I'm influenced probably as much by the stuff I don't like as the stuff I like. So I'd have to say I'm influenced by everything." One of the things Nothing doesn't like is Muzak. You can believe him when he promises, "Dingulation will never be on Muzak!"

In 2004, Nothing realized he was, in fact, "a monkey jumping up and down" and he began performing in public again. After playing small venues in the Santa Cruz area, he began to receive invitations to various music festivals, including the Pauze Festival in Ghent, Belgium, and the Two Million Tongues Festival in Chicago. There was, however, one problem with launching this new phase of his career: Dingulators aren't particularly portable. To get around that obstacle, Nothing has started work on a smaller travel version. He's building a dingulator with a removable neck that can be stored in the body, making a compact and indestructible steel carrying case. All dimensions were carefully planned to meet international airline requirements for carry-on luggage. It remains to be seen if the airport bureaucracies will be able to cope with dingulation.


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