The Mad Genius Next Door

Composer, poet, novelist, and all-around oddball Franz Kamin has hobnobbed with John Cage, Thurston Moore, and lots of other left-of-center heroes--now he just wants to finish what he started.

Having dropped out of high school, the young wastrel cleaned up his act enough to get into Indiana University, back when it was one of the best music schools in the country. "I was a straight-A student, then I started drinking again," he remembers, smiling. "It took me 10 years to get through college." Meanwhile, his reputation as a composer grew, largely thanks to the efforts of FIASCO, an arts organization he co-founded while at Indiana. After graduation he relocated to New York, making the entire journey "on a rocking chair in the back of a truck, wedged between two pianos."

Neither addiction nor lack of experience at earning a living counted as significant liabilities in mid-'60s Manhattan's freewheeling art scene. And the learning disability that has forced Kamin to find new ways of doing things all his life proved to be an asset in a milieu where originality was prized. He established lasting friendships with John Cage, avant-garde poet Jackson Mac Low, and legendary "topless cellist" Charlotte Moorman.

A drunken encounter with Station Hill Press founder George Quasha led to another sustained relationship. "He looked at some of my scores and said, 'You're a writer.' I said, 'No, I'm a composer.' He was insistent. 'You're a writer. I'm going to be a publisher and you're going to write for me.'" Quasha made good on his word, publishing Scribble Death, Kamin's first novel, as well as the miscellany, Ann-Margaret Loves You in the '80s.

The publisher was also responsible for Kamin's meeting with Thurston Moore. While working on Art Is, a film in which various artists attempt to define art in minute-long monologues, Quasha caught the guitarist and writer in Kingston, New York. When he trained the camera on him, Moore simply repeated Kamin's name over and over. "He has no idea of why he did it," Kamin offers, "but it turned out that several members of the band had been fans of my work for years."

They're not alone. Sonic surrealists Nurse With Wound named a 1982 album, Homotopy to Marie, after a line in one of Kamin's books. And Granary Books founder Steve Clay, one of the folks who helped the recovering Kamin get established in the Twin Cities, published The Man Who Was Always Standing There, an excerpt from Kamin's The Theory of Angels, in a deluxe edition of 55 copies late last century. (A few copies are still available, for a measly $2,500 or so.)

Now past 60, the ever-restless artist feels time's winged chariot drawing near. "I'm like a kid, trapped in this body that's aging all too quickly around me," he observes. "And my work is nowhere near finished."

Nor will it ever be, even if Kamin lives to be 130. While complete in itself, his output is a launching pad more than anything. Scores work as texts; texts could be scores, as could the visually striking "semiotic poems" that reflect his interest in ceremonial magic, one of many disciplines he's studied, along with yoga, tai chi, NLP, and hypnosis. Posterity is a fickle beast, but the depth and richness of what he's done pretty much guarantee that one or more ambitious youngsters will start wherever it is Franz Kamin ends up leaving off at some point in the future. Like Renaissance dude predecessors ranging from da Vinci to Cage, Kamin has created a world. Fuck. We should all be so crazy.

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