The Mad Genius Next Door

Nathan Grumdahl

Franz Kamin's living-legend status is finally seeping through to the hinterlands. And it seems to be making him younger. Sure, as in every life, there's still room for improvement. The composer, pianist, novelist, poet, mathematician, and Yahweh knows what else has a bad back that's getting worse. And the money could always be better. And there's barely room to maneuver in the tiny St. Paul studio apartment that's served as his home and center of operations for 13 years. Apart from a few paths--to his computer, piano, kitchen, equally crowded bedroom, and bath--every inch of his place is packed--with books, CDs, DVDs, and dozens of manila envelopes holding manuscripts, letters, scores, and all the other stuff he's accumulated over the past half-century or so.

"I get by," he offers, smiling. Kamin smiles often, in an ambivalent, twinkle-eyed way, like a big gray cat who's just swallowed a rare parakeet but feels ever-so-slightly remorseful about it. The expression goes well with his appearance. He's a well-fed guy, dressed today in black, with a full beard and neatly trimmed silver hair slicked back on one side and cascading down over the opposite eye. He looks like a cross between Santa and Bluebeard. "I get a little money from the government," he continues without changing his expression. "I'm certifiably insane. And there's the back."

For an alleged madman, Kamin is awfully coherent, not to mention exceedingly quick at digging significant documents out of the information vortex surrounding us. When I ask about a rumored photo of him with Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore, taken backstage after the band's Quest show last summer, Kamin produces it in minutes. He looks sharper now than he does in the photo.

He also looks better--healthier, more fully assembled and on top of his game--than he did the first time I saw him, at a reading he gave at Nagasaki Park on a summer evening in 1987. Fresh out of Hazelden, he had the slightly dazed demeanor of a man still trying to find his way around life minus the liquor and drugs that had dominated it for decades. Despite his manifest lack of self-confidence and a P.A. that made the poet sound as though he were talking into a pillow, the event was suffused with charm, enhanced by the sunset, a passing train, and a deer gamboling nearly undetected beneath the bluffs of downtown St. Paul.

"I really was worried about whether I'd be able to write or perform back then," he recalls, hands folded Buddha-like on lap. "In New York, I'd reached the point where I needed a fifth of something or other just to do a reading. Trying to find some kind of direction, I read about John Berryman and all these other alcoholics who quit. It turned out that, usually, they just fell apart. I was a little surprised when the work just started pouring out of me."

Seventeen years of sobriety, countless readings and concerts, and two yet to be published novels later (the poetry chapbooks, mysterious one-offs, works in progress, and whatnot are too numerous to count), Kamin is still hemorrhaging art. This past January, he performed his composition Behavioral Drift XIV at Salon, a monthly highbrow music showcase held in the Lowertown studio used by modern classical ensemble Zeitgeist. Working a packed house with four separate ensembles playing more or less simultaneously, Kamin and a second reader offered a Byzantine explanation of the highly textural piece while strategically placed woodwind, string, brass, and percussion players bounced squawks and glissandi around the room. Like much of his music, Drift XIV, a recent manifestation of a decades-old series, reflects Kamin's interest in arcane math. On February 14, he'll offer a performance of another mathematical romp, "Coilular Angel," as part of Aphrodite's Back: A Valentine Reveal, a jointly presented Rain Taxi/Southern Theater extravaganza that also features writer Nor Hall and visual artist Harriet Bart.

Angels, a recurring theme in his work, also make an appearance on "US," from Kamin's forthcoming self-titled CD retrospective (due out this spring on the Innova Recordings label). Kamin's voice hovers over woodwind, piano, and vocal figures that scurry and slither like little sylvan creatures. "When the angels make love, the sisters have sex; when the angels and the sisters make love, the spider has sex all by himself," reads Kamin in a metallic, nasal voice reminiscent of William Burroughs and Charles Bukowski in their prime. The 13-minute narrative takes its characters on a harrowing journey through meadow and forest before sending them home to bed, twice dead, but relatively safe and sound, for "perhaps a little ménage à cinq."

"I grew up surrounded by nature," explains the self-described "rich kid." Kamin spent his childhood on secluded estates in Wisconsin. "Frog choruses, whippoorwills--all these animal sounds moved around me constantly. All of my work in music has been an attempt to recover that feeling."

When he reached his teens, the young nature lover acquired an avid interest in swallows--of booze. He lost interest in his studies and acquired the kind of reputation that made parents tell their daughters to stay away. "Of course, that made me all the more attractive," he adds. One concerned father even had him tossed into jail on suspicion of drug dealing. "Can you imagine?" he asks, still incredulous. "In the '50s?"

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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