Who Is Dr. Fester?

Dr. Fester, Mr. Bulbous and Baron Beefheart. Drawing by Amy M. Ahlstrom, October 2005
Dr. Fester, Mr. Bulbous and Baron Beefheart. Drawing by Amy M. Ahlstrom, October 2005.

In 1914, the Italian Futurist Luigi Russolo first performed his concerto, entitled, “The Art of Noises.” The piece was composed for eighteen Intonarumori, a series of decidedly abnormal homemade instruments with names like Exploder, the Crackler, the Buzzer and the Scraper. While the debut performance in Milan was met with resistance and ended in a riot, his ideas were embraced by key figures, such as Maurice Ravel ("L’enfant et les sortleges"), Eric Satie ("Parade"), and Igor Stravinsky ("Rite of Spring").

This very same day was equally momentous half way around the world in New Orleans, Jefferson Parish. A boy was born to a Riverboat Captain, known locally as Capt. Ignacious Leboeuf, and a crawfish jerkey monger’s daughter, Calliope DuFossat, named Hermes. Myth has it this baby upon breaching the womb bleating none other than, “The Awakening of a City,” one of the noisier themes from Russolo’s “The Art of Noises.”

Luigi Russolo (left) and his assistant Ugo Piatti with their 'Intonarumori', 1913 -- 'By selecting, coordinating, and controlling all the noises, we will enrich mankind with a new unsuspected pleasure of the senses.'
Luigi Russolo (left) and his assistant Ugo Piatti with their ‘Intonarumori’, 1913 — ‘By selecting, coordinating, and controlling all the noises, we will enrich mankind with a new unsuspected pleasure of the senses.’

A few years earlier, the Futurist revolution had only one member, Filippo Marinetti. Lucky for him, he was engaged to the daughter of the owner of French newspaper Le Figaro. On February 20, 1909, he published The Founding and Manifesto of Futurism on the front page. “We declare that the splendour of the world has been enriched with a new form of beauty. The beauty of speed.” In 1913, Russolo expanded on that and Balilla Pratella’s Manifesto of Futurist Musicians in The Art Of Noise. He outlined how everyday sounds of nature, the city, animals and humans (without talking or singing) could be incorporated into music. “We must break out of the limited circles of sound and conquer the infinite variety of noise-sounds. . . Ancient life was all silence. With the invention of the machine, noise was born. Today, noise triumphs and reigns supreme over the sensibilities of men.”

Some have gone so far as to say that Hermes Leboeuf is the embodiment of that birth of noise, a Ganymede come to Earth to that ensure noise and music progressed together harmoniously. The Greek Hermes is known as a god of thieves and tricksters, of shepherds and travelers, god of speed, guardian of the gateway to the land of the dead, creator of the Lyre, and friend of Apollo, god of music.

As a small boy, Hermes is storied to have tamed alligators with a harmonica, and enjoyed the company of Louis Armstrong. In fact, it was Armstrong who supposedly coined Hermes’ nickname, Lil’ Fester, in response to a prank Hermes pulled on him by switching the mute for his cornet with a rotten yam. The name would stick with him for the rest of his life.

In a 1962 interview, Armstrong talked about developing his vocal “scat” style – “This lil’ feller I called Fester used to come by the house and Daisy would give him red beans and rice. He sure was a prankster [chuckles]. I was still playing with Kid Ory, and Lil’ Fester couldn’t have been more than seven. He would ask me to play with just my mouthpiece and laugh at me. He’d imitate my playing with his voice, and I thought to myself, huh. That ain’t a half bad idea.”

Young Fester rose above quickly his station, completing a Ph.D. at Tulane University in 1938 at the age of 24. He legally changed his last name to his former nom de plume so that colleagues would thereafter be obliged to call him Dr. Fester. He worked as a chemist for an unspecified U.S. government agency for a short time in 1939. Known for his pranks, Dr. Fester was dismissed when he was implicated in a scandal involving, what he called “an accident.” In essence, lysergic acid diethylamide (later known as LSD) found its way into the communal coffee and donut supply, as well as into the HQs toilet paper dispensary. Many agents suffered nightmarish visions, and even strong precognitions of the horrors of WWII.

Records, obtained in 1986 under the auspices of the Freedom of Information Act, detail an unofficial official review of the incident. Yet, the documents are a sea of blackened lines. The remaining four words of declassified text offer little indication of Dr. Fester’s true role: “There’s always somethin’ festering.” Following his non-linear logic, he alluded to ergot, the parasitic grain fungus that Dr. Hoffman used in his historic synthesis of LSD. Perhaps Dr. Fester was referring to the startling power found in the moldy underbelly of life? Commenting to The Nation magazine on the “war on drugs,” which the US government began waging 45 years after the incident, Dr. Fester snorted, “as the distributor, dealer and pusher, drugs are the last thing the government’s waging a war on.” The Nation reported that Dr. Fester also mentioned funding for illegal wars, but static interference made it unintelligible before the line went dead.

Between 1940 and 1955, information on what Dr. Fester did and where was spotty. Charles Addams, cartoonist for the New Yorker Magazine, claimed to have met Dr. Fester at an Art Tatum concert. The Dr. made such an impression on Addams, that he created a new character, “Uncle Fester,” in tribute to him. Over 20 years later, the character would become a lovable piece of popular culture as part of the Addams Family television show, which aired 1964-66. John Cage made just one mention in his journal of studying the I Ching with Dr. Fester in Seattle around 1941. It’s possible that Fester helped him make connections between the philosophy and his music, as embodied in the pieces, Imaginary Landscape No. 4 and Music Of Changes. In his notes for his 1948 thesis, The Mathematical Basis of the Arts, Joseph Schillinger (who’s students included George Gershwin and Glenn Miller) had several references to Dr. Fester, though he was never mentioned in the published version. Dr. Fester was spotted making frequent visits to an ailing George Russell at a Bronx hospital in 1945-46. In 1953, Russell published The Lydian Chromatic Concept of Tonal Organization, opening the door to modal music for John Coltrane, Miles Davis and Gil Evans.

In addition to philosophy and music theory, Fester’s interest in electronics eclipsed his work in chemistry, as he tinkered in his lab with various musical inventions, including his own variations on the Ondes Martenot (like the theramin but uses a moveable electrode rather than an antenna), tape recorders, reverb generators, solovoxes, claviolines, melochords and the Electronium Pi. He also recreated versions of the Noise Harmonium and the Russolo-Phone, instruments created by Luigi Russolo. When Edgard Varèse anonymously received an Ampex tape recorder in 1953, it jolted him out of a creative rut and inspired Déserts. Thereafter, it was rumored that Dr. Fester was the one supplying him with the electronic horns and whistles that he used for Poème Électronique at the 1958 Brussels World Fair. Many of these instruments would also be used by his friend George Russell, most notably in the 1967 piece, Electronic Sonata for Souls Loved By Nature.

Rumors circulated that while researching medicinal plants in Peru, Dr. Fester lived with the Amarekaire tribe. After consuming a brew of bitter roots and astringent vines, Dr. Fester claims to have seen god. He would later say that Iggy Pop bore a striking resemblance to this “vision.” Shortly before departing, he rescued a young monkey from a python’s coils. He named it Baron Beefheart, presumably in memorium to his dear father, Capt. Lebeouf.

Dr. Fester was also seen in Tangiers with Paul Bowles, Brion Gysin and William Burroughs. He introduced them to the Master Musicians Of Jajouka the ancient Moroccan musical Sufi brotherhood. When Burroughs showed Dr. Fester the first draft of a book he was working on, Fester told him it was “a piece of shit,” and proceeded to cut it into pieces while Baron Beefheart scattered them throughout the room. “Put it back together and I guarantee it’ll be better,” he said. “We must destroy all dogmatic verbal systems!” Burroughs angrily complied, as he had no other choice, taking credit for Fester’s cutup method.

In 1956, Fester emerged at Stanford University, teaching philosophy. When the question was raised about where and when Fester earned a doctorate in philosophy, a University representative said, “Herbert Marcuse vouched for Professor Fester’s credentials, and that’s good enough for us.” “Professor Fester taught me more in one day than I could teach in a year,” Marcuse confirmed, who would soon transfer from Brandeis to UC San Diego to be closer to his friend. Meanwhile, Fester spent time with beat poets like Allen Ginsberg, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Jack Kerouac, introducing them to the likes of Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Sun Ra.

Other young students were attracted to Fester’s amazing collection of electronic musical instruments, toys and gadgets. His protégés Terry Riley and LaMonte Young took notes as they would sit outside with taped loops, marimbas, theramins, harmoniums and oscillators, sampling and playing along with the symphony of crickets all night. The strange electronic sounds and percussion would sometimes attract kids who would smoke and trip and dance in the light of the bonfire to the sounds. Thirty years later, these would be known as “raves.” Riley and Young went on to become pioneers in minimalism and musique concrète. “Let the kids have all the glory,” said Fester, “I don’t need it.” Fester continued to freely give his ideas away, sharing his thoughts on frequency modulation synthesis with student John Chowning, where one oscillator modulates the pitch of another. Chowning would later patent the idea and license it to Yamaha, which used it in their early digital synthesizers.

During several extended sabbaticals, Fester would disappear for months at a time, with no one privy of his whereabouts. There were rumors that he had an unusually large Vampyroteuthis infernalis (which translates literally to “vampire squid from Hell”) in his lab named Mr. Bulbous. Vampire squid have red eyes that glow in the dark, and are the largest for their size than any other animal, and eight arms covered with sharp fang-like spikes, and an additional pair of arms that can extend twice its body length to capture prey. He rescued it while deep sea diving because it seemed too injured to survive on its own. Mr. Bulbous is over two and a half feet long, even though scientists claim that no specimen over 16” had ever been spotted in its natural environment, nor kept alive in captivity. People would occasionally confront Fester about the rumor, which he usually denied. But a few lucky souls would be invited to Fester’s lab. High school students Frank Zappa and Don Vliet made a pilgrimage to the lab, and Dr. Fester took a liking to them, cracking fart jokes and introducing them to the music of Stravinksy, Ornette Coleman and Harry Partch. Zappa teased his friend by borrowing the name of Dr. Fester’s monkey Baron Beefheart, calling him Captain Beefheart. An animal lover famous for making sculptures of animals as a small boy, Vliet embraced the nickname. Years later, Beefheart would make a sly reference to Dr. Fester’s more legendary pet with the phrase, “A squid eating dough in a polyethylene bag is fast ‘n’ bulbous, got me?” on his third record, Trout Mask Replica.

Dr. Fester’s boycott of commercial radio
Drawing by Aaron Schmidt (www.xi-media.com)

Dr. Fester was skeptical of commercial radio from the beginning. Even before Alan Freed and Dick Clark were indicted for payola in 1960, Billboard Magazine reported that payola was already rampant during vaudeville of the 1920s. Payola aside, radio’s predisposition towards playing only Top 40 hits assured that the lack of variety and mind-numbing repetition would drive away true music lovers. There were exceptions of course, such as John Peel, who brought a maverick pirate radio aesthetic with him to London’s Radio 1, and Rodney Bingenheimer at Los Angeles’ KROQ.

Although FM radio first started in 1947, the spread of television distracted the industry, allowing some DJs to get away with more free-form formats, mixing folk, jazz, blues, soul, country, avant-garde and underground rock. As the market for FM grew in the 70s, the creativity shriveled, first by narrowing the focus to AOR (Album Oriented Rock), and then by drifting into oldies formats. By the late 70s, it seemed as if every station played only oldies. Then the music industry stupidly wondered why sales of new music was plummeting. They decided home taping was the culprit, and launched the “Home Taping Is Killing Music” campaign. MTV temporarily revived interest in new music in the early 80s. By the time that stagnated, college radio had gained momentum and popularity as a refreshing alternative to Top 40. However, its influence was limited by the severe restrictions the FCC placed upon wattage allowed.

Additionally, many college and public radio stations were bought out in the early 90s with the easing of FCC ownership restrictions. Owners were now allowed two stations per band for a total of four commonly-owned stations in one market, allowing corporate radio owners to buy out competitors. With the radical Telecommunications Act of 1996, ownership caps were relaxed even more, allowing Clear Channel and Viacom to quickly gain control of nearly half the market, the former owning over 1,240 stations by 2002. Meanwhile, Sony BMG Music was caught red-handed dishing out payola in numerous forms, paying $10 million to avoid further investigation. This is further proof of what many like Dr. Fester knew all along, that the popularity of most Top 40 hits are artificially created by businessmen and accountants.

With few exceptions, commercial radio has always sucked, and always will. Or as Dr. Fester said, "Radio is a pimple on the ass of music." While Dr. Fester and myself came up with the idea of putting the radio industry out of its misery back in 1988, it seems that our boycott is gaining momentum now that viable alternatives like Internet radio, MP3 players and satellite radio are getting popular. It’s only a matter of time when corporate radio is as extinct as Telexes and 8-track tapes.

While Dr. Fester was thrilled with what his young friend achieved with his Magic Band, he quickly grew bored with the psychedelic scene and the hippies centered on The Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane. He was also disgusted with his old acquaintance Ken Kesey, whom he accused of damaging a lot of already dangerously feeble minds, and generally called him a “twat.” For extended periods in the late sixties, he traveled to Nigeria, Brazil, Jamaica and Haiti. Buried in Haitian newspapers at the time was a claim by vodou priests that they spotted a living embodiment of the loa Baron Samedi, wearing a white lab coat. Dr. Fester dismissed the article, claiming it was just Baron Beefheart having a little fun with the local holy men. In Nigeria he befriended Fela Ransome-Kuti of Koola Lobitos, who would soon visit Dr. Fester in California, where he would meet Sandra Izsadore, who introduced him to Black Power political ideology. In Brazil, Dr. Fester met the Tropicalistas. He spent time with Tom Zé, who was also a tinkerer and enjoyed building homemade instruments. Dr. Fester said Zé reminded him of his friend Captain Beefheart (Don Van Vliet, not Baron Beefheart the monkey).

In Jamaica, Dr. Fester and Baron Beefheart were whisked to the hills, where they participated in a Rastafarian grounation, with incessant Nyabinghi drums provided by Count Ossie and the Mystic Revelation of Rastafari. During the seven day-long reasoning session, Fester bonded with the group’s musical director and saxophonist Cedric “IM” Brooks. He told Brooks about his recent meeting with Fela, and how they shared a love of free jazz. Brooks was particularly intruiged by Fester’s account of Sun Ra’s Arkestra, and was inspired to visit Sun Ra a few years later. After nearly joining his band, Brooks went back to Jamaica and formed The Light Of Saba, modeled after the Arkestra and Fela’s Afrika 70. During his visit, Dr. Fester also became acquainted with Lee “Scratch” Perry, showing Scratch some tricks he learned with the 4-track tape recorder he’d learned since the 40s. The increasingly quirky and enigmatic Perry had this to say about his friend:

“Lightning, thunder, ball of fire and future. Messiah Zodiac, the weather interpretor. Push Bush alight, ’cause it is Dread Fester the doctor, the scientist who hijack and tune the music from Babylon. Fester fan the flames, fart, thunder and roll. Seven seas and seven seal, Neptune world, nose code. The destiny of music is in the hands of Fester, the doctor sent by Jah to Babylon where he escape in a pail of shit by drinking acid and turning into mercury, in Oblivion. Jah, Fester and I came we saw and we conquer I.”

Fester moved his secret lab, with Mr. Bulbous and Baron Beefheart in tow, to New York City in 1969. His only explanation for the move was, “there’s somethin’ festering over there, and I’m not about to miss it.” This was based on a few visits he made between 1961 and 1965. During his first visit, John Cage, LaMonte Young, Yoko Ono, George Macuinas and George Brecht threw a party in his honor. Fester brought some of his homemade gadgets to share with his friends, and they stayed up all night playing games and creating impromptu symphonies of squeaks, drones and percussion. Fester talked about how much fun it would be if the more playful aspects of music and art were always a part of everyone’s everyday life. The group soon formed the Fluxus movement based on that idea, adding a little revolutionary fervor. Young would also go on to create fascinating drone experiments with John Cale (not long before he formed The Velvet Underground with Lou Reed) and Tony Conrad as The Dream Syndicate/Theatre Of Eternal Music. On another visit Fester participated in some silly jam sessions with his pal Allen Ginsberg, Tuli Kupferberg and others, which resulted in the potty-mouthed folk party band, The Fugs.

Fester also made amends with his old friend William S. Burroughs, who had also moved to New York. Like Burroughs, Dr. Fester kept a lower profile there, but many key figures in music claimed to have had the privilege of calling the Dr. their friend, including a visiting David Bowie, Andy Warhol, Steve Reich, Laurie Anderson, John McLaughlin, Miles Davis, Iggy Pop, George Clinton, Sonny Sharrock, James Blood Ulmer, Brian Eno, Lester Bangs, Alan Vega, David Thomas, DJ Kool Herc, Cedric Brooks, Patti Smith, Tom Verlaine, Richard Hell, Joey Ramone, David Byrne, Glenn Branca, James White and Arto Lindsay. During early 70s visits to England and Germany, Dr. Fester also spent time with Marc Bolan, Robert Fripp, Peter Hammill, Robert Wyatt, Daevid Allen, John Lydon, Mark E. Smith and members of Can, Kraftwerk, Faust and Amon Duul.

In the 1980s, Fester disappeared again. Friends speculated he spent time in Asia, and took up painting, and possibly had a family. He returned to the United States for visits in 1987, and dropped in on a couple college campuses to check out the phenomenon of college radio. He was particularly drawn to a new music show hosted by DJ Mystery Date (a.k.a. A.S. Van Dorston, yes, that’s me) in St. Paul, MN called “Always Somethin’ Festering,” one of his favorite sayings. Feeling out of touch with new music during his travels, he often dropped by the studio to catch up on a decade of music. Dr. Fester was impressed by artists like Public Enemy, who’s Bomb Squad so adeptly used sampling technology that Fester loved to toy with in its primitive tape form so long ago, and Sonic Youth, who reminded him of his old friend Glenn Branca, but found much of the current music lacking inspiration.

He suggested that I produce a historical show that reminded the kids of the rich history and roots of pre-punk, punk and post-punk music with the thought that more people could get inspired by it and shake new bands out of their creative cul de sac. I suggested the title, “Uncle Fester’s Bucket O’ Nasties.” “That’s good,” Dr. Fester chuckled, not knowing that he would once again be haunted by the other version of his namesake, who was exhumed for the 1991 and 94 Addams Family movies.

“One more thing, kid,” Dr. Fester told me. “Do me a favor and make a list of all the good music you can think of since about, oh, 1949. I can’t keep track of that shit myself.” Will do, Dr. Fester. I’m embarrassed to say I had already started doing that at a pretty early age, and I was thrilled that my seemingly pointless habit would end up being useful to at least one person. He suggested others might find it handy too, so in 1995 when the Web became popular, I launched Fast ‘n’ Bulbous. Since then, Dr. Fester has never been seen in public. An alchemist, chemist, professor, inventor, amateur anthropologist, adventurer, musicologist, trickster, party crasher, potty mouth, shaman, patron deity of music and technology, loa, alive, undead, Dr. Fester could be all or none of these things. But one thing for certain, as a musical muse, he is real. You can hear his inspiration in a whole continuum of music and culture throughout most of the 20th century and beyond.

Barby, A.S. Van Dorston, Baron Beefheart and Mr. Bulbous. Drawing by Amy M. Ahlstrom, October 2005
Barby, A.S. Van Dorston, Baron Beefheart and Mr. Bulbous. Drawing by Amy M. Ahlstrom, October 2005.