Contemporary music’s “last word” silenced after sudden illness
By Dore Feldsher
Providence, R.I., November 6, 2063: Cold drizzle from the autumn sky hung all around the restive swarm of mourners outside the Mortech Necroplex Parkside East. It collected in the folds of plasticene mourning cloaks, glued medieval tunics to the bodies of tattooed tribalists huddled in office doorways, slicked down the long, straight hair of pretty pre-Raphaelite princesses and gently smeared the letters on homemade signs and banners painted with sadly suggestive slogans and song titles.
ASK THE LIGHTNING
PITY POOR YORICK
RETURN TO US THE SUN
Everywhere hung the sweet smell of the violets piled in the pre-designated Public Memorial Zones.
Since the dataclouds had two days earlier reported the news that Rodger Pidgeon— troubadour, songwriter, political irritant, style icon, and cultural reference point for a restless and dissatisfied generation—had succumbed to a drug-resistant viral infection on tour in Southeast Asia, a general air of repressed anguish had descended on this New England enclave of low-rise business blocks and ethnic restaurants. This epicenter of post-mortem angst sits just minutes from the leafy residential street where Pidgeon was born nearly half a century earlier, the introverted only child of a theatre group dramaturge and an energy firm research librarian. If you sat quietly, you could still almost hear the nursery bells of the ice cream trucks, the laughter from games of soccer and tag.
“History conveys a special imprimatur onto firsts, but Rodger Pidgeon’s was a career rife with lasts,” lamented post-rock musical archivist and writer Lyman Casey. And, indeed, Pidgeon, at times, seemed destined to close the book on one after another vestige of popular music tradition. His was the last million-selling “album,” the last musical release pressed on CD chrome, the last successful stand against claims of artistic plagiarism. Pidgeon and his band The New Cathars played at the last major European outdoor festival, the riot-scarred and financially-disastrous Bergen Rockarneval of 2058. It seemed that everywhere Pidgeon went, he was barely a step ahead of the imploding pop zeitgeist, and this endowed his music with both a melancholic poignancy and the simmering danger of vital energies seeking new outlets, new channels.
“He was the first superstar,” Casey summarizes, “without a signature medium. He was like a man without a country.”
Early in life, Rodger Earl Masters Pidgeon was a frail, quiet child. He enjoyed a tight connection to his mother Sofia, a Smith College graduate who filled their spacious John St. home with the sounds of music, both from her baby grand piano (to which Rodger took eagerly in his early teens) and a large collection of recorded world musics. Her curatorial nature was a trait she inherited from her father, Wendell Glidden, a well-travelled Third World economic development consultant. It was these early influences Sofia assembled that may have been responsible for both the exotic instrumentation and the activist worldview that informed much of Pidgeon’s mature musical work.
This background, coupled with an aversion to conventional academic studies, made Pidgeon a natural candidate for enrollment at the recently-opened Charlesville Progressive Vocational High School in the fall of 2032, where he joined the Electronic Music program as a trainee technician. There, according to headmaster Janice Romweber, he demonstrated “superior enthusiasm and aptitude,” learning to repair and restore traditional keyboard and electronic instruments, including one of the east coast’s oldest, museum-grade theremins. “There was scarcely an hour of the school day,” she recalled in a 2050 Calliope magazine interview, “when music wasn’t pouring from his cubicle in the reconditioning shop. It was clear he was more artist than tradesman.”
During the winter of 2036, Pidgeon, along with school friends Dennis Kitsos and Aubrey Morgenthaler, decided to capitalize on the fashion for ambient electronica by forming Dark Matter, a trio whose lifespan was largely spent rehearsing on Charlesville’s stock of secondhand keyboards. Little remains of the band’s output, besides a brief tape of a 14-minute, one-song school talent show performance. In a holocast interview for local news broadcast in 2041, Morgenthaler recalled Pidgeon’s burgeoning desire for a paying gig, and shortly following Dark Matter’s one and only live set, Pidgeon used the school’s weatherbeaten 1984 burnt-orange Farfisa organ to audition for a slot with another contest entrant, the successful Tex-Mex-flavored dance band Los Maquiladoras. The impressionable Pidgeon fell briefly under the influence of leader Ramses Ramirez, a confident, charismatic young man who introduced him to (in no particular order of importance) women, stagecraft, geopolitics, and the melancholy ballads of Doug Sahm and Freddy Fender, whose songs would provide the slow-dance interludes in the group’s otherwise boisterous live shows.
The band maintained an active – perhaps too active – gig schedule, and after a houseparty in the spring of 2037, Pidgeon was seriously injured – suffering three cracked ribs, a fractured humerus, and a femur broken in three places – when a car driven by bassist Orel Menses swerved off a New Haven road and struck a telephone pole. He was forced to convalesce at home for seven months, and it was this period, during which he was confined with his family’s estimable library of music, books and videos, that was to have the most profound effect on the development of his writing style. In that way, his career echoed that of an idol from the previous century, Bob Dylan.
“I thought my life had ceased,” Pidgeon writes in an unpublished memoir held in the collection of Brown University’s John Hay Library. “I mentally played and replayed my funeral. But once I tired of this charade, I began the work of reconstructing my mind and, more importantly, my soul.”
Day after day, Rodger retreated into the family library, travelling the wine-dark seas with Odysseus, touring the netherworlds with Dante, conquering the known world with Alexander the Great, surveying the carnage of Antietam and Omaha Beach, traversing Holden Caulfield’s inner minefields, parading through Nighttown with Leopold Bloom, and reliving the tortures of Scott’s Antarctic trek. He marched with Van Slyke against the Aarab Ozgorluk Ordusu and treasure-dove to the undersea caverns of Infierno Azul with Pintor and his Atlantis Raiders. The entire canvas of world history and literature was unfurled to him. He became, as he put it, an “accompanist to the grand human march toward salvation and oblivion.” Working on his mother’s antique Quaglia mandocello or the old Wurlitzer electric piano she set up at his bedside, he began to explore in earnest the mechanics of writing songs he crooned into her ancient TEAC reel-to-reel.
“I call it my cocoon phase,” he told Record Herald editor Henrik Obermaier in April 2057. “And when the cast came off, I was something different. An artist.”
Of the 75 songs he wrote during his convalescence, his parents had one, “Cavalcade of Wonders,” a nostalgic tour through P.T. Barnum’s American Museum, pressed onto the A-side of a vinyl record to celebrate his recovery. It caught the ear of a local amusement park owner who was organizing a promotional tour of animal acts, weightlifters and sword swallowers to promote his attraction, and soon became the tour’s theme song. When the local amusement company was sold to the Zurich-based Diversifizierte Attraktionen Gmbh the next winter, Pidgeon’s song went along, becoming the signature for DA’s international advertising campaign. Soon, Rodger was being recognized for his broadcast commercials and listeners were clamoring for new songs and personal appearances. On the strength of his homemade demo, the 21-year old Moog repairman was launched as a rising recording star.
So great, in fact, was the clamor for new material that DA launched its own record label, Miasma Records, to release and promote Pidgeon’s first LP/CD Pity Poor Yorick, a sampling of his better home recordings that included the title track, the romantic “Eleanor Lamb” and “Age of Mirrors,” a glittering dulcimer-tinged reflection on the fleeting nature of beauty. PPY caught the fancy of audiophile vinyl collectors and, with 1.3 million units sold, the 200-gram 2039 pressing of Yorick became the last-ever vinyl LP to go RIAA-certified platinum.
Like many talents of the time, Pidgeon rode a bumpy but energetic wave of technological innovation to his global celebrity. He worked against the backdrop of the Chamelia program, the groundbreaking software whose “creative algorithm” could imitate the style of any writer, past or present, and whose biannual upgrades perpetually threatened to undermine the work of thousands of authors, journalists, poets and composers. Additionally, the 2041 passage of elaborate federal tax incentives (including the highly-punitive Download Tariffs) designed to rescue the embattled music industry ushered in a decade of unparalleled invention during which artists also struggled to keep pace with evolving modes of recording and playback. Somehow, the range of Pidgeon’s thematic and instrumental influences always enabled his music to successfully translate to ever-more complex and esoteric media. First, there was the holodisc, patented by Holmstrom in 2042, its 3-D imagery seemingly tailor-made for Pidgeon’s chiseled good looks; MBC’s 2044 Vibranet sent the cavernous echoes of his mournful dirges directly through sonochips embedded in users’ temporal bones; lastly, the 2050 Bosch DreamSense® system coded the surreal images of Pidgeon’s romantic song cycles into electrical dream stimuli. In each case, one of Rodger Pidgeon’s capstone works slammed a door on one medium and eased open a portal into another. Somehow, he endured and prospered.
2042 saw Pidgeon, then a yeoman with a solid, but unspectacular, cult following, release the holodisc that would be the first tentpole of his success, Not By Sight. On this disc, he was joined by the first of his regular backing ensembles, The Entrail Prophets. In addition to providing him with a fuller, richer sound, the group included violist and dancer Hanelore Walz, his lover and muse for the remainder of her life, and songwriter/multi-instrumentalist Zal Darabont, who would remain an artistic combatant/collaborator through all of Rodger’s most significant work. In Not By Sight, Pidgeon adopted the persona of a ragged, penniless seer, cursed with visions of mankind’s historical failures, struggling to find hope in a fragile and uncertain future. Songs like the nightmarish “Trabzon (What Endless Road?)” and “Wheat Field With Crows” showcased his newfound depth of field, while the title track is sung in the voice of a visionary portending an actual, physical paradise:
The uses of fear
The alchemy of need
Bring us to safety with surpassing speed
My walls dissolve
I greet the night
An all-embracing fortress for the brave contrite
Looking down on troubles from a wond’rous height
Achieved by faith and fervor
Not by sight
But it was not simply America’s technological seascape that was wracked with turbulence during the early years of the 2040s. The Wall Street Kamikaze Suicide Clusters of 2041 and 2042, along with America’s questionable role in the Sub-Saharan Grain Wars, had driven the nation to something of a spiritual nadir, and Not By Sight was adopted as the informal soundtrack to a generation’s search for moral atonement. It was partly happenstance and partly kismet, then, that Pidgeon’s 2043 tour crossed paths with Father Emer Crabtree’s St. John, Missouri-based Tabernacle of All Things, Sanctified. Crabtree’s doctrine of Pure Intention appealed to Pidgeon and millions like him who, liberated from issues of unintended consequence, took The Vow and became junior deacons. Crabtree gave Pidgeon and his collaborators license to speak out against injustice during a volatile era, and Pidgeon gave Crabtree credibility among the youth he attempted to evangelize. The relationship peaked during the recording of 2045’s percussive Soft Cat Feet (the first internationally distributed vibradisc) when Crabtree performed the wedding of Pidgeon and Walz at the foot of Bolivar State, Venezuela’s Angel Falls, what Crabtree described as “God’s perfect shower.” The ceremony was holocast live to 16 countries and, for the rest of that year, fans at outdoor Entrail Prophets shows were baptized by a fleet of Crabtree’s gaily-painted crop-dusting biplanes.
Unsurprisingly, the freedoms endorsed by the Tabernacle occasionally gave way to license. It was particularly common for members to experiment with the plethora of new drugs being legally and semi-legally marketed by the freshly-deregulated pharmaceutical industry. Pidgeon proved partial to Praesix™, a psychoactive compound that fractured users’ “personalities” and assembled one or more new configurations from shards of memory and experience. During one Praesix trip in early 2046, Pidgeon was “reconfigured” as Adelet, a Turkish rifleman from the 1915 Armenian genocide, an identity assembled, he later surmised, from high school history lessons, 21st century television documentaries, and Jordanian and Syrian military diaries in his family’s collection. Pidgeon spent ten weeks in a Taunton, Massachusetts psychiatric facility, and his publisher Hanta Music was forced to sue for control of 35 songs recorded in Adelet’s voice. (Bootlegs of dubious provenance have fetched $300-$450 on internet auction sites and several cover versions have been recorded, but no formal release of the tracks was ever authorized.)
Although the synergy of Rodger’s music with what Crabtree called “the holy yes” made Pidgeon a figure of international notoriety and influence, the union proved as short-lived as Pidgeon and Walz’s 18-month marriage. After allegations of misused donations, Pidgeon parted ways with the Tabernacle in the fall of 2047, enlisting manager Riis McKenna and veteran record producer Tugg Djirksen as his new inner circle. Djirksen was behind the boards for 2049-50’s Pathways To Perdition sessions in Nashville and, once again, Pidgeon shifted thematic gears. The new record was a concept disc loosely linking modern political concerns with themes from classical mythology, and yielded his biggest hit, “Ganymede,” which grafted the tale of a low-level anti-capitalist street fighter onto the myth of the legendary cup-bearer of the Hellenic gods:
The boxers and the bouncers said you had no sand
Just an actuary’s son with a faggot’s hand
You moved all around the grid
Hit and run and hid
Not a pin to show for what you did
Push-button Billy the Kid
Your own phony legend might have calmed you down
On the trip from class crusader to clown
You didn’t see it all was just preparing to drown
Hang on to pills and pretty girls and all your favorite bands
When it’s time to throw down, nothing ever stands
Not born to lead
Fetch another round
Our pretty Ganymede
Sales were modest until 2051, when Calumny Records issued the DreamSense® edition of PTP. As fate would have it, Pidgeon’s lyric landscape of ancient, windswept mountains, trash-covered urban streets dotted with the figures of lost salarymen, and starcrossed lovers wandering moon-strafed cul-de-sacs tickled the electric junctions of pop’s collective unconscious. Goldenfleece.com reviewer Dee Comingore’s REM-sleep review of the disc declared it “a font of haunting and indelible nocturnal imagery that validates the psychic power of the medium.” Millions of listeners took Comingore’s advice, establishing DreamSense® as music’s dominant new format, dooming the vibradisc, and giving Pidgeon his greatest commercial success. So great was Pidgeon’s career peak that even the infringement suit filed by a Tucson restaurant, claiming his track “Staircase Girl” (“A temple is no place for a staircase girl like you/So climb down from my pediment/My church of awkward sentiment…”) stole its tune from a series of interactive billboards, failed to wound his growing prestige. Rodger was ultimately vindicated, but not before the three-year legal battle cost him over $600,000 in lawyers’ fees. Two years after the verdict, federal legislation raised plaintiffs’ thresholds of proof and made such actions, effectively, things of the past.
The 2050s were a largely fallow decade for Pidgeon, who disbanded his short-lived early-music project The Sanctum Sanctorum to focus on litigation, his domestic reunion with ex-wife Walz (rechristened “Ardeia Walz” after watching a flock of herons being sucked into a jet engine) and his political opposition to the federally-sponsored “decommissionist” movement. The creation of these life-cessation camps attracted vociferous opposition from artists and intellectuals, and Pidgeon’s bitterly ironic “The Lovely Void” (recorded with filmstar/activist CherryRipe TigerCub Kyndal) became the resistance’s rallying cry. It was Pidgeon’s ragged solo set during the massive 2057 pro-existence rally at Oregon’s Kalapuya Raceway that stemmed the growth of the camps and limited them to processing invalids, military deserters and the mentally ill. But the political infighting left him bitter and distant, as evidenced by his last major interview, given to Reliquary magazine in the spring of 2058:
Q: What is art?
RP: Art is just publicly-exhibited revenge.
Q: For what?
RP: Virtually everything. Not paper airplanes. Or honey.
After the highly-publicized Bergen fiasco and the controversy over his refusal to assume the premiership of the newly-independent socialist Republic of San Severiano later that year, Pidgeon might have stayed permanently retired from public life. But a small, independent label in Presque Isle, Maine issued a collection of his unreleased tracks, Supine in the Beauty Arcade, to benefit the family of Darabont, who succumbed to esophageal cancer in summer 2059, and this release revived interest in an artist the mainstream had begun to neglect. Although the songs were mostly somber and decidedly lo-fi, some stood, Pidgeon scholars today assert, among his very best. Take, for example, the velvety folk reverie “Last of the Unbroken Stallions,” the hypnotic, harmonium-tinged “Constable Clouds” (later, a hit for synthelle spokesmodel Kerilee™) and the percolating guitar rave-up “Life in Retrograde”:
I was a soldier until somebody led me
I was a poet until somebody read me
A lover till somebody wanted to bed me
I was a dead man till you kissed me deadly
Circumstances conspired to push Pidgeon back into the limelight. His lavish chain of Innerfresh plasma infusion bars entered bankruptcy in 2061 during a lull in his catalogue sales, undercutting his once-considerable net worth and impelling him to undertake a final tour of small-capacity halls in Asia, Australia and New Zealand commencing in August of the following year. But this was not the daring, energetic performer of years past. Walz’s 2060 self-immolation suicide in response to the proposed Tripartite Partition of the Continental Economic Zones had taken a permanent toll on Pidgeon’s psyche, and the pressures of life on the road soon made his scars manifest. Although The New Cathars’ Dixieland arrangements of his greatest hits were received with polite appreciation by tour audiences, Pidgeon became increasingly distracted and morose onstage, forgetting lyrics, haranguing audiences for seemingly minor lapses in etiquette, and frequently lacing sets with long, single-chord solos. A visibly-drained Pidgeon was taken ill after a show in Vientiane, Laos and pronounced dead several days later on October 22 at a western-style hospice in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. His body was returned, with little fanfare, to Providence for mandatory quarantine, autopsy and cremation in early November.
Perhaps the last critical analysis of Pidgeon’s career should be Obermaier’s, from the Record Herald fansite :
Ultimately, the tragedy of Rodger Pidgeon was his overwhelming ambition: to unite a past he had missed, a tech-obsessed present that undervalued transcendence and beauty, and a future too uncertain to support a durable artistic vision. He would have been more appreciated in another time. Any other time.
But the real last words, fittingly, are Pidgeon’s. Chiseled in marble at the Mortech crematorium’s memorial wall are words from his anthemic “Corridors of Used-Up Men,” words he famously described as “not boast, but warning”:
NEVER ASKED FOR LOVE
His legacy will certainly be how wildly he underestimated both his own passion and his public’s lingering affections.
Farewell, Poor Yorick…
Rodger Pidgeon Selected Discography:
“Cavalcade of Wonders” b/w “Lightning Head” (Godot Records, 2037) (limited edition of 100)
Pity Poor Yorick (Miasma Records, 2039)
Not By Sight (Miasma Records, 2042)
Soft Cat Feet (Hanta Music, 2045)
“Peaceable Kingdom”/ “Fingers Holding Sand”/ “I Heard The Voice” / “(All I Got Was This) Lousy Tee Shirt” (vibradisc offered to audiences at Emer Crabtree’s “Born Innocent” Revival, summer 2045)
Syrian Jezebels (Underground Discs, 2047) (bootleg edition of songs recorded in Taunton State Hospital; two-vibradisc set released under numerous names and covers)
Unbelievers Fright/Wrong Turn at Golgotha (Hanta Music, 2048)
Pathways To Perdition (Calumny Records, 2050)
“A Drawing-Down of Blinds”/ “Against Desire” (DreamSense® demonstration disc distributed to attendees at Napa Valley TechFair, Calistoga, California, February 2051)
“The Lovely Void” (free microsheet given away with August 2055 edition of Protest! Magazine, edition of 3,000)
No Backward Step (with CherryRipe Kyndal) (Life and How To Live It, 2056)
Shitting Where I Eat: The Very Best of Rodger Pidgeon (Mainway Nightsounds, 2057)
Supine in the Beauty Arcade: Songs For Zal (Arcadia Music, 2060)
Various Artists, Ever-Rising Road: The Songs of Rodger Pidgeon (Hanta Music, 2061)
Consolamentum Live on the South Island (Maritime Music, 2062)
Never Asked For Love: The Political Mind of Rodger Pidgeon (Hanta Music, 2062)
What Do Ya Want For Nothin’? B-Sides, Rarities and Retreads (Recordhound, 2062)
“Deaths of Ice” (sound collage installed at Mortech Necroplex Parkside East, Providence, Rhode Island, November 2063)
Editorial note: Significant portions of this article were written and/or compiled using Chamelia 13.3. “Dore Feldsher™” is a registered trademark of Dead Languages, S.A./Sanskrit Publishing of California, Inc. and does not signify, represent or refer to any natural person, living or dead. All rights reserved by the publisher.