Sign up for our newsletters   

Baltimore City Paper home.
Print Email

Music

Phantom Power

Guitarist Loren Connors resurrects a 28-year-old recording made in a legendary Connecticut cemetery

Loren Connors summons the ghost of albums past.

By Marc Masters | Posted 3/11/2009

Near the entrance to Evergreen Cemetery in New Haven, Conn., a pink-granite tombstone bears a warning in pitch-black letters: the people shall be troubled at midnight and pass away. Beneath lies the coffin of Mary E. Hart, who officially died of apoplexy at midnight on Oct. 15, 1872. But local legend claims that Hart was actually buried alive--and ever since, visitors who linger by her grave past its curfew are never seen again.

In 1981, fully aware of these ghost tales, guitarist Loren Connors took his Gibson acoustic and a tape recorder to Hart's tomb, and began to play. "It was a cold morning in early March," he recalls over the phone from his apartment in Brooklyn, NY. "The crows were out. I might have seen one or two people, but generally no one else was there. It was kind of desolate." After improvising for about a half hour, Connors wisely left the cemetery long before midnight, escaping the fate of legend. But the tape he made wasn't so lucky.

"It got kind of lost. I knew I had it somewhere but I couldn't find it for years," he explains. "I only made 10 copies of it at the time, and I'm not sure what I did with nine of them. But I did send one to Cadence Magazine, and they reviewed it. I didn't know if they kept it, but recently a friend of mine asked them about it, and they copied it and gave it to him."

Last month, Family Vineyard released the rescued recording under the title The Curse of Midnight Mary, adding cover art of a dark, spectre-like figure painted by Connors himself. The music is even more haunting, filled with impulsive plucks, abrupt chords, and the guitarist's stirring moans, inspired by dogs that howled outside his window at night. But even though the album often sounds spooky, it also courses with immediate, joyful energy--a message from the past that still speaks loud and clear.

For Connors, who is now best known for his electric guitar improvisations and collaborations with Jim O'Rourke, Alan Licht, and Jandek, hearing this recording almost three decades later was like stumbling upon his own ghost. "It's a whole different person, that stuff," he says. "I can't even do that [kind of playing] now."

Yet the album fits well into Connors' vast discography. At the time it was recorded, he had just finished releasing a series of "Unaccompanied Acoustic Guitar Improvisations" via his own Daggett label. They were equally influenced by abstract art--especially the work of his hero, Mark Rothko--and the raw blues of musical ancestors like Blind Willie Johnson. On Midnight Mary's nine tracks (titled "Chants 1-9"), you can hear those influences continuing. Connors even veers into covers of Johnson's "Dark Was the Night, Cold Was the Ground" and the traditional "Amazing Grace." Most unique is the chopping "Chant 9," which sounds more like a war dance than a blues improvisation.

Overall, Midnight Mary feels more up front and animated than the Daggett material, as if the musical ghosts Connors was conjuring had suddenly become flesh. He chalks this up to the atmosphere provided by the cemetery. "All my other records at the time were done inside, and they have a kind of indoor echo on them," he explains. "But this has a wide-open sound, with the crows and wind in the background. I think it was my best playing of that time, better than the records before. I should have done them all outside."

So if the aural advantages of this setting were not a particular motivation at the time, why did Connors decide to record in the graveyard? "I guess it was just a silly whim," he admits. "I could say something else, but it would just be kind of made up." So, outside of the inspired passion of the music, there's little evidence that he felt the presence of ghosts that day.

But an interview done not long after the recording suggests Connors was open to spirits, and the dangers of toying with them. "I just play, and whatever comes out just happened," he told Cadence in August of 1982. "I need to play guitar and I don't have the slightest fuckin' idea where the hell it comes from. It's just there and I just have to keep on directing it. If I stop and say to myself, Christ, look at how new this stuff is--sure as hell it will turn around and slap me."

For more information visit fvrec.com/lorenconnors.

Related stories

Music archives

More Stories

The Malian Blues (4/14/2010)
Finding the soul of American blues music an ocean away

Hungry for Truth (2/24/2010)
The Holmes Brothers return to the blues' reportorial songwriting strengths with Feed My Soul

Laying Low (2/25/2009)
The Elusive J. J. Cale Releases Possibly His Final Opus

More from Marc Masters

Banging on Cans (10/21/2009)
And anything and everything else in So Percussion's strange, not-just-percussion universe

Present History (9/3/2008)
Tony Conrad's Multimedia Art Continues to Mine The Intersections Between Yesterday and Today

Get Off The Stage (8/6/2008)
A New Six-Disc Set Documents Two Years of Live Suicide Havoc

Comments powered by Disqus
Calendar
CP on Facebook
CP on Twitter