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Henry Jacobs: The Wide Weird World of Henry Jacobs, The Fine Art of Goofing Off

Henry Jacobs: The Wide Weird World of Henry Jacobs, The Fine Art of Goofing Off


By Marc Masters | Posted 8/10/2005

Born in 1924, Henry Jacobs spent decades exploring tape experiments, audio collages, field recordings, and world music, most famously on his Berkeley, Calif., radio show from the 1950s to the ’70s. Various record labels documented his work, but reams of material remain unreleased. A few years ago, Meat Beat Manifesto’s Jack Dangers discovered more beneath a house Jacobs once occupied (Jacobs habitually buried his tapes), and The Wide Weird World of Henry Jacobs mixes the best of that vault with selections from out-of-print releases. Jacobs’ imaginative work evokes other groundbreaking art of the time—the verbal improvisation of Lenny Bruce, the surreal comedy of Ernie Kovacs, the audio experiments of Raymond Scott—but his use of radio as an artistic medium is unparalleled.

Jacobs took the basics of radio—interviews, announcements, instructions, and field recordings—and flipped them inside out, jumbling them into an absurdist narrative. His obsession with all aspects of radio is typified by his “laughing string” pieces, concerning a string that, when tied around people, causes uncontrollable laughter. Jacobs reports on its use at a ritzy party (evoking the Orb in Woody Allen’s Sleeper), advertises it as a family-friendly product perfect for barbecues, chants its virtues like an evangelist, gives loungey warnings (with tinkling piano accompaniment) about its dangers, and even hypnotizes a patient to help cure a laughing-string addiction.

There are many more highlights on Wide Weird World: “Fluidoodle” creates a composition from dripping faucet sounds, “Reflexive Sound Therapy” seeks perfect human rhythm through hypnotherapy, “Scarekicks” parodies “This I Believe”-style pretension, and “Every Drop” offers a poem about urination read in a prissy British accent. Other, less verbal tracks sound stunningly modern: “Drumhead Jones” mixes African drums and chanting, “Interlude” turns hissy field recordings into bouncing percussion, and the loops of noise on “Untitled” could pass for Wolf Eyes or Black Dice. Throughout, Jacobs’ deadpan humor and self-awareness (he often refers to his techniques, comments on what’s happening, and even chants “audio collage” during an audio collage) are endlessly entertaining.

Also included in Important’s excellent package is a DVD of three half-hour videos made by Jacobs, animator Bob McClay, and producer Chris Koch, originally broadcast on San Francisco public TV in 1972. Using animation, claymation, cutout collage, and stop-action tricks, the films evoke Monty Python and Jim Henson, but the trio’s work is more philosophical. Exploring the programs’ title, “The Fine Art of Goofing Off,” Jacobs sets audio of people talking about work and leisure against McClay’s active images, interspersed with lectures by a strange metallic “host” made of levers and bolts. The specific stories Jacobs offers fascinate, but it’s the larger themes here—why people work, why people play, and why people separate the two—that resonate. At one point, our rickety host concludes that “work is what you do and leisure is what you don’t do,” but in the criminally underappreciated art of Henry Jacobs, things are much more complicated than that.

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