Richard Shulberg (1947-2009)

22. 3. 2009 | Rubriky: Articles,Lives

[by Kate Hickson, Berriew, Wales] In the 1980s Swing 51 magazine would occasionally receive small packages from the United States containing cassette tapes merely identified as ‘Citizen Kafka’. It felt like the sort of deception the musical prankster Hank Bradley might perpetrate. However, Bradley’s looked and sounded different. Infuriatingly, the sender’s mailing address was missing and the US postal service was clearly in on the wheeze because every postmark came smudged to illegibility by bureaucracy. It felt a bit like a twofold conspiracy at the time. Prague folk might call it bonus Kafka-esque.

Citizen Kafka, it finally emerged, was an alias of one Richard Shulberg. He also rejoiced in the noms de télégraphie – wireless or radio aliases – Sid Kafka and The Citizen. As Johnny ‘Angry Red’ Weltz (the alias of fiddlin’ Kenny Kosek) wrote, The Citizen died – “(changed dimensions), (flipped incarnational polarity)” – on 14 March 2009 of a heart attack at his Brookyn home. He was aged 61. Richard Stephen Shulberg was born in the Bronx on 20 November 1947 and raised in Brooklyn.

He produced and presented broadcasts on the Pacifica Foundation’s WBAI-FM station for The Citizen Kafka Show, naturally under his main alias. Later he did The Secret Museum of the Air with Pat Conte for the same station and subsequently for WFMU. Secret Museum in turn produced spin-off anthologies for Yazoo (but they were too diffuse to hit the spot for me). In one 2000 article in The New York Times, Shulberg claimed to have done time as “an opal prospector, a film projectionist, a theremin player and an antiques vendor”. Not only did he collect records, evidently he collected jobs.

However, it was as a musician that he came into Swing 51‘s orbit. Richie Shulberg first entered the overseas consciousness as the central figure in one of New York’s finest musical collectives, the rather good Wretched Refuse String Band. Just as the Bonzo Dog Doo-dah Band were The Bonzos, they were The Wretcheds. WBAI’s Ed Haber was the Wretcheds’ champion. (Before each Citizen Kafka Show Haber would caution, “This show contains frank language.”) They played bluegrass and what was then being called newgrass. It was Ed Haber who sent a copy of the Wretched Refuse String Band’s Welcome To Wretched Refuse (Beet Records BLP-7003) to the magazine around ’80 or ’81. Their music had a manic vibe about it. In their playing was – and is – all the joy of life. It also had a cryptic reverence masquerading as irreverence that combined to create a true listening experience. And humour, lashings of humour.

And that woebegone name? It comes from the writer Emma Lazarus’s sonnet The New Colossus (1883) welcoming émigrés to the New World symbolised by the Statue of Liberty. She says,

“Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

Fittingly in a very Wretched Refuse String Band way, the poem has been twisted into parody verse and worse.

The Wretcheds’ ‘only-child’ LP was reissued in 1994 in an expanded CD edition. (They also made appearances on a couple of albums on the Biograph label from the Fox Hollow Lodge String Band Festival but they don’t count.) Its track listing and composing credits makes for interesting reading. The CD includes material credited to the tradition, tunes by the father of bluegrass Bill Monroe and his electric guitar-wielding newgrass shadow Jon Sholle, a Thumbelina turned Hans Christian Andersen renegade, Andy Statman, Kenny Kosek, Roger Mason, Richard Shulberg’s party piece The Wheels of Karma and Statman’s Shulberg in Vilnus. Founding and/or/into later Wretcheds included banjoist Marty Cutler, drummer and percussionist Larry Eagle, guitarist Bob Jones, fiddler Alan Kaufman, bassist Roger Mason and mandolinist Barry Mitterhoff.

The Wretcheds polarised opinion. But listen to The Wretched Refuse Theme or The Wheels of Karma and you get a measure of their impact, why Richie Shulberg fit right in and why they made more people smile and groove than they ever hacked off. They remain one of a kind. Just like Citizen Kafka was one of a kind.

Wretched Refuse String Band Alcazar 117 (1994)

For services past, present and future thanks to Ed Haber and Ellen Jones.

Larry Eagle has posted videos of the Wretcheds in all their grainy glory from their 30 May 2008 gig at the Jalopy in Brooklyn. They give a flavour of the band and The Citizen. Watch, marvel and laugh along.

The Wretched Refuse Theme

The Wheels of Karma


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