Isabelle Corbisier – Music for Vagabonds: the Tuxedomoon Chronicles (self-published book)

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I first heard Tuxedomoon (hereinafter TM) on a compilation LP entitled Masterpieces: the Sounds/Charisma Album. (This bizarre collection was given away free with Sounds, a now defunct weekly music paper in the UK. Except it wasn’t really free – you had to buy the paper for six weeks to collect the requisite number of tokens, then send off the tokens with a couple of quid postage,and wait a month until you got an LP in the mail.) Incidentally it’s the only place you can find Genesis, the Residents and Monty Python all on one record (which will make it a highly desirable item for some of you). And then there was TM, with ‘Special Treatment for the Family Man’. This was by far the strangest track on what was already an odd record. It was the longest track on the album. It was the slowest track on the album. It was the moodiest track on the album. And it just sounded – weird. But it made an impression on me. And some months later when I saw another TM record in Ezy Ryder (famous secondhand record shop in Edinburgh back in the day), I bought it. I think it was probably Half-Mute. More weirdness – some songs, some instrumentals. Jazz instruments – sax & clarinet – mixed with primitive drum-machines, and spiky, noirish post-punk. I wasn’t even sure if I liked it. But it was compelling listening. And it had one killer song – ‘What Use?’:
‘What’s the use in feeling betrayed
What’s the use in feeling at all…’
Now, if that isn’t an anthem for every Camus-reading teenage misfit who ever walked the planet, I don’t know what is…

Between 1981 and 1983, TM released an amazing run of records – Desire (arguably the quintessential TM LP), Divine (a ballet soundtrack), and three classic 12″ singles on Les Disques du Crepuscule: Ninotchka, Time to Lose and Short Stories. There followed a string of memorable albums until the band went on extended hiatus after 1987’s You. With the dawn of the 00’s, the main band members had dispersed to all four corners of the globe. However they reconvene every few years to record new material.

In the English-speaking world, TM were a group largely shrouded in mystery, due to the paucity of press coverage in the UK. James Nice of LTM wrote a short book about the band (which was published in Italy in 1988), but this quickly sold out and was never reprinted. With the advent of the World Wide Web, it became easier to find out details about cult acts such as TM. However the info available was still sketchy at best. But with the publication of Music for Vagabonds, we now have the definitive TM book. Author Isabelle Corbisier spent almost seven years working on this project, and the result is as complete a biography of TM as anyone could wish for.

The book is divided into three parts: starting with the formation of the band in San Francisco in 1977, to the band’ emigration to Europe in 1981, and on to the band’ split and then reformation as a pan-global concern in the 00s.

The author details the early years of each of the main TM members, growing up in different parts of the USA. She’ particularly good on the avant-garde scene in early 1970s San Francisco. She covers the formation of TM in San Francisco ca 1977, then covers the band’ move to Europe in 1981. In some ways the band emerged out of a slightly in-between period – they were just too young to be hippies, but they were slightly older than a lot of their punk contemporaries. However, what really set the group apart was the academic background of Blaine L Reininger and Steven Brown – these were “punks’ who could really play as well as write and read music. What other group of the era could have produced such a beautiful romantic miniature as “Music #2′ ?

When I was a TM fan in the 1980s, I imagined them as this group of glamorous aesthetes living in swanky metropolitan apartments, reading Penguin Modern Classics, dining in fancy restaurants, dispensing bon mots wherever they went. In fact, it seems as if the opposite was the case. Various band members almost starved, acquired serious drug habits, lived in crummy flats, and generally lived a hand-to-mouth existence in Bruxelles. How they managed to produce any music, let alone such an enduring and idiosyncratic oeuvre, under such conditions, is a minor miracle. There’ a detailed history of the band’ ill-fated Ghost Sonata project, which became something of a holy grail for TM fans, and was finally released by LTM in 1990. The author has interviewed everyone who’ anyone in the TM story. She has also been granted access to various band members’ unpublished letters, diaries and photos, to produce as full a picture as anyone could wish for of this inspirational genre-busting act.

Isabelle Corbisier also reveals the secret of her own personal connection to TM – it’s a surprising and touching story (which I won’ give away here – you have to read the book!) This gives the book a wider resonance and expands the themes beyond the confines of just another music biog.

It goes without saying that this is an essential purchase for all fans of the band. The book should also find a place in academic libraries due to its detailed coverage of the 1970s arts scene in San Francisco.

[For further info visit the author here.]

Ewan Burke

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