Archival and reissue culture continues in high fashion on Frank Maya & The Decals Have You Been Getting My Letters?.
The 21st Century has seen a flurry of interest in the latter half of the 20th, as we strive to sort through the stacks and stacks of every conceivable media that cheap and readily available recording technology made possible. We've seen resurgences in nearly every style you could imagine, from Avant Disco to lo-fi house to post-punk, shoegaze, and synthpop. Have You Been Getting My Letters? digs into the archives of underground sensation Frank Maya, thought to have been the first openly gay comedian, who tragically succumbed to the AIDS epidemic in 1995.
In addition to comedy, Maya was extremely musically prolific with his band The Decals, writing over 100 songs featuring rudimentary DIY new wave synthpop from the heart of the NYC artscene, frequently referred to in shorthand as "the downtown sound". The Downtown NYC scene would see hardcore conceptual artpunks, like James Chance And The Contortions, The Talking Heads, The Ramones, and Blondie, mixing with contemporary classical innovators like Philip Glass and Steve Reich and far-out Avant Jazz like John Zorn or Anthony Braxton and the upper crust of the art world, Andy Warhol, Basquiat, Keith Haring, etc.
This heady mix created some incredibly extreme and far-out shapes as you might imagine when punk rock mixes with fashion, fine art, dosed with copious amounts of drugs and a lysergic, acerbic sense of humor. Some of these sounds have held up well, sounding fresh, imaginative, and exciting, while some have not aged quite as well. It's an interesting investigation into the history of the underground, no matter which way you slice it.
The closest touchstone for Frank Maya And The Decals, despite not sounding that similar, would be the disco/atmospheric artistic singer/songwriter Arthur Russell. Like Maya, Russell was hyper-prolific, recording and re-recording thousands of tracks in every musical genre known to humankind which have been slowly trickling out like Texas Tea thanks to the efforts of Russell's loving family, following his passing in 1992, also from AIDS. Arthur Russell was, quite frankly, a musical genre unto himself, living in his own musical universe where anything was possible.
THIS is the true legacy of the NYC art underground - anything goes. This predates any conversation about cultural appropriation, and musicians were dragging sounds from all over the world, incorporating Latin, Central American, and African rhythms and incorporating them with the emerging sounds of the nascent hip hop and dance music scenes. Rather than being offensive, it comes off as thrilling, despite often sounding cheesy and dated.
Frank Maya's rinky-dink lo-fi Casio jams sounds more like Jello Biafra fronting Devo or Flock Of Seagulls, with Maya's reedy surreal invectives riding on weird plastic organ riffs and minimal electronic beats. It can come off as slightly abrasive at times, sounding slightly tinny with its weirdo Casio beats, as with lead single from 1985 "Joanne!", but it is always odd and interesting and, amazingly, charmingly amusing.
Frank Zappa asked the question in 1986, just one year after "Joanne!" was recorded: "Does humor belong in music?" My answer to this question, 99.999% is not just no, but hell no! People tell me I take myself too seriously, and I lack a sense of humor (which isn't true, btw), it's just that for some of us, music is religion and "funny music" is like a whoopee cushion in Notre Dame. But Have You Been Getting My Letters? comes from a different time, a time of cross-pollination and experimentation. Maybe it's not that humor doesn't belong in music, it's just that people should be funnier. Maybe if sarcastic music were more of a caliber of a Lenny Bruce or a Bill Hicks, people would take both traditions more... um, seriously?
Either way, Have You Been Getting My Letters? is an entertaining listen. Maya takes us back in time, to a world of queer camp; a mixture of comedy, musical theater, fashion, glamour, experimentation and adventure, that would later be picked up and perfected by the likes of Stephen Merritt on his on-going The Magnetic Fields project, or mutated, in the transgender transgressions of NYC's Baby Dee.
Let us all take this opportunity to break down BS genre distinctions and signifiers. Let's start mixing and mingling again! Let us explore, taking from when and where we want (just remember to credit your sources and give credit where credit is due).
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