Graded on a Curve:
Nothing Exists

In the days before gentrification, New York City produced some truly noteworthy eccentrics. Copernicus was a prime example of the city’s outré art circa the 1980s, proffering scrappy avant-rock tethered to the methodically twisted persona of its leader, a man deeply beleaguered by the troublesome truths of science. Once heard, it’s impossible to mistake him for anyone else.

I can recall like it was yesterday my introduction to New York spoken-word poet/performance artist/musical provocateur Joseph Smalkowski aka Copernicus. While flipping through new arrivals at my local wax shop, an associate pointed to a sleeve and inquired if I’d heard its contents. After I responded in the negative, he added that Nothing Exists, the LP being considered by his wiggling digit, was the product of a total “loony.” Well, to be blunt, I’d never be so gauche in my choice of descriptive terms. But it’s undeniable that the guy is quite a trip. And then some.

And to be clear, my young friend was confusing the character of Copernicus with its creator, though I’ve no doubt that Smalkowski is a dynamic personality in his own right; it’s he that’s responsible for the whole experience, natch. It all started as straight-up spoken poetry readings in the late ‘70s, and as music was integrated into the performances he slowly gained a cult following.

And the concept of “performance” is integral to this resolutely late-Bohemian experience, both through the playing of a role and the fact that its main focus was to be shared in front of live audience. Copernicus is just one byproduct of NYC’s ‘80s Downtown Scene, an environment where the gig was very much the object and recordings, while certainly welcome, were somewhat secondary.

But recordings are the documents that establish permanence over the often cruel span of time, and that’s how I became acquainted with Copernicus, taking home that second-hand copy of Nothing Exists for under a fin. It took a few plays to appropriately ooze into my consciousness, but once it did the general thrust of the matter became clear; here was a man deeply disturbed by modernity, particularly its great leaps of scientific advancement.

And if his named derived significantly from that of rebel-astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus, he also somewhat resembled in his gruff dark delivery the late standup comedian/monologist Brother Theodore, if that classic mensch had been driven to loquacious despair by the formidable contents of gargantuan textbook tomes on Advanced Physics, and in need of release began collaborating with a ragtag bunch of urban fringe rockers.

But where Theodore Gottlieb could sit comfortably in his discomfiture on the couches of Merv Griffin, Johnny Carson, and David Letterman, Smalkowski was too uncompromising for crossover success. In short, this mad seer/philosopher with an extraordinarily adroit backing band was the provenance of weirdo punks, slumming art elites, and other urban bohos.

But I won’t deny that the whole thing got off to a shaky start. Nothing Exists opens with “I Won’t Hurt You,” a slow tune dominated by a dated and somewhat dinky sound of synths and keyboards, the deep tones of Copernicus’ voice molding it into a lovey-dovey ode from an existentialist and slightly creepy Barry White-type character.

After gaining familiarity with the rest of the album (along with subsequent entries in his discography) “I Won’t Hurt You” sorta fell into place as a “hit single” from a substantially stranger and not necessarily more pleasant universe, a place where Copernicus served the dual role of Leonard Cohen and later-period Marvin Gaye. And this was much more appealing proposition than the one-note joke-rock I momentarily thought I’d been snookered into buying.

The situation picks up quite a bit with “Blood,” which begins like something out of a piano bar for severely misanthropic surrealists (“It’s just the ignorance that creates all the static…it’s just the ignorance that creates all the blood”) and slowly builds into a blend of cacophony and acerbic rant, with a woman’s chilly voice wafting in an out.

If “I Know What I Think” is relatively reserved, the first side’s closer “Quasimodo” is a screed of agonized profundity delivered with total relish, the words and music finally falling into deep synch. This relationship continues across side B’s three tracks, with the extended “Let Me Rest” being Nothing Exists’ centerpiece, though the proceedings continue to get exceedingly and attractively zonked on “Nagasaki” and the closer “Atomic Nevermore.”

After ample time spent with Nothing Exists it becomes clear that rather than gimmick, Smalkowski’s mixture of poetics and theatricality is a legitimately conceived expression of his surely individualist mindset and one-of-a-kind artistic vision. And to be blunt, he likely didn’t have the stuff to build as large a following (from the edges of the ‘80s art and music scenes, of course) purely on the strength of his writing alone.

And to be clear, those looking for a more forthright combination of music and poetry might be turned off by the performance aspect of Copernicus. It certainly can’t be ignored, and folks that find his rocky road untraversable just might prefer the fruits of such LPs as Jazz Readings in the Cellar, a 1957 disc that paired San Francisco Renaissance poets Kenneth Rexroth and Lawrence Ferlinghetti with The Cellar Jazz Quartet, or its stylistic cousin Blues and Haikus, a 1959 meeting of Jack Kerouac and post-bop saxophonists Al Cohn and Zoot Simms. And in a more contemporary context there’s also Prison, a 1992 album from Sub Pop chronicling the work of Steven Jesse Bernstein augmented by musician Steve Fisk.

But those that don’t get the hives at the very mention of performance art should be able to navigate the three-way pileup of theatrics, poesy, and art-rock just fine. And while a boldly successful introductory gulp of one outsider’s unique creation, a major portion of Nothing Exists’ lingering importance in the present day directly relates to its expression of a distinctly regional flavor.

Indeed, the sweet stench of sub-cultural New York City simply permeates from this record. Not only is it a document of Joseph Smalkowski’s conception of Copernicus, it’s also a representation of one geographical section of the underground from whence it sprang. This is clearly expressed at the end of “Nagasaki,” a live recording; “Death does not exist! Birth does not exist! Life does not exist! Copernicus does not exist! The earth does not exist! Max’s Kansas City…does not exist…”

It’s true that any record is in some way a snapshot of the environment that produced it, but most of the pictures they frame aren’t particularly illuminating of where they originate, either back then or especially now. I don’t rue the march of technological progress that is the internet one little bit, but there is also no denying that ease and speed of communication has become such a great leveler that the distinctness and therefore the relevance of regional scenes have been greatly diminished.

It used to takes months and in some cases even years for the distribution of independently produced records to spread across the globe from their point of origin, so it was natural that spheres of influence would be more locally based. This didn’t matter so much when the connection was some kid in Des Moines getting slew by his aunt’s Big Star records. But when it’s a young band channeling the decidedly New York state of mind that is the Velvets, Suicide, Richard Hell, Glen Branca, and No Wave into their own distinct thing, well the result is Sonic Youth.

In contrast to that band, Copernicus has been heard by a relative handful, but that small audience did nothing to slow his output through the ‘80s and early ‘90s. There was Victim of the Sky in ’86, Deeper in ’87, Null in ’90 and No Borderline in ’93. There’s even a DVD of his ’89 tour of Eastern Europe Live! In Prague. A long hiatus came after No Borderline, but since 2001 the dude has chalked-up four more releases in a display of unexpected stick-to-itiveness.

To my knowledge, Deeper was the last Copernicus disc to get the vinyl treatment. But Nothing Exists is really the place for interested parties to start. It sets Smalkowski’s cunningly crafted guise into fine motion; listeners can then decide how much more, if any, Copernicus they need in their lives.

And I’ll confess to not hearing any of Smalkowski’s post-hiatus efforts. Apparently he’s moved to Europe from New York City, a circumstance that in my case can’t help but substantially curtail his appeal. If only those exceedingly high rents didn’t exist.

Graded on a Curve: B

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