An unsung genius of song

A brilliant, reclusive New York songwriter, with a tiny but ferociously devoted audience.

Published May 20, 2005 5:15PM (EDT)

The stock listings phrase that when a particular band plays "some of the best musicians in town take to the stage" is actually true in the case of Ed Pastorini's 101 Crustaceans, the "town" in this instance being New York City. And here's a line of glib hyperbole to follow it: The rest of them are in the audience.

Pastorini's music is fiercely treasured by a small group of fans, most of them fellow musicians, many of whom take a worshipful attitude toward the man that can be a little overwhelming to the uninitiated. Before I'd heard a note of his music, one prominent local musician had told me that he thought that Pastorini's vast catalog of songs rivaled that of the Beatles in quality, and another told me that he liked to recite Pastorini's lyrics to himself before going to sleep. My expectations were raised impossibly high, you'd think, but when I finally did make it to a 101 Crustaceans show, I was anything but disappointed.

Pastorini, who studied as a young man with Lennie Tristano, one of jazz's stranger visionaries, makes blistering post-punk of a deeply complex, ambitious persuasion -- this is unabashedly rock as high art -- that is written in a harmonic language that often has more to do with Bartok or Stravinsky, or even Ligeti, than it does with Dylan or the Beatles. He sings in a reedy but gristly voice, with a filthy scream and a clear falsetto both in easy reach, and while you could be forgiven for occasionally thinking that he's singing out of tune, if you listen carefully, you'll often find that he's actually hitting a note that's a perfect half-step away from the one you expect to hear.

His music is bristling with odd dissonances, but also contains moments of consonance made all the more precious by the twisted, tortuous paths by which they are arrived at. It is dense, it is cerebral, it is full of odd time signatures, sudden meter changes, jerky stops and starts and outbursts, and to listen to it is to be pummeled unrelentingly by the unexpected, and to be refused any of the simple-minded sensual pleasures of basic pop-music harmonies. These are almost all, I should say, qualities that I tend to dislike, and if Pastorini weren't so extraordinarily good, this would be some of my least favorite music around, a model of what not to do. His music is often just baby steps away from gibberish (emotional, not musical), but instead, it's perfectly coherent poetry spoken in an unspeakably refined tongue. The only comparisons I can think to make are to Captain Beefheart and to Slint, but to my ears, Pastorini is better than either of them.

So where can you hear this wondrous music? There's the rub. The band performs infrequently, and when they do it's generally very late at night and practically unpublicized -- there is, in theory, a mailing list, but Pastorini has told me that it consists of four e-mail addresses. Pastorini has made only one record, 1990's "Songs of Resignation," which is available (for a steep $25) here, and can also be downloaded from here -- and while it's not nearly as good as the music he's making today, it will at least give you an idea of what I'm talking about. Repeated attempts to coax Pastorini back into the studio have not yet succeeded, but when they do I have little doubt that a masterpiece will be produced. I'll post any news about a recording here. In the meantime, know that a genius lurks in the shadows.

By Salon Staff

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