Everything About Song About Everything—
an MP3 CD by Paul Kotheimer

review by W. Gillespie

Recently, Andy Partridge turned his back on a music industry that never truly embraced him, and self-published the eight-volume home demo archive Fuzzy Warbles, a majestic testament to a brilliant composer--a good life's work packaged artfully, playfully, exactly as Andy intended.

And now Paul Kotheimer has released highlights from the first two decades of his own work on one MP3 CD. This is a serious folking document. 100 songs on one disc.

Song About Everything.

This MP3CD is not a song about everything, it is everything about a song.

If Illinois is Renaissance Italy, Urbana’s Paul Kotheimer is the Leonardo Da Vinci of the home  studio.  Originally from Chicago, he’s been making his home in Urbana for nearly fifteen years. A little story about Paul: once a local songwriter told Paul that she was interested in starting a collective of local musicians.  Surprised, Paul responded that he had been acting, for years, as if there already were a collective of local musicians.  He helps out everywhere, often for free: WEFT, the Red Herring, the Channing Murray, people’s weddings, loaning equipment, setting up PA’s, playing for something, nothing, anything, nowhere somewhere anywhere, in the acoustic nightmare of local cafes, 6th and Green late Friday night, crooning to drunk jocks, singing louder than the MTD Green line, playing the WEFT sessions having his music mixed through a blender, recording the Guerilla Parlor Ensemble, helping Beezus, helping me.  Hoping somebody will occasionally toss the words “thank you” into his guitar case. Some guy from the Herring Boys still hasn’t paid Paul for the Rickenbacker bass he took.  Paul’s smile is bigger than the Sears Tower and when his eyes light up, his glasses look the west face of the John Hancock building at sunset.   He’s making music and the community is immeasurably better.  The stereo cities sound better as a result of his tireless assistance.  Eventually he will get a record deal and maybe move to LA, get ripped off, and become cynical, but we hope not.  One Saturday the weather was better than ice cream and I went to visit Paul in the sweltering smoky cavern where he was recording the new WEFT jingle.  I was washed up, my radio career was like a dinosaur that had outlived the comet, but along came Paul.  Special K.  The celebrated Mr. Kite.  Southpaw.  A pal’s pal.  Smoother than reel-to-reel, sharper than a stylus, brighter than a laser beam, Paul Kotheimer has eleven fingers.  And that’s just his left hand.   You should buy his CD and make an offer on his vintage Stratocaster.  You should pay him for that Rickenbacker bass.  Or give it back.  You should hear his songs—songs that make me feel nostalgic for Urbana-Champaign, even though I’m still here. Songs that make me nostalgic for dogs I never had, people I never knew.  Songs that read like short stories, songs that don’t rhyme, songs with no chorus, songs that in no way rock.  And even songs that rock hard about girls and cars.  You should hear the songs he won’t let me play you.  Ah, a couple beers, an upside-down 11-string, and Paul. 


Paul posing with Lucky Number 7, an eight-track reel-to-reel that bridged the home studio gap in the years between cassette four-track and home computer. The machine came with a 7 painted on the side, and was named after an old Herring Boys song "Lucky Number Seven," which was a doomed college radio classic, there but for fortune, a 7:4 time signature, and a lyric or two that may have been too explciit for freshmen. (TASCAM 58 1/2" 15 ips eight-track recorder: List price (1980's) ~$4000. Purchased for $300 in 1997. Last used September 2000.)

This essay won't but touch on how Paul's self-produced albums and the Hand Made Record Label made it possible for me to do what I do, running Spineless Books. It's funny how the act of self-publishing might feel like a desperate bid for artists who are told they must rely on an industry they cannot connect with, but seems like a bold and courageous statement to their fans who appreciate the work as much as they would if it were a commercial product with a distant corporate backer, and admire even more that it came seemingly out the artist's sleeve. It might even be a point of shame for some writers, not vanity publishing but humility publishing. But art speaks louder than labels or it isn’t art, it’s empty status. DIY or die; I'm just sayin'. I knew Paul when he wanted to be college radio, and “Don’t Call Me” deserves every shred of attention Timbuk3 got, but fate freed him to make the folking music he was meant to.

The MP3CD is my new favorite musical medium, because it allows the entire corpus of a favorite musician to coexist in one mammoth mix (a few, like Beethoven and Bowie, require more than one MP3CD). But it's often  too big a mix to arrange song by song, so I always fall back on the strategy of putting the songs in alphabetic order. This allows for the surprising, revealing albumless juxtapositions of shuffle play, but creates a certain dramatic architecture that mirrors that of the alphabet, starting strong, climaxing in the Ts, and with everything that follows a quirky coda (X songs, for example, are usually weird). It seems that Paul has, independently, hit on the same technique. So the mix ends with one of my most cherished Kotheimers--the relentlessly subtle, uncatchy, chorusless, hookless, devastatingly poetic and melancholy "Your Easy Chair," a masterpiece I feel privileged to appreciate.

Paul and left-handed upright bass.

Songs like "My Easy Chair" are penciled in margins, enter and exit silently in the wings of recorded music and activism and art and sex and power players and loudmouths crashing symbols. There is an economy of lyric that doesn't rhyme, adhere to a consistent melody, or repeat a line, but is sung so well that you don't notice. Musical prose. These concise and quiet songs tell portraits. This disc spans Paul’s protest music, but activism isn't all politics. It started with and might someday get back to people. When I hear some folksingers sing about the masters and victims of war, I can't shake the feeling they are singing about themselves: their concern, their chops, their courage, their gravelly voices. When Paul sings "Strange Days Richard" or "Ghost Town Youths," whoever he was has disappeared into a wisp of haze through which the wavering apparition of another person can be glimpsed. Through these spiral notebook pages we enter a world of a few lonely people nobody knows. This attracts me to my favorite novels--their authorlessness, how they commit unspeakable, audacious magic by spinning a universe around characters who are not at the center of anything, who would be hard to notice in person, who do not deserve books. Writers thus unclog arteries, hearts shooting sparks, in a warm self-immolation of sympathy. The millions killed or displaced can be a crown of exclamation points for the one who is alive and exhaling. But then there’s Josie. There's something there that smarts, conspicuously enigmatic, that has to be acknowledged before it can even be dismissed. Art the heart beating behind professors, protest, politics, and policy. Worthy legislation and the victories of heroes of courtrooms, lives saved, have roots watered by sour tears in the basements of infested tenements, the rented rooms of student houses, the brownstone twoflats of patient moms. I have never heard Paul play most of these live, and many listeners will never notice them, unable to pry open their hearts to the monstrous capacity for tolerance these songs demand. These gems are dragged up from the dirty earth. Their performance, composition, and arrangement are indistinguishable. Uncalculated, true, neutral, they exist before and after, perfect, unconstructed. They are itchy fire ants crawling beneath the uncomfortable armor of coolness we must wear.

Any noble protest anthems empty out for me into hollow negotiations for power when they lack that capacity for compassion, compassion precisely for nobody, nobody who matters, those who aren't aggressors or victims, who demand no attention, whom history rolls over without even crushing, the mammals who peer from roots during the age of the big lizard, the meek. They take you, these songs, into the musty bedrooms, littered back seats of cars, the ashtrays and coffeepots of the lonely.

What I mean to say here is if you need a rock star, and you don't have time for Mitchell, Jack, John, Jesse, Josie, J.D., Franz, Joseph, Vladimir, Tom, Herman, Emily, Elisabeth, Susan, Johnny, Amelia, Therese, Jane, me and Dale and Sue, then this band of characters isn't for you.

I still own the original typewritten lyrics to "Dead Friend." It has grown on me almost as slowly as the movements of its nearly-static harmony and grammar. Hearing it here allows me to contextualize it among other story songs. Did Josie commit suicide? Or did she literally fly away like Supergirl?  This mystery is a rift as sweet, sad, terrible and mysterious as the effect of missing the spoken intro to "Dog Heaven" and hearing this song about a dog named "Hard Times" as an oddly warm personification of misery. There is a cornucopia of poetry upended in "Waltz," a rough and authentic dance of raw elegance and prole logos. Rich Krueger, as obscure as Paul, wrote that one and “Sheila.” The impossibly dense and clever words are a pile-up at the intersection of heartbreak and hysteria.

Paul and AKG C414-BULS studio microphone.

“Everybody Smokes in Hell,” recorded in the style of the golden era, with one mono take through a single old-timey microphone, the track mixed by literally rearranging the musicians (including Brandon T. Washington) around the piano, is charming, crafty, and clever. It should have been pressed to vinyl, but at least “Dear Abby” actually was. Paul has used vinyl, cassette, reel-to-reel, laptops, DAT, CD, and MP3, tracking two decades of changes in technology (and his oscillating finances), showing an earnest, opportunistic, tenacious, and always creative drive to make music. Stranded on a desert island, he’d beat sticks together and record it with a sewing needle in a coconut shell. Given a budget, he’d buy a Wurlitzer funmaker or have the frets removed from a left-handed guitar.

The song "Song About Everything" meant when it appeared and means again now. There is something Paul can do with his voice that could never be imparted through expensive lessons. He tweaks from it a microvibrato, a mountainous range, a willingness to be quiet sometimes, plunging you to the depths of his naivete and relentless sweetness. Something that will always rub the local guitar guys the wrong way. The breathtaking disparity between presence of talent and absence of arrogance undermines the cock rock project, shaking it to its naked grumbling, drinking, smoking ruins. The voice, taut as a cellostring, is here, wringing from nothing a cut-out horizon of optimism too nontoxic to touch. There is an orchestra of vocal chords and guitar strings with accelerando and pianissimo as effortless as a perfect first take improvised on the spot.

How to listen.

Dear Paul, you don't know how lucky you are, and never will. I, a guy who has more songs in his living room than you do days in your life, thinks you are for real, so pure I won't even bullshit you, and I am prepared to bullshit any musician or friend or local artist just to be encouraging, because it's the right thing to do, to bullshit people, to nurture art in this kind of world, whatever form it takes. But you, you, you have a gift. These songs go places nobody else can reach, and come at me from angles I am unprepared to defend myself against, puncture me in a spray of tears, and never, ever, for too long, get old. It never matters if you don't get played on college radio, if fuckers steal all your bass guitars, throw you out of their bands, don't pay you for the shit you did. You got a line on eternity; you are dialed in to the human soul. You got a thing compared to which none of this can matter, this puppet play we stage on the flimsy blacktop of this teetering world, with its brokers and buyers and jokers and liars. You are still my friend -- your mind, your hands.

I have become accustomed to mood swings. When you go to the ocean, whether you want to splash around, build sand castles, or swim out into the deep, it's going to be about the waves. Emotion draws you forward, drags you back, knocks you down, sucks you under. If you fight it, you lose; you can only accept and dance with it, and hope it will take you where you thought you were trying to go. No more "No More Songs," Paul, not you nor Phil Ochs. Just stagger on.

Dear readers, Paul’s aloft among the church spires and telephone wires. The TV antennas all gleam like whitecaps upon the sea.  Paul has wandered the cavernous hissing fluorescent night.  If he could get on a greyhound, you know he would in a minute.  Paul looks starched into his Sunday clothes.  He’s got a big fat black wallet full of cash when payday comes.  And now he knows just what Tom Clancy would say.  I’ll be happy when he croons to me on VH1.  My mother says he’s dangerous.  Paul looks at the funny pages without even a smile.  He wrote this song in a minute.  He feels like he’s been flattened by a truck but he managed miraculously to survive.  He could send me breakfast through the U.S. mail.  I can’t talk about it, Paul, please just buy me a beer. 

Paul and bass.

Visit the Hand Made Record Label
The album Song About Everything is available for purchase on iTunes.


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