Paint the night snowy white
And the day winter rose
The black rider will break
Over a gradual layering of harpsichord arpeggios and swelling electronic keyboards, singer/composer Ed Askew repeats the vivid chorus gently and deliberately, like a painter methodically applying brushstrokes to a canvas, until the image hovers stubbornly in the fading keyboard drone. Like much of Askew’s homemade recordings of the past ten years, the song (the opening track of 1986’s Little Houses) unfolds with a loveliness, delicacy, and measured restraint rarely heard in contemporary popular music. At first listening, at least, Askew’s recent work seems worlds away from Ask the Unicorn (ESP-Disk, 1968), his often-discussed but rarely heard debut recording—and, to date, his only official commercial release.
Re-released last summer by ESP (and inexplicably re-titled Ed Askew), Ask the Unicorn was one of the strangest and most inventive recordings to emerge from the late-1960’s psychedelic folk movement, with its intensely surrealistic imagery, Askew’s urgent-to-the-point-of-breaking tenor vocals, and the frantic strumming of his then-trademark tiple, the album’s lone accompaniment. The tiple’s ten steel strings are tuned high like a ukulele, with which it shares a bombastic tone and lingering projection. Introduced by Martin in 1924, the instrument is notoriously difficult to play, and much of Ask the Unicorn’s irresistible appeal involves Askew’s heroic and not-always-entirely-successful attempts to keep the damned thing under control while simultaneously keeping up with the songs’ relentless vocals.
Water is wishing wells
But something may be wrong
In that the shadows that cross my path
Walk on green water
And I am walking on the sun
Like the Dylan of Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde, Askew delivers the fragmented, dreamlike, abruptly shifting images of Ask the Unicorn with such intensity and conviction that even the most bizarre lyrics seem somehow real and believable and oddly important.
Askew first honed his songwriting and performing skills in New Haven while earning an art degree at Yale in the mid-1960’s, including a brief interlude as a singer (though not an instrumentalist) for the rock and roll band Gandalf and the Motorpickle. “I couldn’t play my tiple with them because it just wouldn’t work with a rock and roll band,” Askew explained to me recently. His first solo performance was at the Exit Coffeehouse in the basement of a local Methodist church (where another local favorite, Michael Bolton, first showed his stuff). “I didn’t know the words to any of my songs. I still don’t. So I laid the words in front of me and played. And when I stopped, all these people literally ran to the stage. Literally ran.”
Encouraged by the local enthusiasm for his psychedelic tiple music—and armed with an upgraded tiple, newly purchased from his earnings from teaching art at a New England prep school—Askew landed a multi-record deal with ESP, the offbeat New York label that had recently expanded its free jazz roster (Albert Ayler, Sun Ra, Pharoah Sanders) to include outside folk and rock artists like the Fugs, the Holy Modal Rounders, Pearls Before Swine, and the Godz. ESP founder Bernard Stollman was notoriously austere and anarchistic in his approach to recording, with nonstop forty-five-minute sessions, minimal production, and a strict no-retakes policy. Along with the rest of the ESP catalogue, Ask the Unicorn captures the raw excitement of something new taking shape right before your ears.
Released in 1968, Ask the Unicorn received little if any promotion from the label, which was already beset by the financial difficulties that would eventually drive Stollman to bankruptcy in 1974, and quickly disappeared from circulation. Unable to persuade Stollman to release him from his contract, Askew recorded a second album for ESP. Whether it was because of the label’s increasing debt or Stollman’s distaste for Askew’s newfound interest in the piano, Little Eyes was never released by ESP, or anyone else, until the appearance of De Stijl’s limited-edition, vinyl-only “reissue” in 2003.
For most of the 1970’s, Askew divided his time among favorite haunts in New Haven, Boston, and Raleigh, North Carolina, continuing to compose, paint, and occasionally perform. During a stint scraping and painting houses, he developed carpal tunnel syndrome, an injury that limited his ability not only to strum the tiple but also to play the repeated piano arpeggios on which many of his newer songs were based.
In the mid-1980’s, Askew moved to New York City, where a small inheritance enabled him to restart his musical career. “Someone left me five thousand dollars, and I bought an electronic piano, a tape recorder, and a couple of mics. I started recording again shortly after that.” In the past ten years, he’s completed eight new recordings, gradually progressing from the simple keyboard voicings of New Houses in 1986 to the more sophisticated Pro Tools and Reason–based productions of his more recent offerings, Viridian City and Peppermint & Rose. The latter innovations have freed him from the limitations imposed by his injury and increased the complexity of his arrangements. “No one’s playing,” he laughed while showing me the digital chart for one of his recent compositions. “I just create the loop on here and then build the song.”
Askew’s most obvious musical parallel is British post-prog composer Robert Wyatt, with whom he shares a frail but remarkably expressive tenor voice and an incremental, chord-based approach to composition and arrangement, layering swelling triads, looped arpeggios and the occasional whimsically Monkish flight to build simple keyboard progressions into rich, emotionally compelling soundscapes. Lyrically, Askew bears a striking resemblance to Paul Goodman, the mid-twentieth-century New York City poet, novelist, gestalt psychologist, and anarchist social theorist. Like Goodman’s poetry, Askew’s lyrics shift effortlessly from contemplative abstraction to political tirades, from naturalist landscapes to graphic descriptions of urban street life, from childhood vignettes to tales of gay romance—conveyed in language that’s at once elegant and conversational. Also like Goodman, Askew displays (in both his lyrics and his music) a stubborn indifference to contemporary fashion. If that’s what makes Askew’s music such a hard sell for current labels and commercial audiences, it’s also the source of its timelessness. Whether you choose to listen to it now or wait for the next round of “reissues” forty years from now, this is music that will endure.
David Shirley and his trusty pickup truck, Old Blue, currently divide their time between Brooklyn, New York, and Oxford, Mississippi.