Masked avengers are a strange, lonely breed: Batman, the Lone Ranger, Zorro, Wonder Woman. They operate as one-person operations, alienated from society and paperwork, at once heroic and existential. Their mystique and superhuman powers are just the template kids need for their dreams.
Even stranger, however, are the one-man bands, the DIY noisemaker-minstrels. Folding strange into certified-wacko, then, would entail welding a masked avenger theme to a one-man-band concept. A surreal character playing ultra-real, close-to-the-bone rock ’n’ roll. Add Frenchness (!), asthma (!!), and yodeling (!!!), and you have a recipe for pure aural derangements of the soul by a vrai troublemaker, the Mysterious Asthmatic Avenger.
I’d been fascinated by this French voodoobilly performer since I discovered his broken-down website while surfing for unusual yodelers two years ago. He was hard to track down, but I found him via Reverend Beatman of Voodoo Rhythm Records and in no time discovered that Monsieur Avenger was coming to Amsterdam for a holiday. His only demand was an acoustic guitar, so I contacted my Indonesian garage-blues guitarist friend Michel to lend me his. Alas, someone had dropped it out a window while playing it, so Michel offered his semi-acoustic, hollow-body, fake Gibson instead. The meeting between no-fi one-man band the Mysterious Asthmatic Avenger and lo-fi radiomaker Wreck This Mess took place in the run-down, secret studios of Radio Patapoe. (The hundreds of beer and wine bottles usually strewn about had been miraculously tidied up in honor of our guest.)
The Mysterious Asthmatic Avenger was born in Kehl, Germany, to a French father and a German mother. Between bouts of frantic strumming—a swirling riff-raff of chords that coaxed trailer-trash poesie from his throat—I discovered other slippery truths about this elusive man. He lives in Tours, two and a half hours southwest of Paris, where he made most of his recordings in true DIY cassette-culture style: “I was alone in my kitchen but I had two tape recorders, each recording two channels” to get that ping-pong, stereo-like sound—music the old-fashioned, pre-digital way. And don’t ever mention the word mastering, because that’s pure DIY heresy. “No mastering, and everything is good. If you have to record something more than three times, it’s no good and you shouldn’t record it.” During the 1990s the MAA toured the European garage-punk circuit with another one-man band, blues-influenced hoodoo rocker Reverend Beatman and the Watzloves.
The Mysterious Asthmatic Avenger’s image is a mish-mash of cowboydelia gleaned from spaghetti westerns, John Wayne movies, Zorro, the Lone Ranger and “everything from the ’60s: Spiderman, Superman, Captain America. This mix led to the superhero image of the MAA. And to be asthmatic is not so glorious. Our favorite superheroes are those with some weakness or fragility. Superman is too super; Batman and Spiderman are troubled.”
The Mysterious Asthmatic Avenger is asthmatic, but he can still perform as a one-man band because in the early ’90s he discovered that “yodeling is good for the health. It not only saves your soul—it cures your asthma!” He is absolutely convinced that yodeling works better than an inhaler.
“I give yodel lessons to the crowd. The crowd has to yodel, and I yodel with them, and then I can play. It’s a kind of mystical experience.”
His yodeling is informed by ’70s German TV variety shows and inspired by Jimmie Rodgers, Gene Autry, and Tex Owens, but sounds more like it was cribbed from a Cramps workshop at the Spahn Ranch. (He does a great yodel cover of Red River Dave’s classic “California Hippie Murders”) Besides the health benefits, he yodels for humorous effect. His sense of humor is of the self-deprecating variety, because “I am not a genius guitar player and singer, but humor is what makes you warm up to the public.” In other words, humor covers up the bad spots.
His yodel models may be epiglottal greats Franzl Lang, the Jodelkönig (“his yodeling art was a kind of nirvana for me”), and speed-yodeler Peter Hinnen, but his musical heroes are one-man bands like Hasil Adkins, Jack Starr, the Legendary Stardust Cowboy, Nervus Norvus, and contemporaries Reverend Lightning Beatman, Bob Log III, Bloodshot Bill, Billy Childish, and Elvis Pummel.
His interest in one-man bands is about independence: “When you play alone you make your own choices. You make what you want even if it is a lot harder to play along with both feet and a guitar and a voice.” And about aesthetics: “The sound of a one-man band is very different from that of a real band. Listen to Hasil Adkins or Jack Starr; they have their own sound because they’re used to playing alone and recording at home using two-track tapes to produce that strange sound. My first recordings were really influenced by those guys.”
He sits at an old school desk and strums his guitar and launches into a live version of “My Name Is Jesus.”
A one-man band is “like schizophrenia,” he says. “Legend says that Hasil Adkins started playing all the instruments at the same time because he was listening to Hank Williams on the radio and thought that this guy was playing all of the instruments at the same time. He was a kind of genius. I mean it. There is a kind of art called art brut. I think you can call this brut music.”
“Want to play anything else?”
“Oooh, I try my best. It’s a cover song but also a very personal song. It’s called ‘Rock ’n’ Roll Killed My Mother’ but in fact, my mother killed rock ’n’ roll.”
Bart Plantenga is the author of the novel Beer Mystic, and Yodel-Ay-Ee-Oooo: The Secret History of Yodeling Around the World (Routledge); he also compiled the CD Rough Guide to Yodel. He is currently working on Yodel in HiFi, a documentary on yodeling, and two new yodel compilations.