Outside Rudolf Steiner House on the West Side of Regents Park, a suitably eccentric venue for tonight’s show, The Space Lady and Eric, her husband and ‘space manager,’ climb out of their touring craft, an unassuming red minivan, and stare at the pay-and-display instructions, dazed after the drive from Sheffield. For The Space Lady, real name Susan, this is her first time in the UK and this is her first print interview.
“It’s even greener than I imagined, and that is going some,” she says. “I always had a picture of beautiful meadows and winding roads, streams and hedgerows, and [England] is exactly that only more so. I was born and raised in Colorado. The Arkansas River ran through the town but the climate is so arid that the green ends within probably a mile on either side and then it’s flatland desert.“
That town was La Cuidad de Las Animas Perdido in Pergatorio, or The City of Lost Souls, where she was born a year after the Roswell incident in the adjacent New Mexico desert. There is certainly a benign ghostliness to her and her music; a happily lost quality that makes her Casiotone tinkering intensely bewitching. Steeped in echo and phase, her original compositions and revelatory cover versions from the psychedelic, rock and pop universes are perturbing and entrancing metaphysical sirens.
For anyone yet to be seduced by them, here is some back-story: after hitting Haight-Ashbury in time for its pinnacle of free love, acid and pacifist resistance, Susan doesn’t return to rural Colorado but turns folkloric underground hippy renegade as the wave of idealism breaks and rolls back in the ’70s. She resurrects the dream in 1980 as a (now) legendary street musician and winds up on Irwin Chusid’s seminal compilation of ‘Outsider music’ ‘Songs in the Key of Z’.
“People used to ask me, ‘What kind of music is this?’,” she says. “I was really stumped for a while, but I finally came up with the term ‘Primitive Futurism’. That stood for a while until Iwrin Chusid labelled it ‘Outsider music’ and that hit home for me, like, ‘Yes! I’m an outsider, that fits.’”
The Space Lady might well be the epitome of the genre. Whatever the merits of dividing music along these lines, it’s a term that’s made something of a come back recently. “It has, it’s in vogue!” she laughs.
Interest had hummed quietly throughout her busking career in Boston and San Francisco but it took the exponentially amplifying effect the Internet had on word-of-mouth phenomena in the ’00s to break her cult status, just when Susan had retired her flashing winged helmet and Casiotone MT40 and got a job as a nurse to support frail parents. She’s back thanks to the encouragement of her husband and Michael Kasparis of Night School Records, who released her ‘Greatest Hits’ in autumn last year. Now, Susan is playing the twelfth date of a UK tour, in her first ever run of club shows, aged 66.
The legacy of the ’60s is easily discernable, not just in the retro-futurist space theme and choice of covers (tonight she opens with ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ and the Electric Prunes’ ‘I Had Too Much to Dream (Last Night)’), but she says the main reason she’s doing these shows is “as a stand for peace and love.”
“I had no idea of the cultural revolution that was going on in the Haight Ashbury until I got there,” Susan remembers. “Oh boy, I was never the same ever again!” she laughs. “It was March, I believe, when I got there in ’67 and flowers were blooming all over Golden Gate park. Bands were popping up unexpectedly, and people were expressing love, you know, unabashedly.”
Susan wants to dispel the impression, made by some blogs that she has basically just stayed there busking ever since. In fact, she has been all-over, treading a singular path of acute highs and lows after going on the run from the reactionary forces that rose up and crushed a decade of youthful optimism. Full of noteworthy resilience and hardship, it’s like a real-world Forrest Gump, if that wasn’t such a horrible and impossible notion.
“I met and common law-married another hippy who was hiding from the draft, so that was Joel, Joel Dunsany.” Her voice is reverent and a little cracked – he died last year. “So we went underground, destroyed our IDs and lived in a cave for a time, and ended up in Boston.”
Meanwhile all around them, the dream of a cultural and political renaissance was burning down fiercely.
“We were at least under the illusion that people were listening and that we were having a huge impact on the world, that love and peace was right around the corner. Uh,” she sighs. “It didn’t turnout that way… a few years later resignation set in, and disappointment, bitter disappointment… that the Vietnam War just carried on and on and on and other wars were popping up. It seemed like these very small vestiges of the hippy culture remained and most of them were incorporated into commercialisation.”
Case in point was the “downtown, schlepping world” of the very square-sounding 1970s Boston, MA.
“It was really a far cry from San Francisco,” says Susan. “I knew it had had a hippy subculture during the ’60s but it wasn’t really apparent anymore. In the ’60s we had a community and we established a kind of safety zone. At some point that got so disrupted for many of us that there was no safety anymore, no safe place to trip, or to experiment with psychotropics. The world got so dangerous or seemed so dangerous. It seemed like we were targets for the much larger culture of greed and scheduling and, you know, time demands and restrictions. We really felt like strangers in a strange land and subsisted on selling artworks and little books of poetry and pan-handling for the greater part of those years until I discovered I could play the accordion and began my street music career in 1980.”
This proved surprisingly lucrative. It’s hard to imagine it happening now, but Susan was able to start saving money. In ’82, The Space Lady as presently constituted took its first form when she went electric.
“When they first came out with the Casiotone MT40, there was another street musician playing it and I was just fascinated, thought it was marvellous,” she gushes, “and coincidentally my accordion was destroyed by a drunk on the subway. You know how they say you have to have an empty cup for it to be filled? So my cup was empty then, I had no instrument, and the universe supplied one and the whole future of the Space Lady emerged.
“The whole time between ’72 and ’84, just longing to get back to the West Coast, finally we were able to thanks to my street music. We had two children by that time and amassed enough money to get bus tickets across country. They had a summer bargain where one parent and one child could go for $99 so for two hundred dollars we got back.”
How did it compare to Boston?
“San Francisco was waay more receptive to me than Boston had been – people actually started asking me my name.” She lets out a delighted laugh. “And I’d never had the occasion to come up with a name other than Susan, so I pondered for months, and finally Space Lady just sort of evolved out of the public’s perception of me. I liked it.”
But, despite becoming a treasured fixture on the gay scene, releasing a record in 1990 and her appearance on Chusid’s comp, this episode ended sadly too.
“I was getting pretty discouraged,” she says. “We had three children, they were in their teens, kind of disgruntled with our lifestyle, and it was costly. I had to buy batteries every day and I couldn’t get out of the elements; if it was raining I couldn’t go in the subway and play through an amplifier so I went back to accordion… it was just a struggle. My Parents were entering their nineties and needing help, my marriage was… not working. So I took my younger daughter and we went back to Colorado and I left Joel and called it quits.”
Thankfully, it didn’t end there.
Michael Kasparis tells me: “Like a lot people, I first heard The Space Lady on Irwin Chusid’s compilation ‘Songs In The Key Of Z’. I was at a party, pretty inebriated, and ‘I Had Too Much To Dream’ came on; I was transfixed. I bought her homemade CD online and emailed the contact address, asking whether she would be interested in releasing a vinyl edition of her music. She never replied so I let it lie.”
Meanwhile, Eric whom Susan had married in 2008, was persuading her of her music’s worth, even while she couldn’t bear listening to it.
“I didn’t realise I’d made an impact on the world really, and Eric recognised that, just because I was still getting emails from people… wondering where I was playing,”
“In the year that followed, I started a record label called Night School and roughly a year and a half after asking, I got an email from Susan and Eric expressing an interest,” says Kasparis. “I can remember the first conversation I had with both of them, over a crappy Skype line. A year later, I found myself driving across the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco with the sun setting, and Susan giving me a Space Lady history lesson.”
“It’s transcendental,” laughs Susan, “to think that my music is still relevant! It’s surprising to say the least but gratifying as well. I just… I can’t even begin to express how thankful I am that you, my fans, have breathed new life into a career that I thought was long since over.”
Why do terms like ‘Outsider’ or ‘World’ music still have any currency? Haven’t we surpassed the patronising fictions they’re based on? It’s probably something to do with the turgid predictability of officiated music, the polarisation of culture and lack of each-way communication between alternative music and the mainstream, but apparently we haven’t. This arbitrary distinction seems clearer than ever. With many aspects of our culture seeming to slide backwards (vis. the nostalgia for the nostalgia that was Britpop), figures like The Space Lady serve as an antidote to clueless cynicism and as a hopeful reminder of what is possible.