Though his address seems to be in Tucson, I imagine Howe Gelb living in an isolated shack somewhere in the desert, and the only way to get there is in a dusty Chevy pickup from the late 1970s. I imagine him recording all of his music in a big red barn, or in a tiny bar with raw-wood floors and a dusty upright piano shoved against a wall. I imagine him with his eyes closed sitting at that piano, meditating while he mediates the conversation between his soul and his fingertips. Occasionally he'll plunk a dud note, and rather than backpedal to correct it, he'll use it as a springboard to carry him in an entirely different direction.
I imagine Howe Gelb.
He has failed as often as he's succeeded; he's released self-indulgent drivel that baffles me. He's missed notes left and right, stumbled over chords and mumbled rhymes that would get him flunked out of Poetry 101. For every gem of a record he's released, he's tossed off recordings that should have been left in the can. His lack of discipline and seeming ambivalence toward "posterity" have doomed him to a life on the back burner; he's burned bridges, alienated labels who then have happily discarded him from their rosters, witnessed the folding of a few labels with whom he's been affiliated. In general, through sheer perseverance, good and rotten luck, a strict devotion to music and general distaste for business, Howe Gelb has ensured that you've never heard of Howe Gelb.
But I lap it all up, every single piece of music he releases, both with his band Giant Sand and as a solo artist; I seek out most everything he appears on in any form, whether it's the sound of him drooling on a microphone or offering a remarkable, rambling distorto-guitar solo. The main reason I do this, knowing full well that I may end up disappointed, is that I may miss one of those transcendent moments when it happens and Gelb's music blows through me. And it blows through me from different directions: In the course of 23 albums, give or take, Giant Sand has created distorted, anthemic desert rock that owes a debt to Neil Young. He's rambled like Captain Beefheart, offered Tex-Mex romps and piano-bar beauties. But it doesn't matter what kind of music it is, because all he's really offering his listeners is Howe Gelb.
The Clash, the Velvet Underground, the Minutemen, the Mekons, the Shaggs, Public Enemy -- they all changed the way I thought about music. Gelb never really did that. Nor did he enter my life as an impressionable teen; I first heard him when I was in my mid-20s. But his philosophy of music (that I've gathered from the 20-plus recordings I have stretching back to the mid-'80s) is more inspiring and evocative than that of any other artist I know -- because his music isn't really about changing people's minds about music; it's about creation, and about following an idea, be it raw or refined, to its logical conclusion (and confusion). And if it ends up nowhere, if it ends up bouncing right back at him or dropping down dead, that's somewhere, even if I as a fan end up disappointed in it. I'm usually not, of course, and give him the benefit of the doubt more often than maybe I should. But Gelb doesn't ever seem to make any music because he should, so why wouldn't I give him the benefit of the doubt?