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South City musical treasure Tim Garrigan crosses genres and styles recklessly



Tim Garrigan is shameless, at least when that guitar's hanging from his neck. He walks around the Mangia Italiano restaurant on South Grand every Monday night as if he's the king of the place — or the jester. As the 30 or so people spread throughout the restaurant sit and chat, or laugh and howl, Garrigan waltzes around the space with his acoustic, singing songs by Dylan, the Velvet Underground, Dock Boggs, along with the occasional Smiths song.

He plays the pretty songs at Mangia. He plays the messy electric songs at the rock clubs around town with one of the bands he's in, Phut. Somewhere in between, he plays the scattered acoustic and electric songs that he wrote, the ones that appear on his first solo CD, To Be and Not To Be (Nihilist Records).

Garrigan's music crosses genres and styles recklessly; were he just another goddamn acoustic-guitar player banging out classic folk songs, or some rock dude getting messy with his Fender, or some bedroom recluse fiddling with his four-track recorder and writing "private songs," sure, he'd be impressive because he's so good at each aspect, but he wouldn't be all that different from the truckloads of other master-of-their-singular-domain guitar dudes wandering the St. Louis community. Because of his breadth of knowledge and the mess such knowledge creates, though, Tim Garrigan looms large on the city's musical landscape.

"So many people are saying the guitar is dead," says Garrigan of the dilemma that's intrinsic in his music, "and I feel so lame for playing major chords, because it's already been done before. But at the same time, I believe in some kind of indigenous authenticity, the simplicity of that. These things have been going on for hundreds and hundreds of years, and I am a musician and I guess when it comes to being a musician — an artist who comes up with something new — what I've learned is that even with things that at the time were seemingly totally "new,' there's some tie with something else — whether it's a reaction against or an extension of."

Garrigan's history of learning the guitar reads like a history of the last half-century of popular music: first Elvis, then the Beatles, then some electric-guitar hero-worship. But, he says, "Beginning in high school I started getting into jazz, and then when I got into college I started listening to — well, a lot of — everything from punk to art-rock to jazz to whatever, and I was mainly just focusing instrumentally."

This combination — "punk to art-rock to jazz to whatever" — is at the center of the curious, claustrophobic To Be and Not To Be. Many fans of Garrigan's Dylan nights at Mangia may be dumbfounded, to put it mildly, and fans of Phut's angular guitar rock will be equally at a loss. The record, though, roams around the center of such an equation. Solo acoustic ramblings sit next to freakish flashes of insanity — Garrigan speeds up his voice several times on the record so that it sounds like an LP spinning at 45 rpm — which sit next to devilish dirges. Garrigan howls — as in howls — on the record, and, given his usually calm and reserved demeanor sans guitar, sounds as though he's vomiting psychotic voices. Garrigan describes the record most succinctly: "It sort of is like some weird self-portrait. But it's kind of scary.

"I'd lay down a drum track," he continues, "and I wasn't really a drummer, so it would be this haphazard drum track — and then I would write this kind of pseudo-prose-poetry — I'd pick up a sheet of it and try and make a song out of it. I'd just fit a guitar track over the drum as best as I could, kind of improvising in a casual way but trying to play a song. Then I'd layer it, and it would become this amorphous thing that I shaped a little bit when I went to mix it. But there are all these rhythmic slips, so it's not — it's somewhat intentional, but it's also intuitive."

The beauty of To Be and Not To Be — and those who have heard the record may stumble when reading the word "beauty" in association with it — is the line Garrigan walks between intent and intuition. Because of the context — "I was just like, 'Well, I'm going to make a song — tonight.' So I'd lay something down and then go from there," says Garrigan — the slipshod quality of the recording adds layers of texture, both aurally and psychologically. Whereas a more "professional" approach to writing and recording would have snipped off a few of the rough edges, the Polaroid presentation of the record draws a contextual circle around the project and blesses the mess. When Garrigan sings on "Let Us Be" — one of the album's highlights — "Let us be patient when things are moving slowly," it's as though he's scribbled a mental note to himself that we've discovered blowing down the sidewalk.

There are mental notes all over the record. "Everything on there is chronological, so to me it's kind of a diary," he says. Though the idea of another lame "diary" record is kind of frightening — often justifying one's creation as such is a cowardly way of distancing oneself from serious appraisal — To Be and Not To Be is a remarkable statement, even if it does reveal itself from the get-go as a bedroom-door-closed, dim-lamplight-burning record. It's loose, it's chaotic and it's often a tad lyrically over-the-top.

And it's a far cry from the instrumental precision of Phut, a three-piece ensemble (he also plays guitar in You Fantastic!, and he used to be a member of Dazzling Killmen). Where Garrigan's solo work is loose and scattered, Phut's output is so sharp and deliberate that it'd be hard to slide a knife into its seams. The somewhat unorthodox setup — two guitars (the other guitarist being the equally amazing Nathan Warren) and a drummer (Jeremy Brantlinger) — lacks the rhythmic rudder of a bassist; as a result, the only guidance comes in the form of Brantlinger's percussion. Garrigan and Warren have guitar arguments throughout their music, two clean, underdistorted instruments shouting and muttering skewed melodies back and forth.

The result is part jazz confusion, part Captain Beefheartian chaos, part post-rock meandering. Phut makes music that seems intentionally difficult.

"It's a very collective thing," says Garrigan of Phut's compositional approach. "Depending on the song, one person might come up with a riff, but then the idea for us is more like, what can we do against that riff, and then what can the drums do?, to where it's a collective thing and it still grooves, but the result is not all of us predictably playing together. We have a chemistry improvisationally that I'd like to explore more; we improvise live, and there are some songs where there's improvisation written into the formula, but it's never the same thing twice. There's one tune that we played 15 times the same night, and it was never the same way twice. But the nature of the tune was, there are open sections and there was this constant theme, but with different variations."

It's that kind of curiosity and fearlessness that makes Phut so exciting to watch. When they recently played at the Side Door, there was Garrigan, in reflective sunglasses (shameless ... or pretentious?), mumbling into the mic between songs about God knows what and then, as if struck by lightning, the three crammed themselves into another song, a song that started out a mess and then gradually began to make sense. Warren carved a concise three-note phrase with his guitar; then Garrigan chimed in, deliberately going against the rhythm — it seemed an almost aggressive resistence — while Brantlinger sort of held the struggle together — or intentionally pulled it apart. Listening to the song, I had no idea where the cut was headed but knew immediately when they got there, and that arrival provided insight into everything they'd been playing earlier. It's a game Phut seems to play with the audience, and it's totally engaging.

It's another, easier kind of engagement as Garrigan roams around Mangia on a recent Monday night. Unlike your average musician performing in a restaurant, Garrigan's not chained to a makeshift stage or made to stand in a corner. So he floats among the dozen or so tables and lands where the action is. A table breaks out into the birthday song, and Garrigan meanders over to bang out a version of the Beatles' "Birthday." He has no problem approaching a group standing to the side of the bar talking, oblivious to the music; he just steps into the group, offers them a rendition of the Velvet Underground's "Sunday Morning," then moves on. His encyclopedic knowledge of Dylan songs is awe-inspiring; he moves from "This Wheel's On Fire" to "It's Alright Ma, I'm Only Bleeding" (and nails all the words!), gathers requests and learns songs that he doesn't know. A recent request for Blind Willie Johnson's "John the Revelator" was met with a blank stare one week, but the next week he pulled it out of his head, falsetto female response included, and it was an epiphany. His trusty notebook is filled with scribbled Dylan lyrics, and he'll learn a song as the crowd watches — if he flubs it, he'll laugh, apologize and move on.

Garrigan tends to emulate Dylan's voice quite a bit, and if he wasn't so good at it, such emulation — which he readily admits to — would be a tough sell. "The more I listen," he says, "and the more I try and emulate — it's kind of a lazy form of osmosis: Maybe through osmosis I'll come up with my own voice, although I still have this tendency to emulate to an extent. Where is my voice? I'm not sure."