by David Licata
“I did an experiment with my students,” my friend Stacey said. “I asked them to write whatever they wanted and submit their stories anonymously.”
We were in a café on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, where we met two or three times a season for a coffee, a pastry, and a catch-up.
“How’d that turn out?” I asked.
“It was the best stuff they wrote all semester. The stories were engaging and interesting. Some were weird, but not disturbing. And none of the work resembled anything they had written before. Their stories weren’t just freer or looser, they were all better. And their grammar improved, too. I don’t know what that was about.”
At the time she had been teaching fiction in the master’s program at an esteemed university in New York City. She had published three acclaimed novels, a book of essays, many non-fiction pieces, and had mentored emerging novelists at Bread Loaf for more than a decade. You could say she knows a thing or two about writing.
“It’s amazing what they came up with.”
Several months later, this conversation rewound and played back as I walked home on a cool spring evening from a concert I had attended at Sony Hall in Midtown Manhattan. My ears buzzed, a vestige of having heard and watched a guitarist who dressed like a gas station attendant circa 1980 and wore a featureless Michael Meyers mask and an upturned Kentucky Fried Chicken container on his head. I could not tell if the long stringy hair hanging below the bucket was real or a wig.
I shouldn’t feel the need to defend my love for Buckethead, and yet I do. In the realm of “you are what you like,” he doesn’t fit conveniently in any of my taste boxes, and his presence among my other guitar idols is as conspicuous as Buckethead’s bemasked face and 6’6” stick-figure thin frame — over 7’ with bucket — walking through an airport. The hyperprolific musician with fingers as long as unsharpened pencils is usually lumped into the metal genre, which I don’t usually enjoy, and often makes the list of ten fastest shredders, which doesn’t usually impress me. But if he must be labeled, it should be as an “eclectic” musician, whatever that means, and his originality and virtuosity do impress me.
If you search on YouTube you will find many many videos of Buckethead, some where he plays with friends such as Parliament/P-Funkers Bootsy Collins and Bernie Worrell, or pioneering turntablist Grand Mixer DXT, or Viggo Mortensen. Yes, that Viggo Mortensen. There are a few where, as Slash’s replacement, he towers, figuratively and literally, over the rest of Guns n’ Roses, standing on stage left, way left, in his own world, in his getup as the rest of the band prance around the stage making farcical guitar faces and striking rock star poses. But the majority of videos are of him playing guitar to a live audience in a small theater, onstage alone with pre-recorded backing tracks. He does not sing. Occasionally there are spoken words, but not to introduce a title or thank the audience. Instead a synthesized voice is channeled through a ghoulish vinyl Halloween mask on his hand. I can’t decide if this is surreal ventriloquism or campy puppetry or surreal puppetry or campy ventriloquism.
A Buckethead tune alternates between legato and staccato, pianissimo and fortissimo, larghissimo and prestissimo. Cheeky riffs from the most recognizable tunes (“The Imperial March” from Star Wars) crash into furious solos based on obscure, non-Western scales. He may suddenly stop playing and click into dance mode, moving like a Disneyland animatron, and at least once a show he will grab a pair nunchucks off a Marshall amp and display his formidable skill with the weapon, a show-stopping moment guaranteed to send his predominantly male audience into a fever state. He expresses his gratitude by reaching into a black grab bag and handing out dollar-store toys to the audience. He also invites the people in the front row to press his oversized Les Paul’s kill switch—a pinball game flipper button that cuts the electrical signal when depressed, and lets it flow when not, creating something that sounds like old school scratching with some 8-bit video game sounds thrown in. If this all seems gimmicky, perhaps it is, but it is more authentic than a Kiss concert, less heady than performance art, and does not detract from his music.
Buckethead is famous enough to have guitar-obsessed autograph seekers lurking by the stage entrance, but that doesn’t happen because no one knows what he looks like. On all of the Internet there seems to be only two photographs of him without the mask, bucket, and the long hair — a sweet one of him and his father taken when he was teenager, and a for-hire ad he placed in the December 1989 issue of Guitar for the Practicing Musician. In these photos he is Brian Patrick Carroll, the young son of Tom and Nancy Carroll of Claremont, California.
Despite his anonymity, Carroll does reveal himself. His website will tell you of his adoration for Michael Jackson, Michael Jordan, Bruce Lee, and Disneyland and his very serious desire to open his own amusement park, Bucketheadland. His persona and performances show a deep appreciate for the absurd and Grand Guignol, and while most of his song titles do as well, some titles show a sensitivity and vulnerability not often seen in pop music, and especially not in testosterone-fueled metal: “Watching the Boats with My Dad,” “For Mom,” “Missing My Parents,” “Coniunctio.” To quote the high priestess of anonymity, Elena Ferrante, “my identity can be found in my writing.”
But unlike Ferrante, Carroll chose his brand of anonymity for reasons other than concealing his identity or protecting his privacy. In a 2017 podcast with his therapist (!), Barry Michaels, co-author of the self-help books, Coming Alive and The Tools, Carroll speaks candidly about, among other things, therapy, the people who inspired him, the death of his parents, his crippling back pain, and the heart surgery he underwent to prevent a stroke. All TMI for the traditional anonymous artist. They also discuss identity and persona. His getup not only killed his stage fright, it also gave him freedom.
Carroll: I could do everything I liked doing as this character that I’m totally scared to death to do otherwise. And I applied all the stuff I liked like Disneyland, martial arts, dancing, all that kinda stuff I liked. I can’t do it, just like me, you know… [it] was a great expressive way for me to get all the stuff out.
Michaels: So really in a way you were playing a character on stage—
Carroll: But in a way I’m more myself.
Playing guitar was how I expressed myself, also. I began studying classical guitar when I was in my mid-teens and became obsessed with the instrument and the music. I practiced six to eight hours a day for a few years. My goal was to attend music school and then achieve musical superstardom. During all that time of intense practice I never performed. I played for one person at a time, for my girlfriend, my mother, or my niece, who was an infant. My teacher encouraged me to perform and suggested local restaurants and cafés that featured live music. He was confident my guitar and I were ready to be in front of an audience. I didn’t disagree with him. I was ready, I had the chops, but I couldn’t see myself displaying them in front of 100 strangers. Performing chops I didn’t have. And I didn’t have the vision to don a Michael Meyers mask and a KFC bucket and create another self. I continued practicing and playing for a loved one once in a while.
A year or so after the Buckethead concert I opened an e-newsletter, and listed under the “What We’re Reading” heading was “My Year of Writing Anonymously,” by Stacey D’Erasmo, the same Stacey mentioned in the first sentence of this essay.
When we first spoke about the assignment she gave her students, she was adrift as a writer, a teacher, a person in love. I knew about some of her hurt but I didn’t know how deeply the wounds ran:
… during that dark season, nothing that I wrote seemed to me to sustain any value. I would begin something, follow it for a while, and then suddenly lose interest, lose heart. I would, I suppose, betray it, toss it aside in the way that I felt I had been tossed aside in various ways, exiled, devalued, dismissed, erased.
We don’t discuss process or work-in-progress, but I always assumed, maybe because I believe she’s at least seventeen times smarter than I am, that when she sat at her laptop, she was confident the words, sentences, and paragraphs would not fail her. It’s not that I thought she was superhuman, I imagined she had the odd afternoon when she felt disappointed with her morning’s work, but less frequently and with less frustration than I or other writers I know experience. And when she first told me about the assignment, I did not imagine she longed for the liberty she had bestowed upon her students. I suppose she could have noodled in a journal, but that would not do.
… perhaps paradoxically, one can’t really write anonymously by oneself. Readers are required; the anonymous writer needs an audience to whom one can be unknown. I walked around with this conundrum, not particularly doing anything about it …
… until she met the editor of Catapult, a digital literary magazine, who offered her a column. D’Erasmo counter-pitched, how about a column written anonymously? The editor bit, and so the Magpie, “someone who notices what gleams in the world” as her biographical statement declares, graced the Internet with a bi-monthly column about whatever interested her. A column could be devoted to the experience of looking at an Agnes Martin painting, or could travel from the Women’s March in DC to a concentration camp in the Chilean desert to the Hayden Big Bang Theater in Manhattan. She chose where to jump from and where to land.
“Windows” begins with a hilarious analysis of the infamous Kanye West video, “Famous,” wherein Kanye and a collection of 11 other famous people (wax figures, it turns out) lie naked in an Andre the Giant-sized bed, a rumpled white sheet strategically covering most of their naughty bits.
… For a while, the music stops [in the video]; we hear the naked famous people breathe. It’s a mostly unpleasant feeling. Kanye says that the video is “a comment on fame,” the comment being, maybe, that it’s a clusterfuck we all like to click on, so we’re implicated.
Yeah, I guess. I also like to stop at the window of a certain tailor on West 83rd Street, a wondrous picture window crammed from top to bottom with curios and objects and displaced treasure that are clearly dear to someone.
No double-spaced break or asterisk prepares us for the leap from a megapop star’s video to a tailor’s storefront window. From the experience of watching the video and feeling complicit in its cynicism, maybe even envying Kanye’s hermetically sealed lifestyle, to the experience of peering into a public window chockablock with figurines, globes, dolls, and only god know what else, and feeling a sense of curiosity and wonder.
Her eye spots something else shiny, The Fits, a film by Anna Rose Holmer, and then an upcoming exhibit at the New Museum, The Keeper, which would feature 4,000 objects from two dozen collectors. She gathers the shiny objects and lays them out to her liking:
Perhaps it (the tailor’s window) will reveal not only devotion, but also the liberation of ungoverned juxtaposition.
Ungoverned. Without influence, guidance, coercion, regulation, or mandate imposed by an entity, such as a person, a group of people, an industry, societal mores or laws, a polity. Or one’s self. She continues:
…Freed from what this or that column would or wouldn’t do to my reputation, my bank account, my pride, or my desire for revenge on those who had harmed me, I was—well, I was happy.
There, I’ve said it. I was happy. By which I mean, I remembered that I just wanted to walk around this world and write about it. I wanted to string words together about being alive.
When I started college—not music school—my devotion to the instrument began to taper off. My repertoire seemed stale, practice became a chore, my guitar teacher moved out of state, and my interest in storytelling eclipsed interpreting centuries-old classical music. My guitar and I no longer fit like interlocking jigsaw puzzle pieces. It became heavier and more uncomfortable to hold. The guitar stayed in its case in my closet and came out for a few minutes about once a month, just enough to keep my callouses while shaming me over how far I had fallen.
Until about 25 years later. My father rolled out of bed and broke his hip. Unable to get up or reach a phone, he lay on the floor alone for three days. A neighbor noticed his absence and he was admitted to the hospital, where he stayed for three months, straddling the line between recovery and death. The visits and daily status of his health became all consuming, and after the first month I felt like I was disappearing. I picked up the guitar to do my monthly noodling. It felt different, but familiar. It belonged there, on my lap, in my arms, but it didn’t ask for my devotion, it didn’t insist that I have a goal. I started playing daily, late in the evening, sometimes playing for 15 minutes, sometimes an hour, for however long was doable and felt right. I relearned some of my repertoire, took on new tunes.
When I went on vacations, I brought it along. When I was in a long-distance relationship, I bought an inexpensive one at a local music store to keep at her house. When I went on a residency for two months in remote eastern Oregon and couldn’t fly there with my guitar, I bought an inexpensive one from Guitar Center and had it shipped to the residency.
That guitar was the least favorite I owned or played. The neck was warped and it sounded dull, without sustain or brightness. The stain used on the fret board left black residue on my fingers. Still, it would do for two months and I would not regret leaving it behind as a donation to the residency.
I often played in a common living space, in a large loft above the kitchen. It was a way for me to leave the studio and, despite its shoddiness, the guitar sounded not half bad in the cavernous, wood-paneled space. I played in the middle of the afternoon when all the other artists were in their studios and the only person in the building was the chef, Barbara.
I would enter the building through a backdoor and slink up the stairs, avoiding her. As soon as I began warming up, she’d turn off KOAP, the local NPR station. I feared she resented my intrusion. I was yet another pampered artist she was obliged to accommodate. And I feared I bored her, or worse, irritated her. While there I worked on four pieces. “Worked on” is my kinder, gentler word for “practice,” and it entails playing the most difficult sections of a piece one or two bars at a time, over and over and over. This is what dispels non-musicians of the fantasy that it would be endlessly delightful to partner with a musician.
Before I left the residency, I stopped by the kitchen to thank Barbara for the many delicious and nourishing meals I enjoyed during my time there, harboring a slim hope she wouldn’t identify me as the guitar-playing resident.
“My pleasure. Really,” she said. “Thank you for playing your guitar. It was such a gift.”
That was more than enough, knowing that those notes filled the space and were enjoyed by someone other than myself, and whether my name or face rode those ephemeral sound waves or not mattered not at all.
Classical guitarist, and my teacher’s teacher, Manuel Barrueco; folky eccentric John Fahey; funk, soul, rock chameleon demigod Prince are in my top five.
Buckethead studio albums, or “pikes,” as he calls them, can vary in length, but they usually clock in around 30 minutes. He has released more than 300 of them, 118 in 2015 alone.
MTV Music Awards, 2002.
If you search for “buckethead unmasked” you will find many photos of a man posing with famous musicians, including Axel Rose and Paul Gilbert, one of Carroll’s teachers. This is actually a French guitarist, Stephane Alaux.
There may also be one video of him performing with a bar band in the 80s. Whether it is or is not him is a contentious issue.
From the Latin coniugare “to join together.” Carl Jung used the word to describe the dynamic poles of “conscious and unconscious processes.”
The Tools podcast. “A Conversation with Buckethead.”
Catapult, From the Magpie (Work), Nov. 21, 2016
Catapult, (In Which the Magpie Considers the Possibilities of Outer Space), Feb 03, 2017
Catapult, From the Magpie, (Windows), July 18, 2016.
George W. Bush, Donald Trump, Anna Wintour, Rihanna, Chris Brown, Taylor Swift, Kanye West, Kim Kardashian West, Ray J., Amber Rose, Caitlyn Jenner, and Bill Cosby.
Literary Hub, “My Year of Writing Anonymously: Stacey D’Erasmo on the Freedom of Losing a Byline,” December 11, 2018.
David Licata is a filmmaker and writer. His written work has appeared in The Literary Review, Pilgrimage, R.KV.R.Y. Quarterly, Word Riot and many others. His short memoir “The Wolf Is in the Kitchen” is included in the literary anthology Two Countries: U.S. Daughters & Sons of Immigrant Parents.