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.

Tim Garrigan's music crosses genres and styles recklessly.
Tim Garrigan's music crosses genres and styles recklessly.

"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.

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