‘I could hardly bear to think of all the years I had spent on the street in what now seemed to have been a 20-year exercise in futility‘ – Siobhán Kane talks to The Space Lady, Susan Dietrich who plays Pacinos tonight
A common thread between many artists known as “outsider” is their singularity of vision and naturalness; from Daniel Johnston through to Moondog, and The Shaggs to Lucia Pamela. Their naturalness is key, in opposition to so much commercial music that dilutes that quality. This is a huge part of what makes The Space Lady (Susan Dietrich) so compelling.
Her work gained wider recognition after the release (around 2000) of Irwin Chusid’s book and the two-volume compilation Songs in the Key of Z – which explores outsider music and what makes it so “crackpot and visionary”, which included her song I Had Too Much to Dream Last Night, and her Greatest Hits album was reissued and released by Night School Records last year.
It has been an extraordinary journey for this performer. Born in 1949 in the small town of Los Animas, Colorado – she has gone on to become an almost mythologised and beloved musician; known for her twinkling covers of songs on her Casio keyboard (and sometimes accordion) by The Electric Prunes, and Steppenwolf, (among others) as well as original compositions such as the magical, uptempo Synthesize Me.
She went against the prevailing culture quite early on – after attending the University of Colorado, she moved to San Francisco, where she met her first husband Joey Dunsany. Under the dark shadow of the Vietnam War, they moved to a cave at the top of Mt. Shasta, California, and fell off the grid, making music, and bringing up a family, supported by the little money Susan made through street performances.
Around 2000, she left her marriage, and essentially retreated from music, moving back to Colorado and becoming a nurse. She remarried in 2009, and a few years later reconnected with music and performance, finding that appreciative audiences, both old and new, were waiting for her.
Ahead of her Irish shows, Siobhán Kane talks to The Space Lady, about, among other things, “her commitment to represent Love, Peace, and Compassion in life.”
You began singing on the streets of Boston sometime in the ‘70’s – when did you first take to the accordion and keyboard, or were those your first instruments? Did you feel incredibly drawn to music as a child?
I was intensely drawn to folk music as a child, partly in rebellion to my parents’ strict classical orientation. As a child I played flute in school band, and studied piano, my mother being my primary teacher, but I hated practicing and didn’t do very well as a result. Finally, during high school I studied piano under a young Korean woman who inspired and encouraged me, and I began to excel, and continued to study piano through college. But when I dropped out of college to join the hippie movement in San Francisco, I decided to pick up guitar instead and become a folk singer like Joan Baez. As to the accordion, I always loved the sound of the instrument – the Beatles used it beautifully on a few songs – but it wasn’t until a couple of years after my then-husband Joel and I found an accordion in a junk store in the late 1970s that I even tried to play it. I’d been peddling artwork on the street, but when I discovered the accordion wasn’t nearly as difficult as the piano I got excited about busking as an alternative.
What were the streets of Boston like in that time?
I found Boston to be a harsh city at first, as compared to San Francisco. It was also cold physically, too, in the winter. What surprised us most was the racism among the Black, the Irish Catholic, and the Hispanic Puerto Rican populations, who seemed constantly at war on the streets. This starkly contrasted to the academic population, which seemed to us aloof. All this changed in my perception, however, when I began busking. Then all sorts of people contributed to me, to my astonishment.
Performing in that way must have allowed you to see the human condition in all of its strength and frailty – what were some of the most memorable times for you?
You are so right! I watched the sea of humanity pass before my eyes while I played. I gained so much compassion and empathy for the downtrodden by just glimpsing their lives, and often they would put money in my box even though I knew they could ill afford it. Then there were the affluent people that I had held some disdain for in the past when Joel and I considered ourselves anti-establishment – “hip” as opposed to what was then called “straight”, and therefore somehow superior. But when well-dressed people gave me money and/or stopped to talk to me, I had to give up that pretence, too.
You are now based in Colorado; did you feel like you were somehow coming full circle, moving back to that part of the world, since you grew up there? How do you find it? The landscape is so epic – do you find that people are more or less open there than Boston?
Yes, it was definitely like coming full circle, just as you suggested. Southeast Colorado, where I live, is prairie ranchland near where I grew up, but my actual home town of Las Animas – short for “La Ciudad de las Animas Perdidas in Purgatorio” [“the city of lost souls in purgatory”] has all but dried up and blown away. Its people are very conservative and isolated, compared to Boston and San Francisco. But with the internet that has changed considerably since my childhood. I do love the vast expanse of prairie grasslands, plateaus and mesas, where my spirit can soar and there is endless peace and quiet, especially late at night when you can see “billions and billions and billions of stars.”
You are viewed as an “outsider artist” – what you think of that term, and what does it mean to you? You seem to be someone who doesn’t care so much for labels, and in fact have rewritten rules and made your own life on your terms – which I admire hugely – but I wonder what that term might mean to you?
I had never heard the term “outsider” until I got the first email from Irwin Chusid, and I liked it. He also used the term “incorrect music” which made me smile. I identified with both terms which helped me agree to be on his album fairly quickly.
At that stage you were aware of other artists who are similarly termed “outsider” such as Daniel Johnston, Wesley Willis, Moondog and others?
I knew of Moondog because of Joel’s extensive reading and record collecting, but I learned of the others you mention from Irwin Chusid. I most enjoyed the Shaggs’ music when Irwin sent me the “Key of Z” album and accompanying paperback book.
Irwin Chusid’s brilliant “outsider” collection featured many interesting voices, including yours – what did you think about that record?
I loved it! I totally understand and empathize with people who are relatively incompetent but are authentically expressing themselves in a shockingly unique way, as I thought of myself back then.
You must have met some amazing musicians on the streets that we have perhaps not heard of.
In Boston’s Park Street subway station there was a blind hippie about my age who played autoharp and sang cover songs, including Elton John’s “Daniel,” which was heart-wrenching. Upstairs from him was a young girl who sang her own songs with such a defiant, hostile attitude I wondered how she got any contributions, but evidently she did, because she held out there for years.
Then out on the street there was a young, blind black man who played and sang like Stevie Wonder, using the Casio MT-40 that I eventually got too. I was told years later that Tracy Chapman was playing the Boston subways during the same years I did, but I don’t remember seeing her. Then in San Francisco there was the legendary Grimes, a fantastic trumpeter who was known as “The Automatic Human Juke Box.” You can read about him online.
When you and your then-husband Joel fell off the grid as such, destroying your ID’s, and moving to Mt. Shasta – were you in any way frightened? Or did it seem like the most human and logical thing to do? Was that time completely dictated by fear?
Joel and I were both dealing with almost constant fear during those times. He was fearful of his step-father turning him in to the FBI for refusing to be drafted, and I was just plain fearful in general, undergoing serious culture shock after moving from Colorado to San Francisco. And our fear was greatly exacerbated by the psychedelic drugs we hippies were taking during those times, in spite of the revelations and insights they provided as well. Living on Mt. Shasta was the first time we had any respite from that constant fear, when we realised we human beings are just extensions of the earth, as all living beings are…and as such are supported by Mother Nature in direct proportion to what we contribute to her.
Was it very hard in that period to survive?
Yes – during our “cave days” before we had children we lived on brown rice, whole wheat chapattis, and wild onions growing alongside the stream.
You were essentially living in a cave, and eventually had three children, and were surviving on the money you earned with your artwork, and playing on the streets – it sounds hugely stressful, and yet also freeing.
Yes, it was difficult, but rewarding in its way, too. It was a great lesson in humility, because it wasn’t easy for me to ask for help, which I had to do on a daily basis asking people for spare change and to please look at my artwork. Most people ignored me and walked on by as if I wasn’t there, but the ones who stopped and gave or better yet, bought a drawing or collage, gave me the financial and moral support to carry on. Playing music was much easier because I no longer had to approach people…they came to me with money in hand!
Because your music seems such an intrinsic part of you – I wonder why you retired in 2000? Were you still listening to music and playing?
I got really discouraged. By 1993, after another period of homelessness, I gave up the Space Lady act and returned to playing accordion, which didn’t need myriad costly batteries, and which was allowed in the SF BART – subway – stations since it wasn’t amplified. That same year we moved back to the Mt. Shasta area with our kids, and I began commuting 300 miles from Mt. Shasta to San Francisco to play for weeks at a time, staying in a hostel, while Joel managed the home front.
But the kids were feeling my absence, and by now were teenagers, angry and embarrassed by our lifestyle. I was angry and frustrated with my marriage and wanted out. So after our two older kids were grown and out of the home, I left California with our younger daughter and moved back to Colorado, since I also felt an urgency to help my parents who were in their late 80s. I got a nursing degree, thinking it would be helpful in caring for them, and provide an income for me, since there was no place for street music in such a small town. I sang and played flute with my parents while they were still able, but I didn’t listen to much pop or rock those years. And I could hardly bear to think of all the years I had spent on the street in what now seemed to have been a 20-year exercise in futility.
You have spoken before of experiencing an alien abduction when you were undergoing surgery as a young woman – what did that feel like? And what do you think was gained?
I don’t know what more I can say about my experiences with aliens except that they were real, and certainly did influence my music. I know when I’m playing I enter a trance-like state and may be able to receive input from other realms that I wouldn’t receive otherwise. That’s why, I believe, so many uncanny coincidences happen when I play. Most recently, in Santa Fe I was playing on the Plaza when a scraggly looking young woman with dreadlocks put some money in my box as I was playing “Strawberry Fields.” She came running back 3-4 minutes later exclaiming that the restaurant a block away was piping “Strawberry Fields” out onto the street. I was as blown away as she was.
There is something inherently spiritual about what you do, and it was interesting to read that you had been an atheist, understandably after your first boyfriend passed away – but then what was it that made you think that there might be something more than the body?
My first psychedelic experience! I’m still an atheist, but one who prays, as ironic as that may sound. But when I’m scared, and I am quite a lot, I call out for help to whoever may be listening.
Do you feel that living a life that was not as part of mainstream society helped you to seek out other similarly minded writers, artists, thinkers? What were you reading to, and listening to, at this point? Was it easy to access culture, living as frugally as you were?
No, it wasn’t easy to access culture, and most of what I got came through Joel and his ever-expanding record collection, as well as what he was reading, like Rolling Stone magazine, Melody Maker, and NME, as well as books he recommended. I was influenced by Carlos Castenedas’ Journey to Ixlan, and Rene Daumal’s Mt. Analogue, Piers Anthony’s Macroscope, and Voyage to Arcturus. But we remained rather isolated throughout out marriage and only went to a few rock concerts, for instance, we saw Genesis and ZZ Top in Boston – not on the same bill. Lately I’ve been reading works by Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh and his long time associate, Sister Chan Khong.
You were a nurse at one point, which I know put you at odds with some of your own thinking about looking after yourself and the medical industry, but I could understand it in the vocational aspect, I suspect you must have always been quite drawn to looking after people?
Yes, I have a “be helpful” default mechanism. I remember washing a drunk’s cut hand with a bottle of peroxide when he was too helpless to get to a sink himself, long before I went into nursing. And as a nurse I had great rapport with my patients, although I had a hard time meeting my supervisors’ expectations, especially with time frames and scheduling demands.
You have talked about The Space Lady swooping down to “rescue” you a while ago, setting you off on this journey where you are now playing more controlled settings, such as traditional venues and clubs, what did you mean?
Hahaha! Did I say that? Well, I really have my second husband, Eric, to thank, for insisting I play for him when he became curious about the frequent emails I still got from fans around the world. I launched into “Ghost Riders” for him, and his mouth fell open. He sat me down then and there to email my fans that TSL was returning, which I did with much angst, worried that I could never remember how to play after such a long time.
You love photographing birds, and on your hat there appears to be a bird – they are symbols of true freedom in some ways – I read a while back that many poets are constantly inspired by birds, because they symbolise ” a sense of soaring otherness” – something that we as humans try to attain – what are your thoughts?
Very astute observation! Yes, I admire birds because they can not only sing, but fly, as I have in many a euphoric dream. And they are just amazing in so many ways, as are all animals and plants, for that matter.
The way you and Joel lived was very inspiring – I am sorry that he passed away; I can only imagine that he would have been excited about you getting the attention you have – because he saw the evolution and impacted it in many ways. I believe he was a gifted musician in his own right.
Yes, a few years after our break-up we made amends, although I never saw him again. But we talked on the phone often, and he was absolutely thrilled about TSL’s come-back. He died two days after I popped the 7″ single in the mail for him, which was really too bad, since he was such a vinyl freak. And he had amassed dozens of guitar pedals and was working out on his guitar through them, desperate to record what he was doing. He didn’t manage to accomplish that, though. When the kids and I cleaned out his house after his death we saved every scrap of paper with his handwriting on it, though, so all his poetry, prose, and songs are preserved.
Why do you love the Casio keyboard so much? You have really pushed its capabilities.
Thank you; yes, I have! I like it because of the 22 voices it has, from piano to cello, celeste to guitar. The clerk at the music store was excited about the newer model they had just gotten in, the MT-65, which had more rhythms and fewer voices, and he tried to talk me into buying it instead, as more state-of-the-art, but I wasn’t persuaded. The MT-40 has only 6 rhythms, but they suit all my needs.
When you cover certain songs, what is the common thread for you? What are you looking for in a song? Your renderings of The Electric Prunes, or Steppenwolf contain such joy.
I look for a positive message, a great melody, perhaps an iconic song, something I think I can interpret well, and something people already know and love. I’ve also done a lot of more obscure songs, and I plan to cover one of Sixto Rodriguez’s songs soon, because I like his music and because he was overlooked for so long.
What is the genesis of original compositions such as Synthesize Me, or Humdinger?
Joel wrote those two songs, specifically for me when I graduated from accordion to keyboard. When I write a song it comes from a profound inspiration to begin with, like when I saw the story of Captain Jack in a documentary, or on the occasion of the birth of my first grandson. So I guess it could be said I “receive” the original inspiration, but the lyrics usually take a lot of working and re-working before I’m satisfied.
Peter Schilling’s Major Tom is very synonymous with you now, the way that My Way is synonymous with Frank Sinatra. What is it about that song that captivated you?
The outerspace theme, the relentless, robotic rhythm, and the beautiful melody. It’s a work of genius on Peter Schilling’s part.
Do you think that your experiences with psychedelic drugs in the 60’s and 70’s were very formative? And what were some of the most interesting experiences?
There’s no way to overstate that case! One of my most profound “trips” was in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains above Boulder, Colorado, when I tripped on mescaline with a college mate, and saw the patterns the Universe is composed of. In other words, everything is constructed in symmetry, and I saw that first-hand. During that trip I also heard what I knew to be the sound of death, the most terrifying experience of my life. It appeared as a huge skull creating the sound “MMMMmmmmwwwwoiiiiiiieeeeeeeeee” in ever increasing and decreasing volume, like it was spinning all around me, and I couldn’t get that sound out of my head for days afterward. Years later I learned there was a secret atomic centrifuge just below where I was tripping called Rocky Flats, and I think that’s what I was “hearing” in my drug-expanded mind.
The Space Lady plays a midnight show in the basement of Pacinos Restaurant & Venue on Suffolk Street on Friday 11th April, with Patrick Kelleher.