UPDATE (4/230/2015): The celebration of naming of Blaster Al Way has been postponed. No new date has yet been set. Here’s Rupert Wondolowski: “[T]he Blaster Al Worship Foundation has decided we should postpone our celebration in honor of the Freddie Gray Justice activities/movement, so that folks can be free to focus on that. We will set a new date when our hearts are lighter to trumpet the glory of Blaster’s humor and wisdom.”
ORIGINAL STORY: Blaster Al Ackerman was more than a writer and a mail artist. He was a full-on cult figure, whose sayings (e.g., “May you be blessed to work in a despised medium”) are widely quoted and whose pranks and stunts (e.g., performing his work with a bar of soap in his mouth) have become legendary.
Lucky for Baltimore, he took up residence here in 1992 and stayed until 2010, when health concerns sent him to Texas to live with his daughter.
How lucky? Here’s Eric Allen Hatch from City Paper‘s obituary:
“Getting to know Blaster wasn’t only adding a warm, wise, and deeply hilarious person to your circle of friends. It was also unlocking the doors behind which Baltimore’s most interesting music, performance, and visual art then lurked, revealing the strange, interwoven strands of rich subcultural activity that gave this city its unique flavor.”
During Blaster’s Baltimore tenure he could frequently be found working the counter at Normal’s Books & Records at 425 E. 31st Street in Waverly. Fittingly, the city is renaming that block “Blaster Al Way” on May 2.
Poet, musician, and proprietor of Normal’s Rupert Wondolowski was kind enough to answer some questions about Blaster, Baltimore in the ’90s, and the renaming ceremony.
What is getting renamed? A block? All of E 31st?
The block of 31st that intersects Greenmount.
Did you initiate the renaming?
[Poet] John Eaton had the idea and [poet] Megan McShea and I joined. Megan plowed through the bureaucracy and I greased the palms and minds of sympathetic neighborhood political activists and made a flier with a picture of Blaster and a few paragraphs of why he was a heroic figure. Local great human, Waverly power figure Bonnie Bessor distributed the fliers to neighbors to make sure no one would object to the renaming.
Where did Blaster get the name “Blaster” anyway?
It’s funny, but he went by that for as long as I knew him and with all the drunken and sober talks with him the “Blaster” origin story was never revealed. I contacted John M. Bennett, editor of Luna Bisonte Productions and Lost & Found Times and Blaster’s closest and oldest collaborator, and he said he didn’t know either, but that Blaster had been going by that sobriquet since the mid ’70s.
What was the scene like in Baltimore before and after Blaster’s presence?
It is hard to forage back through brain detritus to B.B., before Blaster, and not just because I was doing my best in the ’80s to achieve a higher plane through body and mind abuse. Like a Philip K. Dick (someone Blaster often resembled frighteningly close) story, Blaster wrote us (real people?) into characters in his stories and soon it seemed like we lived and breathed in a world of his creation.
There has always been an active, vibrant poetry scene here. In I believe the late ’70s through the mid ’80s Anselm Hollo and Andre Codrescu lived here and poet Joe Cardarelli was very influential teaching at MICA. Poets like Richard Sober, Chris Toll, Sandie Castle, Tom DiVenti, Martha Gatewood and Ed Bavis read at a venue called The Red Door Hall. Chris Mason tells me Kirby and Ro Malone and Marshall Reese ran the space from 1977 to 1981. And I believe some of these same people organized to have a Maryland Writer’s Council of sorts. There were some great readings in Sowebo in the mid-80s at the Cultured Pearl and Tell Tale Hearth.
I started up Shattered Wig Press in 1988 with some friends and when The Bauhaus started (’89/’90?) on Charles St. we got asked to hold readings there along with Mark Hossfeld’s wonderful Punch House. Blaster’s first reading in Baltimore was at The Bauhaus for a Shattered Wig Night.
A hopping gent in leathers who incanted twisting, curling Seussian epic poems held forth a lot at that time also, and it was when I first became aware that Barbara DeCesare was a force to be reckoned with and someone who would grab your wallet and make babies with it in the 7-11 parking lot. Also Bruce Jacobs, Chris Mason, Jenny Keith, Kim Carlin, Barrett Warner, Batworth (Chris Ciattei), Eleanor Lewis, Mary Knotts, Mark Hossfeld, Gavin the Gelding were among the cast of thousands frequenting readings around town.
Not long after Blaster’s arrival Shattered Wig Nights got asked to move to legendary Laure Drogoul’s fabulous 14 Karat Cabaret. Those early Cabaret Wigs were mad bacchanalias. On Tuesday or Wednesday nights, with about five or so poets and four or five bands, they would go until 2 or 3 a.m. and somehow Laure never changed the locks on me.
Blaster quickly became not only a mainstay at Wig Nights, but a featured reader at the various readings across town. He also was very active with experimental musicians of The Red Room crowd and experimental filmmakers Catherine Pancake and Sleeze Steele. Sleeze moved here from England to be near Blaster and work with him. He’s filmed dozens of his stories, including a near full length of “Eel and the Haunted Icebox.” Catherine Pancake was a close friend of Blaster and made a film of Blaster’s epic “2976 Vienna Sausages.”
One of the many pleasures/advantages of having Blaster in town, was also when he worked at Normal’s. It was sort of his literary salon and many of us got schooled on great books and lessons of writing. His first writing lesson: “put your ass in the chair.” Another favorite line of his was “may you be blessed to work in a despised medium,” believing there to be greater freedom away from the peering eyes of academics and critics.
What was your first exposure to his work?
That would be a close tie between either in Bennett’s Lost & Found Times poetry magazine or Crowbar Nestle’s Popular Reality. I started corresponding with Blaster then, in the mid-80s and one of my proudest moments as a writer was when he published my piece “Wigged” in one of his “TLPs” — tacky little pamphlets — I think “The Moonhead News.” When me and some friends then started up Shattered Wig Review I sent him the first issue and asked him to submit for the second issue. He sent me one of his all-time greats, “2976 Vienna Sausages,” a tale of great obsessive love and questionable use of meat products that he wrote while sweating out a period of economic deprivation.
How did you lure him here? Where was he beforehand?
He was in San Antonio, Texas. He grew up in Texas. He was known in the underground literary/zine world as a notorious recluse, so I really never thought I’d get to meet him. Then he and his wife Patty broke up, and he started traveling around by bus to visit friends and contacts. John Berndt and I scraped together bus fare and sent it to him, begging him to come. With Baltimore’s vast pulchritude of folks skating along the margins of existence and the many alluring cheap watering holes — not to mention his growing fan base here — he fit right in.
In typical Blaster fashion he led me to believe he hated to doing readings and wasn’t good at it. I thought he’d do one reading at a Shattered Wig Night, which was held at The Bauhaus on Charles St. at the time, and then that would be it. But of course he had the crowd eating from his six-fingered hand and it became a given that he had a residency at Wig Nights.
What are the details of the renaming ceremony?
The sign, the city tells us, will be up by May 2. On that day we’re going to celebrate at Normal’s with a five-hour reading of his texts, slide shows of his paintings, and musical homages to his bent brilliant spirit and his favorite band ELO. The ceremony/party will start at 2 p.m. at the sign, with Lauren Bender & Dan Breen summoning and transmitting his spirit to “accept” the sign. A carton of wrapped soap will be distributed to onlookers to put in their mouths and join us for The Pepper Young Chorus, reciting and singing his texts with mouths full of clean-making scrub bars.
Participants in the day’s activities include Blaster’s oldest pal and collaborator John M. Bennett, C. Bennett, Baker Artist Award-winning musician and instrument builder Neil Feather, performance group Geodesic Gnome, poets Megan McShea and John Eaton, The Mole Suit Choir, John Berndt, Stewart Mostofsky of Ehse Records who issued a vinyl LP of Blaster’s readings, Francis Poole who co-wrote one of Blaster’s final books with him and much more. John Bennett will have many of Blaster’s books on hand for sale and there will be photocopies for free distribution of many of Blaster’s pamphlets, including The Waverly Flea. Some of Blaster’s performance action pieces will be passed out for audience members to perform randomly throughout the day.