Four Boomboxes

Efford_header_2by Brad Efford
December 1, 2012



Math’s basement is a clusterfuck of broken toys, kindergarten art in stackable plastic tubs, and puzzles missing pieces. Wires fall haphazard from the exposed ceiling, the sounds of his mother doing the dinner dishes reverberating down the pipes. He’s somewhere in the thick of it, bent low at the waist, deep inside a cardboard box labeled with his little sister’s name.

Dang, he says, and moves to the cellar’s second room, a workshop bench running across its far side. Jars mirror a curious yellow liquid from the sill of the high window, covered from the outside in vine. Math gets on his toes to inspect the top of a makeshift bookshelf buckling under tin cans of hexnuts and mold the wetness of something breathing. His face suddenly lights up, and he makes a noise like a prospector striking gold—as his hand comes from behind a stack of empty clay pots, a boombox catches the little light the cramped room can spare to give. It’s covered in dust, and the tapedeck’s hinges won’t stick.

He ducks into the main room once again and we exchange terse grins. One more to go, he says, hotfooting it up the concrete stairs two at a time.


In October of 1998, the Flaming Lips released Zaireeka, their eighth studio effort. It was a confrontational stunt of an album: made up of four CDs containing four separate pieces of the same eight songs, it required the listener to press Play on four different stereos at precisely the same moment to hear the thing correctly. And that’s only to begin with—it doesn’t even take into account what the music actually sounds like. If one is a fan of the group’s watershed Soft Bulletin, they would most likely also find themselves very much enjoying, perhaps even moved by, Zaireeka, released only a year before.

The problem, of course, is that Zaireeka—a portmanteau of “Zaire,” representing anarchy, and “eureka,” as in: Eureka!—seems to resist all attempts to enjoy it, or, in fact, to listen to it comfortably at all.

Wayne Coyne, the Lips’ lead singer, songwriter, psychedelic head-carny, what-have-you, has gone on record with the following (mostly believable) story: that the concept of Zaireeka evolved from a project wherein the band invited their fans to an empty parking lot, handed out cassette tapes of original music, and orchestrated the simultaneous playing of said cassette tapes. With their windows down, volume cranked, Flippers could awe in the sudden communal control of the otherwise staid concert experience. Coyne says these “Parking Lot Experiments” created a “strange, fluid 20-minute sound composition” through its use of 40 cars, 40 cassettes, and, assuredly, many potent hallucinogenics. [1]

The difference between this casual, exciting kind of experimentation and Zaireeka, though, cannot be stressed enough—it is, after all, the very critical difference between a shared sonic experience and two friends scrounging around for a couple extra CD players.


The story goes like this.

Anders—no last name—head of the Swedish record label Releasing Eskimo, has been given an ultimatum by the local police: move your Mercedes 230 from the street, or we’ll move it for you. The car is functional, but Anders has no need for it anymore, and he knows of no place to store it. In lieu of a better, or perhaps more entertaining, option, an idea presents itself: why not turn the car into an album?

So, he does, hardwiring its engine to kick Japanese artist Merzbow’s Noisembryo into gear from the moment the ignition is cranked—with no way to turn the thing off again. Merzbow (née Masami Akita), who has released 350 albums, is, almost inarguably, popular music’s foremost purveyor of grating, unrelenting, harsh noise, and has been for more than 30 years. His first album, released in 1980, was titled Fuckexercise. His latest, released last year, is Lop Lop. In fact, if you were to write the title of each of Merzbow’s albums on a single slip of paper, toss them all around in a big mixing bowl, and pull one out at random, the result would likely be the same: a startling blend of nonsense, farce, and intrigue. Think Dolphin Sonar. Think Rectal Anarchy. Think 1930.

Anyway. Anders takes Noisembryo, locks it into his Mercedes’ CD player, and advertises the thing for sale as an “extremely limited” Merzbow album, one that can be started but never stopped—at least not until the battery has died. To get a sense of what it’s like to listen to a Merzbow record—they are very nearly all so similar as to dissuade distinction—think a room of breaking chainsaws. Think small animals caught in turbines. Think rubbing sharpened knives against amplified guitar strings.

Think of all of this at a car’s highest volume, unable to be turned off.

Many doubt the veracity of the story of what has become known as the Merzcar. Anders was, perhaps inevitably, unable to sell the thing. He removed the CD and disposed of the car in some other, undisclosed fashion. Pictures have circulated…but, of course, they’re just pictures of a Mercedes 230. Any audible proof only sounds like Noisembryo.

Regardless, it’s the myth of it that matters. It seems to hover over me when I consider great leaps in musical innovation. The Merzcar’s impact on popular culture is null—less than null; it is simply nonexistent. No one cares, and perhaps no one should. Those who know of it, whether they buy into the tale or not, think, Wow, perhaps shake their head a little, and move on. The audacity amounts to very little, in the end.

And yet, it’s objects like this that feed into a great history of what I often think of as the Unapproachable Album—music as incomprehensible thing, one that dares the listener, even the obsessive fan, to come at it. Provocation feeds its silliness, and no one seems to win.

Is the Merzcar art? Is daring your friend to eat a live cicada?


It is late August, 1952. Woodstock, New York. 26-year-old pianist David Tudor waits patiently in the eaves for the concert hall to fill, for the audience to settle into the velvet seats.

When the time comes for his performance to begin, he moves swiftly to center stage. A piano gleams there in its readiness. He moves the bench from under its body, sits, and closes the lid over the keys. He waits, erect, hands in his lap, for the first movement to pass, lifting and again shutting the piano’s lid to mark the second, and then third. His fingers, graceful and practiced, never touch down to make music. After a combined four minutes and thirty-three seconds of nothing, he stands, returns the bench, and takes his bow before exiting.

John Cage has said of this, the premiere of his 4’33”, the audience’s polarized grumblings and discomfort, that “what they thought was silence, because they didn’t know how to listen, was full of accidental sounds.” [2] What he meant, perhaps, is that his calculated confrontation was met with the exact reaction he expected, and even then he was left unsatisfied.

There are days I consider 4’33” a work of once-in-a-lifetime genius, and there are other days I think, Okay, John. Ha ha. Got it. Very funny, you old paragon of wit. Now, how about just making something beautiful?


We’ve got three boomboxes, cobbled together in a loose huddle on Math’s unmade bed. Their various wires spill together in the shape of a broken spiderweb. The two of us stand before them, hands on our hips, slightly giddy, a little disappointed.

Hm, he says.

Hm, I say.

Wonder what it sounds like if you just play three at once?

Probably not as good.

Yeah. Probably.

Then he has an idea. Hold up, he says. Follow me, and he grabs two of the stereos as he bolts from the room. I get the third and pursue, taking after him down the upstairs hall to his father’s office at the end. When I make it there he’s already pulled the power strip from under the wood-paneled desk and is working on plugging the stereos in. Here, he says, motioning impatiently, and I hand over mine.

When we’ve arranged them in a haphazard, loose circle on the floor in the middle of the room, we place Zaireeka’s first, second, and third discs on the CD players’ spindles. Math shakes the computer’s mouse with violence, waking the unit sleeping on the desk with the whir of a fan. He opens the hidden CD-ROM drive and removes Sting’s Greatest Hits, replacing it with Zaireeka’s fourth disc, decorated on the face-up side with shades of orange and fluorescent green.

All right. He grins. Ready?


What do we want from our artists? For them to challenge us? To challenge themselves? To take our expectations somewhere, and leave them there looking around, hopeless? How far are we going to go?

Eye, bandleader of Japanese punk outfit Hanatarash, once performed a concert by allowing a crowd to amass at a Tokyo club before tearing the stage down, quite literally, with a bulldozer. Just last year, members of a very disappointed audience demanded their money back when, arriving to a performance by comedian Steve Martin in New York City, they were treated to a hyper-intellectual—and very unfunny—discussion of modern art. The Flaming Lips once relied on their audience to make their own concert, the sound of 40 cassette tapes converging in an otherwise abandoned parking lot. Here is this car, a man swears. It is also a record. Here is a theatre; its silence is your music. This silence says, Enjoy.

1. For more on these experiments, see Jeff Johnson’s candid, and often very funny, personal recounting at the Warner Bros. Record website:
2. From Ric Kastelanetz’s sometimes-illuminating, othertimes-frustrating Conversing with Cage (Routledge, 2002). The frustration’s all thanks to the subject.


Brad Efford