Chairman Ralph Takes The Stage
Musician calls his music 'really loud folk music, untamed, left field and folk-punk.'
By Doreen Troyer
Ralph Heibutzki, also known as Chairman Ralph, will perform at Uncommon Grounds Cafe Friday, June 15, at 7 p.m. He describes his music as "really loud folk music, untamed, left field and folk-punk."
For Heibutzki, the route to becoming a musician was long and complicated. He started out playing the alto saxophone in elementary school, where he had a teacher was into jazz and made music fun. While in college in the early 1980s, he considered joining a jazz ensemble but decided against it because he thought it was too structured.
His interests changed when he met Tony Salazar. According to Heibutzki, Salazar could play any type of music. Salazar convinced Heibutzki to learn to play bass guitar.
He said they had vague notions of "let's do something." They formed a band, played a handful of performances and the group broke up.
For a short time in 1984, after transferring to Michigan State University, Heibutzki became a "ranting, screaming, poet/warrior."* After graduation, he moved to London, where he started another band, the Vagrants.** They played a handful of gigs before the band dissolved and he returned to the States, he said.
His next band, Discount Dogs, was formed in South Haven. "We were going to conquer the world," he said. But the band had no common vision and didn't last.
Heibutzki took an extended break from music. Salazar continued performing on on his own, having realized he didn't need two or three other people.
"It's (playing solo) more focused, from an artistic point of view," Heibutzki said. "All the glory is yours and all the blame is yours."
In May 2005 Salazar died after a long illness.
"It was a very strange time," said Heibutzki, who played at both memorial services.*** "I loved his attitude toward things and thought someone should carry on the things we should be doing."
Since then, Heibutzki has performed more than 30 times and is currently working on a CD. www.ArtistFirst.com, an Internet radio station, has tentatively scheduled his music to be featured July 25.
Heibutzki guesses that he has two to three dozen songs in his current rotation. Most are his own, with four co-written by Lisa Quinlan, Heibutzki's wife. "Sometimes you go outside (your own self for writing lyrics)," he said.
"The poetry of the songs really stands out," said Quinlan, talking about her own words and Heibutzki's.
His songs are concise, although he sometimes extends them depending on his mood. He typically plays 13 to 15 songs in a 45-minute set. "You shouldn't pander to short attention spans, but you need to think about it," he said.
His music is mostly drawn from real-life observations, Heibutzki said. "It's political, to a degree," he said. "The goal is to walk between the extremes."
"I was living in Chicago when 'I Fired The Dog' was written," he went on. "I was visiting a friend who had gotten a dog and was making her husband walk it. Eventually they got rid of the dog because it was too much work. I made the joke that they had fired the dog, which led to the song.
"It's a social commentary. Like Charles DeGaulle said, 'There are graveyards full of indispensable men' (the latter line being a quote used in the song)."
"Kill Yourself To Rock" was written in the 1980s, using a late friend's music (note: Tony's music, in this case) and his own lyrics, Heibutzki said. "If the Satanic army is so stupid, let them sort it out themselves."
Quinlan wrote the lyrics to "My Cousin Kevin." She had written a poem about an artistic cousin who started a family and was crushed by responsibilities ("I thought he'd turn out like me/He ended up just like them").
"I believe the blander the rest of the music is getting, the rawer the music has to be in response to that," said Heibutzki, quoting Joe Strummer from the Clash.
"It's surprising how little has changed from that era," he said.
For more information, visit www.chairmanralph.com.
Uncommon Grounds Cafe is at 127 Hoffman St., Saugatuck.
(The Commercial Record/Resorter, 6/7/07)
Nice story overall, though I added some parentheticals, for clarity, trimmed a couple quotes that didn't add to the proceedings, and corrected a couple things:
*I did a regular Thursday open mike set throughout my MSU tenure (mostly at Hobie's Olde Worlde, in East Lansing, MI, plus various one-off performances, including a couple tapings for WELM-TV, house shows, and Rick's American Cafe, among others). I started doing spoken word by myself, then added Don Hargraves, who improvised piano behind me. At other times, I used taped backing music, and even played fuzz bass onstage a couple of times. This period ended when I graduated in 1989.
**I spent six months in the UK as a clerk at the University of London, as part of the BUNAC (British Universities North America Club) program, which started in 1962, and is still going strong today. I joined the Vagrants, who already existed before I got there. They continued after I returned to the US, but for how long, I don't know. We didn't make any recordings, or at least, I'm not aware of any. (Believe me, I've looked!)