Remembering Ralph Carney [1956-2017]

Yesterday we lost a dear friend—and one of the most unique musicians of our lifetimes. Everyone who knew Ralph Carney is mourning the death of a kind, funny, and just plain loveable guy. But you didn’t have to know Ralph personally to appreciate his mad genius. (If you’re unfamiliar with Ralph and his music, check out his Wikipedia page.)

As I write, Ralph’s Facebook page is still up, and it’s overflowing with heartbroken tributes. Each testimonial is uniquely touching, but they all communicate the same message: Ralph was a beautiful man with a beautiful musical mind, and we’re going to miss him like hell.

It’s our nature when we lose loved ones to cite their uniqueness with phrases like, “We won’t see his like again,” or “After they made him, they broke the mold.” But man, have those sentiments ever been truer than in Ralph’s case?

I met Ralph in 1991, when I gave him a lift to my very first session with Tom Waits, recording the soundtrack for Jim Jarmusch’s Night On Earth. (Ralph didn’t drive. If you ever played music with him, chances are you gave him a lift at some point.) I knew who he was, and I was in awe. He’d played on Waits’s Rain Dogs, my favorite album!

But Ralph, of course, was the least pretentious man ever to draw breath, and I immediately dug the guy. That was also the day I met cellist/composer Matt Brubeck, and before long the three of us were playing together as the Oranj Mancinis, later the Oranj Symphonette. (At various times, the band also included drummers Kenny Wolleson, Scott Amendola, and Patrick Campbell, plus keyboardist Rob Burger.)

Ralph and I went on to play together on a half-dozen or so Waits albums and many other projects, from a spoken-word record by the late Kathy Acker to clubbo.com, the massive “hoax record label” project. He and I scored two feature films together. Once Ralph even called me to play on an Allen Ginsberg project, but I was away on tour, dammit.

But Oranj Symphonette is where I truly got to know Ralph’s freakish musicality. I paused for a moment before typing the word “freakish,” but I can’t think of a better adjective. Ralph simply didn’t create music the way most musicians do.

Two things everyone knows about Ralph: He was funny, and he played a lot of instruments. How many? Depending on how you tabulate, somewhere between 30 and infinity. Basically, he conjured beauty, comedy, and tragedy from anything he touched. Ralph’s musical humor varied from sublime to fart-joke vulgar. Sometimes it was wildly inappropriate, like the time Matt Brubeck had hushed the audience with an exquisitely delicate cello solo—until Ralph started honking on one of his duck calls. But most of the time he was left-field brilliant, playing unlikely things on unlikely instruments in ways you or I would be unlikely to do in a million years.

Oranj Symphonette in 1997 (L-R): Me, Matt Brubeck, Rob Burger, Ralph, Scott Amendola.

In Oranj Symphonette, I had the privilege of being the weakest player in the band. (Serious musicians understand why this is a privilege, and anyone who heard the group knows this isn’t false modesty on my part.) Guys like Matt, Scott, and Rob are superhuman players with deep, formal training and sophisticated taste and restraint. But Ralph was anarchy squared. He literally couldn’t be predictable—his fidgety, free-associative mind wouldn’t permit it. If you wanted a musician who could sight-read perfectly or nail the same part identically over and over on command, Ralph was not your guy. His bag was unfettered inspiration.

Ralph’s sense of humor was as uncommon as his musicianship, and the two traits were closely related. It was often through jokes that I got the deepest insight into how Ralph’s mind worked.

Once, backstage at a Latin Playboys concert, someone (one of the Los Lobos guys, I think) mentioned that he’d moved into a suburban-style house, and how weird it was to have a lawn. “Why can’t we all just get a lawn?” Ralph asked wistfully, channeling a dyslexic Rodney King, Jr.

Another time, I could practically see his right brain pulsing: Oranj Symphonette was playing a string of gigs across Canada as part of a national jazz festival. Concertgoers would sometimes request autographs, as if we were celebrities or something. At one point a nice couple approached us. “Can you sign our program?” they asked. “We voted for you in the jazz poll!”

Under his breath Ralph muttered, “Jazz poll … poll … Pol Pot. Can you sign our skull?”

It was hilarious. And sick. And random. And brilliant. And exactly the sort of free-associative backflip that Ralph performed every 10 seconds or so while improvising.

Ralph loved playing the musical clown, but he was a profound, Chaplin-esque clown whose comedy was rich in pathos and melancholy. He embraced styles that can be hard to listen to with a straight face, like klezmer and old-timey hokum. But he never played them strictly for laughs. He was a sensitive, emotional guy, and you heard it in every note he played. (Except maybe the duck calls and slide whistles.)

When we say someone has no filters, it’s often a left-handed compliment, implying rudeness and lack of concern for others—in a word, dickishness. Ralph and filters never met each other, but he was aware of their existence. He was unfailingly kind and considerate and always generous with his time and talent. His filter-free creativity was a joy to all.

I hadn’t played with Ralph since he left San Francisco for Portland a few years ago, though we kept in touch via Facebook. Often it was about politics. Like me, Ralph loathed Trump and everything he represents, and he expressed those feelings with characteristic humor/pain. And of course, Ralph gigged and recorded furiously literally until his last day. One of his Portland pals posted video of a gig from a couple or nights ago, and Ralph uploaded several quiet, elegiac pieces to his Bandcamp page within the last few days.

I was in Portland a few weeks ago, playing a gig with Jane Wiedlin’s new band, Elettrodomestico. Ralph and I failed to connect, but we swapped messages the next day. He told me how much he loved Portland. “It’s amazing here for music,” he said. “It’s like San Francisco 20 years ago!”

Today I’m thinking a lot about San Francisco 20 years ago—and the beautiful soul who helped make it such a memorable time. Farewell, my dear, irreplaceable friend. Everyone who ever met or heard you is going to miss you terribly.

In tribute to Ralph, I’ve posted both out-of-print Oranj Symphonette albums — Plays Mancini and The Oranj Album — to YouTube.

18 comments to Remembering Ralph Carney [1956-2017]

  • Mike

    Sorry to hear that his music will no longer flow directly from him. However, like a boat leaves a wake, the influence of those we love and admire can be felt through us and, in turn, shared with others.

  • Miiko

    Oh Joe what a perfect remembrance of Ralph. Chaos, genius and all. He leaves a void. Thank you for sharing.

  • Thanks for writing this. I don’t cry easily and need someone, something to help it along. Your so truthful and amusing words were just the thing. Enjoying a bourbon with Joe and thinking of Ralph.

  • Dennis Driscoll

    I tried to get Ralph to play in Fuzz Factor in 1989. We had mutual friends in NYC. Ralph thought he wasn’t the right sort of player for the band but he was exactly what we wanted but it never happened. Great guy.

  • Fond memories of Oranj Symphonette at Bruno’s on Mission. Sweet tribute Joe. Kudos. RIP.

  • Martin

    Very sorry to hear about Ralph. Iv’e got both those Oranj Symphonette albums
    and his character, I think, comes through loud and strong. I also admire his work with Tom Waits. Heartfelt condolences Joe, and to the rest of his friends and family.

  • Corey Allen Porter

    Beautiful, truly loved is Ralph

  • Alex Fernandez

    Ralph is the reason I came to know your music, through Oranj Symphonette. I had the privilege of being his neighbor until he moved away recently. I didn’t know he had and just figured that he was working. This is sad as a long time fan, and sad as a neighbor.

  • Chris McGrew

    I feel a disturbance in the farce

  • Jim Campilongo

    Very nice Joe -thank you.

  • Bill C

    I had the pleasure to jam with Ralph a few times at the Rite Spot. Great, anarchic, omnivorous musical mind. I’ll never forget him. Thank you for this lovely tribute. Thanks also for posting the great Oranj Symphonette records!

  • mwseniff

    I’ve been a huge Ralph Carney fan since I heard Tin Huey Contents Dislodged On the legendary FM station WHFS. I bought it on my way home. I have been very influenced by that LP both by Ralph Carney and Chris Butler. They were pals with my ex brother in law (ex brother as we lime to say). It is a truly tragic loss for not just music but the world. My heart goes out to everyone close to Ralph.

  • I love The Oranj Symphonette stuff – Thanks Ralph, thanks Joe. The Rain Dogs are crying.

  • Just scored both Oranj Records – I cannot believe how good this music is Joe – totally off my radar – only came west 4 years ago – NYC transplant from Nottingham England.

    Thanks Joe, Thanks Ralph – thanks Oranj Boys.

    • Joe Gore

      Thanks for the kind words about the music. I was talking to Matt, the bandleader, after we lost Ralph, and we confided that we’d always thought we’d reassemble the band someday. There’s a sad life lesson in there! Welcome to the States, man! You picked a less than optimal time to transplant yourself to this country, but NYC is a marvelous place, and I hope it’s good for you. 🙂

  • Mark Spranger

    Joe: I came to ToneFiend to read one of your reviews and found your piece on Ralph Carney. I had never heard of him, but was touched by your piece. Then I listed to the two Oranj albums you posted on YT and thought “I have to have these”. Then through the magic of Google, ebay and a few other esoteric websites I was able to score both Oranj albums. I can’t wait. But I am sorry I never got to see and hear Ralph in person. And I was just up the road in Seattle…

    • joe

      Thanks for the kind words, Mark. I hadn’t heard the albums in a long time myself. I was producer for the Oranj Album, and the rest of the band and I were always a little disappointed with how it turned out sonically. (Mainly ’cause I didn’t yet know much about recording.) But it holds up better than I remember, mainly ’cause my bandmates were so frickin’ good. 🙂

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