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Musician Larry Kessler: Oct. 3, 1941-Mar. 24, 2022

Twilight of The Godz: Larry Kessler Died While Parked

Auto crashes are the leading cause of death among healthy Americans and the second leading cause of serious injury next to simply falling down. When one envisions a car crash, it is tempting to conjure images of a driver, whose inebriated or thrill-seeking tomfoolery or last-minute hasty recklessness or road-raging narcissism got the better of them on a road a tad too slick or winding or dark or crowded or straightforwardly narrow to be successfully threaded. There are, however, many ways to die in the belly of “automobiles” – “self-moving” beasts of steel, Teflon, and plastic – and not all are as ostensibly agentic as driving.

Albert Camus, anti-prophet of the meaningless, died a famously absurd death in the “shotgun” seat of a Facel Vega traveling at an approved speed on a dry, empty, straight stretch of road when its driver careened off into a tree. For Camus, human life, at its most noble, was an essentially impossible quest for transcendent meaning. That his death would itself be so random and so sudden so as to preclude valor or even forethought, let alone any other human-centered projection of meaning, was apt, if brutal.

The Godz in 1966. Larry Kessler is on right. Courtesy J. Wengrofsky.

On March 24, 2022, Larry (Leibel) Kessler, prime mover of The Godz – a pioneering and bizarre 1960s psychedelic musical troupe – and major domo of ESP-Disk, was hit and killed by a driver while he sat in a parked car preparing to record a new song titled “Ain’t Done Yet.”  Impact from the collision was so great that his car wobbled slowly down the street on two flat tires in its wake.  It triggered a massive heart attack, killing Kessler instantly.  He was 80 years old.

A Jew born in Brooklyn during the Second World War, one of Kessler’s first memories was turning off the lights in his family apartment so as to not provide an illuminated target for Nazi bombers that may have been lurking high above the dim Crown Heights skies.   Kessler would carry self-conscious of his Jewishness throughout his life.  As a teen, his family moved to Baltimore, but he had unfinished business back in New York City.   Fresh out of high school, he married young, to Dottie, with whom he had his first four children, all boys.  Returning, then, to New York, he took a job at Sam Goody’s, a chain of record stores.  At Sam Goody’s, he met his future bandmates (drummer/guitarist/vocalist Paul Thornton, autoharpist/pianist/organist Jay Dillon, and Jim McCarthy who played guitar and sang).  Larry vocalized, and played both bass and viola.  All four banged out percussion in a freak-out mob identified on their third record as “The Multitude.”  But we are getting a bit ahead of ourselves.  It was while at Sam Goody’s that the four of them were tapped by Bernard Stollman for work at ESP-Disk, Stollman’s record label of the absurd.  According to Kessler, Stollman wanted to only produce musical acts that bore no likeness to anything popular and were, as much as humanly possible, fully sui generis.  Among the singular and irregular artists produced by Stollman, Kessler, and the other ESP-Disk stooges were: Sun Ra, Timothy Leary, Albert Ayler, The Fugs, The Eastern Orthodox Liturgy, and Ornette Coleman.

Godz 2 LP (1967). Larry Kessler is second to the right. Photo of album cover: courtesy J. Wengrofsky

The Godz were surely one of the weirdest musical acts of the 1960s, having recorded Contact High With The Godz (1966), a slab of vinyl so vastly and defiantly tuneless as to defy its audience of any pleasure save a sense of accomplishment for having endured its unwelcoming terrain – as if listening to an album could be a death-defying stunt like jumping over the Grand Canyon on a motorcycle.  Their complete lack of regard for norms of musicianship and songcraft eventually won over Stollman, who initially had absolutely no intention of signing his clerks to a record deal.With each successive record by The Godz, their output became increasingly musical and conventional.  Godz 2 (1967) and The Third Testament of The Godz (1969) gainfully blend the band’s avant-garde raison d’etre with just enough tunefulness to attract the attention of Lester Bangs, the bad-boy of 1970s rock journalism.  Bangs crooned: “What makes [The Godz] so special? Well, theoretically, anybody can play like that, but in actual practice, it just ain’t so.  Most people would be too stultified…obviously most folks aren’t gonna howl at the moon just to prove a point. But The Godz would! And not just to prove a point, but because they like howling at the moon!” [Lester Bangs, “Do The Godz Speak Esperanto?” Creem Magazine, December, 1971.]

By the mid-1970s, after The Godz and ESP-Disk had run their course, Kessler met his second wife, Claudette (Calliope), with whom he returned to Baltimore to raise another three children, also all boys, and operate a few record stores.

Third Testament of The Godz (1968).  Larry Kessler in center. Photo of album cover: courtesy J. Wengrofsky

Claudette Kessler believes that her late husband would have gladly accepted his death; its suddenness precluded sentimentalism, the anguish of anticipating his approaching death, and, seemingly, pain.  In it, she can see The Divine Hand: “There is a Spirtuality in this. G-d could not have created a better way: Larry was doing what he loved doing [recording music].  He hated long goodbyes and needless suffering.”

Kessler spent a good bit of his life trying to leave Baltimore.  Incensed by the response of the City of Baltimore and the State of Maryland to the pandemic, the rioting, and appeals to defund law enforcement, Kessler moved out last year for his second and final time.  He had returned solely to record a new song.   He would be in town for only a few days.  What were the odds that he would die in Baltimore without a gun, a gang, or drugs involved?  While he may have hoped to have died in New York City, or, at least, in Florida, Kessler may have been amused that he could never quite escape the gravity of “Charm City.”

Larry Kessler’s music with The Godz was, at its best, resolutely absurdist and reckless, a joke shared with its listener, fleeting yet irreducible, like a joint and a daydream split between strangers on a street corner.  It seems entirely likely that he would have embraced his death: without intention or awareness, without even so much as moving, he stumbled into the ultimate trip.  As much as he recently lost weight to prolong his life, he was also ready to check-out, satisfied by having recorded albums, his work at ESP-Disk, marrying twice, raising seven boys, and enjoying his grandchildren.  And surely, Larry Kessler would have appreciated the irony of his terminally failed attempt to record a song titled “Ain’t done yet.”

The Godz (featuring Larry Kessler and Paul Thornton) at Howl! Gallery (NYC), April 9, 2016. Photo: courtesy J. Wengrofsky

Attempts by those, like Camus, to fill life with meaning presume it to be an empty vessel.  The notion of a “noble death” redeeming and fulfilling one’s life considers life as if it is a joke dependent on a good punchline for value.  If we view sentient life – Soulfulness – as an accident in the cosmos, and not as the very point of existence, we miss the inherent nobility and Holiness of life itself.   Larry Kessler understood the immanent and essential magic of life.

Larry Kessler in Here to Eternity with The Godz (2019). Photo: courtesy J. Wengrofsky.
About the Author
Yehuda Wengrofsky scribbles, noshes, and davens in the historic Lower East Side of New York City, where his family has lived since escaping the hellfires of European fascism and communism a century ago. Wengrofsky's edited volume of the writings of the late Professor Irving Block on the mysticism of Aristotle is forthcoming the University of Toronto Press (2023).
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