“Listen up and I’ll tell a story / about an artist growing old,” sings Daniel Johnston, presumably referring to himself. Tonight these lyrics remind me of Phil Pearlman instead. The two men aren’t even wholly dissimilar: both are outsider musicians, both are legendary figures in certain limited circles, and both have led extreme lives (though in very different ways). In fact, extremes run through the Pearlman story in many ways.
Philip Pearlman was born in 1947 to a Jewish urologist and Protestant housewife, but was apparently raised pretty agnostic. He started playing music early and became your stereotypical Californian hippie: protesting the Vietnam war and playing in various musical “happenings” — groovyspeak for jam sessions. The most famous of these was called Beat of the Earth, a loose collective that recorded epic psychedelia in loose, unorganized gatherings. Their self-titled 1967 debut is essentially just two, 60-minute tracks and is now a prized collector item — if your specialty is obscure 60’s psych-folk of course. Pearlman’s next effort was The Electronic Hole in 1970, an interesting experimental musical grandfather to more modern psychedelic groups like Elephant 6.
Nearer to the mid-seventies, the story takes a slightly more unconventional turn. As the story goes, Pearlman is walking along the beach (maybe high, maybe not) and finds a Bible on a bench. Reading it gives him a spiritual epiphany and he promptly converts to Christianity. It’s just after this, in 1975, that he records Relatively Clean Rivers, celebrating his born again life and new perspective. It’s another album that’s attained cult-like status within a peculiar underground scene. Some have compared it, perhaps oddly, to the Velvet Underground. In retrospect it seems a misguided comparison save for one fact: both groups inspired a lot of other people to make music. It’s through one of these fans, Jeff Tweedy, that I first heard of Relatively Clean Rivers, starting down my Pearlman rabbit hole via Wilco.
Thing is, after Relatively Clean Rivers, that was pretty much it for Pearlman. He married, settled down, and had four kids. Except Pearlman really took the hippie aesthetic to heart: he moved out to a rural country farm with no electricity and no indoor plumbing. Phil Pearlman changed his name to Phil Gadahn (a play on “Gideon”) and started raising and slaughtering goats. He claims to have invented a “humane” way to kill the goats, which he then sold to the Muslim butchers down the road who appreciated his approach. This is where the story could, maybe should, end. Typical hippie musician shuns our materialistic, consumerist, warmongering society and leads extremely stripped-down existence in the middle of nowhere. Or maybe sell the story this way: tortured artist finds God, records masterpiece, disappears into wilderness and obscurity. I have no doubt that Phil Pearlman would still be remembered in 2007 simply because of his musical legacy. Except in many ways, Phil Pearlman is now most famous, in the mainstream at least, for who he fathered.
The story of families are almost always more interesting than any single, isolated life. It’s why we love Oedipus Rex and One Hundred Years of Solitude. In terms of father-son sagas, it might be hard to beat King David and his murderous, long-haired son Absalom. But lately I’ve preferred the Phil Pearlman and Adam Gadahn story.1 Because as it turns out, one of the four children Pearlman raised on that goat farm in California, one of the four kids who would illicitly crowd around a small battery-powered TV against their hippie father’s wishes, would later end up becoming Azzam al-Amriki: radical Islamic fundamentalist, al-Qaeda operative, and, as of 2004, the first American convicted of treason since 1952.
How do you go from the son of humble Christian goat-farming beatkniks to a top suspect on the FBI’s Most Wanted list? There are no quick quips here, no relatively clean answers. Born in 1978, Gadahn did perhaps have a pretty atypical childhood. Homeschooled out there on the farm with his siblings until 16, he then moved in with relatives in the city where he developed an intense, year-long obsession with death metal music. Like his father, young Gadahn also recorded some epic 60-minute songs, though his feature slightly more screaming and atonal gothic chants.
In 1995 it all ended however, and fairly abruptly. While browsing AOL at his grandparent’s house, he began reading up on Islam and became more and more convinced of its truth. Gadahn undoubtedly remembered the neighborhood butchers his father sold goats to. He would later describe these Muslims as completely unlike the monstrous murderers the media portrayed. He officially converted under Dr. Muzammil Siddiqi, then imam at Islamic Society of Orange County. This is the same Dr. Siddiqi who presented President Bush with a Koran after 9/11 and made clear to Bush that the peace-loving religion of Islam in no way condones such brutal attacks. This is tragically ironic in that one of SiddiqiÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s former students – the son of a Christian hippie, former death metal obsessive is now an Islamic extremist absolutely convinced that flying planes into buildings is a completely reasonable way to express disagreement. For after staying with the Islamic Society of Orange County, the now-renamed Yahiye Gadahn got involved with followers of a fundamentalist, and violent, strain of Islam.
A trip to Pakistan in 1998 seems to have completely sealed the deal. He married an Afghan refugee and, after starting low, worked his way up the al Qaeda ladder. In more recent years he’s been the face for messages from Osama. Now known as Azzam the American, he’s the bearded white kid you’ve no doubt seen on TV: with finger raised for effect, Azzam’s always condemning us, urging converts, and promising the complete annihilation of the American way of life.
The typical American way of life, it should be noted, is something Azzam/Adam never really had. But you can’t pin his radicalism on that no more than you can tie it to his love of death metal. I think it’s natural to feel a lot of sympathy for his parents. The last time his mother spoke to Adam on the phone, she asked him about his accented English. He flatly informed her that he hadn’t spoken English in 8 months. Neither parent really grants interviews anymore. I don’t blame them.
It seems obvious that to some, Phil Pearlman is a pretty unusual character. He did, after all, homeschool his kids on a goat farm that didn’t have electricity. On the other hand, I can’t help but still see Phil Pearlman as just one more beat dude who lived his ideals. He dropped out to get away, like many of us have desired, to rebel against a lot of what actually is wrong with this world. But unlike his wayward son, Dad never wanted to actually kill all those yuppies in LA with fancy cars and homes, and their slavish pursuit of the almighty dollar. The contrast between peace-loving father and radically violent son couldn’t be starker.
For his sake, I still think of Phil Pearlman as a happenin’ psych-folk musician and not in the ignominious terms of heartbroken father to Azzam al-Amriki, America’s most wanted terrorist traitor. I, for example, really love the groovy Phil Pearlman of Relatively Clean Rivers. An optimist who inscribed the record jacket with these words:
“Here’s a story I hope you’ve all been waiting to hear it’s about
L.A. skies, tsetse flies, alibis,
And a European-Oriental-Asian-Caucasian-Negro-African-American
Soldier, sitting in a ditch somewhere, near a Sigh-Gone city or farm
Somewhere, wanting to drain the malaria out of some
Crocodile infested swamp maybe,
Hoping we can all get together, the Arabs and the Jews,
And melt down weapons into water sprinklers,
Tractors, shovels and hoes,
1 As for brothers, lately I’ve also been really intrigued by the story of Edwin Booth, highly-revered Shakespearean actor, and John Wilkes Booth, deluded assassin of our greatest president.