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Don Joyce (February 9, 1944 – July 22, 2015)

Don Joyce died last week. He was 71.

In 1980 I visited the then-nascent Greenworld Imports in Torrance, CA. I was working music retail, and dropped by Greenworld to pick an order for the Music Plus Long Beach location, where I was a buyer.

Greenworld was making a go at competing with east-coast monolith Jem Records, and importing vinyl and distributing U.S. independent labels was kind of like the wild west back then. The warehouse was little more than a smallish industrial garage space. I walked around with a little cart, depositing LPs into it.

“You need one of these,” said one of the guys.

He handed me a copy of Negativland’s self-titled first LP. The covers were handmade, with unique clip art on each jacket.

I bought three. Two for the store, and one for me.

I took the album home and played it. I played it again. And again. I liked it.

A year later I was working at Greenworld.

Seven years later: I was a confirmed Negativland fan. They’d put out three more albums. I’d moved to Sacramento. I was DJing at UC Davis’ KDVS. Negativland’s “Escape From Noise” had just been released; the band was playing a KDVS-sponsored show on campus. I hadn’t yet seen them live. I was working lights for the show, which, considering the UC Entertainment Council budget, pretty much meant I was plugging and unplugging a couple large spotlights about 20 yards from the stage as the whim struck me, doing my best to avoid being electrocuted.

Good times.

Don-Joyce-Composer-370x230Don Joyce, the newest member of Negativland, held down a substantial portion of the stage. He was seated at a large table with several broadcast cart machines in front of him, a mixer or two. He was surrounded by tall stacks of tapes.

All the sound emanating from the stage seemed to be centered around what Don was doing.

He had no sampler, or laptop. He was playing tapes (mostly spoken word, found sounds, and sound effects) the way someone would play an instrument — or mix an album — and it was masterful. From the expression on Don’s face, he might as well have been working a minimum-wage assembly line, or reading a book. But the sounds coming from his area of the stage were produced with the skill, nuance and grace of an orchestra conductor. His impassive countenance just made the scene more incongruous…and awe-inspiring.

Don didn’t play on that first Negativland album, or the second, or the third; he joined the band later after Negativland showed up at his Over The Edge show on KFPA in Berkeley sometime around 1985 (?). His showcase albums of that era were “Escape From Noise”, “Helter Stupid” and the “U2” EP. His work on the latter was so provocative that U2 sued the band for copyright infringement (Casey Kasem wasn’t too thrilled, either).

Over the past thirty years, Don was not only working with Negativland, but also doing that Over The Edge show almost every Thursday night on KPFA. The latter deserves a post (no, a book) of its own. There’s never been anything on the air like “Over The Edge.”

I met Don in 1988 at his studio (and home) in one of Oakland’s grittier neighborhoods. The place was packed with tables of old analog equipment, and smelled of years of cigarette smoke. His beloved cat, Miss Kitty, and girlfriend, Babs, were there. Don was shy. He broke the somewhat stilted mood by firing a cap gun, then waving it under his nose and inhaling the smoke. “Ahhh…” he cooed, as if enjoying the bouquet of a fine wine. Babs and I laughed. We talked about cats. He seemed as though he’d be more comfortable by himself then entertaining a fan.

I’ve thought a lot over the past couple days about Don, and why I liked what he did in the studio and onstage.

He had an enormous catalog of LPs and recordings from radio, TV, industrial training videos, and “found” audio. He coined the term culture jamming; I’m sure the ambiguity appealed to him — “jamming” as you would an undesirable radio signal, while also “jamming” as a band would.

Don had an uncanny — and seductive — knack for recontextualization. He could take any pop-culture subject matter and juxtapose snippets of sound by hand-editing them on 1/4 inch tape with a razor blade. The cuts and loops took hours to assemble. Or days. Or sometimes even weeks to put together a piece. He made the complex sound effortless. Any audio fodder, no matter how vapid, could instantly become entertaining and thought-provoking in Don’s hands.

Don Joyce was obsessed with the trappings of marketing, advertising and celebrity. He used these things against themselves, distilling the sensory bombardment of modern media and adding a subtle — yet sharply merciless — satirical edge. The result was …. well, further sensory bombardment, fortified by the “force multiplier” of absurdity.

After U2 sued Negativland, I heard Don being interviewed on All Things Considered. The host mentioned something about how confusing Negativland’s cut-up pieces could be to listen to. I recall Don reassuring the host, saying something like (I’m paraphrasing) “confusion is a healthy state of mind. It means your brain is in a discriminating mode, and firing on all cylinders.”

Considering that Don often had the TV and radio playing at the same time in his house while he worked, he was an authority on such matters.

In an era when having an attention span increasingly seemed like a liability, we needed someone like Don. And we still do, more than ever. Don spoiled us. We’ll have the Negativland albums, and the Over The Edge airchecks, and that’s good. But it’s not going to be the same without him.

Don Joyce was a curator, editor, creator, and artist. He had the wisdom to tell the difference between wheat and chaff. He knew what mattered, and what didn’t — and could separate the banal from the seemingly important … and then make the banal matter. And make it entertaining.

He knew when to go too far, and just when to stop. Only this time, he stopped too soon.

don joyce