Richie Shulberg, AKA Citizen Kafka, swooped this sphere on Saturday afternoon, March 14, 2009. Richie was the leader and the brilliant, chaotic brain behind the Wretched Refuse String Band. Shulberg’s contributions extend well beyond Wretched Refuse or the spinoff Citizen Kafka band. Richie and Pat Conte collaboratively produced The Secret Museum of Mankind, a brilliant, ear-opening collection of music from around the globe; the project embodies Richie’s (and Pat’s) madcap eclecticism. In collaboration with fiddler Kenny Kosek and actor John Goodman, Shulberg produced The Citizen Kafka Show, an over-the-top blend of satirical comedy and improvisation that aired on New York’s WBAI.
I first met Richie in the summer of 1973; he was playing on the street with Alan Kaufman, Michelle Weiss, Mike Schlesinger, Bob Jones, and my old friend and musical companion David Markowitz. They invited me to sit in, beginning an association with Richie and Wretched Refuse that lasted over 35 years. Over that time, countless great musicians have added their talents to the core band, including Andy Cahan, Andy Statman, Kenny Kosek, Matt Glaser, Jeff Berman, Jon Sholle, Tony Trischka, Larry Packer, Lisa Gutkin, and others.
Wretched Refuse started out as an old-time string band, but largely through Shulberg’s momentum, it eventually mutated with a mixture of influences. In ever-changing proportions, these included rock-and-roll; jazz ranging from King Oliver through Slim Gaillard, through Charlie Parker, Monk, and Ornette Coleman; comedy inspired by Abbott and Costello through Ernie Kovacs; Mad magazine; and profoundly irritating television commercials. Although it could never substitute for an in-person, onstage frontal assault, you can get a good taste of Richie’s humor and the Wretched Refuse repertoire on The Wretched Refuse String Band (Betrayal Records BCD-1001).
My very first on-stage performance with Shulberg was at a square dance and concert event on the South Street Seaport pier. We were in the middle of some tune, when Shulberg noticed the promoter getting into his car and cautiously backing out of the pier. Undaunted that we were in the middle of a tune, Richie muttered: “(Expletive)! He hasn’t paid us yet!” With that, Shulberg jumped off the stage, and directly onto the hood of the promoter’s old sedan. Somehow he managed to exact the evening’s wages before the guy drove off.
In 1975 I rejoined the band after a year-and-a-half stint with a band in Alaska. For a couple of months, I stayed at the communal Wretched Refuse apartment, sleeping on a mattress surrounded by Richie’s collection of 78 rpm records with discs and shards of 78s all around. This was simultaneously where we gathered our repertoire, and Party Central, featuring extended 78 spinning with Shulberg as DJ and didact.
If we didn’t have an official gig, we played on the streets of Greenwich Village, and divided the loot over a communal dinner at Hong Wun in Chinatown. Shulberg knew the owner, cooks, and waiters by name, and they treated him like an old friend. Virtually everyone knew and loved Richie; from his band regulars to those who knew him from pinch-hitting as a sideman in countless casual bluegrass gigs.
Really, whatever tickled Shulberg usually inspired the rest of us, but at its core—and largely because of Richie, the band remained more faithful to the spirit of old-time music than many bands with the typical repertoire and typical instrumentation. Some may remember the Darco String Band Festival with Shulberg resplendent in pseudo-Hasidic garb, leading our bizarrely costumed band in a set ranging from “Gaspé Reel” to “Peanut Butter.”
Over the last decade or so, declining health due to a crushing combination of heart problems and Multiple Sclerosis increasingly inhibited his ability to perform. When health and medication permitted, Richie’s spark was undiminished and it inspired us all.
On Monday, March 16, 2009, Richie was laid to rest by friends who were simultaneously filled with sadness and buoyed up by memories of his humor and our musical adventures together. We should all be so lucky.
The Wretched Refuse String Band will perform a memorial concert for Richie on May 9 at Jalopy in Brooklyn.