Singer David Johansen did all sorts of anti-establishment things on stage when he was fronting the New York Dolls in the early ‘70s, gaining notoriety and inventing punk rock in the process. I was amazed when, only a few years later, Johansen fully immersed himself in the superficial ethos he was rebelling against, appearing as lounge-lizardy Buster Poindexter, sporting a tuxedo and mile-high pompadour while crooning old standards.
There are a lot of reasons musicians hide behind alter-egos. It gives them a chance to adopt different personalities, perform new material, stretch their wings without diluting their original brand. This has gone on for a long time in all different genres. Hank Williams recorded as “Luke the Drifter” when he wanted to do religious material while preserving his outlaw image. It was great to see Damon Albarn of Britpop band Blur become the fictional animated character Murdoc of Gorillaz. Paul McCartney released two albums of instrumental electronic music under the name “The Fireman.” Garth Brooks became Chris Gaines in maybe the most elaborate identity switch of all; there’s even a mock-documentary about the fictional grunge rocker.
Sometimes a nom de guerre supports the narrative of a song or album like Shock G as Humpty Hump or David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust. Hip hop artists have really run with this idea. How many other names has P Diddy gone by?
But sometimes the use of a pseudonym is dictated by market forces. Classical American composer Rebecca Clarke published under the male pseudonym “Anthony Trent” to overcome sexist bias. Lots of jazz players would famously and not-so-transparently change their names for recording dates to side-step their contracts. Charlie Parker would be billed as “Charlie Chan,” Art Pepper as “Art Salt” and Fats Navarro as “Slim Romero.” Then, of course, there is the case of Prince, who changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol to protest treatment under his record contract.
But what’s in a name, anyway? Good musicians will make good music regardless of style or publicity.
Listening list for podcast:
Buster Poindexter, “Hit the Road, Jack”:
"Hot Hot Hot" by Buster Poindexter
Marvin Pontiac (John Lurie), “Small Car.” I latched onto this whole pseudonym thing when I stumbled onto Marvin Pontiac. In “Small Car,” John Lurie as Pontiac gets to shed his New York avant-garde jazz persona and play with third-world perspectives:
Garth Brooks/Chris Gaines: There’s a whole mockumentary about him.
Charlie Parker/Charlie Chan: Jazz at Massey Hall “Salt Peanuts” Last time Parker recorded with Dizzy Gillespie. All-star line-up with Bud Powell, Max Roach and Charles Mingus:
Shock G/Humpty Hump The name completes the effect of “The Humpty Dance”:
Damon Albarn as Murdoc of Gorillaz. Gorillaz, “Feel Good, Inc.”:
Hank Williams/Luke the Drifter “Men With Broken Hearts”:
Paul McCartney/The Fireman (“Bison” The Fireman Rushes 1998); McCartney has used many other pseudonyms:
XTC/Dukes of Stratosphear, Dukes of Stratosphear, “25 O’clock.” Out-Pink Floyds Pink Floyd - my favorite!: