Al Jazeera on the Death of Malachi Ritscher

On January 13, 2008, Al Jazeera’s english-language station aired a story about my late friend Malachi Ritscher. As I posted here about at the time, he died on the morning November 3, 2006 when he set himself on fire next to the Kennedy Expressway in Chicago, before a statue named “The Flame of the Millennium”. He left a handmade sign that read “Thou Shalt Not Kill.” On his web site, before he killed himself, he posted last testaments that said he was immolating himself to protest the US invasion and occupation of Iraq. Except for a handful of fleeting stories, US press coverage was essentially non-existent. Coverage in Europe was slightly more extensive, but equally fleeting. Malachi videotaped his self immolation but his family, understandably, has not released the tape and they have stated they never will. Further information about Malachi’s suicide and its impact can be found at the link above.

The Al Jazeera story was aired as part of their series People and Power, described as an investigative program “which looks at the use and abuse of power.” This particular episode was titled “The North Front Line.”

Streaming video of the segment has been posted on YouTube. I am also posting it here. Many thanks to  Eric Leonardson for bringing this to my attention.

Captain Midnight Commands: Catch the Wave

Ah yes, I remember it well!

“During a broadcast of the Dr. Who episode Horror of Fang Rock on WTTW Chicago Channel 11, on Sunday November 22nd, 1987, at around 11:15pm, a Video “Pirate” wearing a Max Headroom mask broke into the signal and transmitted one of the weirdest, unauthorized things ever to hit the Chicago airwaves.

Earlier in the evening on the same day, during the Nine O’Clock News on Channel 9 (yes, a completely different channel [in fact, WGN, owned by The Tribune]) the Max Headroom Pirate also broke in — although it was for a much shorter time and there was no audio.

Needless to say, Dan Roan (the sports reporter) was a bit flustered.

And no, he [the pirate broadcaster(s)] was never caught.”

Further details can be read from the archived Dec. 20, 1987 issue of the e-zine, Tolmes News Service. (Man, I kinda miss e-zines. Don’t you?) There’s also a Wikipedia entry about the Max Headroom pirating incident, according to which there “has not been a broadcast intrusion incident of this kind in America since.” Darn. There’s also a write-up at the aptly-named Damn Interesting site.

Ginormous thanks to my ol’ fellow Chicago expat buddy Hell’s Donut House for bringing this to my attention.

Here’s a partial attempted transcript of the lo-fi, electronically-distorted audio from the person who posted this to YouTube:

“He’s a freaky nerd!”

“This guy’s better than Chuck Swirsky.” [another WGN sportscaster at the time]

“Oh Jesus!”

“Catch the wave…” [reference to a Coke commercial at the time of which Max Headroom was a spokesperson]

“Your love is fading…”

“I stole CBS.”

“Oh, I just made a giant masterpiece printed all over the greatest world newspaper nerds.” [??]

“My brother [mother?] is wearing the other one.”

“It’s dirty…”

“They’re coming to get me…”

Also courtesy of YouTube, here is the CBS network news story about the incident, broadcast the following day (contrary to the added title on the clip, which is incorrect).

Random stuffs

What’s this fascist Dick hiding, anyway?

An above-average Sun Ra discography

The mighty Ivor Cutler on the John Peel show (thanks, Hell’s Donut House)

Weekly experimental music concerts at The Chapel in Wallingford (Seattle)

Dope-ass Vermont

Swanky “file browse” stylings (and another)

14 Rules for Fast Web Pages (excellent: summarizing Steve Souders’ presentation at Web 2.0, with links to the PowerPoint [very recommended] and all the references)

More optimization: “Performance Research, Part 4: Maximizing Parallel Downloads in the Carpool Lane” (YUIblog — related to the above)

More optimization: Optimizing Page Load Time (see bottom for additional links)

Why brain-teaser interview questions are stoopid

Bitchen 16mm scanned telecine machine (3 CCD coming soon, they say)

Official Forrest J. Ackerman site

The Online 78rpm Dicographical Project

The one and only Travis (ex-Ono)

Impressive synth sharity

And did I mention Vincent Collins?

Dead Gwynne Gotcher Xmess Right Here

Way back in February, I posted about Chicago expat Brendan deVallance and his office cubicle art gallery, LMNOP.

One of Brendan’s various artistic efforts since relocating to Noo Yawk some 13 years ago is his band Dead Qwynne. Every year they’ve created a special Christmas song or two, and this year’s offering — “Rooftop Soliloguy” (2.8mb MP3) — is now available as a free download, just in time for your own xmess compilation. Your grandma will thank you (and probably not really mean it but still love you anyway).

The Dead Qwynne Holiday Tunes page also provides convient access to all their past xmess songs, right back to 1995′s “Earthling Christmas,” all in the festive MP3 format.

While you’re at it, ya oughta stop by Brendan’s blog, 11 vs X, chockablock with entertainingly baffling photos from his illustrious performance art days and posts with MP3s (albeit very lo-fi) about some of his favorite bands.

Press Coverage of Malachi Ritscher’s Death

In an earlier post, I said the news that the Cook County M.E. officially had identified Malachi Ritscher “will not appear in the local mainstream papers”. I was incorrect, and I’d like to correct the record. In fact, Chicago Sun-Times columnist Richard Roeper wrote a piece prompted by that very news.

And since I’m at it I’ll post other press links as well. In fact, the story has appeared on the Harper’s web site, and in Le Monde.

In “Act by ‘martyr’ to protest war in Iraq a futile gesture” (Nov. 9, 2006), I have to say I find Roeper extremely balanced, even gentle — especially given his ultimately critical opinion. He not only quotes at length from Malachi’s own final writings, he does so respectfully and preserving (I think) sufficient context given the confines of a daily column. Roeper also allows voice to friends, letting them speak their representative piece in longer-than-usual soundbite form. While I think it is too early to know if Malachi’s “last gesture on this planet” was truly “his most futile,” and notwithstanding that the Iraq War is the crucible of our age, I definitely respect Mr. Roeper’s respectful and thoughtful treatment of the story.

Two days earlier, on Nov. 7, Roeper also addressed Malachi’s death in “Keeping suicide out of sight may be part of the problem”.

However, as I have mentioned, the Sun-Times has a standing editorial policy about generally not covering suicides. Roeper’s two pieces are the only ones that have appeared in that paper — at least so far as I can tell. To this day, if you search the site for “ritscher” you get zero results.

Chronology of Press Coverage
Links may have expired since this was first posted in 2006.

“Body Spotted On Ohio Street Feeder To Kennedy. Firefighters Found Body After Putting Out Fire At Sculpture Base”
Channel 2 (Chicago, IL CBS affiliate), Nov 3, 2006 12:28 pm US/Central
Page includes video (top right) of a helicopter report showing police processing the scene. The reporter points out the tripod that held Malachi’s video camera. Other local stations also had coverage.

Excerpts from the CBS2 web report:

A motorist reported reported to police that a statue was on fire, and firefighter later found out a fire had been set near an iron sculpture at the feeder ramp. State police said a body was been found, and authorities later said the man who died may have set himself on fire.

…A gasoline can and a tripod were also spotted at the scene. A videotape and camcorder were also found, according to state police. A Chicago Police Bomb and Arson Section sergeant said a video the man took might have indicated the man lit himself on fire.

“Man sets himself on fire on Kennedy. Drivers watched as he dies near ‘Flame’ sculpture.”
By Anne Sweeney, Chicago Sun-Times, Nov. 4, 2006
Full text of article:

As horrified Friday-morning commuters watched, a man apparently doused himself with gasoline and lit himself on fire along the Kennedy Expy. near a 25-foot-tall Loop sculpture titled “Flame of the Millennium.”A homemade sign was found near his charred body that read, “Thou Shalt Not Kill,” said State Police Lt. Lincoln Hampton. Police are reviewing a videotape that also was found near the body.

The death of the man, whose identity has not been released, was being treated as a suicide, authorities said.

Witnesses told police they saw the man ignite himself just before 7 a.m. near the southbound Kennedy’s Ohio Street exit, Hampton said.

The Chicago Fire Department was called to the scene to help extinguish the fire, which was set at the base of the seven-ton sculpture along the Kennedy.

An Illinois Department of Transportation worker was among those to witness the incident, according to a preliminary report.

A can of clear liquid smelling like gasoline also was recovered, the report said.

“Malachi Ritscher’s apparent suicide”
Peter Margasak, Post No Bills (blog), Chicago Reader, Nov. 7, 2006
Includes voluminous comments from readers, friends, family, and passers by. Required reading.
Lead paragraph:

On Saturday [Nov. 4, 2006] the Sun-Times ran a small item about a man who had set himself on fire during rush hour Friday morning near the Ohio Street exit on the Kennedy. His identity has still not been officially determined, but members of the local jazz and improvised music community say they are certain it was Malachi Ritscher, a longtime supporter of the scene. Bruno Johnson, who owns the free-jazz label Okka Disk, received a package yesterday from Ritscher that included a will, keys to his home, and instructions about what should be done with his belongings. Johnson, a former Chicagoan who now lives in Milwaukee, began making calls. Police are still awaiting the results of dental tests, but Johnson says an officer told one of Ritscher’s sisters that all evidence pointed to the body being his; his car was found nearby and he hadn’t shown up for work since Thursday.

Keeping suicide out of sight may be part of the problem”
By Richard Roeper (columnist), Chicago Sun-Times, Nov. 7, 2006

You may have heard about this tragedy because it was just too splashy, too public, for the media to ignore. You didn’t hear about the incident in the Loop because the media usually don’t report on “normal,” everyday suicides. The unwritten policy — which has been backed by research studies — says that if we make a big deal out of suicide stories, there’s an increased likelihood of copycat episodes.

…Some suicide-prevention groups say a hush-hush policy only reinforces the stigma surrounding suicide. I tend to agree. I’m not saying we should turn every suicide into a front-page story — just as we don’t turn every murder into a front-page story. (There are more than 1,000 suicides a year in the state of Illinois alone.) I’m just saying we shouldn’t automatically place death-by-suicide in a different box.

It makes no sense to pretend suicide is a rare and scandalous thing. The sad truth is that every 18 minutes in this country, somebody makes the unfathomable (to the rest of us) decision to leave this life forever.

Maybe you’ve never personally known anyone who was murdered — but I’ll bet you have known someone who committed suicide.

“Memorial for Malachi”
Peter Margasak, Post No Bills (blog), Chicago Reader, Nov. 9, 2006

Yesterday [Wed. Nov. 8, 2006] the office of the Cook County medical examiner confirmed that it was indeed Malachi Ritscher who committed suicide last Friday. He was 52.

This Sunday, November 12, Elastic will host a memorial for Ritscher from 5 to 8 PM….

“A letter, a will and a friend left coping with suicide”
By Bill Glauber, Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, Nov. 13, 2006

Bruno Johnson spreads the two-page note on the bar at his Palm Tavern in Bay View and stares at the worn paper, folded and refolded countless times, passed from hand to hand, friend to friend.

Bruno Johnson of Milwaukee holds a letter from his friend Malachi Ritscher of Chicago, which Johnson received a few days after Ritscher committed suicide Nov. 3. Ritscher set himself on fire to protest the Iraq war and sent the detailed letter to Johnson to help put his affairs in order.

Johnson stares at the words, instructions about bank accounts, credit cards, computer passwords, next of kin, a giant collection of jazz recordings and a neon-purple 1997 Plymouth with 107,000 miles parked north of Grand Ave. in Chicago. And that final chilling sentence, the one that still gets to Johnson: “sorry about the mental-illness thing, it’s not something I would have chosen for myself.”

“I had a sense it was probably explaining his death to me,” Johnson says now, in the middle of the afternoon, his soft, melancholy voice matching the soft autumn light.

…Only after Johnson received the note on Nov. 6, along with a set of house keys and a will, were friends and authorities able to put the pieces together, to match Ritscher with the unfathomable event.

…He [Johnson] is a big man, 6-foot-9, built like a tight end, with tattoos on his arms. But he is gentle, too. He doesn’t understand what happened or why.

…They met 20 years ago. …Ritscher, a maintenance engineer at the University of Chicago, became something of a fixture on the Chicago jazz scene. For years, he set up microphones and recorded gigs in smoky bars, Johnson says. If bands wanted the master, Ritscher gave it to them at no charge.

Johnson, who runs a small record label named Okka Disk, distributed some of the works.
…Johnson says the act [of self-immolation] “was futile.”

But he wants to remember his friend. So do others.

…Johnson holds tight to those memories. He also has access to the recordings Ritscher made of jazz concerts in Chicago, some 3,000 of them over the years. Eventually, a committee will be formed, the collection culled, the best works turned into CDs in Ritscher’s memory.

And Johnson has the note, folded so many times and handed to so many friends, instructions about books and tapes, the house with a mortgage and the hot sauce in the refrigerator.

And there’s not a word about the war.

“Malachi Ritscher, 1954-2006″
By Nitsuh Abebe, Pitchfork, Nov. 14, 2006

“Weekly Review”
By Paul Ford, Harper’s Weekly (web site), Nov. 14, 2006

To protest the Iraq war, a man named Malachi Ritscher committed suicide in Chicago by setting himself on fire next to a 25-foot-tall sculpture called “Flame of the Millennium.” Along with a self-penned obituary, the 52-year-old Ritscher posted a farewell message on his website in which he described the “deep shame” of a day in 2002 when he stood, knife in hand, next to Donald Rumsfeld, but was unable to bring himself to slash the defense secretary’s throat. “I too love God and country,” wrote Ritscher, “and feel called upon to serve.” [[[“Emotion après l’immolation d’un musicien à Chicago pour protester contre la guerre en Irak”
[Google "translation": "Emotion after the self-immolation of a musician in Chicago to protest against the war in Iraq"]
Le Monde (Paris), Nov. 15, 2006

Ritscher Family Statement
Email published by request,, Nov. 18, 2006

Ritscher Family Statement

Following is a Nov. 18, 2006 public statement from “the parents and siblings” of Malachi Ritscher (born Mark David Ritscher). The family emailed the statement to Jenn Diaz, who created on Nov. 13, and asked her to post it to the site. The family also asked readers, “Please note that we are respectfully not speaking for his son, Malachi, in this email.”

Family Statement

November 18, 2006

For those who are grieving and searching for meaning in the death of Malachi Ritscher, his family wants to try to bring our insights on the recent events. It seems inconceivable that time will heal this tragic event for us, but there is some comfort as our understanding and perspectives grow each day.

Several family members were in Chicago this last week. While we had regular contact with Malachi, the depth of his life and his passions have come alive for us. We have met and talked with many of his most amazing friends. We have read his journals. We have seen part of his life through the process of preparing his house for sale. We have found evidence of his search for meaning and for peace. We have heard and read wonderful stories of how Malachi impacted those he knew. We cherish knowing our son and brother better.

One can never know fully what is in another’s heart. Malachi had a large global view and felt passionately that bloodshed and war are antithetical to a good earth. Whatever the provocation of his last action, we know that Malachi was courageous and brave enough to act on his convictions.

As a family we are not aware of Malachi having a clinical diagnosis of mental illness. And we hesitate to attach Medical Doctor (MD) to our names by calling Malachi’s state of mind/being something which requires a medical assessment. However, it does seem apparent to us that some sort of depression was part of his life, at least occasionally, for a number of years. We know that he was an intellectually gifted man and we believe that he thought carefully and clearly about what was important in his life–how he spent his time, how he made life choices–and, ultimately, about what was to be his final act on this earth.

We feel Malachi left a roadmap on what he wanted done after his death and we are doing our best to follow through on the wishes of a thoughtful man. He named a family member as executor of his estate. A long-time friend was requested to have a prominent role in the dispersal of many of his important belongings. Malachi requested cremation (done) and interment at the Calvary Cemetery (pending). He requested a headstone with specific wording which we will honor. He requested no funeral (we will comply), although we cannot thank his friends and colleagues enough for the memorial concert last week. His place of work is also intending to hold a memorial service in the near future. He did not leave any specific instructions for memorials; however we know he was supportive of the National Lawyers Guild. A memorial fund has been set up. Very clearly his passions included peace activism, human rights, music, and other arts (literature, photography).

We wish we had Malachi physically back in our lives. There is a hole in our hearts that nothing will ever fill. We are taking it one day at a time.

Signed: The Parents and Siblings of Malachi (born Mark David) Ritscher

[Please note that we are respectfully not speaking for his son, Malachi, in this email. We are at different stages in the grieving process and are processing our own personal issues. Young Malachi, his wife, and children are an important part of our family.]

Schrodinger’s Wound. The Impact of Malachi Ritscher’s Death.

The death of someone you know or even love is always difficult and painful for those left behind. When it comes through such shocking circumstances as Malachi Ritscher’s, it is even moreso. That his death by self-immolation was framed by him in explicitly political terms exacerbates the trauma and confusion only further, no matter your feelings about those poltics.

Peter Margasak’s first blog post about Malachi’s death has swelled with comments from friends, acquaintances, passers-by, a few rather vicious partisan grumps (one of whom had the decency to, well, not apologize really but at least part with kinder words for those grieving the loss).

Family members have also been weighing in, and regrettably their private conflicts and hurts — undoubtedly magnified by these events — have spilled bitterly into public view. It is not my place to pass judgement, especially about an obviously complicated family history I have never been privy to, but it saddens me still further to see old and deep wounds on all sides torn open anew before us all.

After nearly a week since I first learned the news, I felt courageous enough to try to express my feelings in more depth by posting to that thread. Here is what I had to say (with one or two typos corrected).

Today I write from far Seattle to somehow try to express my heartfelt pain, sympathies, and respects for the man and friend I always knew as Malachi, and for his entire family, wherever they are and whatever they are feeling.

I can scarcely imagine what it must be like to walk in the shoes of his family in these difficult days. You deserve our respect and compassion, and I am angered some here have chosen to display anything but that toward you. Ironically, it seems to exemplify the very spiritual crisis that Malachi invoked in what he called his final Mission Statement. I do not speak for those people but, nevertheless, on their behalf I apologize to you all — brothers, sisters, ex-wife, and offspring — for such manifestly inexcuseable treatment. You deserve far better in your pain and grief, no matter what form that might take.

Like everyone posting here, it seems, I too have been struggling mightily to come to grips with his death, what it was that led him to such an incredible decision, and what it might really mean. Every day since I learned of his death late last Monday night, I’ve struggled to understand and articulate my feelings about it, with no real success. Right now, all I really know is that I feel profoundly conflicted about it, and the whole thing is the very antithesis of simple…not to say that anyone’s death by their own hand, for whatever reasons, ever is. If my words fail me here, I hope you (and he) will forgive me. I, too, am finding my way in territory I never imagined I would ever see.

I knew him as a good friend, albeit not a Close one. I met him nearly 20 years ago, when he was a regular at Club Lower Links. Our mutual love for music and art that challenged preconceptions and expanded possibilities became the basis for our friendship. We were fellow travellers, comrade explorers, and shared a devotion to finding a new and better way, whether artistic, cultural, political, or personal. I make no pretense that I or we were any more noble for it — I only know that this is what meant the most to me and, I believe, to Malachi as well. History and personal experience teaches me that such souls are almost always directly informed by a sense of profound alienation and, significantly, a overwhelming desire to heal that wound, for themselves and for the world we all share. Like any other soul, they are imperfect. And thus, their actions.

Whatever the source, these are consummately lonely pursuits, and in such all friends are precious indeed. When one is lost to death or some other circumstance, it is felt at one’s very core. That lonely place is made only more bereft. Not only for our loss, but for theirs. It is as if Evil has won.

The Malachi I knew was a complicated person. And so while his death has shocked me it comes as little surprise that it, too, would be complicated. I knew him to be brilliant, perceptive, by turns deeply sensitive and extremely guarded (a common paradox borne of self-preservation), talented, witty, intensely curious about the world, sometimes very dark and other times remarkably puckish, and — clearly — deeply committed to his principles. While his self-penned obituary belittled his musical talent, I am pleased to have once induced him to share the stage with me and my then-band, as one of several didjeridu players…all the more fitting now, as the dijeridu is a gateway to Dreamtime.

I have had the great honor and privilege to know a number of such people in my life, and even to count some of them as friends. Being a friend to such people is never easy or simple; loving them is only infinitely moreso. It is by turns a revelation and the most vexing thing imaginable. Almost without exception, my experience is that it is this sort of person who cries out most, implicitly or loudly, for compassion and some sort of understanding and acceptance. I am also taught that all too often, rightly or wrongly, they feel it is not forthcoming or just plain insufficient. Malachi is not the first such Friend Soul I’ve lost to death, though he is the first I’ve lost like this. I pray he is the last.

How can any of us living here outside of their minds ever hope to understand the full truth of that? As decent human beings who profess to love our neighbor, we can only try that much harder to achieve that most difficult of marks. This, I believe, is the very nucleus of all great spiritual teachings, whether Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Taoist, or shamanic. Vocabulary, schmocabulary…it all boils down to the same. Love, and be a good person, as best as you possibly can.

I also believe that this precept is what Malachi, ultimately and with every fiber of his being, hoped to instill in us through his death. Did he chose a shitty way to teach us this? Well…it’s hard to argue not, though I well understand and acknowledge the political precedent and spiritual intent. Was this the only factor at play in his decision? Again…given his own parting words to us, it’s difficult at best to argue a categorical No.

But does all that ipso facto mean his parting message to us was some “adolescent” lie, or his passion for justice disingenuous, or his pain at feeling his fellow and sister humanity suffer so beneath the noxious weight of injustice and folly and abject stupidity, or that any of those are not Real? Does any of this mean that the war against Iraq or the actions — war-wise or otherwise — of the current administration smack any less of hypocrisy, criminalism, cronyism, stupidity, arrogance, or as an abject betrayal of the very Christian teachings they profess to extoll? You may disagree, but I would say no once more. I say this as neither Republican or Democrat, or even Independent. I say this as a feeling dweller in this world.

It grieves me even deeper still to see the deep wounds of his surviving family displayed here before us. I pass no judgement here, and it is profoundly wrong for any of us not personally part of that obviously complicated family history to do so. I merely offer these following remarks, if you might all forgive my temerity.

To his brother Peter Ritscher, when I read your words “I am proud of him; very, very sad, but very, very proud” — I burst into tears as I sat at my desk at work.

To his son Malachi, when I read your words some moments later, I burst into tears again. Although from what little I can gather here the particulars were different and much less traumatic, I too was estranged from my own father for many years — indeed, from early childhood. In my case, my father and I were finally able to make peace, something that was profoundly healing for both of us.

In your case, you were cheated of this. You lost your father not just twice but irrevocably. I do not know you or your life, and you have no reason or obligation to give my words one whit of consideration. All I know is that as I struggle now to write these words I suddenly find myself weeping — not crying, but weeping uncontrollably — for the first time since I learned of your father’s death a week ago. No son who has not felt the loss of their father, in life or death, can even begin to understand the chasm it leaves. Even a one-time wife or girlfriend may mourn or rail, but whatever their wounds and however justified their pain, they are of an entirely lesser realm. That is not right or wrong, it simply Is.

As I am the first to acknowledge, I am not you. But in my own case, achieving a deeper understanding of my own father’s spiritual struggles and familial traumas long predating my birth helped provide my own gateway to deeper understanding and ultimately — no, miraculously — compassion, and eventually, acceptance and peace. It is my deepest hope for you that someday you might find some similar understanding, with full recognition and respect that it in no way lessens the justice of your own pain and depth of your loss. If I may truly risk your understandble wrath, please may I offer to you the hugely presumptuous counsel that both “sides” are right and wrong at the same time. Call it Schrodinger’s wound. Call it Rashoman. Call it whatever you like. But for the sake of yourself and your own children, try. Try mightily, and be true no matter the cost. Most humbly I say this.

Only through compassion and understanding will this world become a better place. This, I believe, is what my friend born as Mark David Ritscher — by any name and however pained — would wish for us all. How…HOW…could that be wrong? For this is the greatest teaching of all.

I have more to say, but no words to say it with. Today, I only wish the wide and private worlds were not such that led my old friend to burn himself to death, whether for principle, because of inner pain, or — as I currently believe to be the case — some mixture of the two.

To the friend I always knew as Malachi, I am so very, very sorry we all failed you so. You, too, deserved far better.

“There is no fire like greed,
No crime like hatred,
No sorrow like separation,
No sickness like hunger of heart,
And no joy like freedom.”

– from the Dhammapada, translated by Thomas Byrom.

Malachi Ritscher’s Identity Confirmed

Peter Margasak reports on his Chicago Reader blog that yesterday the Cook County Medical Examiner has officially confirmed that Malachi Ritscher was the person who died by self-immolation on the morning of Nov. 3, 2006. This information will not appear in the local mainstream papers, which (like most) have a policy against reporting about suicides lest they lead to copy-cats.

If you happen to be in Chicago this Sunday, Elastic in Logan Square will be hosting a memorial starting at 5pm. I really, really wish I could be there to pay my considerable respects and to mourn together with old friends. If, like me, you can’t be there, perhaps you might consider pausing in your evening to remember Malachi, hail his contributions to the ephemeral arts of improvised and avant garde music, and contemplate the state of a world that would drive a member of Mensa burn himself alive in a desperate plea to remind us of that most basic of precepts: Thou Shalt Not Kill.

Better yet, decide what you can do to make that world not like that.

Saxophonist Dave Rempis, who is helping to organize the memorial at Elastic, sent the following to Margasak. “Malachi left many people behind who will greatly miss him, his sense of humor, his fierce individualism, and his selfless efforts in documenting the music for so many years. He was truly a unique and passionate person, who followed his beliefs unflinchingly up until the end. If you have anything that you’d like to bring (photos, etc.) that has some relevance to Malachi, please do. We’d like to display some of these items for everyone to share in. And please pass this information on to others who knew Malachi. There are many out there who will greatly miss his presence.”

Maybe it’s just me, but I really hope someone plays some didjeridu, that most ancient of instruments and — most importantly — a gateway to Dreamtime.

Goodbye, Malachi. I’m so very, very sorry we all failed you.

Blessed Be.

rest in pieces

I am in shock. I have just learned that an old friend and comrade from my Chicago days, Malachi Ritscher, died by self-immolation in an act of political protest.

This past Friday [Nov. 3, 2006], as reported in the Chicago Sun-Times and on local television (like this report from CBS affiliate channel 2, see top right for video), a man doused himself with gasoline and set himself on fire during morning rush hour next to a major downtown expressway, at the foot of a huge statue titled “The Flame of the Millenium.” Next to him was a hand-painted sheet that read “Thou Shalt Not Kill.” He died in solitary unimaginable agony as suburbanites drove past to their jobs in the huge towering skyscrapers of downtown Chicago.

While the identification is not yet official as I write, it seems quite clear that man was Malachi. According to posts to the chi-improv list on YahooGroups, his car was found nearby, and he had not been seen since Friday, a friend of his received his keys and a will in the mail and, indeed, Malachi posted a suicide note (titled “mission statement”) and his own obituary (titled “rest in pieces”) to his web site. As I peruse his web site as I write this, I find that in recent days he had also posted photos from his childhood. In the site’s navigation, on the last few pages he posted, he tagged these posts as “future.”

I knew Malachi during the late 1980s and early ’90s as a longtime and perennial fixture in the avant garde music scene in Chicago. He was a gifted audio engineer who recorded some 2000 concerts (a substantial number of them released commercially by the artists he documented). He collected instruments from all over. He played didjeridu, including once when he joined my then-band Wormwood (Eric Leonardson, Dylan Posa and myself) and almost a dozen other guest musicians for a multimedia sonic extravaganza at Chicago Filmmakers (the show with the speakers that fell from the ceiling, intentionally, and swung just over the heads of the audience).

My last memory of him is from one night after a show. It was just off Lincoln Ave. and may have been after something at the Blue Moon Cafe. I was feeling sad and kinda lonely, musing on friendships passed and passing, and was desultorily making my long way to Ashland Ave. to catch a bus south (or, more likely, just walk) to Wicker Park. We bumped into each other, chatted a bit, and as I started to make my goddbyes he suddenly offered me a ride. I remember feeling as though we connected a little more than usual during that ride. No particular reason, no weighty or profound conversational moment, nothing of any real note. But it seemed to me he felt a little less weighed down than usual. He was an intense, guarded, and rather dark-seeming guy, though once you got to know him a little you could tell there was great gentleness roiling beneath. During that short and un-momentous car ride, it just seemed like he opened the great iron gates just a little more than usual. Alas, I do believe it was the last time I saw him.

I really don’t know what to say. I’m writing on autopilot. This is still sinking in. So I’ll just shut up for now.

Malachi…I pray your death makes the difference you hoped it would. And I pray that now, wherever you are, you are becomming one with the compassion and understanding this world so desperately needs, and whose absence so broke your heart.

Boum Siva. Boum boum, mahadev.

Update: Fwiw, at this writing the identification is still not official. Peter Margasak, longtime music columnist for the Chicago Reader, has posted about Malachi on his Reader blog, and readers are responding with their own comments. I have also learned that, according to Chicago police, Malachi videotaped his death.

Update 2: Malachi’s identity has been officially confirmed. See followup post.

July 6 Concert with Fred Lonberg-Holm, Torsten Muller, and Michael Zerang

On Thursday, July 6 — one week from the night of this post — Gallery 1412 will host a fine concert of free-improv by Fred Lonberg-Holm (cello), Torsten Müller (double bass), and Michael Zerang (percussion) — a trio of gifted world-class players with the Chicago nexus in common. The trio will be fresh from gigging at the Vancouver International Jazz Festival.

Show starts at 8 PM and you should definitely go. Gallery 1412 is at 18th and Union, in the same space where the Polestar Music Gallery used to be (as if you didn’t know).

The concert is being produced by Nonsequitur, who have a great extended blog post about the show here.

Fred Lonberg-Holm (cello) studied composition with Morton Feldman and Anthony Braxton, and his played-and-recorded-with roster is really unusually diverse — ranging from the cream of the global avant music community (Braxton, Peter Brotzmann, John Zorn, Paul Lovens, Jim O’Rourke, Jaap Blonk, and Ken Vandermark for starters) to crazy-ass Chicago avant-rock freaks (US Maple, God is My Co-Pilot, The Flying Luttenbachers, and Zeek Sheck, for example) to more mainstream, even downright sensitive groups (Smog and Freakwater, doncha know). I mean c’mon: any cellist who has releases on both Skin Graft and Hat Art and did a little soundtrack work for the Playboy Channel and plays Bach cello sonatas for kicks is worth walking a mile for. Read a fine interview with Fred at the always-excellent Perfect Sound Forever online zine.

Torsten Müller (contrabass) I’ve not personally heard, but I’m very intrigued. Currently (I believe) a Vancouver native, his collaborations are muy impressive: Günter Christmann, Alexander Schlippenbach, Evan Parker, Jon Rose, Ken Vandermark, Davey Williams, Ladonna Smith, John Zorn, Arto Lindsay, Paul Lovens, and many many others. All of the reviews of him that I’ve gleaned are universally outstanding. He played here in in 2003 at the Seattle Improvised Music Festival with a combo that included the phenomenal Paul Lovens and the very talented Chicagoan I remember well, Jeb Bishop.

Michael Zerang (percussion) is a deserving Chicago institution — the Links Hall Performance Series (which he founded in 1985) and Club Lower Links may not be names that resonnate out here in the sticks, but in combination they really did reshape the Chicago “other” music scene(s) and in turn that/those of the world. Not only that, and not mentioning that he’s a swell and funny guy, he’s also an outstanding percussionist. On the one hand he’s a stalwart of the free-improv scene — collaborating with the likes of Fred Anderson, Peter Brotzmann, Mats Gustafson, Jaap Blonk — and on the other hand he works frequently with dancers and composes award-winning stage scores for things like a puppet-and-mask version of Frankenstein staged at the legendary Steppenwolf Theatre. I also have very, very fond memories of annual winter solstice drum concerts he and Hamid Drake held — wonderful stuff that included duets with frame drums as well as trap kits. When he’s being lazy he teaches, runs the occasional store-front venue, books concerts, and carves the coolest Jack-o-lanterns you’ve ever seen.

Like I said…go to the show.