Minimal Man Stencils in Early-80s San Francisco

Echoes Are All I See
By marcella faustini, for Art Practical
September 10, 2015

“No one lives but me, shadows are my only friends, and ghosts are all I see.”
                                       —Minimal Man, “Loneliness,” from The Shroud Of, 1981.

Despite the gentrifying pressure of high real-estate prices, the history of San Francisco’s underground culture and some of its notorious characters still haunts the city. Such is the case with Minimal Man, an early ’80s band fronted by Patrick Miller. The band, with a blend of post-punk, noise, and industrial music, produced six albums and numerous singles with a rotating cast of members.  Although its output remains semi-obscure, the band has a cult following among enthusiasts of genre-bending music. Great interest is also derived from Miller’s erratic life, which took him to a handful of cities in the United States and Europe, leaving a trail of stories that are recounted and mythologized as part of the subculture of the cities he inhabited.

The documentation of the band’s existence while in San Francisco is scattered. Between previously published articles, phone calls, and email exchanges with members from different incarnations of the band, a semblance of the band’s trajectory can be pieced together.

Minimal Man’s sound is often grouped with industrial music and bands like Chrome, Suicide, and NON, although Miller claimed to have eschewed style categories when making the music. His musical premise was to rely upon synthesizers rather than guitars for the sound.

The first album, The Shroud Of (1981), sounds as if someone is singing from a far room. The lyrics touch on uneasy subjects such as alienation and despair, and the combination of synths and noise creates an ominous atmosphere. The music’s influences of punk and noise gave way to industrial sounds and hints of electronic body music (EBM, a danceable combination of postindustrial music and synth-punk); this last development came about during Miller’s time in Belgium, where EBM first developed.

The course of the band’s musical development is uneven. There are backward nods to arena rock in Safari (1984) and a disparate choice of more conventional instruments for Hunger is All She Has Ever Known (1988). But Minimal Man reached its highest point when it
merged noise, industrial, punk, and cold wave, creating dark and powerful moments conducive to solitary dancing with shut eyes and clenched fists. Both The Shroud Of and Sex with God (1985) are examples of this successful intersection of musical styles.

The facts of the band’s history are not well documented, with basic details still up for grabs, founded on anecdotal remembrances formed in the haze of drugs. After graduating from an experimental art program at Sonoma State University, Miller moved to San Francisco in 1979. By most accounts, he formed Minimal Man the same year. However, Bond Bergland, an early member of the band, claims Miller joined him and Cole Palme in a project that they were already calling Minimal Man.1 The trio played a handful of shows, but Bond and Cole soon left to pursue what would become Factrix. Miller carried on, choosing to leave the band’s lineup open so it could become a revolving door of players who could affect the sound with fewer constraints.

Miller collaborated with Tuxedomoon and followed its example, leaving San Francisco in the mid-’80s for Europe. In the early ’90s he moved to New York, where his drug use made his life difficult. Eventually he moved to Los Angeles where he became a film-set dresser. Miller died of complications of hepatitis in 2003, at the age of fifty-one.

While the sound of Minimal Man can stand on its own, the band’s accomplishment also rests on the artwork Miller created for the flyers and album covers. Prior to forming the band, Miller was scoring his experimental films, establishing a connection between his visual and sonic outputs. The whereabouts of these films are unknown, but Bond Bergland described them as reminiscent of Bruce Conner and other abstract, experimental filmmakers of the time. For the band’s flyers and album covers, Miller repeatedly used a specific image: a spectral mask that resembled a tribal death mask, with nothing behind it but blackness—a void.

In interviews, Miller described the mask as a character he created while living in the Fillmore neighborhood of San Francisco, which was still predominantly African American and the historical center of the city’s jazz scene. Miller’s frankness—about identifying with African American culture and using black otherness as a canvas on which to project his white personal, political, and musical concerns—is both refreshing and jarring.

I just wondered all the time how black people survived in this system because no one worked there, so literally Minimal Man was supposed to be a negro-type character. The guy had everything working against him: he wasn’t white, he didn’t have a job or education, he didn’t have a car or any money. It was more a character of everything against him. He was ‘jerry-rigging’ life to survive, and rather than fixing a problem the correct way, he would make up his own delusions to get by.2

Ron Morgan, who played in the band for a couple of years and was deeply involved in producing the music for what ultimately became Safari, said Miller was constantly making prints and stencils of big heads:
“They were all different, amorphous heads with eye and nose-shaped holes. They were the Minimal Man brand, before we spoke of brands. Patrick put them every-fucking-where. Stencils, slap tags, whatever. He even stenciled one on the Berlin Wall.”3

According to people who knew him, Miller would go around town, stenciling images of the big head on walls and businesses. Sometimes he would use the images to place a hex on someone who had become a persona non grata. The echo of voodoo culture in Miller’s street art produces an intriguing parallel with Ivor Miller’s description of early New York graffiti, in his book Aerosol Kingdom, as an extension of Afro-Caribbean folk art. The book posits that the use of spray paint on the sides of the steel subway trains was influenced by the immigrant celebration of the West African orisha Ogun, the iron god.4 Living in a black neighborhood in San Francisco may have inspired Miller to employ tribal death-mask imagery. His methods, stenciling and tagging, were also very much in line with the prevalent graffiti practices of the early ’80s punk and hardcore scenes.

Stories about Miller’s drug use and eccentricities abound. Morgan and Bergland contend that the big head, the invented graphic embodiment of Miller’s existential preoccupations, had come to haunt him. In drug states, he would have disturbing visions of it. During one particularly manic high following a week of eating nothing but peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches, Miller jumped out of a storefront window, shattering the glass but miraculously avoiding injury.

Morgan recounts this episode:

Patrick lived in a storefront on Valencia and 21st, with a revolving cast of roommates. [I don’t think anything] was remarkable about the day and evening of the incident; Patrick did a bunch of drugs everyday. At that time Patrick had a very unhealthy relationship with cocaine; he'd inject it and immediately go into a psychotic fugue state. He became obsessed that a malevolent clown named Chuckles was after him. He'd hide in corners, holding chairs up by their legs as defensive weapons. He was basically useless during these binges. At any rate, on the night in question Patrick was up in his loft in the rear of his storefront, and he shot up some speed. Once the drug hit him, he stood straight up, eyes wide, and began to run. He leaped over the rail of his loft, landed on the floor in full stride, and continued to run right through one of the storefront’s plate-glass windows and on down Valencia Street. He was unscathed. I think he may have turned his ankle, but he wasn't cut, and probably, most remarkably, turned up a little while later as if nothing had happened.5

The unraveling and blurring of the psyche in the urban setting is, ultimately, the most compelling element of Miller’s work. “'I invented Minimal Man as this wild person,” Miller said, “and then I actualized it and took all kinds of drugs and stuff because I felt guilty for not living up to this fiction.”6 In borrowing the imagery of racial otherness to signify his feelings of alienation, Miller added an intriguing element to the unstable boundaries of his music and his sense of self.

In a city constantly undergoing reinvention through socio-economic changes and the occasional natural disaster, the lesser-known stories of individuals like Miller, who draw from their surroundings to create culture, have become important to be recalled and retold. They provide a resource for upcoming artists who must face the realities of a city and its slide into cultural amnesia. Considering some of the quasi-mythical oral and recorded history that still floats around concerning Minimal Man, one sees the classic components of the nebulous persona, which has long underscored the creation of modern urban subcultures. The existential void felt by individuals when facing the impositions of city life has long served as a common thread in translating these personal experiences into art. Miller’s art and music—summoning an uncertain figure whose voice sounds like an echo from a distant and unknown place and whose face constantly threatens to disappear through its repetition—placed Minimal Man within this ongoing narrative.

1. Bond Bergland, in a phone conversation with the author, November 1, 2014.
2. Patrick Miller, interview, Unsound 1, no. 3 (1984).
3. Ron Morgan, in email correspondence with the author, October 30, 2014.
4. Ivor L. Miller, Aerosol Kingdom: Subway Painters of New York City (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2002), 94.
5. Ron Morgan, in email correspondence with the author, October 30, 2014.
6. Neil Strauss, “The Pop Life; Drugs, Demons: A Man in a Mask,” New York Times (January 8, 2004).