TORONTO – Jeff Plewman, the Toronto electric violinist and experimental musician who performed as Nash the Slash with his face enveloped in surgical bandages, was remembered by friends and peers Monday as a fearless musical innovator who never received the credit he deserved for his considerable influence.
Plewman died at age 66 over the weekend. His death was confirmed by friends and collaborators including artist Robert Vanderhorst and concert promoter Gary Topp, although neither was certain of the cause of death. Vanderhorst lamented that Plewman’s death was “right out of the blue.”
Plewman co-founded the progressive-rock band FM, who issued their debut Black Noise in 1977, and quickly established a long career as an eccentric solo artist and electric live presence whose compositions were nominally new wave but really, impossible to classify in a tidy fashion.
He was secretive about his identity, performing with a tuxedo, top hat and sunglasses as well as the rags on his face, and he was evasive when asked in interviews for his real name.
Film and TV producer and director Colin Brunton knew Plewman for more than 40 years, and remembered his friend as a music pioneer only fitfully recognized for his innovations.
“He was so far ahead of his time,” Brunton said Monday in a telephone interview.
“When he performed … you couldn’t even grasp how he was doing it. He would play a couple riffs on his electric mandolin and he would create a loop for it — and people back then didn’t even know what a loop was.
“It sounded like this huge band and it was this guy sitting there in a tuxedo and a top hat, you know?”
Added Topp: “He took rock and roll, he took metal, he took classical, he took avant-garde, and mixed it all together into his music. During the ’80s when all these techno bands were starting and electronic bands were starting, it was all what he was doing 10 years earlier.”
Though he had been involved in the music industry for years — even helping with lighting at Toronto’s legendary Rock Pile in the late ’60s, when bands including Led Zeppelin played the venue — Plewman first gained prominence when he formed FM with keyboardist and singer Cameron Hawkins and eventually drummer Martin Deller in 1976 and released the cold, menacing gold-certified Black Noise a year later.
On Monday, Deller recalled one of his first encounters with Plewman after the drummer had been hired to play a CBC recording session with the band (he later became a full-fledged member).
“He was (using) echoplexes and fuzzboxes — this is the drum machines — creating all of these bizarre patterns that I had to figure out how to do on a real drum kit,” remembered Deller, who called Plewman a “visionary.”
“He was very inspiring that way. He had a very short temper, though.”
Plewman would soon become only an intermittent presence in FM as he focused on his atmospheric solo work. In 1979, he put out the moody Dreams and Nightmares, which was intended as a soundtrack for the 1928 surrealist film Un Chien Andalou — a piece he had been performing live in Toronto since ’73.
A more accessible album arrived with 1982’s And You Thought You Were Normal, which featured production from Daniel Lanois and actual vocal work from Plewman. He fetched a Juno nomination in 1984 for most promising male vocalist of the year, though much of his work over the course of his career was instrumental.
Plewman rejoined with FM for a long stretch in the mid-1980s (and again in the ’90s), contributing to 1985’s Con-Test — which featured the popular single “Just Like You” — and 1987’s Tonight, though he harshly criticized the production of the former record in its liner notes.
All the while, he found work as a film composer, writing the music for movies including Bruce McDonald’s Roadkill and Highway 61, The Kidnapping of the President starring William Shatner and Hal Holbrook and 1985’s Blood and Donuts. He also collaborated with Vanderhorst on a series of works that combined surreal visuals with his unorthodox music.
Vanderhorst had known Plewman since high school, and remembers his friend as a “perfectionist” with a sterling sense of humour.
“He was such a character,” Vanderhorst said. “He was so unique in what he did. I think a lot of people didn’t know quite how to handle him or what to do with him.”
BELOW: Watch the video for “Swingshift” by Nash the Slash.
Ultimately, Plewman announced his retirement from music in 2012, writing on his website that it was “time to roll up the bandages.” In a long posting, he wrote that he “refused to be slick and artificial,” and noted his pride in a “remarkable 40-year career in the music biz with no hit (commercial) records.” He also pointed out that he successfully sued Pepsi for “misappropriation of personality,” but received only bragging rights in exchange.
By way of explaining his retirement, he wrote about the way file-sharing had “devastated” an important source of income.
“Nobody gave him the time of day,” Topp said. “And I think he just sadly found it very frustrating and thought it was time to give it up because of the frustration.”
Plewman publicly confirmed he was gay in 1998 when he performed as part of Toronto’s Pride festivities (Pride Toronto executive director Kevin Beaulieu said in a telephone interview Monday that Plewman’s death was a “real loss to really the national LGBT community.”) Otherwise, Plewman was reluctant to reveal any details about his real persona.
His stage name, meanwhile, was derived from a killer butler featured in the first Laurel and Hardy film, Do Detectives Think. He first took to the stage in his mask in 1979 after the Three Mile Island disaster, warning of the dangers of the nuclear age.
“He loved the mystery,” Brunton mused. “He loved the showbiz thing where he had this really cool persona.”
He opened for artists including Gary Numan, the Who and Iggy Pop — though, as Plewman pointed out in his own retirement note, famed Rolling Stone scribe Lester Bangs once wrote that “Nash the Slash is the kind of opening act that makes the headliner work twice as hard” — and proclaimed himself the first Canadian artist to use a drum machine on an album. His other innovative works include the album Decomposing, which was designed to be listenable when played back at any speed.
Numan was among the many who paid tribute on Monday.
“Nash was quite possibly the most unique performer on the planet,” tweeted the Cars rocker.
Beyond his innovative musicianship, Plewman was also a master showman, as Topp testified: “Every show he did he had a gimmick, whether he was Santa Nash at Christmas or killing the Easter Bunny with his chainsaw.”
“There really wasn’t anyone like him,” said music journalist Nicholas Jennings, who made the music documentary This Beat Goes On for CBC-TV.
“He was a pioneer really of performance art,” he added.
According to those who knew him, Plewman was so far ahead of the curve, he was never properly appreciated.
“They care about him now that he’s gone but they don’t care about him when he’s reinventing music — and I contend that he is a grandfather of contemporary music and contemporary electronic music,” Topp said.
“Sadly,” he added, “I think the world missed out on him.”
- with files by Lauren La Rose / The Canadian Press.
© The Canadian Press, 2014