Karen Black set my house on fire.

I was bumbling aimlessly in the finished basement of my friend’s house, noting that he, like almost everyone I knew, had an air hockey table there, while I lived in an old log house with a basement that looked more like, well, a basement, when he and several of our friends gathered around the console TV that presided over the room. They sat in thrall on the tangled mass of the gold and rust-colored shag carpet, watching something.

“What’s that?” I asked, standing behind the group.

What it was, at least on the surface, was a rerun of the 1975 made-for-television horror anthology, Trilogy of Terror, though it was more precisely the single most traumatic thing I would see in my young life until I later found my sister’s worn copy of Hollywood Babylon II and read about the Black Dahlia murder. It was more or less a singly ridiculous scene in which a wildly over-emoting Karen Black is menaced by a hyperactive magical Zuni fetish doll with a steak knife, and as I stood there behind the other boys with my hand on my hip, I was on the path to several years of sleepless nights.

“What’s that doll?” I asked, and was shushed by the group.

“It’s a magic doll from Africa,” snapped Kurt, a doughy, haughty kid who’d managed to see most films before we ever heard of them and have a well-developed opinion and spoilers to share. “Watch what happens.”

I did, and what happened was that Karen Black, playing “Amelia,” was alone in her apartment, having an endless phone call, then was in her bathrobe, and the magical chain slipped off the magic doll from Africa, and then—

“Turn it off!” I said, my eyebrows raised as the tiny doll started to chase Amelia around her apartment, sawing at her ankles with the steak knife. “Can we watch something else?”

“Shut up, Joe. This is cool!

Like someone being electrocuted, I was rigid with fear, unable to look away from the TV or break that jittery current of fright that held me transfixed. With a bit of forethought, I might have recognized the camp elements of the piece, but I was nine and it was the most terrifying thing I’d ever seen.

“Please, Scott, will you just turn it off?”

“You can go home if you want, dork.”

I did not do this. I watched it all, standing behind my friends, with a hand over my mouth and occasionally over my eyes.

Back home, I could not shake the thought of that little chattering doll with the steak knife. I assumed that it would be confined to the floor, being little, so I tried to stay off the floor whenever possible. I had a desk and a bunk bed, and I became a circus athlete, leaping across the room from my bed to the top of my desk when I needed something. My mother would hear the thump of my landings and would come into the room.

“Joseph, it’s after eleven o’clock and you need to be in bed, not crashing around the room. Get back in bed and sleep, will you?”

I hopped down from the desk, deftly bounding from the ball of one foot onto the ladder to my bunk bed, limiting the possibility of doll attack, and climbed into bed. My mother switched off the light and I protested.

“Ma, don’t turn the light off, please! I want to read.”

“It’s too late for reading. Just go to sleep.”

The light went out, and she closed the door behind her. The doll roamed below, gibbering and waving his knife. Sleep became something I experienced as the result of nervous exhaustion well after midnight, and I did not sleep soundly for months, until I worked out that I could use the protective rail that kept me from falling out of my bunk bed as a remote control.

I’d pick up the rail, which was essentially just a long, skinny board, and would lean out over the void beyond the bunk bed, steadying myself by wedging both feet between the mattress and the wall, and hold the rail out in the darkness, my upper body in agony from the strain of leverage, and swing it against the wall until I hit the light switch and bathed myself in the security of full illumination. As a working strategy, it let me sleep properly at last, free of the magic doll from Africa, until one troublesome night.

I lifted the rail, got in position, swung it towards the switch in the dark, and my feet slipped free from where I’d wedged them in. The rail lurched forward, hitting the light switch like a hammer, and there was a brief flash of light, then a buzzing, crackling noise from the wall. In the darkness, I could see the flickers of sparks across the room, and I smelled smoke.

“Dad!” I yelled. “Dad! Dad! Fire! The house is on fire!”

I heard a thump from my parents’ room, then stomping footprints and my door swinging open. My dad reached for the light switch and found it in ruins.

“What the—Goddammit, Joe-B, what did you do?”

“I was trying to turn the light on and I slipped and now the house is on fire!”

“The house isn’t on fire—it’s just sparks.” He fumbled around on my desk, found the lamp there, and switched it on. “How the hell did you manage to do that?” he asked. The switch plate and the switch were smashed, and the rail to my bed was on the floor.

“I was turning the light on and I slipped and broke it.”

“What were you turning it on with?”

“The rail from my bed.”

“Why on earth were you turning it on with the rail from your bed?”

“I didn’t want to step on the floor.”


“I didn’t want to step on the floor.”

It’s not my fault. It’s that damn doll and Karen Black that did it.

“Kiddo, you are a piece of work,” he said, and went out to the garage to get tools and a replacement light switch. He installed it without shutting off the circuit breaker, taking care not to ground himself, screwed the assembly in, and cautioned me.

“I don’t have a switch plate, so be careful with this until I can go to the hardware store tomorrow. What’s on the floor, anyway?”

“It’s from that movie.”

He rolled his eyes, ever so subtly.

“You could have left, you know. No one made you watch that dumb thing.”

“I know, but I just couldn’t.”

“Like driving past an accident, I guess.”


“Get to sleep, Joe-B.”

“Would you leave the light on?”

He rolled his eyes, left the light on, and closed the door.

I leaned out, over the edge of the bed, scanned the room for dolls, and retreated to the safe harbor of my blanket, secure for at least one more night.

© 2013 Joe Belknap Wall

The scent of television.

I grew up in the age that preceded the ubiquity of screens, and one of the absolute and unquestionable rules in our household was that there was to be no television in our rooms, ever. We were already wild-eyed radicals in that we’d pull out the TV guide from the Baltimore Sun at our Sunday dinners and each pick out our four hours per week of programs, at least before we finally wore my parents down and killed that experiment in utopian media regulation. I’d pick Lost In Space, Quark, and my other science fiction camp atrocities, my siblings would pick out their own indulgences, and it’d all be marked off in the book with a highlighter pen.

I chafed at the restriction, and my solution was to sneak out to the yard sales and buy old TV sets, then hide them nearby until the middle of the night, when I’d slip out and drag large wood-clad sets to the front yard, carefully attach them to a net, haul them up onto the porch roof, and push them in through my bedroom window. I’d hide each with great care, and I felt like a super-spy in the process, like I was getting away with something grand and noble.

Only thing was—my father could smell television.

Each of my illegal sets would be swiftly detected and my ability to watch Lucan and the delectably snarly Kevin Brophy from the privacy of the tiny embedded closet in the modern bunk bed my dad built himself would be taken from me, time and time again.

“Son, you know I’m going to know when you’ve got a TV.”

How is what I’d like to know.”

“Eerie powers, Joe-B. Eerie powers.”

I read a lot, largely because there was no TV in my room, and I came to the conclusion that he was hearing the high-frequency whine of the flyback transformer, so with the next set, I carefully packed blankets and clothes around it until there was nothing but a screen exposed in the depths of my closet. Had I read more, I might have learned that insulating a TV set filled with vacuum tubes was not the best course of action, but we live and learn, and when I left it on one afternoon before heading downstairs to root through the National Geographics, I was again caught.

The smoke alarm shrilled, polyester smoke roiled, my father dashed by with a bucket, and then there was a bang from upstairs.

I suspected I was in trouble, but kept mum.

“Is there anything you want to tell me?” he asked, after stomping down the stairs, looking at me with his eyes narrowed and the loops in his handlebar mustache unwinding from sweat.

“About what?”

“About why there’s a burning DuMont in your closet?”

“There’s a burning DuMont in my closet?”

“It has been extinguished.”


I tried hiding the TVs in the basement, in the attic, in the shed where we kept the cracked corn and mash for the chickens, but he always found them.

Somewhere along the line, I dragged home a boat anchor of a shortwave radio, a black crackle-painted metal box of phasing drifty gorgeous chanting from the Vatican and smart-sounding Deutsche Welle broadcasts and strange farm drama from the BBC World Service and a whole lot of interesting noises that came ricocheting around the ionosphere, which my father approved of as a ham radio operator and a general radio enthusiast. I’d listen and I’d drift off with the monstrous thing warm by the bed like a fireplace with the little glowing coals of tubes showing through the perforated vents, lulled to sleep by the voice of the electromagnetic spectrum, and he never knew when I had a TV again.

Years later, he admitted that he did not, in fact, have eerie powers, but just a keen nose for the scent of hot, dusty vacuum tubes cooking in bakelite sockets, and couldn’t distinguish between the boat anchor shortwave and, say, a smart little turquoise plastic RCA set hidden not in the closet, but in the space behind the built-in drawers in my bed. By then, though, TV had lost its luster for me, so it was largely a hollow victory. The smart little turquoise plastic RCA set stayed cold more and more often, I read and I listened to strange propaganda in peculiar tongues instead, and the world came to me every night.

© 2013 Joe Belknap Wall

Live at the controls of the Lotus Toolbox, 14 June 2013

I’m excited to be playing a live ambient set in Baltimore on Friday, 14 June 2013. It’s part of a two-day series of concerts curated by the Baltimore SDIY group, called the Baltimore Electronic Music 2013 Summerfest Concerts, on 14 & 15 June 2013 at Club K.

The line-ups for each day are available here:

Baltimore Electronic Music 2013 Summerfest Concert One [14 June 2013]
Baltimore Electronic Music 2013 Summerfest Concert Two [15 June 2013]

Club K is on 2101 Maryland Avenue Baltimore MD 21210, physically located at 2101 W. 21st Street, Baltimore MD 21210, two doors from the corner of Maryland Avenue & W. 21st Street. Admission is $5 per person per concert.

I’m in the line-up from 9:30-10:00 on Friday, but the events run from 8-11 each night, with an array of electronic musicians ranging from the experimental to the beatworthy. The SDIY group does a great job of mashing a lot of genres together in these events, so you’re almost certain to find something that stokes the fires.

I’ll be playing sort of cascading shambling digital slow music with electronics using the lotus toolbox, a stripped-down live rig I’ve been refining with the intention of getting my gear simplified to the point that I can fit all I need across the seat of a motorcycle.

C’mon down and see me!

a new blessing and upcoming notions


Performed my fifteenth psychotronic blessout of the holy rollers and their grimy feet at the American Visionary Art Museum‘s 15th annual Kinetic Sculpture Race in Baltimore last weekend and it was a blast. This is my best video yet, thanks to Will Wall‘s steady camera work, though with increased resolution comes a realization that I could stand to take an iron to my habit. I did double duty this year, being recruited to do announcements and color commentary at the water entry in the race, and it was a thoroughly fun and fantastically action-packed day, as usual.

A few old and new projects are in the works, and I’m gradually getting my old stale web presence dusted off for the year. I’ve written a script for a one act play, “Overdue,” based on a particularly aggravating phone conversation with a bill collector back in hairier days, I’m continuing to work on a new edition of my one man show, My Fairy Godmothers Smoke Too Much, with the intention of doing a little touring version sometime in the next year or so (drop me a line if you have a venue, please!). It’s expanded to the original script length, with new music and sound and the same old staging (me and a microphone). Will be posting some teasers as the completed version gets closer.

In the process of consolidating fifteen years of various web presences, I’m going to revive my stalled ambient music podcast, 12 Minute Travelogues, in order to get it back online and to finally air the final two episodes. It’s a nice, pastoral thing, consisting of twelve twelve-minute ambient experiments created between 2008 and 2013, so watch this page for an announcement of its reappearance. In a similar vein, I’m working on a new podcast of generative music pieces, to be described in more detail very soon.

The hum drift at Pyramid Atlantic.

I had the great pleasure to perform a short ambient set at Pyramid Atlantic in Silver Spring, Maryland as a part of the Sonic Circuits Broken Mic Night for July 30th, 2012. I’d just come in from a long road trip, got home in time for the derecho storms that knocked out power and generally tore up the area, and made my way south the very next day, which was no mean feat, given that every traffic light in the county was out and lines at the gas stations that still had power were up to an hour long. There was a full house, the audience were cool and properly into experimental sound, and I had a great time.

I was a bit tense, though, and there was a hum in my gear I couldn’t quite shake, so I went with it. Essence of the moment.

See an annotated photo of the rig I used here.

Spinning more strands.

As the internet grows ever more complicated, I’m moving sideways to better connect with people who wish to follow what I’m up to at any given moment. I’m gearing up to add a lot of new content to this page, and related online sources, finishing up 12 Minute Travelogues #11, and working on a piece I’m planning to submit to the New York Times. In the meantime, I’ve added some new venues to my repertoire, including the following.

My interim outlet for ongoing writing projects and better pieces from the past:

My “fan” page at facebook:

And last, and least, my twitter feed:

As usual, thanks for following along and giving me the space to work.

Love and kisses, Joe!