The Indignant Correspondence of Folksy Ken Oakley

Liz Phair is not the first artist to fight bad reviews with worse allegories—folk artist Ken Oakley invented the genre. KEVIN GUILFOILE reports on the only musician to have 184 albums panned in Rolling Stone.

A recent New York Times review prompted a scathing response from singer-songwriter Liz Phair. But Phair is not the first musician to act ungracefully in the face of bad notices…

Twenty-five years ago, music industry executives were touting Folksy Ken Oakley as the next Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. In 1978, however, when Arista finally released Oakley’s debut album after an unexplained delay, Utica Skyline was universally derided by critics who, for the first time ever, used words like ‘miasmal’ and ‘flagitious’ to describe a musician’s fretwork.

A sensitive man, Oakley responded to every review with a personal letter. Allegorical, novella-length, paranoid, and non-sensical, Ken’s vitriolic broadsides became so prized by music magazines they began reviewing Oakley records that didn’t exist just to provoke an irate response from the singer. In fact, of the 187 Rolling Stone issues published between April 1979 and September 1986, only three did not include at least one review of an alleged Ken Oakley record. ‘No one bought the real ones, so how would anybody even know when we were inventing them?’ says a former managing editor at Creem. ‘We’d just make up a plausible title like ‘Fingerpick Acres,’ have one of our writers refer to it as ‘Asspicking Cracker’ and two weeks later we’d get this fantastic letter from Ken.’

Oakley failed several times to revive his career, and by the time of his death in 1991, he had written 38 songs and 1,794 letters in their defense. The following excerpts are from Hare Up His Ass: The Indignant Correspondence of Folksy Ken Oakley, to be published by Knopf this fall.

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April 27, 1979

Dear Rolling Stone Magazine,

Once upon a time there was a Little Blue Engine that hoped to deliver uplifting folk music to all the boys and girls on the other side of the mountain, but the evil Royal Switchman didn’t want him to succeed. The Royal Switchman had predicted another train called Little Stevie Orbit would be the one to carry folk music over the mountain and if the Little Blue Engine made it there first, and the boys and girls liked the Little Blue Engine’s songs better than Little Stevie’s, the Royal Switchman’s reputation as the train yard’s hip tastemaker would be shattered forever. In order to discredit the Little Blue Engine, the Royal Switchman wrote to all three of his pathetic readers and told them the Little Blue Engine’s beautiful whistle sounded like WKRP’s Herb Tarlek ‘beset with open sores, singing in a Tabasco shower.’ But the Little Blue Engine was undaunted. He started up the mountain anyway, chanting to himself as he chugged along: O-bite-me-Jann! O-bite-me-Jann! O-bite-me-Jann! O-bite-me-Jann!

Seriously, bite me.

Ken Oakley
Utica, New York

* * *

September 4, 1982

Dear Playboy Magazine,

A wealthy hare who lived in a big mansion once made fun of a tortoise. ‘With those stubby little legs, I doubt you could play the six-string guitar at all,’ the hare said. He also said the tortoise’s lyrics appeared to have been written by ‘a hundred monkeys sitting at a hundred typewriters for six-and-a-half minutes.’

The tortoise replied, ‘Let’s have a guitar-picking contest and I’ll beat you.’ The tortoise had previously celebrated such contests in his tunes ‘Faustian Fiddle Fight’ and ‘Beezlebub’s Banjo Brouhaha.’

‘What a boaster you are!’ said the hare. ‘But I will do it! Whom shall we ask to be the judge and see the contest is fair?’

‘Let us ask Anne Marie Fox,’ said the tortoise. Anne Marie Fox was wise and fair. She had also been the hare’s Playmate of the Month for February.

The tortoise began picking and Anne Marie Fox was smitten by the dulcet sounds he could make with those ‘stubby little legs.’ But when it was the hare’s turn to play, he had fallen asleep, perhaps because he was wearing stupid pajamas.

The tortoise and Anne Marie Fox subsequently dated for 14 days, between May 12 and May 26. Their relationship ended because Anne Marie felt her career would suffer if she moved to Utica, and not because she left the tortoise for Jackson Browne as was not-so-subtly alluded to in the hare’s ‘Advisor’ column. The hare never apologized or printed a retraction for his three, pathetic readers to see.

You suck.

Ken Oakley
Utica, New York

(P.S. It is clear that I am the tortoise and Hugh Hefner is the hare, right? I only say that because I know Hef was sort of seeing Anne Marie around the same time. If you think everyone will understand then just leave it as is and don’t print this part. Okay thanks. Fuck you. –Ken)

* * *

January 10, 1986

Dear New York Times,

There once was a colony of ants who spent the summer collecting corn and writing petty and cruel things about other insects with more talent in a single antenna than the ants had in their collective fucking thoraxes. That’s why they were newspaper music critics instead of real musicians who briefly dated a Playboy Playmate in the early 80’s, which is what they all wanted to be but couldn’t because they were just puny little ants. One day a grasshopper asked if he could have some corn for the winter. The ants asked what the grasshopper had been doing all summer instead of collecting corn.

‘I’ve been in the studio recording songs for my album,’ said the grasshopper.

The ants said, ‘You should have been collecting corn. Now you’re going to starve to death.’

The grasshopper pleaded, ‘Could you at least review my new record so that other insects might trade me corn in return for my music?’

‘No,’ said the ants. ‘In fact, we’re going to review the new Peter Gabriel import again and watch you starve.’

The grasshopper didn’t starve. He got a job as a greeter and weekday performer at a medium-sized Indian casino.

I hope all you little ants and your three pathetic readers don’t end up hanging yourselves after listening to ten minutes of that Kate Bush bullshit. Oh wait. I do.

Ken Oakley
Penobscot, Maine

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Folksy Ken Oakley was accidentally stabbed on October 21, 1991, after playing his autobiographical tune, ‘My Watch Is Worth $5,000 (But You Could Prob’ly Pawn It For a Grand)’ at a nighttime gathering of drunken hobos. At the time of his death, he was working on a 700-page letter to his cable company based on Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain.