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The last time I saw Jimm Altman, a skull earring dangled from his left ear. Altman wasn’t a brash young death-rocker, though. At that point, the Washington glam-rocker had been living with AIDS for years, and his count of infection-fighting T-cells, he matter-of-factly reported, was two. He managed to live several months beyond that meeting, but died Jan. 3. He would have been 35 last week.
Altman formed his first band when barely a teen-ager, in 1974. A few years later, his Scandals emerged as part of the art-punk scene centered on d.c. space, the Hard Art Gallery, and other downtown arts spaces. Though Scandals was not as prominent as the Urban Verbs and Tiny Desk Unit, Altman was accepted by those groups; Verb singer Roddy Frantz wrote the lyrics for “Decisive Moment,” one of two songs on Jimm Altman and Scandals’ first—and only—single, which also featured “Lady Lost in Mirrors.” The songs revealed Altman’s debts to the music of David Bowie and Bryan Ferry, debts that were still current when he stopped recording in the late ’80s. By then, it had been almost a decadesince he’d made any of his music available to the public.
“He was probably one of the greatest undiscovered talents in Washington. Outside of his peer group, he just wasn’t known at all,” says 9353’s Bruce Merkle, a longtime friend. “He’d been a big influence on my band. I learned an awful lot from him. We’ve all been listening to [his music] like it was gospel for years.”
Altman released only that one single, but he recorded frequently, whether solo or with Scandals or his subsequent band, Silent Radio. (Both featured bassist Mark Chandler and drummer David Chase, Altman collaborators since they were all teens.) Like a lot of musicians who focus on a major-label contract, Altman managed to get little of his music to the public. “He just didn’t want to take the local route,” recalls Merkle. “I really wished I could have gotten him to put out a 7-inch every year”—a judgment he says Altman came to share during his final days, when Merkle, John Spitzer, and other friends were helping to assemble a two-disc compilation, Hand Carved Coffins: A Mystery by Jimm Altman.
That 150-minute set, which includes “Decisive Moment,” “Lady Lost in Mirrors,” and much more, was condensed from more than six hours of tape recorded in both home and professional studios between 1974 and 1988. The disc came back from the pressing plant Dec. 13, less than a month before Altman died; when his friends cleaned out his apartment after his death, Merkle says, they found as many as 40 more reel-to-reel tapes. “We didn’t know they existed,” he notes.
A studiocrat who used to record all the parts of his songs before presenting them to his bands, Altman learned early how to get what he wanted on tape—even when working with mere two-track machines. “He was extremely crafty with the technology that existed back in the ’70s,” says Merkle. “He was an analog king.”
Altman spent much of the ’80s in L.A., working as a day player in B movies and recording at leading studios such as the Record Plant. That’s where he met one of his models, Bryan Ferry, who loaned him a sax player for “If I Do,” which appears on Coffins. Altman moved back to Washington in 1987, and Silent Radio played its last show in 1990.
When interviewed, Altman didn’t use the opportunity to settle scores. He told some ugly stories, but declined to name names: How he was signed to a major label in L.A. but then dumped when the company learned he was HIV-positive. How some people with whom he shared a Washington practice space stole his instruments and equipment, figuring he wouldn’t live long enough to get them back. How the lover from whom he contracted AIDS—and to whom Altman says he remained faithful even when they lived on separate coasts—broke the news by casually telling him, “You should get checked.” How a local AIDS organization refused to help him at first because “I didn’t fit their idea of a gay man.”
Altman’s comments focused, however, on two things: AIDS and his planned retrospective, which are linked by the musician’s decision that all profits from the album should go to PACFAR and AMFAR, two AIDS-awareness and -research groups. Unfortunately, a disagreement among the people who financed the project has put that goal in doubt. Coffins is not even available at the moment, although Spitzer hopes the quarrel will be settled soon.
The selection on Coffins may not be definitive—when he was still assembling material for the discs, Altman gave me cassettes that include tracks that didn’t make the cut—but it provides a comprehensive overview. Included are flashy rockers, moody instrumentals, and covers of mainstream oldies—among them “Tears of a Clown,” “The Beat Goes On,” “Blue Suede Shoes,” “All Day and All of the Night”—mostly done in a style that recalls, not surprisingly, Bowie’s Pin-Ups and Ferry’s These Foolish Things. (Like virtually all D.C. rockers who came of age in the late ’70s, Altman also does a version of “Stepping Stone.”) The length is daunting and the sound quality spotty, but Merkle says that “whenever I sit down to listen to it, I listen all the way through.”
For information on Hand Carved Coffins: A Mystery by Jimm Altman, write Hand Carved Coffins, P.O. Box 22332, Alexandria, VA 22304.