Susan Mumford performing with Tiny Desk Unit.
Susan Mumford performing with Tiny Desk Unit. Credit: Mark Gulezian

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Tall, lithe, brainy, and appealingly eccentric, Susan Mumford appeared to embody a mess of contradictions. Her face was ordinary, but she was striking. On stage, she wore black, but fans say there was a luminosity about her. She was a mercurial performer, an unhinged soul stalking across the stage, articulating angsty shrieks. And then, abruptly, cheerful patter with her audience: “This is fun! Who knew?”

Mumford, who died last week, did not front the edgy art band Tiny Desk Unit for long. In its first incarnation, TDU existed from the summer of ‘79 to the end of ‘81. But in that period and in the occasional reunions that followed, she attained an iconic stature in the punk/new wave/art band scene centered around d.c. space and the 9:30 Club.

“Susan was somewhere between a queen and a demigod,” says Brian Tate, a friend who performed in the band Brickhouse Burning. “She would probably brush that aside and laugh about that because she was such a down-to-earth and funny person. But she really was—her flame burned so brightly.”

Along with The Urban Verbs, TDU presided over a scene of art bands that would soon be eclipsed by younger, angrier harDCore punk bands. “I think she was probably the coolest person to front one of the arty D.C. post-punk bands,” says longtime local music writer Mark Jenkins. “It’s too bad that those bands crumbled so quickly, and that many of the musicians in them did not go on to do other things prominently.”

D.c. space owner Bill Warrell remembers Mumford showing up at the club in the late ‘70s, a suburban kid—raised in Arlington, then Bethesda—who had graduated from Walt Whitman High School. He hired her as a waitress. Most of the club’s space waitstaff was culled from the Corcoran School of the Arts, and Mumford fit right in. Her hair seemed to have been hacked rather than cut, and she clunked around the restaurant in white rubber rain boots that she might have acquired in Finland and wore forever on all but the hottest days. “She immediately got very much into the avant-jazz stuff we were playing a lot,” says Warrell.

It was Warrell who suggested to synthesizer player Bob Boilen and guitarist Michael Barron that they tap Susan to do vocals for their fledgling band, named after Warrell’s term for the wooden desk-drawer organizer that held his office supplies. “Susan had never sung in a band before. She invented being a singer in kind of the same way that Bob invented being a synthesizer player. He built a synthesizer and made these outrageous sounds, and Susan used her voice to make these outrageous sounds,” says Warrell.

“I always considered Susan a performer not a singer,” adds Warrell. “She listened to Diamanda Galas, Laurie Anderson, Meredith Monk—all these unusual vocalizers. And just like with a young saxophonist who’s really great and you can hear Charlie Parker and Coltrane, with Susan you could hear these bits and pieces in what she was trying to do. Nothing was about sounding pretty or trained. It was all about sounding very raw.”

The new band played its first show at d.c. space in the fall of ’79 and found a rehearsal space in the rat-infested basement of the Atlantic Building on F Street NW, which would become the site of the original 9:30 Club. In the months that followed, Susan wrote lyrics and honed her performance style.

“She was a great writer and she really loved the play of words, but she also really had this disdain for authorship,” says Barron. “You know, art in its purest form is anonymous, and that’s what she strove for. She tried to use words almost as if they had no meaning, but they had a meaning anyway. Someone might say to her, ‘I really loved your antiwar sentiment in this song,’ and she would reply, ‘What? I was just rhyming words that start with B.’

“She was magnetic. She had a real sense of time and space and she got that thing—that the audience is full of energy and they are totally willing to give it to you to do what you want with it,” Barron continues. “She would soak it up from the audience and shower it back on them. That was her greatest gift.”

During the band’s heyday, Claudia Joseph—then Claudia DePaul and working in Warrell’s office—was Mumford’s roommate. “I idolized her. She was incredibly inventive and this sophisticated artist who knew everybody and was so often the center of attention,” says Joseph. “As a roommate, she was everything you might expect from a punk rocker. She once explained that she had to smoke a cigarette first thing every morning, so she would be nauseous enough to face the day. But she was also the most delightful person I have ever spent time with; she had razor-sharp wit and disarming playfulness.”

Several high-profile shows enhanced TDU’s reputation. They were the first band to play the old 9:30 Club, opening for The Lounge Lizards (after Joy Division was forced to cancel due to the death of Ian Curtis). When TDU opened for Laurie Anderson at the Pension Building (now the National Building Museum), Anderson joined the band for one song. TDU also played a memorable New Year’s Eve show at d.c. space: The World Saxophone Quartet was performing upstairs, and saxophonist Julius Hemphill sat in on TDU’s “Take Me to Paris.”

In these shows and others, Mumford continued to inspire audiences and the female artists who came after her. “Susan was one of the first truly free and strong women I ever met,” says poet and performance artist Silvana Straw. “She made such an impression on me—such a brilliant mind and hilarious. I loved her spirit. She always struck me as a badass loner, just doing her thing.”

Boilen believes that Mumford had a kind of integrity lacking in many other female performers from that time. “Susan stood out as a singular woman with something different to say on a stage,” he says. “She was the first female singer that I can think of in D.C. that really had something unique to offer that was outside the regular realm of what would normally happen in rock… And just the way she postured herself, she was never a sex figure, as unfortunately so many women in rock ‘n roll were doing.”

In 1980, Tiny Desk Unit released Live at the 9:30 Club, and the studio EP Naples followed in 1981. But by the end of that year, it was over. The band, Barron says now, “self-destructed.”

TDU reunited in 1995 to play the final show at the 9:30’s original location before the club moved to its current residence. In 2007, Mumford, Barron, and Boilen reconnected after the death of TDU drummer Lorenzo “PeeWee” Jones. Energized by the RPM Challenge to create an album in a month, they recorded the band’s first studio album, Sputnik Fell on My Birthday and also played a 9:30 Club show celebrating d.c. space’s 30th anniversary. The last time they performed together was at the 2010 celebration of the 9:30 Club’s 30th anniversary. By then, Mumford was already ill.

As is often the case with the deeply talented, Mumford struggled with her demons. Boilen recalls that he and Barron reached out to her in the years that followed, but another project seemed to be too much for her. “Susan was an unusual person with a good deal of problems,” he says carefully. “Getting her to do things was not easy.” Boilen and Barron created a new group, Danger Painters, and continue to record together. (Boilen, of course, is the same Bob Boilen who masterminded NPR’s Tiny Desk concerts, and yes, that series’ title is a nod to his first band.)

During the late ‘80s Mumford also performed with Daniel West Dancers, the edgy ensemble that subverted modern dance conventions in much the same way that the art and punk bands of the late ‘70s and ‘80s middle-fingered the bar band scene. She seemed a perfect match for West, whose provocative danceworks included a piece titled, “How Terrorists Ruined Our Travel Plans.”

In a review of West’s “Industrial Nights,” Washington Post dance critic Alan Kriegsman described Mumford’s role as follows: “[She] entered from the audience arguing with an usher about her seat, then clambered onto the stage, fishing a black suit from the garbage can and donning it, and thereafter acted as a kind of punk mater-of-ceremonies, using the mike and bullhorn for readings, songs and commentary.”

And at one point in that performance, she told the audience, “I hope you can keep a sense of humor about this.”

Which seems, essentially, Mumford. “When I think of Susan, I think of Susan laughing,” says Tate. “Even when she wasn’t laughing, just behind her eyes the laughter was coming.”

During the ‘90s, she lived in San Diego and Wales. She also lived in Brooklyn, where she worked for ROIR, an independent New York record label. Later, when her father’s health deteriorated, she came home to care for him. Those years in Bethesda were dispiriting and difficult, friends say. And then, much too soon, the caregiver became a patient after a diagnosis of tonsil cancer. The same friends say that the cancer isn’t what killed her; it was the myriad treatments that damaged her body, including, cruelly, her vocal chords.

Mumford died on September 4 at the age of 63, almost exactly 39 years after TDU’s debut at d.c. space. It is difficult to know whether she regretted the brevity of her performing career. Friends say she rarely talked about it.

“I have known a lot of artists who were doing it so adamantly and doing it so well without becoming stars. Susan was one of those artists. She was a performance artist who used all these different venues. The most successful was her partnership with Michael and Bob, and it was a great moment,” says Warrell.

“I don’t think it ever mattered to Susan at all,” he adds. “I honestly believe that she was one of the more creative souls I came across in my life. She was a bit insecure and she wasn’t a self-promoter at a time when very talented people got left behind or stepped on by people who were more secure, better self-promoters and often less talented.”