Music & clubs

A few questions for… The Space Lady

INTERVIEW. San Francisco's busking phenomenon from the 1980s/1990s makes a return after hanging up her winged helmet for 20 years. Catch her on Mon, Sep 29 at Marie-Antoinette as she whizzes by on her European tour.

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Photo by Terri Loewenthal

Those who encountered The Space Lady on the streets of San Francisco in the 1980s and 1990s rarely forgot her. With her accordion and Casio, Moondog-esque winged helmet and lo-fi light-up suit, she’d sing echo-heavy covers of “Major Tom” and futurist-themed originals written by her first husband, Joel “The Cosmic Man” Dunsany.

Years after relocating to Colorado, TSL (real name: Susan Dietrich Schneider) was rediscovered as an antecedent to Ariel Pink and Julia Holter. The Space Lady’s Greatest Hits (Night School) has led to her first ever European tour; she’ll be all shook up at Marie-Antoinette on Mon, Sep 29.

To what extent was The Space Lady pure theatre and to what extent was she ideology?

Gosh, that’s a tough question. I believe that everything I did was The Space Lady, pretty much. Joel and I had a close encounter, not with alien beings in the physical form, but we certainly felt a strong connection after we were scanned by that UFO on Mount Shasta, and probably before that as well, just from our psychedelic experiences. So, I really felt like all the things we came up with as The Space Lady were somehow channelled or inspired from some cosmic guardian that was protecting us.

Did you feel like the San Francisco street scene was a creative community?

Joel and I pretty much isolated ourselves. We were still afraid that that there would be some repercussions for him, having resisted the draft back in the day. And not having children registered – they didn’t have birth certificates or go to school. Maybe that lifestyle lent itself to my being what people called so original [laughs].

You were less extroverted than your Space Lady identity.

I was pathologically shy [laughs]! Joel and I were paralysed by fear. Back in Boston, we put together a band and called ourselves Blind Juggler, which pretty much describes what we were doing – feeling our way in the dark. And the one time we really performed, Joel played with his back to the audience. He was afraid of being seen.

Didn’t Jimmy Carter give amnesty to the draft-dodgers in the late 1970s?

Um, that’s the nature of paranoia. No matter what had happened in that political world, it wouldn’t have assuaged Joel’s fear. You know, the CIA: “They don’t care, they’ll bust me anyway, they don’t like what I’m doing as an artist.” But I wasn’t afraid of being seen in public as much as he was, so I was able to go out and scrounge for a livelihood, selling artworks, pan-handling, finally playing music… I really loved being The Space Lady. Yet, it was wrenching me apart from my family. Once, I was walking down the subway stairs with all my gear, and a businessman looked at me and said, “How long have you been doing this anyway?” I took it that he meant, “You’ve been whipping this dead horse for way too long, girl.” And, in fact, I became discouraged and thought, “Boy, I wasted a lot of time, to be such a crackpot.” I couldn’t find a balance, so I finally hung it up and left.

With other musicians, like Sun Ra, space is a metaphor for alienation.

You said a mouthful. I never felt like I fit in anywhere, but I created my own niche and that was very comfortable. People could approach me and talk one-on-one. What really scared me was, “Oh my gosh, I have to talk between songs.” You know, I could play songs for six hours straight, but even on the street, I didn’t really say anything. I guess I was probably afraid that people would see that I was really just a human being, and a very ordinary American girl-next-door.

The Space Lady w/ Slow Steve, Mon, Sep 29, 21:00 | Marie-Antoinette, Holzmarktstr. 15-18, Mitte, S+U-Bhf Jannowitzbrücke.