Paul K. Forever

I loved Paul Kopasz forever within seconds of first hearing him. I was a teenaged loser in mid-1990s LaCrescent, Minnesota, and what I mostly did was work a shitty fast-food job at the local Hardee’s and then every two weeks when I got paid, splurge on CDs across the river at Deaf Ear in La Crosse, Wisconsin. I’d never heard of Jorge Luis Borges and as such, The Garden of Forking Paths meant nothing to me, but it was before the modern internet and my policy was to buy anything that looked like it came from a lonely, alienated person howling into the void. A trash heap in front of a city skyline fit that bill.


The first thing Paul did was howl, and then it turned into words: “We failed, we fucked up, now it’s time/to live our lives more quietly.” That was enough, I was hooked. That was around 1995, and I’ve never stopped listening.

Paul Kopasz passed away today, March 16, 2020, and I have never understood why he didn’t amass the cult following he deserved. He wrote hardboiled, gin-soaked songs that ranged from classical blues to in-the-red noisejam freakouts and belted them out with force and sincerity, and on the basis of association alone you’d think he’d have the stature of at least, say, Greg Dulli (whose Afghan Whigs were already covering him by 1990): he shared bills with everyone from Townes Van Zandt to Guided by Voices; Moe goddamn Tucker produced one of his albums; members of Wilco played in his backing band into the Trump era. He released albums on a million labels, including prominent indies like Alias and Homestead and even a cassette-only one on Shrimper, better known as home to the Inland Empire lo-fi scene that spawned the Mountain Goats.

There’s a fantastic documentary about him from 2011 in which Will Oldham shows up to testify in song, but nobody seems to have seen it: there’s one user review on IMDB and almost none elsewhere. As I type this, there doesn’t seem to be a Wikipedia page for him. Neither Popmatters nor Pitchfork have ever mentioned him. There’s certainly no complete discography anywhere that I can find. He remains, as one of his songs had it, a stolen gem.

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His origins are murky: before he got grizzled, he was a high school debate champ. Then a gap in the record. Detroit, Kentucky, New York City, drug charges. He flung out recordings across the 1980s with a prolificity that would leave Robert Pollard awestricken, and a DIY ethos worthy of R. Stevie Moore. Almost everything listed through 1990 here has disappeared from the face of the earth, as far as I can tell, an enormous body of work just gone (if anyone has parts and is willing to share, I would sell my own beloved cats down the river for this stuff).

His distribution got a little steadier at the dawn of the 90s, and that’s where I cut in as a fan. As Paul K. and the Weathermen, he issued a steady stream of just staggeringly great albums. I’m writing this in haste and can only scratch the surface. Garden of Forking Paths (1993) was my introduction, and the run that led into it was an unbroken killer streak: The Big Nowhere (1991), Killer in the Rain (1992), The Blue Sun (1992), Blues for Charlie Lucky (1993). I mean, just look at these albums!

The Chandler/Thompson/Ellroy influence was undeniable, and Paul’s gonzo liner notes drove it home further, but the songs, my god, the man could write and play. Just grabbing faves at random here but I urge you to check these out:

-opening double whammy of cold-turkey agony “The Third Day is the Worst”/punked-up urgency of “Desperation Move” from Killer

-raging against the drink in “Liquid”/Van-Zandted existential blues in “Haunt Me Til I’m Gone”/lumbering desolation in “The Grid” on Blue Sun

-heartsick and just sick in “Radiant and White,” Garden

Again, just a tiny sampler here, the list goes on for miles.

Paul got some press in the 90s, winning over critics like Greg Kot at the Chicago Tribune—a few examples here, and more clippings at the bottom. I’m skipping over entire fantastic albums here—Wilderness of Mirrors (1998) is a rock-opera involving UFOs at Roswell and the dissolution of a marriage, and it inspired John Bosch’s adventurous documentary/adaptation of the same name, which you should seek out though I’m not sure where to find it these days (his Vimeo page might be a start).

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For me, Paul crested with Saratoga in 1999, which in any just universe would have been a commercial breakthrough; it had that Uncle Tupelo-all-the-way-to-the-damn-Wallflowers No Depression sound nailed tight, and an A+ batch of songs all the way through the epic closer “That Perfect Spot.” Sharp melodies, clever and aching lyrics that ran archetypal imagery through a unique personal filter, and Paul wasn’t even a bad looker, kind of a slightly-skeevier Westerberg type. He gave good interviews, played live like a motherfucker, all the pieces were there. He was drinking a lot at the time, based on the documentary, and maybe he alienated the wrong people at the wrong time, or maybe it’s just one of those things where it doesn’t happen; that happens more often than it doesn’t even when it’s all there.

In any case, the early 21st century found Paul label-less, and he plunged into full-DIY. Here’s where the discography goes off the rails: I’m not sure Terminal Hotel from 2001 ever had a physical release, and as far as I can tell it only survives at the Internet Archive, but it’s a good album (check out the wistful “Who Would’ve Thought”). Same with Holy Roman Empire (2002), which ends with an amazing three-song run of the eleven-minute lament “Crying All the Time,” the Gram-Parsons-worthy Brooklyn-back-in-’84 jaunt “The Whiskey Song,” and yet another perfect sad melody with “Anymore.” I cannot believe this didn’t find a wider audience, it’s fucking great.

I think Paul might have sold burned CD-Rs of these, actually, though good luck finding one; I was already on his email list at the time but had just moved to L.A. for grad school and was paying slightly less attention for a few years. I remember him on MySpace, writing long, paranoid rants about the Bush administration (with which I agreed). I hope those are archived somewhere.

I returned to the fold of ordering his relentless new releases directly from him, and it was a deluge. There’s almost no record of any of these albums online, which is a shame, because while he outpaced his (or anyone’s) ability to stick to an all-killer-no-filler regimen, every single Paul K. album has scattered transcendent moments.


I’m not even gonna try to be comprehensive here, because I just want to get this written. Maybe I’ll come back and edit later. But Panoptikon deserves a mention: he labored on this triple-album, with a handmade cover and random inserts (I got 20 kyats from Myanmar), and it’s a late-career high point. I always thought it would get more attention for “Stringer Bell,” a long song about The Wire set to VU’s “Sister Ray,” but not even that drew the tastemaking class, alas.


As I gather from the film and Paul’s rambling but always piercing emails, these were also years of poor physical and mental health. When I ordered, I think, Gavage II in 2010, this was his response:

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Still, he kept it going through the bitter end. He announced his throat-cancer diagnosis in 2019, and my final order from him was that July. I couldn’t even keep track of his releases, so just asked for whatever he had; for $100, he sent 9 new albums (including a hilariously pointless full-length cover of the musical Oliver!) and threw in a vinyl copy of Patriots from 1989 just for the hell of it, which absolutely made my month.


These are not all stone classics, but as always, full of treasure if you dig: that 7-minute sleazegrind that he rides on “Symphony #4” at the end of Ice Bound is great, and the political anger of albums like CUCK and Impeach gave me sustenance in grim times, as I played them walking to work and back in downtown Newark. When he passed, the Facebook announcement declared, “During the last days of his life he was still able to visit with friends, bandmates and family…and also see America burn down in a way that surely would have added several albums to his 100-plus discography.” He’s survived by his wife Danielle and cat Patti Smith.

Look, I don’t know how to end this. Paul K.’s music meant the world to me. I’ll be haunted by it til I’m gone. I’m glad he’s not suffering and was able to pass peacefully surrounded by his loved ones, but fuck cancer. I’m going to miss the erratic flood of albums that have comforted me for a quarter-century. I hope people check out his work; probably the best way to honor his life is with a deep dive into his endless discography—start with my links here, and then never stop!

His Bandcamp page is epic, though incomplete. There’s more at the Internet Archive. And then there’s stuff that seems to have vanished from even the internet—where is Bruce Wayne in Retirement (2016)? I only have a digital copy, not a physical one. I kind of hope nobody does produce a definitive comprehensive discography; not even the far-reaching informational tentacles of the internet can strip Paul K. of his elusive sense of mystery. Shrouded in opacity is where I think he’d want to remain.

Rest in peace, man; you’ve earned it.


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1 thought on “Paul K. Forever

  1. Great writing, thank you!
    I have a far from complete collection and like you drifted in and out of his orbit, which I regret now.

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