PETER CONOVER - Modern American Bard
By Arielle NaMara
The text of this article originally appeared in THE PHOENIX, Sheboygan’s Alternative/Progressive Voice, December, 2004
Republished Here By Permission
As a trained and experienced actor as well as a published poet and singer/songwriter, Peter Conover is the true definition of a modern bard.
Originally from Austin, Texas, Peter began studying piano when he was a young child, was in an orchestra by the seventh grade and wrote his first song, “Orion,” when he was only ten years old. His early vocal training came in the Catholic church, where Peter’s mother played the guitar during folk music masses in the 1970s and Peter and his brother John would help lead the songs. In 1982 he first picked up a guitar and gave his first concert in 1983 at the age of twenty-four.
Over the years Peter has traveled extensively, even living and working in Denmark for a time. He also lived in New York City on and off for several years honing his craft as an actor, studying with Richard Schechner and The Performance Group, HB Studios and Morse Mime Academy. In the theatre, Peter has played a wide variety of leading roles in numerous productions including Hamlet, A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Puck), Waiting for Godot (Vladimir) and numerous other conventional roles. His last public theatrical performance was in 1997 in a controversial, experimental erotic performance piece entitled Osiris or Isis. Based on Bob Dylan’s “Isis,” Peter used dialogue, music, and movement to retell the story of the god Osiris and the goddess Isis in contemporary terms. In addition to writing, scoring and choreographing the piece, Peter played both parts, using his mime and dance skills to “shape shift” from the male to the female role. Since that time, he also developed, wrote, staged and performed an extraordinary one-man show entitled American Bardic which was performed at a private pagan gathering in 2002.
The epitome of a “jack-of-all-trades,” as any true bard would be, Peter has held an unusual variety of odd jobs through the years in order to support his performance career, having worked as: cab driver, factory worker, erotic dancer, receptionist, janitor, bartender, cook, waiter, painter, cashier, and various other means of employment. Additionally, Peter had a successful side career for many years as a freelance nude model for artists, photographers and sculpture classes at NYU, the Fashion Institute of Technology, the University of Texas, Austin Community College and Laguna Gloria Art Museum.
Over the years, Peter had small bursts of musical success as well as continuing in his theatre work and writing more songs and poetry. He also developed a unique instrumental technique on the percussive drone guitar, a specially adapted acoustic-electric guitar which can be drummed on as well as strummed, creating a sound very similar to an electrified sitar.
Another identifying feature of Peter’s musical style includes use of his brilliant whistling techniques. Peter’s clear, note-perfect skill was developed during his youth by whistling along to many varied musical styles including classical compositions, military marches, blues, jazz fusion, and rock. In fact, Peter’s first actual job as a musician was as a “whistlist” for a modern dance piece choreographed by Ileen Dinnin for her master’s thesis at NYU in 1981.
Peter often incorporates his amazing whistling into his music, using it to fill instrumental breaks rather than filling with harmonica as many other solo folk/rock artists often do. Songs that utilize his whistling in this manner are “What We Came Here For,” “Sometime,” “Dream Street,” “Avalon Is Calling,” “Horses,” and “Jack In The Green.”
Peter currently has two CDs in distribution:
FALCON contains 13 tracks, including a new arrangement of Bob Dylan’s “Isis,” “Four Winds,” which was written in one day on the anniversary of Peter’s mother’s death in 1992, and several important pagan oriented songs such as “Cerridwen,” “Call,” “The Wheel Will Turn,” and “Burning Times,” the extremely popular Charlie Murphy song about the historical persecution of witches in Europe. Peter is joined on several tracks by percussionists Valerie Geib and Paula Holz, who also does vocals on two tracks.
METAMORPHIC also contains 13 tracks including a blistering critique of the commercialism of the New Age movement entitled “Look for the Moon,” as well as “Circle In”, which was written to honor Circle Sanctuary’s religious freedom work. METAMORPHIC also includes two tracks authored by first-time songwriters: Nora Mayfield’s “The Tercel And The Rock Dove,” and “The Gathering” by Arielle NaMara. That’s right, yours truly. And I have to say that hearing Peter’s recording of it on the METAMORPHIC master six months before the CD’s release was one of the coolest surprises of my life! My only regret is that since he wanted to surprise me with its inclusion on the CD, I couldn’t help sing on the recording. Other tracks include “Avalon is Calling,” which was a tribute to the Well of Avalon community, and Conover’s electrified rock and roll arrangement of “Jack in the Green.”
Musicians who appear on the METAMORPHIC CD include Randy Akin on lead guitar, Will “Shakespeare” Stanton on percussion, and Hank Schwemmer on bass. Backing vocals were contributed by Paula Holz, Valerie Geib, Mari Powers, and Sarah Conover. The stunning cover art for the METAMORPHIC CD was done by the gifted pagan artist Anne Marie Garrison, who has illustrated several books for Llewellyn Publishing including their Witches Calendar and Witches Datebook.
Following the release of METAMORPHIC, Peter performed extensively throughout the Midwest either solo or with a variety of other musicians in an ensemble loosely known as “Conover and Company” which has included Valerie Geib on percussion, Paula Holz on percussion and vocals, sometimes featuring guitarist Randy Akin on lead guitar; Erycka Zeekaf on acoustic bass; and occasionally, Conover has performed with singer/songwriter Scott Olson of The Cutouts on bass. He has also occasionally been joined on percussion by his wife Sarah, his longtime best friend and business manager whom he married in the summer of 2001. I myself have also had the great honor of joining Peter on stage as well on many occasions, doing percussion and vocals.
Some variation of “Conover and Company” has performed in numerous locations around the Madison area including: Steep & Brew, Catacombs, Mother Fools’ Coffeehouse, Cafe Assisi, Muddy Waters, Ground Zero, the Speed Jump Java Joint, the Glass Nickel Pizza Company, the Anchor Inn, Cafe Mariah, the Liquid Lyrics Lounge, the Wild Hog In The Woods Coffeehouse, as well as the Gates of Heaven. Locations outside of the Madison area have included Cafe Carpe in Fort Atkinson; The Source and Minglewood in Rockford, Illinois; and right here in Sheboygan at Amethyst Myst (now closed) and Wonderful World.
Numerous pagan festival appearances have included Pagan Spirit Gathering, Green Spirit Festival, Circle Samhain, Circle Beltane, The Well of Avalon Elder’s Revel, Summersong in Michigan, the Summer Solstice Gathering sponsored by Four Winds Sanctuary at Eagle Cave, Wisconsin, the Covenant of the Goddess’ Merry Meet Festival in Minnesota, Milwaukee Pagan Pride Day, Blessed Be And Meet Me In Des Moines, Earthfest and Motherfest in Sheboygan, the Mabon Gathering and the Oestara Celebration sponsored by Dragon’s Grove in Sheboygan, and The Gathering for Freedom and Peace at Indigo Gardens.
Several years ago, Peter began experiencing baffling symptoms of chronic fatigue and unexplained, debilitating pain. By the summer of 2002, these symptoms were beginning to seriously affect his ability to rehearse, travel, and perform. Medical testing was performed to determine the possible causes of these serious symptoms, but all were inconclusive, until eventually, in the spring of 2002, Peter was diagnosed with fibromyalgia, a potentially crippling autoimmune disorder that is difficult to diagnose and treat, and for which there is no cure.
Ever dedicated to his craft, Peter was determined to continue with his work for as long as possible, but eventually it became clear that his health was rapidly deteriorating and in the fall of 2003 his production company, Wayland Productions, announced that due to the severity of his disabling condition, Peter Conover would have to retire from performing.
His final performance was given approximately one year ago, just before Yule of 2003 at Minglewood in Rockford, Illinois. I was privileged to be a part of that performance, joining Peter and Erycka Zeekaf on stage for that final, bittersweet night.
Peter has been spending the time since learning to live with his illness and attempting to regain his health. He has been turning his attention to his writing, and is presently working on the final draft of his collected poetry and short prose written between 1973-2003 and currently has no plans to return to music again, although his CDs are still in release and will go on as the living legacy of this great, modern American bard.
Copyright 2004 by THE PHOENIX, All Rights Reserved.