Artist as Prisoner

Ed Bobb punched a few keys and went to jail. Where's the justice?

Florida's Turnpike and the Palmetto Expressway had yet to be built, and I-95 was just an idea. Within a few years, the Bobbs moved into a three-bedroom ranch house in the Norwood area, now Miami Gardens. It was sleepy and safe. "You could leave your house without locking the door," Bobb's mother, Polly, says. She remembers her son's youth as happy and peaceful.

Bobb went to Norwood middle and high schools, where he played saxophone and edited the school newspaper's feature section despite his dyslexia. He admired gonzo journalist Hunter Thompson -- who was just making it big around then -- and reveled in art classes.

As a teenager during the height of the Vietnam era, Bobb presented his mother with a silkscreen image of yellowish slats against a brown background. He called it Cages. Polly, a devout Episcopalian and member of an evangelical group called Daughters of the King, was bothered by the work. She assumed it related to prisoners of war, but Bobb offered no explanation. "I said, Why can't you do a tree with a stream by it?'" she remembered recently.

The prim, bifocal-wearing 78-year-old, who has lived in the same ranch house for 50 years, admits she hoped her son would outgrow art. Instead he delved deeper into the creative depths, splicing film images and experimenting with sound frequencies his mother found hard to appreciate. "It would be difficult for me," she says, "but the Beatles were difficult for me."

It wasn't only Polly who was puzzled. Surrounded by an aura of meditative intensity, Edward was seen as eccentric and somewhat distant by many who knew him. "You can just sense a lot of mystery to him," says James Garcia, a sound artist who worked with Bobb in later years. "He's a mental person. He's very into dissecting things."

On his own after a one-year stint at Miami-Dade Community College, he began to move within Miami's burgeoning, off-the-radar avant-garde art scene in the late Seventies and early Eighties. He exhibited and performed at the Center of Contemporary Art (now the Museum of Contemporary Art) in North Miami, the Art and Culture Center of Hollywood, and galleries all over town.

He met Mary Deaton, who did clerical work, and they had a son, Xeno, in 1978. There were complications during the birth, and the boy was born mentally disabled. Two years later they wed. They rented several apartments in different parts of the city and lived a bohemian existence.

Edward made a name for himself with small electro-punk outfits -- the Happiness Boys, the Neutronics, and Early Warning System -- he formed with like-minded musicians. Among their influences, they cited African rhythms, rock, free jazz, and composers such as Stockhausen. Bobb used his computer as an instrument, manipulating channels of sound and accompanying bass lines. There were processed horns, synthesizers, kalimbas, and marimbas. Anything was worth exploring, from playing an album cover through a turntable needle to video feedback.

In 1983 a magazine called Boston Rock described the Happiness Boys, one of Bobb's more sustained projects, as a "demented team" that played "psychotically contorted" music. "They maim delicacy with decay, calm with tense anger," the reviewer wrote.

"It was pretty outrageous," recalls Steve Malagodi, former host of New Music Miami on erstwhile radio station WLRN-FM (91.3). "It was fast. It was loud. It was very high-tech for the time."

The Happiness Boys were incendiary live, pushing club and art gallery listeners to the brink, says Malagodi. "Frankly if they were interested in response, they were interested in outrage." Audiences occasionally threw things at Bobb, but more often they walked out.

Those who stuck around were part of a small, close-knit experimental art scene, says Mary Luft, founder of Tigertail Productions. Tigertail's inaugural performance series in 1984 featured the Happiness Boys playing to about 200 people on an old concrete soundstage downtown. "Vodka was free, and orange juice was a dollar," Luft says with a laugh.

Bobb was a mainstay on the scene, always ready with a new band set, sound art project, or video piece. He composed and played silent film scores for Alliance Cinemas. He was a DJ at Cameo nightclub on South Beach and pioneered an early form of turntable scratching, altering the surface of records with sandpaper and using needle drops for percussion.

"I think when Edward did a show, he didn't give a fuck, says Miami drum 'n' bass DJ Otto Von Schirach. "He was like, Bring the madness -- who cares about money.'"

Bobb came across as pretentious and aloof to some, wise and enigmatic to others. Marilyn Gottlieb Roberts, organizer of the Miami Ways Music Festival, later the New Music America Festival, recalls her first impression: "He had a kind of innocence that young kids have, but he wasn't immature."

In 1983 Bobb was featured on National Public Radio's Meet the Composer series, and things were looking up. But by the end of the decade, his relationship with Mary had deteriorated. In 1987 they divorced. A judge gave primary custody of Xeno to the artist, according to court records. Part of the reason, Salame says, was that Xeno had been found with bruises likely inflicted by Mary's boyfriend. Mary did not return calls from New Times.

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