A glimpse into the audio archive of Harvey Matusow
By Duncan Harrison – UOSH Audio preservation engineer
A Political Career on Tape
The first thing to be aware of is that this audio content does not really provide a chronological narrative of Matusow’s life. Like everything related to him, we rather obtain snapshots or glimpses of varying size and quality into the numerous activities he undertook throughout the years. The political recordings, consisting of various appearances at home, on the radio and even during testimonial hearing, swing back and forth between the midst and immediate aftermath of Matusow’s ‘red baiting’ career. One moment we might hear Harvey in full anti-communist flight, warning a local radio audience or a rapt crowd of university students about the dangers of the movement, while the following tape will find him holding court with an interviewer in discussion about his forthcoming book which will reveal the lies and inaccuracies upon which recordings of the previous kind were apparently founded. This alone is valuable content in that it offers us real time, audible access to Matusow in the process of doing what made him most notorious.
Matusow discussing his testimony in preparation for the publication of ‘False Witness’ Ref: SxMs8/6/3/1
Matusow’s post-HUAC line was that he had become a communist whistle blower in order to expose the cynical inner workings of McCarthyism. In a section of one recording while speaking of his previous testimonies, Matusow describes himself as an ‘actor’ who treated his appearances as ‘performances’ and to take him at his word we can see evidence that this may well have been true. Throughout several of these documents Matusow appears to be operating with theatrical zeal – quick witted, charming and clearly riding high on a wave of oratory satisfaction – it is not difficult to believe that we are listening to a highly intelligent figure who might find themselves successfully portraying a role in the service of their own deeper critique of American political behaviour. When, for example, he reflects on his testimonies as a member of HAUC, laughing scornfully at how he was able to predict and manipulate proceedings in order to influence juries and create newspaper headlines, we might well be convinced that he understood how to play the system. However in many other recordings which capture him in the act of whistleblowing itself – filled with unhesitating naming of individuals, businesses and organisations accused of communist leanings – this strand of performativity is far less easy to corroborate or believe in. Knowing what we do about the real life consequences suffered by those unjustly blacklisted under McCarthy era trials, such recordings make for complex, difficult listening.
Matusow giving a speech in Montana 15.10.52 mentioning the names and occupations of local people considered to have assisted communist causes. Ref: SxMs8/6/2/16/1
The Stringless Yo-Yo: Matusow’s Creative Turn
Recordings in the creative archive also lend an interesting perspective to the political period of Matusow’s life, namely in the form of materials related to his ‘Stringless Yo-Yo’ film. There are around 11 tapes in total specifically marked as relevant to the Stringless Yo-Yo however many fragments of sound from this group can also be heard on other tapes in the collection too. The reels constitute various iterations of source material and master dubs of the film’s audio track, presumably intended for a number of different playback scenarios. The film, held by Screen Archive South East, is summarised as follows:
‘Harvey Matusow explores his complex relationship with the House of Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in two reels of film. A range of archival images and sounds are edited together in a non-linear, avant-garde format.’ Screen Archive South East
Matusow’s repurposing of this material into a work of avant-garde audio visual collage is an interesting step which attempts to introduce radical new angles and context to his political work. Whether this creative act, or indeed Matusow’s swift move into the art world following the end of his prison sentence, represents an attempt to vindicate or simply rebrand his true involvement in that controversial period is another subject for unreconciled debate, but as efforts in their own right they evidence many hours of work, obsessive attention to detail and an overarching vision for the outcome and subsequent use of the film, centred at all times, of course, on his own story. The Stringless Yo-Yo emerges continuously throughout Matusow’s life and career; both as the name given to various different projects or ideas and that of an actual toy he claimed to have invented and at one point successfully took to market.
A clip from ‘The Stringless Yo-Yo’ which sees extracts from Matusow’s various hearings edited and layered with music and sound effects. Ref: SxMs23/13/10
But whether it was a film, a story or a child’s toy, Matusow surely always had something to sell and unquestionably the quick wit and persuasive charm to go with it. Whether it be in radio appearances promoting his festival or ‘International Society for the Abolition of Data Processing Machines’ movement, a lecture delivered here at Sussex University during the 1970s or even his pro-marijuana legalisation debate on the Alan Burke show, Matusow’s character when in creative salesman mode bares striking similarity to the Matusow we hear lifting the lid on political events that once saw him dubbed ‘the most hated man in America’.
Harvey Matusow using his airtime to plug on of many projects. Ref: SxMs23/13/47
Harvey’s background and early life as a kid raised on the streets of New York City is something he mentions often throughout the audio archive and while they only make up a small part of the collection, he saw fit to hold on to a handful of recordings featuring members of his own family discussing their lives and histories. In these recordings we obtain perhaps the most candid glimpses into Matusow’s life that can be found in the archive.
One reel from 1954 sees Harvey turn the tape recorder toward his parents during an informal yet insightful 30 minute conversation-cum-interview with Mr. Herman J. (‘don’t forget my middle initial!’) and Mrs. Sylvia K Matusow. In fantastic 1950’s style Russian-Jewish via New York City style accents they recall their early lives, memories of the old neighbourhood, past friends and business as well as stories from the childhood of Harvey and his elder brother Daniel. Much like Harvey, Herman Matusow is a charismatic raconteur; keen to share his stories and successes while Sylvia, unsurprisingly muscled out of conversation somewhat by the Matusow men, speaks in more measured yet no less loving and prideful tones about her family. This recording gives us quite a profound look at Harvey’s early life, with small details and stories of his childhood and character delivered with the authority and believability that only parental recollection can truly provide. The highlight of the recording is when, despite the informal nature of the taping, Herman Matusow makes a point to close the reel by saying:
‘…and here is to a wonderful little girl who is my wife. I can always say that she is responsible for my happy life and she was always by my side and god bless her forever and ever.’Herman J. Matusow
In a way that can be quite typical of recordings made during this era, when the ability to record one’s own thoughts and feelings was relatively new, he wants to ensure that he states a clear expression of love and gratitude for his partner – as though this simple taping of family memories might one day be a message to the wider world. Even to the objective listener and many years since all concerned have passed on, it is a very touching moment which one feels glad Harvey Matusow thought to keep intact.
Herman J. Matusow tells a childhood story about Harvey before launching into impromptu song. Ref: SxMs23/13/6
In contrast to this happy moment, the next family recording features a conversation between Harvey and his mother. The tape is not dated but we can glean from the discussion that Herman has passed away and that Harvey is now evidently a father, visiting his mother with baby daughter in tow. Most of the conversation takes the form of Harvey quite aggressively taking his mother to task for various injustices he remembers as a child, principally accusing her of resenting him in his childhood because she had wished for a daughter. He seems to be picking an argument with her throughout the talk, probing and poking at her character and personality even when she attempts to move the discussion on. The tape ends with a separate recording of two sequential phone calls between them where we hear Mrs. Matusow expressing concerns about how often she sees and hears from Harvey and his daughter. We ultimately lack the necessary context to fairly judge either party for what we hear in these recordings, but it is undoubtedly a candid moment which we can only wonder why Harvey saw fit to record and preserve.
Two 7 inch recording discs from Matusow’s brother Daniel also feature in this small collection of family recordings. Captured on laminated card Recordio discs, the recordings were sent as audio letters from different stages of Daniel’s travels, seemingly during military service. This makes for an interesting addition to the archive since Harvey Matusow is here simply one of many family members briefly greeted and referred to in the short recordings. Daniel Matusow lost his life during WWII military service, a loss which seemed to deeply effect Harvey and is mentioned often as a motivation for his beliefs during anti-communist speeches. That Matusow held on to these audio letters of his brother’s voice for so many years and throughout so many changes in the direction of his life comes off as a quietly poignant and unresolved piece of his story.
Harvey’s brother, Daniel Matusow, sends an audio back to his family during military service. Ref: SxMs23/13/16
The final recording which touches on Matusow’s home life brings us back into the more familiar realms of his tightly curated public persona during the ‘London era’. Audio from an ITV production of ‘Aquarius’ offers a portrait of Matusow’s life with Anna Lockwood. A short piece featuring extracts of the couple at home, discussing creative projects and even in the midst of their 9th wedding (Matusow was known to enjoy marriage, having wed a number of women throughout his life and enjoying multiple ceremonies with each – this one is held in a piano factory), the content demonstrates perfectly Matusow’s ‘life as a performance’ claim. They are portrayed as an eccentric but in happily love couple whose artistic practice is purposefully indistinguishable from their life together. There is huge value in this recording for its insights into Anna Lockwood alone, who is at times irritatingly described more in the context of her marriage to Matusow rather than her considerable and influential work as an experimental artist and composer. Even so, the audio represents a rare instance in which Harvey happily shares the limelight, their chemistry is sweet and genuine as they lead the film crew through a tour of their home offering praise and compliments to each other’s work and achievements.
Annea Lockwood and Harvey Matusow give a tour of their garden during an episode of ITV’s ‘Aquarius’ on which they were featured. Ref: SxMs23/13/47
Matusow’s appetite for the limelight of public speaking certainly caused him many troubles in life but it also seemed to be his primary tool of survival. Where Matusow frequently dominates the room in these recordings – with an oratory style equal parts dinner party yarn, self-obsessed monologue and professional sales pitch – it is evident that his proclamations are met as much with love, affection and consideration by some as they are disgust and anger by others.
These tapes are but one component in an overwhelming bank of materials which may or may not lead to an objective truth about Harvey Matusow. For every question these recordings successfully answer, another ten are created, yet despite this, we can clearly hear an essence of the same person evident in all of them. To listen to this audio is to hear a man caught up in the constant of telling his own story; ready at a moment’s notice to grasp his next opportunity or make his next play. Do his words and actions represent those of an insincere and opportunistic self-reinventor? Or do they reflect a poker faced love for red herrings and curveballs fitting of an artist of the avant-garde? Whatever the case it can surely be no accident that he would, for a time at least, find himself in a cultural milieu for whom confusion and subversion were artworks in themselves. That so little of Harvey Matusow’s controversial life can be spoken of with any clarity, even today, must surely be his proudest performance of all.
Harvey Matusow and friends in conversation at KPFA Radio Studios, 1972, unaware that the tape was recording. Truth, fiction or somewhere in the middle? Ref: SxMs23/13/3
The Matusow papers are split into two collections SxMs8 and SxMs23, if you would like to consult the papers please visit The Keep website for further information, or email email@example.com
 Screen archive South East, ‘[The Stringless Yo-Yo]’ (n.d) https://screenarchive.brighton.ac.uk/detail/60/ [Accessed 30th September 2021]