R.I.P. “Blaster” Al Ackerman
If you moved to Baltimore in 1996, as I did, you might find yourself wondering if you’d made the right decision—until, that is, you met “Blaster” Al Ackerman. Getting to know Blaster wasn’t only adding a warm, wise, and deeply hilarious person to your circle of friends. It was also unlocking the doors behind which Baltimore’s most interesting music, performance, and visual art then lurked, revealing the strange, interwoven strands of rich subcultural activity that gave this city its unique flavor.
It was a rare day during my first decade in town that I didn’t see Blaster, whether he was happily doodling at the counter while holding down the fort at Normals Books and Records, or carefully selecting VHS tapes at the Charles Village Video Americain (more often than not leaving with the maximum six rentals each morning). I’m sure I wasn’t alone in seeing Blaster as a grandfatherly figure, but Blaster was the grandfather who had corresponded with pulp fiction writers and hung out with Genesis P-ORRIDGE; the grandfather who could turn a Baltimore newbie on to Lungfish, the 14 Karat Cabaret, and the experimental music scene that would soon coalesce into the Red Room Collective and High Zero festival.
Blaster seemed to live his life dedicated to making ours a stranger world—or, perhaps more accurately, nudging us all into acknowledging the overwhelming strangeness already in this world that boring people would rather sweep under the carpet. From his beautifully rendered mail art and unforgettable short-story readings to his impish and legendary pranks, Blaster radiated a feeling that he was living an inner life more fantastical, spontaneous, and just plain interesting than the rest of us—one that could be ours to experience, too, if we’d just screw on our heads a bit differently.
Re-reading this piece I wrote about Blaster a decade ago brought back a lot of memories, and reminded me just how many forms his creative energies took. Blaster was a man who fed on warped culture and the gleeful chaos of the human imagination, one who filled his life with friends, art, and good humor. If he knew you had creative aspirations, he never forgot to ask you how your work was coming along, and always left you with encouraging words. I didn’t know him as well as some, but I knew him well enough to say it would be hard to overstate how many people he inspired and how much he did to shake and stir this city’s cultural life. We’re all better off for him having been here; he will be dearly missed.