As many musicians, noisicians, performing artists, and hybrids of all of the above who have tried to book a tour know, the itinerancy can be heavy on pure Maybe, with a generous dose of labyrinthine ambiguity that tilts the outcome in the direction of Probably Not, concluding with an off-putting silence that has to be interpreted as Shut Up And Go Away. For this reason, I have long avoided having anything to do with setting up live shows, whether doing so would further my own interests or repay a favor to someone else.
In the summer of 2017, Scarcity Of Tanks frontman Matt Wascovich asked me to perform with the group for a handful of East Coast shows that November. I’d contributed bleeps and bloops to the quiet parts of a couple Scarcity Of Tanks albums by that point, but, while I do love the sound of my own screech, in this conext it’s filigree at best, hardly an essential component of live renderings of those songs, and definitely not worth the airfare from California no matter who pays for it. So I did what I always do — attempt to transform rusty ol’ indulgence and wastefulness into bright and shiny Ambition. I conferred with my fellow mutants in the Bren’t Lewiis Ensemble about making the trip, and contacted whatever straight-shooters in witch-trial country who I knew could give a person a simple yes or no answer. It seemed like it was coming together with surprising ease, and the dread I’d been holding onto all these years suddenly seemed misplaced. Until the acceptably laid plans began to crumble. Scarcity Of Tanks wasn’t going to do the shows after all. The Bren’t Lewiis Ensemble had to postpone. I’d made arrangements to see my family and old friends, and the ticket was already bought, so I became an advance man for the Butte County Free Music Society and went anyway. Naturally, I took copious notes.
Here is the ideal spot for the reader to mutter “Cool story, bro,” and move on to something else, or to continue reading and get the full load of details, many of which cannot be un-read. You must choose now, hairless ape.
Phil Milstein greets me outside Gate 18 at Boston’s Logan Airport. There are no signs anywhere. If you don’t know where to go or what to do, nobody wants you here. Go back to New York.
A couple of tourists wearing matching lederhosen have misinterpreted the instructions on the parking garage ticket payment machine that tells you to insert your credit card mag strip down as meaning fold the corner of the card.
A lady starts screaming at us when Phil’s twenty-dollar bill gets rejected repeatedly by the machine. We can’t figure out what the problem is. It’s fresh out of the ATM. She takes off her shoes and starts hitting us with the heels. I puncture easily and could stand a bit of liposuction, but Phil’s a bruiser. I’m oozing and he’s discolored.
While Herr Lederhosen tries to get his now-ruined card into the slot, Frau Lederhosen (not necessarily his spouse cuz it’s 2017) goes off on the screaming lady and swings the belt from her overcoat at her. The buckle connects a few times. Blood is drawn. The scene is officially a biohazard with two screamers; one is hysterical about getting caught in traffic because of us, and the other is braying “your mother’s a whore” with a German accent.
Needing to decompress, we head to the Blue Hills Reservation to shoot guns in the woods and have some tequila with coconut and lime juice, which is vile at first — it tastes like a lifeguard’s nose looks — but pairs curiously well with the smell of chips of granite whizzing through the air and burnt gunpowder.
Afterward in the car, I annoy Phil by picking at the garlic air freshener hanging from the rearview mirror, so he takes us to dinner at a blocky four-in-one airport-style café, where the choices are pizza, pasta, candy, and salad. The name is designed to be impossible to remember. It’s something like Village Food Court or Good Café Place or Eating And Drinking Mall. I am sure it’s in the witness protection program, and do not buy Phil’s alternate explanation that it is part of a Korean chain. He gets a poke bowl that is mostly tumors dusted with ground-up Advil while I have Mediterranean salad (aka nothing but a tiny fish skeleton on warm tar with blue duct tape garnish). I begin to worry that the thing on my foot is going to give me trouble on this micro-tour.
The anxious reverie is short-lived, however, as the food-court TV blasts footage of a pickup truck that has become buried under an avalanche of 2x4s. One patron of the diner is in near tears about the lumber (“what a sad, sad waste of beautiful Douglas fir,” he sobs) while another gets mawkish and patriotic about the solid construction of the truck. An interloping douche (wearing backward cap, flip flops, and dirty sweatpants with an acid-wash print and cargo-shorts pockets) asks if anyone was hurt. The two crybaby guys stare at him skeptically. One of them smears his sadness snot across a cheek and asks, “What did you just say?” Just then an employees-only door opens and a miniature Pavarotti doppelganger waddles out. He glances at the three men standing there and immediately drags the sketchy douche out to the parking lot and beats him. I yell, “What the fuck is that, Phil?” Without breaking his gaze from the window he says, “Sh-sh-sh, North Korean mafia. Quickly, grab some mystery flavor Oreos and we’ll go. I have frozen yogurt at home.”
As we pull into the driveway in front of Phil’s adorable ranch-style farmhouse condo in Braintree (painted the color of durian sorbet with maroon trim, a perfect match with his RAV4 parked in the alley), Phil instructs me not to engage in conversation with any of the neighbors. I promise but he doesn’t believe me and forces multiple sprigs of sun-dried prawn alimentary into my mouth. I try to spit it out but he just gives me “bup bup bup.” I drag my belongings inside.
The interior is lovely. Hardwood floors. Chairs that look like huge hotdogs. I try one out but it cuts off the circulation to my feet, so he shows me how to use the recline function. I want to sleep there but it is verboten.
He has purged much of his collection of printed matter, but the cream of what remains is recipe books with glorious photos on the cover that are both color-saturated and faded, making every dish depicted seem like its main ingredient is irradiated brains.
We watch Jeopardy on television. One of the contestants mentions wanting to buy a miniature albino burro with her winnings. She even has a name picked out (Honky Donkey), which elicits groans from the studio audience. She places last — proof that remote prayer works! Either that or Jimmy Fallon has a really good make-up crew.
Coincidentally, all of the questions are about the Bible. Phil becomes irritated with me when I start guessing “20,000 Leagues Under The Sea” for everything.
“Stop answering before he finishes reading the question!”
Alex Trebek’s horrible French-Canadian accent is barely intelligible, one of his hands is smeared with red liquid, which is never addressed, and every time they cut away from the contestants to Alex, his head is a slightly different size and shape.
“20,000 Leagues” turns out to be the correct answer to not a single question, so I don’t do very well but at least there was no goddamn white mule riding on it.
We move on to watching an inexplicable duet by James Brown and Pavarotti doing a command performance of “It’s A Man’s, Man’s World” for a crowd of 20,000 bishops and the pope on the anniversary of his Holiness’s baboon heart transplant. We can’t figure out why this exists, but someone had to have lost a bet, though it’s unclear whom. The hardest working man in showbiz is very encouraging to the opera singer, even though chunks of Pavarotti’s face are visibly sliding down the front of his skull, smearing streaks all over his table-cloth-sized scarf. He is a true pro and doesn’t let on like anything is wrong. Inspired by the fact it was filmed two years after Pavarotti’s death, Phil determines to carry a white hanky in one hand for the Suppressive Persons performances, in tribute.
Just before bed I accidentally spray urine everywhere. Well, not everywhere. Mostly just inside the medicine cabinet. Deeply embarrassed, I slink back to the futon and hope it evaporates by morning.
At breakfast Phil is appalled by the sight of the thing on my foot and insists I slip on a pair of his Teutonic Toastie Warmers, an obscure slipper–sock hybrid that had been standard issue to Scandinavian troops in WWII. He has multiple pairs of the post-war commercial re-design in many colors and sizes. Like me, Phil is afflicted by thwarted consumer syndrome, wherein his favorite products and services seem to constantly fall victim to discontinuation. I am forever at the mercy of corporate whimsy, but Phil takes proactive advantage and hoards. Thank the cold, indifferent void at the center of the universe for people like Phil Milstein.
He scans the paper for possible morning activities. William Shatner is in town to promote a coffee table book about the history of the AM/FM clock radio. An album of early Steely Dan demos is now in stores, according to an ad, and includes a “Louie Louie” cover. My query about whether it’s a feature or a defect does not go over well.
I can hear people outside having an argument about hand-chopped walnuts and cocaine. I ask Phil about the combatants, and he directs my attention to a teacup full of seashells and wolverine teeth that one of the neighbors threw all over his car in the middle of the night. He’s holding on to them for eventual retaliation, once he is one-hundred percent sure which of them did it. He puts a Johnny Paycheck album on the stereo, opens the windows and points the speakers outside.
I ask if we can drive by the old Necco Wafer factory. The last time I was here in 1987 the portrait of myself standing in front of it didn’t turn out and I’ve been miserable ever since. A successful do-over would dissolve my failings, disappointments, doubts, and insecurities like so much chalky sugar under the tongue. My plans are nixed as the site now contains nothing but billboards, the biggest of which reads “Reconstructive Surgery! Learn Online!”
We spend the rest of the day listening to multiple records at the same time until it is time to leave. The best combination we come up with is a demonstration LP of Ondioline simulations of other instruments and an instructional recording about canning placenta preserves.
Driving to Blue Bag Records in Cambridge, Phil tells me a long and exciting story about Bolivar O’Jay. Unfortunately, I mishear it as “bottle of o.j.,” and am completely confused, though not unimpressed with the accomplishments of the popular citrus beverage. We are interrupted when we get stuck behind a Hastee Wastee garbage truck. We try to pass but can’t. We get close enough to see that the driver looks like a Vogon poet from Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. We take a detour and wind up behind it again a couple blocks later. The foulness and decay wafting out is pungent beyond tolerance. The thing is a rolling bilge of vomited cesspool where pickled fish heads are being set on fire. We have to be the first people in history to get stalked from in front.
We park at the store, and from out of nowhere some schmuck hands us brochures with “Stop Smoking, Start Vaping” in big red letters on the front. Phil tells him his shoe is untied and when he looks down, flicks him on the nose. I crumple up the brochure and stuff it down the front of my pants while pointedly making eye contact.
About five years ago, Ariella Stok’s group Sloppy Heads decided to record a cover of the old Pep Lester tune “We Are They That Ache With Amorous Love,” and tracked down Phil for permission. One can hear the results on their album Useless Smile (Shrimper 2017), which Vlada Fengenev describes as “Sometimes they are to be very rocking! Other times they are not to be rocking at all! It makes Vlada feel like she has sunshine and sometimes feels sad. Other times is giving a feeling of swirling in many-colored flotation like hippie movie about the hair.”
The attention awakened one of Phil’s dormant ideas: to record pop songs that use a series of drones as a rhythm section. Toward this end, he invited Ariella to collaborate on the project dubbed Oylem Haze. The name is Yiddish for “sensual pleasure” — the “today for which hedonists live,” observes Michael Wex in his book Born To Kvetch — of which there is none in traditional Jewish culture. Not much progress was made, and back on the shelf it went. A couple years later, Yo La Tengo played at a beerfest not far from Phil’s place of employ, and there was Ariella in the company of YLT bassist James McNew. So the idea was at least on life support. Six months later, I happened to contact Phil about doing something together prior to a short tour of the area with Bren’t Lewiis Ensemble (which ended up being postponed), and he described the Oylem Haze loops he’d made from field recordings of defective ventilation equipment in various restrooms and other public places. I signed on immediately (and sent him a recording of same from Café Colonial during Norcal Noisefest in October 2017). Since they were made with her in mind, Ariella was given right of first refusal, and fortunately for all concerned, she opted in. We re-christened ourselves Suppressive Persons — Scientology jargon for heretics, apostates, free-thinkers, Leah Remini, and anyone who is a general pain-in-the-ass.
Phil’s loops are drones in the sense of steady repetitive signals (as opposed to restful placid hums). Most are sharp and saturated. A couple of his pieces are field recordings made by Ariella, one from a slaughterhouse in Brooklyn (which describes a solid thirty percent of the buildings in the entire borough). One sequence includes someone (possibly Piero Heliczer) screaming obscenities out the window during a recording with Angus Maclise and Tony Conrad. It was boosted from the Dreamweapon III album (Boo-Hooray, 2011).
“Another batch was made from several other pieces from the MacLise / Conrad / Cale canon,” Phil tells me. “Likewise, I swiped from both Mick Jagger’s soundtrack for Kenneth Anger’s Invocation Of My Demon Brother and Jimmy Page’s rejected one for Anger’s Lucifer Rising.”
One of the few relatively complex pieces Phil made is drawn entirely from the “I”s in the “I am the magnificent!” spoken intro to the Dave & Ansel Collins track “Double Barrel.” About the sources of another good half-dozen or so he has no idea. “I usually title the pieces with a word or phrase that’ll remind me of the source, or the audio itself will include clues, but a few of these I could examine for aeons and still not remember what the fuck they’re from.”
My recordings are in a similar vein, most of them sourced from guitar and keyboard recordings, run through effects, cut-up, multitracked, run through more effects, and hard-panned. Each of my thirty or so files is about five minutes long.
I also have with me the Koma Elektronik field kit; I plan on using the radio and the voltage-controlled oscillator to make the solenoid rattle against a metal Partridge Family lunchbox and run it through effects.
In a parking spot outside Blue Bag is the first time all three Suppressive Persons are in the same place simultaneously — and, in fact, the first time two of us have even met. Nothing especially noteworthy occurs at the moment, just the usual “how ya doin’, nice to meet you,” but we’re here to sell the sizzle, are we not? We haul the Styrofoam wrecking ball labeled “millions of years” out of Phil’s trunk — he stole it from the Creation Museum in Kentucky a couple months prior — and install it on the spot with quick-drying cement supplied by James. The Start Vaping guy stares at us in disbelief.
We dine at Frank’s Steakhouse, located across the street from Blue Bag Records. The place is almost a century old, and according to the historical notes printed on the menu, has never been owned by anyone named Frank. Opinion is divided on the provenance of the name. When it was located elsewhere on Massachusetts Avenue, that particular plot of land was owned at one time by a Frank; conversely, there was a Frank who could invariably be found in the same seat at the end of the bar most nights tying one on, and so the owners of the popular yet inexplicably-at-the-time unnamed establishment shrugged and said, “Sure, why not?”
The foyer has a decent, tastefully contained gallery of signed headshots of celebrities. Ariella, James and I are momentarily starstruck while Phil is outside on his cellphone trying to fix a case of identity theft that seems to be occurring in real time at that very moment. Phil is the most up-to-date on whether his friend Ellie Marshall would be joining us for dinner, and we mistakenly fail to include her in the headcount when informing Rocko the maître d’ how many are in our party.
Once Phil comes in and joins us at the end of his phone calls, we ask our waitress Sharon if we could move to a bigger table. Her response is “You sit where Rocko says you sit.” Rocko, who is not wearing a Halloween costume, by the way, looks like a cross between Larry Tate from Bewitched and someone who stares at magic goats — not the kind of fellow who expects his seating assignments to endure in perpetuity. Phil pooh-poohs the notion that Sharon would notice, so we hop out of the booth to the bigger roundtable when she isn’t looking, but it is obvious she can tell. She refuses to approach and take our order. My notion that the table we had chosen is situated atop a Revolutionary War burial site that Sharon can not desecrate by trodding upon it and discussing trivialities such as “mashed, riced, fried or loaded” potatoes is deemed implausible by everyone present. James wishes we could have gotten the waitress dressed as a harlequin with ruffles that look like a demonic octopus. When Ariella waves at Sharon, all she gets in response is the “who me?” look. She finally comes over but acts like she has no idea who we are or how we got here.
Phil directs us to pay attention to the menu descriptions when making our selections. Drinks with a “sugar rim” option are to be shunned. Entrées with phrases like “a full pound of” likewise put him off, but for James “on a bone a foot and a half long” is dealbreaker talk. He says it reminds him of the family car flipping over at the end of The Flintstones.
I order the pan-seared bars of hotel soap with a side of recycled paper. No one notices me tearing up at my first sip of the last bottle of Simi Sauvignon Turpentine from Sonoma County, an area of Northern California currently on fire. Ariella has the boneless hand parmesan with earthworms ragout. Eventually I recall where I’d heard Ellie Marshall’s name before and embarrass myself when the moment of enlightenment scurries across my consciousness like rats on the back porch, but screw it, I get to shake the hand of the voice behind the Pep Lester track of yore “Ciao Allston.” (She is the only member of our party who, having arrived after the rest of us and therefore exempt from The Wrath Of Sharon, is asked how she likes her meal. Not surprisingly, her seagull loaf is excellent. Probably mostly thigh meat.)
An affable group of flirtatious bluehairs is seated at the next table, to whom we immediately lose Phil. They are out on the town to celebrate the ninety-fifth birthday of one of their party, who attributes her youthfulness to that fact that she dances every day. He takes pictures of the ladies holding up their homemade Halloween masks and tries to squeeze anecdotes about Frank Sinatra’s model train hobby out of them. We pick up one bluehair when Ariella, who studied neuroscience at Brown, mentions Walter Benjamin’s essay “The Forgotten Hepatitis.”
I am sure that comedian Stephen Wright once sat in the chair I am sitting in. There’s an autographed headshot in the foyer, and a finite number of chairs in the restaurant, and I dunno, I just have a feeling. Nobody cares.
The piano player does lounge versions of Creedence Clearwater Revival tunes in a foreign tongue. Table-wide debate ensues about which language, and about his name, repeated with a different pronunciation each time — it’s Helmut Zonk or Heinrich Zuke or Heinrich Zonk or Helmut Zuke. We never reach consensus, but if he turns out to be upstream in Tommy Wiseau’s bloodline, I would not be surprised. He stops now and then to preach, but it’s more like an incoherent infomercial that, as best we can discern, advocates nothing more specific than general piousness. He’s kind of terrible at it but for some reason it doesn’t seem like his fault, just a short circuit in his charisma.
Chris Strunk opens the show at Blue Bag, using snare, chopsticks, cymbal, gallstones, and rams’ testicles (just purchased still-frozen from the Icelandic market down the block), off of which one can see steam wisps rising as he sloshes them around Asian singing bowls. As someone for whom seeing music performed live became a low priority many years ago, I am delighted to discover that I miss it quite a bit. Good as his solo album No Charts Could Map My Constellations is (Killing Time Between Ice Ages, 2017), being in the same room when he performs it stops me in my tracks. Objects fly away and roll out of reach as his movements become more vigorous and the density of his cacophony spreads. It’s a beautiful collision of discipline and focus — mastered via drumming in numerous Boston-area hardcore bands and improv duos — and the induced spasticity I never stop craving to witness.
After Chris’s set I notice Angela Sawyer of the now-defunct Weirdo Records standing on the other side of the room. I sidle up next to her and, before she notices me, take a moment to fantasize about wearing a pee-stained powder blue tux and escorting her to my high school prom. I interrupt her conversation to discuss custom-designing a sloped stage for Chris so that everything will roll back to the center, where pneumatic tubes can suck them up and drop them back down on him, bingo tumbler style. She’s into both ideas.
Bob Beerman of Pell Mell and Cut-Out is in attendance, as is Leslie Gaffney of Popwatch magazine fame. Danny Gromfin presents me with a LAFMS cap.
In the first-ever anything by Suppressive Persons, several sections yield screechy grinds that elevate the spirit. Guest drummer and Blue Bag proprietor Chris Guttmacher can find a groove where none has any earthly right to exist. Ariella’s bass barks vision-blurring tones, my favorite of which reminds me of a computer in a sci-fi movie audibly counting down how much time is left before the remaining supply of oxygen is totally depleted. I’ve long wanted to be instructed to proceed toward an escape pod.
While we perform, laptops run videos of a Liberace TV special recorded live in Monte Carlo in 1982, originally broadcast on PBS, as well as a loop of “What Did You Do?” by Lily McBilly of the Bren’t Lewis Ensemble.
First thing in the morning, Phil requires my assistance in the basement stirring the contents of plastic tubs filled with liquids of unnatural hues, the names of which, it is made clear to me in no uncertain terms, are NOMFB. I attempt to lighten the Blair Witch mood by comparing the swirls of hair on the surface of each vat to the designs in the cappuccino foam at coffee shops (which, for reasons I prefer not to contemplate, are a beloved component of caffeine delivery). My query about an opium pipe (sitting in the dirt) with inlaid fingernails and embroidery on the stem is met with naught but a slow-brewing smile.
At one of the many strip malls that gorge on the Braintree populace like seagulls on fresh roadkill, friendly assassins masquerading as working people employed by Guitar Center cheerfully sell me replacement cords.
On the way back to the house we stop at Yogi’s, a frozen yogurt shop that caters to Braintree’s plentiful little people populace. We sit on the bench outside, and Phil points out a prehistoric turtle laying eggs in a nearby tree, but a crossing guard in a Day-Glo vest gets the wrong idea. He thinks we are making fun of him.
A lady double-parks in front of a funeral home and Phil and I both talk over one another trying to complete a quip to the effect that she’s dashing in to pick up a to-go order. Hold for laughter.
We get back to the condo, where fellow houseguests Ariella and James, stark naked and soaking wet, are “jousting with electricity,” as they call it. The technique involves plugging power cords into the wall sockets and swatting at one’s opponent with the other end of the wire, which has been stripped bare. Both of them, laughing maniacally, have bright pink welts on their faces and forearms. They will not stop until Phil blasts them repeatedly with a fire extinguisher.
In the car on the highway to Lowell, the site of our next gig, while changing discs in the CD player, we catch part of a news report on the radio about the Trump administration indictments. I’m trying to decide what to play next — Coven’s first album or Georgia Peach by Peach Cobbler — when Phil spots a convoy of all-white military vehicles with huge rocket launchers mounted on top. We get each other pretty wound up sharing paranoid visions of the inevitable shitstorm to come (at one point, we both murmur “Now it begins” simultaneously), until Phil says, “Oh, wait, those are just mail trucks.” Still, I remain deeply concerned that all the drivers look exactly like malevolent scheisse-hund televangelist Jim Bakker.
To get our minds off all things apocalyptic, we muse on the predominance of the word “connector” in Massachusetts highway lingo, as if turnpikes lacking such designation are stretches of disembodied asphalt that don’t try hard enough to mingle.
Listening to the thirteen-minute “Satanic Mass” on Coven’s Witchcraft Destroys Minds and Reaps Souls, with its cartoonish bellowing and cliché self-aggrandizing Devil, we amuse one another by imagining his speaking voice done by characters on The Bob Newhart Show.
In Lowell, we meet up with Howard Stelzer near RRRecords, but cannot locate RRRon Lessard. A sign says the store closes at three, and RRRon himself is by appointment only. Howard assumed I’d been in touch, I assumed the same about him. Which means no RRRon for us. I am embarrassed and disappointed with myself.
The proprietor of the medieval armaments boutique next door offers to rent us a 16th Century battering ram that Howard is especially keen to try out, purely in the interests of physics and geometry. Lacking enough troops to lift the thing off the ground, we are forced to pass. Phil is no help at all, as he finds a stoop where the owners have stenciled “no sitting” and is harassing passersby to take his picture sitting on that very spot. Immature, yes, but he made $25 for about ten minutes of work. Juvenile like a fox.
James and Ariella access the roof via the fire escape around the corner on Jackson Street, and are rappelling down the front of the building before I even notice they are gone. They are just a bounce or two away from kicking in the window to RRRon’s apartment on the third floor when the ropes break, they land on a dumpster filled with old rubber bands, off of which they ricochet and land on their feet effortlessly right next to me.
Howard says we have to eat dinner at Simply Khmer and he is not wrong. Google Cambodian food in Lowell — it’s the first thing that comes up, and with good reason. In the main dining area, there’s an enormous fish tank where balls of congealed shampoo and carnivorous tumbleweeds drift around, but the décor contains nothing else of note. Howard says four dishes would be more than enough for our party of five; we order six and hoover up every morsel, even the garnishes, and Phil has to be stopped from eating one of the spoons. We have mint shoelace rolls as an appetizer, mango-fried ants with sea scorpions, pulsating fish with holy basil (it does indeed taste hella sacred, as advertised), a vat of forest fire pork delight, a banana leaf bowl heaped with mesmerizing curry ooze that changes color, and ginger organ meat that makes everyone who tastes it immediately speak in tongues for about fifteen seconds until the effect wears off. A group of Howard’s students walk by when we all happen to be doing it at the same time and laughingly refer to us as The Table Of Babel.
On the way back to town, I win ten dollars in a bet with the GPS. We park the car and drag our stuff toward unchARTed, the café / gallery / live space where we’re playing. We pass by a restaurant called Athenian Fantasia Garden; it seems insanely well lit to me. Everything we can see through the window that’s not painted pure white is made of cobalt-colored glass. It looks like the aftermath of a solar eclipse on a planet where the sun is blue. We come upon a yoga studio, and Phil pauses to mock what he calls “the leg-pull circle.” A dude on a bicycle whizzes by at that very moment and screams “leg-pull circle!”
The first thing one notices about unchARTed upon entering is the aroma of pizza. Easily the most intense I’ve ever encountered. Even with full guts, we all want some. Since I will not be using my gambling profits to purchase albino livestock I treat myself to another last bottle of Sonoma County paint thinner.
Next are the paintings. Kishor Haulenbeek’s color palette in this series, entitled Scapegoats, is not far removed from Geiger; he displays an affinity for Bacon’s view of the human form as somewhat monstrous, and, in a painting where the central figure’s arms terminate with actual shovels attached to the canvas, he references Ted Nugent’s wretched album Scream Dream. There are other paintings with attached objects — a pregnant woman with metal washers from a fire hydrant on her belly, and a saint with the tips of javelins protruding from his piehole — but the show is dominated by straight portraiture of multi-limbed nudes, figures with trees growing out of their skulls, various mutilations and mutations that depict ergot poisoning from the point of view of the victims. As a collection of purgatorial serfs who are about as glamorous as pus-filled potato skins, most of them are incredibly fit.
Appa, Howard’s enormous white Great Pyrenees, is less thrilled to make my acquaintance than I his. We have both been referred to in different contexts as a cross between a very chill Labrador Retriever and a polar bear, so you’d think we’d have a lot to talk about. But Appa is a working dog, a detail I either ignored if I was told, or forgot due to carelessness. Maybe he was put off by the thing on my foot, which is starting to smell like charred Fritos.
Chris Strunk’s set — all acoustic, no amplification — is essentially the same as at Blue Bag, but inside unchARTed’s larger, mostly empty room, surrounded by cement walls and a floor-to-ceiling window, it sounds even more amazing. The reverberations are fuller, more immense, and the waves of ringing punctuated by the clack of gallstones and frozen testicles hitting the floor seem to penetrate the body from all sides. As he performs, he happens to be seated directly under a bright red light pointing straight down. He thrashes the cymbal against the snare drum as blobs of reflected crimson collide all over his face. It’s like watching a Bob Newhart character gaze into a luminous cauldron filled with cochineal extract chowder. By the time I get out my phone, the moment has passed.
Having heard part of Howard’s Normal Bias album (Ballast, 2016) on the Tabs Out podcast, Nevada-based cinematographer Joe Taylor asked him to compose a soundtrack to The Crossing, a western he was making. “Joe sent me ... scenes from the film and a few short, non-narrative pieces and I was blown away,” Howard recollects. “Most of his work shows gorgeous, very detailed shots of the Nevada desert, mountains, skies, things like that. I agreed to compose the soundtrack, but ended up making about two hours of music — far more than Joe needed…. I asked him to make an ‘extended film’ based on The Crossing…, forty-minute[s] … of only the landscape shots. No plot or actors. I’d then use all the elements of my soundtrack as source sounds for a new performance piece [tonight at unchARTed] to accompany this new non-narrative movie.”
The extended film based on The Crossing juxtaposes shots of subject matter of greatly contrasting scale — from vast desert landscapes and cosmos / atmosphere images with immense staging to close-ups of insects and rural houses overrun by dead trees and vines. The cumulative effect of this neo-Immobilist style is a deceleration in the viewer’s default need for stimulus. One’s senses are heightened and minuscule details become notable. As a train glides across a bridge, shadows rebound all over the oblong metal, in and among the waves of reflected heat shimmers. In a frame dominated by dramatically lit clouds shot from an oblique angle, the tip of a shrub in the dark lower corner madly twitches. After a half hour, one’s frame of mind is palpably altered, imbuing the impact of deviations from the style with otherworldy gravitas. One such moment depicts a rural traffic sign that says “funeral” with a single blinking yellow light as an old-fashioned Amish horse-and-buggy passes by.
“Joe used some imagery that isn’t from The Crossing, like the Amish stuff,” explains Howard. “I’m very attracted to images that give a strong impression of a specific place, and his films capture the American southwest so wonderfully. After making the soundtrack (an album of which will come out on Flag Day Recordings in 2018), I wanted to keep it going. The expanded film idea allows me to continue to explore the sounds I made, and also present my work in a situation that I haven’t ever tried before…, to make something that could only be a live performance.”
Howard’s set-up at unchARTed seems mind-boggling to me, but that is more a measure of the gulf between how much experience performing live there is between us. To hear him explain how he navigates playing forty different cassettes in a dozen different tape players, it doesn’t seem any more complicated than solving a Rubik’s Cube while it’s on fire.
I wonder if there’s an improvisational aspect to it. Nope, there hasn’t been any improv in Howard’s work for a very long time. His performances are all composed pieces of music where “the tapes themselves are stages of manipulation of source material,” he says, “created in my studio and separated out onto cassette tapes before the show. The tapes are all labeled, so I know what sounds are on each one, and in which order I use the tapes in which combinations…. [F]or example…, two cassettes with somewhat high-pitched sounds are played on tape decks run through the mixer…. I pitch one of them down a bit with the speed knob ... to create something like a chord..., and at the same time, I have the same source stacked forty layers deep with all the highs chopped off coming out of a sound file on my laptop so that it’s quite clear in the P.A. A different, more textural sound is played into the air (not amplified or going through the P.A.). That combination works for a certain set of images on the film, then it transitions to a different set of sounds on different tapes, and so on.”
I assume his source materials are field recordings of some sort, and I am wrong again. He says he isn’t sure what they are, exactly, but they definitely aren’t that. “I tend to re-use my sounds over and over again,” he says, “but change them drastically each time so that they’re not recognizable and different aspects of them are pulled out. I like to play tapes into different acoustic environments around the city, and record them onto new tapes. Then I’ll play those tapes out into environments that further alter the sounds. I do that again and again.”
The only sounds he gathered specifically for the unchARTed show are by Jeff Barsky “playing a melodic line on guitar, based on a few bars of a Brahms piece” because Joe wanted something based on that Brahms piece for the opening titles. Both “a tape-manipulated treatment of a pro recording of the Brahms piece and a few different treatments of Jeff playing it on guitar build the main melodic element.”
The second-ever Suppressive Persons show is in some ways as much a leap into the unknown as the one the previous night at Blue Bag. Gone is the understated yet propulsive drumming of Chris Guttmacher, so Ariella, Phil and I agree there is no point in trying to do a series of shorter tracks. Instead we play continuously for forty straight minutes with the Liberace special projected above our heads on a big screen. I try to use tracks that are more overtly repetitive to compensate for our Chrislessness. The acoustics definitely enhance our layered amorphous space screech. About half way through, I glance around the room and realize all the locals have cleared out; the only people there are employees and performers. Not a single outsider witnesses the staggering beauty of this once-in-a-lifetime performance. Even my recorder craps out part of the way through.
At one point, Suppressive Persons remind me of a dream I posted about on Facebunk a year-and-a-half ago; in it, an old roommate, Rory Cox, was playing an amplified banjo so loudly that it was "almost ambient, but not quite. The room was filled with an odd texture, a woozy, smooth scraping dotted with squeebs and plinks. Accompanying him was Silvia Kastel processing the meows, yelps, and purrs of the café owner’s cat through vocoder. A three-man crew was raising and lowering sailboat rigging, mounted sideways at the top of the wall, which added the sounds of creaking wood and clanking hardware and rope whirring through pulleys to the mix."
The first item on the day’s agenda is which method should be employed in rousting Ariella and James. I want to spritz them with gardenia water, but Phil says we should roll around on top of them doing Joe Flaherty’s Sammy Maudlin and John Candy’s Pavarotti. Seems kind of soon in the relationship for erotic massage.
When asleep, by the way, Ariella resembles what depictions I’ve seen of Sitalmata, the Hindu smallpox goddess. After two shows, it is self-evident that she could conceivably be an incarnation of “the one who cools.” A re-think about acquisition of an albino donkey is in order. And if a biopic of Romanian composer Iancu Dumitrescu ever gets made, James McNew needs to be on the casting director’s radar. He would nail it.
Over a breakfast of uglifruit and desiccant croutons, Phil reads selections from the autobiography of Hank Ketcham, author of Dennis The Menace comics. The level of detail in the backstories of his characters is fascinating, disturbing, and slightly depressing. We agree to perform a Wiccan ceremony at some point that will manifest Gina Gillotti.
We get a late start on the road trip to our third show in Florence, as the bed I slept on has to be incinerated and we miscalculate the burn time of the futon mattress. I feel bad. Anyone who knows me knows I hate being “that guy.”
We stop for lunch at a Tennessee BBQ place, where the ceiling is decorated with bottle caps that spell out Funk! Slaw! Ribs! Blues! and suchlike. We go family style on trays of barbecued cold sores, pulled snout, lips brisket, fermented dandelion greens, and miniature bales of hay. By the end our shirts are splattered with sauce, much to Phil’s distress. My attempts to calm him by comparing the design to tie-dye does not set his mind at ease. Finding a roadside bib emporium is now part of our agenda. Hoping to take the edge off the negative body imaging, James treats us all to a mani-pedi at the beauty parlor next door before we get back in the car.
We head to Florence, a semi-autonomous neighborhood of Northampton, in separate vehicles. Passing through downtown Northhampton, Phil and I stop at a tea café. The décor is Tibetan ren-faire. Phil cries out excitedly that “they have a whole book of nothing but teas from Togo!” but it turns out to be of “teas to go.” Deflated, he orders Lipton, along with a pastry that is some sort of cookie-pie-Newton hybrid, the ingredients of which are a secret, although rest assured it has never been within twelve miles of gluten. I detect notes of broccoli and spores.
After twenty minutes and counting, there is no sign of the Hawaiian green tea I ordered. Jesse Pinkman could have cooked a batch of crystal meth faster. We get in trouble for playing with the stammtisch on our table, which we don’t know would summon a server when tinkled. Since she’s here, we ask about our order. She is snippy and pissed off that we demand warm twig water in under an hour. Clearly we are dilettantes when it comes to the etiquette of exotic brackish sipping. “Go back to Dunkin Donuts,” her glare unmistakably insinuates.
The server’s explanation for my ridiculously complicated tea, once it arrives, is to my ears little more than low-decibel howling noises. The sticks are steeping in a bowl with a lid, next to another bowl on a slatted wood platform with a tiny Sanskrit book containing prayers I am supposed to recite each time I re-infuse the sticks with water from the glass pitcher sitting atop a candle in a box. No eye contact is made when we gulp and dash.
We drive through the countryside in silence. I suspect we have been dosed, as punishment for our loutish behavior. Phil hits the brakes and we screech to a halt on a country road. He is astonished by a little girl setting up to play croquet in her front yard, specifically her red velvet dress, which seems alarmingly cake-like, and the clicking of the wickets as she pushes them into the soil. So much clicking. I try to tell him about the old man I see taking an afternoon constitutional with a gray razorback on a leash, but he says I’m harshing his mellow.
We arrive at the multi-story warehouse that is home to Feeding Tube Records. As we drag our stuff through the corridors, we pass a studio where archery is being taught. We hear the steady doop-fwip-thunk of arrows getting shot at targets. As soon as I wonder if indoors is the best place for such an activity, I hear a voice scream out in pain and another voice cry “Oh, shit!” I feel responsible and run toward Feeding Tube, terrified that the paramedics will want to have a word with me.
Phil mistakes co-proprietor Ted Lee’s Bedouin scarf for a neckbrace and, understandably concerned, inquires about his injury. I figure he’s another Pavarotti enthusiast. Fellow co-proprietor Byron Coley arrives, sorts out the Abbot-and-Costello-style misunderstanding by knocking our heads together à la Three Stooges and gets busy cooking a delicious Charlie Chaplin-esque dinner for all attendees: agreeable toad hoof gelatin (vegetarian), generously dolloped with creamy amphibian foam.
I overhear Cynthia Meadows from the nearby Mystery Train talking about a pet chupacabra and think to myself “Damn, I want to party with her.” There’s a good chance I say it out loud. At this point I can no longer be sure which of my thoughts are audible. I may have invited Bren’t Lewiis to perform at her shop in downtown Amherst. I guess we’ll find out when we show up.
Zuma The Little King cannot make the show, and I try to receive the regrets he has sent stoically. I present MV and Erika with a dog bone chewtoy for him.
The Feeding Tube space also hosts the Rozz Tox art gallery, which last night opened Yo La Tengo drummer Georgia Hubley’s series of paintings titled Invitation To The Trance, overseen by Rozz Tox curator Lili Dwight. No large-scale oil paintings (“too much fucking trouble,” Georgia says in the catalog). The “columns of paint daubs” remind Ariella of “chromatography experiments in which the parts of a mixture reveal their constituent[s] … by traveling from their source at different speeds.” Indeed, there is a veering toward and away from isometric repetition, a nice brouhaha where the authority of graphic design is challenged by the free-swinging hand of fate. Some of the paintings, notes Ariella, “are maplike, with shapes, lines, and paths that suggest the topographies of a subconscious terrain,” a detail that resonates with both of us equally. There is very little serenity on the surface of Hubley’s paintings, despite her pastel-leaning palette. She foregrounds the omnipresent rumble and beautifully apprehends otherwise unseen collisions and ripples and vectors. In the paintings with “rows of circles rising above a horizon line,” Ariella imagines “Hubley’s mid-bash view of the audience while seated behind the drum kit, bathed in the bright lights of a Yo La Tengo rock show.”
“Working is generally a very non-committal process for me,” Georgia explains in the catalog, discussing her incorporation of collage, with its perpetual lack of closure. “Which is good because I can do whatever I want without a lot of pressure, but the pressure is good, too, because it makes me decide that something is done.” Her paintings feel like cross-sections of an agitated ether, sliced out of time and space, mounted on a glass slide and magnified as if under a microscope.
Free-thinker, ascended mentor and aesthetic cicerone Conrad Capistran enters wearing the same L.L. Bean flannel as me (a tartan called Black Watch, the tribal garb of my people). Among the contributions to my consciousness he has made, the most significant are turning me on to Parmegiani’s La Création Du Monde and observing that “basically, we’re all a bunch of hairless apes running around wasting each other’s time.” He gives me a copy of the Feeding Tube album by himself and Joshua Burkett performing under the name Tarp. Two side-long tracks, “Pinna” backed with “Tympanic,” created with synth, stylophone, guitar doink, and no doubt other encoded objects, are high-Colognic inner-earth percolations that move unfussily with a considered primitive sheen. The duo’s space gurgles transmit abstractions from the executive lobes of two black yogiraji contemplating a Jesus-vs-Darwin street brawl — the same laggard woont one finds in Adderall testing facilities. But then there is the violent stripping of peels from chrome vegetables in a garden alight with the elongated purrs of hovering meatbirds and hollow bumblebees. Gravel sheers off cliff-faces and contaminates the pit where bone-meal-polished eyeballs of flickering electricity snuffle the armpits of an oatmeal toad. Machines ejaculate rubber threads into flasks of boiling dirt as erotically ambidextrous sexbots play the cello and chess in an afterhours opium den hallway where the walls pulsate with grease and impure colors.
He also slips me a copy of Only Jesus Can Make Me, his 2011 solo album released by the Manhand label under the name The Sound Of Pot. In abundance here are controlled burns where the monophony of “TV OD” meets Satie’s gittin’ her done ethos. With the termini of Conrad’s spectrum anchored respectively to starkness and fertility, he automatically weeds out prolonged indulgence and sentimentality. It’s a genius process that allows for lushness without sacrificing tension. Conrad is an exquisitely sinister understater; at twenty-five tracks, the album uses synthesizer, piano, other keyboards, possibly guitars on what could easily pass for a lost collection of library music and vintage cues by an overlooked Italian.
Our set at Feeding Tube is the best of the three. The Suppressive Persons sound is starting to gel, at least enough so that the idea of doing it again some time isn’t completely laughable. But there is only one unbiased opinion that matters, and it resides in the mind of James McNew, the sole audience member who was at all three shows. Ariella, Phil and I surround him. He knows we want something. I feel afraid for him, but he remains cool.
“So James,” says Phil, channeling Kenickie Murdoch. “What’s our next move?”
Without missing a beat, James says, “You should go to Europe. Then I won’t have to hear you again.”
Byron and Lili allow Phil and me to spend the night at their house in Deerfield. We attempt to raid the fridge for a midnight snack, and all we find inside are jars of brine. Phil can’t completely discount the possibility that Byron is a DIY rocket fuel hobbyist, so we start poppin’ ’em open and taste a bunch.
Standing in the cryo-fog, barely able to see because of the glare of the fridge light, sipping from a mason jar of light pink cider, there is nothing else to do but the post-game wrap-up. Phil says, “What I liked best ... was the fact that we weren’t at all times certain of who was making which sound. More than once during the shows one of us would look at another with a glance that asked ‘Is that you?’ and the other would reply with a shrug that said ‘Fuck if I know’. That’s probably not in the official list of how to know when a band is cookin’, but it should be.”
I’m curious about why the Liberace footage was chosen and pass Phil a bottle of cyan alkali. He says, “The original colors are so faded that it’s all but in black-and-white now, retaining a faint tint of snot-green in areas that had most likely originally been lurid yellow. Likewise, due to the effects of multi-generation VHS copying, the picture fidelity is disintegrated, to the point where luminescent highlights — superabundant in any Liberace presentation, of course — now throb in places they’d merely undulated. These effects add a sense of disorientation to the audience’s experience, which, when coupled with the Suppressive Persons’ so-called music, enable the ultimate contextual effects I’m after. The irony is that the Persons are the only people at the shows who have no idea how effective the experiment is.” We clink glasses and finish off the Coley-Dwight’s gray-purple marinade.
That night I dream of reclining on an inflatable pool raft, drifting aimlessly as I gaze up at a sky slathered in lime and burnt umber splats. I can’t really get up or even identify where I am or how far from land I am, but I don’t mind. It feels so bucolic and effortless. I have no concerns. One of my hands happens to slide off the side of the raft and I realize the body of water I’m on is frozen solid.
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