The day begins with twice-braised wattle and larb for breakfast on Tiberius’s backyard patio, where he has installed an anti-cat barrier for the squirrels and an anti-neighbor tarp for himself. The occasion is marked by the first cup of good coffee I’ve had since flying eastward over the Rocky Mountains. We hear disembodied snickering from beyond the fence and decide to go inside.
Many large works of art adorn the walls of his house — beautiful, understated things. I tour the premises and do some serious goatee-stroking. All that’s missing is a pipe. A voice says, “Stop smoking, start vaping.” I am alone.
My favorite piece is a small sculpture of a crucified weirdo. It’s by a Quebecois folk artist whose name Tiberius doesn’t remember. Hangs on the wall at the bottom of the stairs. The little bird on top spins around.
A double-sided painting outside the bathroom is another deeply moving work by Rick Borg from Columbus, Ohio. It was a gift from Mike Rep. Tiberius says he met Rick later, when he lived in a studio apartment above Larry’s Bar. Painted on scrap plywood, it depicts a red bandito in a bowler hat next to the legend “Do I Feel A Little Crazy.”
It’s trash day, so, being a conscientious houseguest, I grab a load and head out to the curb. Across the street, another man is doing the same. I notice him because I like his striped bathrobe — same colors as Phil Milstein’s farmhouse back in Braintree. He’s holding an imperial pint glass with green liquid in it. If it’s antifreeze, that’s unusual garb for working on your car. He tosses his bag of garbage and turns around. Tiberius’s neighbor calls out and accuses him of calling the cops on her. She charges him. He stands by his front door impassively. Just as she hits his front steps, he unloads the pint glass right in her face, direct hit, and walks inside. There is silence, then the sound of the locks on his door. She goes apeshit, running around the front of his house, beating on his door and windows, covered in green goo.
I run back inside, where Tiberius has received a reply from Dan Melchior confirming that he had indeed shipped two paintings to him — portraits of The Jersey Devil and of Walt Whitman — and according to the tracking info they were delivered. According to the fucking obvious, they were stolen by his Apeshit Neighbor.
Fighting next door begins. I tell Tiberius about what I just witnessed. The cops are there regularly, he tells me, responding to reports of domestic abuse, but nothing ever seems to happen. The man gets cuffed, dragged away, and returns soon thereafter.
“There are two babies in the house,” he says. “One is their own, the other is her daughter’s.”
“Like actual babies?”
“Just learning to walk and talk. There’s usually a lot of crying, and her screaming ‘Shut up!’ and ‘Better man up!’ at them as they howl. The fights are always loud and vicious. But then she got really volatile — walking up and down the street, screaming and ranting. Most of the time she’s yelling at her man from outside the house, but she could easily turn on someone walking a dog. People began installing cameras, usually directed at her place.”
Tiberius notices my limp and asks about my leg. I try to deflect but his tenacity is no match for my evasive bullshit, so I tell him about the thing on my foot. Within minutes we are in a Lyft en route to a local spa called the Suetonius Center, where a swarthy behemoth named Garrarufa Yossarian ushers me into a private room, removes my socks and shoes, and inserts my legs into a pool of water where tiny fish converge upon the thing on my foot and start… nibbling, or sucking, I’m not exactly sure what they’re doing. There are hundreds of them in a frenzy surrounding the thing on my foot. There is no pain but it’s kind of unnerving to watch. I try to withdraw but Yossarian pushes me down. “Is Ichthyotherapy,” he says. “You like, feels good. Tiberius pay.”
I ask if his name is really Yossarian. He laughs and leaves the room. It smells awful, like diapers and fungus and lanolin. I sit there for a couple hours, repulsed, anxious, afraid, more afraid of what would happen if I tried to remove my legs from the pool than if I leave them in. Would these weird fish react with increased aggression and gnaw me to shreds? Would I have to scrape them off me like tapioca pudding? Eventually I notice things floating in the pool. They look like fat leaves, sort of, but then I see they are dead fish, the same breed that has been mouth nuzzling me all morning. As I gaze at the horror show unfolding on the south 40 of my body, I see fishes disengaging from the thing on my foot, trying to swim away, and within seconds exploding. Strings of mucus and organ fragments shoot into the water from the burst guts, each time launching precisely two bubbles to the surface. The pool is becoming dense with chum popcorn. It is completely and utterly revolting. But on the plus side, I feel great.
We arrive at Philadelphia Record Exchange on Frankford Street in the Fishtown neighborhood. Jacy Webster invites me to look around. I ask where the “who thought this was a good idea?” section is, and he directs me to the dozens of boxes on the floor, which contain just a fraction of the 60,000 platters acquired when the Temple University library decided to expunge LPs from their permanent collection. None of it’s sorted; to get me going, he puts Loneliness Is Such A Sad Affair on the stereo, an album by a mugwump afrosmith named Jeremy, whose crooning range does not exceed that of Jimmy Durante after a tracheotomy and whose joie de vivre rivals Marvin The Paranoid Android. I browse for about three hours, during which time only one other customer enters the store, thinking it’s a post office. I happen to have a stamp on me, but it’s a John Candy commemorative, good only in Canada, and my last one, so I’m not about to part with it.
For lunch at a seafood sports bar called Philadelphia Algaes, we gorge ourselves on yarbles-on-the-half-shell, sea scorpions with them damn grits, and the last bottle of California vinegar. A pair of guileless mouth-breathers who resemble malevolent scheisse-hund televangelist Jim Bakker (fuck me, that dude’s DNA is everywhere) listen to an Austin-Popper-wannabe at the next table pontificate on how to cook pasta. Selling his explanations of the mundane as profound revelations he is thinking up on the spot, he instructs his companions on the proper way to serve noodles with marinara sauce, “or as I like to call it, gravy.” He bemoans the current state of pesto in Eastern Pennsylvania. “What’s the deal with pumpkin seed pesto?” he demands of his slack-jawed cadre. “Have you ever had it? I can see subbing the seeds for pine nuts or cashews in regular basil pesto, can’t imagine it as the dominant ingredient with naming rights, though. When I have pesto for dinner, I wanna taste it in my mouth the next morning. Pumpkin seeds aren’t going to do that unless they get stuck between my teeth.”
He’s not wrong, but who cares. Tiberius and I take turns flinging Narragansett Lager coasters at him. “Made On Honor, Sold On Merit,” they say, whatever the hell that has to do with beer. We end it when Tiberius successfully lands one in the guy’s bowl of dinoflagellate soup and pretend to be preoccupied with the football game on TV. When Tiberius says “my Chiefth are kicking thome major ath today,” a cord of acetum immediately squirts out my nose. Once my dignity is restored, I make a note-to-self to create a collage piece for Bren’t Lewiis consisting of the marble-mouth blather of Ruffled Feathers from the old Go Go Gophers cartoon and call it “Pesto By Definition.” We head back to Tiberius’s place to fetch my gear for the show. As we turn the corner onto his block, we see a couple cops assisting a sad little junkie girl who lives on the corner, and four more cops standing around outside the Apeshit Neighbor’s house, their necks craned up toward a bedroom window. Screaming from inside is more than audible. There’s debris all over the sidewalk and a disemboweled plasma-screen TV propped up against Tiberius’s house. He asks one of the cops if someone could move the TV away from his place, just as the Apeshit Neighbor appears in the window, looks down at all of us, and makes note of him talking to the cops. Turns out she’d gone after junkie girl with a knife, accusing her of sleeping with her man. She also assaulted a lifeguard at the nearby swimming pool and stole food from a pizzeria around the corner.
As soon as we return to Philadelphia Record Exchange, the site of tonight’s show, a man approaches me. Before he can speak I say, “You look familiar, what’s your name?”
“Robert Carey,” he says and extends his hand. I slap it away, wrap my arms around him, and yell, “Yeah, that’s right, I’m bear-hugging Orchid Spangiafora!” I do not release him until it’s clear he’s having trouble breathing. (When I get to meet collage artists face-to-face for the first time, I don’t waste time on trifles such as propriety. Ask Ace Farren-Ford or Karen Constance about first contact with me and watch their faces grow ashen.) His album Flee Past’s Ape Elf is a tape collage / cut-up landmark, a masterpiece from which one can’t help but walk away muttering “Pat Boone’s dick in a box, and it comes in a can, Pat Boone’s dick in a box, and it comes in a can.”
More recently he has transported his collage skills to Photoshop, and his execution remains unfailingly exquisite. The front cover of Bren’t Lewiis’s Occupy Infantry, a disturbing reimagining of Marcel Duchamp’s Étant Donnés, is his work. One of his abstracts is the cover of Absent-Minded Control Freak by Glands Of External Secretion.
I ask him what he thinks of the photos of Lee Friedlander. He says he loves Friedlander’s stuff and has quite a few of his books. I remind myself that this micro-tour is primarily a recon mission and ask Robert if he would consider sharing a bill with Bren’t Lewiis when we come to town. He’s only done performed live three times that I know of — in 2013 at Yod with Matt Krefting, again with Matt at Philadelphia Record Exchange and in 2016 at Union Pool in Brooklyn with Conrad Capistran. His answer is polite and noncommittal, and fills me unfounded optimism.
Perched at a table that makes me feel like John Goodman hosting a tea party in a dollhouse, I begin with Lily McBilly’s video, including the audio for the first time. I had planned to fade in a loop of the quiet section of “When The Music’s Over” from The Doors’ Absolutely Live, where Jim Morrison screams “Shut up!” and threatens the audience with nothing but the bassline for the next half hour if they don’t comply, but at the last minute decide to go with Joni Mitchell’s “Help Me” at 16rpm instead. A bunch of the same electronic loops I used in the other shows come and go, as do thunks and beeps of varying speed and intensity from the Koma Elektronik field kit’s voltage-controlled oscillator; I apply a contact mic to a metal bucket I found in the back of the store, which effortlessly creates an overdriven scraping noise. I howl into the tiny talk-back box and manipulate the turntable function while holding it up to a tiny mic. It sounds like an elf at the bottom of a wishing well going pants-shitting bonkers. A multitrack mess of beautifully unacceptable fidelity sourced from an old cardboard promotional seven-inch made by Bing Crosby for Longines Symphonette ends it. I decide to use the set as a template for “Pesto By Definition.”
As I’m folding up the table purchased just for me by the Record Exchange, I realize the legs could be extended another sixteen inches, so I had just played for half an hour at a bizarre kiddie table for no reason.
After the show a bunch of us head to the Fishtown Tavern where Richie Charles of Ritchie Records is manning the taps. Ever the sentimentalist, I have to order a Narragansett, which, for an extra four bucks, I can get with a side of lobster. A local spiritualist soothsayer named Sarah Probbomir introduces herself (and numerous aunts and uncles, whom I cannot see but surely feel the presence of), and we spend the next hour or so hashing out the details for a collaborative philosophical treatise we’re going to write together called New Hope For Old Nihilists.
Max Milgram pulls the LAFMS hat out of his backpack and hands it to me. Someone left it at the store, he tells me, said it was mine. Max notices the chunks of shellfish floating in my beer and insists on taking Tiberius and me to a speakeasy operated by a guy he knows. It’s a “tell-anyone-and-I’ll-kill-you” kind of place. I suspect he’s putting me on (plus I don’t want to miss the sunrise chicken stampede), so I smile and nod, smile and nod, but as soon as Tiberius screams in his best “Ballroom Blitz” falsetto “all right fellas, let’s go-o-o-o-o-o,” I’m in. I mean, maybe there are people who can say no to mafia cheesesteak sashimi. I can’t.
The raw kobe beef at this undisclosed location is beautifully marbled and goes down like edible lingerie. Shipments of it are hijacked en route to Tokyo, apparently, and then smuggled to New York on a red-eye flight. I ask the beeftender, whose shirt indicates his name is Fat Freddy, if they have any brae beef. “Haven’t had anyone ass f’dat in fi’teen, twenny years. Brae beef, he sez.”
He serves us a complimentary side order of Époisses de Bourgogne on a knob of blue short grain rice, which is actually more of an indigo. Tiberius asks what kind of rice it is. Fat Freddy says it’s super-rare. Grown only in the pine barrens of New Jersey. Max wants to know how it gets its color. Fat Freddy says, “Butterfly Pea Flower tea,” and disappears into the kitchen.
I wake up at dawn on a sidewalk in the Northern Liberties neighborhood. Max and Tiberius are disappointed (and astounded, given the volume) that I slept through the thousands of chickens being shepherded to market through the streets. The only other visitor to have managed such a feat, they tell me, is Rian Murphy from Drag City. It’s Lowell all over again, except this time no amount of battering rams, Ninja moves and psychedelic Cambodian food are gonna save me, but at least I know how to pronounce “Khmer” correctly. No one can ever take that away.
We arrive at Tiberius’s house when the sun is still low in the sky. It is beautiful out. The air is crisp and clean, and everything seems bathed in glorious blue-ish light, like a gamma-corrected Greek restaurant. No welder’s mask required. The destroyed plasma TV is back in front of his house, and the screen to his living room window is slashed. I assume Tiberius is contacting the police, but I’m too wiped to keep up anymore, so I pass out on the couch.
After about an hour’s sleep, a brick comes crashing through the window and lands on my dick. I roll around on the floor, I hear Joni Mitchell at 16rpm and screaming that sounds like the violins from Psycho being ravaged by a bloodthirsty California Condor. I feel shards of glass crunching underneath me. It’s me who is screaming and I try to make it stop.
Tiberius comes in and immediately walks back out of the room. He calls out to me, “Check for broken skin and grab your stuff, we’re leaving.”
We arrive at Sang Kee Peking Duck, located in the huge Reading Terminal Market. Tiberius has been a steady customer since the first day they opened in 1985. He says they have the best ox lip stew in North America. The dumplings stuffed with silver meat from giant oarfish are delicious. I have a little trouble navigating the use of its red mane as a garnish but once Tiberius extinguishes the fire for me, I can manage. The deep-fried blue glaucus rolls, battered with Purell crème fraîche, hit like niacin poisoning, a delightful side effect from the sea slug retaining the poison of the jellyfish upon which it preys. Since Tiberius is a regular, we are given cups of larvae au gratin on the house. While the chef is flipping our three salts albatross feathers in the wok, he makes loud motorcycle noises. I whisper to Tiberius that it kind of looks likes some of his spit is getting in our food. “Of course it is,” he assures me, “That’s the third salt.”
We hit the donut counter in another corner of the mall, where Tiberius treats us to maple éclairs filled with sage-and-hoof crème before sending me on my way back to New York.
The meal at Sang Kee Peking Duck so sates me that I sleep on the train until the conductor aggressively and repeatedly clicks his ticket-puncher inches from my mouth-breathing face.
At the recommendation of the concierge at Mid-Life Crisis, who is dressed as a ginger owl for some reason, I have a late dinner at Corporal Clegg’s. With whom I should not say. The decor adds a fun, modern twist to Nazi doomsday bunker; dining is communal, inside small rooms made of ecologically-friendly green concrete. The genetically modified plants on each table fill the cubicles with the aroma of regurgitated grapefruit and old-school barbershop. We start with the soup of the day, dental retainer bisque. The entrée is armless iguana stuffed with manchineel berries served on a bed of swamp lettuce, with a side order of Korean black garlic noodles boiled in distilled celery water, topped with sweet-and-sour hog eyes.
Each dish is brought to the table by so many servers that the general energy level rivals the stateroom scene in A Night At The Opera staged in a revolving door. The ambiance of Corporal Clegg’s makes it impossible to converse in anything but transrational haiku. An idle comment that sitting on the cement benches make my ass hurt gets misheard as a comment about the English actor John Hurt, who is subsequently mixed up with William Hurt, star of (among other movies) Altered States, in which use of sensory deprivation tanks drives the action, and so we arrive at the distinct possibility that I am one of the closers in an illegal arms deal. By the time the asparagus wine aperitif is served, I am fairly certain there’s going to be a coup d’état in either Uruguay or Paraguay, not sure which, by the end of the year.
The limits of the social contract get an unexpected pop quiz soon after the plane pulls into the gate at the end of the flight back to San Francisco. The inquisitor on this occasion happens to be a universally loathed tech bro sitting in the row ahead of me. I watch my fellow passengers wait and stare in disbelief as he stands in the aisle with his back to the queue Yelp-reviewing into his cellphone various aspects of his flight. It is the proverbial needle getting dragged across the record that ends my tour euphoria and confirms unequivocally that I am home. What a thrill it must be for everyone to participate in a video selfie as he douche-splains his portion of a corporate “how’d we do?” survey to his YouTube channel subscribers. A sweet little ol’ lady with a suitcase three-fourths her size snarls as him, “Dude, you have to get the hell out of the way!” He turns around, shocked, is greeted by a river of not-amused faces, and steps back into his row.
The Afrosmith Thank You cards I intend to write once I get home will be done before lights out.
Dan Melchior's paintings of The Jersey Devil and Walt Whitman are returned to Tiberius Lax.