Ann Magnuson at Joe’s Pub
Former New York artstar and current L.A. Woman Ann Magnuson was in town Friday to promote her new CD, Pretty Songs & Ugly Stories, with two sets at the esteemed Joe’s Pub, and Culturebot was in attendance. Two editors, two shows, one downtown legend. Reactions after the jump.
Magnuson emerged from black curtains onto the stage at Joe’s Pub looking like what for all intents and purposes she is: New York’s fairy godmother (or is that New York’s fairies’ godmother?) clothed in a white ball gown and brandishing a wand. Accompanied by her producer Kristian Hoffman on piano and the Loser’s Lounge band, with Tish and Snooky of Manic Panic fame providing backing vocals, Magnuson debuted songs from her new CD, Pretty Songs & Ugly Stories, to an ecstatic crowd. Things started amiably enough, a demure thank you to the audience, a quick shuffle of the music stand, and then we were in Magnuson-land for the next hour and a half. The opening number, “Falling For An Actor,” led into a lament for how few charismatic leading men grace the silver screen today. “The Rock? Vin Diesel? Aren’t they the same person?” she quipped. Magnuson informed the crowd she’d just inked a distribution deal for her album, sparing her “from D.I.Y. hell…until the next time.”
She followed the kicky “Disassociation” by picking up her guitar to strum the stirring psychedelic-folk song “I Met An Astronaut,” a number tinged with a nostalgia for lunar landings and an America that was once Camelot. Lest the audience get too comfortable, the hazy remembrances were shattered when Magnuson launched into a spoken-word riff, half-in Mandarin Chinese, before flinging her petite frame into the audience, lifting her gown to hump one audience member, grab another’s drink and spew it into the crowd, fling food, then strip off her gown — revealing a pair of red-fringe pants — and finally back to the stage to smash a bouquet of daisies resting on the piano like they were Pete Townshend’s guitar, sending a shrapnel of petals all over the front row of tables. Take notes kids, that’s how it’s done!
Miss Pussy Pants kept the energy up, shimmying and ponying to songs “Full of Fuck” and her ode to MILF-dom, “Old Enuf 2 Be Yer Mom.” In her black tank top, I couldn’t help but appraise her lithe frame. Fuck Madonna, Magnuson’s body and energy are incredible for her age– she’s a radiant performance art pixie! Ageless, it seems.
While Magnuson retired backstage for a costume change, she left special guest Adam Dugas to entertain with a cover of Bowie’s “Lady Stardust,” a technically adept rendition that lacked the precedent of depth and danger that Magnuson had set.
Back onstage, Magnuson, now clad in a black evening gown, again sentimentalized the New York of a not-so-distant past. “How do you still afford it here?” She asked. She told of finally having to surrender her apartment on Avenue A, which she’d had for years, and for which she was paying a paltry four hundred-plus dollars. She told of her last night, unable to sleep, which left her wandering the East Village in the near-twilight, wondering where the fabulous freaks had gone, replaced by frat daddies and drunken Jersey girls. When she sang “Whatever Happened to New York” it carried a sense of loss beyond just skyrocketing rents and the malling of Manhattan.
The set ended, Ann left the stage to sell Cd’s, greet fans and rest up before the second show. I left thinking about her little place on Avenue A, the one she was forced to leave. You can’t go home again, this evening made perfectly clear, but if only she still had her little pied-à-terre, maybe she’d make more than a scant few appearances in New York. If for nothing else than to remind us of the magic we once had, and maybe, just maybe, the magic we can recapture again.
So while Mike caught the early show I went to see Ann Magnuson’s 11:30 show on Friday night at Joe’s Pub. My companion was a serious Ann Magnuson fan, I am only passingly acquainted with Ms. Magnuson’s oeuvre, mostly the work of Bongwater. The crowd was a mix of the new and Old Guard of Downtown nightlife. I saw David Herskovits and Mickey Boardman from Paper and Choire Sicha – who was a gallerist and art world scenester before taking the editorial helm of the Gawker empire – in the crowd. Dirty Martini was there and I saw Justin Bond backstage after at the merch table. I’m sure there were countless other downtown artstars that I didn’t recognize. The audience seemed light, even for an 11:30 on Friday, but the house was warm and appreciative.
At first Ms. Magnuson’s voice seemed a bit tired and strained. I don’t think she had much time to rest between shows. But her spunk, energy and irreverence saved the day. Her eclectic and ironic repertoire – drawn, as far as I could tell, entirely from her new album – was witty and charming. She ran through the audience stripping off her gown, had a freakout spoken-word moment backed by the riff from Led Zeppelin’s “Dazed and Confused”. Overall she made it very clear why she is regarded as a respected pioneer of that unique Downtown Genre I call Punk Rock New Wave Performance Art Cabaret. The surreal musical riffs and the post-ironic all-knowing world-weary stories were delivered with an air of rootless cosmopolitanism and a yearning for an imagined – and better and vanished – New York. It made for a strange mix of feelings. I loved the show, Ms. Magnuson did a great job, but at the same time it seemed a little bit like a nostalgia trip. Because even though I only caught the tail end of freaky NYC I miss it, too, the time before downtown was strangled by red velvet ropes and 3AM cabaret shows for the Lindsay Lohan set. The time when freaks moved amongst us and were not relegated to serving as court jesters for celebutards, yuppies and eurotrash. It really was only a few years ago that the LES was still alive and kicking, when there actually seemed to be a counterculture.
As enjoyable as Ms. Magnuson’s show was, it seemed to be more of an elegy for New York than anything else. It left me a little melancholy.
There was a musical interlude while Ms. Magnuson changed costumes that left me more wistful than anything. The dulcet tones of Adam Dugas’ lounge-style re-interpretation of David Bowie’s “Lady Stardust” left me feeling conflicted, too. He’s an able enough singer, but his interpretation lacked edge. I remember listening to that song as a teenager and imagining NYC as an edgy, pansexual world-transforming freak show; I remember listening to Ziggy Stardust, trapped in my suburban Hell and dreaming of a world where all the outcasts and misfits came to play together in rock and roll heaven. As Ms. Magnuson said, we all came to the city to get away from wherever we were, we came here to be where it was at. And nowadays New York doesn’t feel like where it’s at. At least not the “downtown” that is being vigilantly guarded behind velvet ropes and nostalgia.
By way of contrast, two weekends ago I attended Earl Dax and Jen Gapay’s Bitchslap at Luke & Leroy’s and, watching these 20-something freaky queer kids making their own thing happen, I had hope once again. They couldn’t give a fuck about what happened in the 80’s or even the 90’s, except to steal the fashions. They are young, raw and amateurish but they are on to something. The kids are alright. Keep you eyes out for them.