From Nellie McKay to Iron Butterfly

I remember the first time I saw the Grateful Dead. Well, actually, I don’t remember very clearly. It was sometime in 1983 or 1984, I was too young to drive but one of my friends’ older brothers was really into them and somehow we ended up going. At least I think that’s what happened. I can’t imagine that any of our mothers’ would have allowed us to go.

(Random side note, through the magic of Facebook I just found out that my high school friend Steve is now a philosophy professor at Gettysburg and wrote a book on Philosophy and the Grateful Dead!)

Anyway, the thing is, that it was an overwhelming experience – all these crazy-looking people doing weird stuff, all kinds of little dramas and surreal scenarios unfolding all around, and a few regular-looking guys onstage playing songs that went on forever, frequently transforming from songs into feedback and noise and strange Sci-Fi soundscapes. I was fascinated and excited by the promise of exoticism, rebellion and new worlds, certainly this was the strangest thing my sheltered 14-year-old suburban self had encountered. At the same time I was occasionally really bored. Everyone seemed to operating on some different level and I didn’t quite know why. Then I dropped acid.

This weekend I saw two very different shows that caused me to reflect back on what I learned from acid: Nellie McKay at the Rubin Museum and Fire Island at 3 Legged Dog.

On Friday night I went to see/hear Nellie McKay as part of the Rubin Museum’s wonderful series called “Naked Soul” where they present musicians in their intimate 137-seat concert hall with absolutely no amplification. You get to hear musicians from close-up, exactly as they really sound, unadorned, in a room with great acoustics. It is about as minimal and direct of an artistic experience as you can have.

I had never heard Nellie McKay before; I kind of went on a lark. I thought she was like Norah Jones and I figured it would be a fun, mellow way to spend a Friday night. Friends that I trust said she was good but I was dubious. I’m not a big “mellow singer-songwriter chick” person. (Actually, I probably am, I love Aimee Mann and Carole King and… okay I guess I like girl singer songwriters. So sue me.) The point being that Nellie McKay was awesome! In some ways more like performance art than music. She is quirky and unpredictable, she seems to come for somewhere out of time, that place that artists like Bob Dylan inhabit, that imaginary past where all eras come together, where Einstein waltzes with Little Annie Oakley, where flappers and philosophers share cocktails while Tiny Tim sings headlines from the News of the Day.

Initially I was resistant. Nellie came onstage wearing a bright red sash, sat at the piano without acknowledging the audience and started playing. But I soon found myself drawn into her world. By the time she did a cover of “Mrs. Brown You’ve Got A Lovely Daughter” accompanying herself on ukulele and complete with cockney accent, I was smitten. Eventually she spoke to the audience, joking about everything from Baby Mama to Obama, weaving her own idiosyncratic narrative between the songs and drawing us into her funhouse world. The completely acoustic, unmediated performance was so satisfying and so warm, it reminded me of what I love, truly, about music or theater or anything live – the experience of entering into someone else’s creative head space. Towards the end of the concert Nellie did this strange song about Zombies and she must have gone on for a good five or seven minutes improvising about various Zombies (“Hillary Clinton Zombie! Reverend Wright Zombie! Dick Cheney Zombie!”) and then sort of scatting/howling/soloing in this completely unaffected, pure way. I’m sure that at this point in her career there is a level of artifice to this – there must be. At the same time I’m surmising that she has created this persona as a protective measure in some way. By creating the persona it allows her the space to be authentic onstage, she has created this little bubble of security so when she gets inside the song she can go wherever she wants, wherever her imagination takes her and, what’s most important, is that we trust her and go along.

Which ties into my whole Grateful Dead/Acid thing. Back then I learned about how to enter the audience/artist relationship with a sense of, I don’t know, let’s say “mutually subjective presence.” The artist is going into a place of interiority and, hopefully, bringing forth something unique and compelling. As the audience member we go into a similar place in ourselves, or we tap into that place and bring it into the auditorium where we willingly go where the artist takes us – we must be present, open and attentive. In a way, the auditorium or theater is like the meeting ground of the subconscious where the artist and audience choose to suspend time, place and normal reality to enter into a mutually agreed-upon imaginary landscape. The success of the experiment lies in the artistry of the performer and the openness of the audience. It is a tricky, unstable and fragile engagement, but when it works, it is magic. But there are many times and many reasons why the magic doesn’t happen. As I’ve gotten older and more experience I’ve tried to enter into the audience/artist dynamic with a split brain. I try and keep one part open to the “mutually subjective presence” while another keeps a running tab on the logical side of the world – the references, the technique, the text, the movement, the construction of the piece. It’s a bit of a juggling act and can feel schizophrenic at times, but it is necessary. That’s why we take notes, to quickly jot down the things the logical mind references so we can quickly re-enter (if possible) the subjective experience of the performance.

Which leads me to Fire Island at 3 Legged Dog. I have a page full of notes from trying to keep track of the complete sensory overload. So in the spirit of the show itself and in homage to Tom Wolfe, I will just sort of string them all together:

Electric Kool Aid Acid Test Naked Girl Running from room to room Fractured narrative Focus Why Have People At All? GirlGirl LIVE GuyGuy VIDEO Robert Altman Cherry Grove (did they read the book about its fascinating history?) Peter Sellers THE PARTY on a TV with fake cocaine WHO IS THAT GIRL FILMING THIS WHOLE THING WITH A DIGITAL CAMERA AND ENGINEER BOOTS AND A NECKLACE WITH A SIX? I KNOW I KNOW HER FROM SOMEWHERE….Drug-addled weekend at the beach with friends, that movie with Alan Cumming and Jennifer Jason Leigh…Cherry Grove… But what about THE MEAT RACK? What about the GAYS? Drag Queens. The Invasion. I mean, really. A “happening” elliptical suggestions of deeper meaning like acid revelations but you wake and then they’re gone “Every 15 minutes I feel ashamed” Tuvan Throat Singing Zeppelin Joy Division “Love will Tear Us Apart” OH! Okay two men in late-middle-age obsessing on lost love, failures of masculinity and naked nubile young women. Bukowski, Raymond Carver “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” THE OLD PEOPLE on the beach are an elegy to eccentricity the lost America the lost New York a FIRE ISLAND OF THE MIND a place in time and memory THE COCKETTES misrule HOPE the possibility of change NOW IS THE TIME TO TELL HOW THIS IS THE SEASON OF WHAT the eleven SATURATION DISCONNECTION TRY AGAIN but really, no, really, TRY AGAIN because what is the total immersion live art happening theatrical event of the future? STUMBLING TOWARDS SOMETHING LOOKING BACKWARDS ephemerality 3D hologram time-travel dislocation and place and time mediation miscommunication when we all become virtual when we all become overwhelmed when we all yearn for connection and yet cannot connect WHO’S THAT GIRL? STUMBLING TOWARDS SOMETHING looking FORWARD TRY AGAIN look deeper TRY AGAIN be open TRY AGAIN connect. ONLY CONNECT.

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