World Art #19 - 1999
Witness: Iggy and the Stooges, circa Raw Power, 1972-ish, supporting David Bowie at the Rainbow Theatre, London. This is a band completely OUT OF CONTROL. They have nothing to lose. The performance is blinding chaos, a renegade smash mix of Nijinsky and James Brown. This is serious. This is seriously sexy, smart, dangerous and dumb. Iggy Pop is so far into instinctsville that, like a saint, loaded with blind faith, he walks out onto a sea of hands, and they support him, and he knows they will, he knows that they are entranced. Today, this might not seem so unusual - stage diving, crowd surfing and all - but back then, it was phenomenal, you knew that this man could do anything. Nobody had done this stuff. With Bowie at the zenith of his career as a messianic object of idolatry and obsession, nine-tenths of the huge crowd had no idea who the Stooges were, and are frothed with effluvia at the very idea, the greedy anticipation of seeing the figure of their fixation. And Iggy Pop - a mere distraction - just goes out and walks on a sea of compulsion.
Bands like the Stooges, Suicide, Beasts of Bourbon, and yes, The Birthday Party, are the real deal. They are as close as you can get, the fragile dividing line between performance and possession. But the line fragments and shatters, and that is when it happens: That is when Art becomes dangerous.
This is how the whole thing started, it's the reason why records were banned, and Bible-belt Christians held record burnings. From the flames rose Elvis Presley, Gene Vincent and the Blue Caps, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bill Haley and the Comets. Bill Haley? Even this chubby, balding, middle-aged man was perceived as a threat to the very heart of the American family.
Performances were riots - screaming, fainting, sobbing, angry riots. When the movie Rock Around The Clock opened, the audience lost it. Seeing their music, recognized and captured on film, was too much - upholstery was slashed, seats were torn from the floor and hurled at the screen. This is not contradictory behavior: rock'n'roll is a music born of inarticulate rage, a primal scream of consciousness and the pain that accompanies such a state. And this state of grace was occupied by both performer and audience. Gut reaction. Animal Instinct.
We tend to think of this cross confrontation as something firmly planted in Punk rock, but Punk was just putting rock'n'roll back on the track, Jack.
The level of emotional commitment from the artist is frightening and self-destructive. Forget about Drugs, and Fast Cars, this is an emotional auto-da-fe. I'm talking Nick Cave beating his head on the rim of the snare drum until he bleeds; Jerry Lee Lewis torching his piano. I'm talking Iggy Pop taking a broken bottle to his chest; Sid Vicious carving Please kill me across his skinny white torso; Jim Morrison debasing himself in any number of ways, and punching out a movie camera at the Hollywood Bowl, the entire lip of the stage occupied by the LAPD. Riot! Girls! Riot! Confrontation, intelligent aggression. Rock'n'Roll in its purest form, in its epiphany, is the mainline to your heart of darkness.
Ask yourself, how real do I want my Art? Is it passive decoration? Is it mentally and emotionally challenging? Do you want it to touch? Because it could be physical touch, it could be a wonderful fucked-up dream of Real Life, a dream that leaves scars.
The evidence is everywhere: witness Metallic KO - The Stooges final performance, live in their death throes. The badly recorded sound of falling apart, of confrontation cutting both ways. This recording is so pathetic and offensive that it becomes magnificent. In an act of complete self destruction and contempt, they dismiss their incredible brilliance altogether, insisting on playing songs that are so lame I cannot even truly admit it to myself. Iggy puts on his most offensive and whining tone - "This song is called, 'I've got a Caarrk in my Paarrket'". Between songs, he keeps a running commentary of items being launched at the band - "There goes an expensive Nikon camera." Then taunting, "Puh-leeze Mister Audience, don't go home!" Merciful fate steps in to end this indignity, with a knock-out. There is a group of bikers in the audience. They are there to initiate a new member; his mission, Jim, if he should choose to accept it? To annihilate Iggy Pop. Live and onstage. Action creates reaction.
"He's wearing studded leather gloves, ladies and gentlemen," observes Iggy on his way to the showdown. And down he goes.
I'm not saying this is good - one of the 20th century's finest, self-destructing - but I am saying that it's real, it's pure, and it's as close as you can get to the truth. To go onstage and stand there naked and steeped in adrenaline and neuroses and wilful fucked-upness is an amazing act, to continue until you are only aware of your actions in the most abstract way, to keep going when you've hit Snake-Brain, that is the truth.
These actions get confused with excess, in both the minds of the audience and the artist - because to come off stage, after the-truth-as-you-don't-even-know-it, fucking hurts. You're left stranded in a world that's become so intense that it's burning you alive, all hyped up with no where to go. So, quite naturally, you seek sanctuary. Just let the girls and the drugs into your arms, in the search for sleep and solace, for continued purpose. So as to allow you the sanity to keep on working, to survive. But that's not the point, that's later - sooner or later, that is.
Witness: The London School of Economics, 1980, The Fall supporting The Cramps. The two bands are anathema to each other - The Fall's pretension is to be completely unpretentious - The Cramps, to be Aliens (which back then, with the remarkably offensive genius of Bryan Gregory, on guitar, they almost acheived). Mark E. Smith and Kay Carroll, (Fall singer/autocrat, and manager/girlfriend), take Lux Interior to the witch-trials. Hauling him before a mirror, they demand that he gaze upon his reflection.
"Look at yourself, you look fuckin' ridiculous!" Righteous indignation with a damning Mancunian accent. Lux takes in his reflection: Huge quiff, naked torso, gold leather hipsters, and winkle-picker ankle boots. Dead Elvis. What's not to like?
While The Cramps play, the stage is completely swamped by the audience - switching the two guitarists effects pedals on and off, a boy takes Nick Knox's spare drum sticks and beats the floor tom erratically. Ivy chews gum, ice-maiden style, Lux jams the microphone into his screaming mouth, Bryan Gregory wiggles his skinny ass and shoots members of the crowd with a plastic gun loaded with ping-pong balls, Nick Knox decides that he is now superfluous and leaves his domain to the amateur. Panic! Panic! Panic! This is now, officially, a riot. The stage is as crushed as the audience, there has been a communication of chaos. A year or two later, after Mr. Gregory's sad departure, The Cramps lapse into parody, essentially becoming cabaret. Wild spontaneity, played move for move every single night.
It's slow death. For a while though, they had the truth.
Witness: The Birthday Party, somewhere in London, Winter, 1981. This is the big showcase gig. Lots of industry types: publishers, A&R men, general Big Wheels and journalists are going to be in attendance. The rider (alcohol provided in accordance with the contract) is sucked down at soundcheck, these people have no idea who they are dealing with. Afterwards, slightly less endorsed substances come into play. When stage time arrives, three-fifths of the band, myself included, are wasted men. The memories grow hazy at this point, is it shame or adrenaline?
Who knows, fewer care.
I remember Tracy Pew falling flat on his face, his bass exploding in a sub-sonic boom as he and it hit the floor with all the weight of the near unconciousness. It takes a good minute - a long time in a song - for Tracy to find his drunken feet and locate the song. We begin the next number; the introduction lasts a lifetime: Nick Cave is too busy battling some maniac in the crowd to be bothered singing. The song does start, but it's like we're all in different rooms, not for the first time Mick Harvey and I, extreme stage left and right, just stop playing and look at each other in disbelief. Nick is trying to scale the PA stack, but keeps falling down. Everything is falling down. I'm finding this hard to believe, we are onstage, nominally playing a song and Nick is beating a maniac over the head with the mike stand. The song dies - the hall is filled with the sound of the microphone, in all its reverberated glory, repeatedly smashing someone's skull...
If I stand here, I'm condoning this action, but to walk off would be traitorous, and at a time and a place like this there is no guilt, there are no excuses. It seems to go on forever, I've never seen an audience with their heads in their hands before... it is very, very bad. In my state of chaos I'm first off stage, first in the band room, slumped in a chair, mortally depressed. The door opens and a giant walks in, he is drenched in blood, and I am thinking "Oh my God, has he come to kill?" He's on me then, smiles like he's going to eat me, holds out his massive blood-stained paw and says, "Best gig I ever saw." Shaking my hand, he nearly breaks every bone in my body. This is the musical equivalent to skydiving.
It is essential for all truly great bands to be capable of being the best or worse band on the planet at any given time, because this is not entertainment, it's not about the audience, it's certainly not about adulation; the audience are something to react against, to rage against.
JUST LIKE ALTAMONT.
These things have kept me going, seeming to appear in my life when my belief in the power of live performance is at its lowest ebb. . Most recently, it was the Beasts Of Bourbon at the Lava Lounge in 1997.
Pay-off: Like all the best groups, the Beasts of Bourbon look like a gang: a gang of lazy, insolent, sneering, lascivious and threatening men. Cocksure would be another word. Whereas in the other case-studies I've been removed by history or participation, here I was an observer, a member of the masses, and eventually a believer. The night is a time-bomb, ticking hard, persistent, loud. Getting under your skin and rubbing it up the wrong way. Which, in this case, is the right way. I am a designated target by being the first of two support acts; I'm playing solo, or I was until Mister Perkins climbed on board - on drums, ladies and gentlemen - Tex Perkins. We play one song and go down in flames. Mister Perkins is over-heated, he's WHITE-HOT, an angry man. Tex Perkins, slash, Anger, slash, Tex Perkins, same difference. He's angry about what he perceives to be the lack of moral support and admiration I receive from the audience. Later, he's angry about the amount of moral support and admiration the Black-Eyed Susans receive from the audience. And he's drinking: He's not angry because he's drinking, he's drinking because he's angry. So by the time the Beasts slouch into Bethlehem, the center cannot hold. It doesn't take long for the abuse to start: Crowd abuse, microphone abuse, road-crew abuse, band abuse, and then the audience has to get in on the act. By which time it's degenerated into EVERYTHING ABUSE! There's an inarticulate electricity zooming the room, crackling with sibilant rage. Slowly but surely the debris starts to fly, stagebound.
Tex: "Sure, throw whatyou like at us." Brian Hooper steps up to the mike: "Throw whatever you like at him, but not at us." Tex: "Yeah, they can't take it." Brian, challenged, goes back to the mike: "Okay, throw whatever you like like, at whoever you like." The Beasts, as always, are a band divided, working together. Song starts. Tex: "Come on! Hit me, hit me here!" He slaps his forehead. Anger rising. And that's when it happens, like a dream. Tex is standing stage front and center, stuck by the spotlight, when a beer bottle zooms in from the crowd, and with a spray of blood, connects with his head. Hard. He folds at the waist, rag-doll style. Minutes grind uneasily by. When Mister Tex Perkins straightens up, he is blood from brow to belt. Incredibly, they keep playing, and minutes later, as if coming to, Tex, delayed-reaction style, snaps, seizing whatever he can lay his hands on and hurling it into the crowd. Blood is in the air. The security men (thinking law-suit) crush on stage to stop him. The audience are baying like wolves on crack cocaine. Complete breakdown of civilization is pre-empted by someone with a degree in world-class diplomacy, but it's all over, complete fucking chaos.
Truly one of the greatest nights of my life. Later I overhear a little girl, breathlessly saying, "It was just like Altamont!! Just like Altamont!!" The men don't know, but the little girls understand.
Honorary mentions go to Suicide's 23 Minutes Over Brussels, a sometimes-inarticulate portrait of a band and audience at complete cross-purposes. Playing to an audience of hardcore Clash fans (who are presumably bored with the USA). Suicide's alienating minimalism versus the Clash's football-terrace singalongs, battle against the overwhelming odds of complete hostility and stolen microphones. During their second attempt at "Frankie Teardrop", Alan Vega is reduced to bawling "Shut the fuck up!"
All of the aforesaid have contributed to the purist form of Performance art, gone the distance, and beyond the call of duty, turning what to most is entertainment, into art-form. Modern-day saints and visionaries all, blessed and cursed with the ability to transcend. Ladies and gentlemen, Elvis has not left the building.
- Rowland S. Howard