Wednesday, July 7, 2010

The Void

Part 1: Night of a Hundred Beers



About ten years ago, my old band, Fat Day, went on our sixth or seventh tour. This tour involved a mini-opera that we wrote ("Oskarrensaga"), for which all the props were inflatable pool toys. Like all Fat Day projects, it was meticulously conceived, detailed to the point of obsession, immensely joyful for everyone who experienced it, and barely promoted or marketed in any way, beyond the almost-strategy of "rely heavily on friends in other towns to make cool shows for us and get their friends out to the shows". I think we secretly loved toiling in obscurity - it certainly made it more fun for the lucky few who did stumble across us, like they were members of some secret, elite club where people got to have fun and were free to just do stuff. And so they were. Anyway, it was fine for a band that wasn't particularly interested in increasing its fan-base beyond the bearded, awkward dudes hanging around the edges of the pit at cool punk shows. It's kind of impossible to describe how much fun it is to put on an explosive, homemade and totally new spectacle for a basement full of sweaty young people in a small town. And unless you've done it, it's hard to know the joy and satisfaction that can come out of getting totally ignored by anyone cool in a big city when you're trying to do the same thing - as long as it's a ridiculous enough thing to keep you entertained along with the twenty or so random bar-goers, weirdos, and rabid Fat Day fans who might show up in a town like Chicago.

Chicago. My home these last five years, I highly recommend it to all who ask. But there was a time when Chicago represented the low point of any tour, a place where no one knew my band or wanted to book us, but we had to stop here anyway cause how else were we gonna get from Kent to Fargo? The first tour set the scene for the experiences in years to come: we had a show with a tough-guy hardcore band at the Fireside Bowl, but the day we were gonna come play it we learned that the Fireside Bowl wasn't doing shows anymore, so the show was canceled. So we were saved the embarrassment of being the nerds in a room full of tattooed floorpunchers, instead spending the day in a traffic jam on the Kennedy Expressway on our way to Rockford. Welcome to Chicago!

Subsequent shows didn't treat us much better. Another that sticks out is the one where we thought we finally had the Chicago thing licked. Years later, we'd found our niche with the anarcho-vegan crowd, and got a show through some Boston ex-pats at the A-Space, a zine library / anarchist bookstore with a punk basement. Rumor had it that Martin from Los Crudos was planning to be at the show (was Limp Wrist playing? I don't remember!), and we had these super awesome analog synth helmets that we'd built ourselves and had written some pieces for. Fat Day 2.0 was in its infancy, ready to spring into full flower, and this was gonna be our coming-out party for the Chicago scene, and then all the punks in the world were gonna love us cause Martin was gonna be blown away and write about us in his zine and then MRR was gonna put us on the cover and Kill Rock Stars were gonna put out our records and we'd be famous! Punk-famous, anyway, which was what we wanted. I think. Anyway that's of course not how it worked out. There was a lot of humidity that day, and our helmets, ever sensitive to moisture in the air, decided not to work, so our always-laborious setup time was even longer than usual, and depressingly silent, with lots of uncomfortable shoe-gazing by the punks that came out for the spectacle. We finally went on without the helmets, our disappointment carrying over into a lackluster performance that didn't change any minds.

The Chicago icing though, the best Chicago show by far, was the "Night of a Hundred Beers". As I mentioned, we were doing this rock opera thing, Oskarrensaga, which involved, among other things, us inflating a sea serpent, a couple of swans, and a giant beach ball that we had painted to be an ogre head before each show. It was so awesome. Weasel Walter from the Flying Luttenbachers, an ally from way back, had booked the show, and his improv project Exoskeleton was playing, so it was sure to be a winner. No. No it wasn't. Weasel hadn't promoted the show, so no one came. There were these two kids that had driven three hours from downstate to see us cause they were, you know, fans, and then I think there was this one drunk guy and these three or four super done up teen girls who had ended up at the Fireside randomly. The evening wore on, and no Weasel, and no audience. The one other band that had shown up played (the charmingly named "C-Lit" from Detroit) and it got to the point where we just had to suck it up and do our set. As we were setting up one of the girls (who were pretty drunk) came up to us, batting her eyelashes and doing her best seductive coo, and said, "Um, it's my friend's birthday. Really! So could we like, play your instruments?"

Their version of "Happy Birthday" was so much better than anything Fat Day could ever have done. It was also the event which forever sealed Chicago's fate as the Worst Place for Fat Day to Ever Play.

Weasel eventually showed up as we were finishing our setup, and he brought his crew with him, the dudes in his band and also the dudes not in his band. As we finished our setup and played our set they remained in the bar, drinking and drinking. Apparently they had billed the show as, yes, the Night of a Hundred Beers, and so their mission was to, right, drink a hundred beers.

Welcome to Chicago!

(I just realized, I might be conflating two experiences that happened around the same time: in 1999 I went on tour with a band called the 914, and they played at the Fireside, and then the Fat Day Oskarrensaga tour was in 2001 or 2002 I believe, and had a Fireside stop as well. Exoskeleton played one of these, and Weasel booked the other one or possibly both. I don't actually remember which one was the Night of a Hundred Beers, so please forgive my faulty memory and correct me if you were there.)



Part 2: The Void



Weasel Walter first entered my consciousness sometime in the mid-Nineties, when my friend Morgan co-released a couple of the earliest records of his band, the Flying Luttenbachers. Morgan loved the way Weasel just went ahead and made it safe to put the free-jazz saxophone skronk in the DIY underground rock world. So did I. My band and I and our little scene always considered the Luttenbachers and their Chicago scene that included the Scissor Girls (the "New No Wave" scene) to be an evolution parallel to ours. The personality was a little different though: their abrasive aesthetic and complete embrace of art-as-revolution was a little cooler than the way Chimp Rock (yeah that was our scene) mixed no wave and noise with typical Boston obsessions like melodic indie rock (or in Fat Day's case, straight-ahead punk and hardcore). They were truer to their disaffectation than us emotional Cantabrigians. Still, in a world where you could count the people who found such dissections meaningful in the hundreds if not the dozens, they were kinfolk. The Scissor Girls played in my basement. Weasel wrote a song for my band.

Thus I describe Weasel as an ally, and so he remains. He eventually came to concentrate on drums, and the ever-shifting Luttenbachers lineups made it clear that it was simply the name he used for his solo project. His musical taste became better defined, and sometime around the early 00s he coined the term "brutal prog" to describe the suspension of all things sharp and angry that he mixed and matched in various solutions: death metal, free jazz, and the particularly ugly, symphonically-scaled prog rock of Magma and their "Zeuhl school" followers.

What can I say? I like it. Frances hates it. She picked it, though.

I guess Weasel's kind of an angry guy. He channels it into some great goof, though, as this clip from Chic-a-go-go shows. Few people make misanthropy seem so downright fun - or are they actually trying to make fun scary? I think they start with a lot of both, twist them all up together, and spit it out in a way that's just barely acceptable.

This record Frances picked, The Void, is from 2004 ("recorded... under the illegal Republican occupation of the U.S. government") and completes the Luttenbachers' 4-year project to chronicle the future demise of humanity over a series of albums that also includes 2001's Infection and Decline and 2003's Systems Emerge from Complete Disorder. The story, not a narrative so much as a loosely-defined plot on which to drape the ear-violence that Weasel and his friends here perpetrate, involves disease, its defeat of us people, establishing of a new order and eventual total cleansing into void. I guess it's the void itself that this album depicts. Unfortunately, I can't bring myself to listen to the other two records at the moment - I was fascinated by this project when it was happening back in the day, and while I still view it with a kind of respect and awe, I'm done with it, at least for now - so I'm not prepared to talk about how The Void is void-y, at least when taken as part of a larger work whose purpose is to trilogize the tale referenced above.

I do have some experience with the Flying Luttenbachers, and even more with music in general, so I think I can attempt to characterize its voidiness in those contexts. It's voidy. There's a lot of musical content, which is certainly not apparently voidy - but musical content is sound, a great medium to use if you want to describe the shape of something shapeless, having as it does no physical substance. If sound equals void, though, why can't we see the shape of nothingness in any given piece of music, like, say, "Fly Me to the Moon"? The content of music is emotion, and the closer you look, the more you find that emotion is what's been rigorously removed from The Void. (I suspect it's hard to find in any of Weasel's music, which makes it kind of arbitrary which album is actually the voidiest - but perhaps this is reason to think of this record as the clearest expression of his musical ideas.) There's a ton of proficiency; it's tightly constructed in its stream of consciousness and seemingly impossible to play, but there are no hooks at all, nothing to grab or take away. Anger? Rage? Nothing so emotional, no - the execution is passionate in how it avoids these. It's like these guys are playing until they sweat buckets and their arms fall off just to show how much they don't mean it. They really, really mean that they don't mean it. That's what separates Weasel's vision from his most obvious influences, and what makes this record such an achievement for him: it expresses what one can't in words, that the only logical response to all the hatred and misanthropy out there is to pull it inside you, remove its teeth and claws and present it back to the world nullified, as the shape of the void.

I get it. I feel the same way, or at least I have at times, and indeed the accepted narrative is that the infection of detachment and irony is the defining stance of my generation - those of us who were teens during the selfish 80s and formed our worldview in the years after Punk Broke. Meaning stuff is so dangerous for us. Our idealistic parents and little siblings don't get it, but we saw first-hand how the Firesign Theater turned into the National Lampoon and the Jefferson Airplane turned into Starship; Gallagher showed us that the hippies that went to Woodstock were the same yuppies that created Reagan; we saw how the coin was flipped and the revolution became its own undoing, and we vowed that we'd never give in. Our passion was in being whatever because whatever is the only thing that can't be turned into its opposite.

There's a hole in that argument though, which is that ironic detachment's nice when you've got the means, but not everyone can afford it. Some people don't have the luxury of not meaning stuff. "Gen-X" disaffected hipsterism always rang a little false to me; I always felt that I could see through the void to the other side, where words, actions and yes, music are allowed to have meaning. Despite their evident voidiness, I think the Luttenbachers get it too, their passion channeling into the strong intention to really mean it that they don't mean it. It's a pure void, direct kin to the urge to tell a story about ogres and fairies and populate its relation with pool toys - a liberation of music from the need to mean; by its dissembling, meaning all the things it's not allowed to say.


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