Blame the omnipresent iPod for ruining our music-listening attention spans forever. Judging by the rotating format of the Drag City Christmas Party (subtitled “It’s a Wonderful Next Life”), it seemed the organizers didn’t have much faith in the audiences’ listening longevity. They didn’t have much faith in the Bowery Ballroom’s heating system either–knit sweaters and scarves/hats were a somewhat odd entrance requirement to a Wonderful Next Life.
Weird War, the first of three acts on the bill, played three songs of glammed out, rant-y punk. (Smog) followed with three post-modern funereal dirges. Joanna Newsom rounded it out with her ethereal, woodland-nymph style harp. Then Weird War started the cycle again. Then (Smog) again, followed by Newsom. Then they did it all again. By the end of the evening, I felt pulled along on an emotional and musical rollercoaster, veering to and from death and beauty, irony and earnestness, sexual dysfunction and innocence. It mostly caused distopia and motion sickness instead of the perfect musical mélange I think Drag City was looking for.
At first I found the arrangement innovative. When Weird War’s Ian Svenonius first took the stage looking like an overgrown, petulant British schoolboy clad in an ill-fitting blue blazer and started jabbering about the ramifications of exporting commercial culture, I was intrigued. The first three songs (played in a style noted music website allmusic (www.allmusic.com) calls the “avant garage”) were mesmerizing and punchy. Watching Svenonius sneer like Mick Jagger and gyrate like Jim Morrison, I could understand why he was voted Sassy Magazine’s Sassiest Boy of 1991 back when he was still part of Dischord Records’ subversive hardcore army.
When Weird War went off stage, there was a brief darkness and a shuffling and the lights shone in a small corner of the Bowery Ballroom. Taking Svenonius’ place was the demure (Smog). While Svenonius strutted around the stage projecting energy, (Smog) (aka Bill Callahan) literally and figuratively navel gazed. He spent most of his three mini-sets staring down at his cowboy boots. It was all I could do not to sit down and cry when (Smog), with his resonant timbre and singular acoustic guitar, sang “All Your Women Things.” Then I did sit down and pondered the creepiness of lyrics like, “I gathered them [all your women things] and I made a dolly/ a spread eagle dolly/ out of your frilly things/ Why couldn’t I have loved you this tenderly/ When you were here in the flesh?”
I was still reeling from the image of (Smog) having his way with an empty pair of lace pantaloons when Joanna Newsom appeared, flouncing towards her harp in a flowery bodiced dress. It’s hard to talk about Newsom without discussing her physical appearance: She literally glistens. Her wide lips twist around mouthfuls of lyrics like, “And the mealy worms/in the brine will burn/ in a salty pyre/ among the fauns and ferns.” Newsom harkens back to an earlier age, projecting a folksy, nature-driven innocence that reminds me of Joan Didion’s portrait of Joan Baez in the story “Where the Kissing Never Stops.” At the end of the narrative, Didion shows Baez eating potato salad with her hands in the warm corner of a kitchen. With her small hands grasping the corners of her harp, I could picture Joanna Newsom and her animal-like mouth munching hungrily on something good.
After I was lulled into a sense of peace and well-being, it was a smack in the face to rev up with Weird War again. And then to slink low with (Smog). And mellow out with Miss Newsom. And then made to go through the same cycle again. By the time the entire crew hit the stage with an encore, covering Woodstock songstress Melanie’s “Ring the Living Bell,” I was completely spent. Watching the perma-smile of Joanna Newsom and the uncomfortable moue of (Smog) come together on the line, “God I want to live and ring the living bell,” was surreal at best; it capped off a bizarre evening with a suitably psychedelic finale.
After the show, I walked out onto Delancey Street where it was cold and quiet and snowing. Maybe Drag City accomplished its goal of preparing me for a “Wonderful Next Life” because, in a way, I felt reborn. At the very least I was completely disoriented. Perhaps this was their goal, to create something new, but not necessarily totally enjoyable. If so, mission accomplished. I tucked my knit scarf into the top of my knit sweater and boarded the subway.