Monday, October 26, 2009

Crying over spilt milk

The fusion of rock ‘n roll with High Art has produced some great successes; I think of Captain Beefheart’s deconstructionist concrete poetry, the Velvet Underground ‘s pop-art primitivism, even the Sex Pistols’ juvenile-delinquent brand of Dadaism. But this hybrid has also engendered many embarrassing flops, from Yoko Ono’s experiments in atonal scream therapy to the baroque wanking of high-concept prog-rock bands like Yes and Genesis. Art and Rock have always been uneasy bedfellows, especially when the one is deliberately grafted upon the other.

It was into this treacherous arena that my band, provisionally titled Harsh Realm, was foolish enough to venture for last night’s engagement at the Plaines Project. We’re barely a band to begin with. My dear friend John Bellows, with whom I’ve palled around musically for years, enlisted Billy Joyce and myself to serve as his band for a concert back in June. Calling ourselves L.B.J.F.K.F.C., we decided to treat the audience to the grandest and most ingratiating spectacle possible; dressed in golden robes, we plied the crowd with candy, tequila and ice-cream cones, employed a fog machine, and littered our set with lowest-common-denominator crowd pleasers, closing the night with a rousing cover of Garth Brooks’ Friends in Low Places. The drunken and raucous audience went wild, and we were able to masquerade, somewhat convincingly, as Rock Gods. It was a transcendent night. Then Billy left town for the summer.

When John reconvened the band two weeks ago, we felt strongly that in addition to learning some new songs, we’d have to cook up an even more ambitious spectacle, to outdo our prior effort. It was my brilliant idea to put on a Happening. For the modern reader, unschooled in history: Happenings were a type of high-concept sex party devised in the mid-60s—LSD was still legal!—to freak out the Establishment and indulge in Dionysian weirdness. Young waifs wandered around dressed in tin-foil; “You’re a cow,” they’d mutter provocatively, slipping a pill between your lips. “Give us some milk or go home.” High art—surrealist romps for the young and hip.

It seemed like a workable plan; never mind that we’d be performing not in Andy Warhol’s decadent Factory but in the cramped and dingy basement of the Plaines Project. If we succeeded in detonating enough high-octane freakiness, I calculated, the place would practically levitate. It would be a Happening. I’d seen it succeed this summer, at the Bitchpork Festival: Club Sashet closed out the night with a profoundly psychedelic performance, an epic riot of color and noise that culminated in the crowd of 50+ writhing around in an orgasmic stew of food, slime and glitter. For an exhilarating half-hour, all referents to usual reality were totally annihilated.

We’d attempt something like this, then, but also poke a bit of fun at the whole idea—performance art seemed ripe for satirizing. No one would no where the joke ended and the Art began, and a solid rock ‘n roll soundtrack would provide the momentum. What could go wrong? Best of all, we’d enlist our talented and uninhibited friends for the orgy-inducing absurdist performance-pieces. To add some gravitas to the endeavor, we adopted the Fluxus moniker—wearing the badge of a decades-old art movement would take care of our credentials. I made up programs, announcing the premiere of Harsh Realms: an International Rock & Roll Fluxus Happening. Included was the phone number for our Fluxus Hotline—the unsuspecting Patron of the Arts would reach, after several rings, the Lincoln Park branch of Chuck-E-Cheese. Where, y’know, a kid can be a kid.

Within this framework, the ideas came fast and furious. How about a sexy crucifixion? An army drill sergeant, leading the crowd in childish taunts? We were not setting the bar high for sophisticated artistic discourse—this was a rock show, after all—but were confident we’d at least set a tone of breathless bewilderment. And so we loaded Billy’s trunk up with gory props and Fluxus doo-dads, and headed for the show.

Signs of trouble came early in the evening; several of our performers seemed reluctant to participate, we were not well-organized, and Billy himself developed cold feet. “We didn’t plan this well,” he balked. I would hear none of it, so focused was my vision. “What could possibly go wrong?” I insisted—an ominous provocation, it would turn out. I could understand stage fright, but we were here for a greater purpose. Art would reign.

But, as soon as our set began, red flags began appearing that even I could not ignore. After our first song—direly out of tune, I’m afraid— Billy fired the first salvo, nailing a big, bulbous slab of raw chicken to the wall behind his drumset. It was meant, I suppose, as a sort of declaration, our Fluxus version of Luther’s 95 Theses. In this harsh realm, we demand: raw meat! That was the idea. But the crowd just stared dumbly, and indeed it did look kind of stupid—just a piece of chicken nailed to the wall. What’s so great about that? And a waste of chicken, no less. But we pressed on to our second number. The next performer was our friend Molly, a last-minute understudy for the part. She’d recently been banned from the Plaines Project, but we thought that in the forthcoming psychedelic love-in it this would be water under the bridge. Her role was a cosmic one: she’d sail through the crowd, wearing a long white gown and chugging a gallon of cold milk, shrieking all the while. A statement about femininity or something. “Do whatever you want with it,” I encouraged.

So Molly sailed into the room, only a minute or so off cue, and proceeded to stumble around the crowd, in a sort of hideous parody of voluptuousness, pouring the entire gallon of milk all over herself, her neighbors and the floor. Ripping her gown off, she writhed in mock-ecstasy, smearing herself with milk. I, for one, thought it was an admirably executed performance, but the audience seemed to recoil—with disgust? Boredom? Or simply wanting to keep their clothing milk-free? Regardless, the mood was not where we wanted it to be.

Another rock ‘n roll song, another “performance”. Chip was supposed to be draped in an American flag, reading the preamble to the Constitution—before he has a chance to finish, John shoots him in the head with a glitter gun. But, unable to find an American flag, we were forced at the last minute to dress him in a dollar-store Indian headdress. As he stood there, reading these hallowed words in his worst Sitting Bull accent, I began to wonder what sort of message we were sending, and realized I hadn’t the faintest idea. A bad sign. The crowd seemed ambivalent, or possibly hostile.

More music. The tone of our “art” would only grow crasser. For the next piece, we’d enlisted our friend Brett to re-enact the egg-eating scene from Cool Hand Luke; with the exuberant support of the crowd, he’d attempt to eat a dozen hardboiled eggs. Only, just as Brett was beginning, Carter, a resident of the Plaines Project, stormed through the crowd, swiped the carton of eggs, and stormed back out of the crowd. Apparently furious over the spilt milk—the basement might stink for weeks—he was determined to prevent any further food-related messes. Brett, playing the clock, attempted a rather leaden stand-up routine. Then, during the next song (a George Jones cover, of all things), the power went out repeatedly. Nobody knew what was happening, what was Fluxus and what was just shit going wrong. The performance continued to deteriorate. Our Christ, dressed as a city worker and wearing a false beard, was having trouble holding onto her cross. Another Plaines Project resident burst into the room, screaming and flailing around in drunken fury. People began to leave.

Our last number was supposed to be a cover of John Lennon’s harrowing Mother, during which the grim reaper would emerge and smash a pair of giant pumpkins. We had the church-bell intro on Lennon’s CD all cued up, for full dramatic effect, but our friend running the CD player didn’t cut the intro on time and the recorded song pre-empted our entry. At this point the performance had become such a thorough embarrassment that Billy kicked over the drum kit and declared the show over. There was milk everywhere. “That was… weird,” I heard someone comment.

The Plaines Project residents were livid. None of our friends would look at or talk to us. Billy and John were mortified. I was mortified too, but also, strangely, exhilarated. Finally, some action! Not, maybe, the most constructive type of action, but something had happened, and people were angry and confused. Surely that was good for something! It wasn’t by any stretch of imagination good art, but I figured the “good art” end of things was already well-covered—there are always some great exhibits at the Museum of Contemporary Art, and they even have a weekly free day, sponsored by corporate giant Target. We really just wanted to have some fun. It turns out that milk-fights and mock-crucifixions aren’t everyone’s idea of fun. Now we know. We’ve apologized profusely to everyone involved, and have sworn never to dabble in Art again.

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