TONIC (10-22-00) Irwin Chusid; Bingo Gazingo; Peter Grudzien; Peter's friend Rich (Richard Schmonsees); BJ Snowden; Daniel Johnston.
Nominally part of the CMJ festival, this Tonic show was promoted as "A Curious Evening of Outsider Music," and it was that, and then some. Hosted by Irwin Chusid, whose book /CD compilation "Songs in the Key of Z" chronicles and defines-- in so far as it's possible to define it-- Outsider Music, I think it's safe to say this was not a show anyone present is going to forget any time soon.
The evening commenced with a reading from "Key of Z" by Irwin, at the adjacent Soft Skull Bookstore. This space was so tiny that some members of the overflow crowd (including me) were crammed behind the bookshelves. My ass was up against the cash register, which could have lead to problems had sales been a tad brisker during the reading, but fortunately most of the patrons waited until the end of the reading to make their purchases.
Irwin offered the crowd a choice of two Key of Z chapters-- the one on Jandek, the Texas outsider who has released 28 albums of self penned quasi-atonal (but to my ears, often wonderful) songs, or the one on Tiny Tim. By show of hands the selection was overwhelmingly for Jandek. Irwin cautioned potential buyers that the Jandek chapter, while one of his favorites ("...and if I do say so, quite amusing...") was rather anomalous in that Jandek was one of two (out of the 20 or so performers profiled in the book) whose work he didn't like. "The Tiny Tim chapter, on the other hand, brims with compassion and understanding..." The audience did not change its decision, and Irwin read the Jandek chapter. Clearly he's read it often-- he knows exactly which lines to hit hard for best effect and which ones to throw away, and the refrain "He's got to move them," referring to Jandek's stockpile of albums, got a bigger laugh with each repetition. Although many of the folks on the Jandek Mailing List appear to regard Irwin as the embodiment of Primal Evil for what they regard as his disrespectful attitude towards Jandek's work, when he read the address of Corwood Industries-- Jandek's home base, from which his CDs can be purchased in bulk for ridiculously low prices-- I noticed two people writing it down, and shortly after that a guy asked my Charming and Delightful Female Companion if she'd caught the address, though he may have just been hitting on her. The scum bag.
The show proper began a few moments later in Tonic. Irwin welcomed everyone to "The Only Subway Series-Free Zone in New York," explained he was taping Game 2 at home ("...and if anyone happens to be listening on a Walkman, please keep the score to yourself or there could be trouble..."), and introduced Bingo Gazingo. Bingo, who appears to be in his seventies, launched into a wild declamation-- read off what looked to be about 80 sheets of paper, each with maybe 8 words on it-- based on various 1930s Universal Pictures Frankenstein movies, punctuated with shouts of 'IGOR! IGOR!' At the conclusion Bingo apologized for the excessive length of the piece, but from the audience reaction I suspect no one minded. He did two more numbers, the second of which was based on "Psycho," ("His name was Norman / He was a Mormon / PSYCHO! PSYCHO!") though it eventually went places Hitchcock never imagined-- it was sort of a Trout-Mask-Replica-ized version of "Psycho." While he was delivering it, he stripped off his jacket and vest ("Take it all off!" from various corners of the crowd) and then slipped the jacket on backwards, for what I imagine was a straight-jacket effect. The encore was his signature song-- okay, "song"-- "I Love You So Fucking Much I Can't Shit." Further description would be superfluous.
Next, openly gay country-folkie Peter Grudzien went on, kicking off with his "Key of Z" number "Star Spangled Banner Waving Somewhere." He sang some verses with the original Elton Britt words and others with his retooled ("Though I realize I'm homo that is true, sir / Don't judge me by my preference in sex...") lyrics. He did a few more songs in an early sixties Dylan mode, including "Hunky Honky," and then introduced his friend Rich to sing a couple of songs. Rich performed with his hands in his jacket pockets, to a prerecorded accompaniment. The first song was called "Country Punk," but it was neither-- it suggested nothing so much as Isabella Rosellini's tranced-out version of "Blue Velvet" from the David Lynch movie, and someone in the crowd yelled "Sing 'Blue Velvet!' at the end. After Rich's second song Peter returned and sang his strongest acoustic number of the night, "Kentucky Candy," in which the lyrics grow progressively more bizarre with each verse. I confess that until this song, I had more or less written Peter off as a novelty act, a one-trick pony, but this surreal narrative had some real power, and a memorable chorus. He finished up with the crowd-pleasing "Nothing," performed to another prerecorded backing track.
A few moments later Irwin introduced B J Snowden-- "If anyone here is depressed, we have the cure for you..." --who took the stage to explosive cheering and applause. I think it's safe to say she was by far the audience favorite. She launched into 'Prince Edward Island,' and whenever she came to the words "...in Canada" (The title of her biggest 'hit'), the crowd erupted. B J's mom, Virginia, sat on the edge of the stage recording the set with a little camcorder. Next BJ did her St. Patrick's Day song, and then she introduced her 17 year old son Andres, who joined her on electric guitar for a couple of songs (during the first one, an extended instrumental, it looked to me like the camcorder jammed for a while). He's remarkably proficient for a 17 year old-- in fact, I've paid good money (and you probably have as well) to see guitarists twice his age with half-- well, 2/3rds-- of his chops. After BJ's Christmas song ("I know it's a little early, but what the heck, better early than late, right?") he sat out, and she took requests-- "98," "School Teacher," "Ode to Lesley," she did a new song dedicated to Andres ("He's following in my footsteps"), a song dedicated to her late father, "WFMU" (where Irwin hosts a couple of weekly shows), and "Drug Free," before closing with "In Canada." This finished with the audience singing along on the extended coda, which must have lasted at least five minutes and probably could have gone on as long as B J wanted it to.
After this anything short of a Beatles reunion or perhaps Irwin spontaneously combusting on stage would have seemed like an anti climax, but Daniel Johnston gave it a really good shot. It was a short (20 minutes maybe, certainly no more than half an hour) but intense set of mostly recent material, all performed with an acoustic guitar, all of the songs performed, for whatever reason, in the key of G major. He was in better voice than on his recent "Rejected Unknown" album. By the time he came on the place was so packed that BJ couldn't leave the stage and sat unobtrusively to one side, watching (and so far as I could tell) enjoying Daniel's performance. When someone called for 'Motorcycle,' Daniel, who had a music stand set before him and seemed to be working from lead sheets (though his eyes were often shut), apologized. "I'm sorry, I didn't bring it." He had three glasses of juice set up on a table beside him, which he sipped between songs. "This is NOT alcohol," he said at one point-- applause, laughter, cheers. When he finished his set, he went to the side of the stage opposite BJ, lit a cigarette, and returned for a final number (which I didn't recognize). "I'm really happy to be here in New York... where John Lennon was killed... I'm sorry we lost him... I still get choked up about it..." He sang his last song acapella and with even more intensity than the rest of his set, and as the crowd applauded he went behind the red curtains at the rear of the stage, presumably to go back stage. But apparently either the door was locked or there is no door, so he stood behind the curtain, partly but not completely out of sight, for about 5 minutes before returning to fold up his music stand.
All in all, the best concert of the millennium so far.
Songs in the Key of Z:
Incorrect Music: http://www.incorrectmusic.com
Outsider Music Mailing List:
A Guide to Jandek
http://www.hihowareyou.com/ and http://museumoflove.com
http://members.tripod.com/~anxietyny/obscura1.html and http://www.venusrecords.com/whoisbj.htm