the OTHER record label run by the Sun City Girls, my but they've
been busy too. Regarding the new flood of SCG video -- it's
great, but I have to say that my favorite is still the very
first Cloaven Theater vid (1994),
which has been reissued along with all the new stuff, and
should not be missed. This video captures an era of great
mystery and aura, a time when it seems no one outside of a
few Arizonans really knew what Sun City Girls looked like
or if they were even really human. After watching this video
you still won't be too sure, as it features plenty of diguise,
and subterfuge, and shock, and awe, presenting excerpts from
blitzkrieg power trio freakouts, situationist theater on stage,
at home, and in the street, various other happenings and asides,
and even a couple pseudo 'music videos' starring Mr. Gocher,
all without ever really giving a straight picture of who's
behind the mask(s) (even when nobody's wearing one).
Like Cloaven Theater,
the other five (!) new VHS releases are each around an hour
long, but where CT covered the band's first decade,
the new five are mostly material from the band's second decade,
much of it very recent stuff. As time has gone on, the band
has become more willing to reveal who's behind the curtain,
and less likely to take an audience by surprise, even when
they're being surprising, because in the intervening years
they have cultivated an audience that now expects the unexpected.
Hmm, I was reading something about these very issues just
a couple hours ago . . . oh yeah, it was in the Aerosmith
autobiography, in which guitarist Brad Whitford says -- here,
let me find it (crappy paperback I bought this weekend for
$2) . . . . . . . . . okay, here on page 130, Brad sez: "Before
MTV, there was amazing mystery in rock 'n' roll: You had to
go see a band to find out what they actually looked like.
A lot of that mystery is gone. If you think about it, it was
a terrible thing to have lost." And Brad is right: seeing
the SCG outside of this shroud of mystery may take a little
getting used to for the longtime fan and speculator. But,
in their case it is not a "terrible thing to have lost"
at all, because their body of work -- music and theater and
ideas -- is still so expansive and gratifying on so many different
examples of these levels are laden throughout these five new
videos. I'm pretty sure that my second favorite is The
Halcyon Days of Symmetry. For one, it features
a long and extremely nutso collage of ancient/old-world/non-Western
PORNO IMAGES, edited together rapid-fire by someone named
Bonniebon. There's also some street theater called "Texas
Porch Monkeys" which riffs on Bizarro-world trailer trash
vibes and ends with the actual firing of actual flaming arrows.
Very pre-Gummo! Also some choice Uncle Jim material,
both at home (solo cable-access-soapbox style) and with the
band (at a sparse record store gig). Also versions of Torch
classics "Space Prophet Dogon" and, in a great clip,
"Esoterica of Abysynnia," the latter from quite
a while ago, at what seems like an afternoon all-ages hardcore
matinee. Again, this is from a time when they were still often
playing for people who had no idea who they were, and seeing
the kids exchange big smiles as they find themselves suddenly
involved as these weird older dudes onstage start to really
crash and bang is way cool.
Puppetry enthusiasts take
note: scattered throughout all five of the new videos are
a series of bone-dry skits called "Jazz Classics,"
with a dry host who happens to be a smoking puppet. There
are also some sequences in which puppets wail on
actual gamelan and other instruments, and, in Its
Not Over 'Till the Skinny Arab Lights the Fuse,
you can see the Sun City Girls themselves wailing on actual
gamelan and other instruments, live at a club gig. The vid
(yep, probably my choice for third best) also features stuff
like psyched-out third-gen Bollywood clips, Eyvind Kang guesting
on another live version of "Space Prophet Dogon"
(carrying the melody with much aplomb and true pale fire,
live in Seattle, 1996), more Charles Gocher-does-Cecil Taylor
piano spasms, and performances of "Papa Legba,"
"Esta Susan En Casa?," "Who's That Lady?,"
and "Uncle Tompa."
The Burning Nerve Ending Magic
Trick contains a wacked-out
solo and practically YELLOWFACE (brownface?) version of "Soi
Cowboy" by Alan, a good chunk of live stuff from Dante's
Disneyland Inferno like "6 Kids of Mine" and
"Sexy Graveyard" and "Jessup's Dairy"
(all from the same Seattle show in 1996), and a host of other
oddities that I can't specifically recall with titles like
"The Incarnation of 'Pittsburgh Phil Weiss' " and
"Mailbox Hookers," as well as "Jazz Classics
(Frogs)" and "Jazz Classics (Bucky Pyro)."
Most of If it Blows Up......PARK IT!,
other than random stuff like a quick glimpse of Rick Bishop's
Rare Books storefront, seems to be culled from two separate
Seattle shows in 1993, featuring such hits as "Kickin'
the Dragon," "Abydos," "X+Y=Fuck You,"
"And So The Dead Tongue Sang," and more, including
the HILARIOUS "House of the Charging Dog" routine.
The footage on this video could mark the very time when it
became clear that, one, the members of SCG were in fact merely
human beings after all, and two, that their audience was significantly
more in the know than they used to be. Thus, there is a certain
spark missing from this stuff that can be found all over the
Cloaven Theater vid. But maybe that's just me. I'll
watch it a few hundred more times over the next few years
and we'll see how it goes.
Myths and Legends of
the Blue West also features a lot from two specific
shows, in this case, the two events that made up their entire
public performance schedule for 2003. One was a very weird
semi-private acoustic gig in Seattle, at which they did time-stretched
codeine-coma versions of such favorites as "Soft Fragile
Egg-Shell Minds," "I Deal A Stick," and "Hippie
Conglomerate," and the other was a kitsch-freak
Christmas-season night at Bob's Java Jive in Tacoma, WA, in
which Saddam Claus himself made an appearance and can be seen
here jamming out on the electric piano Corea / Jarrett / Hancock-style.
You also get more Bonniebon collages, more smoking puppets,
and really just a lot more. Just so you know. Welcome to "SCGTV".
on the Abduction front, I've been trying to figure out what
to say about the new Sun City Girls double CD, Carnival
Folklore Resurrection Radio, but it's just too
big and filled with ideas and events and weirdnesses for me
to try. As you might know, this was prepared and first aired
as a one-time two-hour radio-only broadcast on the greatest
radio station in the world, WFMU 91.1 FM (Jersey City, NJ)
/ 90.1 FM (Hudson Valley, NY). When I first listened to it,
I thought there was a lot of cool shit but also some duds,
and that it didn't have too much pacing or drive or unity
to it. But, after several listens, I've decided that it's
pretty much all essential, and it's all there and in the order
it is for a reason, and as with all great mysterious albums,
I'm going to keep listening and teasing out what that reason
might be even as it continually lurks in the shadows just
out of my reach.
I think the thing that
barely holds it all together is that each of the two discs
has its own long "mellow" centerpiece, each over
ten minutes long, which act as twin poles or axes, creating
an overall spin that pulls all the other material on the two
discs together. On disc one, the mellow centerpiece is "Nibiru,"
a gorgeous tinker-toy Hawaiian lap-steel children's ballad
that slowly loses it moorings and ends up drifting of its
own unpredictable accord somewhere far away on a cloud as
the earth recedes into a brown-blue-green mist. (Having these
connotations of queasiness and levitation, it makes sense
that "Nibiru" was used as the soundtrack music for
the opening shot of David Blaine: Above The Below,
Harmony Korine's documentary of young Blaine's recent suspended-above-the-Thames
River fasting event.) On disc two the mellow centerpiece /
pole / axis is a version of Italian film song "Swept
Away," played with a wasted falsetto-buoyed melancholy
that actually reminds me of Sly and the Family Stone doing
"Just Like A Baby." It also slowly loses its moorings
as it goes and goes and the vocals get overwhelmed by echoplex
and the tectonics underneath start to shift.
Now, instead of describing
all the rest of the stuff on here, I'll just be lazy and quote
"You'll find elements of radio collage (from Thailand
and beyond), trio Improv, pseudo-Rock, Folk, French and Italian
pop, Noise, ethereal space music, answering machine messages,
Uncle Jim rants, lounge, field recordings, fucked-up Hip-Hop
and much MORE." This is all true -- for all the different
things Sun City Girls have done over the years, there are
a LOT of things on here that I've never heard them do before
(and may never hear them do again).
photo by Toby Dodds
LAST BUT NOT LEAST IN THIS SUN CITY GIRLS REVIEW CAVALCADE....
LIVE REPORT: Sun City Girls, Neung Phak, The Weather @ Empty
Bottle, May 7 2004
I'm not sure Sun City Girls won too many new fans at this
show. I mean, a couple friends of friends sounded a little
put off by the whole event. I know I was a little put off,
but I loved it, because it was Sun City Girls and I've been
put off by 'em hundreds of times; they're my favorite band.
As for the 'newbies' or whatever you wanna call 'em, who knows?
Maybe the next day they were thinking about the show, and
they remembered, "Hey, music and art isn't always gonna
give me just what I expect it to give me, and it isn't always
gonna rock my socks off, and it isn't always gonna 'take me
higher', and sometimes maybe it really should take me a little
lower. And I think last night was one of those nights."
Or, as guitarist Rick Bishop says of the general SCG live
experience, quoted in the recent Seattle Weekly feature
by Mike McGonigal, "dark energies make their appearance
from time to time." At this show, the energies weren't
just dark, they were also awkward, contrarian, and negating.
While they were playing I kept thinking of good ole Bill Hicks
saying, to his own particular entertainment-seeking audience
back in 1993, "Welcome to No Sympathy Night. Welcome
to You're Wrong Night." Or this quote, from The
Believer magazine, that I read just today: "This
is not your story. This is not the story you came in expecting
it to be, and it's not my job to make it that way." (Issue
#11, p. 12, in an essay by Paul Collins on the book Black
Beauty of all things.)
Also in the McGonigal article,
WFMU program director Brian Turner is quoted saying, "I
imagine an SCG gig these days is pretty much preaching to
the converted in many cases." This is true, and I say
as much in the preceding video reviews, but I'm here to tell
ya that at the Bottle, converted or no, there was some genuine
uproar coming from the audience, especially when Uncle Jim
himself appeared midway through the already abrasive set in
order to seriously get the audience's goat. "Yeah, look
at you people, you're thinking 'I'm ahead of the curve, being
at the Sun City Girls show, not a lot of people are into 'em',"
he taunted, "but people! You still need to be reminded!!"
He went on to wonder why the assembled weren't flying planes
into buildings right across town on Chicago's Magnificent
Mall (oops, I mean Mile), then got into your basic celebrity
lynching imagery ("Fuck Larry Carlton! Larry Coryell!
Al DiMeola! Fuckin' fusion jazz bullshit! Someone shoulda
hung Miles Davis from a fuckin' branch for startin' that shit!"),
and then, if I heard it correctly, pointed out that 90% of
the people of Israel aren't even Jews. By this time, members
of the crowd were audibly agitated and yelling back, and believe
me, it wasn't your usual "play some Skynyrd" pablum.
As if that wasn't enough, a
few numbers later Gocher came out from behind the drums with
an actual bullwhip in hand and he and Alan recreated the disconcerting
"It's Not A Real Knife" bit. If you haven't seen
the recorded-at-home version on the Cloaven Theater
VHS release, this involves a ranting Gocher tormenting a supplicant
Bishop, the latter cowering and wearing some sort of rug mask.
Could it be some sort of riff on the relationship between
Gunnar Hansen's Leatherface and Jim Siedow's Old Man? Or just
on the way that anxious western imperialists view the people
they're trying to 'liberate' as helpless and confused lepers?
I don't know, but at the Empty Bottle, Rick added nervous
free-form guitar and Gocher really took it over the top, coughing
and wheezing into the microphone while stalking the stage
and brandishing the actual bullwhip, threatening to knock
over drums and microphones. In the context of post-beatnik
musical performance theater, he was making Tom Waits look
like Liberace. The whole spectacle led the guy next to me,
a friend of mine who (like everyone else) has long since 'seen
it all', to say with absolutely sincere concern, "I
think they've gone crazy because of U.S.A. politics!"
Another guy said, "What is this, their war set?"
It WAS a war set, even with the sweet Beach Boys cover they
closed with. (I didn't recognize it, I only heard later that
it was the Beach Boys -- and waitaminnit, did they also do
an instrumental version of "Passenger Seat People"
from Horse Cock Phepner at some point?? That can't
be, can it?)
photo by Catherine
before all this madness they did a film presentation and Q&A
at the Bottle, as an opening act for The Oxes. The vibe was
kind of awkward due to the rock club opening-act context,
but the footage was naturally amazing (a lot of Sublime Frequencies
stuff featuring blind street karaoke and sexually explicit
ancient temple carvings and gory food market goings-on and
about 330,003 other things, as well as the premiere of an
upcoming Abduction video called The Air In A Roomful Of
Weirdos). The Q&A was pretty lively and inspiring
as well -- the one exchange I'll try to recreate went like
"Q: Whose side are you going to be on in the 2nd United
States Civil War? A (Alan): Neither! I'm gonna be right in
the middle, brokering for both sides, and making a fucking
fortune! We can't wait!"
Then, after this event, there
was an actual SCG show, completely unscheduled and unplanned,
at an afterparty in one of the finer opium dens you (and I)
didn't know existed in this here great Midwestern factory
town. It was really supposed to just be an after-party, but
jeez, the resident jam band had all their gear set up, complete
with P.A., so, even though it took a lot of cigarettes and
kickback, the Girls just couldn't help but get on the instruments
around 2AM. Rick started with solo guitar, intentionally awkward
on borrowed Les Paul copy, and after an intentional eternity
Alan and Charles took the stage and the trio got very serious
as if they were starting a set at an ATP or a SXSW and not
in front of 30 people, at least 16 of which were just neighborhood
white gangsters who didn't know or give a shit who the band
was. With a count-off they went into some composed spiky instrumental
Asian Rock that I didn't even recognize, which after 3-4 minutes
hit its last note as an instant cue for Gocher to rise off
his chair and snap the trio into their well-known no-note/shrapnel/bitter-pill
improv style. This continued for anywhere from 12-24 minutes
more, getting into a more chilled-out "Eyes Fly Low"
variety that really felt (intentionally) strange and empty
at this small secret party.
From a fan perspective,
it was amazing; I was sitting 10 feet in front of the stage,
with no one in front of me, part of a semi-circle of 20 or
so attentive people (while another 10 milled in the bar-and-pool-table
equipped shadows behind). Pinned to the couch and spacing
off, 7 or 8 minutes into the set, I noticed their performance
was being simultaneously broadcast on the next wall over,
on the big drop-down screen that had been showing B and Z
films all night. It was a very good shot, framing the trio,
as well as the stage backdrop, in a way that made it look,
even after serious consideration, like a different location
than the one I was in.
This is where things
got heady, and I'll tell you why, if you'll pardon me something
of a tangent. You see, earlier that very day I had been reading
about filmmaker Werner Herzog, an online review of the book
Herzog on Herzog. I was intrigued by a quote from Herzog,
regarding films he had been inspired by: "For me there
are what I call 'essential' films: kung fu, Fred Astaire,
porno. 'Movie' movies, so to speak." Pondering this concept
was quite a day in itself, let me tell you. I decided that
by 'essential' films, he meant the raw essence, that is, cinema's
most natural state as a tool of humanity -- what bubbles up
most naturally from a mass of people shooting film, after
writing scripts and making costumes and posing actors, in
order to get the job done and pay the bills. Just as chaff
is essential to the growth of the wheat, these films are essential
to the growth of films that actually have deeper meaning and
symbolism and actual poetry and emotional content beyond mere
industry machination. The production of the entire film industry
amounts to at least 70 percent chaff and 30 percent wheat.
Hell, it might be 90-10, and it's the same with all the arts;
there's also essential music (lite rock, muzak, smooth jazz,
club music, all commercial radio), essential poetry (greeting
cards, Nash, the aforementioned McKuen, the poetry slam down
at your local coffee house), and essential painting (your
mother owns several originals), and on and on, and it's all
a big glut if you really pay attention to it, but how could
you possibly do that? Just look at the web, the (ahem) blogosphere,
THIS VERY ARTICLE. The essential part is the 70-90% that you're
never gonna see.
ANYWAY, while I was watching
Sun City Girls during the very early morning hours of May
8, 2004, simultaneously in the flesh and on a movie screen,
in this secret loft with its own goddamn P.A. and stage and
movie screen and live video projector combo, I got to thinking
how on that very movie screen less than an hour before I had
seen the closing credits to some Tim Blake Nelson-directed
film (I swear the credits rolled for over ten endless minutes),
followed by the first twenty minutes or so of a sci-fi Jean
Claude Van Damme vehicle who's name I never got (or was it
Target Earth??). There was no sound for these films,
because a DJ was playing music. They were just images endlessly
rolling in the background, not watched closely by anyone,
and I was thinking, "these are the B and Z films of today,
even that Tim Blake Nelson shit is a B film, which means that
these are the ESSENTIAL films." Unhampered by depth of
characterization, story, and poetry, they move across the
screen so effortlessly that it's almost as if they just made
So while I'm feeling
all this, the SCG are launching into a good 10-minute (??)
stretch of said no-note / shrapnel / bitter style, and I realize
that the reason I'm daydreaming about essential film is because
this improv is Sun City Girls' personal essential music. It's
spread all across their discography -- possibly even 70% or
more of it -- and all across their live shows. It's like an
anchor that they throw down so that the non-improv material
can stay afloat, or like the path that they have to cut through
the jungle so that their non-improv material can break on
through to the light. It's the ESSENTIAL part of what they
do -- the gross essence, the raw meat behind the relatively
tasteful outer skin. Theoretically, every band has it, it's
just that all other bands try to HIDE this stuff, and keep
it locked away in the practice space, so that the show can
be as professional as possible. SCG obviously have enough
songwriting and professionalism in their repertoire that they
COULD keep the gross essence locked away (and at the Empty
Bottle in 2002, they almost did), but in what is ultimately
even more of a gesture to their fans, they choose to reveal
the essential raw guts, the inner workings, the inner music,
the "inner mood" (another Herzogism).
The only thing that snapped
me out of all this confused epiphany was when Alan, who had
been playing with his back to the audience, turned around
for a few seconds to briefly reveal that he was wearing the
face of Boris Karloff playing Frankenstein's Monster in drag
as The Goddess Kali. People always say stuff like that about
the Sun City Girls, but they really do have their ways of
playing tricks on you, even during intentionally awkward,
strange, and empty sets. The only song I can remember them
playing after Alan's trick was the last one. It was probably
the only other song, a trick itself, a straight-up doo-wop
number with lead vocals by Rick and off-mic girl-group vocals
by Alan and doo-wop bass vocals by Charlie. A sweet, sweet
closer, and I was like, "Okay, did they rehearse that
a bunch of times just this last week before leaving on tour,
or is it just in their repertoire, to be whipped out at any
time and played perfectly?"
back on the Empty Bottle show, I missed the opening opening
act The Weather because I was putting the baby to bed, but
it was a real treat to arrive in time to see the middle opening
act Neung Phak (pronounced: NOONG PAHK) play
all the hits from their self-titled CD (on Abduction) with
all the skill intact, complete with visually-cued doses of
humor, spirit, and genuinely great performance schtick that
showed a real aim and ability to entertain. Their performance
of "Morlam Pee Bah," which, as on the album, featured
an interruption by the mysterious Hitman Kong Thep, was a
real show-stopper, literally and figuratively, complete with
power struggles and curses and spells and trance-states and
wall-climbing and live backwards-masked vocal technique .
. . . . and much much more. And I really love that song "Inside
The Program," especially after seeing it live. What is
that stuff about "the guy from Israeli come and close
the door," anyway??
images from suncitygirls.com.
Go there to order these releases, get show dates, etc.