Our National Anthem/Back in the USA
1/30/2004 4:24:55 PM
Tuesday, January 20th:
Once again, I am at my monthly regular gig at Whimsy, a free form performance art cabaret at the Zeitgeist Gallery in Cambridge. It was started by Warren Lynch when he was still going by the moniker of Thistle Kachunk and before he decided to devote his time to making low budget fantasy films. Whimsy bounced around from place to place for about a year before Warren got tired of it. More recently Markus Nechay decided to try his hand hosting the series.
Markus is one of Cambridge's eccentrics, a scruffy blonde fellow who immigrated from Communist Poland as a child and has a penchant for dressing in historical costume at every opportunity. Every opportunity includes Whimsy, where he chooses a historical era or theme and along with his cohost, Nick, free associates on one era or another in between featured performers. One evening the theme was pirates, another it was western pioneers, another was his childhood escape from the workers' utopia on the back of the American bald eagle (played by yours truly -- this took some rehearsal as I needed figure out how to flap my arms like wings while carrying an average sized adult male on my back.) Tonight's theme was "Dead Presidents" as we were competing with the State of the Union Address for the Cambridge audience. Markus had assembled a cast that included Abraham Lincoln, Chester B. Arthur, Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon.
Given that "dead presidents" is slang for money, the most obvious performance piece I had in my repertoire was "Open Letter to the Treasury Department" in which I petition the creation of a "thirteen dollar bill" dedicated to Thelonious Sphere Monk-- it's a comic piece I wrote back in 2000 and was influenced by the monologues of Lenny Bruce and Lord Buckley whom at the time I listened to a great deal. While my poetry has since taken another direction, I had continued to perform the piece with Cosmic Spelunker Theater as part of "Give and Take."
In its latest incarnation, I open the piece with one my signature routines: I mime playing various musical instruments, either mimicking their sounds or scat singing. In this case I open with a bass solo. My intention had been to play "Epistrophe" but for some reason I find myself playing "Straight, No Chaser”. I have always, and now more so than ever, been fascinated by the physicality of musicians-- especially jazz musicians: When they play, their hands, and everything else that comes in contact with the instrument is disciplined, precise, and focused while every other part of their body expresses their individuality: differing postures, how they react to the crowd and the music around them. As such, I have not only had to learn the isolations and fixees that make the illusion of trumpets or double basses, but I have to create the musician personae-- these characters have slowly become larger and larger...
Just a couple of days before the performance, I feel some tug to do something more than the comic-- to once again do something on stage that my audience would not expect. I have made the demand upon myself as an artist to not allow anyone who has not seen my act in over a year to have an accurate measurement of my current work and so it is time to experiment again.
While visiting my parents in Washington, we chanced upon a radio interview with cellist Matt Haimowitz during which he performed his acoustic cello rearrangement of Jimi Hendrix' electric guitar arrangement of "The Star Spangled Banner." I was particularly awed by Haimowitz performance. It was Hendrix’s performance of this song in the film “Woodstock” that inspired me as a teenager to strap on a guitar, and while I have changed media since then, I still have a portrait of Hendrix in sight of my computer.
My parents had never had my interest in rocknroll and through Haimowitz were hearing Hendrix for the first time and it seemed to capture both their imaginations. It was a good antidote for me as I had just spent the afternoon listening to the Marylander who referred to the Confederacy in the first person plural and his romanticization of the Southern cause had left me with some degree of queasiness-- but now I was listening to the anthem of an America that I shared with both Haimowitz and Hendrix, and suddenly I could share something that I loved with my parents.
When it was over I offered an explanation. "Hendrix," I began, "served in the US Army as paratrooper about the same time as Dad was in Korea. He was of African American and Cherokee ancestry and was with the 60s counter culture. He was saying that this is his country too."
The next day, some letter by a listener who had also heard the broadcast was read on the radio. It was some angry letter claiming that Hendrix hated America.
I decided that for Whimsy, I was going to do my own anthem. I was going to sing the Star Spangled Banner while dancing, interspacing it with sound effects and mimed instruments. I began by miming a hip hop DJ at the turn tables.
with the right hand I spun one invisible disc as I said "Our national... Our national... Our national" and began to spin the other invisible disc with my left hand "Death of the Ball Turret Gunner." I had made a cut up of Francis Scott Keyes' lyrics with Randall Jarell's brilliant poem."Our national [...] Death of the Ball Turret Gunner [...] Gunner [...] Gunner [...] Ball Turret Gunner."
And then I sang "O, say can you see..." interrupting myself with"From my mother's sleep I fell into the state... by the dawn's early light..."
"And the rockets' red glare [...] I awoke to black flack and the nightmare fighters [...] the bombs bursting in mid air [...] I woke to black flak and the nightmare fighters"
Somewhere, I mimed the guitar in a little nod to Hendrix with some words of my own: "Chime singing, like bell ring, like voice sing, like plucked string, singing string" to the tune of that famous bugle dirge based on the second inversion major triad.
I slowly began the collapse to the floor as the young airman was shredded by German bullets, "O, say does that star spangled banner yet wave, o'er the land of the free, and the home of the brave [...] and when I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose."
I balanced on my coccyx like I had been taught in butoh class, raising my torso and limbs upwards and increasing the tension in my body as I looked silently upwards as I let the audience know that I was done. They applauded and I rose to my feet, bowed and slipped to the back.
It was the first time I had done anything of this sort and as always, I wished for more rehearsals or at least an ability to perform it every night like when I was with Bread & Puppet, but several people told me they were moved by it, even several nights later at a party in Somerville. There is clearly some potential with the piece and I decide to mention it to James for project we've been discussing for Cosmic Spelunker Theater.
As far as what the piece is about: If I want to make a political statement, I make my argument. This was art, it is meant to make the audience feel and think and come to their own conclusions. As for me: It's my country too.
The piece later came known as "Wartime Mash-Up" and I would perform it both with Cosmic Spelunker Theater and as a solo artist. There must be some video of it that can be pulled out and posted.