Loose Strife

An MP3 blog

Monday, September 26, 2005

#22 - Vegetarian militancy, sound magick, B&D, and the most astonishing live show of my life

"Bondage For Satomi Fuji" - Merzbow

I just saw the most incredible show of my life.

Or maybe, to be more precise, I had the most incredible club experience of my life.

That’s not it either, but hey---it’s a lead. Let me explain.

My friend Ethan, who is a psychology student at Queens College, emailed me out of the blue to ask if I wanted to see Merzbow---aka Masami Akita, the Japanese “noise artist” and writer---at the Knitting Factory, the multi-stage avant-garde coddling music space in Lower Manhattan. Ethan is interested in extreme behavior, which is curious because he is a very mild-mannered, non-extreme sort of guy. I said sure. I’ve never really gotten into this sort of music---it all sounds, well, like noise---but I figured it would be interesting. So last night we went.

Opening was Jim O’Rourke, occasional Sonic Youth member, who performed a duet with some guy using a bunch of electronic boxes. It was a mostly undifferentiated mass of electronic shrieks and rumbles which heaved in some interesting ways. Next was Circle, a Finnish prog-rock group who were pretty great, with lots of anthemic crescendos and Arctic Circle howling and an excellent, krautrock-literate drummer who looked wicked in a black turtleneck and a black cat-burglar mask, like Batman’s sidekick Robin if he was a skinhead philosophy grad student. Adding some visual amusement up front in the audience was a huge dude wearing a red headband, who was alternately taking pictures of the band and, during the really heavy parts, pumping both fists ecstatically towards the ceiling, presumably in a gesture of Finnish solidarity.

Merzbow came on precisely at midnight, and sat behind two PowerBooks, one 15” and one 12”. (For some reason I’d thought he used a guitar, but whatever.) On one was a MEAT IS MURDER sticker, and the word FUR behind a red circle and slash.

Akita had long straight black hair that hung down to the small of his back, and wore small oval glasses. As a writer, he is known for his writing on bondage and S&M, so it might strike some as odd that he is also an animal rights activist.

I guess it’s about consent.

The performance began with a stream, then a flood of sputtering low-frequencies which increased in volume until it felt like a hundred subway trains were running beneath the venue (unlike Joe’s Pub, in which you can usually hear only the #6 train during shows). Then higher frequencies came in: piercing laser-shots, screaming outbursts like buzzsaws against steel, lurching and grinding sinewaves bending like girders collapsing under the weight of buildings, and around it all a cloud of static like a swarm of giant bees, or the magnesium-flaring center of a pyrotechnical display that just keeps sizzling. It felt like---here comes a rock critic cliché, but I’m at a loss for any more precise description---the soundtrack to the apocalypse, of new buildings collapsing, calling to mind the World Trade Towers which fell only a few blocks away, and the German industrial group Einsturzende Neubauten, whose name in fact translates as “new buildings collapsing” and who I was thinking about last week while stepping around mounds of dogshit and high-end babystrollers in the Kreuzberg district of Berlin, the group’s old stomping ground. I closed my eyes, and I basically saw the money shots from old Godzilla films.

Yet there was also a stillness and an austere beauty to it all, as the chaos merged together into something almost ambient. The volume was admittedly terrifying: I had earplugs screwed in to the hilt, with a 25dB noise reduction rating, and that made it easier to parse the subtle, sculptural moves he was making within each group of frequencies. (Never have I been to a show where earplugs actually enhanced the music). And there was the sheer physicality of it: the bass frequencies literally entering your body and massaging it from the inside, the high end grazing your skin like the tingle of ocean salt when it dries on your body hair after a swim.

With your eyes closed---almost the entire crowd stood that way---you felt like you’d been physically taken over and manipulated by some Alien – like creature, although more symbiotic that parasitic. The act of bondage has never rated very high in my erotic top-ten. But I imagine that it might create a sort of sensory-deprivation dream-state much like the experience of this performance, where immobility and sensory deprivation makes you acutely sensitive to your body while simultaneously freeing you of it, allowing you to step out of your flesh husk and watch yourself writhe.

It was pretty hot, actually.

But then things got weirder.

Whenever I’d open my eyes, I’d see the crazy Finn with the headband up front, holding a SLR camera with a flash unit about four feet from Akita’s face and firing off shot after shot----despite the fact that Mr. Merzbow didn’t change his bookish expression or move, except to pivot his head a few inches between laptops, for the entire 2 hour performance. When he wasn’t taking pictures, the Finn was bellowing and pumping his fist.

It was after about an hour and a half that the guy let out another moronic stadium-rock yelp, and with his fist still up in the air, projectile vomited across the front of the stage. It was the most spectacular upchuck I’ve ever seen: it came out of both sides of his mouth in a wide spray that somehow missed Akita---who didn’t so much as blink---and his equipment.

The music seemed to get even louder as the stench wafted back. People began moaning and moving towards the door, and soon half the room was empty. But Akita gave no indication that he’d even noticed, and there were still dozens of listeners who remained riveted to the floor, eyes closed, hands over their noses and mouths.

Then an even stranger thing happened.

Or maybe not strange at all. Other people began throwing up. A jockish dude near the left speaker cabinet puked violently into it. Two dreadlocked white guys, one following the other, hurled side-by-side against the side of the bar. And a beautiful Japanese girl, who I’d been watching bliss out whenever my eyes were opened, put her hand on my shoulder and hurled onto my left foot before being led away by her girlfriend.

At this point, the lights suddenly went up, the volume seemed to arc up even higher, like the sound of Godzilla hitting high-voltage cables.

And then it stopped. Akita stood up and walked off stage, seemingly unaware anything unusual had happened.

Maybe this wasn’t unusual.

Out on Leonard Street, the crisp night air returned my body to me, and relieved the nausea of being inside. People milled about, dazed, some hunched over, a few laughing and trying to find words for what happened. I saw the Japanese girl get into a cab with her friends, which was a bit of a letdown as I wanted to try and console her. I looked down at my shoe, and there was a chunk of what looked like unchewed yellowtail sitting in between the front laces and the toe. Disgusted, I kicked it off.

Then I had a fleeting thought: What if Merzbow’s frequencies, coming as they did from an anti-meat activist, were designed to attack and sicken meat eaters?

“Interesting idea,” said Ethan. “Good thing we had falafel. I’m going to Google that when I get home.”

Above, a 29-minute piece from Merzbow’s out-of-print Music For Bondage Performance 2, to give you an idea of what I’m going on about. Do not listen to it after a meal at Peter Luger’s.

But wait---I almost forgot the weirdest thing of all.

At one point during Merzbow’s set, I left to pee, and went up to the balcony for a different perspective. I stood next to a tall, handsome girl in the first row of seats who was typing speedily into a 13” PowerBook. She looked familiar, and when she looked up, she pointed in an accusatory way and smiled; a cute, snaggle-toothy smile. But given the volume, talking was out of the question. Since I couldn’t recall her name or where I knew her from, I pointed back to her, nodded in that universal nightclub nice-to-see-you-but-I’m-not-going-to-talk-to-you-now code, and left to renter the maelstrom below.

After the show was over, it hit me: She was the waitress from Minneapolis---the one who brought the Bloody Marys during my interview with Conor Oberst at Hell’s Kitchen, and who gave me a withering look when I chugged Conor’s leftovers. Her hair was half blonde and half green then---now it was growing out brown with white tips, which is maybe why I couldn’t place her at first. That and her out-of-context appearance in New York.

When I realized this outside the club, I went back in to find her. But she was gone.

I hope she didn’t get sick. Judging from her build, she looked like a carnivore.


At 7:31 PM, October 04, 2005, Blogger Damo said...

Madness. I've heard of the 'brown noise' - that frequency that allegedly makes people sh** themselves, but the 'yellow noise'? I'd like to know the secret!


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