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So You Wanna Be a Rock & Roll Star: The Dan Emery Mystery Band and the View from the Stage
Plus: Bye-Bye Baby Jupiter, and The Verna Cannon Busts their New York Cherry
By Linus Gelber, Home Office Records
(more articles from this author)
2000-11-01
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Home Office Records, home of Mr. Cyrano. Dateline: New York City. Here's the truth: I do want to be a rock star. I grew up at the slippy uncertain fin of an electric siècle, in a country that just can't get its hair right and insists on stooping as low as possible to make a good impression on a world that really doesn't want to go out with it but wouldn't mind a nice quickie, as long as we pay for the room. We blurt, we spurt, we splutter and pose, and then we expect a good-night kiss with necking and romance; we mount national elections featuring The Dull Guy and The Dumb Guy and then wonder why we can't get no respect. We brush shoulders with the gods, clamber out of the gravity well and reach to the moon, and then don't bother to go back. We forge a free press and only listen to it when it's wearing docile fetters. We demand creativity and individuality and then ignore all but the simplest and easiest crap. We let children dictate tastes in our popular culture and wonder why they can't stand us later (and why we don't understand them either, down the line). We shout that you should think for yourself, and then kick you if you do. Of course I want to be a rock star. In this crazy world, nothing else makes sense.

And so do you. That's why we're here.

Dan Emery: All-Hallows Man of Mystery
Yours in Rock.

It's Halloween Saturday at The Cutting Room, and it's a club party. Your Mr. Cyrano is by nature out and about on Samhain weekends, dandling through the crisp downtown diablerie in one or another lame excuse for a costume, figuratively bobbing for figurative apples. The slightly-askew folks from Troll Concept, which is neither a floor wax nor a dessert topping, have brought out their slightly-askew membership roster tonight to meet and greet and up the cause of Trolls in General ("Humans suck!"), inaugurating a new member of the Troll Board (Gino, a really spiffy green troll puppet) and doing the de rigueur costume contest. Gino makes the rounds for his new job in Quality Control, and much as we're trying to talk to him and ignore the puppeteer you can't actually hear what he says unless you put your ear up to her black hood, and then Gino can't hear you unless ... well, let's just say that this is all much easier on TV.

On Solid Ground: Dan Emery at the Sidewalk Cafe
He never kissed the girl in the laundromat.  Or if he did, he's not telling.

The witching-hour headliner on this witching-weekend eve is The Dan Emery Mystery Band, and the trolls have chosen well. Mystery Band shows, whether humble or full-blown, are events; Dan Emery is a bright-eyed creative organizer, given to mixing colors and flavors into odd concoctions that preen on the palate and Cheshire-grin in the mind. At some shows -- inlcuding this one -- you'll ewww and ahhh at A.V. Phibes as she eats fire, pounds a screwdriver up her nose and stretches out on her wicked-looking bed of nails. At others you may be treated to the happy conjunction of Eugene the Human Doormat and Dr. Power Nozzle, who do about what you imagine they might with a floor and a vacuum cleaner (only girls stand on Eugene, please, and remember to take off your shoes. Dr. Power Nozzle frightens Mr. Cyrano too much to explore the notion of audience participation. She gets that attachment all the way up Eugene's trouser leg). Warming up the CD release celebration gig last May for the band's latest album, "Natural Selection," bass player Orion Thompson underwent a live tattoo in the window of CB's Gallery. That was before the little girl who won the whistling contest went on and did a solo on her instrument of note to open the set, back while everyone was still dressed. It was that kind of night.

Monkeying Around: the "Love and Advertising" CD Cover
Kiss me, you fool!

And See Who Salutes: Tonight Dan is resplendent in his American flag shirt, which matches the flag sarongs and shmatta-drapes his impromptu backing singers, The Hancocks, will wear. He's tall and slim and amiable, making the rounds of the crowd. (Beauty is Pain Dep't: just days before his CD release last spring Emery suffered a collapsed lung, and was told by his doctor that this is One Of Those Things that happens to tall thin folks under 40; he described it as "the revenge of the short fat old people"). Dan is a people person, in an evolutionary sort of way; with tongue only near cheek he calls his music aperock, and the startling cover image on his first CD, "Love and Advertising" (Mekkatone Records), is of two bonobo chimpanzees French-kissing with obvious gusto. On the band's Web site Dan writes, "I am inspired to kiss longer, deeper, and with more emotion each time I see this image." He isn't just being glib. Not that I know this first-hand, about the kissing bit I mean. But Dan is rarely glib, and in his wealth of material -- he's prolific and sometimes topical, and when Mystery Band drummer Chuck Rudolph puts together a set list he leaves out vastly more than he puts in -- he is consistent in looking for passionate and inspirational love in unusual places. And finding it.

Put it this way: a lover dressed for an evening out may be interesting, but a lover dressed in a space suit is even more interesting. Dan Emery goes for the space suit (and does it delightfully in "Love in Zero-G," an unreleased outtake from "Natural Selection" that appears often in the band's live sets). You can handle attraction of opposites in straight up Paula Abdul manner, but how much more satisfying when the girl of your dreams is an East Village anarchist shoplifting squatter who carries a razor and sports a brand compared to your not-so- rakish earring ("Streets of the East Village"). We know about appetites and destruction, and many a musical parable has bemoaned our nasty habit of laying waste to the world at large -- but give us a dinosaur as a central image ("Let's drink a toast to Tyrannosaurus Rex / Running through the jungle with maximum effect / He's eating up all the animals, trampling plants and trees / T. Rex stands for Tyrant King, doing what he pleases ... yeah") and the cautionary commentary that follows ("Fires burning from here to Mazatlan / 'Cause everybody needs to eat and everybody wants a lawn / What will we do when all the forests are gone / Sit naked on a rock and wait for the coming of dawn ... yeah") gets all the tastier ("T. Rex").

Well-red: Dan Emery, in the Middle of the World
Words, words, words ... they worked for Hamlet.  Sorta.

Clothes Make the Man?: The trolls give the "Get a Life" costume award to the bodaciously pretty girl with meticulously feathered angel wings, who looks like her life is booked up through Y3K and who turns out to have been a Victoria's Secret model. "Least Likely to be Invited to Next Year's Troll Concept Party" goes to the guy in the tattered ghoul makeup who bites his faux rat during the judging, splurting viscous fake blood all over the place. First prize is nabbed by two couples dressed as Velma. There's a Marilyn Monroe, a Green Party, a bewigged Pajama Stripper. My personal favorite is the tall, lean and unruffled Catwoman, but she's a waitress and they don't seem to get to play. And at last it's that time: The Hancocks wrestle into their flags, and the Mystery Band takes the stage, raring to go.

Dan is effortlessly charming in performance, and at his best he radiates arena confidence and easy larger-than-life warmth. Tonight he's backed by Tony on drums, Brian Tully on bass, and sometime-Mysterian Steve Espinola on piano, short-wave radio and his wonderful electric tennis racket ("racket" being the operative word here). As always Dan launches the show with his constant mantra: "We are the Dan Emery Mystery Band," he tells the happy crowd, "and tonight we have one mission and one mission only -- to entertain you to the best of our ability." And they're off.

Their music is often compared to the work of Ben Folds, Jonathan Richman, Beck, Robyn Hitchcock, The Violent Femmes, even Arlo Guthrie. Dan is fond of noting that the band doesn't actually sound like any of these artists, and he's right. What spurs the analogies is the rambunctious energy in the music, and the rare force of personality that dominates every song. From the crunching, pumped hooks of "Radio" (a canny and sweet song about canny and sweet songs, with a take jaded enough to recognize the hands of the Music Industry at work on the airwaves and a heart still young enough to make radio a lovers' soundtrack anyway) to the free-form ramblings of "The Girl in the Laundromat," to the spunky perky winky nudge-nudge of "Mustard" ("Squeeze me spread me eat me / I'm a little jar of mustard"), Dan works texture into the edges and corners of life. As you might crimp the edges of a pie to knit the crust tight around the filling, so he spins momentary tales that keep the good stuff inside all warm and tender and enticing.

Working in the Salt Mine: Dan and Chuck at CB's Gallery
They specialize in underwater installations...

Last Night I Had the Strangest Dream: And this night, dear reader, Mr. Cyrano is a Hancock. I've never sung in a rock band before, and it's a weird and wonderful thing. Coming up on stage I'm feeling like I've pushed through a membrane into forbidden territory -- I'm supposed to be in the dark with a notepad, at the bar with a drink, at a front table with a supportive grin and a camera, that's my role, I've got it down to the finest nuances -- and for a stagestruck instant my Hubris Meter pins way over into the reds. Who am I kidding? What am I doing up here? Then the music starts and the Hancocks -- poet Jon Berger and the inimitable A.V. Phibes (sans screwdriver) round out our trio -- lurch right into a knobby sort of groove. We're children of media, all of us, and of a sudden I know how to do this. We all know it. After all these years it's instinctive. We know how to fire a phaser, we know how to ride off into a sunset; we know how to say "Bond, James Bond." And we know how to be in a band. Seen it a thousand times. It's like coming home.

It sounds different up here, that's the main thing. There's a bit of a din; it's not really loud, just hard to hear, and my business is the ribbed nose of the microphone and trying to look like I imagine I'd look if I were a backup singer between the singing parts. All the rest is peripheral. (I'm thinking, a little idiotically, that I've got my costume worked out at last: I'm going as a backup singer. See?) I'm not sure if I can't hear the band on stage, or if it's just that I don't hear them. The sound out of the monitor is audible the way a cursor is visible when you're working with the mouse. You don't really see the cursor, you just watch it go from place to place. You don't really hear the monitor either. It's like having your ear over there, rather than attached to your head. I can see people all right, there's Teresa over there, and there's the other waitress in her Xena fetish outfit. And this is odd: people are listening, chatting, commenting, pointing things out, sharing, and up here we're not part of the conversation any more. We've become scenery, decor, part of the furnishing. It's a strange feeling. We're with the band.

This House is Surrounded by Film:
Dan and Chuck at the Video Filming for "Her Favorite Bra"

Yes, there are girls.  You just can't see them in this shot.

The Dan Emery Mystery Band arose out of a regular Sunday-night band jam that Dan hosted when he ran sound at The Fort at Sidewalk on Avenue A (it was billed in the papers as "Dan Emery + Mystery Band," since no one knew who would show up). Their first CD was financed by 119 fans who chipped in the barebones budget for the recording; the second, "Natural Selection" (Home Office Records, 2000), was produced in large part by Nathan Rosenberg, who earned a gold record for his work with Poe (whose new album is just out, five years after her last). Since their last release the Mystery Band has been tearing up at colleges and venues around the region, coming back with raucous stories of packed sweaty throbbing bumping booty-clashing shows at Princeton and Alfred U. and points beyond.

At a recent gig at Cafe 9 in New Haven, presented courtesy of the online IndepenDisc Music Club (where "Natural Selection" is the club's hottest-selling CD to date), the band had the joint in gleeful spirits. The midweek crowd shouted along on the chorus of "Slice it Up," an akimbo tune that Dan introduces as "a New York City love song" and which describes, in part, an unbalanced gentleman in a deli ripping hairs out of his arm and muttering "fuck, fuck, fuck" to himself before he spills his cartons of blueberries all over and gets really mad. From there on they danced and whooped through the rest of the set, in glorious abandon.

What's wrong with this picture?: Now hang on -- people dancing, in a bar? You can tell we're not in New York City; our radioactive Mayor would never stand for that sort of thing. If you dance you might have a good time; if you have a good time you might get happy. There'll be none of that in New York City. And in fact last week saw the closing of Downtown's Baby Jupiter, which had its liquor license revoked because the patrons were shaking their booty on the dance floor without the grace and permission of a cabaret license from City Hall. The club was shut briefly last year for a dancing violation (two words which should never sit side-by-side, if you ask me. Unless you're a really really bad dancer).

Well, those pesky patrons did it again, and Baby Jupiter is now a silent riot-gated reproach to a City administration that likes to stomp hard on the unkempt. Next time you go out, remember this: your Mayor would like you to enjoy your music quietly, with both feet on the floor at all times and your hands clasped and placed on the table in front of you. Where we can see them. Your hair should be properly combed, and girls should wear dresses that reach below the knee. And don't go for your wallet. Or else.

Dan, Jay, Molly & Jonathan: The Verna Cannon in Scenic New York
How do you get to Carnegie Hall?

The Future of Music: A scenario. A few short weeks ago, your Mr. Cyrano had never heard of The Verna Cannon. The name came up on one of the email lists I browse, and the praise that came with it was strong. So I turned to Napster -- which, for you late-breaking news fans, has just made a big stride toward settling its tenacious litigation -- and downloaded a couple of tracks. Sought out the Web site, spotted them on the CMJ Music Marathon and Money-Grabbing Jamboree calendar, and in a quick turn or two I'm plunked down in the white plastic chairs of CB's Gallery with ears pleasantly pricked, hearing the band on their first-ever performance visit to Our Fair City. That's music in the age of Napster: and I like it.

The Verna Cannon, out of Columbia, South Carolina, is intensely nice. I don't mean that to sound like faint praise. They blend the husky frank vocals of songwriter Molly Ledford with a softly-paced and measured incremental pop that first demands attention and then requires it. Dan Cook on guitar and sunset violin co-writes the music, sketching in melody lines as plain settings for Molly's broad, roomy voice. Jay Barry on bass and Jonathan Bradley on drums keep up the rhythm end almost sheepishly, as if they hope it's not going to be any trouble if they get our blood pumping a little quickly there for a second. It's no trouble at all. In the course of their CB's Gallery CMJ set they reach a fever pitch about where another band might thump in for a sound check, and then taper back fast. The calm is refreshing and almost radical among the hormonal echo and sway of the rest of the fest.

The Light Shines: Molly and the Band in Action
Song sung red.

There's not a lot of talk during their set, which features a bulk of tunes from the current Verna Cannon record, "Movie Star Faces" (Cargo Music, 2000), and a wonderfully woeful, nearly spoken exploration of Skeeter Davis' "End of the World." There's not a lot of any excess at all; Molly's vocals are as placid as lazy frogs in a summer pond, drifting in and out of standard verse structure with bright phrases ("There may be fireworks tonight," or "I owe this to myself") that poke up above the surface and then sink back down into murmur and sussuration, as if she's holding a thoughtful inner monologue and inviting you close to overhear the best parts. The band plays along a fine line between evocation and obscurity. They remind me a bit of Liz Phair without the raunch (if you can imagine such a thing), and if you took a tape of their show and sped it up two or three times they'd sound something like REM. But you'd lose the chance to feel the pretty songs form, moment by moment, into a pretty passing flower that fades as longingly as it blooms.

Jewels Verna: Molly at Work
So where is Verna these days?  And what does she think of all
this?

The standout on their record is the final title track, and it is mesmerizing live as well. A series of disjointed scenes ("Eating an apple in a mine shaft / You were gorgeous"), the song is an outsider's look in at a world of impressions and expectations that escapes us in fleeting teases, a self-conscious balance of the real against the hyperreal. "Every one of them has movie star faces," Molly sings, her voice tender and ingenuous. "The legends of the films we never made."

OK, I can't let it alone. Can you really in good conscience vote for someone who's known as "The Dumb Guy"? Mr. Cyrano can't. But do vote, one way or another. And that's all we'll say about that. See you in two.

Favorite post-bed-of-nails comment, lugging the bed of nails to the corner to catch a cab: "This is heavy. I made it before I knew about aluminum nails."
Favorite post-fire-eating comment, in the cab downtown: "Oops. I just burped, and it tastes like kerosene."
Seen for four bits each at the North Carolina State Fair since the last column: Porky, the world's fattest pig; the unnamed Really Small Horse (disappointing); remains of the space alien from Area 51.
Not seen at the North Carolina State Fair because it cost a whole dollar: The Really Big Snake (but we saw the tractor pulls for free).
Best juxtaposition at the North Carolina State Fair: The Really Big Snake right next to the Really Small Horse. We're picturing this: "Hmm, that snake sure is looking big today. Hey, where's the horse...?"

Mr. Cyrano's Mystery Notification: The Dan Emery Mystery Band is on Home Office Records, which is this writer's independent record label. We signed them because they're one of the most exciting bands in New York City. Mr. Cyrano reviews them here for the same reason.

Linkography

The Dan Emery Mystery Band: www.web-ho.com/Mystery
The Verna Cannon: www.thevernacannon.com
IndepenDisc Music Club: www.independisc.com
Troll Concept: www.trollconcept.com

All photos this week by Linus Gelber, except the kissing bonobos, which are captured on film by Dr. Frans de Waal. The image is used under license by the Dan Emery Mystery Band by kind permission of the good doctor, and is taken from his book "Good Natured."


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