In the Polygraph Lounge: Fabulous Flying Jellyfish Meet the American Cheese Woman
(and: Let's Rant About Napster)
Dateline: The East Village, NYC. As a rule, Mr. Cyrano avoids music that involves Hawaiian shirts. It's just one of those things. Actually I avoid most anything with Hawaiian shirts on the menu. Those glib blues, those rotund yellows, those florid greens. You know how Halloween comes along every now and then (once a year, they tell me) and when you haven't got a costume you lamely toss together the most turgid bones of your closet and head out as The Clash? Or put on inky club wear and go as a black hole? Or wrap tin foil around your head and say "meep meep" and insist that people guess what you are? Hawaiian shirts on musicians are like that, too much of the time. As in, "Wow, nice threads. Check please."
Polygraph Lounge on Homemade Slide Didgeridoo and Theremin
To all rules, happily, there are exceptions. Hawaiian shirts came late to Polygraph Lounge, one of the strangest and most wondrous musical collaborations in New York City, and actually on this late April evening the band isn't wearing the tropical garb at all (though it's hanging in back, in case there's a call for it). There on stage are Chuck McCubbin and Ernest Tuber, blithely telling the wall-to-wall crowd that it's another Monday night here at Eudora's Polygraph Lounge in Montezuma, Iowa, where the Budweiser pours like Bud and the sheep aren't even remotely antsy. Pay them no mind -- they're fibbing. It's the East Village, it's an unprecedented two-set three-hour Saturday night slot at CB's Gallery, and we're really watching two master musicians having more fun than a mayor in a ticker-tape parade. They might even be having more fun than we are. But that's not likely.
Polygraph Lounge is about guilt-free euphoria. How often do you get that on a New York City Saturday night? Here in the house we're roaring through a slow country-twang rendition of "Pinball Wizard." We're clapping gleefully to a set of pop standards cunningly twisted to the storyline of "Moby Dick" -- "Torn Between Two Blubbers," "A Whiter Shade of Whale," "Behind Pink Eyes" ("No one knows what it's like / to be the White Whale"), and more. We're howling at the new "S.U.V.," which kneads rock tunes and crossover country songs and folk standards like "City of New Orleans" with a set of new words into an hysterical bruit of urban male angst in which the protagonist, after wreaking havoc in the city and crushing turtle eggs on the beach, races his truck up to the pearly gates to meet St. Peter, who nods in appreciation and says "Nice car." We're laughing so hard we can barely sing along through a riff on dairy products, which keeps returning to the segment's signature song, "American Cheese Woman" (the Guess Who hit, with a few extra licks and BHT for freshness).
We've been given balloons and plastic nose flutes, and we play along on nose flute in grinning pandemonium doing the "doo do doo, doo do doo do do, doo do doo" parts of the reworded "Walk on the Wild Side" and the "woo-ooo-ooo-ooo" bit from the theme from "The Good, The Bad and The Ugly." The balloons, in the childlike joyhaze that's taken unaccustomed hold of this hip downtown crowd, are no longer balloons -- they're jellyfish, and we blow them up and set them flying on cue during a "commercial" for one of the evening's made-up sponsors, the Tri-State Jellyfish Commission. Polygraph Lounge has handed out lyric sheets for the audience, and we sing along to the TSJC theme song: "On your dish / There's a fabulous flying jellyfish / A great big jellyfish / Arriving with a squish!" When Ernest points at your section of the audience in this song you let loose your balloon, which sputters up into the room making that full-bodied Opus raspberry fart sound: phthphthphth, an onomatopoeia we'll never actually spell in English. At that instant it's a fabulous sound, as if you'd never heard it before. And for a moment it is a jellyfish, and for a moment you are a crowing delighted five-year-old kid at a great birthday party, running pell-mell through a grownup's house that has nothing to do with you, making jungles out of houseplants and moonscapes out of linoleum, throbbing to the sweet innocent joy of your bursting young blood. And everyone is singing along.
Polygraph Lounge is an augmented duo. Rob Schwimmer and Mark Stewart (not the British Pop Group/Mafia Mark Stewart, he's another one) formed the band in May of 1997 under odd circumstances, and have dazed and dazzled their audiences since then by scarcely playing an original note -- in the process of which they've created one of the most original acts you can ever hope to see. Their regular beat is Instant Nostalgia, the music of yesterday and today warped into intricate smile-alongs. And their hole card in putting up a glorious show that could so easily slip into dopey drudgery and duffed hands (but never does) is this: they are the best damn players you've ever seen.
Rob Schwimmer Sure has a Lot of Toys
Rob Schwimmer (Chuck McCubbin), seen here playing out-of-frame keyboards and some sort of tuby blowy instrument (the tremeloa, perhaps? or, as they call it, the "trem-aloha"?) with his trusty theremin in the background and a Vietnamese Danmo percussion rack in front ("from the Hmong people," he amplifies), is a musician by birth. He was performing on piano by age three, and his child-prodigy start on life gifts him with a wit so quick you'll feel you're listening to his conversation on one of those United Nations simultaneous-translation circuits -- by the time you've caught up with his last joke, he's shot ahead to a whole different line of thought. He is a piano player of instant skill, with a melodic attack as brisk and various as his conversation. Rob is an avid collector of sounds and musical trivia, often to be seen with portable CD player in hand pressing newly-acquired recordings of auto-horn music or first-generation electronic experimentalist compositions on unwary passersby. He's quick to shrug it off, but Schwimmer is also perhaps the finest living theremin player, and an album of his theremin music is soon to be released. His control of this odd instrument, which is played by a laying-off of hands -- you move through electric fields generated by its antennae, controlling volume and pitch without ever touching the beast -- is sublime. He also plays bass waterphone, daxophone, aleatron, duck call and an endless variety of squeaky and bangy toys in his Polygraph appearances, and in his more sober musical guises he is the head of The Rob Schwimmer Trio jazz band, the long-time keyboard player for Jay & the Americans, and a session player and commercial composer of range and flair. Tonight at one point he tootles slide whistle into the theremin fields, playing harmony with himself; he mentions that he's working on a triple-header in which he'll play keyboard bass lines with his left hand, theremin with his right elbow (doing "Mack the Knife") and duck call, all at once.
"Polygraph Lounge is the Dream Gig," Rob says. "Anything we want to say, if it's entertaining, we can put it in. Any instrument we want to use, for any reason, we can use. No matter how wacky, no matter how much it doesn't belong, no matter how much it doesn't belong in this world at all, we can fit it in. As long as it's entertaining." He describes Polygraph's music as "Spike Jones meets John Cage. On acid." He's right and he's wrong; those may be influences, but there's more to it than that. Where Spike Jones satirized, Polygraph instead tilts at our hearts with oversized funny floppy lances and big open arms; where Cage lifted his art beyond the easy strike of the crowd, Polygraph goes lowbrow, spitting back the pop medium with an almost scatological fixation on burpy farty scratchy people noises and mock-shocked PG-13 bad language. This is music for everyone. The classical music buff will find scads of referential nuggets buried between the pop tunes; the kids -- and there are kids at this show, deliriously-happy and big-eyed -- respond to obvious fellow-travelers at the children's table; the rest of us hear the last 30 years of America in Music played back with tender appreciation, warm wry smiles, and dazzling skill.
Mark Stewart: a Boy and his Youboingy
The other half of Polygraph Lounge is Mark Stewart (Ernest Tuber), guitarist extraordinaire. Mark (who is from Wisconsin, thus the dairy products) is conservatory-trained in cello, and his regular axe is electric guitar. This is a bit like saying that the sun's regular color is yellow. He plays a huge range of instruments, stringed and not -- guitar, cello, mandocello, banjo, daxophone and so much more -- and when he can't find one to say what he's looking to express he designs or builds a new one. Like the slide didgeridoo, or the guitar-sitar. The youboingy (pictured here) is one of the new crop, and it adds to a guitar's range a whole vocabulary of metallic clangy springy sounds. Mark's work with the Polygraph canon of pop and classical standards is effortless: he mimics and reinvents the music of dozens of iconic players, and shifts from style to style with lightning ease. When he isn't making hay out of sunshine with Polygraph Lounge, Mark can be found touring with Paul Simon and playing with the Bang On A Can All-Stars post-modern classical orchestra (which arranged and recorded Brian Eno's "Music for Airports" on Sony Classical last year, and tours worldwide with eye-opening explorations of modern classical music) or with the Fred Frith Group, among many others. His pied musical sensibility is kite to Rob's artful tail, bubbler to the Polygraph fishtank. Where Rob is speed-blurred cleverness, Mark is the irreverent jester; Rob might finish the Sunday NYTimes crossword, Mark is likely to color in the boxes. Mark's clear voice carries most of the Polygraph singing numbers, and his range of accents and attitudes deflates every overblown and cherished rock cliche he sets it to. Some nights you'll hear him do the bulk of "Stairway to Heaven" as a mugging hammy Scot, some nights he'll render the "Flipper" theme song in a gravid spoken William Shatner style.
Because of their chock-a-block touring schedules, Rob and Mark trot out Polygraph Lounge only a few times each year. Their flock is devout, growing, and -- like those Iowa sheep -- not a bit antsy. A Polygraph gig is like a New Mexico hot tub. First-timers may be twitchy about whether or not to lose their suits and get naked in the warm waters, while the veterans plunge in without hesitation, lay back, and relax, waiting for the lounge-crooner version of The Ramones' "I Wanna Be Sedated" or the Gregorian chant rendition of Iron Butterfly's "Inna Gadda da Vida." Or the "commercial" for those baby-seal niblets, "Lac- [whiz] [whoosh] [boing] tater Tots." Or the regular high-operatic recital of the James Bond number "Goldfinger," with soprano Melissa Fathman on voice and poise. Or -- among all the hilarity -- the serious business of seeing rare and special instruments in rare and special hands, and getting a good-natured wakeup call to the phenomenal world of unnoticed sound that surrounds us all. Watch for them.
Napster: Demon or Kitty-Cat?
Speaking of being surrounded, it's been hard (if you live in the music world) to miss all these lawsuits lately. Biggest of the recent bunch: Metallica sues Napster for stealing their music, or for facilitating, or allowing, or maybe being in the same country during, the stealing of their music. We live in a litigative nation, so it's probably no surprise. Last week I heard Metallica is also about to go after Victoria's Secret over a lip-liner in a metallic color called "Metallica." I have no idea if this is true or not; if it is true it's stupid; and I haven't bothered to check because frankly I don't care. Soon enough Dr. Dre joins with a similar Napster suit (although Metallica gets all the press). The best thing out of this whole fuss and teapot-tempest is the payLAR$.com website, which sticks tongue securely in cheek and allows you to make a donation to Metallica spokesguy Lars Ulrich to defray his "losses" for all those tunes that evil college students have stolen from him using the devil's own right hand software. It also has a well-written and beautifully thought out editorial on the Metallica suit, which I urge you all to ponder, Dear Readers ... but I'm ahead of myself.
If you've missed all this, here's the short scoop. Napster is a handy FTP (File Transfer Protocol) front-end program which scans specified directories on your hard drive and looks for mp3-format digital sound files. When you log in to Napster network, you "share" those mp3 files with other users, who can download them from your hard drive -- they don't have to know who or where you are, or vice versa -- and listen to them. If they can find them, that is. Woo-hoo. Sounds pretty innocent.
Now, this may -- the Courts will rule on this -- involve a copyright infringement. Napster asks that its users restrict themselves to mp3's that are legally swappable, and of course (duh) no one does. What you've probably heard is true: Napster was dreamed up by a college kid who wanted to swap live collectors' tapes (which Metallica, ironically, has heartily endorsed over the years) and thought this was an easy way to do it. It spawned a big company which currently isn't making any money but is branding itself like wildfire. It stirred up a lot of distress from a lot of recording artists who feel their work is being stolen by feral pirate children who will grow up expecting music for free. It stirred up real distress from Industry types who got worried that someone else might get a thumb in their pies all of a sudden. It lit the same kind of fire in the gullible media that porn on the Net lit last year. And this fire is as silly and random and ill-conceived as the porn fire was. Here's a plain tip-off to the reality of the whole mess: I have yet to meet anyone who is against Napster and has used the service enough to be familiar with it. All the foes are anti from a distance. ("Yeah I was on it once" doesn't count.)
So Metallica hired a big fancy Web surveillance company (never mind that this might be construed as an invasion of privacy) and "identified" 317,377 innocent people who were using the free and legal Napster software and allegedly had copyrighted Metallica songs on their hard drives. I'm not aware that they identified these people as actually transferring the files, mind you. They just had them, which is no crime at all. Like if you have a book in a coffee shop maybe you should get punished for possible copyright infringements in case you read some to someone else? The Metallica attorneys delivered this information to Napster in 60,000 pages of documentation (these guys have never heard of databases, apparently), demanding that all 317,377 users be booted off the Napster system for theft of Metallica's music. They also named Yale and a couple of other colleges in their lawsuit against Napster, and Yale (shame on you for Ivy League butt-covering!) quickly blocked the Napster service from its computer network.
I'm not going to get into this in detail right now -- I'll just say that your Mr. Cyrano runs a record label, so he's supposed to be afraid of bad ol' Napster. And he thinks it's fun. It's a super jukebox, it's a constant-companion mutable sampler CD, and it's a fantastic fan engine, and from my vantage -- trying with every waking hour to push music that matters -- I say this: anything that makes people excited about music is a Good Thing. I got into this business to give people something special -- joy, happiness, memories, strength, the gentle frisson of finding something fine. If Napster helps make that happen then long live it. Sales of CD's are way up over the last quarter, and I for one do not think this is a coincidence. Music is in the air, it's in our computers, it's in our thoughts and it's in our lives. I wouldn't want it any other way.
We've been hearing for years that the Internet would give musicians incredible power, and Metallica has proven the pudding. The band has personally and directly, without any mediation, alienated 317,377 of their fans, a staggering number that no major label could have hoped, by the old methods, to put off so effectively. And they've alienated hundreds of thousands of others who happily use Napster for fun and to expand their musical horizons, all in one swell foop. Those 317,377 were, I understand, located in the course of a single weekend, and they're only the people who were detected with Metallica files on their hard drives -- so how many people are on the network every day? A million? Two? Smooth move. That, plain and sure, is the power of the Internet. You can do incalculable damage to a long and worthy career, all on your lonesome.
This is the part where I guess I should say that these opinions are my own, and not necessarily those of Music Dish Magazine or any other publication in which you might be reading this. And until a Court says otherwise, you can find me, when I'm on, most often at mynapster.com or imperialfleet.com. My handle is either Cyrano123 or Turpentine, and you'll need Napigator to get to those sites. The files in my New Artists directory are authorized and I encourage you to download them for your pleasure and personal use. And if you like them, buy the bloody CD's. Makes the world go 'round.
And it's not fattening. See you in two.
Polygraph Lounge is not on the Web. You'll find their rare dates
on The Gigometer™ at www.web-ho.com/gigs.html when they have shows.
Napster - www.napster.com/
PayLAR$.com - www.paylars.com/
Napigator - www.napigator.com/
Mr. Cyrano's top five Halloween costumes, in chronological order (saw "High Fidelity" this week, can you tell?) -
* Tied ankles together with three friends and went up to Frann's Halloween party on Morningside Drive: going as a charm bracelet (New York); where we found
* Frann and her roommate Margie in gray blouses, gray pants, gray gloves, gray shoes, gray stockings, gray scarves, gray nail polish: going as shadows of their former selves (Honorable mention only, since it wasn't my costume)
* Homemade model of Cleopatra's Needle on head (tall thin packing box, modified and decorated) and bedsheet toga: going as an obelisk (Rome)
* Long hair, bandana, GNR t-shirt, jeans, mortarboard graduation hat: going as Axl Rhodes Scholar (New York)
* Red overalls, red shirt, red nail polish, red sneakers, red socks, red kerchief, ghoul makeup, hammer and sickle painted on forehead: going as the last ghost of Communism (Berlin)
* Western outfit and ghoul makeup again, BB rifle, spatter of blood, hole in the vest: going as the second-fastest gun in the West (Berlin).
Photos by Pierre Jelenc.
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