Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Reconnecting with Tissue

Those of us growing up in Southern California during 1978-1983 may remember the Long Beach-based Suburban Lawns. Their rise accelerated and gained certain acutity when Jonathan Demme (Silence of the Lambs, Philadelphia) directed their first video Gidget Goes to Hell. A happenstance that no doubt had everything to do with it being aired on Saturday Night Live. Local radio airplay and print attention followed (their Slash cover at right) leading to a respectably successful album (by local band standards). The Lawns are also one of the few bands of the period that in retrospect don't come off as hopelessly dated. (Or, like all of 80s music, for that matter.) To prove the point, check the local bounty of material available at this site.

The Suburban Lawns sound eschewed the trendy posturings of digital synths and de riguer flanged guitars. making the sound practically classic rock by today's standards. And singer/keyboardist Su Tissue herself (nee Sue McLane), with all her quirks, conceits, vocal sound effects and coloratura—a kind of bottled-up Yoko Ono—still sounds innovative. Features that keep the band's sound as perky and collagen fresh as it was when it was recorded. You might think Tissue's vocal stylings were a mirror to her soul as her onstage persona radiated both an extremity of adorableness and a nerd-like unsocialized quality. Clearly, the band was far less interesting when she wasn't behind the mic. (She was a good piano player too.) Her personal style had its adherents: One fan described her as able "to pull off of a remarkable mix of Little House on the Prairie meets the Manson Girls, beautifully." (I don't agree with the sinister angle of the Manson family, but okay.) Google the band now and find a robust amount of ongoing interwebs activity: Their cult is still very much alive. A legacy that's owed all to her.

The band's complete canon included a couple of singles, an album, and a five song EP before the internal momentum fizzled out. The final recordings pointed toward interesting new possibilities, a kind of Cocteau Twins cum slightly funkier Bowie-Eno trilogy direction, but with more humor. Post-Lawns, Tissue continued studying at the Berklee College of Music (after earlier attending Calarts—poor little rich girl) and recorded a short album of ambient instrumental music—30 minutes of slight variations on a groovey piano figure with added layers of ambiance (done in the days before digital loops). It would've made an arresting soundtrack to a wistful French film at a seaside. All of this would've had us hoping for bigger things to come from her. Alas, it was not to be.

A recent interview with former member Frankie Ennui offers some insight. Find it here.
An original pic sleeve of Gidget Goes to Hell is on eBay for $55.

All of these should be long out of print now.
Suburban Lawns: Gidget Goes to Hell self-issued 7" inch single (1979)
Suburnan Lawns: Baby from Baby EP (1983)
Su Tissue: 2nd Movement from Salon de Musique (1982)

A personal note: Once, I was in a band. We had the opportunity to open for Suburban Lawns at the Cuckoos Nest in Costa Mesa, CA ca. 1981. The Lawns at the time were getting loads of local air play. As was often the case, I'd have school and work the next day (community college, no Calarts for me) so I'd gather up my equipment (an organ and electric piano/harpsichord [pre-digital], a guitar, an amp, cords and sundry other crap that'd require five trips to the car to load) and leave early as was my habit. (During my time we'd play with Jonathon Richman, Violent Femmes, X, The Go-Gos, and other bands long gone from memory. I'd leave before they all went on too. Yeah, I was a fool.) The club was quite packed that night (we didn't often get to play to full houses so it was very exciting—it was the peak of my very, very short musical career). We did very well that night. The audience was loud and enthusiastic and we were beside ourselves. (Our band was also co-ed: two girls and three boys.) Our success had apparently unraveled Ms. Tissue. She paced around the "backstage" loft before going on and talked to herself unconsolably in a kind of repetitive Rain Man way. (This was a secondhand account told to me by another band member.) I could only attribute her reaction to her highly creative and requisitely insecure artistic nature. I never got the chance to see her live but from what I've seen on YouTube, while the band was certainly interesting they could appear a little stiff on stage. As a young man admiring Tissue from afar, she was a nerd's lust fetish of a girl: Cute, physically awkward, unpretentiously brilliant (I'm guessing), socially clumsy, and just diffident enough in ways that young men can ruthlessly exploit (again, I'm guessing). I'm sure I would've loved her. Even now, imagining her in her overripe suburban middle-age with pictures of the kids covering the dust-covered piano she's still the thinking older man's bohemian heartthrob.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Taking liberties with Libertango

Did you ever have to go digging into academic journals for research? Then you know of their prison romance with language: the overuse of overlong words and arcana, words bent, twisted, and hammered into misuse, and language generally used as camouflage. From my experience, art journals are some of the worst offenders of all. (Once, a professor red-inked a friend's paper to "eschew sesquipedalianism." Or said another way: Try using smaller words and bigger ideas. Indeed.) But, if you do have to slog through the art journals in the course of your career then I recommend the Dadaist and Surrealist periods as some of the cleverest noodlings ever committed in the service of Ivory Tower shop talk. A favorite image of mine comes from French poet Comte de Lautréamont AKA Isidore Ducasse: As beautiful as the chance encounter on an ironing board of a sewing machine and an umbrella. For me, a description of how the beauty of words and images of art can, in the best circumstances, make both order and logic irrelevant.

A sewing machine and an umbrella in this case are not unlike the collision between Astor Piazzola and Grace Jones: He being the master of the Nuevo Tango (a mix of tango with jazz) and a demigod of Argentina (so you'll hear in the video below)—and she being the Jamaican-born dance club diva, actress, model, muse, proclaimed friend of Piazzola, erstwhile scenemaker, and general all style bombardier. Libertango is far and away the most most significant tango ever composed, having found its way into about 500 different recorded releases (according to Wiki). This lyrical version, dubbed I've Seen that Face Before, was a hit for Jones in 1981. Well beyond the tango, Libertango is, to my mind, quite likely one of the greatest melodies ever written, anywhere. As a dance, the tango can be like the Kama Sutra on stilts. As a rhythm, its roots are both of Europe and Africa—Africa being the key ingredient to any dance with a sexy wiggle in it. At times the tango takes on a marchy 2/4 beat, but it's a march that walks with a hard on. Though, it's a sexiness that can't be separated from the images of the dance. What Grace Jones did with her version here—the more rigid tango-iness smoothed out, its hide retooled like a vaquero's leather bandolero, and all of it pierced through with an electrocuted club beat—leaving behind a teasing amount of the original melody but with just enough of its own substance to keep things at an intriguing throb. Kind of like the joke comparing sex and pizza: Even when the song is bad it's still pretty good.

Jones was 61 at the time of this performance. Her near golden age voice is still punchy though it ventures closer to Rock of Ages territory than it might've when she still wore a fade. Even still, she seizes the stage with a lusty bravado that her younger peers would have to admire. And fer crissake!, this grandma is wearing a thong!

During her peak in the 80s Jones created a niche for her take on dance club music that drew on slightly more hipster source material—Iggy Pop, Roxy Music, The Pretenders, Edith Piaf—as well as a battery of horny entendre-loaded, synth drenched joints of her own. With her Jean Paul Goude get-ups, iconic style, and ever-present chat show spectacle, she cut a refreshingly notorious figure. If you care nothing for her music, you've still got to admire her durable and unshrinking image.

Here, below, is a more traditional take on the Libertango melody presented in a geeked-up, dry hump musical fantasy. (Here, Yo Yo Ma's even more straight ahead version—minus the hump.) The jagged and yet hypnotic quality of the Libertango melody brings visions of crotch-grinding and high slit leg flashes while still needing nothing of the tango itself to melt all on its own. The song is utterly universal: I can't imagine how anyone, anywhere couldn't love this tune. Just can't. Surrender and just dig it.

That Kama Sutra on stilts in case you need reminding: