IF LYDIA LUNCH’S Queen Of Siam hadn’t come out when it did, I’d probably still be freezin’ my butt off in Ketchum, Idaho, a town of maybe 2500 nestled firmly in the Sawtooth Mountains.
There were, at most, two people there who had ever heard to Teenage Jesus & the Jerks, and I’m not standin’ on a very shaky limb if I say that I was the only person in the whole g-damn Potato State who could be even remotely considered a fan of same. I mean, I’d seen the band a few times, and while the music wasn’t precisely what this doctor ordered, I really liked the way the Jerks could make one bunch of stoopids real happy, while just across the room another bunch of stoopids fingered their ears, clenched their anuses, and copped similar gestures of true agony. Reaction galore, and from a New York audience yet. Ole!
By the time Teenage Jesus made it to LP status (Pause to praise famous men: Charles Ball, the first to tame the tiny torturer onto vinyl), I’d left New York for San Francisco. And while I may not have known what I liked, I knew what was good in the morning for getting’ rid of girls I’d drunkenly brought home for fornicatory fun the night before. Upon awakening, I’d just turn the hi-fi up to 9, slip on side one of No New York, and go hide in the bathroom. Not one skirt could stand to stay (much less sleep) through the entire squall, and I’d usually hear the front door slam just as ‘The Closet’ was coming to a close. “Quite a system,” thinks I, and when I moved to Idaho I figured I could keep it up.
Problem is, I’m kinda dumb, and I made a big mistake the first time I tried to pull my routine on a bona fide spud girl. I get outta bed and put on the album okay, but totally forgot that I wasn’t at home. Uh-oh! As her automatic turntable prepared to sound ‘Red Alert’ for the fourth time through, Karen found me cowering in the bathroom, and after mumbling something about “ritual environments” I crawled out to the living room to try and devise an alternative plan. Not being in a real clever mood, all I could think to do was put the LP on yet again and blab about how much I liked the band. So I did.
In fact, I did just that so many times over the next couple of weeks that when Karen spotted a copy of Queen Of Siam in the garbage can of a local radio station, she quickly pinched the platter and gave it to me as a present. So the next morning we’re replaying our standard scenario, only this time Q. Of S. is on the box, and even through last night’s vino haze I know something is very diff. Gone is the barbed-wire yowl I’d grown to accustomed to; in its place is this soft, sexy/creepy voice, comin’ on all smooth and slow. By the time Lydia’s version of ‘Spooky’ rolled around, dimwitted smiles were plastered on both our mugs, and even Karen (no T. Nage Jeez fan herself) was groovin’ out, wonderin’ aloud whether any place in town delivered wine at 8:00 AM. Manaday! I’ll be dipped in peat if this ain’t one of the sassiest slabs in all of Christiandom! Libby’s throat exercises are right on the money, Doug Bowne’s bongo solo on ‘Atomic Bongos’ sends me straight to beatnick heaven, and when Billy Ver Planck’s arrangements enter the picture, I rue the day I sold all my TV theme-song albums just to eat dinner. This is real music!
Each and every song has its own tee-riffic personality. Picture this: On ‘Cruise To The Moon’, Bob “Pops” Quine gets to stretch out his guitar fingers, and to my eternal relief and grateful amazement I found that not all members of the older generation hate “our music”! That’s Wessonality!! And what of Lydia’s startling changes of persona? On ‘Knives In The Drain’ she plays the archetypal Queen of New York, but on the very next cut, ‘Blood of Tin’, she demonstrates that she can fit the shoes of autistic genius as well as (if not better than) even that youngster who scripted Letter To Queen Victoria some years ago. I dig this platter. There’s pathos. There’s humour. There’s romance. There’s mystery.
Mystery? Yep. Tell me, if you dare, what happens at the denouement of ‘Lady Scarface’. The way I see it, there are three basic possibilities: (a) Lydia gets arrested by an unseen third party; (b) Lydia can’t tell an undercover cop from a real person, and the little feller busts her; and (c) Lydia’s the copper (heh-heh) and makes the bust herself. But even if you should settle on one of the above, it only serves to open up a Pandora’s box of questions – like, what’s the crime” Are either she or the kid old enough to actually be law enforcement officers? Who’s she tellin’ the story to? The list is infinite, and while a young Sherlock Holmes may come up with a plausible explanation, how could he/she verify it? Call ZE Records? You think Jeff Vogel’d tell ya? Think again!
There I was, sittin’ around in Idaho, ponderin’ the whos, whats, wheres, and why-fors of the case when the solution arrived via telephone. A chum rang up from the Barbary Coast and in the course of our conversation, let slip that L.L. herself would be in town in a matter of days! “Go straight to the source and ask the horse,” Mr. Ed once soberly counseled, and that very day I quit my lousy job, stuck out my thumb, and faster than you could read Oxford’s Unabridged on Demerol, I was back in the town that lent its name to Karl Malden’s best-ever TV series.
Special note to sociologists: During the ’60s, much of youth culture’s style was forged in the Bay Area. Large-scale hippie gatherings, acid-rock, slow fucking, and many other semi-interesting phenomena began in one local neighborhood or another before making their way East. The ’70s have reversed all that. Cynical humor, art punks, huge portable radios, and scads more modern aberrations have been birthed in the Five Boroughs, then wheezed their way West like the creaking covered wagons of yore. While every S.F. burnout that could successfully hoist a guitar has been rewarded with at least one visit to the Big Apple (including Dils, Nuns, Tuxedomoon, Offs, and Dead Kennedys), the list of modern-noise New Yorkers to have visited San Fran is short indeed: Ramones, Dictators, TV, T. Heads, Blondie and precious few others.
When you consider that the lion’s share of even this puny scroll is made up of honest-to-god “national acts,” the number of banner-totin’ Mets fans to come a-courtin’ by the Bay is almost non-existant. Yet their influence is still (supposedly) felt. A lot of people here see The City (and, if you can believe it, CBGB) as some sorta Mecca for the movement they allege to be part of. But either they’ve got it wrong, or I do. ‘Cause as I see it, there’s a tension inherent in New York life that makes people feel they’ve just gotta evolve and adapt; otherwise, they’re gonna get passed by or stomped. There’s nothin’ like that out here. It’s pretty mellow (honest), and those bands that don’t fit neatly into the ruling punk vs. Pop dichotomy (and there aren’t many) are usually ignored and (to paraphrase Kevin Ayers) can count all their fans on one finger. But these beaners would have you believe that that they’re all interested in what’s new, so they all hunkered ’round with bated breath, waitin’ for a sidelong glance at genuine New York “punks”. Ay caramba!
Advance tickets (a rarity at the Mabuhay) sold at a brisk pace, Queen Of Siam received a goodly amount of local airplay, and many preened themselves for a big night on the town. Three nights, in fact, and the reaction was as confused as the dumbos themselves. For starters, each night 8-Eyed Spy (as Lydia & Co. were billed) hit the stage without any of m.c. Dirk Dirksen’s usual Mondo Joke-o, so nobody could immediately figure out what was goin’ on: “There was no announcement – is that her/them/it?” It sure was, and que magnifique! Pat Irwin started out the night on guitar, and when he and second guitarist Mike Palmgarden joined up with mercenary bass boss George Scott III, they blew out a furious wall of sound that only Jim Sclavunos’ authentic aboriginal drumming could hold together. All in all, their ensemble approach seemed to rely more on overpowering rhythms than specific melodies and/or instrumental breaks, and ’twas over this boss beat that Lydia did her stuff.
With movements seemingly dictated by terminal lassitude, she stared down the audience and shouted/sang/spoke the songs with a fury signifying nothing at all. It was the job she was born to do, and as the set progressed the specific lyrics took a back seat to the total sound. Maybe that was just because I was unfamiliar with the band’s material, but in the course of three nights I stopped trying to figure out the words per se, listening instead to Lydia’s voice as simply the lead instrument in the bunch. Oh, I know she doesn’t have much of a vocal range (six, seven notes, maybe), but with the exception of a few solos from the supporting players, she carried whatever tune the songs had, whether in counterpoint to the band’s groove or closely followed by Pat Irwin’s wailing sax – and it sounded great.
When clearly discernible melodies did emerge, the audience attempted to jump about in a wanton fashion, but being packed in tight as sub-atomic particles their “gyrations” were confined to the mere swaying back and forth that space dictated as the max movement possible. But sway they did, from first note to last, and they did it well. Another favorite pastime was to yell song titles during lulls in the action. One young lady shouted for ‘Spooky’. Lydia’s retort? “For you, ‘Stoopy‘s more appropriate!” The group did not play either song. Actually, with the exception of ‘Los Banditos’, I didn’t recognize any songs from Queen Of Siam in any other three surprisingly lengthy (40 minutes from Lydia?) sets I witnessed. Although this might have conceivably thrown the audience a curve (and given the promotional intent of the tour, these omissions seem to have riled the ZE moguls back in N.Y.C.), it was not cited as “bummer” in any of the bad reviews I heard. And there were many.
In fact, about three-quarters of those I quizzed voiced negative opinions of La Spy. This struck me weird, since many of these same nay-sayers had been seen at the Mab, happily boppin’ to the sounds: but what was really weird was the kind of justification that backed up the downturned thumbs. Only one guy told me he didn’t like the group because “they sucked”. That I can understand: Just ’cause he’s a backward-looking gimp with no handle on day-to-day reality doesn’t mean he’s not entitled to his own opinion. After all, de gustibus non disputandum est. No, the weird part was when folks opined that 8-Eyed Spy “weren’t as good as Teenage Jesus.”
Yow! That might make some kind of (albeit twisted) sense when opined by a Manhattanite, but uttered by as San Franciscan it makes almost no sense at all. No one polled could claim to have ever actually seen the Jerks in action, save for one perjury-prone lass who had particularly enjoyed their large horn section. (Umm, yeah, me too.) The rest, wooed by records only, seemed to have heard a different T. Jesus than I did. Surprisingly, with such a hard core coterie of early-Lydia fans out here, no ‘Frisco bands in a similar vein have yet appeared. Y’know, imitation, flattery, and all that.
Chances are these self-same peewees would’ve despised the live Jerks, but wouldn’t have admitted it for fear of lowering their hipness quotient. As an essentially unknown, unacclaimed quantity, 8-Eyed Spy allowed these observers to couch their criticism in cool terms. I think what bugged people more than anything else was the band’s aloofness. Most of the native groups out here have a real “thing” going with the audience. The punks jump into the tables and insult the rubes incessantly; the poppers grin and josh around before, during, and after every fuggin’ song. 8-Eyed Spy was not exactly created as a “people’s band”, and aside from Libby’s few offhand and caustic comments, they didn’t seem to take too much notice of the $4-per-head crowd. No encores, either, and even the angriest young bands hereabouts have an entire catalog devoted to encore selections. Not 8-Eyed Spy – good. As the hepcats absorbed the fact that no music would be forthcoming, I saw some genuinely hurt expressions. Kinda like that little puppy in the city pound that nobody wants, they just didn’t get it. I say gas the fuckers.
On the other hand, the remaining 25% of those sampled said that 8-Eyed Spy were the best band that they’d seen at the Mab, and had (unwittingly) shown up the “best of the West” for the static laggards they are. I think Lydia’s gang noticed it, too: Billed with three of the biggest local faves, they had a chance to see just what makes ’em shake in Earthquake City, and I don’t think they came away too impressed, threatened, etc. After one particularly lame local’s performance, one of the Spys asked med what category this band’s music was considered to occupy. When I replied (only half-jokingly) “experimental”, he freaked and asked how 8-Eyed Spy would be classified. I could only say I didn’t know, and I don’t. They might be one of the best and most truly modern bands extant, but modern’s got no real place in this land of pop ‘n’ punk, and that’s something I try not to think about too often ’cause it’s awful depressing.
Fortunately, 8-Eyed Spy pointed it out so glaringly as to leave me no choice. Now I realize that San Francisco’s as dead as Jayne Mansfield, so I’ve gotta move back to New York. But that’s not the only reason I’m moving. See, I got so worked up after those three nights at the Mabuhay that I forgot to ask Lydia to unravel the mystery of ‘Lady Scarface’ for me, and I just gotta know. But hey, if I ever do find out what the story is, I’ll tell ya straight away. Honest.
© Byron Coley, New York Rocker, May 1980