March 15, 2009

Another Surreal Friday Night


When Morgan and I heard that the Great David E. Williams was playing a rare New York gig on Friday night, there was no question of whether or not we’d be there.

            We don’t go out to see shows much these days—especially at East Village clubs on Friday nights. The streets are packed with oblivious, cow-faced drunken college kids, and the bars are, well, about the same.

            (One small and disturbing observation resulting from too much personal experience: twenty year-olds—at least those in the East Village—no longer understand what a red and white cane represents. Apparently our educational system has let us down again.)

            Anyway, the last club show we’d attended was, well, David Williams at the Pyramid a few years ago. Not only is he one of my oldest and dearest friends, but his music is remarkable—he’s carved out a niche all his own, with songs that are at once beautifully crafted, impenetrably dark, and funny as hell (literally), loaded with some extraordinary wordplay.

            First time I saw Dave play was back in Philly, at a little storefront art space called the Stratus Institute. There were no chairs, so we all sat on the carpeted floor, and a folding table in the back offered a spread of pound cake and lemonade. There were maybe a dozen people there that night, and more than a few were visibly disturbed by Dave’s songs about limbless prostitutes, doomed retarded girls, and stillborn children. I, on the other hand, can’t remember ever being more excited about a new musical act.

            This New York show celebrated the release of David’s fifth full-length album, Every Missing Duck is a Duck Missed—an album forged in no small part by the 2007 death of Jennifer Bates. She and David had been together for eight years until she finally lost her fight with leukemia. As a result, the new album is the most personal, heartbreaking, and at times agonizing thing David’s ever done. It’s also the most beautiful.

            The show was at Lucky Cheng’s Fortune Cookie—the little club below Lucky Cheng’s on First Ave.

            Now, for those of you not from around here, Lucky Cheng’s is a bit of a tourist spot—a tacky theme restaurant in which all the waiters are transvestites. In a strange way, it almost made sense.

            Before heading over there, though, Morgan and I stopped at a well-disguised Ukrainian restaurant for dinner. We figured that place wouldn’t be nearly as overcrowded as every other place we’d passed. While we were right about that much, what we didn’t realize was that this same restaurant also hosted tango lessons every Friday night. So as we ate our kielbasa and stuffed peppers and sauerkraut, the air was intermittently filled with the sound of ancient and scratchy tango music, apparently being played on a Victrola while a dozen people in the next room clutched roses in their teeth and practiced their steps.

            It was all very odd.

            An hour later, we made it to the dark and narrow club. Duck balloons bobbed in the air, and a good crowd milled about beneath them. I was happy to see the crowd, but not surprised; since we first met, David’s made quite a name for himself internationally. It was, in fact, a star-studded evening of entertainment for those connected with various esoteric subcultures. On hand (and on stage) was musician, filmmaker, and founder of Disques de Lapin records, Thomas Nola. The Lindbergh Baby—the Brooklyn-based acoustic band opening that night—was a side project of Blood Axis’s drummer; and offering a brief incantation during their set was Magister Peter Gilmore, high priest of The Church of Satan.

            I first met Mr. Gilmore some nineteen years ago, when we were both part of a ridiculous panel discussion about something or another. He’s a wonderful and charming fellow, and was there that evening with his wonderful and charming wife, Peggy.

            The one downside to the crowd was that the only space Morgan and I could find to take in the show was against a wall—next to the speakers and in front of a door. It didn’t take long to realize that the door was at the bottom of a flight of stairs leading from the transvestite restaurant above us. We also learned quickly that the only bathrooms in the entire building were off to our right. So every twenty seconds or so, the door flew open and someone asked for directions to the toilet. A few of these people (the drunker ones) decided that the show downstairs was much more interesting than the one upstairs, and stayed. One woman in particular seemed very happy to have quite literally stumbled into some live music.

            “Wooooooo!! Rock an’ Roll!! Play another song! Woooo!”

            While Morgan stepped off to the bar to get a couple more beers, a young man stopped and asked to take my picture. I don’t know why, and I don’t know why I agreed.

            Before David went on, Mr. Gilmore stopped to chat a bit, and invited us back to where he was sitting. We followed, and just as the introductions were about finished, there was that enthusiastic drunken lady again, thrusting her hand out and introducing herself. She was indeed very happy to be there, wherever she thought she was.

            Meanwhile, David went on and played what was undoubtedly one of the best shows of his career (and I’ve seen a bunch). Soon most everyone in the crowd took the drunk lady’s lead and began whooping and hollering. Not to be outdone, she began singing the theme to Star Wars for some reason. Then she asked me and Mr. Gilmore if we wanted another drink, as she was headed to the bar. We declined.

            As she wandered away I leaned over and asked, “Umm, do you know her?” I honestly wasn’t sure.

            “Never saw her before in my life,” he said. “But there are a number of moons up in the sky . . . and a few asteroids.”

            At some point later, I ended up squeezing some poor unsuspecting man’s ass. I didn’t mean to, and Morgan assures me he took it in stride. It’s a problem with not being able to see. Every time we go out, I end up grabbing someone—male and female alike—where I shouldn’t. Nobody’s punched me for it yet, though.

            After David finished his set, Morgan and I said our goodbyes, and headed back out into the air, thinking we might find ourselves a quiet bar to have one more beer before heading home. Unfortunately it was a late Friday night in the East Village, so the idea of a “quiet bar” was a foolish pipe dream. We stopped in front of every tavern we knew and peeked inside only to see all those drunken oblivious college students packed eight deep along the bar. Then we decided to move on to the next.

            While still out there looking, we found the dead man.

            Well, we didn’t “find” him exactly. There were other people standing around as we passed. And to be honest, we don’t know if he was dead. He was face down in a doorway, unmoving. Someone was trying to rouse him, but there was no response.

            We continued walking and heard sirens in the distance. Morgan wanted to make sure they were on their way to check out the body, so we waited.

            The ambulance stopped across the street from us, and a bored EMT climbed out and sauntered over. He didn’t seem to be in a terrible hurry to potentially, y’know, save a life. Morgan pointed him toward the body, and as there was nothing more we could do at that point, we continued looking for a quiet bar.

            We eventually found one, much to our surprise, a former theme bar that’s now just a regular old bar. The bartender was pleasant, the music was swell, and most everyone seemed to be preparing to leave. We stayed for a couple, then got the heads up that they were closing.

            It was about 2:30 a.m. Neither of us could remember the last time we’d been out that late. Years and years and years. But it had been a good evening, from the tango lessons to the corpse. Odd as ever, yes, but good.


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