By Steve Weinstein
By Bryan Bierman
By Lindsey Rhoades
By Chaz Kangas
By Ben Westhoff and Sarah Purkrabek
By Jena Ardell
By Jesse Sendejas Jr.
By Katherine Turman
"Would anyone like to share this beer with me?" asks Andrew W.K., just another gracious and Christ-like gesture, five loaves and two fish distilled into a single, gleaming bottle of Bud Light, but still enough to sate and thrill the masses. Or, in any event, what mere fraction of the masses can cram into this tiny basement New Museum performance space Thursday night, a very staid and academic-recital sort of vibe, well-coifed downtown sorts of folks primly seated in orderly rows, watching their messiah throttle a grand piano.
Andrew plays piano like Bugs Bunny does when he's trying to wake someone up: theatrical one-finger plinks, swooping jackhammer chords, lots of Jerry Lee Lewis full-keyboard slides. Our evening's program, in fact, begins with several boogie-woogie freestyle numbers, drum-machine-aided vignettes in duet with laconic guitarist Matt Sweeney— simple, goofy jams in which Andrew just free-associates. "I had some notes that I'd made to give me a starting point, sometimes, lyrically," he explains to me afterward. "But I misplaced those notes."
We're winging it, then. One raucous chorus goes: "Everybody's dancin' like a douche." Another slower, more contemplative number begins:
There were times
When I ate four meals in one day
I was trying to gain weight.
Andrew's disciples respond to this silliness with giggling, clapping, grinning, enthusiasm. He cuts an appealingly disheveled figure, clad in all white as always, tall, rangy, greasy-haired, animated. Animated doesn't quite capture his manic energy, though. Japanese animated. He fidgets mightily on his piano bench, lurching back and forth, ready to explode.
And then, the duet portion of our program concluded, he explodes. He plays a few older songs. Ones you might remember. Songs about partying. And puking. And doing one until you've done the other.
It has been seven years since I Get Wet, Andrew W.K.'s violently ecstatic major-label debut, a stupendously empty-headed pop-metal extravaganza whose song titles tell the whole story: "It's Time to Party," "Party Hard," "Party Til You Puke," "Fun Night," etc. (Japanese bonus track: "Make Sex.") I Get Wet was basically like getting punched in the face over and over again (hence his famously bloody nose on the cover), but in the best possible way. This is a popular construction in Andrew's universe. "Days like this really remind me of why performing is so exciting," he tells me. "Because it's really just absolutely horrifying. Absolutely terrifying. But in the best way. 'Cause there's really nothing bad that could really happen. Well, injury maybe. And I have been injured, so."
So. Watching stately, demure, well-coifed downtown sorts of folks react as Andrew starts roaring through songs called "We Want Fun" and "Ready to Die" is a mesmerizing and joyous affair: One by one, people start to get up and dance. It's watching them realize that such a thing is acceptable, is the thing. They look shocked, and then overjoyed, at this breakthrough. As if they've been wheelchair-bound all their lives and just now realized they could walk. Or that Andrew, messianic as always, suddenly made it so. This is his gift, and his gift to you. He makes you dance like a douche, and then he offers you a beer.
Andrew has retained this power in the years since I Get Wet, both in subsequent records (2003's The Wolf and 2006's Close Calls With Brick Walls) and with his increasingly bizarre slate of extracurricular activities. These days he's got his fingers in numerous bewildering pies, sideline careers all unified only by the idea that a) they make no sense and b) he initially doesn't want to do them. He's made forays into the lecture/motivational-speaker circuit ("That was why it appealed to me, because it seems really stupid—it seems like not a good thing to do"); teamed up with three other partners to open a downtown club called Santos' Party House ("It seemed like probably the most impossible, difficult, challenging, unreasonable, extreme kind of undertaking you could do"); and produced reggae legend Lee "Scratch" Perry's next record ("I think he liked the idea because it made absolutely no sense. There was no logic to us working together. But I think he liked that I was young and excited and hungry and would do anything to make him happy. And I have"). Andrew's attraction to revulsion is almost pathological: Andrewwk.com recently unveiled thoroughly disquieting portraits of himself, clean-shaven, hair elaborately feathered, lips almost pornographically pink. Like a male model. "Those pictures, when I first got them, I was horrified," he says. "I didn't want anybody to see them. And I thought that the last thing I would want to do is show it to one person, let alone put it on the World Wide Web. But again . . . "
Yes. Andrew started doing solo shows because he'd tired of the hard-touring, full-band lifestyle. "I was feeling very vulnerable back then, so I wanted to build a huge band and build a huge sound and build huge songs that I could put in front of myself—not to hide myself, but to make me feel stronger than maybe I felt," he recalls. "And now it's all about trying to expose, and put myself in the most compromising, awkward position. For some reason, it feels really good."
He threatens new music, new albums to come. But too much planning is also antithetical to the concept here. Spontaneity begets discomfort begets elation. Which brings us back to the New Museum, a flurry of new converts now skipping around Andrew's grand piano as he leads us through a climactic "I Love NYC" (chorus: "I love!/New York City!/Oh yeah!/New York City!"), forcing us to really love it for once.
"I would never normally dance at a show," he notes afterward. "It would take something special to make me dance. Maybe what it would take is someone really humiliating themselves to that extent, so no matter what I did, I couldn't be more of a fool than the guy in the spotlight." This is how jesters become kings, how messiahs are born. "You guys are doing so well!" he bellows at the ebullient crowd. "So well. I love you. I love you very, very much."
Watch Andrew W.K. read from a new Paul Frank children's book (and why not?) May 25 at McNally Robinson in Soho