The mule never showed
Black Lips Bad Kids Circus
September 19, 2007
If the Black Lips were just a band, we might’ve never heard about them. In the past few years, demand for Estrus-schooled garage-revival shit hasn’t exactly been high; the whole Strokes/White Stripes Return of the Rock hype and its attendant backlash, as well as all the lame-ass bands that rose up in its wake, drove that stuff pretty far out of fashion for at least the next few years. The Black Lips rarely venture outside Nuggets-revival territory, but they’ve still managed to secure themselves a rep as being a cool band, signing with Vice and showing up in the Fader. But they’ve become cool for reasons that don’t actually have that much to do with their music. The Black Lips are cool because they make for great copy. Onstage, they make out with each other and piss in their own mouths and smash stuff. Offstage, they talk about drug-arrests and purpose-free juvenile-delinquent shit. They’ve supposedly been banned from and subsequently invited back to just about every cool club in the country, and they’ve built a mystique around being drunken assholes. Fair enough, especially since they’re actually a really good band and I’m glad I know about them. Earlier this year at the Bowery Ballroom, they were chaotic but controlled, and their murky thump made me want to hear more. And their new album Good Bad Not Evil oozes riff-heavy raunch, mostly without making a big joke out of it. I especially like how they organically squeeze in lyrical signifiers from Southern rap without getting all ironic about it: singing about recreational cough syrup on “Lean,” mumbling about “them Magic City titties” on the title track. This stuff works because they come off like the sort of fuckup white kids who probably do drink codeine and spend a lot of time a strip-clubs. When that dirtbag vibe comes through on the music, the band can be really compelling. But when the focus comes off the music and goes onto their publicity-stunt antics, the Black Lips are one of the dumbest, most irritating bands working. And that dumb, irritating band is the one I saw last night. My fault, really.
I wanted to go to the band’s Music Hall of Williamsburg show last night, but I waited too long to request a spot on the guest-list and got denied. But the band also announced something about a free show at the Williamsburg record-store Sound Fix before the Music Hall show, so I figured I’d just go to that instead. Turned out that the Sound Fix thing wasn’t really a show. Instead, it was something called the Black Lips Bad Kids Parade, and it was exactly as stupid as it sounds. Even before the show (or whatever) started, forced wackiness abounded. I got there a half-hour early and found a seat on a bench near the door. Outside, some guy manned a face-painting booth. He kept squirting me with a water pistol, and I kept doing my best to ignore him. Balloons and streamers hung everywhere. The soundsystem played Britney Spears’ “Toxic” about three times in a row. Eventually, the place filled up and the band jumped onstage. One guy was wearing a blonde wig with a cowboy hat, cheap plastic sunglasses, and tight gold lame pants; another had an enormous bushy mustache that I think is actually real but which looks fake. The guy in the wig strutted around and said mock-ringleader stuff that I couldn’t understand through a shitty megaphone. Then the band started playing, getting through a couple of bleary ramshackle acoustic rockabilly songs and sounding like a total fucking mess. Shockingly enough, the Black Lips’ songs don’t translate too well to acoustic guitars. Then a guy and a girl got up and did a dance routine to “Toxic” that was probably loosely based on Little Red Riding Hood. I’m pretty sure it was supposed to be funny, but even if it was, hardly anyone would know. The place was jammed with people, and the Sound Fix stage is only a couple of inches off the ground, so barely anyone could see anything. When that ended, the band played a couple of more songs, still sounding like ass. Then the wig guy started calling for “the Human Floor,” but I guess the Human Floor had gotten annoyed and left; I sympathized. So the band played one more song and then introduced an even shittier marching band (tuba, trumpet, cymbals, one-string jug-bass, banjo) who filed up to the stage from outside the store, played a couple of awful songs (fake-Tom Waits scatting was involved), and then led a parade to the Music Hall. While the marching band and a bunch of spectators walked down the middle of the street, the Black Lips guys ran around screaming stuff like “let’s start a motherfucking riot in the streets” and handing out masks and noisemakers. At one point, the blonde wig guy climbed a mound of dirt next to a construction site, dragging a wooden barrier up with him. He threw it off and broke it, and then he ran down the street yelling: “We’re so getting in trouble!” Immediately afterward, he ran right past an idling police car; the two cops inside either didn’t see him throwing the barrier or just didn’t care. This was Williamsburg, after all; it’s tough to imagine a single neighborhood on the planet where an ironic art-kid brass-band parade would cause less of a stir. When everyone got to the Music Hall, the whole thing just sort of ended.
A pickup truck led the parade down the back of the street, and a cameraman, supposedly from MTV, sat on the back filming the whole thing. And maybe that’s the most annoying thing about the whole pointless fucking spectacle. Back in Baltimore, I got good and used to seeing bands smashing milk-cartons with baseball bats or integrating weird nonsensical narrative plays into their live shows. But they were pulling those those art-kid stunts for fun, not for the benefit of MTV News cameras. The whole thing last night was a publicity stunt, and I guess it worked because here I am writing about it. The Black Lips are a good band, and I’m told that if I’d actually seen the Music Hall show, I would’ve gotten to see them just being a good band. But I didn’t. The Black Lips I saw last night was the Black Lips who recorded the horrible joke-country lament “How Do You Tell…,” the only glaring flaw in Good Bad Not Evil. That band is just one big unfunny publicity-grubbing joke. And fuck that band.