Thursday, April 14, 2011
This was one of the strangest fucking nights of my life.
This is the kind of story that I think is better heard in person, but I have to write this down, 'cause I'm still not totally sure it happened. I've never seen a band fall apart the way Dale Bozzio and Missing Persons did last month...and I've never seen a night where artists and audience came together so powerfully.
Advance word, from a friend who'd seen the band in San Diego three nights prior, wasn't positive. Apparently Bozzio was still in good voice, but quite intoxicated onstage, and prone to lengthy rants. As keen as I was to see the show, and cautiously optimistic about the night in general, I'd prepared myself for a difficult night. Missing Persons had been one of THE new wave bands of the early 80s, boosting a plastic, high-gloss and high-tech image with real musicianship and a knack for complex rhythm and melody (since all musicians were veterans of Frank Zappa's late-70s ensembles, such skill is hardly surprising).
But even though Dale Bozzio had co-written all of Missing Persons' songs, from a distance a 2011 tour might seem desperate, a clinging of a washed-up musician to past glories (particularly with the other founding members Terry Bozzio, Warren Cuccurullo, and Patrick O'Hearn having moved on, all enjoying more professional clout and respect than Dale Bozzio ever received). That her most recent release had been a collection of remakes of MP tracks, as well as other hits of the 80s, would also lead one to expect the worst.
But we steeled ourselves and soldiered on. Though I showed up at Yoshi's an hour before the gig, scant few people had shown up. We had ordered seats at a table on the first tier behind the dance floor, and were surprised to enter the space to find the floor filled with the usual table setup. Not enough tickets sold. Bad news. A bunch of open tables right in front of the stage. Good news for us.
As usually happens at Yoshi's there wasn't a GRAND ENTRANCE of the band - just a bunch of musicians taking the stage and getting set up. So we got a good look at the people filling the shoes of Missing Persons: Mike (I think), a non-descript guitarist; Doug, an older bass player (his instrument had five strings); a keyboard player who looked more like a roadie, save for his purple scarf and zebra-print platform boots; and Jake, the youngest member of the group, a drummer who, it would turn out, was a fine, fine musician.
As the show started Dale looked a bit disoriented. She reminded us a couple of times that it was her birthday. She kept moving around the stage, and looking at the ceiling like she was trying to remember the words. (D suggested that perhaps she was looking up to not be distracted by the smallish crowd, which may well have been the case.) This said, there was NOTHING wrong with her voice - it still carried the range and the weird mix of innocence and sexuality that it had always had. And though she would continue to down flute after flute of champagne (brought out by a dutiful roadie who seemed to have no other responsibilities), her voice remained strong, and by the fifth song ("Words", the band's earliest hit), everything was falling into place. The show was truly well under way, the band continued, and the audience were into it. But I think everyone was still keeping an eye on Dale, half expecting that she could flame out at any time.
So we were all caught by utter surprise when, about five bars into "Give," the guitar player fell over his amplifier. He got to his feet, played a couple more chords, and then fell against the wall. The band stopped and everything was chaos for the next few minutes.
Perhaps you've seen something like this happen, but when when a live performance goes THIS spectacularly wrong it's quite, quite disorienting to the viewer (to the people onstage, as well, sure). I felt weirdly concussed as the ensuing minutes unfolded, but I do remember these things:
-The band members struggling to get the guitarist offstage and into the hands of suitable attention.
-Jake in particular springing to action to nail everything down. ("You're our EMT, Jake, take care of it," quoth Dale.)
-Some strange things from Dale: "Get him a stool, he'll be fine." And ultimately "It's not like he's a drug addict or anything." These are not words you want to hear anyone say under any circumstances.
-And finally, a couple of fans, undaunted by the carnage unfolding before their very eyes, bringing some Missing Persons records for Dale to sign.
What we pieced together was that the guitarist had been in a fight (!) a couple of days prior, and was taking painkillers, which mixed badly with the beer he'd had earlier. So there was a lot of frantic activity (you could see the zebra boots running back and forth beneath the rear curtain), and there was quite a conflicted vibe coming from the stage - it seemed that Mike was determined to retake his place on stage but that the band wanted to just get him some medical attention. Eventually they said that there'd be a liability if he were to resume, and so finally, it was clear there would be no guitarist for the rest of the performance.
So we reached a point where you get whenever things go wrong onstage (somewhere in there we all sang "Happy Birthday To You" to Dale), and Jake played a 3-minute drum solo to fill the space. This is a sign that the band is desperate, but 'twas good. Jake was, in fact, an exceptional drummer (and certainly capable of filling Terry Bozzio's drum throne).
And then the remaining band launched (tentatively, at first) into the album track "U.S. Drag", more intimate and spare without a guitarist to fill it, and yet...
An acting teacher told me that an audience loves to see an actor recover from a flubbed line or some other disaster. I remember thinking at the time that I'd rather see a smooth performance. But this moment in this show made me rethink this.
Because what I saw in "U.S. Drag" at this moment was simply magical: the four remaining musicians were at a point of no return, no way to undo what had just happened, and so they thrust themselves forward. Something resembling a performance gelled before our very eyes, the music rose up from the ashes and took these four wayward souls (and the unbelieving/faithful/coked-up audience members) into its confidence. At that moment, Dale and band resealed the compact with the audience, and made it work. They'd gone over the cliff but reached out for a post, and the momentum pulled them back up on the road.
And from that point forward the show was just fucking solid. Dale continued her between-songs rants, fueled by champagne, endorphins, fearlessness, and utter carnage, but I don't remember her squinting for the words that point forward. The reduced band played on, motivated by a clear "fuck it, we're gonna do this", and it sounded like nothing was missing. Powering through the set, offering a perfectly appropriate and wonderfully rendered "Destination Unknown," ending with a SOLID "Walking In L.A." then covering a Zappa track as a coda. And thank you, good night.
Crazy applause from all of us, particularly a clearly coked-out contingent in their best neon 80s-wear sitting behind us. At my table we just looked at each other, delighted but still not entirely sure that we'd seen what we'd seen. As we lingered to process it, some roadies and a couple of band members came out to strike the set. Jake made the rounds, and there were a couple of us who wanted to compliment/congratulate him. One of the 80s contingent wanted to give Dale something: "Can you give this to your mom?" "She's not my mom." (Jake probably heard that at every gig.) He came over to us and thanked us for coming, asked us if it came off all right. I told him exactly what I wrote above: that after the chaos, something opened up and took us all in, and that the band had more than made it worked. He was pleased, and thanked us again.
On the way home, D had to pull the car over so that we could process. We laughed. This was not a derisive laugh at the band, but the somewhat hysterical laughter of the shellshocked. To this day we still can't quite believe that we saw what we saw. I've seen a fair amount of on-stage chaos (be it Link Wray falling off the stage at Bimbo's, or a typical Testicular Momentum gig at dc space), and even weathered my own share of backstage chaos during plays (one day I'll spill all about THE NIGHT) but this qualified as the most protractedly weird, gloriously uneven, and full-tilt bizarre performance I'd ever seen.
But we were both happy to have seen it.
Because there's no way in hell Yoshi's will ever have them back.
(And yet return they did, though not to Yoshi's - their next SF gig, at the Red Devil Lounge, with original guitarist Warren Cucurrullo replacing the inebriated Mike, happened just a couple of months later. I wrote about that one, too.)