archival Robert Ashley anecdote

October 29th, 2008 · 4 Comments · By

Something over on DJ Helvidious’ blog tangentially reminded me of the time I saw Robert Ashley perform … for lack of any other appropriate opportunity to do so, I had the sudden urge to post that story here.

In 2004 I went to a benefit show for Richard Foreman at Tonic. I had just moved to NY for the summer and a girl I was dating took me to the show.

It started off with about 4 or 5 really shitty Fluxus poets. Sure, they were respectable O.G. Fluxus artists from back in the day, but in my personal opinion the peotry they read that night was clumsy, clichéd, and awful. I cannot recall their names.

Then John Zorn got onstage with two youngsters who looked like they might be his students, and played about 20 minutes of seriously intense hard bop, in short 2-3min bursts.

Then a short while afterwards, this 75-year-old guy in kakhi shorts and a Hawaiian shirt shuffled onto the stage, and without introduction or explanation he pulled a piece of paper from his pocket, and started to read something that began as a review of a lounge pianist in a cocktail bar from the 50’s, but which became increasingly surreal and DFW-esque as the pianist has a nervous breakdown and the reviewer continues his review, unaware of what’s clear to the listeners, praising the inventive and avant-garde nature of performance of the increasingly out-of-control pianist, with heavy dramatic irony. He paused at all the right moments and we all chuckled appreciatively.

Then he sat down at the piano and began playing a simple, repeating series of 3 chords, slowly and with long dramatic pauses inbetween. As the tension built he began to sort of sing-speak in a pattern along with the piano rhythm. It began: “Tarzan / and / Jane and / Boy moved to the city” and as it continued it became this bizaare alliteration-heavy narrative song-poem about the Tarzan family moving to Beverly Hills and becoming conservatives. The refrain he kept returning to was “Hanging Around With the Apes All Day / What a Way to Raise a Family, man.”

It was absurd, completely unexpected, somehow profound, bewildering, devestating, moderately heartbreaking, and totally incredible. It was one of the best performances in any medium that I’ve ever seen. “Who’s that old guy?” We asked the person next to us.  “That’s Robert Ashley,” they said.

Then Glenn Branca and Regina Bloor got onstage (again with two backup musicians who looked like students), and Branca pulled out a gigantic TWO-bodied guitar … as in, a normal guitar, with one neck — and then instead of the head, a whole OTHER backward guitar body on the other end, mirror image style, with the strings stretching all the way across both guitars. They played a totally loose, abrasive, free-rock burst that lasted about 20 minutes. He was pulling out the Cheap Trick moves, too … humping up on the one guitar-body while the OTHER guitar body rubbed against the speaker, presumably feeding BACK whatever chord was being generated by the OTHER sides of the strings he was holding down. In short, it kicked ass.

But in a night full of performances both alarmingly great and forgettably bad, Robert Ashley stuck out as unique, bizaare, memorable, and incredible.  I’ve since checked out plenty of his works, many of which are quite cool and good, but none of which even halfway began even share an approximate artistic style as the piece I saw him perform that night. It’s apparently a section of his opera “Improvement,” although the recording of the piece there is drastically different (and much more of what you’d expect from his recorded work.) I’ve sort of given up on finding a recording that will approximate or recreate that performance — it’s frustrating for an enthusiast and archivist like myself, but I guess I’ll have to just keep my memory of that show and try to share it. How can I explain it? It was like the best moments of Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman,” but slower and sadder and just one guy at a piano. My words don’t begin to do it justice.

Tags: feature

4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 davis // Oct 29, 2008 at 4:47 pm

    Here is a link to a Mike Powell piece on Ashley’s Lovely Music Label. Like all of Mike’s stuff, it’s pretty great.

    Sadly Styus is gone, but this should still link. Some extremely amusing comments here and there on Stylus, as well as some great writing. I believe Mike also wrote something related to Ashley for Pitchfork, but I am not going to go there. Thanks for sharing, James.

  • 2 james // Nov 21, 2008 at 1:20 am

    I forgot to mention: the Robert-Ashley-relevance continues! I had brunch with filmmaker Fred Worden during the film festival (he was a last-minute addition to Jeanne Liotta’s program, and I took Fred and Jeanne to the Blue Moon Diner on Saturday AM), and somehow the conversation turned to Robert Ashley once again. Apparently Fred went on some sort of tour with Bob Ashley and two other artists in the 90’s? Anyhow it seemed crazy to have the guy come up in conversation so many times recently, so again: I thought I’d mention it here.

  • 3 Richard // Dec 3, 2008 at 1:30 am

    I was just recounting my memory of this show to a friend recently and decided to finally try to see whether there was any info about the song online since I couldn’t find any back in 2004. And well, this page turned up on Google.

    Ashley’s set had such an intense impact on me. I’m glad to see someone else still thinking about it these years later too.

    And yeah, Branca kicked ass. I stayed front row for that while my younger brother ran for the back of Tonic because he felt his whole body vibrating!

    FYI, I’m pretty sure John Zorn’s set that night was with Trevor Dunn and Kenny Wollesen. I remember Wollesen for sure and, although the bass player’s face is kind of blank in my memory, I can’t imagine the bass being anyone else at that time. I was pretty deep into seeing Zorn play a lot that year and burned myself out on him pretty fast that way too!

  • 4 James // Dec 3, 2008 at 12:16 pm

    thanks Richard. that very well could have been Trevor Dunn; can’t really recall what he looked like from the time I saw Fantômas.

    I managed to catch Zorn a few more times at Tonic as well, before the place closed and I left NY …

    most memorable is the Zorn / Arto Linsday set from early 2006: Linsday was very clearly trying to make his way through a set of songs, while Zorn seemed to be deliberately refusing to cooperate, trying to musically instigate Lindsay and de-center the whole performance, while an unidentified drummer attempt to mediate. Arto eventually go so fed up he mumbled “fuck this,” kicked his amp over, and stormed out, ending the set early. Zorn gave a satisfied smirk and packed his sax up as well. it sounded great.