W I LL O L D H A M
G E T S O N J O L L Y
BY THROOP ROEBLING
Pearl Harbor Day 2000
Williamsburg, Brooklyn, NYC
Bonnie Prince Billy and Marquis de Tren descended on a tightly packed harbor of hipsters and everyone there got the shit bombed out of them very nicely thank you.
Fifty-nine years ago, sneak attack! -- they crept beneath the radar, turned a fleet into capsized boats. What ensued was the United States' entrance into . . . i know you know about all this: kaaahhhhmikkaaazeeees, iwojimas, sharks nibbling toes of navy boys who'd jumped from sinking ships, enola gays, big bombs bursting, shadows on sidewalks, the human voice of an emperor broadcasting surrender over the radiowaves. On December 7th, 2000, at midnight, Will Oldham played Pete's Candy Store, a minor place: a bar smaller than a Quickie Mart, but with much nicer ambience. In the end, history didn't repeat: sure, the sneak attack works in terms of the anniversary, but more than enough people knew he'd be there, no one drowned, and the aftermath was all pleasure.
Earlier that night, Will and Friends opened for Godspeed You Black Emperor! at the Bowery Ballroom in NYC. I missed the opening show since I was stupid and my friend was desperately hungry and needed an egg sandwich and we figured Will wouldn't go on until ten. We had failed to utter the following phrases: oh shit, that's right he's playing for free at Pete's tonight at midnight after the Godspeed show, so that means he'll probably go on right at nine, get out quick, hit the Williamsburg Bridge, and (yup, these are phrases we should have said hours before we showed up at 9:45 to meet loads of hipsters heading to the bathrooms and bar between sets, confirming that Will just put on a show, it was great, it was over: we missed it.)
A few quick words about Godspeed You Black Emperor and then back to Get on Jolly and Will in Williamsburg.
Godspeed played beneath old-style scratchy film of urban decay, siberian exile, romantic tundra: that type of hype. Afterwards a videopilot friend said the music became almost a soundtrack for teetering-toward-pretension images; an annoying thing, I agreed, because the music is more than that, it's something that very effectively inserts itself under your skin through intrigue and repetition and then escalates and ascends until skin separates from muscles and bones, the whirlingchurning notes cutting an emotional effect within, a pleasureable anxiety, a sort of blairwitch-at-its-best shaky-cam moment like when they're in the tent in pitchblack darkness saying oh shit oh shit, and much like that movie, there's no real hockey-masked motherfucker off-camera waiting for a cue to start cutting shit up: the tension builds and the peak is expected but they never really turn the camera on the killing; i mean, they never really push through to something oh fuck i can't watch scary, something like a little tension relief after the inevitable -- something I think that Godspeed You Black Emperor could achieve with just a sudden veering, an unexpected wholestep, like if towards the top of a long-steady incline they suddenly stepped into the air. Not to diss Godspeed: just saying they're a totally powerful and affecting band only a few surprises from being entirely absolutely dangerous. The Overwhelming is what they seem to be striving for and almost acheiving: music for anxious mountaineers, snowstruck, committed to urban tundra, lacking an occasional leap of faith.
Long before Godspeed left the stage, we took the L to the second stop in Brooklyn and got to Pete's at 12:15. Shut out. The front facade of the bar is glass, steamed by a truly packed house: the sympathetic woman at the door said only those on Will's List will be let in. I thought maybe since I knew what he was doing, Will'd know that I was coming, but I wasn't on the list, alas. I asked nicely for admittance, saying I would make myself very small, I'd contort arms around torso, twist legs around waist, lay beneath someone's feet at the bar, I wouldn't take up space, just wanted to get inside and listen. Told the Lady Gatekeeper the sad story about missing the Bowery Ballroom set: none of it she was having. A crowd amassed behind me. She said she couldn't have us all standing on the sidewalk. Then a couple left the bar, then another couple, plus a large man with a bulky jacket. I said my jacket's not nearly as heavy and if he left and I'm smaller then there'll be that much more room if you let me inside, I'll be so happy with everything and my joy will make everyone else happy and we'll all spend as much as we possibly can on drinks to celebrate all this happiness. I pointed to an empty stool at the bar: "I'll sit there and drink for the next four hours," I said. She let me in. I pulled my friend with me.
"For the Mekons et al" . . . real slow and a little more considered than the manifesto on the "Hey Drag City" compilation from 1994, as if the song became an artifact as Will aged, and triumphant lines like
Executive branch in a nation of one, exercise our power, to veto veto veto, be the man of the hour
If we drink we still think, and we wake up in the morning, or we stay out all night long: the righteous path is straight as an arrow
when played slow and solemn became as nostalgic as they've become for me, first hearing them in Austin 1995, back when I was a fast complainer, as messianic and as clueless as I could be.
Will and Band are unseen. Pete's has a very small bar area, a middle room with two bathroom doors, and then a narrow backroom with identical ornate tabletops lining the walls, which are all concealed by attendees standing on chairs, some ducking down a bit with hands on the low-ceiling for balance. Imagine the room pictured above filled with the backs of a hundred people at every angle. Imagine me, tall and on my toes and at the very back of the room pictured above. I can see a lot of light coming from the stage, or above it: a string of white bulbs behind them, not to mention light shining off a peanutesque forehead beneath equally thin/wild blond growths. Occasionally, from all the way in the back, above it all, a hand gestures over the crowd.
Anyone who's ever seen Will Oldham is familiar with the way he stares. Sometimes he holds one person's eyes for an entire song, unblinking, reciting a song about a little dead girl/bitch who stole some cash off him while he slept. Supposedly people get freaked and hide their eyes, look away. Since I'm tall and typically at the back of the room, I get the staredown often. I know how to hold him right back, enabling his deadcoweye mindmeld. It's like hypnotism: eerie and magnetic and entirely affecting, like getting in his head a little too much (his songs become rooms that keep changing no matter how many times you enter them: the furniture keeps moving and you notice the wood grains, shifting shapes in carpet stains, dust in the air, the way reflections change in mirrors depending on where you're sitting, the way all things change with the light; meaning, the songs are ambiguous as hell, always almost meaning, always almost telling a story, entirely generous for anyone willing to hang out in these places because there's a lot of room for the listener to extend the songs and fuck with the arrangement: sprawling pastorals in tight confines, intimacy/proximity and big-sky/distance), and then he breaks the stare and shakes his head back and forth to get you out of him, refreshing himself, and then he howls his way through a chorus or lets his voice break in a hick yelp to accentuate a line like "there really was one way to be and this is not it."
Enough with the poetics. What else did he play?
Almost the entire Get On Jolly recording with Mick Turner and Jim White from Dirty Three and Will's brother Paul. The high point of the Get On Jolly set was a call-and-response Qawwali-like thing with Mick and Paul screaming "I found a joy of my own" and Will running through the lyrics over and over, complete with spiraling hand gestures like a skinny caucasoid version of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. Next to Will was a five-pointed, white-illuminated star. I've lost my copy of Get On Jolly and would like to include the lyrics because, at the time, I was smiling at their timeliness and meaning, one of those personal coincidences better off kept quiet.
Other songs: More Brother Rides from Viva Last Blues. Slower, like everything: there really was one way to be, yet this is not it, we think, to be such younger folk as we not levelled as we drink; we're busted up, so ragged down and kissing and subsisting; our eyes glint wild and roll around and the dog, he whines insisting, he asks that we allow the sex to make us unrecognizable; that we allow slow violence to prove us rebaptizable. Yup. That type of hype.
A bilingual, faster version of West Palm Beach.
That song from "Black/Rich Music" about men who must be men who cover themselves in oil and lard and often laugh and laugh hard.
Other stuff I've forgotten. I apologize. I was drinking, it was hot in there, I could only see Will's scalp. Actually a better glance was had on the display screen on a digital videocamera a guy besides me was holding to the ceiling almost devotionally. The image was crisp and I could see a little more that way, despite an immediate sense of removal and mediated distance from the scene.
Since it was a Thursday night and getting late, people started home, the packed area became less and less packed, and I could finally make my way closer. But as I approached everything kept its distance: they scrappily jammed through Neil Young's "Cowgirl in the Sand," "Don't Cry for Me Argentina," a 20-minute Eminem-flavored version of Led Zeppelin's "D'yer M'ker" in which Will extended the "oh oh oh oh oh oh you don't have to go oh oh oh oh oh oh" with long bouts of disturbed ranting and whining, all of it laced with massive profanities and bitch shouts and I love you/I'm gonna kill you's as the band rocked steady. A few verses of Johnny B. Goode. A few stops and starts. Kitschy requests.
At one point Will mentioned that everyone had a free pass to leave, that no one was being forced to stay. He was leaning against the brick wall stage right, hiding behind the big illuminated star so that, although the handful of people left standing could get within fifteen feet, he maintained the distance. He was there, halfasleep, singing "Thunder Road" for christsakes. I was fifteen feet away, but by then I was capsized: bombed out by too many hours awake, and too many of those hours spent drinking as Will and Friends got their jollies on.
At 2:50 AM I left. He'd played for almost three hours, for free, and they probably kept going, all night, they're probably still there, playing Kinks songs by now, working their way through "I Used To Love Her" and "Sweet Home Alabama."
Everything you'd want to say to sum up Will Oldham is in the first track on "I See A Darkness."
A few excerpts and it should all be clear:
I've been to a minor place, and I can see I like it's face, if I am gone and with no trace, I will be in a minor place.
As we do what we do fine, so victorious, so benign.
Minor in a sound alone, yes a clear commanding tone.
Singing from my little point, and aching in my every joint, I thank the world it will anoint me, if I show it how I hold it.
A RealAudio interview including four solo acoustic songs
A recent Insound interview
Superfunny review of April 2000 show in Italy
in which Will tries talking real fast to confuse
the Italians who speeka jus a lil'
A QuickTime video of "Old Jerusalem"
A 1996 Article from Spin
A review of a London show in 1999
Steve Albini on Will Oldham
A 1997 interview
The Royal Stable