Have You Any Pills?

PJ Harvey and Brian Wilson go down easy, the 5,6,7,8's are harder to swallow

British bard and jazz critic Philip Larkin once wrote that poets are just frustrated musicians. But, as lyrical geniuses like Leonard Cohen and, uh, Jewel have taught us, the opposite is also true. So I learned recently when I went to see former Yardbirds drummer (and Blender publisher) Felix Dennis recite verse from his book A Glass Half Empty at Solera in Minneapolis. In truth, I mostly attended this reading--which was entitled "Did I Mention the Free Wine?"--in order to make sure that my own glass was never half empty. And, let me tell you, I needed at least eight refills of gratis vino (from Dennis's private collection!) to fully appreciate lines such as "Baa baa AIDS sheep/Have you any pills?" (If the wooly beast had sleeping pills, I was willing to swallow the whole bottle just to end the misery.)

After a room full of thirsty drunkards punctuated Dennis's performance with a standing (stumbling?) ovation, I swore I'd never listen to bad couplets again. So this week, I tried to let myself be moved only by music, to not pay much attention to words. Of course, I made one exception: City Pages' managing editor Michael Tortorello left Thursday's Brian Wilson show with such a vivid account of the concert that I included his words below. But that's the only time I'm going to bend the rules. So, all you aspiring librettists, be forewarned: If you advise me to read Billy Corgan's new poetry collection, Blinking with Fists, I will apply my own fists to your blinkers.

 

The 5,6,7,8's, Monday, September 27 at the 7th St. Entry Sachiko Fujiyama never learned how to twirl her drumsticks. When the beehived percussionist moves one fist around in a circle, wooden baton pointed skyward, she looks less like a heavy-metal majorette and more like she needs to stir her way out of a giant vat of pudding. Of course, Fujiyama could just be showing us the international hand signal for I'm going to throw this lasso around your scrawny little neck and take you down like the rodeo cow you are--the crowd would still cheer unconditionally. This is just the way things go when you're a cute but not hugely talented Japanese girl whom Quentin Tarantino hand-picked to beat the skins in Kill Bill: The Yanks go wild for everything you do. When singer-guitarist Yoshiko "Ronnie" Fujiyama hoots "Jump up! Jump back!" over a Dick Dale-indebted riff, the crowd follows along in karaoke hokey-pokey. When Fujiyama plunks her pots-and-pans percussion, the audience bounces up and down like they need to be burped. And when singer-bassist Yoshiko Yamaguchi slides through her paint-by-numbers basslines, no one interrupts to ask what her backup vocals mean. Her fans don't need to know Japanese. All they need to know is that "bassist in a go-go dress" is American for hot.

 

Brian Wilson, Thursday, September 30 at the Orpheum Theatre Don't look at Brian Wilson's hands. Look at the crack ten-piece backing band, crooning four-, five-, six-part harmonies. Look at the Scandinavian string-and-horn section doing a daffy version of the cool jerk. If you've got to look at something, look at the droll slide show flashing a trippy medallion of the young Wilson on the scrim. Just don't look at the hands. As Wilson sits, singing from a pair of lyric prompters, he gesticulates in an arrhythmic, unsettling fashion. Picture a marionette show dubbed into Alpha Centaurian and you've got the idea.

And yet there's no Dr. Eugene Landy pulling the strings behind this triumphant debut of the rock suite Smile. If there's any svengali behind this show, it's the buoyantly coiffed keyboard wizard Darian Sahanaja. Having earlier brought Pet Sounds on tour, Sahanaja enticed (arm-twisted?) Wilson and original collaborator Van Dyke Parks into completing a version of the mythic and fractured 1966 sessions. Of course some things are best left imagined; they take on the patina of perfection by token of not having been demonstrated to be imperfect.

Smile isn't one of those things. Its songs--"Heroes and Villains," "Vegetables," "Good Vibrations"--and its orchestral sequences are dreamy, beautiful, highly silly. Aaron Copland on a sheet of blotter acid--or maybe just Brian Wilson on a sheet of Brian Wilson.

His voice is deeper now and not as pliable. But then let's not give in to fake nostalgia: It was always Carl who had the heavenly pipes. And there's a strange tenderness to the way Wilson strains against these limits while performing Beach Boys masterpieces "God Only Knows" and "Sloop John B." As the band's falsettos take wing, you look at the slumped guy flapping his hands around downstage and think: All this wonder came from inside that odd, broken man. It's not unlike a religious experience. --Michael Tortorello

 

PJ Harvey, Friday, October 1 at First Avenue Red lipstick, red dress, and red lights behind red curtains. But the songs are unmistakably blue--indigo like a bruise faded under the flushed pink of Harvey's much-healthier skin. She's not so skeletal anymore, and most of the extra muscle probably went straight to her lungs. On "Who the Fuck" and "The Whores Hustle and the Hustlers Whore," the 5'2" queenie sounds positively elated to let the 50-foot holler escape from her knife-gash lips. And that voice echoes as she throttles her guitar, shaking out its death rattle, her nails curled tightly around its neck. Trading the quieter, Chrissie Hynde throatiness of Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea for the old banshee shriek that once brought Steve Albini back from the grave, she sounds lively and mighty and headstrong and happy...and ready to tear you apart.

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