Barbie Branded Indies

by Jack Diablo
Date: 6/4/09
Venue: Eclipse
By: Jack Diablo
Chances are if you go out to catch some live music you’re going to see something pretty standard. A few smaller, usually local bands will open for the touring headliner. The bands play their sets, you drink your beer, and although it’s more fun than sitting at the bar listening to the jukebox, it doesn’t mean there aren’t different ways of experiencing live entertainment. So when a show comes along to challenge the status quo and present something unique and entertaining, it is like a breath of fresh air. I recently attended such a performance. Billed as a Karen Carpenter tribute, it featured a screening of an extremely bizarre biopic of Karen’s life and five local bands who performed a Carpenters cover along with a few of their own creations.
The event took place at Eclipse and was hosted by Logan Owlbeemoth. I first met Logan when I happened upon one of his shows at a Riverside laundromat. It blew my mind the way these bands were using such a mundane location and giving it new life. Since then we have become fans of each other. It was that very show that caused me to focus my writing on music and he claims I inspired him to start his own blog.
The shows he puts together are not your typical music venue fare. They usually exhibit experimental and noise bands with the occasional traveling musicians who want a piece of the action. The focus is always on the atmosphere and it’s never the same show twice. House shows and weird locations like the now closed laundromat or the Castillo San Marcos in St. Augustine are his venues of choice, but for this one he decided on the established indie club, Eclipse.
I was chatting with Logan at the bar when a woman approached us asking which one of us had put the show together. Clearly not a regular, she sheepishly inquired as to whether the show was an honest tribute or if we were there to poke fun. Logan expressed his earnest appreciation for the songstress and the woman was relieved and shared her heartfelt adoration as well. She retired to her own place at the bar but the encounter remained with me for the duration of the evening.
The screening was announced and the audience sat themselves on the cold concrete dance floor to watch the 43-minute film. It is one of those based-on-a-true-story biopics directed by Academy Award-winner, Todd Haynes. Although Haynes has earned critical acclaim in recent years, Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (1987) is no longer in circulation due to copyright violations. Not that it makes any difference because although brilliant, it wasn’t made for commercial success. Karen’s tragic story is told in the most bizarre way possible. Instead of using look-alike actors, Barbie dolls are cast as every character, which of course makes sense considering the role Barbie plays in Americana and the undeniable association with female self-image issues. But watching it at times seemed so ridiculous. There were uncomfortable chuckles from a few watchers who didn’t know how to process the absurdity and who could blame them. The film walks a fine line between seriously telling such a gripping story and poking fun at it. I couldn’t help but glance over at the woman we met from before to see how she was taking it. I wasn’t sure if she would understand it and become offended by the delivery.
Thinking about it later, I realized that the almost comical, intentionally cheesy form of storytelling actually made you think even harder about what the pressures of an oppressive family life and the predatory music industry can place on a young person who is supposed to represent young wholesome values. How many “serious” after-school specials have been made about anorexia, rife with melodrama and cheesy acting, and are they any more ridiculous than what we had just seen? I think not. After watching the film, it’s understandable why the Carpenter family had it buried, especially if their portrayal in the movie is at all accurate. Nevertheless, it is an amazing, frightening, brutal look at a truly tragic story.
Following the film, the bands began their tribute performances. First up was Bright Orange, a lone guitarist who has performed under different names and with different groups. He began with a Carpenters cover featuring a fuzzed-out drone keyboard before donning his guitar and making it weep/squeal/scream. I made the comment to several there that he was probably the best guitarist I know. He’s the kind of guy who knows the instrument intimately. He also knows how to manipulate feedback and distortion in ways that make it as much a part of the music as the chords and individual notes. Not constrained by classic chord structure or progression, he treats the instrument as a living thing with which he shares a complex relationship. I’ve seen him treat it gently and coax beautiful melodies out of it and I’ve watched him abuse it, creating violent dissonance with a look of scorn on his face. It’s something you have to see to truly experience.
The Memphibians took their turn with a psychedelic country-folk interpretation followed by Kevin Lee Newberry. I’m sure I’m not the first to say that Newberry has that Townes Van Zandt /Daniel Johnston kind of unappreciated genius thing going on. He is a painfully honest songwriter who shies from the spotlight except when he dons his acoustic guitar and spills his guts into the microphone. Even if he never scores a record deal or does a European tour, someday someone will find his material and expose its signature beauty.
Logan put on his costume and transformed into Telepathik Friend, his hip hop noise altar-ego, and performed a trippy rendition of ‘Superstar’ with Karen’s voice sampled, looped and reverberating in the background. The performance was on par with the strangeness of the film.
Finally, Honey Chamber played but you will hear plenty more about them in the near future, I promise.
If there’s anything that can be learned from shows like this, it’s that being creative and doing something unique is an exciting alternative to going along with what is already happening everyday in every town.