The Groanbox Blog

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

A Mad May Night

Thursday May 25, 2006 - Warning...inordinately long post below!

The Groanbox Boys played at the Brady Arts and Community Centre in the East End of London, near Spitalfields, past Brick Lane, nestled in the middle of the East Asian ghetto. The Centre was probably the product of one of those well intentioned but poorly developed left-leaning projects to bring “culture” to lower income areas, with the overall result of having less people from other parts of London attend events and virtually no one from the community around it. It was a last minute gig, where we were offered to play with a polite, effete young British guy named Matt Winkworth who sang catchy, studied piano pop songs accompanied by a conservatory cellist about stuff like “double u double u double u dot myyyyy space dot com” and other vaguely witty topics; and a woman named Jane Bom-Bane who has been known to sing with a fish bowl on her head, and who sings haunting, bizarre melodies while playing the harmonium surrounded by a bunch of peculiar hats and other contraptions, amounting to what can best be termed a surreal, Brechtian performance. Michael spiritually fell in love with her that night, and ever since we’ve been singing “Jane, Jane, Jane Bom-Bane, left me crying when she caught that train!” and so on and so forth. Before the show, we witnessed her frenetically tearing off bits of cloth from her long black dress, which it appeared was too long. Michael asked her if we could have the bits she was removing and promptly sported his bit around his hat, looking rather Zorro-ish, while I strapped mine around my waist, pirate-style and began to sashay about.
The most excellent Québecois, JP Tremblay, husband of Risa from Green Note, has been following us around with his spankin’ new HD camera to make a Groanbox documentary, and caught much of our performance on tape. The sound was god-awful, so we decided to play acoustically, considering there were eight people in the audience.
Definitely an absurd night, but the real fun didn’t begin until after we jetted. On our way out, a British Buddhist bloke stopped us, wanting to see my gourd banjo, buy a cd from us, and tell us about a Buddhist Festival somewhere in the countryside that we should play at. After that, we made our way with all the gear towards Liverpool Street. We were stopped several times by people who wanted to check out the freedom boot, including a group of teenage Indian kids smoking butts and listening to hip-hop who asked us whether the boot could be used for rap, and a Welsh guy and his friends, who paid us five pounds to play them a song. They dug it...Love the Welsh accent: “fookin brrilliant mate, luv tha banjoo an’ the squeeze box!”
Then, not one minute later this Caribbean guy named Herbie who runs an audiovisual place, stopped us in the middle of the street...told us he’d seen us before and asked us in a roundabout way if he wanted to play in his store at some point (where there was evidently a whole lot of partying going on). We said sure and handed him a cd. Michael asked him if his name was Herbie like Herbie Hancock, he said “Yeah, Herbie, but not Hand Cock,” making masturbation gestures, “Pussyfoot man, Pussyfoot!!”
Puzzled by Herbie, we proceeded towards Liverpool Street, but passed by this big pub on a corner called “The Golden Heart”, and saw these two dudes who we’d seen on the way to Brady, one black with short dreads looking Jamaican smart, the other white looking sort of buzz-cut reformed punk. The one with dreads had asked us on the way over to play some songs for them, so we said we’d catch them on the way back. These two dudes had this ongoing shtick about their baby...the white guy was pushing around what appeared to be an empty stroller with a strange green pine branch attached to it. With an expression of utmost seriousness he would periodically ask us to keep on an eye on his “baby” while he went to fetch a pint, or harp on us for using bad words around his young ‘un. There was nothing in the stroller – or so we thought. JP told us that if we had looked closely, we would have seen a dead bird with an earthworm wriggling in and out of it... If he wasn’t having some twisted flashback, then I can affirm that those guys were totally off their rockers. Instead of buying us a pint or throwing us some change for the music, they broke off a piece of hash and gave it to us...strange gift.
The owner of the place, this petite 1920s caricature of a woman of over 60 wearing a flowery frock and tailed everywhere by her tiny little grey poodle-like dog, had asked us to play some songs including happy birthday inside the pub in exchange for some scotches. Later, when we were outdoors jamming away, she was mulling about, sweeping, making comments, very pleased to have JP take her picture, looking like a character in The Triplets of Belleville.
From fairly early on, a tall pretty French singer named Sophie, whom Michael knew from a previous musical encounter, appeared out of the blue on her scooter. She apparently lived right nearby. All three of us hit it off with her right away, she was grooving to the music, singing whatever came to her, her long blonde hair swaying back and forth whenever she was really getting down. She hung out with us the whole night. Her presence confirmed to Michael what he had been ranting and raving about all evening – the fact that none of us is in control of anything we do and that nothing is ‘random’. That she just appeared like a siren out of the blue was proof enough for Michael that (for example) the Groanbox 2007-2008 tour will or will not and must or must not happen regardless of what we do or don’t do, and that nothing in life is controllable except for the way we perceive the fated, unalterable lives we lead... Everything is sort of predestined by the cosmos, by the physics of being. Despite Michael’s nominal Catholic upbringing, I daresay this rings of a 21st century version of Calvinist cosmology (or click here for wise old Jefferson’s view) – it has been grounds, you can imagine, for much debate.
Various and sundry people engaged in conversation with us, including a couple of French dudes, one who was not only also named JP (Jean-Philippe) but who was also was a filmmaker like our Quebecois JP. The other was a smarmy, stereotypical French guy sporting his philosophe hairdo and striped shirt, thrusting unfiltered Gauloises cigarettes into our mouths and lighting them for us (prompting us to cough profusely and discard them), waxing about France and his “Bon vin (ce n’est pas du pinard), baguettes, et le repas du dimanche” all the while treating his object like a woman (to paraphrase The Big Lebowski).
At one point later on in the evening, I pointed out to the group that a large outdated computer monitor had occupied a parking space across the street. Michael tore across the street looking like a madman with his black sash fluttering behind his head, scooped up the monitor and brought it back to where we were. We proceeded to “check our email” and “look things up online”. A drunk Irish girl accompanied by a huge Pakistani guy stopped us, and threw me two quid so that I would play the banjo. I played her a tune, refusing her request of “Duelling Banjos” (the song is the bane of my existence).
The pub closed and we went off in a desperate search for food, during which we ran into the same Welshman who’d paid us a fiver. He shook our hands merrily, belched out a few incomprehensible words, and we parted ways.
We ended up at the famous all night bagel place in the East End. I devoured two salted beef bagels, but not before jamming with two freestylers who dug the boot. Michael shook it, JP got down, Sophie sang, while I ripped on the harmonica. One of the rappers was a tall Eton type wearing a full-out tux, a bowler hat, and clown makeup, while his compadre was veering towards white Rasta dread.
Come four in the morning, Sophie sped away on her “trotinette” leaving me with JP and Michael who, both in their thirties, were in nostalgic-about-seventies-and-early-eighties-crappy-sitcoms mode, sending me careening back into purgatory after a lovely spell in some cracked, contorted paradise of unknowable dimensions. We stumbled into the night bus after several strange encounters with stragglers making their way home...we even saw Andy, the booker from the Spitz, but he didn’t – or chose not to – see us.
An hour later we were home. Just another night in the Groanbox adventure.