Night at the Museum

Sara Marcus on The Raincoats at MoMA

Left: Kathleen Hanna. Right: The Raincoats.

THE MOMA LOBBY was mobbed at the stroke of 8:30 PM. Last Saturday night’s event, a PopRally shindig featuring female postpunk pioneers the Raincoats along with a DJ set by Kathleen Hanna, was sold out, and every holder of a coveted twenty-five-dollar golden ticket had arrived precisely on time, it seemed. Goddess help that unfortunate Rallyer who, after being ushered into the atrium, needed to shove her way back to the front door for any reason. None of the copious guards in attendance were bothering to keep an upstream lane open. Despairing, I tunneled under the length of a terrarium protruding from a wall, then noticed the wall label: I had just played groundhog beneath a Paula Hayes sculpture. The guards, seeing this, blocked off the route to future burrowers. To go against the flow at MoMA, even when radical women are being feted, is not so easy.

Hanna—currently enjoying a renewed wave of recognition for her work in the bands Bikini Kill and Le Tigre and her role in Riot Grrrl—was already onstage, drenched in a spotlight and wearing her trademark ballerina-tight ponytail. On a silver laptop and a single turntable, she played song after song by female musicians: the Go-Go’s, Sister Nancy, Mo-dettes, M.I.A., Bratmobile.

“This is amazing,” said Kenny Mellman (formerly known as Herb, as in “Kiki and”). “I’m in a band with Kathleen now, and I’ve been a fan of the Raincoats for twenty years. The Raincoats were the band with the violin that drove everyone nuts! And now they’re playing at MoMA—it’s like they’re the new Frida Kahlo.”

“Or Marina Abramović,” performer Neal Medlyn chimed in.

“It’s the cycle where everything that was once crazy is being coopted by the establishment,” Mellman concluded.

Including you?

He laughed. “If I knew how to be coopted by the establishment, I would!”

Left: Performers Kenny Mellman and Neal Medlyn with producer Brendan Kennedy. Right: Musician Kathi Wilcox.

The room was filling up slowly, owing to the bottleneck in the lobby, so there was nothing to do but play name-that-tune, snag a cup of forgettable red wine, and dish about the room’s acoustics. An auditory travesty seemed inevitable: The stage was set up in front of a wall of windows, in a massive three-story space that was all hard surfaces and right angles, with no bandshell or baffling to be seen.

“At least we have Murakami.” Mellman’s boyfriend, producer Brendan Kennedy, pointed high up on a wall. Indeed, the three panels featuring the King of Bling’s saber-toothed mouse were the closest thing to acoustical tile that we were going to get.

Hanna’s DJ set blurred into a warehouse-boomy muddle at the back of the room. Susanne Oberbeck, aka No Bra, was stalking the premises in no pants, just some fishnets and a bodysuit festooned with dice. It was the only really radical outfit in the place. “I think it’s amazing that the show is being hyped in this way,” she said. “The Raincoats represent the best of the improvisatory, the unprepared, in music. They have this non-bullshit approach that you don’t see enough of anymore.”

A few minutes later, the Raincoats were playing, and although the oldest songs got the loudest cheers, the audience—kids jumping up and down; the DIS magazine crew doing jubilant shots from a flask and gyrating; a woman with salt-and-pepper hair who stood almost reverentially still, old memories softening her face—was loving all of it: the dub basslines and violin squalls, the guitar scrambles and vocal harmonies and bestial yelps. Perhaps some attendees felt an urge to taxonomize and tame what they were hearing (“They’re not really punk rock at all,” a young man with messy hair informed his female companion, in between noisy, smacking kisses; “they’re more like prog rock”). But the music couldn’t be contained. “We like to keep it real,” bassist and singer Gina Birch explained between songs. “We like to keep it like these wild animals where you don’t know what they’re gonna do next! Or something like that.”

Near the end of the set, Oberbeck and Hanna joined the band onstage to perform a Slits song in honor of Ari Up, who died last month at age forty-eight. Birch taught the audience to shout along with the chorus: “And I shit on it! And I spit on it!” After a false start, the song got going, and nobody could have said it wasn’t punk rock. When the instrumentalists faltered, seemingly unsure of where the second verse was meant to begin, suddenly there was Hanna’s voice piercing through, bringing the band back on track.

Left and right: The audience at MoMA.

The concert ended only a few minutes past the mandated curfew of 11 PM, whereupon the Raincoats received their friends onstage, behind a wire barrier, while Hanna crossed over to chat with Bikini Kill bassist Kathi Wilcox, Fugazi’s Guy Picciotto, and artist Becca Albee, who played in Excuse 17 with Sleater-Kinney’s Carrie Brownstein in the mid-1990s. Hanna was philosophical about the ramshackle Slits cover: “Ari wrote really weird songs, it turns out.”

The guards were hustling everybody out the door with stentorian announcements. Performance artist MPA, waiting in line at the coat check, was happy to provide some institutional critique: “Take that MoMA money and put on a show somewhere else, somewhere that actually sounds good and where you can have lower ticket prices! But it was important to see those hands on guitars, on violins. It never gets old.”

As my companions and I headed toward the street, we saw the front gate descending. Were we being locked in, Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler–style?

“Just go out the door,” a guard prodded, “and I’ll raise the gate again.”

Following instructions, we found ourselves trapped for a minute, neither inside nor outside, between the glass doors and the metal grille. But the whole night was out there, ready for us, full of music.