Scene & Herd

Dirty Harry

New York

Left: Lucky Dragons's Luke Fischbeck. Right: Dirty Projectors's Dave Longstreth. (Photos: Amani Willet)

It is hard to offer more than very qualified praise for the Whitney Museum’s “Summer of Love,” a massive exhibition grappling with the explosive aesthetic and, to a limited extent, cultural discoveries of the late ’60s. Mind-expanding treats do dot the exhibition floor, viz Peter Saul’s grisly Vietnam fever dream and Verner Panton’s plush cave environment, but the show is bundled in unhelpfully approximate packaging and garnished with some unfortunate tat. How is one to respond to Janis Joplin’s daffy tattooed Porsche? Throwaway fun to some, the breezy employment of the hippie era’s broadest symbols stuck in my craw on Friday night. I was waiting with several hundred others in the downstairs cafeteria of the museum for a three-act performance dubbed “Psychedelia’s Progeny.” Few could predict the tenor of the evening. All we could be sure of were sets from New York poetry legend Bob Holman, Los Angeles–based musician and performance artist Luke Fischbeck (aka Lucky Dragons), and Brooklyn band Dirty Projectors.

Holman appeared, clad in porkpie hat, wide patterned shirt, and checkerboard Vans, to open the evening. His ebullient routine, in the avuncular Wavy Gravy mold, quickly evoked widespread mirth from the younger end of the room, which had no idea whether his performance was parody or the genuine article. I counted myself among the mystified. “This is a song for white guys having a hard time getting into reggae,” Holman announced at one point. Soon enough, wags in the crowd began to whisper mocking impressions, a shame but, in this context, not an enormous surprise. Bar the odd notable sighting—painter David Reed here, hot-shit band Grizzly Bear there, this or that industrious blogger everywhere—it was a disparate crowd of middle-aged, middle-class New York folks, many of them families with small kids, alongside hippies in their sixties and hipsters in their twenties, many with the same hairdos. No one would stand forth and set the tone. We could have just as easily been gazing at Janis’s Porsche.

Left: Stairwell Gallery director Hayley O'Connor. Right: Artist Ian Davis. (Photos: William Pym)

A mere five minutes after Holman exited stage right, the Lucky Dragons performance began with ritualistic and suggestive gyrations to a wash of synthesized tones. Rake thin and north of six feet, Fischbeck upped the ante with a Jurassic prowl among the seated audience. In the front row, a charged, ambiguous exchange took place with a scruffy lad engrossed in a hardback book (the new Harry Potter, presumably). Fischbeck wrapped things up by handing the audience long wires, then wordlessly indicating that they might make music for him by touching each other. This delighted most, and Fischbeck left the crowd giddy, baffled, and in good cheer. The stage was firmly set for Dirty Projectors, who played jittery, electrifying rock ’n’ roll. Frontman Dave Longstreth projected a fearsome guru persona (so strongly that bassist Angel Deradoorian had referred nearly all of my prior inquiries to the leader: “You’d have to ask Dave about that”). His taut focus, melismatic croon, and mussed prepster good looks unified an until-then-divided crowd. I recalled his mumbled words to the engineer during the sound check: “Turn up everything all the way until it starts to feed back.” We’d trumped uneasy ambiguity, at last, and found some honest collective energy.

“Why have a nostalgia show?” event organizer Limor Tomer asked me when all was said and done. “My intuition told me that this is what I should do. I mostly made an emotional connection.” The lack of logic, all told, had made the efforts of the evening braver and weirder than anything I’d recently experienced at a large-scale public event at a major institution. After being politely shunted out by the guards, I met Fischbeck and a few friends for a tequila sunrise in an uptown diner, a stirring send-off before his long journey to Mali to perform on national TV. What had happened with the kid in the front row, I wondered? “I spat in his book,” he stated sheepishly. “Then I felt terrible, so I wrote him a note to apologize. We spoke afterward. I think we are OK.” A long pause. “I made a bad decision, but I feel better about it now.”