Performance

The Boy in the Band

Morgan Bassichis, L​ive album recording of More Protest Songs!, 2017. Performance view, Danspace Project, New York, October 7. Photo: Ian Douglas.

MORGAN BASSICHIS IS A COMPOSER, a comedian, and a cabaret artist (not necessarily in that order). In performance, he plays piano, tells stories, and sings in a voice so honeyed and seductive that audible sighs are sometimes heard coming from the audience at the end of his songs. Lithe as a whippet, with laser beam blue eyes, he carries himself with both the self-deprecation of the comedian, and the self-possession of the diva. “You know I start every day with gratitude,” he zinged at Danspace Project at Saint Mark’s Church in October during a live recording of his forthcoming album, More Protest Songs! “I just thank god I don’t have children.” The audience guffawed. “It’s not anything against the children’s community,” he continued, “but I can’t keep my own sheets clean.” He may not want to be a parent, but Bassichis still imagines being a hero to future generations. “Thank god for Morgan,” he hears them saying, “that one conversation we had was super important.”

His stage persona also moves through the world in a naïf’s daze. Like a millennial Candide, or a wide-eyed fairy-tale prince, he is a picture of youthful befuddlement, as though pushed from his castle (his safe space) into a reality he can’t make heads or tails of—nor can it make heads or tails of him. A story he tells of seeing the actress Juliana Margulies walking in the East Village: “I see you,” he recalls her saying, and he takes her words as a sign of connection, of validation, a shared moment. “I see you,” she repeats, “get away from my family.” Later in the Saint Mark’s show, he describes being fired from a job at Veselka after a negligible stint. “Morgan,” his boss explained, “you don’t know how to do anything.” “Um,” the performer replied in his most respectful upspeak. “Your language is super confusing?”

Language can indeed be super confusing, particularly now when its used both to mediate expression and expedite it all at the same time. Bassichis’s humor takes aim (or at least, takes advantage) of the comic pratfalls inside of YouMe Speak, where entitlement and empathy battle endlessly over boundaries, personal and shared. “These are very like: Take what you like, leave the rest,” Bassichis said to his audience about his songs. Then added: “You don’t like any of them? That’s more about you.”

Baby I’ve got something to say to you
You’ll have friendships
I think you will
meet one in the meadow grass
but baby there are ticks in that grass…
so just go back inside / go back inside…
and you can get online
you can look at nature online
make friends online

Language isn’t just what we use to entertain ourselves, to explain ourselves, to warn ourselves. For Bassichis, words are magic too. One of his most beautiful songs—a protest song, by his naming—is but two sentences repeated over and over again, a form he returns to throughout his work:

We cast you out.
We send you away.

Morgan Bassichis, L​ive album recording of More Protest Songs!, 2017. Performance view, Danspace Project, New York, October 7. Photo: Ian Douglas.

At first, the song sounds stalled out, or like a music loop, or a glitch, his bandmates following and following as though just along for the ride. Then over time, the repetition lifts the lines into incantation, mantra. It’s exquisitely beautiful, all Bassichis’s wishful singing, though it sounds less like a protest, more like a lullaby. (In the words of another classic naïf: to sleep, perchance to dream). Midway through his Saint Mark’s show, Bassichis asked his mother to read aloud a tepid review of a performance he gave in Portland. She obliged.

I understand the desire for open interpretation when it comes to art, but in this context, the audience could have used, well... some context. I wonder how much more powerful some lyrics such as “we cast you out, we send you away” could have been if he’d taken some time to name our collective baggage.

To be fair to Bassichis, he did name the collective baggage, though during a different song. (Soda Stream! Capitalism! Police! Borders! Prison System! Fear! Exes! he demanded, GET ON THE RUG!) To be fair to the reviewer, there is little recognizable protest in Bassichis’s protest songs. Even when covering Holly Near’s iconic “Singing for Our Lives,” he sends her up.

We are on so many pills / and we are singing / singing for our lives…

And:

We are having sex in all your bathrooms / and we are singing / singing for our lives…

And then:

We watch you while you’re sleeping / and we are singing / singing for our lives…

A joke is a funny thing. It’s the means to flog oneself, flay oneself open in front of an audience, and also the means to self-protect against the same. Respect and humor don’t necessarily negate one another, but neither are they obvious bedfellows. Why write protest songs that don’t appear to protest anything? Why send up the radical voices that came before us? In his luminous and devastating essay on television and American culture Within the Context of No Context, the critic George W. S. Trow wrote of his relationship to a history he inherited, uncomfortably, for it did not ring true to his present. He recalled the way his father would come home from work, take off his fedora, and playfully put it on young George’s head. In adulthood, Trow found that he could only sport a fedora if it was worn in jest. “A fedora hat worn by me without the necessary protective irony,” he explained, “would eat through my head and kill me.” Trow later amends his reaction as one fuelled not by embarrassment, but by equal measures of entitlement and feverishness—two conditions that don’t neatly settle alongside one another but rather, keep one moving away from what was and in search of what should be, might be.

I think about this as Bassichis introduces another song: “This one’s for after America.”

We have always been on fire
We have always been let down
We have always been an island…
…come get us.

Morgan Bassichis, The Faggots & Their Friends Between Revolutions The Musical, Pt. I, 2017. Performance view, New Museum, New York, October 19. Photo: Chloe Foussianes.

Weeks later, at The New Museum, he presented the second part of a musical adaptation-in-progress of The Faggots & Their Friends Between Revolutions, a masterwork of radical literary faggotry written by Larry Mitchell in 1977. The book is a fantastical, libidinous fairytale-cum-manifesto that takes place in the land of Ramrod under the leadership of Warren-And-His-Fuckpole, where faggots and their friends (namely, women) live and love and lie in waiting for the next revolution against the culture of men. The top floor of the museum was given to Bassichis as his stage, and he made the space warm and fuzzy and sparkling with white Flokati rugs and pillows decorated with paillettes and microphones on short stands so his performers could reach them while reclining on the floor. A potluck was held before the show, and his audience lined the tables with mac and cheese and pizza and fruit cobbler and salads and other homey dishes. A sign of the times: Guests were asked to sign a waiver releasing the museum of all liability before they could come in and eat.

It could be argued that the entire history of American musical theater has been nothing but one grand, sweeping infiltration of the mainstream by radical faggotry, but the idea that a homo-topic vision of revolution could maybe possibly be a future Broadway smash is nothing less than sublime. “Do you think this is going to be the next Hamilton?” Bassichis asked the audience. “Yes!” everyone cheered loudly, because we also know that words are magic.

For about an hour, Bassichis passed the book around the audience, asking people to read passages aloud, then he and fellow marvels DonChristian Jones, sisters Michi and Una Osato, and TM Davy, his musical collaborator, sang and performed songs, some of the lyrics of which were taken from the book.

When things are loose,
you can tell
the faggots
from the men.

At one point, Bassichis sat at the feet of a group of elders and elderesses who were in attendance (including Ned Asta, the book’s illustrator), all of whom had been members of the commune that inspired The Faggots & Their Friends. “What is a commune?” he asked them, and then, more eagerly: “What were Quaaludes like?”

“They made all of your inhibitions go away,” one of them chuckled. “You could hump anything.”

Bassichis lit up. “WE LOVE YOU!” he exclaimed, “DO YOU HAVE ANY LEFT?!?”

Morgan Bassichis, The Faggots & Their Friends Between Revolutions The Musical, Pt. I, 2017. Performance view, New Museum, New York, October 19. Photo: Chloe Foussianes.

The wisdom passed between generations isn’t always heavy, though for those who’ve come of age in the decades after AIDS, there are histories missing, ways of being now disappeared. What is a young artist’s responsibility to history, to the revolution, to the radical gesture? In The Faggots & Their Friends, Mitchell offered one model:

The faggots cultivate the most obscure and outrageous parts of the past. They cultivate those past events which the men did not want to happen and which, once they did happen, they wanted to forget. These are the parts the faggots love the best. And they love them so much that they tell the old stories over and over and then they act them out and then, as the ultimate tribute, they allow their lives to re-create those obscure parts of the past…And so these parts of the past are never lost. They are imprinted in the bodies of the faggots where the men cannot go.

Where the men cannot go. In the book, the men destroy all that they love and always have. They make unpleasant culture and always have. They are enemies of pleasure. They obliterate women and faggots and queers and anyone else who doesn’t serve their limiting vision of an ever-expanding cosmos. Those who believe in the world of men are fearful and small, and to mask their fear and smallness, they become power hoarders. Deciders. Destroyers. Yet there are still places men cannot go, things they cannot own, spirits they cannot obliterate because spirits are energy and energy cannot be obliterated and the spirits were here long before the men took power and they will be here long after the men are gone because there exist those who protect the spirits and will always carry them forward, no matter what form they’ve taken on.

We gotta keep each other alive
’cause no one else is
gonna do it.

The audience sang along to the show’s final number, and that moment, that now created by Bassichis and all, was joyful, heartening—not a protest so much as a promise, mapping a path to thrive that bends time so that what lies ahead of us bears the same beauty and ferocity as that which was left behind for us.

Morgan Bassichis performed More Protest Songs! for a live album recording on October 7th at Danspace Project in New York. Part Three of The Faggots & Their Friends Between Revolutions The Musical will be performed on Sunday, December 17th at the New Museum as part of the exhibition, “Trigger: Gender as a Tool and a Weapon.”

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