Momus Amerikong, New York, 1998
Chapter One: New York
In which our slim and sly European heroes
land in the New World, and begin their adventures
in the milling island-city built upon a jagged fishbone,
Gilles and Momus, having flown over the Atlantic Ocean aboard a half-empty United Airlines 777, are now approaching New York City from the south, in a yellow cab, with a driver who does not speak English and has never heard of Houston Street, or the Bowery.
Since it is the frenchman's first visit to America, he will often find himself, over the course of the next three and a half weeks, in the role of Candide: disingenuously naive, full of astonishment and admiration for this new continent, which the pair will later have every reason to believe they have conquered by force of charm (although that is perhaps the always-hospitable and enthusiastic Americans' gift to every departing artiste who has amused and diverted them for a few moments).
And the Scotsman, Momus, will find himself infected with his friend's fresh vision of this republic, founded, like France, in a shudder of revolutionary disgust against a sluggish, complacent, monarchist England.
The third and final member of their itinerant party will be Mr Matt Jacobson of Le Grand Magistery Records, who will not only chauffeur our thin Aquarian friends across a dozen states, but, pacing up and down in Hollywood hotels or branches of Macy's, speaking always on his rented portable phone (analogue, rues Momus, like all American cellulars, since the Federal Bureau of Investigations wishes to survey the republic's citizens and finds the privacy offered by digital networks obscurely dangerous) ... Mr Jacobson will attempt to roll the carpet of hospitality and ceaseless promotion smoothly out before them.
Our friends have several objects at the outset of their voyage. Firstly, they wish to seduce the more curious and experimental of the Americans with their odd and comical European songs. Gilles will open each set with his quirky and fresh electronic chanson, often introduced in a charmingly stilted English: 'Thees song is about a dwarf... he loves a girl, but she says he ees too small' 'It's a song about a man oo wants to meet his lover, but every time it is a dog which he sees, and he is getting very frustrated...'
Momus will follow with his strange amalgam of loungecore, vaudeville and Japanese pop, and, gradually, to songs like 'Good Morning World' and 'It's Important To Be Trendy', the pair will evolve some of the most clumsy and grotesque dance routines ever seen on the stages of America, causing one Washington DC sound man (who makes the recklessly effeminate pair a cassette without realising that his comments are being recorded) to remark 'That french guy is gonna get his ass kicked!'
Our hyper-trendy, completely heterosexual friends are sharing a self-catering suite at the Off Soho Suites Hotel in north Chinatown, just off the Bowery. They check in then walk the short distance west to Soho, pressing their noses against gallery windows. For whereas rock bands seek a picaresque nightlife, these pop ectomorphs in carefully picked vintage ski wear are avid consumers of visual art. In each city they will visit at least one gallery of modern art, and sometimes they will pass themselves off as art or architecture students, taking illicit tours of college refectories. For although our heroes are in their thirties, they believe passionately in youth, and creativity, and beauty, and the life of the spirit.
With this most salient fact in mind, imagine Momus's pleasure the following day at the offices of his press company, Girlie Action, hung high above Lafayette Street in the East Village, and sharing its 13th floor elevator with a constant stream of beautiful young hopefuls making visits to modelling agencies, to find that he is to be interviewed by some of the continent's most exciting and progressive publications: The New York Times! The New York Observer! The Village Voice! Time Out New York (twice!) Surface magazine! The New York Post! The LA Weekly! The Boston Globe! The LA New Times! The San Fransisco Bay Guardian!
He sits in this utterly cool single-parent lesbian-owned company and blethers all day, for three whole New York mornings and afternoons, about the future of vaudeville, the J-Pop explosion, British sexual repression and the importance of preserving your hard-won character armour. He can talk the bollocks off a mule, and he does, offering (in perfect sentences) a baroque scree of self-obsessed psychobabble as though reclining on the couch of Woody Allen's analyst. What's more, every word of it is printed.
Because, in America, there is space. There is space in the papers, which come in sixty four sections and cost only 25 cents. There is space in the stores, which are six times as big as their european counterparts, and only half as expensive. There is air space and road space, thousands of miles of it, with strip malls all the way and incredibly cheap gasoline to keep you moseying at a leisurely 55 or 65 miles per hour. None of this skitterbug European madness of travelling at 200 kph through Italy to make the autobahn by lunchtime: here all urgency is lost, as if the final destination, material comfort and drive-thru convenience, had already been reached. There are no captains of industry in impatient BMWs to flash you out of the fast lane, which is travelling at exactly the same speed as the slow lane. And if you do speed (as we later do), a stentorian state trooper will bark into the driver window as he shines a bright light into the back of your head and issues a stern fine of $45. (Such cheap amusement: it says on this ticket that you can run the red lights for only $50!)
Together with Matt, who is warming to his role as the genius Jewish manager, the hustler, the fixer, and wearing a rut in the hotel floor as he paces back and forth, gesticulating to unseen correspondents, our faux-naive friends live New York as she was meant to be lived. They catch the express elevator to the top of the World Trade Center and survey the view to the accompaniment of discreet easy listening music. They locate Matador Records on Broadway and leave clutching a stack of vinyl 12 inches containing Momus' remix of Pizzicato 5's 'Trailer Music'. They groove at smoky loungecore clubs downtown where erotic french films are projected on the walls and there are asian go-go dancers. They browse at Other Music, and Momus sees the American 'Ping Pong' sleeve in the flesh for the first time, not just on the racks but blown up and backlit in the window. Our incredulous ligging triumvirate then attends a party in a dim warehouse thrown by Mr Skippy of March Records, who will shortly release an intriguing Japanese album, 'Cloudy Cloud Calculator' by Takako Minekawa.
There is some anxiety when Gilles discovers his keyboard has been buffeted into silence during the transatlantic flight, but a few hundred dollars sees it fixed by cheerful engineers. Momus checks his digital camcorder into the video hospital and that too is repaired. If only, later in the tour, his right eye, swarming since Greece with vindictive amoebas, could be as easily rewired! But more of that anon.
Time Out New York hits the stands with its '98 People To Watch in '98' cover... and Momus is there between eclectic Japanese maverick Cornelius and the Tellytubbies. This is only the first portent of a peculiar process which can only be described as 'the belated arrival of fame', for Momus will discover in each city he visits an inordinate and unexpected coverage, oftentimes two pages in the local paper, with photographs and lavish praise.
Can this be something to do with the fact that the American tour of our friends from the suave old continent co-incides with the Clinton 'Lady Friends' scandal, and America's consequent discovery of sex? The more revelations emerge about the recent adventures of the president's penis, the higher his approval rating goes. Can this continent be losing its founding puritanism? The press is full of letters from ordinary folk saying 'Leave Bill alone, he's doing great on the economy, what he gets up to in the Oral Office is between him and Hilary'. Only the Economist, a British magazine, says, in sombre type on a black background, 'If it's true, then go.' Can we British now be completely isolated amongst world opinion in our belief that sex is still dirty? A ludicrous tragic poignancy is added to the song 'The Animal That Desires'.
This happy alignment of two perversities -- America's and Momus's -- reaches its perfect consummation in Chicago, where Momus has his penis set in plaster by Cynthia Plaster Caster, sculptress and fan. Her only cast this year, and only her tenth since Hendrix. (Well, perhaps not). But we're jumping the gun.
Our friends are still at large in the City Of Ambition. His interviews over, Momus pays a call on Stephin Merrit, singer in both Magnetic Fields and Future Bible Heroes, who will accompany the Momus Group on several of their east coast dates. In a tiny apartment filled with ancient organs and Shocken editions of Kafka, he sings (for the third time: Mr Merrit is a perfectionist) 'As You Turn To Go', which will appear on a 6ths album this year. This new arrangement is devastating in its naked minimalism: a zither is all the music to be heard, with Momus's sinister, heartfelt croon balanced as raw and sore as sushi on top of it.
Momus adores Mr Merrit, who is small and ageless and sexually ambivalent, whose melancholy warms the cockles of your heart, whose narcissism has a fine edge of irony in it, and who wears New England deerhunting caps which make him look like Mr Magoo crossed with Charlie Brown. (After the Momus shows he will sigh 'Maybe I should make an effort to be trendy', and milk the line for an unsuspectedly deep pathos using a single faux-hopeless look from his deep brown eyes).
In other visits, Momus takes his multimedia friends Eric and Filiz to lunch at the Bowery Bar, reputedly the haunt of models. (Now you mention it...). Eric has just won a most deserved ID Magazine award for Blam 3. Filiz looks ravishing in a bunny T-shirt from which her pupils at New York University can't take their eyes.
Chinese New Year goes off like a damp squib, since the mayor has banned the use of fire crackers. The Momus shows, however, jump like rockets. A third show is added at the suave Fez club, and sells out immediately.
The Village Voice reports the event the following week with a certain insight:
'Currie conjures up a chaotic carnival that vaguely resembles Jacques Brel as mixed by the Dust Brothers, tapping into suave France, cool New York, and goofy Japan for inspiration... This off-kilter cultural fluency has allowed Currie to cultivate a strange sort of self-created global celebrity: he's world famous, but only to a very small number of people. The first three quarters of Momus's way-too-long set was an impressive display of geek charisma: the audience hung on every freakish word, laughing uproariously at all the right moments. But by the time Currie came out for a long encore, he seemed instead to be clinging to the crowd, unable to let go of their sympathetic attention... For most of the night he'd been the charming seducer who just wanted his fans to want him, and they had. But when it began to seem that he needed them to want him, it was a bit sad to watch'.
While Momus spiels endlessly to the press in the charming company of Vicky and Dawn and Heidi at Girlie Action, Gilles walks the streets of New York. He is seeking Super 8 film, and is stunned and delighted to discover Jonas Mekas' underground film archive just two blocks from the Off Soho Suites Hotel. He will contribute a film of this tour to the archive.
He and Matt chuckle, snigger and chortle their way, in the late evenings, through a cache of religious pamphlets given them at one of the Fez shows by an ironic Mormon from Salt Lake City. These are works of crude protestant propaganda with titles like 'Allah Had No Son' (in which a muslim is patiently shown the error of his ways, and humbly thanks his Christian 'liberators' for opening his eyes) or 'You Goofed', in which the protagonist's agnostic classmate pulls off his mask to reveal that he has been the devil all along. Something about the ideological violence these comics contain is deeply shocking to Europeans, a shock our tolerant friends will know again later when listening to the broadcasts of the religious right on the car radio in Georgia and Tennessee. It is all of a piece with the violence that erupts when (as happens during the tour) an abortion clinic is bombed, or bumper stickers proclaim 'Real Men Love Jesus', or 27 churches line the same Washington DC avenue.
Momus accommodates himself to it only when he hears a christian right wing broadcast hand over its frequency to a punjabi programme, and realises that forceful and divisive rhetoric is all part of the American pluralism, which is not harmonious, but depends on the notion that micro-communities survive by constant fund-raising, identity politics, lobbying, and, above all, salesmanship.
The two mottos Momus would like printed on billboards across this continent are 'Stop selling me things!' and 'Try to be less certain!' But the parallel universe America in which these commands were followed would be unrecognisable.
Before leaving New York our homosocial but not homosexual friends hang with Howard Greenberg (writer for Elle Decoration and Raygun) and his boyfriend, admiring his vintage video games and the high-tack memorabilia of a recent visit to Tokyo.
They also visit MoMA (where Momus buys the T shirt... twice) and PS 1 in Queen's, which has an inspirational Jack Smith show and some stunning views of the Manhattan skyline.
They dine with some trendy stragglers they meet in the jungle of slide viewers at the PS1 cafe, a bearskin-hatted video artist from the west coast and his make-up artist girlfriend, only to find that not only can the couple not pay for their food, but they insist on decorating the crockery and menus with druggy mexican drawings before offering them to Momus and Gilles as gifts... and suggesting they all meet on the corner after making a dash for it.
Momus documents everything with his new Panasonic digital still camera. They dine on the last night (a week already!) at La Bernadine, a $200 per head fish restaurant in the theater district where Matt has been eating free since designing their logo. ('They never take the tokens off me, so I just keep coming back!' he chuckles). This is a mixed experience: there is the priceless moment (what would Sartre say about its Bad Faith?) when the three waiters anxiously cluster round our heroes and count down to a synchronised three-way platter opening. There are the actorish descriptions of the food: 'Now gentlemen, this is a creme of monkfish suspended in truffle with octopus membrane gel'. But there is also the fact that the decor looks like a stuffy hotel lobby and all the other diners are about 57 and dressed in appallingly bijou garb: gold buttons squawk on their angular jackets and scarves drape, snobbish and shrieking, over their shoulders.
It's clearly time to call the fashion department at the FBI.
Looking back at this leg of the journey, Momus thinks of two exemplary moments on Ludlow Street. First, the inexplicable melancholia of an evening at the new high concept, slick and carefully hidden restaurant Torch, where a friendly group of Donna Karan employees talked for all the world like a page out of Wallpaper magazine. And, second, a meandering walk one warm evening, early in the week, past the extravert windows of the Ludlow experimental theater groups, ending with a plate of chunky soup in the Pink Pony Cafe.
As Momus and Gilles sat reading the local zines and half-listening to a terrible am dram production being rehearsed in the back room, the people at the next table suddenly produced a ouija board and began to invoke a dead person.
It was all Momus needed to receive a secondhand Proustian rush of images and smells from the magical old New York of Shirley Clarke and Fluxus, buddhism and intelligent insanity. Certain rooms in this city are still capable of reminding you that here - right through here! - once passed the cutting edge of radical bohemianism. Ludicrous? Yes! Self-conscious, self-important? Certainly! Overtaken by San Fransisco or cyberspace? That remains to be seen. (The party on Haight, the insane reading list given to Momus by the man from Mondo 2000 magazine...)
But, here at the end of New York, let us mark with simple solemnity the fact that certain people - even young and beautiful ones - have not given up on the idea of an experimental society.
And for that, a European hurrah is duly rendered.
Next: the adventures of our missionary friends in New England...