Momus Amerikong, New England, 1998
Chapter Two: New England
In which our evangelical brethren,
Momus and Gilles,
newly arrived from the old country,
attempt to spread the gospel of
The First Church of Christ, Space Jew
amongst queers, witches and freaks from Salem to Providence...
Our three men of virtue and dignity are poised high above the Connecticut turnpike in Le Grand Magistery's sombre and practical Jeep. They have some important spiritual business to conduct with the WASPs of the north, concerning their wayward sons and daughters.
Their first port of call is the University of Connecticut. They are surprised to learn just how austere this state, so close to the flesh pots of New York, actually is. Not only is the speed limit 55mph, but alcohol cannot be purchased after 8.30pm and any house containing more than a dozen females is defined by the civic authorities as a brothel. (Why, your honour, a woman being a woman, what else could it be?).
They will perform a concert here tonight, sponsored by the Queer Society, at the so-called Eclectic House. It sounds like a self-conscious rebellion against the surrounding puritanism, and 'eclectic' turns out to be a fit description for this oasis of distilled hedonism.
The eccentric and overdressed Mike, Eclectic resident and concert promoter, guides our travellers through a succession of decaying residential interiors decorated with gigantic papier mache elephants, shows them a rehearsal room where a band called Grannyfuck (it was the most offensive name they could think of, but they are open to suggestions) are playing, then invites them to sit in a purloined and fully-operational electric chair before taking them to bounce (against their better natures) on a trampoline in an upstairs library.
The actual concert is an uneasy one. Magnetic Fields, who play first, are well-recieved: the young queens of Queer Soc have ranged cushions around the old Magnetic queen and a whiskey-glow of log-crackling doom has been established which is deeply reassuring to all.
When Gilles arrives on stage, with Momus throwing the florid transparencies of Florence Manlik from the slide projector as a follow spot, the audience switches mood immediately, and several couples leap up and dance unabashed tangos. Momus launches into his set, and the energy changes into something more ambivalent. It is as if performer and audience are competing to be cooler than each other; each more decadent, more don't-give-a-damn and drop-dead elegant than the other.
And yet the songs of Momus are full of something else, something vulnerable and self-hating. It is not Momus against Connecticut (for young Eclectic versus old Connecticut is an easy battle), it is Momus against Momus, against the internalised guilt and jealousy and self-hate he has been taught is only normal and right, and which he is enough of a realist to know that he can never escape, and perhaps never should.
It is for this reason that Momus music is not necessarily the most comfortable soundtrack to self-righteous, temporary, trust-funded student escapism.
After the show a girl approaches. She has a wine glass balanced on her head, probably containing alcohol she purchased after 8.30pm. She may very well be the thirteenth woman in a house of ill repute, and is probably experimenting with lesbianism. Tonight she has a pen and ink tattoo drawn between her eyebrows and wears a series of ethnic necklaces and piercings. It turns out she has ancestors on some of the same Hebridean Isles as Momus. Their conversation is cordial, yet somehow mutually wary.
Momus tries to imagine her in ten years time. What will remain of her Eclectic days? Will she have gone straight and married one of the fratboys? Or will her rebellion become more like his own, will it become a rebellion against the Prison Of The Soul rather than the State Of Connecticut? For the soul is a bigger and a longer prison than Connecticut.
Our heroes discover another face of puritanism when they accept an invitation to stay with Lisa, last of the rock chicks, in the nearby 'Womanist House'. Once, Lisa explains, everybody here was a rock chick, and the bands stayed. But now a lot of younger women from different ethnic backgrounds have moved in, and the house has become the apogee of pseudo-liberal, politically correct puritanism.
Here is the text of their Womanist Manifesto in full, as Momus saw it hanging, for all the world like a Shaker sampler, on the hall wall:
A WOMANIST IS A WOMAN WHO IS IN SUPPORT OF AND CELEBRATES ALL ASPECTS OF WOMANHOOD, EVEN THOSE THAT DON'T RELATE TO FEMINISM. SHE IS A WOMAN WHO APPRECIATES WOMEN'S CULTURE, WOMEN'S EMOTIONAL FLEXIBILITY AND WOMEN'S STRENGTH. THE ROLE OF A WOMANIST IS ONE THAT IS NOT EXCLUSIVE OF RACE, SEXUAL ORIENTATION OR OTHER 'DIFFERENCES' THAT DIVIDE US AS WOMEN, BUT RATHER INCLUSIVE OF THESE DIFFERENCES BECAUSE OF THE IDEAS AND CRITICISMS THAT ARE GENERATED FROM SUCH COLLECTIVITY. A WOMANIST LOVES STRUGGLE, LOVES SURVIVAL, LOVES PEOPLE, AND LOVES HERSELF.
The Womanist House seeks to right the wrongs of the world with spin, with language. (In this sense they are playing the same game as Grannyfuck). Black History Week is being celebrated piously in the window of the bookshop next door... as if any new combination of words and labels could make Black History in this country any less of a depressing tale: slavery, subordination, alienation, tension, crime, fear, and the lack of mainstream achievement.
The work schedule taped to the refrigerator describes the girl given the task of cleaning the toilet as 'Bathroom Goddess'. Lisa closes her door to reveal that she has scrawled the word 'SLUT' across her own reflection following a slanging match with the Womanists, who disapprove of her using their house - this important experiment in the reconceptualisation of female dignity - as a refuge for every passing musician.
Momus wonders whether the Womanists will ever stand up collectively for Men's Culture, or the culture of monkeys, or Vulcan junkies, or perverts? Momus wonders why the Womanist wants to call herself a Slut when she looks in the mirror, and a Bathroom Goddess when she cleans the toilet. There is a greater escape than haggling over the names people call you, and that is slipping quite away from your own identification with any one category, even the tautly-defined neologism you dreamed up by committee last week.
And so, shaking their heads and wondering how an identity politics of gender can really exist in a land which seems so confused about what a woman might actually be, our three friends, men but not Menists, make for Salem, Massachusetts, the town famed for a notoriously unjust series of gender-related persecutions, the 16th century witch trials.
But first it's a concert in Boston, or rather Harvard, hard by the MIT campus. As the Momus band loads in, a community meeting is going on in the upper hall of the Middle East. Concerned middle-aged radicals from the local community are earnestly putting forward ideas on how to outlaw all nuclear weapons from the Earth, or force their government to declare its solidarity with the kurds of northern Iraq and enforce the no-fly zone.
At the concert the Magnetic Fields morph into their campy synthpop double, The Future Bible Heroes, and Momus hears their splendid single Lonely Days for the first time. In the audience later (appreciative, intelligent, friendly) are David J. of Love and Rockets and the young and attractive members of an interesting, jaunty and heartfelt new band called The Push Kings.
In Boston the next day they stumble in Chinatown across a cassette of chinese covers of Donna Summer songs entitled Love To Love You Bady (sic). This contains an inspirational version of I Feel Love which beats Daft Punk and Air at their own games and becomes Momus' favourite piece of music ever.
Our three friends stay this night with Andrea Troolin, also an evangelist of sorts. She lives in Beverly, Mass, but works in Salem at Ryko, America's largest independent label. The Europeans brave the morning ice to explore the Updike-tinted Massachusetts Bay landscape around Andrea's house.
Afterwards, as guilty as St Augustine in an apple orchard, the boys are treated to a raid on Ryko's storeroom. Momus comes away with The Complete Works Of David Bowie on CD, as well as lots of Nick Drake, minimalism and soundtrack stuff.
There remains a show in Providence, Rhode Island, illustrated with a splendidly arcane poster...
...and attended by none other than The Millionaire from Combustible Edison, who, the rogue, has smuggled in a hip flask of absinthe!
Next: we ponder what exactly IS so deep about the 'Deep' South?