“Life is strange
How it differs from the rocks”
Crown of Creation, Jefferson Airplane, 1968
I always love a good concert. It has been awhile since I’ve been to one at a larger venue. Most performances I’ve attended in the past few years have been smaller, more intimate settings. But recently I decided to splurge and spend some money to go see a band that I have wanted to see ever since I heard them on a small college radio station near Palomar, CA.
So let me start at the end instead of the beginning. On the way home from seeing the Handy Mannequins at the out-of-the-way Solar Flare Arena (a former rave setting hidden in the mountains between Temecula and Pauma that was updated to arena status about a decade ago), I passed a white van with the name “Gobbling Knobs” inscribed on the side. Gobbling Knobs is another band, and ironically their lead singer, Chlamydia Jane, was formerly the singer for the Handy Mannequins. Chlamydia has been replaced by retired jazz-lounge veteran, Miss Hortense Roadheaver, which made a big difference in the Mannequins’ proto-punk/rave-up sound. With Ms. Roadheaver on board, they have expanded their musical palette exponentially.
The opening act tonight was Belladonna & Her Wicked Stepladders, who did a fantastic set. After concluding with a lengthy hypnotic dirge from their CD release, “Damn Hankies”, they left the audience yelling for “More Belladonna!” But twenty minutes after they left the stage, and Handy Mannequins hit the stage, de-tuning their instruments, I knew this was going to get interesting. There was no real introduction as their fiddling about transitioned into a free jam. Sniveling Sam Liverwurst did his imitation of Snakefinger on guitar, then Psycho Pin Cushion Pete on drums rolled into a Gene Krupa “Sing Sing Sing” rhythm while Sniveling Sam performed Benny Goodman’s clarinet licks on guitar. Joe-Harlan Honkers weaved his sax stylings in and out and Bartholomew Benchmarker’s bass kept the bottom from falling out of the mix. Up to this point I had never before heard Hortense and worried about the change from Chlamydia and what effect it would have on their performance. Suddenly there appeared an apparition at the side of the stage in a white wedding gown and eye patch. It was septuagenarian, Hortense Roadheaver, who strutted onto the stage – the left side of her head shaved; the right side left as a tangled mess. Hortense grabbed the mic, clinging to it like a crutch, gurgled and spat on the floor, then in a husky, gravelly, nicotine-and-whiskey-damaged voice she croaked “Hi, I’m Hortense – let’s give a hand to Sniveling Sam, Pin Cushion Pete, Joe-Harlan and Bartholomew – better known to the world as the Handy Mannequins! Are you ready to get really high tonight?” and the audience enthusiastically responded with a “Hell, yeah!” This was certainly becoming some enchanted evening. I quickly forgot about my Chlamydia.
They quickly transitioned that wild jam into their punk anthem “Bananas in My Nostrils” and Hortense ripped a few vocal cords spitting out the lyrics in intense fashion, adding a bit of cabaret swagger to the mix. The band fed off her aged energy and knocked it up a half-notch – guitar and sax roaring out over the cymbal-heavy drums. There was no waiting for applause. They went right into the next song, “Melvin the Mummy Molester”, which was a sad song about the loneliest Egyptian on Earth. As the band moved into a slow funeral march, as if walking down Bourbon Street, Hortense gave an intense reading of this ballad with her lower lip quivering. I was not sure if she was having a stroke or just feeling the lyrics. It sure kept this member of the audience on the edge of his seat! Suddenly with a loud crash they blasted their way into the next number “I’ve Got Three Arms, I’m a Freak!” The only lyric to this song is the title, and it is done with the audience in a call-and-response style. I truly believe I saw a human arm crawling across the stage for a brief moment. They had a lot of fun with this one.
The performance continued song after song, until the last one, which gave poor Hortense a break from singing. This was a long version of their tribute to either a type of DMT or a hard candy, “Square Purples”. It began slow, laying down the modal theme with sax and guitar. Then, the guitar began to meander and the next thing you know, Bartholomew’s bass gets in on the fun with guitar and bass appearing to compete in a race to an imaginary finish line. The bass player seemed to be in a musical nirvana. With a big smile on his face and eyes closed Bartholomew’s fingers frantically raced up and down the fret board. The drums pounded out a steady rhythm holding everything together. I noted a huge puddle of sweat appearing beneath the drums and I wondered if they would float away! Hortense fell into a trance and waltzed around the stage in some type of dance macabre – both beautiful and grotesque. Suddenly she picked up a harmonica and blew it into a mic-fed vintage tube Maestro Echoplex I had been coveting all night. Her bluesy harp stylings heaped upon the guitar-bass race to the finish was so intense that people began to pass out. Others just got up and left. After Joe-Harlan’s intro he didn’t have much else to contribute to the piece so he just nodded off, but his snoring added a certain ambience to the composition. I had to stay for the entire hour-long jam, just like years ago when I had to stay in the theater for the end of David Lynch’s nightmarish film, “Eraserhead”.
I left the concert with their LP, “The Study of Tubular Prisms”, autographed by the band, and Hortense kissed the album cover leaving her ruby red lipstick in the form of her huge mouth, with a cookie crumb stuck to it, no less. I headed home, and after passing the Gobbling Knobs’ van and wondering about my dear Chlamydia, I saw that human arm again, crossing the road. I swerved to miss the arm and collided with the car to my left. I blacked-out, awakening in my own bed – it had all been a dream. But what a lovely dream it was.
There is actually no Solar Flare Arena, nor Handy Mannequins, nor Gobbling Knobs. Hortense and Chlamydia are evidently both figments of my subconscious. I checked my record collection and could not find the Tubular Prisms LP. But I did have the memories.