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House of Tudor 

Wednesday, Aug 6 2003
François Truffaut asserted that film should be a medium of personal expression, like paint or pen, and that the character and passion of the "auteur" should leave fingerprints upon every frame. I don't think Truffaut went quite far enough. The true auteur should leave his mark upon every moment, living or imagined -- every dream, every apartment, every sketch, cigarette, sock, or park bench; his inimitable character should seep through shopping lists and water stains, and find expression in the extra holes he punches in his belt, as well as in the paintings, films, and songs he creates. It's a tall order. John Waters seems able to fill it, as does Björk, Nina Hagen, Jim Carroll, and Billy Childish. And Cory McAbee.

When San Francisco was still an incubator for BNS Productions, the appellation of McAbee's many artistic emanations, McAbee lived in a tiny hotel room that shrunk with the calendar year; thoughts, paintings, and designs grew across the walls like mold, and mold grew into love songs under the strings of his autoharp. At that time, McAbee ate Hostess Snowballs and kept an electric teakettle precariously balanced above the doorjamb. When his band, the Billy Nayer Show, the lasting and consistently brilliant musical collaboration between himself and drummer Bobby Lurie, was scheduled to perform, the pallid Mr. McAbee would spend weeks creating 600 hand-painted invitations for the duo's mailing list, sleeping fitfully among the drying cards while his stomach rumbled.

Some time after the release of the Billy Nayer Show's third album, The Villain That Love Built, McAbee honored me with the task of editing and arranging a stack of short stories, all of which were too precisely and singularly McAbee to alter even a comma. I sang his praises and wished him luck while he prepared to self-publish an illustrated collection. Around the same time, he submitted a feature-length script of The American Astronaut, the movie that had been oozing through his pores and his music for more than a decade, to the Sundance Screenwriters Lab. Recognizing that it was too precisely and singularly McAbee to alter even a comma, the folks at Sundance sang his praises and wished him luck, while he prepared to direct the movie between night shifts. Even Truffaut could not disagree with the result: The American Astronaut is a space-western musical as distinctive as the mole under McAbee's nose.

Since moving to New York, the Billy Nayer Show has become the much-lauded darling of The New Yorker; The American Astronaut has won numerous awards; McAbee's autoharp has become a regular feature at the Knitting Factory and the Chinese Opera; and Bobby Lurie has opened a recording studio in Manhattan. But, as McAbee might say, you can take the boy out of a San Francisco SRO, but you can't take the San Francisco weasel-heart out of the boy. When The American Astronaut opened in New York City, McAbee and his beautiful, melancholy bride rose at dawn every morning to paint invitations on the street corners; and he still wears his signature peacoat and floats in a unique world of disreputable bunnies, disjointed vulgarities, and divine angel light; and the Billy Nayer Show is still one of the most inspired acts around.

Benefiting from a full year of recording, Goodbye Straplight Sarentino, I Will Miss You is a double album that feels half the length and twice the depth of most releases. Swirling guitars, cacophonous saxophones, ululating accordion, plinking ukulele, and the tinny trill of the autoharp conspire behind McAbee's curious words. (I suggest Bose headphones or better to catch the strange whirls, rumbles, gurgles, and roars trapped herein.) Longtime fans of McAbee's anthropomorphism will delight in his continued affinity for cute, furry creatures caught in very disturbing circumstances: a cow that serves as an office building, three monkeys fated to eat each other's shit while walking in a triangle, a plague with the head of a cat and the body of a monkey. Sentimental souls who return again and again to the Billy Nayer Show's self-titled debut for "Apartment #5" will find sweetness and hope in "It's Love," "My Cat," and "Sad Girl 2." Those who took greater pleasure in the droll brutality of Villain will enjoy the chirpy sing-alongs "Dreamland Massacre" and "The Day I Died," and the tone poems "Coward's Paradise" and "Suffering." And those seeking the kernels of McAbee's next screenplay might do well to pay attention to "Angel Projector," "Straplight Sarentino," and "The Smallest Star." The rest of you won't know what you've been missing until you go see the Billy Nayer Show perform on Wednesday and Thursday, Aug. 6-7, at Cafe Du Nord with That One Guy opening at 9 p.m. Tickets are $10; call 861-5016 or go to The American Astronaut will be shown on Friday, Aug. 8, at 7:15 and 9:20 p.m. and Saturday, Aug. 9, at 2, 4:15, 7:15, and 9:20 p.m. at the Red Vic (1727 Haight at Cole). Tickets are $6.50; call 668-3994 or go to

As a regular contributor to The Wave, and consequently the only reason I brave the "revolutionary" cafe next to my house, Harmon Leon infiltrates the worlds of extreme sports, baby beauty pageants, nudists, bounty hunters, and telephone psychics to hysterical ends. Actually, "infiltrates" might be a bit of an overstatement; let's say Leon shows up with, or without, press credentials, to poke fun of a lot of people without their knowledge, for our cowardly, mean-spirited, voyeuristic pleasure. (The Daily Show's Stephen Colbert totally bit your style, man.) It works, every time. The Harmon Chronicles, a collection of Leon's best work, recently won the Independent Publisher's Award for humor and almost made me piss my pants laughing on the bus. But, even bound in one volume, the columns lack that certain something: namely, Harmon Leon. Seeing Leon in the flesh only makes these stories all that much more ridiculous, so I am pleased to announce The Harmon Chronicles, a staging of the book, complete with monologues, video footage, and authentic disguises used to dupe the Christian Ventriloquists of America. If you're a real appreciative audience, Leon might even give you a sneak peek of his audition for Blind Date, for which he posed as a competitive butter-eating champion with a penchant for lederhosen. The Harmon Chronicles plays Saturdays through Aug. 23 at 10 p.m. at the Shelton Theater (533 Sutter at Powell). Tickets are $10-15; call 522-8900.

About The Author

Silke Tudor


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