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Night Crawler 

Wednesday, Jul 16 1997
At least 30 people stand outside the Transmission Theater, hoping that someone inside will be unable to withstand the heat and the scratchy stink of propane gas. For a moment a deep, auditory throbbing makes the sidewalk feel alive. A young woman wearing bright-red Converse high-tops rocks back and forth in keeping with the cement's unusual cadence; the thin rubber soles of her shoes are perfect conductors for such a sound.

"We're gonna miss it," she moans. "It's already begun." Tonal ripples accentuate the low-pitched vibration. The hum of a galaxy-size wasp nest emerges from the gummy musical alloy. "That's Ether," says the woman, casting an apprehensive glance down the line toward the entrance.

An oily, smoky odor clings to the white walls of the Transmission's narrow entrance hall -- evidence of the stifling climate awaiting just through the second doorway. Inside the ordinarily cavernous performance space, it is dark but for the flickering of firelight from several large oil drums on the club's floor. Like the sidewalk outside, the ceiling appears to be living; the bare rafters, stained red by the flames, twist and sway with a pliancy unbecoming wood. The room has become warm enough to make skin sticky to the touch, and it is crowded.

Onstage, the musicians, naked and painted blue from head to toe, melt into murky images that flash on the screen behind them: organic patterns forged out of Omni-style close-ups of tire tread and wicker. In front of the stage, other painted figures writhe and dance, and breathe fire. Someone in the crowd begins tossing large handfuls of feathers into the air. The music picks up speed, testing the resiliency of the band's two percussionists. A blue roadie slips onstage to adjust a loose mike wire. He is barely noticeable. A strobe begins to flicker. Near the back bar, a man with tribal lines painted across his face growls under his breath and gnaws on a plastic beer cup.

After the music has finished and Ether has slipped from the stage, onlookers take several minutes to recalibrate. People sitting on the floor rise slowly as if moving through amniotic fluid. Eventually some folks make their way to the bar, where normal nightclub chatter resumes. One of the side projection screens roars into life with a video shot for Idiot Flesh's apocalyptic "Chicken Little," a song off of their new album that adopts the portentous chant of "The sky is falling." The crowd is audibly enthusiastic.

"That's the guitar player's dad, I'm pretty sure," an eager fan says of the white-haired man playing a homeless doom-crier in the video. (Actually, it's the bass player's father, and the inventor of Silly Putty.) Although Fancy won't be released in the Bay Area until next week (and not nationwide until September), the IF aficionado already knows the words to "Chicken Little," which he loudly and happily demonstrates while violently bobbing his head. "Not nearly enough people respect Idiot Flesh musically," says the fan, also a devout lover of Ozzy. "They're really motherfuckers," he says. " 'Mother Fucker' is also a song on the new album, by the way." He waves a thin, black copy of Fancy under my nose until two passing girls with glitter on their faces and commemorative Hollister shirts with SS insignias somehow remind him of his sacred trust. He joins his small group of friends and leads them in singing the remainder of "Chicken Little."

Under houselights, the immediate surroundings take shape. There are indistinct forms crawling around in the rafters, forms with strange, pale bodies and feral hair. The blue people -- of whom there are many -- mingle with the crowd, chatting with the Queen of Oakland. She, adorned with a silver crown and mesh headdress, staffs the T-shirt table. Ladies with intricate designs painted on their faces chat with a small woman whose head resembles a toy doll that has been plucked (mostly) bare by a fidgeting "mommy." A man in one corner has tied his sweat shirt in a knot around his face. He wears sunglasses underneath and smokes a cigarette through a small gap in the tangle. A heavy man zips up his pale pink bunny suit.

Ming Tsao -- one part demonic professor and two parts feverish preacher -- appears on the side stage, where he instructs the attendants in the basic premise of Black Mathematics, where "two zeros combined will always form one unified whole." (Or is it "hole"?) The audience knows the routine. In the back of the theater, a lunatic procession of pale bald men and outlandish women threads its way to the front of the stage carrying burning butane torches. Idiot Flesh take the stage among dim lights and demonic tape loops and begin to make an unearthly racket. A red spotlight on the ceiling brightens, revealing a member of Uro Butoh hanging upside down from the crossbeams. He is a ruddy, wild-haired demon with a long snakelike tongue and a twitching body that keeps time with the unnatural live score supplied by IF and "members of the Burlingham High School marching band." Another dancer -- this one nearly nude, hairless, and powdered -- is pushed into the crowd on an elevated platform by five attending "monks." The bald figures line up on the side stage illuminated by burning torches as the two central dancers enact a spiritual battle. The intense and silent struggle is decided when the five monks rip out the demon's insides with their teeth. Long scarlet ribbons span the crowd and the entourage leaves the theater in cackling dementia.

Over the next two hours Idiot Flesh -- Pin, Hyena Boy, The Improver, and Captain Dragon, all dressed in hellish circus finery -- lead the crowd through a psychotic labyrinth of sight and sound. T.S. Eliot's "The Hollow Men" is given a magnificent auditory treatment as a relentless, fatalistic, neurotic wall of babble. Operatic swells and guttural snarls, sprightly flutes and gnashing guitars, violins and disc sanders, are all employed with precise choreography. The stage resembles an abscess full of mad, broken toys. On the sidelines, IF's parents -- known as "The Panel" -- look on with large smiles. Soon after "Let the Dogs Sing," a new song about "true evil" that sends the crowd into a furor of howling, Pin's mum -- a sweet-looking woman with flaxen hair -- saunters onstage with a large birthday cake. Pin, known as Nils to his mother, instantly transmutes from a demonic image born out of Joel-Peter Witkin's twisted third eye into a blushing boy of three. The crowd sings "Happy Birthday" wholeheartedly. Pin contorts with embarrassment until Captain Dragon begins playing "a heavy metal song about doing it on speed." The madness resumes. The night is still young.

By Silke Tudor

About The Author

Silke Tudor


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