HELTER STUPID TOUR DESCRIPTION
From unknown listserv back in 1990 -
I saw Negativland play at the Backstage in Seattle, April 29, 1990.
What follows is a description of the show for any hard-boiled fans
who are dispairing of a chance to ever see them live.
Steve Fisk, who lives in these parts (he also did a little work on
the Negativland album, Helter Stupid), opened up. Steve works a lot with
sampled sounds and sequencers, so he isn't exactly the most dynamic
performer you'll ever see. He just sits there, frowning, rubbing his
chin, chuckling occasionally, while he loads patches into his synth
and disks into his computer. Most of it's very rhythmic and growling,
but a bit odd; he would add sounds and trigger sampled voices, getting
busier as each piece developed and got more layered. There was one
which sometimes used a sample of the bass riff from "Roundabout" by
Yes. It was only a little bit, repeated over and over again, with this
pounding percussion so I didn't really recognize it until he threw
in a little of the vocal break ("dah-dadada-daaah-daaah-da") for laughs.
Not for everyone's tastes, but I had fun. He said something afterwards
about Seattle not being a good place for him to play, but he was grateful
for the warm response from the crowd and would try to play here again soon.
Chris was running the T-shirt table in between acts, I thought that was a
nice effort. They had all the albums available on vinyl, except for "Points" which is not in stock, but will eventually be re-pressed (it was). They played the Carpenter's greatist hits in between shows. When they were ready to start, they took a brief sample of whatever song was playing, and looped it.
Mark, Chris, and Don formed the Negativland crew for the evening, with
occasional video-tape appearances by David (the Weatherman). Don was
mostly a tape archivist and editor, throwing in a constant stream of
voices and sounds. He came in first and started this tape he'd prepared;
first it focussed on "wilderness", with sound effects and the word wilderness.
Mark came wandering through the crowd with a "saxophone" made of plastic
tubes with a green light in the bell, honking and squealing. Then the
context of the "wilderness" tape started to expand very quickly, it started
saying that America was carved out of the wilderness, America was built
on guns and the bible, on guns and brass knuckles and chainsaws and the bible,
etc. It was one of the most interesting tape editing jobs I'd ever heard.
They then did a version of "Christianity Is Stupid", with the TV showing
a revolving neon cross; then they started into some of the Helter Stupid stuff.
Then came a rather quiet piece of music, with the stage in darkness while
they showed slides from Mark's family photo album, complete with tapes of
descriptions by his mom. This was really effective, both as a very personal
statement by Mark, and in getting you to remember those dumb Halloween outfits
and how upset your dad was when he sold the old car. It started with pictures
of Mark as a baby, and showed us the very stereotypical but real life of
a suburban family in the early 60's. The last picture was of the whole
extended family, but with a 10 year old Mark standing away from the rest
of his family. His mom comments on how you could already see that he didn't
feel part of the group. I found this whole sequence sad and poignant, something
that I hadn't expected from the show.
Let's see, other stuff they did was a version of "Four Fingers" off of
a Big 10-8 Place. I was amazed at how literally Mark interpreted the
lyrics, he really gives up a lot of himself in concert. I was impressed
that he was still able to play the rest of the evening with his hand so
Also, there was a sequence of stuff from Escape from Noise, including the
theme, and The Playboy Channel with David Wills narrating on video ("there
it goes again -- that awful noise, completely ruining your orgasm on the
Playboy channel"), then he started ripping and fondling old Playboy covers.
[Note -- a live version of a similar performance is available on
vol 3 of Live at the Knitting Factory, but it's nowhere near as
interesting as the original]
A spacey sounding thing came later, when Mark and Chis were making noises
with balloons and treating them; there was this voice telling you to inhale,
and exhale, and feel your brain relaxing. They threw lots of balloons into
the audience so we could inhale and exhale and make stupid noises and pop them
and play with them. Later Don Joyce threw out a bunch of little colored glo-
sticks while strobe lights were flashing, which made for an inexpensive but
very weird special effect.
There was a long sequence about the music industry, sometimes funny, sometimes
a sobering comment on how making a commodity out of music de-personalizes the
art. It included the "I WOULD LIKE A PIECE OF MEAT" voice, put together
with announcers reading off rock star names like Bonnie Tyler or Stevie Nicks, so it
was "I WOULD LIKE A PIECE OF" "Bonnie Tyler" "MEAT". Then Mark had to satisfy
the voice, so he started throwing lumps of raw meat at a microphone on the
floor. Afterwards, he threw the meat at us, yech! Then the voice started
asking for bread, and some of the other voices started talking about how
much money is involved in the music industry. Chris brought out a toaster
and a loaf of Wonder Bread, and started to toast a couple of slices of
bread. Five minutes later, smoke was coming out of the toaster. Mark then
started to throw real dollar bills to the audience, and put the last one
on top of the smoking toaster. The very receptive crowd began running
up to the stage to put the dollars that had been given them on the toaster
too, until there was a fair amount of smoke from burning bread. Eventually the money sitting on top of the toaster burst into flames! This section
was sort of based on the "Perfect Cut" part of the Helter Stupid album.
One hilarious part of this sequence had some out-takes of Casey Kasem of
American Top Forty, cussing his head off, whining, and interupting his
description of U2 to say "Who gives a shit? What the hell is this?" It
was hilarious hearing this clean cut well known voice say this stuff.
They then started to play a tape of U2's "Where The Streets Have No Name" and mutate it and put
all sorts of weird stuff on top. This idea was eventually developed into
the 1991 single of the U2 song "I Still Haven't Found What I'm Looking For"
Towards the end, there was a video of David acting like a spaz while a voice
was telling us what terrible things rock music does to the brain, while
the show was building to a climax, and Steve Fisk came out and made noise
on a trombone. They played a song from the Disney movie "The Little Mermaid" and over that they played a tape of a phone call of some guy who was theatening to sue somebody. A very drunken Krist Noveselic (the bass player of Nirvana) was in the crowd and he screamed out "Hey, that's Ron Stone! I know that guy!"
When all was over, the crowd patiently clapped until the band came back
out for an encore. Then we started to yell and hoot and clap for a couple of minutes
while they looked very sheepish. Finally they told us to shush, and Fisk
joined them for an acoustic version of "Car Bomb". They would shout the
words, then Don would have a watch make a shrill beeping sound; they would
start to walk away, and then the bomb sound would come and they would
hit the deck and throw confetti in the air. Then they would stand up
and wipe their foreheads and do it all over again.
All in all, a show well worth seeing if you like this sort of thing,
a must-see for a hard-boiled fan. They played for over 2 hours straight,
(in addition to Steve Fisk's 45 minute set) and tickets were cheap.