In my ongoing series of concerts and events that have little or nothing to do with Orange County, I bring you an evening in Brooklyn with composer, musical pioneer and personal hero JG Thirlwell, who performed his second sold-out show at the National Sawdust on March 1st.
I was first exposed to JG Thirlwell–performing as Foetus with the American release of his album Hole in 1984 when I was 16. That album felt like exposure–something elemental and dangerous that rubbed my skin raw. It wasn’t like anything I had ever heard before. When I heard the lyrics “You’ve got Foetus on your breath” together with “supercalifragilistic-sadomasochism” on the bonus EP in the song “Wash It All Off” I was addicted. The next day, I frantically made the 13-mile trek on my bike to Zed’s records (RIP) in Long Beach, who said they had one remaining copy of Foetus Art Terrorism and would hold it for me. That journey was repeated several times over the years until Zed’s closed.
One of the exciting and maddening things about JG Thirlwell is his defiance towards easy categorization, or even just one goddamned name. He’s released albums and performed as Clint Ruin, Frank Want, Foetus, DJ Otefsu, Wiseblood, Steroid Maximus, Manorexia, etc., etc. sometimes at record stores, his music would be filed more than once under different names. He’s mastered savage disco death rock, bombastic big band, and exquisite orchestral compositions. Currently, he scores the music for the Venture Brothers and Archer. And the astounding thing is that with each name change, each new project, every incarnation, he manages to sound utterly new. Compound that with the fact that Thirlwell had not performed as Foetus in over 15 years made this event all the more extraordinary.
So, of course, I would drop everything and fly to the opposite coast to catch the man performing simply as JG Thirlwell. I stood in line outside the venue shivering in the cold with other fans from all over the country, where we compared Foetus shirts and conversion experiences. We were ushered into a space both intimate and grand, where most seats were mere feet away from the stage. Without any real pomp or ceremony, the performers took quietly to their places: Simon Hanes on bass and acoustic guitar, Leah Asher on violin and viola, pianist Evan Allen, Mia Theodoratus playing the harp and Pete Moffet on drums. This was obviously a departure from the time I saw Foetus at the Roxy complete with freshly butchered pig heads adorning the stage.
JGT slipped on stage, an ethereal presence in all white. A guy behind me murmured that he looked the same as he did 20 years ago, and it’s true. I bet there is a painting in a Brooklyn basement that is doing the aging for him.
The songs performed were familiar–but what I experienced as brutal screeds of somewhat satanic genius became transformed in that space as something else entirely: music of shocking delicacy and dark beauty. As promised, the set was taken from the Foetus and Wiseblood catalogs featuring classics like “I’ll Meet You in Poland, Baby” and “Someone Drowned in My Pool” with the songs reworked by Simon Hanes and Thirlwell into chamber arrangements for the ensemble of classically trained musicians.
In earlier days, Thirwell played every instrument, would craft all the arrangements, and sing over a tape or have a backing band. But this manifestation of his work was even more spectacular than a grandiose rock and roll show. It felt rare and personal and reminded me of how awestruck I felt the first time I heard these songs alone in my room as a teenager. And when JGT crooned “Throne of Agony” like he was channeling Frank Sinatra from Hell, the faces in the audience and on the stage mirrored mine–that feeling of gobsmacked wonder.