Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Elliott Sharp’s Binibon Revisits a Notorious 1981 Murder

“Don’t think of this as a moral lesson, just the oldest story in the book, the latest in the series of New York murders…collect them all,” sneers writer/narrator Jack Womack’s character Ted, in the radio play version of Elliott Sharp’s musical drama Binibon, recently released on Henceforth. It’s more of an attempt to capture the surreal and seedy atmosphere of downtown New York in the 80s rather than an actual crime story. The July 18, 1981 murder of waiter Richard Adan by convicted-murderer-turned-author Jack Henry Abbott outside the lower Second Avenue restaurant from which the album takes its title consumes less than five minutes out of a total of fifty-six. Instead, the story focuses on a cast of authentically bizarre characters who may or may not have been regular customers.

Womack’s Ted is a washed-up, know-it-all, alcoholic jazz drummer with a bizarre southern twang who serves as sort of a Greek chorus here. His beatnik affectations and interminable listmaking underscore his bitterness about spending most of his life on the sidelines. Jedadiah Schultz does Abbott (a Norman Mailer protege whose brief literary ascent outside prison walls ended with this murder) with a breathy, stagy intensity, while Queen Esther portrays waitress Susie with a down-to-earth authority and perfect outer-borough accent. Ryan Quinn doubles admirably in the roles of equivocating junkie Johnny and coked-up transvestite Fabuluscious, with supporting roles played by Sonja Perryman as Contessa, a woman with a lot of anger and not a lot of ways of expressing it and Cy Fore as the evanescent murder victim Richie.

Sharp, who plays not only guitar but also bass, drums, saxophones, clarinets and various electronic components here, turns in the performance of a lifetime: it’s arguably his most diverse effort to date. Ever wonder if Sharp could pull off a spot-on imitation of early 80s style Midnight Starr or Herbie Hancock electro-disco? The answer’s here, and it’s yes. He also does ominously multi-layered, Bomb Squad-style noise; dirtily incisive Jeff Beck-ish guitar; Karsh Kale style South Asian drones; a decent facsimile of the Bad Brains in slow mode; late 50s minimalist noir jazz; and the inimitable squall for which he’s best known.

Womack effectively evokes the downtown New York era when watching one’s back was a survival tool rather just a common phrase in rap music, best exemplified by Susie as she catalogs the implements in her purse that could serve as weapons in a pinch. The major characters are all tragic in a classical sense: Abbott’s narcissism, Johnny’s self-deception, and Susie’s willingness to stay in one place til she “dies from the feet up, like a tree with pissed-on roots” will all clearly get them in the end. The minor characters – the practically incoherent Contessa, the tranny, and poor Richie, who doesn’t seem to have a clue even as he steps outside, trying to reason with the guy who will kill him seconds later – are less interesting. But the milieu is spot-on. Ted references downtown characters from crazed killer Daniel Rakowitz (who dismembered his girlfriend, boiled her and then fed her to the homeless in Tompkins Square Park), to Jean-Michel Basquiat, to scores of others mostly forgotten now. What’s perhaps most appealing, and most bittersweet, is that these characters are all oldschool New Yorkers. All but two of them (the killer and the narrator) were clearly born and bred here, and despite their flaws share a wry gallows humor that still exists in pockets in this city, and which is the antithesis of the “esthetic” – if you could call it that – of the pampered, effete, affluent white children who’ve flooded New York in the last ten years. For that alone, this is worth owning and savoring: the score makes it worth returning to many times over.

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February 26, 2011 - Posted by | avant garde music, drama, experimental music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music, theatre | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

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