Legendary trio's avant-garde show ends in controversy at the Montreal Jazz Festival.
Perhaps I should have anticipated the upcoming drama when I saw the Velvet Underground t-shirts while waiting in line to enter Lou Reed, Laurie Anderson and John Zorn’s all-star show at the Montreal International Jazz Festival. The concert took place at the Wilfrid-Pelletier theatre at Place des Arts in downtown Montreal, a gorgeous space that exuded civility and possibility, but shortly after the second piece, it became clear that civilized values would not rule the day.
Beginning a respectable 10 minutes after the 7:30pm show time, the three musicians took the stage to grand applause from an adulating crowd. From the very outset, though, things looked strange. Laurie Anderson and John Zorn seemed fairly together when they walked to their designated performance areas, but Lou Reed looked like he had something wrong with him, walking in a slow, gingerly manner across the stage, as if he was either suffering from a sinus infection or succumbing underneath the weight of an enormous ego -- it was difficult to tell. When he finally got to his chair, he hunched over his guitar in what looked like a hideously uncomfortable posture. As Reed took his time setting up, Zorn and Anderson were looking over at him quizzically, as if they were waiting for some form of communication from the elderly rocker, who was looking all of his 68 years on the planet. Finally, without looking up, he unleashed a drone from his guitar, which, again, seemed to confuse them, though within a minute or so, they had joined in alongside the noisy, feedback driven guitar squelch.
Within perhaps a minute or two, it became clear that the first performance was going to be more in the style of Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music than in the songs that made him and his wife famous. The folks who had come to see “Walk on the Wild Side” were going to get a little more than they had bargained for, though it shouldn’t have been all that surprising considering Reed and Anderson were sharing the bill with John Zorn, a musician who has built his career on experimental, avantgarde jazz improvisation. After the first song, which lasted about 10 minutes, the crowd applauded, though without the enthusiasm one might expect at such an all-star show, yet not all that unexpected either, considering the challenging nature of the music.
When the second piece began, it became increasingly clear that the drone improvisation shtick was what was on offer for the evening’s entertainment. I suspect that the trio’s working concept was to choose a note for each track around which each of the three experienced musicians would riff off of until the piece resolved itself on its own accord. Though it’s just speculation, I imagine there would have been some progression along a musical scale over the course of the night, which may have had a fairly interesting affect. Things never reached that point, however, as a man booed at the top of his lungs when the second song ended, beginning a sequence of events that led to the night’s unravelling. As the audience finished clapping, he yelled out once more, “BOOOooooo!”, at which point John Zorn yelled back, “If you don’t like it, you can F--- off!” which generated some applause and whistling in support. In the sound clip below, you'll here audience members jeer the performers in-between tracks and a barely audible John Zorn telling the man off followed by a second burst of applause:
Unfortunately for Zorn, the unintended consequence was that he had told about half the crowd to F-off, as many were ill-prepared for the experimental noise show. Personally, I found Zorn’s outburst a little unclassy, much as I might sympathize with what he was saying. I also found it a little surprising. From my own perspective, I found it invigorating to hear a crowd get upset about an art piece and I began telling my companion how glad I was that we had decided to attend what was becoming a sensational show. Boccioni’s Riot in the Galleria passed through my head, and I had mixed feelings of excitement and surprise that people still had the gumption to tell artists to shove it. The night had transformed from a well performed, hipster improv show to a serious happening.
When the third track continued in the same style, it had become too much for many in the audience, which -- amazingly -- proceeded to purposefully cut the song off early by applauding before it had even finished. At that point, there was a clearing of about 100 people from the theatre, while more audience members joined in on the jeering. Visibly frazzled, except for Lou Reed who was either too cool to care or suffering from some sort of ailment -- again, it was unclear which -- the trio huddled together for a small discussion, and -- shockingly -- bowed to the audience and exited stage left. Of course the people in the audience, having spent anywhere from $60 - $100 for tickets, gave them a standing ovation, cheering as loudly as they could, hoping they might return after playing for a mere 30 minutes. And, after 5 minutes or so, the musicians had returned to the stage and began a new drone, but this time over a more melodic chime hook that Anderson had stored in one of her keyboards. Unfortunately, the audience had become unruly at this point, one girl yelling “O Superman!” after they had already begun playing, a reference to Anderson’s 1980 hit and a microcosm of the entire misunderstanding that had occurred between the audience and the performers. As they played, it became painfully more obvious that the mood had been destroyed, and that they had been caught unprepared by what had transpired, their improvisations becoming less open and risky, Zorn’s screeching saxaphone sounding more and more like the vicious screams of a dying animal (which actually sounded pretty cool).
As the fourth song finished, Laurie Anderson began drifting off-stage, half bowing as if to let her fellow musicians know that the night was over and, after a few awkward seconds, they managed to get together for a final group bow before fleeing from the stage, Lou Reed trailing at half speed. Though I disagreed with the rude reaction of the crowd, I nevertheless felt that their premature ending of the concert betrayed a lack of conviction in their art. If you’re going to make difficult avant-garde art, you should be ready for an adverse reaction. If they really thought their show was going to knock our socks off, why wouldn’t they take the opportunity to prove the other audience members -- about 75% of the crowd -- right. I couldn't help feeling that their early departure was somehow an indightment of the avant-garde, an exposing of its own spiritual -- and perhaps even intellectual -- weakness. Their overly defensive reaction seemed to betray the conformist yuppee comfort of living in their own little New York bubble, rarely facing criticism of any kind, much less about their music. One wonders where the trio goes from here.