Otto Mühl Meets Orgasmo 3003
While sitting in a pink conversion van on the corner of Frankford and Girard in Philadelphia's Fishtown neighborhood, it dawns on me that the Black Lips are making an honest attempt to have one labiality planted on the deeply challenging concept of Viennese Actionism while having the other pressed firmly on good ole' American commercialism. It's a difficult smooch, even for four young punks with a lot of heart. They're scrappy, the type you root for, but it’s a tall order to get those two isms to make nice. Perhaps that's why I graciously accept when Ian St. Pe, the Lips' guitarist, lines up the plastic shot glass and pours me another dose of the brown liquid. The concoction is part of the commercialism thing—I just learned there's a plan in the works for a Black Lips-related euphoric energy vodka drink. Okay, so they're not Kiss, but it's still merchandising. It's also free booze, so what the hell?
Ian is the only white man I've ever met that sports a grill, and I can't help but focus on it as he attempts to give me the sales pitch. When I ask about the drink’s ingredients, he quickly decides it best to call his brother Patrick. I'm almost finished polishing off my second smooth, herbal tea-tasting shot when Ian hands me his cell phone. Claiming to be a nuclear engineer, Patrick tells me he's spent an extensive amount of time and money developing the beverage, which is tentatively called Orgasmo 3003. The 3003 is a reference to a lyric from the Lips' song “Dirty Hands” and later, Patrick tells me the drink has properties that can enhance one sexually. “It's engineered specifically for the Black Lips to help them with their hectic tour schedule,” explains Patrick. “It's a mixture of vodka and herbs from South America.” When I tell him it tastes like he chose a top-shelf vodka, he explains that he used gas-chromatograph readings to pick just the right one to partner with the herbs. I repeat the word “gas chromatograph” to make sure I heard him right. Ian shows off a big 14-karat smile: “He's not kidding. The Black Lips' potion is going to be just like the band. Always keep them wanting more.”
The Black Lips have been a band for nearly seven years, but it’s not just their music that’s brought expectant audiences back time and again. That's a fairly recent development. Before that, the Atlanta quartet was known for getting banned from clubs (most notably the famous 40 Watt in Athens, GA), and spewing vomit, urine, spit and blood during their performances. Nudity, including the substitution of a dick for a guitar pick, is also part of the legend. The group’s leader in this regard has been guitarist Cole Alexander, who on a few occasions has pissed in his own mouth and spit it into the crowd. “I studied this group called the Viennese Actionists,” Cole tells me over the phone a few days before their show in Philly. “They were fine artists from Austria in the 60s. I don't know if you want to call it fine, but they would cut themselves and pee in the cuts. They'd kill a chicken and paint with the blood. They were very punk before punk. They weren't necessarily musicians, but they inspired us.”
While Cole may cite an early performance art movement as an influence, the Black Lips’ stage antics have become more and more of a side note to the critical praise being heaped on the band and their latest release, Let It Bloom. Even the mainstream press has taken notice, with the New York Times calling them “the hardest working band at SXSW” and Rolling Stone proclaiming Let It Bloom one of the top five debuts of 2006. Thanks to the band’s rising profile and new contract with Vice Records, the Black Lips have been touring and promoting nonstop over the last few months. By the time of their Philly gig with The Ponys in late March, band members’ asses are starting to drag. What’s worse—word on the street is that there hasn’t been any on-stage piss-spitting in quite some time. I ask Cole what gives. “We've gone through the bag of tricks and it was just getting worn out for a while. You never know—it could happen again, but we don't want to get known for doing shtick every night.” As Ian and I leave the van so he can prep for the night's gig, I can’t help but feel hopeful that I'm not the only one who's dipped into the Orgasmo and is primed for one of those special evenings.
Born From the Grave
Cranking out good-time tunes reminiscent of 60s psychedelic garage rock is pretty much what the Black Lips do. It's bratty, fuzzy, trashy and unapologetically juvenile. But despite the fact that they perform with autobiographical abandon, they’re basically a group of decent, sincere southern gents. They’re even a little scholarly, having studied and taken queues from their predecessors. “The people who influenced Nuggets influenced us. We're drawing from the same pool of influences, which is early American roots music,” says singer/bassist Jared Swilley, referring to the Nuggets compilation of proto-punk compiled by Lenny Kaye. “Basic pop song structure comes from blues song structure. We like Nuggets, but we like the Back From the Grave collection better. It's like Nuggets, but it's more raw and primitive.”
That rawness is apparent in both their exceedingly low-fi recordings and their high-energy, anything-goes performances. It’s a difficult nuance to maintain considering the band is becoming more polished and professional everyday. Before taking the stage at Johnny Brenda’s in Philly, the guys methodically check their instruments and make last-second adjustments. Cups of beer are gulped down, but there’s none of the last-second downing of illicit substances you might expect from a band with a reputation for unruliness. Though the process has become less erratic, the guys assure me that the crowds have not. “We were playing in Houston the other night and these real young kids came and they just started breaking stuff,” says Cole. “They stomped on all the chords to the monitors and they threw so much liquid. We were soaked. One kid was crowd surfing and they were throwing him up and down. There was a low ceiling and his head actually hit the ceiling.”
As The Lips kick off their set, the Philly crowd is far more sedate. Crowd-pleasers like “Stranger,” “Not a Problem,” “Vandal” and “Boomerang” keep heads bobbing, but the packed house (including a sizable balcony) seems somewhat pensive—it’s as if they’re waiting, wondering what might happen. At one point, Cole throws them a bone by playing a solo with his teeth, then spits saliva in the air and catches it in his mouth. Interspersed in the proceedings are a handful of new songs, slated for their next studio release this fall. There’s the country romp “Bad Kids,” the psyched-out reverb-heavy “Lock and Key” and the straight-ahead punk of “Cold Hands.” It takes the Black Lips a few songs to really gel, but by the time they get to “Buried Alive” they’ve hit their stride. Drummer Joe Bradley holds it all together, and as they churn out “Fairy Stories” and “M.I.A.” to end the show, the crowd has finally started bouncing up and down with the band.
When the Black Lips return to the club’s tiny green room it’s obvious that the guys are a little down. “The crowd just watched,” says Ian while packing up his guitar. “But it’s a Sunday night and people weren’t drinking that much. It happens. It’s not always crazy.” He sounds fine with it, but I can’t help but note a glint of disappointment in his eyes. It’s pretty much the same story for the rest of the band, and it becomes glaringly obvious that Cole was right: their antics really aren’t shtick, they’re more shared moments of exuberant interaction with the crowd. The feeling has to be right for a wild orgiastic scene to break out—you can’t plan spontaneity. Two days later, I talk to a friend who went to see the Black Lips in New York City the following night. Apparently, Cole and Ian made out between songs and Cole vomited on stage. The crowd went wild. It really is a crapshoot with these guys.
Dealing from the dungheap
In 1962, an integral figure in the Viennese Actionist movement named Otto Mühl declared that “the aesthetics of the dungheap are the moral means against conformism, materialism and stupidity.” No rock artist adhered to this philosophy more than G.G. Allin. Having performed with various punk groups throughout his career, Allin was known for his extremely transgressive stage act, which included such pleasantries as defecating and rolling around in his excrement. “I love G.G. Allin,” Cole tells me. “I feel like G.G. Allin doesn't get respected as an actual artist, but I still find him to be a fine artist. He was too cool to even be like, ‘I'm an artist.’ He didn't think about it. He just did it.”
The Black Lips don't have any scatological plans for upcoming shows, but like Allin and Mühl before him, they do have a preoccupation with outrageous aesthetics. The question now is—will they be able to maintain that spirit of actionism? For Allin, it was easy. His music is roundly considered awful—and when you sound like shit, then literally take a shit on stage, it makes sense. There’s a cohesiveness. But with the Lips, legitimate musical development seems to be becoming more of a priority. “There's definitely not as much vomit and piss and blood as there used to be, because now we're playing songs,” says Jared. “We've toned it down a little bit. It's still about putting on a good show, but we don't want to get known for lame macho shock-rock crap. I don't want people to dwell on that, because that gets tired real fast.”
Even Cole, the band's most prominent actionist, expresses similar sentiments. “Instrumentally, we've become a better band. I've gotten better at guitar, and started to pay attention to what I was doing more. When we started the band, I didn’t know how to play guitar and Joe had just started playing drums. We were literally learning. A lot of the antics were going on when we didn't actually know how to play.”
What this all means is that the Black Lips are in a state of flux. They will most likely shed fans expecting actionist extremes at every one of their gigs, while gaining fans with similar musical tastes (I'm told the upcoming album will have pedal-steel guitar tracks and a more psychedelic-country feel than previous efforts). Personally, I've accepted that my bloodlust, pukelust, urinelust, etc. will not always be satiated by the boys from Atlanta. After all, they're not theatric exhibitionists like Alice Cooper; they're actionists.
They're also pretty sly salesman. I discover this when I open an email from Ian's brother Patrick the day after the Black Lips show in Philly. He's requesting feedback on my trial experience with Orgasmo 3003. Also in the email is a blurb touting the drink as “a psychotropic vodka infused with energy enhancing and positive mood supporting herbs…designed exclusively for the Black Lips to fuel their notoriously crazy live performances.” Considering the success of products similar to Orgasmo 3003, including Miller Brewing's recent purchase of the Sparks brand for $215 million, maybe the Black Lips aren't so crazy after all—and if they’re actually able to strike a balance between actionism and commercialism, I'll gladly raise my glass and drink to that.