The Books @ Webster Hall, 1-27-07
I shouldn't have been going to see The Books. I'd crashed at a friend's apartment, hadn't showered in two days and was eking out the vestiges of whatever deodorant was left between my arms. I stank of two smokes, was still residually hungover and mostly wanted to catch up on lost sleep. Also, I'd already seen The Books in April, and since they didn't have a new album to promote, there was no reason to think this show would be any different.
And yet my hope that the show would be the same was exactly why I was going. That April night, I'd stumbled out of Great American Music Hall in a wild, heady excitement, charged with inspiration. I seriously considered wandering the city all night. I suddenly needed to photograph every incongruent monument and document every strand of beauty. I wanted to become a musician then and there, any instrument, it didn't matter. I wanted to take up abandoned art projects or be the next Allen Ginsberg or at least one of the lost souls of "Howl." In the end, I settled for downing two cups of coffee, listening to William Basinski and writing until the dawn cracked the horizon. And though I knew that high wouldn't happen a second time, I was heading to Webster Hall instead of home to get another hit of creativity.
The Books on record already send my mind reeling with possibility. Fusing snippets of found sound with dollops of Paul de Jong's cello and Nick Zammuto's guitar and bass, and experimenting with aleotoric, acoustic and electronic melodies, the duo produces wholly singular music. With song titles like "If Not Now, Whenever," "A True Story of A Story of True Love," and "That Right Ain't Shit," they're challenging the syntaxes and structures of music and language. And yet it's that rare project that's at least as grounded in flea market scrounging as academic theory.
But the band goes even further live, adding a visual element to their sonic bricolage. The Books have amassed a whole lot of found video and images to go along with their songs. Projected on a large screen behind them, these collages are just as unexpected, offbeat and powerful as the music: Mormon men removing their hats and putting them back on, Alan Watts pontificating on meditation, African women discussing impotence, snippets of English instructional tapes. These visuals create even more connotations and disjunctions to consider. And when they're combined with Zammuto and de Jong playing live, the effect is weird and hypnotic and profoundly inventive.
The experience—and it is foremost an experience—was indeed much the same as my last one, up to and including their sweet cover of Nick Drake's "Cello Song." But there were also a few pleasant additions to the lineup. For one, Zammuto introduced an unreleased piece he'd written for his newly born son, which was based on the alphabet. His younger brother, Mikey, also joined The Books onstage to play a song he wrote called "The Classy Penguin." That song was backed by images of the Zammutos and de Jong as kids, providing one of the few moments of clear and sincere correlation between audio and video.
Even though I largely knew what to expect this time around, my re-reading of The Books still proved quite inspirational. The band is simply operating on a level of intelligence and experimentation that's extremely rare and hugely rewarding. After the show, I inevitably stayed up yet again, scribbling fiction, blaring music, no longer worried about insignificant matters like sleep or hygiene. By dutifully gathering up the detritus of donated tapes and the litter of discarded sounds, The Books reminded me yet again what artists could accomplish. By turning them into artifacts, they reminded me that I was an artist too and that all the things in the world were art in the making.
* MP3: "Smells Like Content" - The Books from Lost and Safe [Buy it]
"The Classy Penguin" (Live In Philadelphia, shot by CoolLikeMiles)
The Meditation video (Live in Philadelphia, shot by CoolLikeMiles)
* MP3: "Motherless Bastard" - The Books from Thought For Food [Buy it]