By Jack Erwin
Southern rock, particularly Southern indie rock, doesn’t have nearly enough Southern Gothic in it. Big Star had it in droves, natch (they prolly could’ve done with a little less), and R.E.M. had a few moments early in their run, but for the most part, Southern rockers of the indie variety have left the William Faulkner-ish freak show elements of their native region to their alt-country brethren. Except Bradford Cox.
Bradford Cox’s music, both with Deerhunter and Atlas Sound, has displayed only the faintest traces of a quote-unquote “Southern sound,” certainly less so than his ATL buddies the Black Lips. But Cox’s personal steez fully embraces the wild and wonderful and woeful ways of the big “S” South.
That was on full display yesterday at MoMa PS1, at the premiere of Youth Museum, a short biographical documentary directed by Grant Singer and commissioned by Riot of Perfume magazine. As you’d expect from a documentary without narration supported by a magazine called Riot of Perfume, Youth Museum is juuuust a tad indulgent: Cox laying in bed looking like he’s about to keel over, Cox inspecting the pumpkin stock at a Halloween market, Cox going thrift store shopping. But it’s also funny and entertaining, and evocative of the South of yesterday and today: watching sunsets through kudzu, visiting strip malls for bored kicks, drinking wine and playing old 45s on the porch. Cox has undeniable charisma, and more talent in his pinkie than most of Brooklyn combined, as evidenced by the a cappela version of “The Moonshiner” he belts out in a graveyard. How’s that for Southern gothic?
Cox and “special guests” also played a brief set after the screening, and that’s when we’re pretty sure he played an amusing and/or irritating joke (our vote: amusing) on the assembled mass of art-loving New Yorkers who’d bypassed the Super Bowl pre-game for a visit to Queens. The screening and show were held in PS1’s Performance Dome, a huge white tent about the length of a basketball court that’s set up in the main museum courtyard. The stage is set slightly off from one side, and multi-colored back lights set behind the riser throw psychedelic shadows of the musicians on the dome’s ceiling (think Velvet Underground in the Exploding Plastic Inevitable). Cox’s response to this deliberate artiness? A Bob Marley banner (“Songs of Freedom”) displayed behind the drummer. Call it MoMa meets dorm room chic.
Photo by Ebru Yildiz for Pitchfork
After his three-piece band (drums, bass, guitar), warmed up for a few minutes, Cox hit the stage wearing an immense parka, escorted by a guy in a plastic mask that looked like a full-face version of the one dude wears on Boardwalk Empire. After being helped out of his coat, Cox and co. ripped through three or so verses of some blistering song before the man in the plastic mask re-emerged to put Cox’s parka back on, and using a flashlight to clear a path, escort him, through the crowd, to the back of the dome. With Cox’s bowl of frizzy hair, sallow cheeks, and sunglasses, the effect was very Andy Warhol/fallen ‘50s Hollywood starlet. The band then proceeded to riff, competently but robotically, on the same exact song for the next 30-plus minutes, as the crowd slowly came to the realization that a) Cox wasn’t coming back, and b) they were endangering their hearing by hanging out in the dome.
The whole thing had to be a joke, right? After all, this is the same guy who once played “My Sharona” for an hour and a half. And there was the moment in Youth Museum where, while shopping in an antique store, Cox refers to a kitschy trunk as “every Brooklyn band’s travel case.” So yeah, he was either trolling the New York cool kids, or he’s really sick or something. We’d really like to think it was the former, and just for the record, if it was, we totally don’t mind.