There’s an old African proverb: “If you can walk, you can dance. If you can talk, you can sing.” This is as opposed to, say, walking around stiffly, with the cold skewer of civilization lodged deep in your bowels. Like most of us do. The lesson is that art is not a specialist profession. Anyone can make music from anything, anywhere. It’s as much a part of us as our breath. It’s just that, like breath, a lot of it is very bad.
There is a fine tradition of found-art percussion artists, making dystopian beauty from the discarded excesses of modernity. Oakland has contributed more than its share of treasure to the art of trash, from Moe! Staiano’s dadaist elaborations to the duct-tape and garbage-can punk of Blast Rocks! (Found-art percussionists seem to really dig exclamation points.)
So I was excited to learn of Oakland native Joe Pachinko, whose bio touted decades of music training and performance, giving a one-night-only improv show at the Leaning Tower of Pizza near Lake Merritt. His instruments, bizarre contraptions with names like the Bothonunculus and the Mighty Alpenweinerhorn, were visually impressive: doll heads, scraps of metal, and bells that looked lifted from the front desks of dilapidated hotels across America. Two mannequins stared impassively, piano strings protruding cruelly from their cheeks like something out of Clive Barker’s closet. The instruments had been lost in a basement for more than ten years, one woman in the audience told me. Truly, this was to be the legendary return of an avant-garde master, finally reunited with his greatest creations.
Sadly, Pachinko himself was not quite as impressive. With roughly fifty people crowded into the tiny pizza joint, Pachinko seemed, well, kind of bored. He tapped makeshift cymbals and halfheartedly honked the dozen or so horns arrayed on a rack in front of him, and mixed things up by blowing lazily into a noisemaker, while two cameras captured everything. The audience, which seemed positively giddy before the show, got a bit antsy when, after three “songs,” he put down his sticks and refused to play anything more until someone bought one of his poetry books. The audience, gods help them, even cried for an encore. “We drove for five hours!” one couple in front begged.
A funny thing about hoity-toity performance art: Enthusiasm is really contagious. It’s hard enough to get people to leave the comfort of the Internet and come out to watch you make a fool of yourself in meatspace. It doesn’t help when you appear to be totally uninterested and embarrassed. One got the impression that Pachinko was hawking his former, presumably rad weirdo persona in order to sell poetry books. A friend of mine who is, oddly enough, an accomplished scrap-metal percussionist, had come along with me.
“I hate this guy,” he whispered after fifteen minutes, through gritted teeth. “He makes us look bad.”