Amateur trespassers and non-violent burglars must love Oakland’s DIY warehouse/living room music scene. It’s Thursday night, and fifty-odd kindhearted, 40-ounce-tippin’ souls are packed into Muscle Beach, which is, in fact, a three-bedroom apartment, upstairs from a fellow homemade concert spot (Grandma’s House) and down the hall from another (Liminal). The kitchen offers a prime vantage point, wherein we learn Muscle Beach’s occupants are quite fond of Diet Dr. Pepper and various teas. A skull looming over the words This love is fucking real (scrawled in cursive) are splayed in neon-green paint along one wall. Someone has recently made spaghetti. It all feels vaguely uncomfortable and voyeuristic — nothing to do but confer with the equally weirded-out strangers.
“This is awkward.”
Yeah, we’re pretty much just standing in someone’s apartment.
“So we might as well talk to each other.”
We have gathered to enjoy the charmingly wobbly basso profundo of Calvin Johnson, Northwestern indie icon, leading man for the dearly departed twee-pop trio Beat Happening, and possessor of what AllMusic.com calls “one of the most endearingly bad voices in music history.” He is wearing a Cosby sweater and mingling near the “souvenir stand,” where he quietly discusses the stomachache he no longer really has.
Opening act #1: the Finches, a Bay Area boy-girl acoustic guitar duo with a sweet song about falling asleep to June Carter Cash’s voice, which works splendidly as an overall description. Carolyn Pennypacker Riggs has a rosy-cheeked Julie Andrews glow, as though she’s singing lullabies to small children falling blissfully asleep in bunk beds.
Sample stage banter: “Thanks for the spaghetti.”
Opening act #2: Tender Forever, a skinny French lass named Melanie, who arrives hawking her bedroom-emo debut CD The Soft and the Hardcore (out on Calvin’s immortal K Records), along with a poster of herself making out with … herself. (“I couldn’t find anyone,” she explains.) Melanie is given to mid-song kleptomania. “She walks around in the crowd while she plays and steals things,” notes John Ringhofer of homegrown twee-pop sensation Half-Handed Cloud, as he merrily mingles among the nervous throng. “She took a girl’s glasses last night — the girl was pretty scared.”
John’s church has lent Ms. Klepto a bitchin’ (though occasionally obstinate) Peavey amp for tonight’s hoedown, which blares catchy drum machine pop via a CD player, freeing Melanie to mostly stalk the stage/living room moaning passionate odes to, for example, showering with your lover (and struggling to remove wet clothes), while she grabs random people’s hats and slaps them down on other people’s heads. The Peavey fuzzes out intermittently, but Melanie just gives it a good whack to shock it back in line. She also taps about on a small keyboard sometimes, employing for these occasions a Human Mic Stand, i.e. some dude in pink corduroy pants who volunteers to hold the microphone perfectly still for three minutes or so.
Climactically, she performs a “jam” on her “laptop,” which is made entirely of duct tape and cardboard. This precedes an earnest request that we stop trying to add her as a MySpace friend, in addition to plenty of other loopy banter, from what she did today (borrowed a bike, drank some coffee, hung out with a homeless guy named Mike) to the bad review she got recently (she won’t let it get her down) to why, though she’s pretty hot up there, she will not remove her tattered gray hoodie (she forgot to put on her bra).
This is all pretty mesmerizing.
As is, as always, Calvin Johnson’s voice, far more endearing than merely bad. Delicately strumming an unamplified acoustic, his booming baritone plumbs sub-Cashian depths, and like an exceptionally sad-eyed basset hound, is accorded a seven-foot-leash radius around whatever note he’s attempting to sing. Beat Happening’s aggressively childlike, unabashedly amateurish MO was as punk rock as anything Black Flag ever spat out, and Calvin’s still got that vibe, mellow as hell as he considers what’ll occur when you’re mine (Jesus will walk on water) and what would happen if we happened to kiss (Armageddon, possibly), his canyon-scouring baritone all but demanding a bold font. Representative lyrics: I cultivate a staid exterior/But my heart pumps rabbit blood.
He covers the first song on Dusty in Memphis, and does a Woody Guthrie tune about hard-ramblin’ with a “War on Terror = population control” verse tacked on for modern sensibilities. That’s the only intrusion of the evil outside world on this Muscle Beach party, though. It feels initially like breaking and entering, but eventually soothes and entrances you, standing by the refrigerator as Calvin bellows, reading the nutritional facts on a box of Triscuits and puzzling over a photo of a woman in a wood-paneled room, wearing a motorcycle helmet, holding a pair of skis and a rifle. This is awkward but vaguely wonderful, so we might as well talk to each other.