The Sun City Girls Schizophrenic Universeby Nick Stillman
Dada and Duchamp comparisons are almost too easy; the Sun City Girls’ project seems more Warholian. Warhol incorporated newspaper clippings, brand-name logos, and any other ready-made material he could find for his own work. He took familiar things and altered them, thus altering and blurring the viewer’s perception. Since the early eighties, the Sun City Girls have similarly twisted accepted notions of music and performance. They bastardize and pervert traditional forms of music and narrative, creating a confusing and schizophrenic recorded universe. An appropriate name for that place might be Planet Boomerang, which they claimed to be broadcasting live from on a 1992 album.
Recognizing Warhol’s and the Sun City Girls’ reliance on enigma makes the connection between them clearer. Warhol’s public appearances and interviews, especially the early ones, were an exercise in mythmaking. To see him—shock of blonde hair, ubiquitous sunglasses—blandly proclaim anything and everything "great" with an invariably straight face was to witness the construction of a public aura of invincibility, based on enigma. The Girls’ enigma, aside from the fact that they’re all men, exists foremost in their sheer profusion of recorded output. At last count, they were up to at least 50 full-length albums and cassettes, dating from as far back as 1982. Perhaps more important in the creation of the now very firm mythical status of the Sun City Girls is their total lack of public personality. They don’t play live much, and their scant interviews have the same ridiculous whiff emitted by contemporary comedian/kindred spirit Neil Hamburger.
But the maintenance of their myth is what keeps collectors eager for new Sun City Girls records, even if they consist of snippets of the Girls’ boasting they’ve seen a whore sucking an elephant’s dick, and calling each other "cumslime" (see Midnight Cowboys from Ipanema). It’s this type of recorded behavior that brought a rapturously curious throng to the Knitting Factory this past November for a very rare Sun City Girls appearance on the east coast.
What would they look like? A fiercely debated and anticipated matter. For purposes of documentation, a run-down of the players seems called for. The guitarist, Rick Bishop: the most normal-looking of the bunch. Of the aging-hippie ilk, nondescript baseball cap, goatee, sunglasses, blandly dressed. Somehow appropriate. The bassist, Alan Bishop: undoubtedly the leader. Weird little hat, sunglasses frenetically on and off, red in the face, constantly expressive, ominously smoking cigarettes. The drummer, Charles Gocher, Jr.: the weird one. Wiry, glasses, strange felt hat. Played standing up half the time. Still, three white men, probably in their forties or early fifties, who could easily pass for "normal." A slight letdown.
What would they sound like? A much more complex question than it seems. Just drawing on the examples of some albums, this could mean violent dissonance (Dawn of the Devil), totally unmusical music (Superculto), confusing silence (take your pick), hypnotic, south- and east-Asian-inflected pop (Torch of the Mystics), covers of old radio tunes (Midnight Cowboys from Ipanema), the Civil War recreated via spoken word playacting (Jack’s Creek), perverse storytelling (Dante’s Disneyland Inferno), or any combination of the above. In a promotional interview for the Knitting Factory show, Alan Bishop mostly talked about hip-hop star Nelly, prompting a rumor that perhaps the Girls might even come out with a cover set.
They touched on most of those themes in an appropriately sprawling and punishing show, surprisingly leaving the audience less confused than amused. At least half the set consisted of a relentless barrage of improvised noise, sometimes violent and foreboding, sometimes exotic and mystical. Noise jams were punctuated with behavior bordering on the epileptic or schizophrenic; they rolled their eyes back in their head, bantered incomprehensibly amongst themselves, acted the part of the Indian beggar, acted the part of the American hick, threw joints into the crowd, and promised to throw money into the crowd (they didn’t). They somehow managed to carry this act off without looking silly or seeming out of control. On the contrary, they appeared disarmingly composed and serious, emitting a decidedly intimidating air via their relentlessness and unhinged craziness.
When they weren’t alienating and frightening the crowd with their vicious racket, The Girls were surprisingly chatty, and at one point even threatened to turn the Knitting Factory into a raucous theater of the absurd when they invited audience members onto the stage to read a war-related poem along with them. No insights into their political beliefs were given, however: The poem was neither for nor against warmongering with Iraq, just absurd and profane.
The moments of tuneful musicality were brief and unforgettable. The audience was breathless with anticipation not only for something vaguely pleasant to listen to, but preferably something from the album widely regarded as the Sun City Girls classic, 1990’s Torch of the Mystics. When, years from now, music historians begin sifting through the indie rock explosion of the nineties in search of obscure and forgotten gems, Torch of the Mystics is one that will have aged gracefully. This is perhaps their only album composed fully of songs in the traditional sense. While listening to most Sun City Girls records can feel like being mocked or tortured for 45 minutes, Torch is an eminently listenable, yet completely unique, pop album that finds them blending southwestern USA stylings with chants and melodies clearly derived from south and east Asia. So it was no surprise when the audience unleashed its biggest collective cheer as Alan Bishop coolly strummed the opening chords to "The Shining Path," Torch of the Mystics’ Spanish-language, Tex-Mex-style lament.
The Girls played on that kind of tension all night: Just as the noise jams were becoming unendurable, they would shift gears dramatically, demonstrating not just their familiarity with completely disparate elements of music and performance but also their mastery of the audience. They toyed with the crowd, dangled the carrot in front of their noses, and pulled it away abruptly and cruelly—like when they wrapped up the show with yet another seemingly endless fifteen minutes of clatter. Would they come back for more? Seemed unlikely—and if so, probably only to deliver more punishment. They did reemerge, though, and to the delight, awe, and total surprise of the crowd, played a beautifully straightforward cover of Love’s "Alone Again Or."
Perhaps the comparison of the Sun City Girls (especially on record) to Warhol is most appropriate when discussing his very long early films like Sleep and Empire. Each of these films follow essentially the same format. In Sleep, Warhol films John Giorno’s banal sleep—for eight hours. Empire is a six-and-a-half hour shot of the Empire State building at night, lights winking off gradually until darkness envelops it almost completely. Repetitive and relentless. It’s the kind of stuff that gains a reputation. You know about it in the abstract or in abbreviated doses, but to experience a work like this in its entirety almost seems impossible.
"I’m not Polish," Warhol once lied on air to an MTV VJ sometime in the mid-eighties. Sure he was, and everyone knew it. The Sun City Girls’ Bishop brothers once claimed in an interview to have grown up with a Lebanese family, surrounded by music and tobacco—hence the consistent reliance on Eastern-style chants, the penchant for absurdist role-playing with Arabic-sounding accents, and the references to obscure non-Western gods and myths. Is it true? And would anyone care if they hadn’t accumulated the most bizarre 20-year discography imaginable? As the Sun City Girls’ act continues to age, so do their jealously guarded secrets, and East Coasters trying to make sense of the most enigmatic musicians/performance artists in recent memory may have a while yet to wait for the answers.