This fall, the results of research into the near-extinction of the human species conducted by the Sleepytime Gorilla Museum are expected to be made public. This institution has a rather cult-like following, and despite the fact that its methodologies seem to be dubious (and perhaps downright manipulative), their work concerning the discovery of what they have referred to as the “last human being” is likely to cause something of a stir, if only among a small segment of the population.
The Museum and its staff have built a reputation on doom-saying from an unusual vantage point: they claim that the end is not near but in fact past. “Bring back the apocalypse/It’s never too late for the end of time,”¹ they repeat to numbing effect, in one of the rock songs that serve as the sugar that coats their bitter pills. Elsewhere they seem to paint their followers, the very congregation to whom they deliver their prophesies, as a flock of Brutuses and Judases: “All the desperate people in this town are coming out tonight...They’ll pull out their knives and kill us all/They’re here now.”² There is a clear attempt here to conquer their audience by division and, again, with the threat of extermination. Yet they show a loathing for that paragon of survival, the cockroach: “Your persistence is disgusting/I could never find myself trusting/A creature that would rather live in the trash than in the lawn.”³
In April, the institution sent its scientific-snake-oil-selling tent show to the Bowery Ballroom in New York City. It wasn’t the first time they’d lectured on the supposed “last human,” and by now the audience had fully accepted the premise. Nils Frykdahl, the charismatic front man of the traveling circus, addressed the assemblage from a pulpit bathed in colored lights, proclaiming that “the funds we are assembling here tonight go to furthering our knowledge about the human being and other things, I suppose, and so forth,” drawing cheers from the crowd. Later in the performance, as his associate Dan Rathbun picked up a horn, Mr. Frykdahl explained that “only human beings play the trombone, and Dan, as you know, is not a human being.”
Speaking of the human that the Museum members claim to have discovered, Mr. Frykdahl continued, “We did get a chance to talk to him about who he thought he was. It turns out he’s a salamander, and we were wrong.” At another point in the program, Matthias Bossi announced that “at this point it would be appropriate to introduce the raw, sexual power of the human being, a race long gone.” Mr. Bossi exhibited a roughly executed portrait and suggested that the last human was, in fact, actor Patrick Swayze, although it seems likely that both this and the salamander story were intended to amuse the audience and were not in fact reflective of the scientific conjecture the Museum is expected to reveal (by means of commercial compact audio disc and accompanying digital video disc) by the end of the year. The members of the institution show a blatant disregard for truth, another thing making their work specious, yet they curiously seem to harbor a deep concern for the humanity that they claim is all but dead. In a hypnotizing song-speech, Mr. Frykdahl put forth that “the last human being in the world is alive...It eats, it sings, it bleeds, it waits for night to come to fall asleep with its face in its hands.” The imagery has a certain sweetness, although it may well be simply a ploy to elicit sympathy from the group’s listeners.
It should be noted that propositions put forth during Sleepytime Gorilla Museum’s stage revue are often either accompanied by or interspersed with musical interludes of a sort that tend to send the young men and women who attend the sessions into near-frenzies. There are one or two guitars and a bass guitar, but they are low in the mix or treated like the roughly crafted, oversized percussion instruments the members employ to deliver the sexually aggressive rhythms designed to drive their audience to distraction. The violin played by Carla Kihlstedt will at times provide more musical refrains, but even then is subverted by (or willingly submerges into) the ritualistic din. The soundtracks the Museum presents seem rarely driven by melody or “riffs,” and instead consist of propulsive rhythmic refrains intended to signify (if not actually elicit) debauchery.
They seduce their followers by trading on the adolescent fantasia that is the rock ’n’ roll dream; they then undermine it and, along with it, their fans’ expectations. At the same time, however, they defy rock’s conventions. The stage show and energy levels are something akin to a “heavy metal” band; however they are far from the guitar-driven tropes of that genre. The artistic complexities of their music may draw comparisons to what is commonly called “progressive” rock; however, where most “prog” exhibits something of a half-dead nature, Sleepytime Gorilla Museum projects an image of being at once fully alive and undead.
Whether or not the members of the Museum are in fact qualified to carry on the research and investigations that they claim to be pursuing, or whether they are instead harboring some bias or ulterior motive, is far from clear. But at present there seems to be no blind panel or advisory committee, although the fact that they have been so tight-lipped about the project means little is known about their actual practice. There is, however, a greater concern at play, and that is the manner in which they stimulate and excite their followers, making the work’s validity ultimately—and worryingly—immaterial.
One can only speculate about the Museum’s reasons for perpetuating this fraud upon their fan base. The very conception of a “last human being” could be a sort of political theater, a demonstration based on some environmental concern or worries about global military actions. Or it could be that they in fact are not humans (as they claim not to be), or at least truly believe that they are not, and are trying to manipulate the younger generation and somehow convert them to this bizarre worldview. Perhaps they are simply lonely cultists desperate for attention. In any event, the fact that this work is being perpetuated by a rock ’n’ roll band does suggest some sort of cult-like activity, an attempt to confuse their followers with face-paint, strobe lights, and incessant rhythms.
The band closed its Bowery Ballroom presentation with a downright frightening effort to hypnotize its followers and subvert them with infectious rock song. “When I grow up I’m never going to sleep,” they sang in overlapping phrasings. “When I grow up I’m never going to cry/When I go out I’m never coming home/When I grow up I’m never going to die.”⁴ This sort of promise of eternal life has of course been used by numerous cults to entice blind faithfulness. If in fact it is not too late and they are mistaken in their claims that the human race is all but instinct, it is imperative that we rally together to save today’s youth from Sleepytime Gorilla Museum’s false promises of some zombie Never-Neverland.
1. Grau, Frank, 2004, “Bring Back the Apocalypse,” Sleepytime Gorilla Museum of Natural History, Web of Mimicry.
2. Frykdahl, Nils, 2007, “The Companions,” In Glorious Times, The End Records.
3. ———, 2004, “Cockroach,” Sleepytime Gorilla Museum of Natural History, Web of Mimicry.
4. ———, 2001/2006, “Sleep is Wrong,” Grand Opening and Closing, Seeland/The End Records.
KURT GOTTSCHALK writes about music for various publications, hosts the Miniature Minotaurs show on WFMU, and struggles with a variety of stringed instruments.