Balloon Feather Boat Tomato: An Inside View from the Balloon Army

Jason Webley and Band
Town Hall Seattle
Saturday, October 30, 2004


The Dead Poet

I dreamed of him last night, I saw his face
All radiant and unshadowed of distress,
And as of old, in music measureless,
I heard his golden voice and marked him trace
Under the common thing the hidden grace,
And conjure wonder out of emptiness
Till mean things put on beauty like a dress
And all the world was an enchanted place.

And then methought outside a fast locked gate
I mourned the loss of unrecorded words,
Forgotten tales and mysteries half said,
Wonders that might have been articulate,
And voiceless thoughts like murdered singing birds.
And so I woke and knew he was dead.

--Lord Alfred Douglas, Scottish poet (1870-1945)
(written about Oscar Wilde in 1901, the year after his death)



THURSDAY, NOVEMBER 4, 2004: I must get to this review, before too much time has passed away. This will be the fourth time I have reviewed a Jason Webley Halloween/Deathday concert; what can I say about it that I haven’t said in the past three years’ reviews? The concert’s production was of a very high standard; the audience was loyal, passionate and enthusiastic; and the songs were varied and well arranged. This year, however, I write from the perspective of someone who participated in the performance, who saw the script beforehand, but who did not necessarily know how it would all play out in practice. I did not know in advance exactly what I would write about this end-of-season event, but I will sit down in front of the computer anyway, and let words and phrases occur to me.

Not long before the show, Jason sent me an email, recruiting me (already involved in posting flyers for the show) into the Balloon Army, one of four small brigades in charge of keeping the audience’s energy high, passing out various gifts to the crowd, and releasing balloons over people’s heads on cue. There were four “Armies” and four “Goddesses” in attendance, reflecting the manner of Jason’s previous four deaths: by Balloon (2003), Feather (2002), Boat (2001) and Tomato (2000). As I remarked to Jason in an earlier email, he has been dispatched by each of the four elements over the years (air, earth, fire and water), and sometimes by more than one of these in combination: what, I wondered, would do the job this time?

As a Balloon Army member, I would have to arrive at Town Hall by 5:00 pm on Saturday, wearing red and black; my red Bumbershoot volunteer teeshirt and new blackish jeans seemed to fit the bill. I actually got there around 4:30, when a young man in a black hat and loose orange trousers (part of the Boat Army regalia) happened to come to the door in time to show me to the side room shielded from the outside by a long stretch of red curtain. In this room, balloon blowing and tying, and the bagging and boxing of tomatoes, were in full swing already by Army members, Army Captains and Goddesses alike. Identifying myself with the red-clad Balloon Army, I set right to work blowing up non-helium balloons and tying ribbons around those blown up from a helium tank. Before long, I felt like I had been doing it all day, but it was fun and felt good, working together with all these people. I didn’t know where the Feather and Boat Army prep was taking place, but it must have been in some other room; our room was filled to capacity with balloons and tomato bags as it was. The nerves and energy were high already; I was getting a taste of all that goes into these concerts, and feeling, as often before, that it was truly a communal project that the principal artist himself needed much help to accomplish, one to which his volunteer assistants were just as committed as he was himself.

There was a Concert Plan/Script and two different versions of the Set List lying around for us to study. I got increasingly nervous as I read what the Balloon Army was supposed to do with the armbands, bags of non-helium balloons and bundles of helium balloons at various points in the concert (and ours was the first Army to appear!). I soon realized, while reading and rereading the Plan, that I was actually going to be performing at this event without much of a clue beforehand as to what I would be doing. Our Army Captain called several conferences to discuss who would be doing what in which side of our section, pointed out where our roped-off section would be, and went over the various balloon instructions more than once, but I was still nervous and expecting to forget everything as soon as I heard it. “I tend to learn best by doing”, I pointed out to him, and just went back to work on the helium balloons, trying to remain calm and worry about each performance detail as it came along. I avoided taking on any extra responsibilities when folks came around recruiting people for various door duties; I was having a hard enough time concentrating on what I would have to do with the balloons and armbands. But did I mention that I was having a great time, anyway? Even picking up garbage around the room was fun when doing it with other people all committed to a shared purpose, as trite as that might sound.


My dear Seattle Cronies, for once I missed seeing you gathering outside the Hall as usual, before the doors opened for the show. I missed most of the delighted greetings and hugs between people, folks sharing food and making cell phone calls to friends and relatives to announce their arrival; possible jousting matches with foam swords; and comparing costumes, Counterpoint stencils and pirate paraphernalia. Alas, the building and other circumstances built a division between the crowd of Cronies having fun waiting outside, and the Cronies in costume blowing up balloons and assembling paper boats inside. Even when the doors finally opened, our two halves of community were artificially separated by red curtains and other barriers. But don’t worry; we inside folks were having fun too, albeit with lots of work to be done; and we made sure that most of us got to see most of the show, all while showering you with balloons and leading sections with cheers and banners. We truly appreciated your being so willing and eager to participate in all the cheers, flag-waving, and especially the post-concert Procession that we were charged with leading: we would have felt really strange if you’d all just sat there looking confused.

The activity and energy kept picking up throughout the assembly of tomato bags, balloons and other items, through the last-minute band rehearsal and sound checks, through Jason walking in and out of our room in robe and matching trousers, and stuffing his regular clothes into a knapsack (to be stashed in the getaway car), through the bunch of us wondering how and when we would be able to get our coats out of the room during or after the show. We kept picking up copies of the Concert Plan over and over, attempted to memorize what we were supposed to do at which point in our particular segment of “Balloon Feather Boat Tomato” (“We’re supposed to release the rest of the bagged balloons WHEN?!!”), and tried to avoid nervousness by obsessive attention to tying and bundling the rest of the helium balloons as if it was the whole purpose of our existence. Finally, the Balloon Army Captain called out, “We’re deploying now!” and off we went with our red armbands toward our designated entrance, after giving Jason farewell hugs and wishing him luck.

I have yet to figure out who created the animated video; but thankfully the Balloon Army did, in fact, see the whole thing, just before descending on our section of the audience with our red Balloon Army armbands. Like the Shadow Puppet performance at the Day of the Dead concert in 2002, the film basically summarized Jason’s past four lives and deaths in minimalist animated fashion, just before Jason himself appeared, in dark-raspberry robe and matching trousers, and acknowledged the exultant cheers of the crowd before literally roping them into sections corresponding to the Balloon, Feather, Boat and Tomato segments of the performance. I think that this is the first major concert Jason has done with printed programs and an intermission. The programs noted that this concert was performed in memory of Anthony Robinson (Joan’s son), Sam Vernallis (Ishan’s dad) and Adam Sexton (a longtime Webley fan who passed away in June).

Okay, here came my first mistake as a Balloon Army person. I passed out some red armbands to the wrong section. Oh, well, it calmed me down enough to realize that errors in the Balloon Army weren’t necessarily a life or death issue. I don’t think I erred too much the rest of the evening, aside from standing in somewhat the wrong spot (to begin with) as the post-concert procession was getting started. The concert’s opening segment, dominated by the Balloon theme, was what truly made me aware of how a supporting performer’s perspective on a show differs from that of an audience member. We of the Balloon Army couldn’t simply sit like lumps and listen to the first set of songs; we had to watch and listen for cues in each song for something we had to do. For example, we each had to inflate and then release two balloons, without tying them, during what we’d been told was the "climax of 'am I letting go—'" in "Icarus". So we crouched down in the middle of our section’s aisle all through the song, blowing up two or three balloons each, and trying to keep them from deflating too fast while waiting for what sounded like a “climax”.

Fortunately, Jason had called a handful of people he termed the “Balloon Orchestra” onto the stage to do essentially the same thing with a balloon or two each, so we let our balloons fly (in a less-dramatic fashion than expected) at roughly the same time the “Orchestra” did. Even before then, we had collected our pre-bagged balloon collection at the foot of the stairs, along with a couple of giant ones, to be released during the “tra-la-la” parts of “Eleutheria.” These were later stashed down in the central stair passage leading out of the hall. At several other intervals, we also had to lead our section in cheers of “Hip, hip—BALLOOOONNN!!” while doing some inane dance that we had hurriedly invented in our prep room beforehand, as two or three of us also waved the red banners planted in corners of the aisle. The other three sections had cheers, dances and banners of their own; but my involvement in the Balloon section kept me from noticing these other activities in great detail; the only other dance I recall now is the rather suggestive Boat Dance. Did you ever notice that rowing and sex involve similar movements?


In addition to the songs, both old favorites and highlights of the new CD, each of the four concert segments included a simulated political rally. This, of course, was a nod to the upcoming elections to be held in a few days--an interesting touch, considering that Jason is known to avoid political involvement. Near the end of each segment, he would pick up a bullhorn and deliver a rousing speech, in his best FDR impression, on the overweening importance and significance of the archetypes of Balloon, Feather, Boat or Tomato (depending on which section of the crowd he was speaking to). To round out each segment, he read an allegorical folk tale out of a book about the trials and adventures of characters actually named Balloon, Feather, Boat and Tomato. All the characters were beautiful women or girls in a complicated and conflicted relationship with their families, with a lover, or with the world at large. Each segment would then end with a favorite song more or less related to that segment’s theme.

This concert was a representation and a summing-up of the four previous deaths, and a different take on each as well. The supporting performers were more involved in keeping the audience’s energy up, and the supporting instrumental music was more streamlined and less overwhelming than in previous years. The first instrumentalists did not even enter until the beginning of the second (Feather) segment. Unlike previous Halloween concerts, there were no dancers or puppets, and only a brief appearance by simulated catfish, carried by members of the Boat Army. Jason himself was very much the center of the performance the entire time, as many fans have wished over the years.


"Those whom the gods love grow young."

--Oscar Wilde, Irish poet and playwright


There was another minor error on my part as the Procession began right after the last rousing chorus of “Last Song”. We of the Balloon Army had gathered up the helium balloons into bundles, tied with garbage bag ties, before the concert began; and we ran out to fetch them shortly after the opening of the second half of the show. They were stowed carefully at the bottom of the Balloon section staircase; we had to be sure that these balloons didn’t wander into the Hall itself, or Jason would be charged extra by Town Hall management. The only problem with studying the Concert Plan is that, even if you memorized this document, you didn’t know exactly what each event would look like when it actually happened. In my case, I thought that I and one other person would be handing out the balloons to people at the bottom of the stairs, until I saw a mass of Cronies waiting for me expectantly at the top of the stairs, and the two of us were sent racing back up towards the crowd on order from the Balloon Captain. Things went more smoothly after that; we lost one balloon up to the ceiling, but it was eventually retrieved. Up to 250 helium balloons were inflated, but a good handful of them went unclaimed by the time we left the building after our crowd.

Having directed the remaining crowd out into Freeway Park (where, thankfully, it wasn’t raining this time), we of the Balloon Army sort of volunteered to escort Jason through the four stations of his deaths, which looked for all the world like a reenactment of the Descent of Inanna in Sumerian mythology (wherein the Goddess Inanna must remove something, including her own skin, as she passes through each of seven gates on her way into the Underworld). At each station, the presiding Goddess waited until most of the crowd arrived before claiming and stripping Jason of a specific vestige of his performer’s identity.

The red Balloon goddess fixed Jason with an imperious stare for half an eternity before removing his brown hat, kissing him on the forehead, and setting a small hot-air balloon aloft into the midnight sky with the hat resting comfortably in the basket. One year before, after the 2003 Deathday concert, we had been in this same park, tying bundles of helium balloons to a lifelike puppet of Jason, which eventually floated up through driving rain to peek at late-night workers near the top floor of a downtown high-rise. The Balloon Army then escorted both of them as they walked, hand-in-hand, what seemed like a long distance through the park until we arrived, at the head of a crowd of several hundred, at a large tree where a more genial Feather Goddess in yellow stood waiting. She beckoned Jason forward, embraced him, then pushed him against the tree and disemboweled his accordion (actually, a spare one stuffed with feathers) with a knife tied to a gigantic feather. Then the feather-belching accordion, not Jason himself this time, was tied to the tree, and Army members directed the Feather crowd to tie their feathers to the evergreen’s branches. At the 2002 Day of the Dead show, Jason had been carried, nearly naked and tied to a slender beam, out to Cowan Park near midnight, and tied to a dying tree while cocooned in blankets, as a woman in white sat in the upper branches and showered him and the crowd with down feathers. I and a handful of fellow stalwart Cronies had sat vigil for him on the frozen ground until 2:00 am, as the temperature dropped to the upper 20’s.


The one snag in the plans came when we approached the fountain, which was supposed to be turned on and filled with water. One of the technical supporters mentioned, before the show, that he had called someone in the City Government to be sure that the fountain would be turned on that night, allegedly for a “romantic setting” for his own wedding proposal (a “romantic setting for a ritual/theatrical sacrifice” probably wouldn’t have made it through the necessary channels); but just before the show started, someone discovered that the fountain had been turned off again. There was a small bit of water handy for floating miniature boats, but not nearly enough of it. No matter; the Boat Cronies floated their gift boats as well as they could manage, as Jason was stripped down to a scant loincloth by the orange-robed Boat Goddess, who placed his robe and trousers in a four- or five-foot model ship, sprinkled them with lighter fluid, and handed Jason a lit torch to ignite them (also shades of the Tomato death of 2000). After the 2001 Halloween Concert at the old Paradox Theater, several hundred of us had marched, playing drums and horns, down the entire length of University Way to the Ship Canal, where a kimono-clad Sea Goddess spirited Jason away on an archaic wooden boat piloted by a shadowy, hooded figure in Butoh whiteface. I remembered Jason saying on the radio once that he liked the physicality of his own performance art; that is, he wants to BE, not merely to simulate being, cold, wet and nearly naked. The crowd was mostly silent during much of this exercise, aside from some low-pitched singing, and murmurs of “This is so’s horrible...”

For the last station, we had to process out of the park, and across the street to the Four Columns mini-park, where the Tomato Goddess in white (not red; that was the Balloon color) stood waiting. She handed Jason a tomato to eat, and the members of the Tomato Crowd took out their gift bags with tomatoes inside to partake of the same. There was only one thing that could remain to be done: either to remove Jason’s loincloth, or to remove his hair and/or beard. Thankfully, the latter was done, by the quorum of Goddesses with scissors and razors. It was not a professional shave and haircut; I remember thinking that Jason would have to see his friendly neighborhood barber later on for some serious fine-tuning--but this was performance art, after all. Jason’s first experience of death, at Halloween 2000, was the one I had missed, to my everlasting regret. That one, according to those who documented it, had been a relatively modest affair staged at the late, lamented Pearl Café, where a papier-mâché Tomato Goddess had marshaled Jason and his followers out to the Sylvan Theatre on the UW campus, and a group of Tomato priestesses had removed all of Jason’s clothes (draped on a pole and set on fire), cut off most of his hair, and shaved off his beard (“The saddest part was when the beard came off”, a teenage witness told me later). He then had been placed in a black coffin decorated with a white painted carrot, and driven away in a makeshift hearse.

I missed the very last element of the performance, even after my stint as red-clad escort and short-term crowd control staffer (the Balloon Army made some effort to direct the procession and ensure that Jason and the Goddesses were not too crowded in). I saw the getaway car, a red machine decorated with cans rattling behind and a huge papier-mâché tomato stem on top, zip around the corner and pull up to the curb beside the Four Columns space; but the crowd closed in on the final exit, and I couldn’t get close enough to see the four Goddesses and their newly-shorn Sacrificial Victim pile in and drive off. However, as I was wishing a Happy Winter to folks in the dispersing crowd (including Jason’s mom), the car made one final curtain call from somewhere, and I saw the Goddesses waving and cheering, and one of Jason’s legs hanging out a rear window.


...I think of you walking along a headland
Of green oats in June,
So full of repose, so rich with life--
And I see us meeting at the end of a town

On a fair day by accident, after
The bargains are all made and we can walk
Together through the shops and stalls and markets
Free in the oriental streets of thought.

O you are not lying in the wet clay,
For it is harvest evening now and we
Are piling up the ricks against the moonlight
And you smile up at us - eternally.

--from “In Memory of my Mother”, by Patrick Kavanagh, Irish poet (1904-1967)


So Jason has dispatched himself and gone off to the Underworld yet again, in the culmination of a five-year cycle. Whatever he does in the future is likely to be different. The most striking thing about this shows, as with all of Jason’s large concerts, is that its success depended on a large number of people: those of us who participated in its creation and promotion, and those of us who attended and filled Town Hall to near-capacity. All of us did so willingly, and out of great love and enthusiasm for the artist and his music. I fully realize now that, for my own musical and artistic work to succeed, I likewise cannot do it all on my own. I have often believed that I have to pull the whole thing along on my own, and that nobody would help me if I asked. But from watching Jason like a hawk for several years, I am beginning to see that I need to cultivate a sense of trust in this endeavor—to have the courage to ask for help when it’s needed, and to trust that help will come along, and those helping me will do their work well. Meanwhile, it is the season of Samhain, Summer’s end—the Irish Gaelic name of November and Halloween, a term related to the Irish word meaning “rest.” Thus, it is time for artistic folks to cocoon themselves and allow the fallen leaves, fruits and seeds around us to decay, and re-fertilize our creative matrix for a season, the way plants and trees nourish themselves and keep the soil alive. So death and decay operate in the cycle of life, art and creation; without death, the wheel of life could not turn!


I close at last with one of my own stories, which may or may not relate to the longer tale above. It first appeared on my homepage a few months ago. Make of it what you will...

The Lonely Shipbuilder's Tale (A New Parable of Sorts...)

The lad I care for, long lost at sea...

MONDAY, AUGUST 9, 2004: In a coastal city on the mainland, there were once many adventurers seeking the right place to go to realize their biggest goals, and make their dearest dreams come true. The most daring navigators set out to find the best places to go to make one’s dreams a reality, and then came back to chart the way for other adventurers to set out in ships and seek their fortunes. One could not build one’s ship alone, however; one needed much help from others with design plans, tools, timber, canvas for sails, and various navigational instruments.

One day, some navigators came sailing into the city port in a fever of excitement, announcing to the entire city that a far island to the east was the best of all places to achieve one’s highest goals. Armed with copies of the navigational maps and charts, a small army of adventurers and entrepreneurs set to work building their ships and planning their voyages to this far island, with all the usual shipbuilding supporters in tow.

One young woman, however, could not seem to find anyone to help in the building of her ship. She had the plans on hand, but very little in the way of timber, tools or nails to build the ship; she had never done any serious building beyond a small canoe or two, and she knew that she could not possibly nail an entire seagoing ship together all by herself. But try as she would, she could not persuade any planners, carpenters, canvas tailors, riggers or navigational tool-fitters to help her build her ship. Anyone she approached for help or even advice told her that they were already occupied in helping others build their crafts, and all insisted that they knew of no one else who was able to help her, either. She set to work several times, trying to put a ship’s frame together on her own from the plans she had obtained, only to see the whole thing fall apart each time because she had no one’s help even in supporting the basic frame.

At the end of the day, she collapsed on her workbench in a state of despair and discouragement, looking at her thus-far failed efforts at shipbuilding through tears of frustration that she kept trying to hide. That is when she noticed the completed ship a few dry docks away from her own. The adventurer who had built this ship had had an immense crew of helpers behind him every step of the way; he had had no shortage of materials, tools and even decorative ornaments; and he had even put together a complete crew to help sail his ship to the far island. He was all ready to set sail the next day, on a beautiful ship, aided and abetted by the best carpenters, shipbuilders and sailors the city had produced in their time.

This simply isn’t fair, she thought. He and I are both aiming to travel to the same far island at the same time; why must he have the best shipbuilding help and sailing crew that one can find in this city, while I am left alone to cobble together a ship with no help from anyone? After much thought and trouble in mind, she finally settled on a plan: since her goal, after all, was to arrive on the far island, ship or no ship, she made up her mind to stow away on the grand-looking craft that her fellow adventurer had just finished that day, decorations and all.

And so, when the adventurer with the completed ship set sail the next day, with great fanfare, away from his home port, he had a stowaway in an empty passenger’s cabin, unbeknownst to himself. Before too long, however, she was discovered by the crew, and brought before the fellow adventurer, who demanded to know why she was stowing on board his ship, instead of building her own. “Funny you should ask”, she retorted. “Your ship was completed in record time because you had the best shipbuilding team and sailing crew to be had in our city, while not a soul would so much as support my ship’s frame or hammer a nail on my behalf. And since you and I are both heading to the far island to seek our fortunes, it only made sense that the adventurer whom no one would help would attempt passage with the adventurer who had every advantage on his side.”

Her fellow adventurer saw her point; but insisted, nonetheless, that there couldn’t be two adventurers on the same ship. Since they were already within sight of the far island, he directed that the young woman and her belongings be given the lifeboat, a dory-sized craft, and a set of oars to help her reach their intended destination. Before leaving on the lifeboat, she thanked him for his generosity in not simply booting her overboard; then, picking up her oars, she set off, and in fact reached the far island at about the same time as the adventurer with his own lovely ship. Thus it is with many of us, my friends; if no one will come to your aid in reaching your hoped-for destination, you must learn resourcefulness in getting there; and if all else fails, sneak a ride in the trunk of those who drive the biggest bandwagon.


© 2004 by Karen I. Olsen


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