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Wings and Strings on the Heart (Or, It’s Midnight, and There’s a Puppet Floating in Your Office Window!)

Jason Webley and Band
Happy Death Day Concert
Town Hall, Seattle, WA
Saturday, November 1, 2003

*****

“The corn will grow and dance with us
Lances of storms are with us
New plants grow, new things ride this way…”
--from “Sky Dances” © by Jimmie Durham (contemporary Cherokee poet)

Working on a canvas, it is perfect, perfect madness, and we’re only just beginning to unearth an ancient sadness…Now, before too much of a Winter slumber overtakes me, let us talk about Dia de Los Muertos, Samhain Night 2003, night of songs and stories about life, love and death. I will begin by repeating a parable, adapted from Matthew's Gospel, that I featured on my website in mid-July. Make of it (and its relevance to the present article) what you will…

***

THURSDAY, JULY 24, 2003: Once upon a time, a man was walking across a field--an ordinary man, walking across a seemingly ordinary field, on a seemingly ordinary day--when he stumbled across a Hidden Treasure buried in the field. Guess it wasn't buried particularly well, or something. But anyway, it was a most exquisite treasure, an object of extraordinary color and character; at every angle from which the man studied it, it appeared all the more beautiful. Desiring to possess this treasure for his very own, the man reburied the treasure, dashed home, and sold a number of his most prized possessions in order to purchase the field with the Hidden Treasure within it. However, when he had purchased the field and raced out to claim the exquisite treasure, he found that it was missing! In a panic, the man searched everywhere for his newly bought treasure, going over in his mind every possible thing that could have happened to it in his absence. Had someone uncovered and stolen it? Had some wild or domestic animal dragged it away? Had someone plowed through the field and accidentally moved the treasure into the next field, or a different part of this one?

Only one man knew what had actually happened to the Hidden Treasure. This man had known of the treasure's existence for several years, but he had not tried to take it from the field or purchase it for himself. He would simply go out into the field every day, or as often as he could, uncover the Hidden Treasure, and sit on the ground admiring it for a while--sometimes by himself, and sometimes with a few friends or his own children. Then he would rebury the treasure, and quietly leave the field with a renewed appreciation for the beautiful things that could be found everywhere on earth.

Then one day, this second man found out that another man was about to buy the field, and would thenceforth be the owner of the Hidden Treasure as well, and of whatever else was contained within the field. He became deeply worried and distressed, for he knew that, from now on, he would no longer be allowed to go freely into the field to uncover and admire the Hidden Treasure. He knew that he had to do something immediately, to take drastic action if necessary, because he could not bear the thought of the treasure being locked away and denied his admiring gaze from then on. And so, although it went against everything he believed in and had been taught from infancy, he scurried into the field while its purchase was still in progress, uncovered the Hidden Treasure, wrapped it in his coat and took it into a stretch of forest land still held in common by the people of several villages. He buried it in an unobtrusive location, marked with a secret symbol of sorts, so that once again he would be able to uncover and admire its beauty and character whenever he wished. For there are some treasures in this world that are not meant to be claimed and held by a private owner, but rather should be freely accessed, admired, cherished and cared for by many people, for the uplifting and nourishing of their hearts and souls.

***

NOVEMBER 3, 2003: Jason, now that I’ve become a compulsive poster of Halloween concert flyers of various sizes, I don’t have to do it anymore—not for a while, anyway. Today, I’m outside gathering fallen leaves to chain together and decorate my apartment with: one of my own autumn rituals. I’m back in the world of daylight and mundanity again, but somehow, I’m not quite out of the world you created just yet, as I look through other people’s online reviews and photo collections; and I’m not anxious to exit your world too quickly.

When will I see you and our community (the “Seattle Crowd o’ Cronies”, I like to call them) once again? There’s quite a lot that you don’t get to see in your larger concerts; you should come outside and take a look at the way the community gathers before a show. The first few people started camping out on the Town Hall steps around 4:30 that afternoon, or so they said—eating takeout fare, playing cards and making frantic phone calls all over the area for other people to join them. The same thing used to happen before Halloween shows outside the Paradox Theater (RIP)—one bus or car after another would stop outside, spilling out dozens of people at once to join the line over a couple of hours. Ours is such a friendly community besides; this is one of the things that make the shows so joyous and upbeat. People get out of cars and buses, and immediately rush into the arms of someone already in line; people run up and hug each other in groups; people walk up and down the line multiple times with their arms around each other; everyone has to mark their spots and inspect the length of the line at least once to see who’s arrived and who has yet to arrive. Some people photographed segments of the line as part of chronicling the concert.

This is how our community always behaves; have you noticed this? People passed around food, ran around the block getting each other coffee, compared clothing items stamped with “Counterpoint” designs and their own pirate/vegetable motifs. My friend in the Dr. Who costume joined up with a trio of pirates and got into a series of jousting matches on the lawn with foam swords, while a blond girl near the front climbed onto the base of a Town Hall pillar and delivered a running commentary on who was down and who was winning the matches. More than likely, you missed most of these events; more’s the pity. You may have been already enclosed in your trunk by then. Good thing the doors opened at 7:00 pm; it was getting very cold, and a few drops of rain could be felt off and on. The tickets I “inherited” from Josh Larios admitted both myself and Dr. Who. Alas, Josh himself couldn’t make it that night; he is usually the most prolific photographer at these concerts.

***

Flash back to circa 1998 or early 1999: I’m still living in the University District, and taking a morning walk down the Ave past the University Bookstore. I hear some strange sounds emanating from the front entranceway. The sound of an accordion, and a roaring, gravelly baritone voice that I don’t recognize. As I walk past, I glance at the figure of a young man in black hat and trenchcoat, with brown hair down to his shoulders, standing alone, playing an accordion and roaring out some song. He looks like a Victorian undertaker, or a musical chimney sweep out of a Dickens novel, or something. I have no idea who this guy is, and don’t pay too much attention to him; but soon he begins turning up everywhere—sidewalks, festivals, street fairs. In particular, he becomes a regular fixture near the UW Bookstore (now one of my favorite busking spots, incidentally), sometimes alone, sometimes with a small crowd listening. “Oh, it’s him again”, I say to myself whenever I pass him by.

***

I’ve never seen the inside of Town Hall before, Jason; I suppose it was a reasonably good choice since the Paradox is no longer available, and the latter venue tended to be a bit small for the turnout in any case. I just kept hoping, while compulsively putting up flyers beforehand, that you would break even, at least, on the cost of this production. The lobby filled up quickly after we were let in, and the energy buildup, the joyous desperation, became almost unbearable by the time the doors to the “great hall” were opened. I’d heard that this was a pretty formal space, with no sitting on the floors allowed, and all that; but the crowd, once admitted, literally ran upstairs to the auditorium on both sides. It looked like a large contemporary church in there, as if the Paradox had been stretched wider, with better lighting and more (and better built) seats installed: “The Church of Webley!” one guy proclaimed it.

Again, the happy reunions and embraces of the community went on and on: “There’s so many people I know here, it’s insane!” I heard someone say. A few people had interesting costumes; I especially enjoyed the couple wearing the green headdresses made of vines and vegetables. Scores of undaunted Cronies ran forward to sit on the floor as they had always done at the Paradox, to loud applause from others. A number of new faces were also in attendance; they tended to sit quietly and were less likely to sing along. Some of them appeared to have little idea what was going on during much of the show. I got reintroduced to your parents in the front row, and asked your dad if it was okay to take flash photos in this venue. “Sure, no problem; snap away! He loves it!” he told me. The lights went down, and a puppet was led onstage by two people in black with their faces covered in black veiling. The puppet didn’t look precisely like you, but he was a reasonable facsimile, right down to the brown Hart Work teeshirt with a beet hand-painted on the front.

***

University District Street Fair, 1999 or 2000: I walk past the Seafirst parking garage, and there stands the young man in black with his accordion, surrounded by a crowd of listeners, roaring out the “Aardvark Song”, which I’d heard him play before at a festival or two. I still don’t know the young singer’s name. The song is set to the tune of the Blue Danube Waltz. Two tall men in business suits stop at the edge of the crowd and listen for a moment, looking rather bewildered. As they walk on, I overhear one of them say, “Well, that guy must have something about him, if he can get fifty people singing ‘aardvark, aardvark’…”

***

As you had promised beforehand, Adam Ende’s puppetry was most impressive; the Jason puppet opened his own guitar case, tuned the guitar and performed your new song (pre-recorded) that you’ve written to the tune of one of the Russian folksongs. A puppet skeleton dressed as a wizard floated overhead. I tried to photograph them, but I might have been sitting a little too far back for a good shot. After that song, the puppet replaced his guitar in the case, and was walked offstage again. I half expected him to pick up a miniature accordion as well, but perhaps he hasn’t gotten the hang of that quite yet.

Then the men in black came back in, removed the white covering from a trunk sitting in the middle of the stage, and lifted you out of it, as you twitched and quaked in a chaotic fashion. Drummer Mike McQuilken came crashing in, leading the brass players and the new bassist, all of them playing hand percussion and rasping out a chorus of “Igga-di igga-di igga-digga-dup”, which veteran listeners took up in turn. However, you were not ready to join them until your outfit arrived: another puppeteer brought in your beige trenchcoat and brown hat, and you gradually morphed into Jason the Accordion Guy after they were slipped on you. I’ve seen you go through this metamorphosis before, in which you require costuming in order to take on your performing persona, in the manner of a folkloric masked dancer. We here in Seattle have seen so little of you this summer and fall that the crowd that night gave you an ecstatic hero’s welcome before you ever sang a note.

The concert was made up of the best aspects of all the performance styles you have developed over the years—street performance at festivals, the large theatrical shows, and the smaller, more intimate concerts in clubs like the Pearl (R.I.P.) and the Blue Moon. There was a serenade of that night’s birthday boy, Vance; dancers in white letting loose red balloons on the crowd, plenty of both accordion and guitar work from you; lovely instrumental solos from Mike, the string and the brass ensembles (I’ve never quite figured out the meaning of the lyrics of “Avocado Mushroom Devil Trap”, but the cello parts are lovely); and the crowd dancing, bouncing the balloons, and being directed in chants, gestures and other interactive roles. As with most concert seasons, you premiered new songs at the May Day show; the Halloween show, for the most part, sums up the music and theatrical antics that were featured most prominently throughout the season. The instrumental arrangements of this show were beautifully composed, and relatively spare, allowing your voice and your own instruments to dominate, as they should. The strings were especially gorgeous in the songs “Against the Night”, “Counterpart” and “Avocado Mushroom Devil Trap (as mentioned above).” I remember how I used to be obsessed with the desire to perform with you instrumentally (and probably bugged the hell out of you on that account), and I still would like to, one of these days. Lately, however, I have been more focused on performing solo and drawing public attention to my own compositions, as you recommended to me on more than one occasion. I may be sharing a stage with you yet one day, hopefully soon.

***

Northwest Folklife Festival, Memorial Day Weekend, 2000: I finally learn the identity of the growling young accordion player, when he plays a set at the Northwest Court stage, and that year’s program references him as: “Jason Webley: Rowdy Screaming Accordion Guy.” I don’t get to hear the entire set clearly, as I am volunteering to staff the Seattle Folklore Society’s info table just inside the building next to the stage, but I go outside now and again to see and hear him. Two young guys bring copies of two CD’s into the building, and ask us to help sell them during Jason’s set. Numerous people come up to our table to peruse and buy copies of them. During one of my trips outside, I hear Jason singing what sounds like a lovely, slow sea chantey (it turns out to be “Captain, Where Are We Going Now?”). I mention this song when I go back inside; a woman near me says, “That guy grows on you; he really does!” I go outside to meet Jason and shake hands with him after his set. It is on this occasion that I first sign on to his ever-growing email list. I am struck by the title of a song on one of his albums: “Absinthe Makes the Heart Grow Fonder.”

***

Jason, no one can claim that there weren’t enough songs in this show. I noticed that there weren’t many from “Against the Night” this time, but you did play the title track, “2 AM”, and “Last Song” (still my personal favorite of yours), on which I sang along with my fists in the air as a kind of rebel song against our current government. You did many new ones that have proved popular in live shows this year, including the Russian birthday song, the Arrow song, and the Russian-folk flavored piece about Relaxing and Letting Go (the tune of which, you’ve admitted, bears a resemblance to one of Bertholt Brecht’s). Your brand-new song appears to have more or less lifted the Birthday Song’s melody; but your new words are very lovely and thought-provoking. It’s probably best that you didn’t bring a taser along and start zapping the band members; that might have proved a bit mind-scrambling for the uninitiated. Still, as always, you had complete command of this crowd; they hung on your every word, note and gesture. I wish I could connect with people in such a way, Jason, whether it’s learned or an inborn trait. Perhaps it’s both, a carefully harnessed and directed aspect of your personality. However, this natural charisma, I’ve learned while watching you, is a double-edged sword: it can work for you and against you at the same time. That, I’m sure, is why you have fairly tough boundaries while also being approachable to fans during and after performances. You want to touch and connect with people as powerfully as possible, but you don’t want them camping out on your doorstep.

I know by now that your Halloween shows always feature songs and stories that give clues about your coming death, and perhaps things going on in your life offstage. Lord knows where you got all those poor mutilated baby dolls featured in your stories about the children with ingrown wings in their hearts, hearts made of string, and balloons in place of hearts. I suspect that those little boys are all you in one sense or another—that you feel too many strings on your heart that are pulling you in many directions at once, that your heart often feels unable to fly freely, and, most ominously, something is going on that threatens to tear your heart out. It is, of course, up to you to decide how much of these things to reveal or to conceal. But I was watching and listening like a hawk for clues, wondering all the while where the “secret heart of the city” was supposed to be (I kept picturing the mass of us processing to Westlake Plaza or Pike Place Market in the middle of the night). You also did a reworked version of last year’s Feather Song, another song-map for the death procession.

***

In the Fall of 2000, I get a number of group emails from Jason Webley, giving announcements for upcoming shows in various Seattle venues. Most regrettably, I neglect to attend any of them. My tastes still run largely to folk and world music. I do, however, read the emails with interest, including one in which Jason apologizes for freaking people out one night in a park with something resembling a gun. Then, around the end of October, I get a group email that begins, “This is the last message you will get from this email address”, continues with a paragraph or two about issues of life and death, and concludes with the curious observation: “How can we enjoy the flavor in our mouths/ When already we’re dreaming of the taste of the next bite?” Not having attended that first Halloween show at the Pearl Café, I haven’t a clue what Jason is talking about. Several months later, I log onto Jason’s homepage, to be greeted by the announcement, “Jason Webley is dead.” Huh?!

***

A play, a drama, street theater of the absurd very soon became the reality in Town Hall. I’m sure the folks staffing the place had never seen anything like it, Jason. As you and we, the community, came together once again on the same wavelength, a shift happened, like it almost always does, even in your street performances; and art not only imitated life, it came to life and became reality. I felt myself shift into the familiar street-drama role-playing mode, with the old impish grin spreading across my face and the part of myself devoted to creative wackiness taking over. Hence, I felt no embarrassment or inhibition about doing the “Gnomie” dance (though the couple next to me sat there in stunned silence as I kept beckoning them to join in), joining in the ecstatic tickling pandemonium, and spinning around in a drunken parody of dervish-turning. Mind you, I’m a bit more sensible about spinning to intoxication than I once was, having had some rough encounters with a few floors and walls in the past. Nowadays, after 12 to 15 revolutions, I usually stop, steady myself on something, and get ready to grab the person next to me as they’re going down. But all the while, the energy was building through this reality shift, and an ecstatic state not unlike that reached at Sufi Qawwali concerts was achieved. The unspoken purpose seemed to be one of renewing one’s joy in living through all this holy foolishness.

***

University District Street Fair, May 2001: A group email has gone out, stating that, while “Jason Webley is still dead”, his ghost may be observed in some upcoming events, including the U-District Street Fair. That Saturday, I’m walking up University Way through all the craft booths and crushes of people, in a very bad mood. As I’m passing the entrance to the Seafirst parking garage, however, I suddenly hear the familiar sound of an accordion and a voice roaring out some chorus. I stop dead in my tracks, turn around, and enter the garage, under a scruffy wooden sign that reads, “Not For Everyone.” Some time later, I record what happened next in a website article:

“…in mid-May of this year, a new muse appeared in my life in the person of Jason Webley. Something about him and his music has shaken me out of the depressive doldrums. I went to see him perform in the Seafirst parking garage during the University District Street Fair the weekend before the Northwest Folklife Festival, and saw several of his famously impromptu performances with guitar, accordion and new Magic Theater. When I came out of one of these shows, I suddenly realized that I no longer felt depressed. Jason the Sacred Clown, the Holy Fool, the Accordion Guy persona, or whatever, somehow pulled off some serious healing magic on me. Not long afterwards, I began going to Irish [traditional music] sessions again, finished a new song for the first time in more than a year, and suddenly felt good about waking up in the morning. I have been railing for years at God, asking and often demanding that my dead muse, Nusrat [Fateh Ali Khan], come back from the dead. And what happened? I got introduced to a young independent musician who allegedly died and rose again, Christ-like almost. Something very ironic and even corny in such circumstances. But hey, if it works, don't knock it! Apparently a bit of creative wackiness is just what I need in my life right now, and I am highly grateful to Jason for bringing me what I needed most.”

***

The “Last Song”, I knew, as I sang my heart out and mimed the chorus in the aisle, was your signal that it was time for you to go once again. Red balloons were still flying and bouncing everywhere when the song stopped and the flying Jason puppet landed in your arms after your hat and trenchcoat were removed. I knew that a new Accordion Ghost was about to be born, but I didn’t clue in anyone who hadn’t been through your death before. Still, there was unearthly quiet as you broke the puppet’s wings, ripped out its heart and sobbed till your guts were heaving.

I recognized Butoh dancer Alan Sutherland as one of the two pallbearers coming to collect the puppet in a tiny coffin, but I couldn’t see the face of the other one. As you were lifted back into your trunk and the lid closed over you, the men in black attempted to direct us out of the theater and outside into the rain; but once we were outside in front of the building, most of us didn’t know where to go, and many people simply left while others stood around for several minutes. I heard someone point out that you are usually at the head of the death processions, and another guy retorted, “Yeah, but he’s boxed now.” Finally I saw a couple of familiar faces head around the corner to the north; I followed them, and a fair number of others eventually followed me into Freeway Park.

I expected to see your trunk being dragged into the space for some sort of ritual, but in the end there was just your puppet in its open coffin being sent off by proxy. A shamanic character with a huge curved stick recruited me and a couple of other people to help unravel the collection of balloons with rings and hearts attached, once I arrived at the central space with the single balloon I’d been given at the entrance. Being a bit dazed, though, it took me quite a while to figure out why people’s single balloons were being gathered into clusters and tied to the balloons with rings on their strings. On top of that, as a couple of your friends were attaching the balloon cluster to the puppet, a man in a suit and a woman, both wearing badges of some kind, came through the crowd and asked if someone could tell them what was going on. “Uh-oh”, I muttered, fearing that our final death ritual was going to be cut short and dispersed; but someone must have given them a convincing explanation of what was up, because they disappeared after a few minutes.

The next challenge was getting the balloon-borne puppet into the air and remaining aloft; the rain was weighing down the balloons in spite of everyone’s efforts to keep them buoyant. The air of mourning in the crowd was turning into giggling fits and epithets as the puppet got lodged and dislodged from one tree and shrub to another. As I greeted Alan, and discovered that the other pallbearer was Ishan Vernallis, I told the latter, “This is getting to be like the Spring Concert, when the hot air balloons kept getting stuck in trees!” One way or another, the puppet finally gained some altitude, and headed right for a high-rise office building, around the 40th floor or so, where some office lights were still on. If anyone was working late in there, they got a proper Halloween shock when they looked up and found a puppet face that looked like yours peeping in at them. We were still laughing and wildly cheering him on when he floated to the south side of the building, turned the bend, and continued due west down Seneca Avenue toward the Bay. I’ve recently heard that someone who was at the show later retrieved him from the alley directly under the Alaskan Way Viaduct.

Jason, I hope you don’t stay dead for long this time; I miss you already and love you all the more. These past two-and-a half years have been so creatively wacky, challenging, and life-giving for me. I not only fell in love with you and your music, I’ve also gotten to know so many other local musicians, dancers, artists and others whom I might never have met if you and the community around you hadn’t introduced them to me. I especially love the younger crowd that frequents your shows; they have given me welcome and a sense of belonging, as I develop a greater respect and appreciation for young artists, and youth as a whole. As with my introduction to international world music through Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan ten years ago, you and your work have opened up a new musical world to me, and expanded my own musical expression besides. I still don’t know for sure how you do what you do, but I am learning a great deal about what I am capable of doing as my own performing self develops and my new singing voice emerges, both of them stronger than those I had before. You speak of being in love with your life, and that is what I also aspire to, in the face of great odds and opposition from the world that tries to crush that spirit in us. From you and your performance we are learning what amazing things can happen when we come together to create them, and that we are all in this boat (or garden?) together. Long and far and wildly may this message live and grow! TOGETHER ACROSS THE WORLD!!

© 2003 by Karen I. Olsen

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Jason Webley's Website Jason's Russian Website

Springman Records Website

Tribute Song: Níl Agam Ach do
Scáth
(in Irish Gaelic)
Tribute Song: Penelope (lyrics in
English)

Michael Hanscom's Review: Jason Webley DeathDay 2003

Mike Whybark's Jason Webley Interview Index/Conclusion

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Return to the Home Lair.

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