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Were You There When They Tied Him to a Tree?
Jason Webley Day of the Dead Concert 2002

Jason Webley and Band
Day of the Dead Concert
Paradox Theater, Seattle, WA
Saturday, November 2, 2002

*****

November 4, 2002

There’s a crush to get out of the Paradox Theater, and time begins passing again. They’ve gotten Jason tied rather precariously to a long squareish beam and carried him out into the street, wearing nothing but his old loincloth from the May Day concert. I haven’t put my sweatshirt and lined polyester jacket back on yet, but I’m determined not to miss anything. I forgot to watch Jason leave on the boat at last year’s Halloween show, and had to relive the experience from photos and written accounts instead, in spite of actually being there at the time. This time around, I’m not going to miss anything; I will keep up with all that happens. But it’s taking so damn long to get out of the theater!

***

A very different scene than when I first arrive at the Paradox that night. It's only about 5:50 in the evening, the sky is nearly pitch black, and already dozens of people are stretched out in clusters in a line halfway up the block. Not single-file, but in clusters and groups, talking, eating pizza, some with chairs, one or two people even cooking vegetables in saucepans over a kind of Bunsen burner. I don’t know how long they’ve been camping out here in the looming cold. Two people near the doors tell me that, like me, they’ve already got their tickets with them, and they’re just waiting for some kind of Will Call line to form. Meanwhile, I grab a spot in the general line. Closer to the curb, a table is set up with black and white house paints and the linocuts that provided the artwork for Jason’s new Counterpoint album. I’ve brought my light jacket with me in my cloth bag, having determined beforehand to get it stamped with the picture illustrating the song “Train Tracks”, my favorite song on the new CD. That song, along with “Last Song” from Against the Night, has brought me back to life many times, especially when I’ve become discouraged about my prospects in street performing. Sure enough, the Train Tracks linocut is right there waiting for me with a fresh coat of white paint. I stamp it down on the back of my jacket, but the cloth gets wrinkled a bit underneath it, and the image turns out a bit blurred as a result. Not a bad first effort, though; at least the end result is recognizable.

***

Running up University Way after the procession, running out of breath, but glad for the cold fresh air. Some people are leaving; most run after the procession disappearing toward the park. I still don’t dare stop to put on my sweatshirt and jacket. I just hold them against me for warmth, making sure I’ve also got my purse and cloth bag with me. At last the procession seems to be slowing down at the entrance to Cowan Park. I can’t see Jason on the beam, but at least much of the crowd seems to have stopped, and are pushing en masse through the brush. Fifty or so yards into the park, the procession makes a right turn, beginning a trek down a hill. I remember a lyric line from the song Jason sang earlier, about going down into a valley.

***

Still waiting for the doors to open and a Will Call line to form, I’ve come up the line to see who has arrived so far, when suddenly one of the doors opens, and Mike Whybark strides out. I recognize him from when we first met at Jason’s Olympia concert back in June, when both Jason and myself rode back to Seattle with Mike and two other guys. Mike says his wife Viv is attending the show as well this time, and he just has to go find her and grab dinner. He heads off down the street, while I get reintroduced to other familiar folks whom I always seem to meet at Jason’s concerts. It takes quite a while for Mike and Viv to return, and I wonder if Shannon Kringen is going to make it at all that night; she’d been planning to videotape parts of it for an upcoming episode of her TV show. At last, a Will Call line is formed, and the two people I saw hanging out by the doors when I first arrived grab me and insist that I stand with them near the front, since I was one of the early arrivals. The line to buy tickets is likely heading into its second block by now.

***

I am struggling to see where we’re going, and it’s getting colder. I don’t see in the dark in the woods very well, but I keep following the backs of the people in front of me. Lights of the surrounding neighborhood have disappeared; the only light now is coming from the sky, and the occasional candle inside a paper bag along the pathway. I step on one of them accidentally, and the candle goes out. “Oh, shit! I tripped over it!” I exclaim. “That’s one lantern down”, comes a man’s voice nearby. I feel like we’re being led astray into a fairy world, or through a portal into non-ordinary reality.

***

The first lot of us enter the theater; I don’t know what to expect to find in there. At the KUOW-FM studio on Halloween, Jason joked about digging a huge pit in the theater to trap us all upon our entrance. Last year, the first thing we saw were the two black-clad figures building structures out of sugar cubes on a table to the accompaniment of dirgelike organ music. Nothing of that sort greets us this time. The house lights are up, and all I see are the fully set-up stage, and a large pile of leaves on the floor. I stake out a spot on the floor near the front, and head for the restroom. By the time I return, other people have discovered the leaf pile, and at least one girl is buried in it up to her neck. Soon the place is getting packed and warm, and before long, we are requested by Mike McQuilken the drummer to stand up to maximize use of the floor space. Bassist Jherek Bischoff sits near the right stage exit, and Mike takes up a position near the left end of the stage. Clearly visible to all is a large carving knife suspended by a string over the front and center of the stage—the only detail that Jason gave out during the Halloween radio interview. I look up and see figures looking down from the lighting windows and conferring about something.

Suddenly someone roars out the word “PENIS!!” and some other phrases, and the crowd parts and shifts as a masked figure in a Long-Haired Jason Webley costume comes charging in on a careening path toward the stage. This is the ghost of Jason’s persona from circa 1999-2000, prior to his first death experience. He wields a noisemaker bottle and bounds onstage next to a covered shadow puppet mini-theater set up at the center of the stage floor. Just after his arrival, the floor thuds again, and in dashes another figure, this time the ghost of the Short-Haired Jason of 2001, in trenchcoat, tie and fedora, wielding the shovel used in the “Graveyard” song. He takes up his position on the opposite side of the shadow puppet stage. They are finally joined by the Orange-Haired Sprite figure in his smiling mask, who hides undercover behind the puppet stage. Together, they re-enact the life of Jason Webley, Accordion Guy, to date, using shadow puppet figures behind a white screen: the long-haired accordion player who is burned in effigy (“Time Passes”, says a sign; the audience is encouraged to read aloud from signs held up by the Long-Haired figure); the short-haired, shovel-playing figure who is “lost at sea”; and the nearly-naked lad, hair of medium length, who staggered aboard the Skansonia Ferry on May Day of this year. “Time Passes”, read the signs. “I’m beginning to see a pattern here…This guy is really annoying!” And then: “Oh, my God…It’s a great big knife!” A miniature of the carving knife is lowered toward the newest puppet figure—and then Jason emerges from behind the puppet stage, clad only in loose orange trousers that look as though they were whip-stitched together only minutes before. The puppet stage is removed, the band members take their places, and Jason sings a heartrending version of the old gospel hymn “Angel Band”:

My latest sun is sinking fast, my race is nearly run;
My strongest trials now are past, my triumph has begun.
Oh, come, Angel Band, come and around me stand,
Oh bear me away on your snowy wings to my immortal home.

Many are impressed that he’s memorized so many verses of that old song. At the end, an assistant robes him in the orange and bronze kimono he was given by the Sea Goddess on May Day. The ghost with the trenchcoat and tie shoves the shovel and drumstick into Jason’s hands, and he and the band (including trombone and clarinet) begin their ensemble performance with the Graveyard song, which has been rewritten substantially since last year. The audience begins a stomping dance and the first of many singalongs: “You’ve got to put it in, you’ve got to dig it out…” Many in the gathering have most of Jason’s lyrics committed to memory, to the amazement of the relative newcomers in attendance. A couple beside me dances in romantic fashion to many of the songs.

“Did you have a good Halloween?” Jason asks the crowd. They roar in the affirmative. “Do you WANT a good Halloween?” he asks. The crowd roars louder in the affirmative; the long-haired ghost spins him around and shoves the accordion into his hands, and off we go with “2 AM” and “Halloween”, with no prompting needed for the chant of “Icklemuck, puddlewuck, ting ling zsu/ Chulatat, psilophat, mugwump chu--”. I briefly fantasize about doing klezmer or Israeli circle dances to these songs. The signature energy shift is happening, as at all of Jason’s shows, where the boundary between performer and audience gets increasingly blurred, and the concert becomes a kind of interactive community theater project, requiring intensive crowd participation in order to work properly. More well-known songs follow, including the tango “Dance While the Sky Crashes Down”, “The Mine”, “Goodbye Forever Once Again”, “Eleutheria” and “Against the Night.” For some reason, though, one personal favorite of mine, “It’s Not Time to Go Yet”, is conspicuously absent.

***

We keep walking. It’s getting colder. I’m still holding my two jackets and sweatshirt against my chest, not daring to stop and put them on because some key event might happen and I won’t be there to witness it. I don’t want any more second-hand accounts in my memory bank. So I’m willing to risk freezing in order to experience everything firsthand. The first attacks of an aching sadness begin to hit me. We’re treading miles into this dark, forested world, and I can’t see much beyond the backs of the people directly in front of me. The candles in bags along the path are becoming few and far between. Way up ahead, someone screams and some wicked laughter floats back as well, but there’s still no end in sight to our walk. I keep searching my memory for clues in Jason’s lyrics to the song about going down to the valley and tying your dreams to a feather, and the story about him going with his accordion to meet some gypsies after a concert. I hold the feather tied to a piece of card paper with verses printed on it, the two connected by what appears to be fake human hair. It’s the only thing I’ve got in my left hand.

***

Jason keeps switching between guitar and accordion, singing songs such as “Map” and “Captain, Where Are We Going Now?”, with some verses left out. There is also an extended version of "Music That Tears Itself Apart", with several instrumental solos from the band. Suddenly the two ghosts leap back in on either side of him, rasping out an ominous revision of the murder ballad “Tom Dooley”: “Hang down your head, Jason Webley/Poor boy, you’re bound to die…” After a year and a half of Webley concerts and one previous Halloween show under my belt, I’ve figured out that there are clues in these lyrics about Jason’s coming death, and I listen to them closely, with a bit of a sinking feeling inside. Jason goes to the piano for a rendition of the introspective “Northern Lights”; and, realizing that something more upbeat is also needed, calls a girl out of the crowd to play the percussive piano part for “Now”, the chant that simply repeats, “How can we enjoy the flavor in our mouths, when already we’re dreaming of the taste of the next bite?” Now comes an even more ominous song that gives out the most explicit clues, about going into the valley and tying our dreams to a feather, something must die, something will fly. Again, I listen closely to each verse.

A story follows, with Jason recounting how he was led out to a party through a 40-minute walk through the woods one evening when he was exhausted from traveling and playing a concert, and finding his destination when he heard the sound of water, how he fell asleep on one couch in a house with a little girl sleeping on another couch in the room. He tells how he was wakened by the child who told him a sad dream about a beautiful woman who disappeared despite all her efforts to get her to stay, and that the beautiful woman was actually Jason himself. He goes on to describe how he spent the day with the child picking vegetables and flowers in a garden, with the child telling him at one point, “If you want to pass safely to the other world, your heart must be as light as the feather of truth.” “Do YOU have a strange life?” Jason, chuckling, asks the crowd by way of conclusion. “You win!” says a voice near the front. Numerous people come to sit on the edge of the stage to get out of the crush on the floor.

Now Jason asks the crowd if they would like to meet Jason Webley as a child of nine or ten. Sounds like a good idea. He picks up a tape recorder and plays an old tape of Jason at age nine or so, with a fine, clear soprano voice, singing a rather weird song about a green and blue monster, to his mother’s piano accompaniment. “I have to warn you, he has really bad taste in music”, comments the adult Jason, covering his face in feigned embarrassment. He then offers a medley of “songs from that era”, including one called “The Boogie-Woogie Werewolf”, requiring howls from the audience, which Jason calls the “hit song of the sixth grade.” Also in that segment is the theme song from “Attack of the Killer Tomatoes” (featuring a large cardboard tomato with fangs prominently displayed, and Maureen in a red hooded jacket evilly pelting the audience with tomatoes. Pieces of tomato end up in my bag and my purse’s side pocket; I pick them out and eat them while wiping pulp and seeds off my head and arms), and a cover of Billy Joel’s “Piano Man” (which Jason calls “the scariest song ever written”), with people pulled out of the audience and lined up as the cast of characters mentioned in the song. Rebecca is cast as the waitress “practicing politics”, and Jason warns her not to stand under the knife. I recall how Jason kept puzzling over the description of one man as a “real estate novelist”, when he performed this song at the Blue Moon Tavern back in August. We also do the "Drinking Song" and get dizzily drunk as well, and a couple of girls keep shrieking requests for “Sex Mad” until several people order them to shut up.

***

We’re still walking in the dark and chill, and I wonder aloud if we’re still in Seattle. We step over the remains of some crushed pumpkins, and pass by an intact pumpkin, with a cross of sticks embedded in the top, just to the right of the path. More wicked laughter comes, and some lights appear in the thicket, but we seem to be no closer to wherever we’re supposed to go. Then we hear the sound of a creek close by—“The sound of water!” someone points out, and we feel some relief that we may be near our destination when we feel a broad wooden bridge under our feet. But there’s still more distance to go, and I still don’t dare to put my jacket on, and I can barely see even the jackets of the people in front of me. The ordinary world of the city has been left far behind us. I have no idea where or how far ahead of us Jason and his beam-carriers are. The path begins to slope upward.

***

Jason picks up the accordion again, and asks if we want to hear the “Last Song”, or the next-to-last song. He does the latter first, the sea chantey with the achingly lovely chorus that everyone repeats over and over at the end:

So we scrape the barnacles off our hearts,
We row the boat ashore, Hallelujah.
We can see the end, even as we start;
We row the boat ashore, Hallelujah…

The last line is taken up by the crowd, with one harmony line over another over another, just as we did at the May Day concert, only with many more voices this time. We sing it on and on as if to make the moment stand still and last as long as possible, and that one line, “We row the boat ashore, Hallelujah…” interlaces our hearts together like Celtic knotwork, with Jason and with each other. Jason stands back and listens, grinning rapturously at what he has helped to create and nurture. What music has joined together, let no one put asunder… As the boat chorus goes on, Maureen and another woman, now both in white satin gowns, pilot small boats topped with candles, and feathers hanging over the side, through the crowd; people eventually figure out that they are to take the feathers joined with cards and connected with soft twine that looks and feels like fake hair. Finally, “Last Song” breaks in, with the crowd and band joining in on the verses as well as the chorus. Jason attacks the song with his entire being; by now, he’s been singing his heart and soul out for at least two and a half hours. A box above the hanging knife begins to sprinkle feathers like snow on Jason’s head as he sings, “One day, the snow began to fall…”

People are singing so joyously, many arm in arm, that they are not prepared for what happens when the song finally ends. Jason’s attendants remove his hat with a feather stuck in it, his kimono, shoes and socks, and finally the loose orange trousers. All he is wearing now is the burlap loincloth from May Day. He drinks a glass of red wine that has been handed him. The knife begins to be lowered toward him, and the two ghosts raise a white screen in front of him, showing Jason in silhouette with the knife slowly descending closer and closer. As the knife reaches his head, fake blood is splashed on the screen, and someone yells, “NO!” Jason's silhouetted hand slaps against the blood-drenched sheet.

When the screen is removed, the nearly naked Jason stands alone, looking stricken and speechless, as if all the musical energy has gone out of him. Three women in white tie ropes about his chest and arms, connected to ropes anchored to the speakers on either side of the stage, as incidental music drones louder and louder from the band. Jason is raised into the air and hangs suspended, in a posture of crucifixion, several feet above the stage. One of the women loops another rope, which is connected somewhere near the back of the theater, about his knees, and he is raised higher, in a horizontal prone position, and drawn off the stage and above the aisle, as several people, including Josh, carry a narrow, rectangular beam toward him. He is lowered onto the beam on his back, nearly falls off of it, and is secured to it with numerous ropes before being carried out of the theater and into the frigid night air. The music is crashing down on us in a pitiless monotone, in the mood of a death march. I grab everything I brought with me, not bothering to put on my jacket and sweatshirt, which I removed when it began to get crowded and hot in the theater. Thus I end up outside in just teeshirt and jeans, after the long push by the crowd to exit for the procession. Not everyone joins in. Not everyone has left alive. Once outside, I look north and can just see the main procession disappearing up University Way. Feeling exhilarated in the cold, fresh air, I run into the street with dozens of others who are trying to catch up, wondering what drivers and others in the vicinity must be thinking about this spectacle. “Don’t worry, folks, it’s not an antiwar demonstration”, I mutter under my breath as I jog up the Ave.

***

At last, we’re here, at the top of the hill, crowded into a kind of grove that can’t contain all of us. At least a couple of hundred people are here in the dark, almost completely silent. I push around through the crowd, trying to get as close to the scene as I can, but I can’t see a thing but bodies taller than me, at first. Still, I don’t want to miss whatever’s going to happen. I see ropes suspended from high up in the tree, and I wonder if Jason is going to be hanging from the branches in his loincloth, like Odin sacrificing himself in the cause of gaining wisdom. I can’t see him anywhere, but as I push around the side of the tree, I find ropes completely encircling the trunk. Then one of the women in white lifts a huge, blanketed bundle up and holds it against the tree as ropes are secured around it, and I can just see Jason’s head sticking out of the top of the bundle. He has at least three or four blankets wrapped around him, and he is tied so that his feet just touch some knots near the base of the tree trunk.

Now I’m standing just behind those who are securing the ropes at one side of the tree. I hear Jason belching and then retching softly. As it turns out, he’s spit up the red wine that he drank before being carried out of the theater, and there are whispers that either the wine, or some ingredient in it, is making him sick. At last, the attendants discover that the ropes are cutting off circulation to Jason’s head, and have to be retied, more loosely, with more ropes in different positions around his body. Hundreds of people remain in semi-circles in front of the tree, nearly silent, as the retying process goes forward, still with no light.

The longhaired ghost is wandering through the congregation now, telling people to tie their feathers and cards to the ropes holding Jason to the tree. I squeeze forward along the side of the tree to do so, touching Jason’s blanketed shoulder afterwards and wondering what’s going to happen next. After whispering inquiries to various people, it comes out that Jason plans to stay out here all night, tied to the tree and bound with blankets, in subfreezing temperatures. He’s got to be crazy; some people wonder aloud if he intends to die for real this time, and if this “last show” really is the last show Jason has performed on the earth. I ask two of Jason’s assistants if they also plan to stay out here all night, but they politely refuse to answer this question. Finally, I put down the stuff I’m carrying, and put my sweatshirt and jacket back on.

A torch is lit; finally we can see what has become of the Accordion Guy. Jason’s body is completely bundled in white and red blankets; Maureen puts a white knit cap on his head and extra socks on his feet, and tries to keep the blankets around his feet tucked over them. At the base of the trunk is a pillow stained with the red wine that Jason has spit up. Jason occasionally shifts his body under the coverings and moves just enough to generate warmth. On occasion, he raises his head and looks around him with a clear but tired look in his eyes, then lets his head drop to his chest again, looking like a dying Christ figure with the life force oozing out of him. He is both the self-sacrificial victim and the guardian of the grove. One of the white-clad women has climbed into the tree with sacks of white feathers, which she continually drops in clouds over him. Coats of snowlike feathers are beginning to blanket the ground. Onlookers are sitting down now, still nearly silent, a few muffled voices singing. I sit near the front of the crowd, looking up at him with a mixture of anguish, love, worry, anxiety and awe. I’m entertaining crazy thoughts of trying to stick it out here all night, and wondering if I can still catch a bus home. I have no idea where the nearest road is. I curl my feet under me and cover them with my light jacket and cloth bag. I’m screaming and wailing in my mind that I don’t want Jason to leave again for God knows how long, and that I’m so afraid he’ll die for real from hypothermia. I’m sending him thoughts saying that I love him, that I want to be closer friends with him and to perform with him one day, and begging him not to die and leave us again, and despairing of changing his mind. Lines from a song in Irish that I wrote for Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan go through my mind—“A Mhuire, chomh mí-ámharach mé/Imíonn gach maith idir mo mhéara” (“[Blessed Virgin] Mary, how misfortunate I am/Every good thing slips through my fingers.”). I’m intensely sad and also jealous of those whom Jason works with in planning these events, wanting so much to be one of them.

People begin leaving to find their cars and call for rides. The beam used to carry Jason out here is positioned under his feet for support, but is removed again after a while. He is burrowing his face against the blankets for warmth, only mumbling a few words to the attendants (I’ve started calling the trio of women in white the Morrigan or Three Fates) who come up and whisper in his ear now and again. I'm also concerned that they are not sufficiently dressed for these temperatures. One girl kisses Jason’s bundled feet just before leaving. I want so very badly to hug him goodbye, but just touch his shoulder again as I circle the tree one last time. Standing off to one side, I softly mutter some lines from the song I wrote him after last Halloween—“Maireann do chuimhní i mo shaoil go deo. Maireann do cheol i mo chroí go deo (Your memories live on in my life always. Your music lives on in my heart always).” Then I finish by saying, “Slán go deo, ar ais arís (Goodbye forever, once again).” I walk slowly behind the tree and across the field, and am soon surprised to find pavement under my feet. I realize that I wasn’t that far from civilization after all.

I can’t feel my face and can barely feel my toes. I find out from some passersby that the time is now 1:55 am. I walk all the way to 15th Avenue Northeast and Northeast 50th Street. I find that there are no more buses running downtown by now. I walk to the 7-11 store on the Ave in a dazed state, looking for help or something, but the clerk has no idea what I should do beyond finding a ride with somebody somehow. Something tells me then to go back to the Paradox, that I might find someone hanging around who has transportation. Sure enough, I find a couple of women sitting in a truck with a cellphone, trying to reach the older woman’s son who might still be in the park, and then Josh Larios comes by and recognizes me. It’s the first time I’ve actually met Josh offline. I ride home with him, mumbling nonsensically the whole way, after he scrapes ice off the windows of his car. He says he only left after getting some assurance that Jason WOULD be taken down eventually, and not in fact allowed to die of exposure. I remain in a quiet daze all the next day.

***

Tuesday, November 05, 2002: I still have not heard what happened in the park after I left. Jason usually sends a “ghost email” after each death, bidding everyone farewell; but this time, even his homepage has not been updated as of 4:00 pm today. I am trying to get back to my usual reality—street performance, working on my website, helping out my friends at the travel agency, taking care of self-management tasks at my apartment—but I don’t want to come back to this world yet. I don’t want to have to come down from the mountain, or out of the forest, as it were, not yet, even if I have to. Most people would say, “Well, it’s back to the real world again...”, but the world I just left is just as real as the one I normally inhabit. I renounced the myth, years ago, that the joyless world of the drab, dull and routine is the only "real" one there is. That world is only a small part of the whole; and the worlds that musicians and artists create are every bit as real as the world of the office cubicle and the factory assembly line. My heart and soul are screaming to be allowed back into Jason’s musical world that seems to have been ripped from under me.

But the world that I am creating with music, art and writing is still here; and the Cronies of Jason’s Seattle community are still here! There is already talk of the plot to confound the cops at Folklife next year with any number of people dressed up as Jason, who has been banned from the Seattle Center for a year for climbing on the Fountain during Bumbershoot for his desired “baptism.” There are also my own plans for recording and performing, alone and with others. Tonight, in fact, I may be performing at a post-election shindig put on by the local Green Party chapter. Who knows where Jason, the person is, having just killed off his latest performing incarnation. I hope he has not lost any extremities to frostbite. Having had my heart stolen and my mental health healed, I hope that Jason emerges from his cocoon in the spring, and remains a force to be reckoned with in our “real world” of dangers, joys and challenges.

You came and sang this weary town enchanted,
When I’d been years within a sleep of pain.
Half-dead I was, walking down the market street,
Until your song awoke the Spring again.
Now, if I but knew just where to find ye…
--original song lyric from “Penelope”

*****

© 2002 by Karen I. Olsen

*****

Here is Josh's Photo Gallery of the Day of the Dead Concert, and another collection of photos from Jason's latest West Coast tour (Sept.-Oct. 2002).

Jason Webley's Website Jason's Russian Website

Jason Webley Halloween 2001 Special Page

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

The Springman Records Website

Guerrilla Concert Event 1 (Harbor Steps) Review

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Return to the Home Lair.

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