Jason Webley held his annual Halloween Concert on the evening of Saturday, October 27, also his reputed first Death Anniversary, a very special occasion in Sufi traditions. He had warned all concertgoers beforehand to be there on time for the early start of 6:00 PM, lest we later find the show to be “sold out, or over.” Several hundred of us took this to heart, and stood outside the Paradox Theater with freezing feet for nearly an hour (I and a few others heard parts of the last-minute sound check, a performance of “August Closing His Mouth After a Long Summer’s Yawn”, which was not actually done in the concert itself). People associated with the Paradox, and a few who resembled associates, wandered in and out the door, and Jason himself trotted out briefly to greet a small group of friends at one point. Player King drummer Mike McQuilken arrived with one or two other musicians part-way through the wait, and then I knew this was going to be a hopping occasion. My feet nearly froze to numbness as the line stretched north up the block, but the whole blessed lot of us endured the trial for the reward to come. At last the doors opened a little after 6:00.
I knew that, if Jason’s Birthday Concert was any indication, the Halloween show would be almost as much about theater as it was about music, and I was proven correct as soon as we entered the auditorium itself. Two silent, spectral figures hunched over a card table (just in front of the stage) lit by small white candles, and repeatedly tried to build towers out of sugar cubes heated over the flames, while another ghostly, dark-suited figure played wailing dirges on a pump organ strewn with miniature skeletons, candles and vegetables. On the stage itself were huge cardboard lyric signs, the theater’s piano, a drum set and other instruments, Jason’s accordion and guitar, and the Magic Theater from the U-District Street Fair shows. At the back of the stage was an enormous giant puppet with bendable arms at least eight feet long, sporting a clock for one hand and a ruler for another. At either side of the puppet were boards mimicking the creature’s hands; and near Jason’s guitar case was a marionette replica of Jason himself wielding his musical shovel.
At last, the pallid figures at the card table gave up on their sugar cube buildings as the crowd mashed together around them, and poured hot water over the cubes, disassembled the table itself, and carted the whole thing away, as the organist played his final drones and the orange-haired sprite wandered in. Onstage, the sprite cranked up the old Victrola phonograph and began directing the Magic Theater's Death Figure and doleful Veggie Chorus in their performance of “Welcome, All True Lovers”, as a prelude. He then ran offstage without turning off the phonograph, a duty that fell to the troupe of pallid musicians (led by Ishan and Mike) who strode onstage seconds later and began a cacophony of calling sounds similar to those on the recordings of “Entropy” and “Prelude” on Jason’s CD’s. The volume and intensity of the double bass, brass instruments and drums were at a fever pitch by the time Jason himself, shovel and stick in hand, paraded down the aisle next to my seat, which was already filling up with the crowd spilling back from the center floor. The bunch of us actually ended up standing for most of the show, to allow the last few attendees to be admitted after the first few songs. Jason began with the song about putting something in and digging it out of the ground, interspersed with a chant of some kind in the terrorizing tones of a Tibetan choir, singing in both overtones and undertones. Soon the rhythm was taken up by the crowd stomping on the floor, and the journey was underway.
The singing, dancing, bottle-clashing, and theater continued for well over two hours after that, with Jason and band pouring everything they had into every song, building the energy until all had caught it and built it up higher, the building rocked, the roof was raised, and the floor quivered under our stomping feet. It was always Jason’s concert, to be sure, but it felt just as much like a community event as well. The spirit of the concert depended very much on the crowd's involvement, as always. Ours is a community that Jason began, but that all of us have had a hand in building and sustaining. There were a couple of new and unfamiliar songs, such as one with the line, “If you come into my garden, you will be my grave-digger…”, but we knew and loved most of the songs already, including the Summer Train Song, “Southern Cross”, “Northern Lights”, “Goodbye Forever, Once Again”, “Dance While the Sky Crashes Down”, and, of course, “Halloween.” We danced as wildly as space allowed to the instrumental “2 AM”; sacks of leaves were dropped on us as we danced while the sky crashed down, and Jason rolled his Jason Webley puppet into a cigar and smoked it, just after he made love with the sky. Band members pelted us with "magic" beans during the Train Song (I love that one; it sounds like it was written about my own life, and it’s a song I’ve needed to hear many times!), and several of them were promptly turned into zombies when Jason stuffed cucumbers in their mouths (he claimed the vegetables were Haitian cocombres zombies, or “zombie’s cucumbers”, quipping, “It’s amazing what you can buy on the Internet…”), just before lurching into Michael Jackson's "Thriller". Meanwhile, scores of people were snapping still shots, running videocams till their batteries died, and taping as much of the show as they could for posterity.
At last, the “Last Song” (still my absolute favorite of all Jason’s songs) began to play, and the band members and other cronies brought the giant puppet to a standing position, its arms looming over Jason’s head, while flanking him with two candelabras of small homemade candles and the cardboard signs. People linked arms and held up joined hands and a few cigarette lighters as the house lights went down, and Jason began to sing the song that has held many of us together during the recent times of crisis:
“And we say that the world isn’t dying,
And we pray that the world isn’t dying,
And just maybe the world isn’t dying—
Maybe she’s heavy with child.”
The chorus rang out with hundreds of voices, clapping hands and stomping feet, while noisemaker bottles were tossed out to us by Ishan who dragged a plastic sack of them forward at the last moment. Harmonies broke out all over, and were taken up by the band members as well. At the end came the chant of “Igga-di igga-di igga-digga-dup” which went on and on, growing into six- or eight-part harmonies as we began to follow Jason up the aisles and process out of the theater en masse, and it was the sweetest thing you’d ever want to hear. I rushed as quickly as possible to grab my sweatshirt, trenchcoat, cloth bag and bodhrán (I can never seem to learn to travel light), and exit along with the rest of the crowd, fearing that I might miss something if I didn’t hurry.
Those of us who have joined the Jason Webley Forum were told in advance to bring instruments to the show, in order to add liveliness to a post-concert procession to an unspecified location—hence the attendance of my bodhrán in addition to my trenchcoat (the warmest thing I’ve got that isn’t a winter coat). We didn’t know where we were going or what was going to happen once we got there, but we followed Jason out of the Paradox anyway in great anticipation. Jason hopped on his accordion case in order to be properly seen and heard by the crowd (after offering to "trade [his] soul for some water"), and announced that “Halloween is about taking over the streets, not going to people’s houses and getting drunk!” With that, the lot of us took over University Way, with Jason in the lead. We took over the entire right lane, our procession taking up a good two blocks at its longest, and walked the complete length of the Ave, running red lights, waving to people watching from buses and the sidewalk, many of us singing or chanting, and a few performing acrobatics at every intersection to the cheers of the rest. I played the bodhrán most of the way, trying my best to follow the rhythm of the song nearest to me, though the songs, noisemaking and chants kept changing every few minutes, and I had to adjust my drumming accordingly. Mike also kept time on a strapped-on high drum of his own. Jason told us that we would have to retreat to the sidewalk “if the police get interested”, but amazingly, nobody in authority stopped us or even showed up in any noticeable fashion during the entire procession. By the time we reached 41st Street, however, some of us were beginning to tire and wonder exactly where we were headed, and Jason briefly disappeared from the front of the crowd (making me wonder if he’d left us to wander aimlessly down the street), but reappeared somewhere near NE Campus Parkway, running back to the front of the procession with his accordion case.
We finally stopped when we reached the Ship Canal and could walk no further. Jason jumped up on a picnic table overlooking the lake, picked up his accordion one last time, and sang the song I’ve been wanting to hear again for a long time, “Not Time to Go Yet”—another song I love enough to want to learn, and to hear recorded soon. As we sang and drummed along on the chorus, the giant puppet and accompanying boards were set on fire in a kind of sacrificial rite. The puppet collapsed into the grass by the lake pier at one point and sent sparks and cinders everywhere, lighting a clump of grass afire and sending people scurrying back in front of Jason to escape being burned. Once this was brought under control, Jason announced that a special ceremony was to be held, in which we would light candle boats, make wishes, and set the candles floating on the lake. Two large boxes of homemade candle boats appeared out of nowhere; Jason lit one, and leaned over the bank of the lake to let it fall into the water (“It’s a bit of a drop”, he remarked, asking taller people to assist the shorter ones). Approximately 160 of us followed suit. It was such a beautiful, powerful way to end the evening. It could not have been more perfect, or filled my heart more completely.
Unfortunately, I got so involved in lighting my candle while trying to hold onto my stuff, releasing it into the lake, retrieving my gear, and then trying to find Jason again to thank him for everything, that I missed seeing him leave with the White-Robed Lady in the boat. Besides, I couldn’t see what was happening over the masses of people clustered around the banks, singing “Goodbye Forever” in harmony, and altering the melody somewhat in the process. It was while thanking Mike for his role in all this that I found out that Jason had just floated off in the moonlight on a black boat piloted by a muffled dark-clad rower, while being embraced by a Lake or Sea Goddess in the white robe of her Death Aspect, with long, black hair streaming out in the wisps of a breeze. The White Death Goddess takes many forms throughout Europe and the Near East; in Neolithic Europe, the colors white and yellow (not black) were the colors associated with death, tombs and bones. In the Irish tradition, she now takes the form of the Beansidhe or Banshee, especially in association with particular clans or families. The white owl and white swan are also known as harbingers of death, and conductors of departed souls, in some cultures. The black boat, of course, is the warrior chief’s coffin ship in Norse burial tradition. Fortunately, Jason’s boat was not, to my knowledge, set on fire with him in it. His website, however, now opens with the news that he was “lost at sea.”
I hope that he is not sleeping with the fishes too long. I missed him desperately while he was on tour, and while the nation was reeling from the terrorist attacks of September 11. I wish that I knew him better after this past five or six months, enigmatic creature that he is. I wish and hope that we can be friends, and that I don’t have to be shy about speaking with him in person, at concerts and elsewhere. Getting to know his music and performance has provided me with an astonishing level of healing and inspiration, to the point where I feel like a functioning musician and human being again, after a long period of serious depression and despair over the death of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, and the utter lack of support for my musical pursuits by most of my relatives. Jason himself told me that complete (“religious!”) focus and devotion to my art is the best and most effective way to counteract that kind of negativity that has been piled on me over the years. He is the only artist who has been able to help me move on from the grief about Nusrat, and to get me moving forward in my own musical life. Thus I am highly indebted to him in many ways, and I try to express my gratitude by being as supportive of him as possible (perhaps trying a little TOO hard at times!). He is a true artistic genius and local musical treasure—may he enjoy long life, good health, not too many deaths, and much creative output in the years to come, having brought me back to life with the flowers and vegetables in May.
© 2001 by Karen I. Olsen
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