Even by the standards of this crap presidency, mid-June 2018 has been a rough time for news. As a Korean American, that vulgar “summit” between two dictators was impossible to block out of my mind on June 12; its poison seeped through everything. As a sentient being, it is impossible to block out what the U.S. government is doing to families with children at the border. While my friends marched in protest, I went ahead with a planned birthday party, wondering vaguely if it was right to do so, if anything would be served by canceling it on the 14-year-old and her teen guests.
I didn’t go to the protest; I didn’t cancel. I got my kid a guitar, the one thing she’s been asking for, humbly, for months. We were lucky: the salesperson at the guitar shop was a woman, a bassist, who knew to share in my kid’s excitement. There were other women there, too, murmuring reminiscently, “First guitar,” beaming at my daughter. Everything feels more political than ever right now. She played the guitar all the way home and into the night, until the 10-year-old begged her to stop so we could all sleep. That was wonderful.
On June 13, I went to see Sons of an Illustrious Father play at Johnny Brenda’s in Philadelphia. That, too, was wonderful. The concert reached through all the despair and left me peaceful for a full day afterward, glowing in equal parts because of the band’s political fervor and their virtuosity. If you have a competence kink, it’s worth it to see this band just for the moments that they rotate instruments, literally playing musical chairs, switching off lead vocal duties and guitar and keyboards and drums because goddammit, if anything is going to save us it’s making sure that we all take turns listening to each other and speaking up so we know how to do things together.
Look at the cover art for their new album, Deus Sex Machina: Or, Moving Slowly Beyond Nikola Tesla. When the band held a Reddit AMA on June 5, I asked them about how they made the cover art and if they could tell us about some of the images they included, especially the vertical image going up the center.
SonsOAIF: “It’s a collage we made out of various books acquired Powell’s in Portland, a mix of pulpy sci-fi covers, books of sacred geometry, old medical texts, and the Joy of Sex amongst others. The central image is something from a text called Rivers and Streams that traces lineages of belief.”
Lineages of belief. This band is a treasure.
The cover art tugged at me because twenty years ago, before I babyproofed by putting away the sharps and the machine and the iron, I used to be a quilter. From quilting, I recognized the sacred geometry and the trunk of life. (Scroll down to the bottom of this post to see a quilt block program my then-boyfriend wrote for me in 1994 and a Tree of Life quilt I made for a friend.) Most of all, I recognized the collage aesthetic, which reminded me of feminist story quilts like the ones by Faith Ringgold (see Tar Beach 2, below).
The AMA also gave me a chance to ask about the heavy chord that strikes 12 times, then 5 times, then once in “When Things Fall Apart,” which I wrote about a month ago. What does it mean? The oracle replied!
SonsOAIF: “We think of it as transition via sorcery”
It takes a lot of repeated labor to effect change, yes? Keep at it. As many times as it takes to break through.
But the concert. How did the concert go?
The first big “yessss!” came right at the start, when Josh Aubin kicked off with “Post-Future,” the one song of the evening from Revol. Brilliant. That song foretold our current breakdown: “But if the lights go out, how can we go on?” Nine months after Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico is still without full power, with thousands dead, by malicious design. In Revol, there were hard-fought notes of hope; starting the Deus Sex Machina concert with “Post-Future” served to announce that hope isn’t on the playlist for the band this year. It’s time for other things.
“U.S.Gay” came next, Lilah Larson on vocals. Live, the song feels more intimate. The heaviness of the chords reverberated in my chest cavity so strongly that I stopped watching the band and looked around, instead, at my fellow concertgoers, so many of them visibly queer-presenting, all feeling the same music at the same time.
The vibrations from “Extraordinary Rendition” felt different; they came up through the soles of my feet. Ezra Miller was singing, but from where I was standing, I couldn’t see him at all. I could see Larson singing harmony, one of my favorite parts of this masterpiece song, and Aubin on keyboards, which I didn’t watch enough at a previous concert, and the rapt faces of some of the young men in the audience.
Aubin again, singing lead on a song I also heard in Brooklyn in March, with a refrain of “desolation.”
Back to Miller on lead with another song I didn’t recognize, drums and then keyboard leading into screamy vocals. Aubin and Larson seemed to be looking at him and laughing fondly as this song started.
“When Things Fall Apart” started up and two young women audibly gasped, eyes fixed on Larson, and held each other. The whole audience seemed to go still at that moment, actually. At some points, Larson seemed to be singing this to and with Miller; they faced each other when counting out the chords for the “transition via sorcery,” and Larson couldn’t help smiling, I saw. That feeling of making things with a friend you adore, making eye contact: how can you not smile?
The band moved to stand together, Larson on bass, for a cover of Nirvana’s “All Apologies.” You should have seen Ezra Miller’s grin on the line “Everyone is gay.” He seemed to divine, correctly, that this audience would grin along. He reached for the hand of a handsome middle-aged gentleman in the audience, held his gaze with heat, and deliberately kissed the back of the man’s hand. It was an arresting performance and instantly conjured a vivid story of the chemistry that could exist between these two people. What gorgeous sorcery.
Josh Aubin was a revelation for “E.G.,” speeding up into guitar-god mode, Larson on drums, Miller on keyboard. Miller also improvised a brief dance with some glass beads hanging by the stage, which apparently looked like they were hoping to be part of the performance.
“Crystal Tomes.” I’ve never heard Lilah Larson holler like this while singing. Good backup. I love Aubin’s guitar playing on this. I think Miller was crying. If you can make out the lyrics to this song, or get your hands on the lyric book to this album that Larson designed, you will understand why. It’s too late for hope. It’s not over, but it’s too late. Why would we make so much brokenness of a world as beautiful as this one? Why did we?
And yeah we are past the point now of the dawn I fear the day has broken
I’m so glad to be here with you still now my darling/ With the breaking of this world like a heart/ So it can grow
So it can grow. All the grimness we’ve seen in the past couple of years and hearts will still grow, people will still forgive, if it’s in our nature, even if we’re broken, even if we’d like to stop, even if it would be better to stop. If we can’t stop loving, we should grieve. Grief will help ground us more than hope right now. The band’s merchandise table featured temporary tattoos drawn by Larson, including one that was too raw for me to accept on first or second sight, a skull and a tombstone to mark the passing of the world as we knew it. I didn’t want to give up the hope model; I didn’t want to look around me with clear eyes. I should make myself look again at this art when I see the band perform in Los Angeles on June 23. I don’t have to buy it. I can just look.
Ohhh, now I am imagining an entire tarot deck drawn by this band, a post-prophetic deck for a loving, post-apocalyptic, queer, antipatriarchal world.
Not all of the band’s merchandise is available at this Hello Merch link — perhaps later — but you can order the lyric book for all the songs before Deus Ex Machina.
They closed the show with a cover of David Bowie’s “I’m Afraid of Americans,” Larson still on drums, Miller on keyboards, Aubin on guitar. Miller’s defenses were gone, his anguish manifesting in explosive twitches as he sang.
Encore. “Very Few Dancers.” No more after that; it was impressive enough that they had the energy even for one encore.
After the show, I was glad to be able to find Rubee and thank him for being a protector. What a thing to do in the world right now. Thank you for the hug, Rubee. Thank you to the artists for coming to my hometown of Philadelphia to sing for us.
They had been in Philadelphia a few weeks earlier, too, actually, to sing and talk politics on the June 1, 2018 episode of Jon Lovett’s touring podcast, Lovett or Leave It. To my astonishment, they appeared alongside Larry Krasner, the beloved Philadelphia district attorney who earned my loyalty forever, in the early 1990s, for defending my dearest friends pro bono when the police beat several members of ACT UP during a peaceful, lawful protest. He donated hours and hours of labor to us, and to so many others — he certainly won Philadelphians’ votes the hard way, one at a time!
I’m still making my way through the Deus Sex Machina lyric book, songs interspersed with collage art. The lyrics to “Unarmed” stun me. I found the song affecting enough when I listened the first few times, but together with the lyrics now, it overwhelms me with its beauty.
Grimoire. That’s what this lyric book feels like to me. I love this material evidence of what it’s like to live a complete artist life, singing and dancing and writing and making images. I want to make quilts again. The girls are old enough now that I can bring out the needles and blades and irons.
I’ll be able to catch the last concert on this tour, the June 23 stop in Los Angeles. I wonder how different the band will look then. Exhausted, no doubt, but also, I hope, accomplished.
I glowed for a full day after the Philadelphia concert. They looked happy, performing. They looked happy.
Here is the output of the quilt block program that my then-boyfriend wrote for me in 1994.
Here’s the quilt I gave him as a wedding gift in 1997.
And a Tree of Life quilt I made for a friend. The Deus Sex Machina cover art reminded me of it because of the similarity to the trunk structure.