After a sunset picnic in the Botanic Gardens, our culture vulture round-robin concluded last night with Antony and the Johnsons at the Sydney Opera House. A lot was riding on the enormous gothic witch with the voice of an angel; after our Sydney Festival hiccups, Llew and I were both feeling a little wary of entering an enclosed space with a stage. My nerves were on edge: this one was my idea.
“That’ll be three strikes if this one sucks,” Llew pointed out. “You’ll be all out of chances.”
“Excuse me? Al Green was yours, buddy. You can’t pin that on me.”
“That’s true,” Llew conceded. Very, very reluctantly. “But still. You’re on the skids, kid.”
“Just you wait. Antony’s going to be awesome.”
When we sat down, there was a campy man behind us busily telling his friends, manicured hands flapping, that the last time he’d been to the Opera House it was to see Patti Smith.
“Patti Smith!” he exclaimed, giggling to himself. “And it was really so very unusual, seeing an artist like Patti Smith in such a completely bourgeois setting.”
I groaned inwardly. Who even uses a word like ‘bourgeois’ these days except those who are themselves utterly bourgeois? I truly think it a great irony, and ardently wish the Pretension Police were better armed and able to take these fuckers down.
“I first saw Antony at Lou Reed’s Berlin concert at the Sydney Festival two years ago,” he continued, and I thought, ‘Ditto, and I’m sure glad you weren’t sitting behind me then.’ “Antony’s voice is amazing, and Lou Reed’s voice is terrible, but I’ve still always really liked Lou Reed, and blah blah blah blah…”
The lights went down. He kept prattling until I shifted in my seat and fixed him with a stare that burns holes in walls. In such situations, I also have eyes in the back of my head, and so I knew he made faces and hand gestures to the stifled hilarity of his friends the moment I turned back around, but it seemed a small price to pay for the blessed quiet. Only, I didn’t know I was going to get a whole lot more quiet than I bargained for.
You see, what followed the dimming of the lights was a punishing half hour as the support act achieved nothing so much as the most complete and bemused – even baffled – silence I’ve probably ever heard in any sold-out concert hall anywhere. On the darkened stage, a lithe dancer preened and posed and jutted her masked head about while she fought a losing battle with layer upon layer of gauze. To the left of the stage stood a… a…DJ? I guess he was a DJ… certainly he wasn’t producing the creepy sounds accompanying the “performance,” and didn’t even seem to be mixing them. Llew leaned across at one point and whispered, “He presses the best PLAY button I’ve ever seen…,” at which point it was my turn to stuff a fist into my mouth to stop from laughing.
Actually what I most wanted to do was scream, so imagine my surprise at the interval when my buddy in the back announced, “That just really made me want to scream.” Turns out we had a lot in common, so I swivelled around in my seat and said, “Me too.”
“Oh good,” he beamed. “I wish I had gone first and then you could have followed me.”
Look, I am no enemy of the avant-garde, I have seen some pretty peculiar stuff in my time, including an art installation in New York involving a store dummy – with unzipped jeans and Y fronts bunched around its plastic arse cheeks – rigged up so as to mechanically root, as it were, a hole in the synthetic “ground” in the centre of the gallery. Up down, up down he pumped, for no discernible reason, while the celebrated artist behind this spectacle milled around growing more famous and expensive with each passing second on the cock – I mean, clock. In other words, I’ll give anything a crack (pun intended). But come on – half an hour of this swanning around to techno graveyard music, stepping over a crumpled sheet and back again? Slipping out of the gauze and showing a bit of leg? Leaving the stage only to – please god no – inexplicably return to it? What did it all mean? You know those movies, when everyone gets gassed in the subway before the bad guys take over the train, and you see extras dropping like flies as they fall into a deep sleep? I don’t actually know if there is such a movie, but I bet you still know what I mean. Anyway, that’s what it was like in the Opera House watching that support act, like I was the only person (well, aside from my fellow screamer, of course) fitted with a mask while everyone around me fell. Including Llew, who blinked happily when the lights went up and said, “I think I fell asleep.”
The charitable me will say it conjured images of metamorphosis, death and decay making way for new life. Is that what William Basinski and Johanna Constantine intended? I. Have. No. Idea.
Anyway, the main event was Antony, and he was sublime. Not only does his otherworldly voice make my eyes sting and my heart sing, he’s just an entirely winning sort of soul, a pleasure to listen to in all respects, not just musically. He’s a walking whimsy, Antony, and as jaded as I was feeling by the time he took to the stage, I finished the night feeling soothed and as though returned from some astral journey. He had a 50-piece orchestra backing him up, and though I wonder he didn’t make more use of them, when they came together in perfect harmony you could feel every spirit in the place lift. One of the popular questions in lifestyle magazines, in those sections called things like ‘5 minutes with…’ or ‘Ten things about..,’ featuring some personality or other, is ‘What would your last meal be?’ Well, consider the music you would like to accompany such a meal… for my own part, I realise writing this that I wouldn’t hesitate to choose his.