When J. Tillman walked offstage at the end of Father John Misty’s May 15 set in Carrboro, NC, I let myself float in a near-weightless state. What cliché can I use to describe the feeling? The mind was reeling, the body vibrating. I wanted to look in everyone’s eyes when the house lights came on to see if they’d absorbed the same impact. Was I going over the emotional deep end alone (which would not be unusual)? Or would we be forming an impromptu cult and pounding on the sides of his tour bus until he stepped through the doors and spared us a prophecy?
This is what the good drugs must be like, I thought. The combination of melody, energy, and rage I’d just witnessed had manifested into something bigger than the sum of its parts, and I knew I’d seen authentic art—the kind that welcomed me to watch the explosion, but didn’t care if the scattered firework remnants singed my brow—or impaled themselves in my gut—on their way back to earth. You will be affected, was the promise, and beyond that, good luck.
I paid $15 for the ticket, and would’ve paid $100 if I’d known what was coming. So it surprised my friend and I when we ran across a pair of familiar girls near the exit, and they were furious. I’m talking mouths twisted, eyes burning, bile-fueled outrage. In the afterglow, I couldn’t reconcile it. They spoke of Tillman’s disrespect, his arrogance, and of possibly demanding their $15 back on the way out the door. He reminded one of the girls of an ex-boyfriend who had been dismissive and rude and made her feel stupid for falling in love. The other just wasn’t down with being mocked, and ultimately screamed at, by someone she had paid to perform a collection of songs.
More people gathered and joined the debate. The sample size grew. But no median was discovered—just more like us, in rapture or fury, loving or hating the act we’d just seen on stage. In order not to get mad at each other on a very visceral level, we intellectualized. We took the discussion to the realm of the brain, trying to talk our way around it, and forgot that the still-smoking pyrotechnics were lodged not in our head, but deep in our guts. We made no progress. Three weeks later, I’m still thinking about it.
Father John Misty is a name invented by J. Tillman, aka Joshua Tillman, who used to play drums for the Fleet Foxes and broke away to release the best album of 2012, Fear Fun. That last clause is an opinion, of course (the corporate bigwigs here at Paste nearly agreed;), and I should admit I’m a simple person with very specific tastes. Strong melody, lyrics that are interesting in some way, and a compelling personality are the only basic requirements. The standards are high, but not complex. It’s not necessary to make me laugh—before Tillman, I can’t think of anyone besides Morrissey and Stuart Murdoch who seemed really funny in their music—but if you can pull it off, along with those other elements, you’ve got me. I will love your songs, I will go to your concerts, and I will tell my friends about you. I will send the YouTube link of a favorite song to my mother, just for the hell of it.
Tillman’s album is spectacular, and it’s hilarious. He captures some kind of picaresque narrative force that reminds me of reading Hunter S. Thompson or watching one of those free-floating ’70s films like Five Easy Pieces set in the last days of a wild America last seen buried beneath a fast-food franchise. Or, if you want to get fancy, he’s a faltering adventurer who gets tossed around by fate like Voltaire’s Candide. The humor is situational and deadpan—it kind of has to be, in music, unless you’re Allan Sherman—and on first listen it disappears into the melody. The exceptions are the gateway drugs that lead you to discover the rest. For example, there’s no missing the opening lines to "I’m Writing a Novel":
I ran down the road, pants down to my knees
Screaming "please come help me,
that Canadian shaman gave a little too much to me!"
You hear that, and you start exploring, and suddenly you come across verses like the following, from "TeePees 1-12":
Well, you took me to your office
We went to meet your folks
We went out to the garden shed
Where I took off all my clothes
And I was terrified by the look in your eyes
But there’s a lot to loving I don’t know
Fear Fun was actually Tillman’s eighth solo album, but his first under the name Father John Misty, which he described to Vine Magazine; as a "ridiculous red herring [and] admittedly patently ridiculous name that’s also phonetically beautifully and looks good in print. Sort of a name I’ve decided to give to this weird, subconscious, dream fragmentation I have of this homosexual, shamanic drifter who bounces around [and] stirs up weird shit in my dreams. Like making out with my brother." The lyrics to this latest release are absurd, political, sexual and rebellious, but you probably already know that. And if you don’t, the information is out there to be discovered. I want to talk about Tillman the performer.
I learned long ago that it’s a waste of time to enter a live show with any expectations; the music on your iPod tells you nothing about what the performance will be. Who could guess, from his genius, stream-of-conscious songwriting, that Alec Ounsworth would be an asshole who wouldn’t deign to address the audience or open his mouth wide enough for actual English syllables to emerge? Who would guess that someone as earnest as James Mercer, early in his career, would be too shy to stand at center stage? Who would guess that Murdoch, once reclusive on stage, would become someone who danced with a kind of exuberant joy for entire sets? And these are just moments in time. One concert is different from the next, people evolve, shows change.
Still, it surprised me when Tillman marched out in front of a rainbow backdrop and spent the next two hours dancing and posing and strutting like a rock idol. He doesn’t necessarily seem the type. He’s good-looking; skinny, with a thin beard and long hair, like a younger Wayne Coyne. He could easily stand quietly behind a microphone and let the waves of love pour in, or he could give off a faint waggish aura with a slick grin or two and revel in the swoons. Instead, he casts aside all reservation and turns the dial up to a level reserved for true divas.
The trait that pegs him as someone different—a person unlikely to fit into a comfortable indie rock mold—are the eyes. We need an adjective for these kind of eyes, which initially look sort of dead and expressionless, but are actually resisting expression as a sort of semi-angry, semi-ironic, semi-playful challenge. Think of Zach Galifianakis, and you’ll get the idea. There’s something there that refuses to confess the feelings beneath, and it keeps you off guard. They also draw you in, because you want to understand and be part of the joke, and avoid their implied mockery. You see the eyes, you become curious, and you sense that the evening will not be normal.
It’s hard to stay away from the word ‘irony’ when dealing with Tillman. From the first song to the bitter end at the Cat’s Cradle, he danced in a manner that everyone compares to Mick Jagger. He sways his hips, he wags his finger, he bats his eyes. He adopts exaggerated facial expressions and feminine poses, as when he pouts and juts his ass to the side. He has one move where he leans back and grabs his hair with a look of anguish. Through it all, he bathes in the spotlight while the rest of his band toils in the darkness behind.
Fans of indie music aren’t used to this—as Tillman said in an interview, "typically people want boring dudes who play nice music and there’s no threat of mis-authenticity"—and the reflex reaction is to call it ironic. And maybe there’s something to that label, but I have to tell you, it’s emphatically not what I came away with. To me, this was a person rejecting the slouched postures and retreating habits of your typical front man, and literally taking the stage. He wrote the songs, he earned the spotlight and he is going to fucking perform.
And maybe that’s what I found so invigorating, this recognition that performance is a different act than songwriting, and that it should be given its own fair reckoning. The songs were as perfect and funny and melodic as they were on the album, but unlike scores of shows we’ve all been to, this was a markedly different experience from listening at home. And that makes people uncomfortable, because we exist in a time where ebullience in most forms—but especially on stage—is something to be smirked at. We’re conditioned to laugh at someone like Tillman for his exaggerated maneuvers, but the problem that night was that they were bold and energizing and inspiring, and people were affected in a way that broke through the cynicism. So, again, it has to be intellectualized. If we’re not laughing, Tillman must be. Hence irony.
But I can’t deny that there was an ulterior motive at play; this wasn’t just a fun-loving dude who loved the spotlight and wanted to dance and sing. It makes sense that people define this extra something as ironic, but they’ve missed the mark: It’s subversive.
Why subversive? Because the moment someone came up with a name to classify the kind of music that exists outside the mainstream, it became its own system. Whatever Tillman sings—indie, freak folk, alternative country—has been given a name, and more importantly, it’s been given a scene. And nobody hates to be satirized, or to have their hypocrisies exposed, more than people who believe themselves to be outside of the mainstream. (And let’s be honest—everyone, from Evangelical Christians to hippies to Reaganite conservatives, considers themselves outside the mainstream.) In Carrboro, North Carolina, there is a community of liberal Southerners and displaced Northerners who consider themselves enlightened in ways big and small. They’re probably right, at least a little, but the fact remains that we want to see ourselves a certain way. That’s our edifice. And Tillman came to town like a tornado.
It’s in the dancing, and it’s in the eyes, but more than anything it’s in the banter. Once I realized his interaction with us would be so confrontational and raw, I tried to write it all down. The highlights:
• He introduced himself by stepping to the mic and yelling, "What’s up, you crazy nuts!" Already, you see, a commentary on the stereotype of the rabid rock crowd. Already, we’re a little off balance. "I always have the best-looking audiences," he continued. "And I’m a total slut."
• "If there was nobody here tonight," he said early on, "that would be a really high-concept show. Like Live at Pompeii. Except instead of Pink Floyd, it would just be me crying. Which would still be entertaining, because whenever I cry, I wet my pants." If he had stopped at "crying," it would’ve been a joke the majority of the audience could’ve laughed at, even if they didn’t get the reference. But by taking into a weirder realm—again, shades of Galifianakis—he pulled the lever and sent 90 percent down a trap door.
• When someone yelled "Free Bird," he introduced what he called his "latent homosexuality theory." "Your desire expresses itself as a cliché," he said in the audience member’s general direction. "It’s re-directed into a culturally sanctioned piece of verbiage." Translate that, and you realize it’s just a sophisticated way to call a dude gay and get away with it.
• During a Q&A he initiated as an act of frustration against the audience—and for the record, the audience was idiotic at times, but not more so than any other show I’ve been to—he was asked what animal he would pick to shrink down to cat size and have as a pet. He said he’d choose a beetle, and have it enlarged. "Have you ever been gravedigging?" another asked. "No," he said, "some songs aren’t actually as literal as you think. They can be a poetic form of expression that lends beauty to truth." Would he go to the prom with a girl in the audience? "Sure, I’ll never be held accountable for that. So yes. A thousand times yes." What was the most satisfying part of his job? "When I go to the indie music bank on Fridays and pick up my gold bricks." Can you sense the sneer?
• When someone requested "Happy Birthday" for a friend, he obliged in the most sardonic way possible. "I’m here to amuse you," he said. When he finished, he said that his market research showed the audience was quietest during that song, and it should probably be his opener.
• In subtle and overt ways, he picked on the South. He told a story about asking for directions at a gas station, and getting the feeling from the Southern attendant that he was about to end up in the basement in a ball-and-gag restraint. There was exactly one time in the entire show when an audience member earned his respect, and it happened when someone got sick of his South-bashing. "We luhhvvvv ya down hare, Fathah Jahhhn!" yelled a fan, using his best Southern stereotype, a very nuanced way, at least in my opinion, of telling him to fuck off. "You’re like a character on the back of a mudflap," Tillman replied. "I want to take off your miner’s hat and rub your belly." He even laughed.
• This was the big one: Early on, a girl yelled for him to take off his shirt. It picked up steam, and a chant began. This was the beginning of his negative dynamic with the audience, which ranged from disdain to outright rage. When the chant died, he said, "I might take something off, but it won’t be my dignity." The adversarial relationship continued through the last song of the set, when, during the loud denouement to "Hollywood Cemetery Forever Sings," the lights flashed and he began cursing out the audience. This was an extended and intense rant with lots of "fuck yous" and barely intelligible screaming. It went well with the music, I thought. When he finished, he leaned into the mic, said, "smooches," and left.
So what do we make of this? A hidden motive of most indie musicians is to make the audience feel cool. It’s artificial, but it’s part of the transaction. Tillman rejected that, and used his sharpest knife to slash at our pretensions. It seems obvious now; of course some people would hate it. He’s burning the altar on which our identities are built, the bastard!
Rehashing these memories, it occurs to me that I’m painting a portrait of Tillman as an asshole. And that may be true, to whatever standard you hold. I’m succeeding less at describing how magnetic he was; how this outpouring of rage and subversion and, yes, great music, felt like a revelation. How it was incredibly masculine and confrontational, though his movements and body language could be called effeminate. How he was overtly sexual—no surprise, since his lyrics are full of sado-masochistic imagery—though you got the sense he thought too little of the audience to actually consummate anything. How he seemed to care so little for anyone watching him, but how he apologized at the end of the encore, saying, "I do it because I know you can take it; you are people of fortitude and character, and I respect you." How he was tremendously arrogant and superior on stage, and yet held absolutely nothing in reserve during the actual songs, spilling every bit of energy from his wiry body into the ether.
You could read the situation a lot of ways. You could say he was a conceited jerk who didn’t understand how lucky he was to be making money performing for people who loved his art. You could say he was a self-loather to such an intense degree that he also loathed anyone who would actually come watch him sing. You could see him as destructive, the kind of person who will burn out and live in bitterness because he’s not conditioned to appreciate his success. You could leave with a sense that you’d just been insulted.
And you might be right. But to me, all of that paled to the electricity of his output. Compared to the performance, it meant nothing.
In Colorado Springs, back in January, Tillman pissed off a fan who writes for a Christian blog; because he mocked evangelical religion and Dr. James Dobson, the founder of Focus on the Family. In the comments section of that piece, a woman from California said that it was the same when he visited Santa Cruz, except this time he mocked the hippie culture (she vowed not to listen to his album anymore). A Denver fan chimed in that he mocked just about everyone in the audience when he visited their town. In Minneapolis, the newspaper reviewer said his humor "turned sour" when he ranted about hamburger joints; on the highway and berated the fans: "Yell something no one has ever yelled at a concert before, and you’ll be my fucking hero!" He kicked off a show in Madison by telling the crowd;, "you’re in for the most entertaining evening of your miserable lives." In Ohio, a reviewer chided him; for his "cooler-than-thou aura." In Austin, he was "visibly intoxicated;" and went off on a diatribe about his love for bikini-themed restaurants.
I could go on, at least for another paragraph or two. But the more interesting narrative is the praise he’s received for his live act, the volumes of which are too dense to link or summarize here. For a large segment, the thing that’s captivating about Tillman outweighs that which is objectionable.
What do we call it? I can only speak for myself, but on a day-to-day level, I feel inundated with caution and correctness, even as someone who lives in American comfort without the confines of a miserable job. In Tillman, I felt something wild on stage, something confrontational and alive. It didn’t matter if he was insulting me indirectly. I had no desire to feel liked or appreciated by this stranger; there’s too much of that anyway, and most of it is phony.
What he gave me instead was something honest and inspiring precisely because it was so raw. He let me in on an energy I sorely needed. And everybody surrounding me in the darkness felt it too. However we reacted when the lights came up, in awe or in anger, we knew Tillman had given us an overflowing cup of his own reckless humanity. This was performance art that transcended the music; an act of generosity, gift-wrapped in subversion and defiance.
You will be affected. Beyond that, good luck.