Why I requested and performed Grinderman’s “No Pussy Blues” at Karaoke Underground

Nick Cave (seated far left), with his fellow Grindermen; image courtesy of pitchfork.com

Last night, I fulfilled a small dream of mine three years in the making. I performed Grinderman’s “No Pussy Blues” in public. For those unfamiliar with the second single off the debut album of the Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds side project, listen in. If you like what you hear, maybe you’ll be compelled to check out Grinderman 2, which comes out in the states on September 14th and boasts a sweet cover.

Um, so some middle-aged dude has a tantrum about blues balls because some twentysomething won’t sleep with him? Zzzz. Whatever, Alyx.

This is a fair point, and something I instantly recognized when I first heard the song. However, I always have difficulty reconciling the song’s sentiment with Martyn Casey’s ominous bass riff. By the time Jim Sclavunos hammers triplets against Cave’s attempts to woo his muse by reading her Eliot and Yeats, I always face an impossible decision. Don’t call it a surrender, because it’s always plays out like a tussle.

I’m quite aware of Cave’s flagrant macho posturing in “No Pussy Blues,” as well as the singer’s entitled frustrations that his attempts to pose as a chivalrous romantic go unrewarded and get him further away from what he’s really after. I’m also onto how these ovations reveal chivalry’s dependencies on sexism. I think Cave is too. Now, I don’t think he’s raising a solidarity fist toward post-structuralist feminists with “No Pussy Blues.” But I do think the Australian post-punk loverman’s performance of aging impotent masculinity and the use of deception in sexual conquest is at once unsympathetic and hilarious. This is evident in Cave’s theatrical vocal delivery. You can also hear it in his messy spurts of feedback, simultaneously a manifestation of his unsatisfied desire as well as an indication that the guitarist lacks virtuosity toward his axe. How deliciously shameful to lose hold of the phallus twice.

I may get some detractors for this comment, but I think of Cave’s performance as camp in ways that recall Al Pacino’s performance in The Devil’s Advocate and Tom Cruise’s turn as misogynistic motivational speaker Frank T.J. Mackey in Magnolia. Much can be read into Cave’s appearance, particularly the tailored suits, his unfortunate haircut, and that ridiculous handlebar mustache, which perhaps rivals the goatee as the most performative and fetishized formation of facial hair, at least in drag king culture (note: Cave isn’t sporting it in recent promotional photos or in the music video for “Heathen Child,” but it so defines “No Pussy Blues” for me. Also, it might make recurring appearances like the mustache Kevin Kline sports for comedies). Cave’s always been interested in exploring heterosexual masculinity’s preoccupation with menace. These are interests he shares with primary influence Iggy Pop and their shared mentor Jim Morrison, the comparisons for which I’m swiping from Simon Reynolds. I also sense commonalities between Cave’s and Bill Callahan’s displays of old-style romantic chauvinism. But Cave’s arch seriousness and severe dandyism seem to mock these impulses as well.

Tom Cruise as Frank T.J. Mackey; image courtesy of seattleweekly.com

But this argument has only so much traction. So I thought the best thing for me to do — apart from the times I’ve sung it to myself — would be to request the song and then perform it before a crowd. Hence where Karaoke Underground comes in.

First, a brief explanation of what Karaoke Underground means to me. Every first Saturday and third Thursday of each month, my friends Hannah and Kaleb host the event. During their Saturday shows at the Nomad, my neighborhood bar, my partner’s amplification equipment is up on stage. Friends are usually present. It’s a good time. I go every first Saturday, except next month. But if Hannah and Kaleb weren’t fortunate enough to have their services requested for Matador’s 21st anniversary celebration in Las Vegas the first weekend in October, I’d grab as many fellow Flow Conference panelists as would accompany me.

As a singer and music geek who’s never been in a band, selections from their catalog allow me to try out some of my favorite songs before a cluster of friends, some regulars, and a lot of strangers. I understand if singing college radio playlist fodder isn’t your thing, but it’s pretty exhilarating to me. It’s also a challenge at times. Some songs, like Bonnie “Prince” Billy’s shattering “I See a Darkness,” don’t lend themselves easily to karaoke performance. Others, like Dirty Projectors’ “Stillness Is a Move,” are deceptively simple. Occasionally, crowds are unimpressed and in a few instances I’ve had to guage what some of the men sitting close to the stage were responding to in my performance. Many of the songs in the KU catalogue are sung by dudes and thus require me to negotiate my register, which of course makes me think on how I demonstrate my gender. I request and perform a lot of songs by female artists, but I always like playing around with the guys’ songs too because of the difficulties and tensions they pose.

So “No Pussy Blues” seemed like a song I had to perform. And I had a great time doing it. I regret that it didn’t allow me to transcend gender or sex categories, even as I kept the pronouns pure. I originally anticipated that this song could be an interesting piece for a drag king’s repertoire, but felt personally limited to cisgender feminine modes of expression in my performance. I think I could potentially touch on, say, what Patti Smith gets at it when she performs “Gloria.” I haven’t yet. But I know I have enough estrogen and testosterone within me to obliterate heterosexual masculine camp, with or without a handlebar moustache.

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