Pussy, King of the Pirates
Kathy Acker and the Mekons
at the Museum of Contemporary Art, September 19-21
By Monica Kendrick
In his philosophical-historical study Pirate Utopias, Peter Lamborn Wilson envisions the Barbary corsairs as a sort of radical anarchist collective on the high seas, putting into practice the maxim "Property is theft" and establishing their own laws and societies in uncharted territory. "The pirate," he writes, "was first and foremost the enemy of his own civilization. And once again, 'the enemy of my enemy' just might prove to be my friend."
The pirate can be a powerful metaphor for anyone who's ever felt, however fleetingly, enmity toward his or her own civilization. In children's tales the pirate is often a figure of fear but also of thrilling possibility, of high adventure, combining the romance of the closely bonded outlaw gang with the romance of the ocean. It's an image of semiacceptable, depoliticized rebellion--imagine a sports team called the Haymarket Rioters or a fast-food chain adopting Black Panther symbols for its advertising. Some of piracy's teeth have been removed by the impracticality of rape and pillage on most of the world's waters these days.
Moreover, the popular cartoon of the pirate doesn't usually acknowledge the circumstances that drove sailors--already a distrusted working-class caste--into outlawhood. It's part of Kathy Acker's triumph in the 1995 novel Pussy, King of the Pirates to revive the desperate real-life situation of historical pirates: the girls who cast their lot with a pubful of degenerate female pirates are homeless outcasts with nothing to lose--they're prostitutes and thieves who never had any chance at redemption besides what they made for themselves. The choices they make are not what social workers would advise--and that's exactly the point. People in dire straits often choose an apocalyptic form of liberation; when the abused, overworked prostitute Jenny dreams of rescue in Bertolt Brecht's Threepenny Opera, it's in the form of a ship of pirates who kill all her tormentors at her command, then take her away to the relative purity of the ocean.
In 1996 the Mekons--a musical collective that emerged 20 years ago from the British punk scene as leftist satirists of leftists--recorded a collaborative album with Acker based on her novel. It's essentially an old-style rock opera more comparable to the Kinks' bawdy, uneven saga of class struggle Preservation, Acts 1 and 2 than to, say, Tommy; it also reminded me somehow of the Disney song-and-story records I loved as a child. That's what gives this violent, sexually graphic postmodern black comedy a good part of its power--it invokes childhood and children's stories. The whole tale is essentially a Treasure Island for girls who've grown bitter and potty-mouthed yet retain their sense of humor. The recording is a fairly flat documentation of songs and story, however; without the visual element of performance, particularly given Acker's reputation as fire-breathing literary shit kicker, we're not sure how much irony to read into the recorded Pussy, King of the Pirates. When Mekons vocalist Sally Timms intones lines like "Sheets as full as well-sucked tits / Pirate girls'll sail 'em" in her velvety British croon, how seriously are we supposed to take her?
The answer revealed revealed last weekend at the Museum of Contemporary Art was: not very. Entering the auditorium, the audience confronted a stage covered with painted flats of water, palm trees, and the Bald Head Pub, complete with shaved-headed girl with eye patch on the sign. The band's instruments were concealed behind a gigantic flat of a ship flying the Jolly Roger, a theme echoed on the drape over Acker's podium. A coffee mug on her little table was labeled "Grog." The Pirates of Penzance blared as the audience seated itself, and a troupe of female dancers sporting eye patches, blackened teeth, and toy swords started miming a drunken lesbian orgy while a deadpan announcer in a paper Long John Silver hat tried to read the MCA's announcements.
Then Acker and the band entered. Tom Greenhalgh was decked out in hideous milkmaid drag, while Jon Langford dressed down in a grass skirt and mop wig, with patterns vaguely evocative of Queequeg's tattoos Magic Markered on his bare chest. He looked especially incongruous when he picked up the Stratocaster. Acker herself appeared delicate in a black slip and platform shoes, but when she perched at her podium and started to read she fell fully into her characters--the naive O or the croaking, bitter Silver, who owns the Bald Head Pub--like a demented librarian at children's story hour. Essentially presenting the album straightforwardly gave Acker room to deliver her readings straight-faced while the grotesquely clowning Mekons provided fun-house comic relief.
The Mekons (whose "Never Been in a Riot" was a direct answer to the Clash's testosterone-fueled "White Riot") are no strangers to the radical potential of burlesque comedy, however. In this show--which has elements of musical theater, song-and-dance revue, and spoken-word performance without quite falling into any genre--their costumes and masks were cartoonish but their playing was full of the passion of the story, with its serious critique of sex and class relations. They listened intently to Acker's recitation of Silver's monologue: "I'll tell you what bein' a landlord does to ya. Work all day, work all night, till nothing's left in the world but work...nothing in this endless lightless reality that could be called life." At this point Timms--who'd already played the roles of deck-swabbing slave, urban rebel waif cursing the "Oxford priests'...fingers up her cunt," and barking dog--took on the role of the passionate lover Ostracism, rolling in the laps of the pirate chorus and leading the drunken sing-along "Ostracism's Song to Pussycat."
The show's hodgepodge of forms was sometimes a disadvantage, however. Only the last part of Acker's picaresque novel was covered--the relatively simple narrative of the girls' arrival in London, their meeting the pirates, and the search for the treasure --and without the character development and rich symbolic background of the first part, some of the nuances of the novel were lost. It's not always obvious what connection the songs had to the dreamlike narrative--though "Into the Strange" was eerie enough to justify any story, including the child's tale of a masturbating bear that followed. But when everything jelled, Pussy, King of the Pirates was brilliant, as when the pirate Antigone (who in the novel escapes her creepy boss Creon by stealing a motorcycle) delivered an "I Will Survive"-style disco song-and-dance number that broke into drag camp when a few of the Mekons pretended to dance, failing enthusiastically.
When the girls finally discovered the buried treasure within their pirate selves, the Mekons played a jaunty Caribbean-style coda. Timms danced with her mop again in a reaffirmation of the opening scenes, and Acker took her bows. The Mekons then announced that they'd play a few songs "for anyone who wants to stay." No one left that I could see.
The atmosphere of this half-hour miniconcert was celebratory. The question was: did it belie the intensity of what had gone before? Those who don't believe in rock 'n' roll as a force for subversion might have read it as a trivialization of the show, but clearly the Mekons (whose first album included a reading of their Virgin Records contract accompanied by giggling) would not. To deny the visceral, history-changing force of popular music--as some leftist scholars do, a view the Mekons have always opposed--is akin to denying the importance of sex in oppression and the importance of pleasure in liberation, as some leftist scholars also do, a denial Acker has always opposed. The utopian/dystopian vision of what a musical group can be is not that far removed from the romantic outlaw bonding of the pirate crew, particularly when a celebrated writer joins the mix and subverts both the elitism of "high" literature and the anti-intellectual, fake-populist pretensions of rock 'n' roll.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Kathy Acker/ two stage stills - uncredited.