A couple years ago, at a dinner party in the East Village, a friend told me he was looking for a bass player for his band, a Patsy Cline covers outfit with a German lead singer. They were hoping to pull together a line-up for Performa 05, a big performance art biennial that fall. They’d performed once before, several years ago, as The Patsys — playing a medley of songs loosely on the theme of insanity. It would take a couple nights’ rehearsal at most. Was I interested? The dinner party was the sort of dinner party where the host accidentally caught his pants on fire before the end of the night, so as you might imagine, I said sure.

Over the next few days more details rolled in. The show was going to be at the Bowery Ballroom, the closing event for the festival. The organizer had invited several other artsy local acts — David Byrne, Sonic Youth, Björk, Japanther — to be on the bill as well. And my future bandmates had colorful résumés: the guitarist was the painter Robert Longo, whom I’ve since come to describe as the Prom King of the 80s art world. His wife, the singer, was the actress Barbara Sukowa, most famous for her performance in the title role of Fassbinder’s Lola (1981). My friend, Jon Kessler, was a sculptor who chaired Columbia’s fine arts graduate program and had just mounted an enormous multi-media anti-war show at PS 1. We’d be getting together to practice in Robert and Barbara’s basement.

Suddenly the pressure started to rise. I hadn’t played bass since 1989, and even then I’d played string bass in orchestras. My flirtation with electric bass was simply that. I think I’d taken in a single school year in the jazz band and had played a rock set with some fellow jazz banders at the school talent show. The other kids didn’t share my musical taste, but hell, it was a set, and it was rock and roll, sort of, so I went with it: Huey Lewis (ouch), the Georgia Satellites (oof), a rousing rendition of “Wipeout” (oy!). It was just like punk rock, man.

But this — this was going to be the Bowery Ballroom, the best venue downtown. And on a star-studded bill! I asked a friend who’d played bass in a couple bands to judge the viability of the instrument I’d bought from my brother-in-law, which had sat in the closet for years. It was smallish, white. My friend shook his head and offered to let me borrow one of his. “Teach your girls to play on that one,” he said, turning away. When it came time to rehearse the band asked me to bring my own amp, so I headed up to Guitar Center and forked over a small chunk of change. You’re only young once.

And oh was it worth it — even all the trips out to single-family-house residential Brooklyn, occasionally with my kids in tow. Barbara and Robert’s house was an ideal creative space: a full music room in the basement, the kids upstairs supposedly doing their homework. There was something inspiring about a group of adults, none of whom performed music for a living, just getting a kooky idea and deciding to run with it. (I’m pretty sure that’s how Johnny Mnemonic came to be.) We spent several evenings plugging away at the medley they’d performed in their prior incarnation. Of course it included “Crazy” and took the title literally. The other songs I’d not really thought of as being about insanity either, but they sure worked that way: “Strange,” “I Got Your Picture,” a frenetic “Walking after Midnight,” and “Fall to Pieces,” only the first line, repeated over and over as the band moved toward top volume in something like a Hitler Youth march. Toward the end of rehearsal nights one of their sons would yell down the stairwell: “Is this about over or is it one of those things that might go on all night?”

The only downside to our performance, aside from the fact that most of the big-name acts who had been invited didn’t actually perform, was how fast it was over: sitting back stage in the green room until Cindy Sherman introduced us; coming out in the black cowboy hats Robert had bought us; tuning quickly, then ripping through the 20-minute medley. We had a false start when someone’s instrument wasn’t in the mix. Everyone was a little nervous. But overall I think we pulled it off. (TGW’s editor, who saw the show, wanted to start a label simply to release a Patsys record.) I hit my notes on the Lou Reed slide that made the transition into “Fall to Pieces,” so I was happy, anyway. We played one encore — not a Patsy Cline song, but close enough in effect: “Ring of Fire,” interlaced with a German children’s song. From the back of the stage I tipped my cowboy hat and smiled.

Last night I saw the band — now called the X-Patsys — headline their own show at Highline Ballroom, again part of the Performa festival. They played for over an hour, ranging beyond the Patsy Cline covers to come up with an evening of Weimar cabaret interlaced with Schumann, Shakespeare, fifteenth-century folk songs, and pop music, from Tom Waits to Rogers and Hart. From insanity, the theme had broadened as well: “Devouring Time,” the name of the show, “attempt[ed] to deal with the simple yet daunting subjects of death, love, night, loss and aging.” Perhaps these were the things that had driven Patsy’s narrators mad. I sure know they’ve done their work on me.

I didn’t play this time. Last summer Barbara and Robert were invited to participate in the Ruhr Triennale, in an abandoned industrial town tucked away in an idyllic German valley. This time David Byrne really was on the program — he’d be playing a week or so before the Patsys — but they had to come up with enough material for a whole night on their own. I rehearsed once or twice on some of the new songs, but I was heading to LA for the summer. Originally we thought I’d come back in the fall and learn the new set; Robert called a couple times while I was sitting in the Huntington Library’s parking lot and gave me notations on the Schumann and on a Joy Division song they were learning. But in the end they decided they needed to bring in some professional musicians, including a music director who’d play keyboards, a new drummer, and a bassist. My rock star days were over.

And I’m fine with that. It allowed me, for one thing, to sit in the audience at the Highline and take in an exquisite show. The band sounded great. Barbara, the consummate actress, was in top Lotte Lenya form, and the more the crowd gave her more the more she sailed toward the top. The Joy Division encore was a treat, but the real highlight was still the Patsy Cline. When Barbara started to fall to pieces, her audience went right along with her. The band followed the medley with one final number, Purcell’s “Laid in Earth.” It’s the circle of life, baby. One of these days we’re all gonna die. In the meantime, sing. Make things. Fiddle with your friends in the basement until the kids call down for their dinner.

barbara confronts the grim reaper

17 responses to “Ex-Patsy”

  1. LT says:

    you know, i can’t figure out why there aren’t any comments up here yet (on this “fantastic post!”). maybe it’s because, like me, everyone’s been too busy doing their respective thing– but today there’s a patsy cline tune in our heads.

    you’re even more famous than i thought you were, BW. bowerey ballroom? black cowboy hats?


  2. Scotty says:

    You were wearing black cowboy hats and blue underpants, right?

  3. Beth W says:

    And then Cindy Sherman introduced us! Sounds like a great experience for participants and observers.

  4. Demosthenes says:

    I remember Aunt Steff telling me about this. She didn’t tell me you played with those bands. Which ones actually showed up?

  5. Jeremy says:

    Oh that I could’ve been at that original Bowery show! (Also: Do you feel a little like Pete Best?)

  6. Ruben Mancillas says:

    what i found interesting here is how this post relates to the questions of identity and self fashioning, deliberate or otherwise, from the comments of “a home for flip-floppers.”

  7. Dave says:

    We still need to figure out how to get an Ex-Patsys album released.

  8. cynthia says:


  9. Marleyfan says:

    Sounds like that was really cool- something I’ve always wanted to do.

    Do tell, how did the host of the dinner light his pants on fire…?

  10. autumn says:

    such a great post to start off the week.
    I’m glad you got to participate from both sides. such a thrill.

  11. Hey guys. I was tied up all day and so I didn’t even notice that the morning was slow. Thanks, LT, for nudging people out of their winter slumber. Alas, there was no fame involved in this one. I think I was listed on the program as a “writer” though, along with the artists and actress, and you know that made me happy.

    – Scotty, I’ll have to rush out to American Apparel and pick up a pair of baby blues for the next time I need to wear that hat and play the bass.

    – Beth, yes it was fun. But rehearsing was more fun than actually performing, I think. It was fun to do something creative that had nothing to do with work. The folks I played with were cool. And it was just plain nice to play music again. I really want to figure out how to get into the community orchestra at school. That would fill a big hole I’ve had for almost two decades.

    – unfortunately, nephew demosthenes, the only band from that short list to show was japanther — although there’s nothing wrong with japanther. they do some cool stuff. plus the lineup did include some artist/musician types like Christian Marclay and another kind of cool band, Maxi Geil and Playcolt. For the first few weeks we rehearsed we really thought all those other bands were going to be on the bill, though. I think they were using their names to try to recruit more acts.

    – JZ, you really should have seen last night. It was vastly superior. It was a pretty freaking amazing show, actually. My few sentences don’t begin to do it justice. I hope something shows up on YouTube.

    – ruben, please elaborate on the connections you’re intuiting.

    – dave, the guy who did the sound for the 05 show was there last night. did you see him? when we met him at that sound gallery thing we went to he said he’d been trying to get the patsys to record with him.

    – cynthia, which part of ruben’s comment do you agree with and why?

    – marley, i think he stood too close to a candle. the kids noticed the flames before he did.

    – autumn, thanks for such nice words. i love to see comments from you here. more often!

  12. Rogan says:

    The next time you are in L.A. seeing amazing bands, please drop me a line.

  13. cynthia says:

    Bryan, on how he found the post interesting to identity and self fashionng becsuse you see a lot of different layers going on here and I found that very interesting.

  14. hey rogan. nice to see you here. yes — i’ll call next time in LA. last time was a bit of a whirlwind, what with all these TGW freaks we have out there. delurk yourself or drop in more often!

    cynthia — i guess i still need ruben to explain a little more about what he was getting at.

  15. Be a Good Daughter says:

    Hi this article is funny.
    I will definitely read your diary..

  16. julie the ping pong queen says:

    i read this and all i could think was…he is brave … man, he is so brave.
    here’s to fearless ventures.
    i wish i wasn’t so stage frighty cuz maybe i could have torn up this world!!
    (though i don’t fear doing a dance performance at an underground record club.)
    i just have to say you are cool.
    supercool! (read with a french accent)

  17. […] seen better, more interesting rock performances, in general, this year, like this one. But I was thinking at that one. And at this one, too. (Oh look! Another great track from Rise […]