I’ve been a huge fan of Stick and Stones, and, by extension, World / Inferno Friendship Society for years, so I was naturally thrilled and confused that they would stage their new concept album, Addicted to Bad Ideas, as a part of their residence at Montclair State’s Peak Performances series. W/IFS is known for their all-too rare true punk following (with their own Baroque, carnivalesque twists), proven by a conversation I overheard before the performance: “Dude, it’s a really nice theatre; there’s no shit to break in there!”
Oh man, was I excited to see what happened.
The result was one of the more bizarre clashes in what we academics like to call “audience reception theory” that I’ve come across. The new album is a tribute to the volatile life of Peter Lorre, the actor and director who has, since the end of his career, has become more a parody of himself than a credit to his stellar turns in Lang’s M, Casablanca, and as the first Bond villain. It’s no surprise that Lorre is the subject for W/IFS: their album Just the Best Party (2002) included a track titled “Peter Lorre,” and the disturbing, absurd grotesque has been a lure for most hardcore punk, from the Stooges to the Cramps to the Circle Jerks, even to more recent bands like the Offspring and Green Day in their heydays. Lorre, a character actor who was always resentful of his typecast persona (“I don’t want to go down in history as a monster,” he once rued). Sadly, the end of his career with the likes of Vincent Prince, Bela Lugosi, and Boris Karloff overshadowed his work with Brecht, Lang, psychodrama father Jacob Moreno, and Hitchcock. The “negative superman” becomes a beautiful object of inquiry for Jack Terricloth and company.
Terricloth, like many punk frontmen, certainly belongs to the Weimar era, with his slicked back hair and Spandau Ballet digs, he has the look of a lanky, more defined Lorre, and plays the part well in “Bad Ideas.” Between songs, Terricloth performs a number of “Mystery in the Air” radio plays in his best huffing, Hungarian-affected voice.
And the piece is successful in two very conflicted, distinct forums: the first is what most were there to see and feel: the music and the mosh pit. And kudos to the people at the Kasser Theatre for removing the first few rows of seats to allow this. If it had remained a stuffy, “this is theatre, people!” aesthetic, the natives would have been restless. And the kids were alright: rushing each other, stage diving, and general young but stupid horse play. Never have I been to a performance in which security detail waits in the aisles, just in case. Awesome. And they quickly establish it as a punk force to be reckoned with. As a old-time waltz plays in the background, we begin to see band members backlit behind the scrim, twirling and mingling, which gives way to grafitti-ing words like "Riot," "Murder," "Steal," and "Make Out." Are these calls to the kids, though, or themes in Lorre's life? Either way, the band quickly tears through and comes out swinging with the opening, "With a Good Criminal Heart."
The other success is in the production concept. The band and director Jay Scheib pull off a phenomenal job of staging the album, towing the line between the reverence to the music, and well placed additions of fantasies, radio plays, and video installation. (My particular favorite is Lorre’s imagined encounter between Lang and Nazi Minister of Propoganda Josef Goebbels.) Scheib’s video work mixes live feeds of the band with film of Lorre and music video-esque footage of the band, continuing the subtle supplement to larger project.
But where do these two aesthetics intersect? Far be it from me to take the snobbish route, shake my fists, and yell “You damn kids don’t appreciate the fine performance work at hand!” But when I hear the fifteen year-old with horrible B.O. in front of me before the performance, commenting on the projection of M, “What the hell is this? This is the gayest movie I’ve ever seen! It’s in black and white and backwards!” I have to cringe a bit. When the interludes were too quiet, many ran to the bathroom or outside for a smoke.
But, above all, the band enjoyed the aesthetic battle. Of course. After Terricloth is asked to put away the bottle of wine which he constantly returns to for a big swig or two, he mocks the university for not allowing the band to smoke or drink anywhere: it’s a “Bad Idea.” As the security rushes to push potential stage divers off the stage, Terricloth grins widely and gestures to let it happen. Ultimately, the question is “Who cares?” Neither aesthetic threatens the other. Who knows?: maybe that smelly kid will go home and rent M in all its glorious shades of gray.