Freebirding The Locust

(Originally published June 1, 2010)

A LITTLE LESS than a week ago, I got a text from Nick: “You requested free bird from the locust?!”

I hadn’t been in touch with Nick for some time, so I had no context for it. It took awhile to register as anything more than a string of words. But I texted back:

“You know it!”

And that was that.

Yet the story behind the text remains unwritten. Whatever Nick heard was but a fragment of a tale, a tale about to be told with much more care than it warrants…

It was my senior year of high school in Darien, Connecticut. Darien is all white picket fences — or the New England fence equivalent, walls of loose stones harvested from dirt — and apple pies on window sills to be pilfered by grubby children after a hard day of hoop-and-stick. The town’s appearance is inspired by Ronald Reagan’s fuzzy memories of the 1950s — an idyllic period that never actually occurred — and every time I go back I see buildings that have been renovated to seem older and quainter. This is all done to mask the truth: everyone in Darien does lots of cocaine.

Growing up, we believed in Darien’s innocence. So I was genuinely shocked to learn that Andrew W.K. – a one-man, non-Jewish version of KISS – would be playing just a few towns over. One night only. Toad’s Place in New Haven.

First, a bit about Andrew W.K.

Andrew W.K. had gotten press some years back for releasing his debut album with the following cover:

Most stores wouldn’t carry it without covering the photo with a black bar from the nose down. The story circulating was that Andrew W.K. smashed his face into a brick wall to get the shot (later, he released an album titled Close Calls With Brick Walls, creating a sort of thematic arc).

With this album cover, it didn’t really matter what the music sounded like – kids were going to buy it anyway – but it was good. Very good.

Andrew W.K. remained remarkably consistent throughout that album, almost all two-and-a-half-minute songs played fast and loud with three guitars and a keyboard and lyrics such as:

So let’s get a party going (let’s get a party going)
Now it’s time to party and we’ll party hard (party hard)
Let’s get a party going (let’s get a party going)
When it’s time to party we will always party hard
Party hard (party hard, party hard, party hard party hard, party hard, party hard party hard, party hard, party hard…)

His second album, The Wolf, added some variety and lyrical sophistication:

I want to have a party
I want to have a party
I want to have a party
I want to have a party
You cannot kill the party
You cannot kill the party
You cannot kill the party
Long Live The Party

What made Andrew W.K. even more compelling were the constantly circulating rumors. His pounded his keyboards with no sense of finesse yet some said he was a classically-trained pianist with savant-like abilities. His lyrics were some of the most idiotic ever written yet some claimed he had been a child prodigy with an off-the-charts IQ. Most baffling of all, W.K.’s stage persona and most of his songs were about partying, having a good time, and keeping a positive outlook, yet there was a stray song on each of his first two albums encouraging the listening to either murder someone or be murdered (at the hands of Andrew W.K.).

“Ready to Die” featured the following lyrics:

Your life is over now,
Your life is running out,
When your time is at an end,
Then it’s time to kill again,
We cut without a knife,
We live in black and white,
You’re just a parasite,
Now close your eyes and say good-night.
You better get ready to die,
You better get ready to kill,
You better get ready to run,
Cause here we come,
You better get ready to die!
Get ready to die!
Get ready to die!

The equivalent entry on his second album was called “Free Jumps.” It was about being wronged by someone and responding by jumping on them repeatedly until they’re dead. It was sandwiched between a song about being yourself and another where Andrew says he’ll be your friend for life.

Everything about him appeared to be a ruse, leading to all kinds of speculation, even when none was warranted. Born Andrew Fetterly Wilkes-Krier, the “W.K.” should be self-explanatory, yet AllMusic.com suggests it’s only the third-best option:

The California-born, Michigan-bred W.K. — the initials stand for everything from “White Killer” to “Women Kum” to “Wilkes-Krier,” the surnames of his mom and dad — began classical piano lessons at age four…

“Women Kum”?

Anyway, back to the subject at hand: there was an Andrew W.K. concert a mere 40 minutes away and we had to be there. When I say “we,” I refer to our following cast of characters (names changed, where noted):

1. Our ringleader. Irish-Catholic in a mostly-Protestant town, he could identify with W.K.’s debaucheries in a very personal way. I’ll call him “Red,” since he’s Irish.
2. A second friend who’s also Irish, and has red hair. I’ll call him “Bill.”
3. Pete. Pete’s hands are enormous. It may sound like I’m pandering to the ladies to write this, but it’s the truth; they’re like baseball mitts of flesh. He blocks out the sun and destroys whole ecosystems just by waving hello.
4. Yours truly.

Red had bought the tickets and the four of us were desperate to go. But as I mentioned, Darien’s a town whose values are lifted wholesale from Leave it to Beaver. How would we get our parents to let us drive all the way to New Haven, on a school night, in my car, to see Andrew W.K.? It seemed impossible.

But it wasn’t. They didn’t care. I think they were just glad we weren’t all coked out like everyone else.

The drive was mostly uneventful, aside from a brief drizzle and the always-under-construction stretch of I-95 by the city of Bridgeport. The car was my family’s 1994 Ford Explorer, the model with the tires that made it flip over if you turned too sharply or hit any bumps.1

We got to Toad’s Place early and caught the first opener. They had a definite Judas Priest vibe going, in that they dressed like bikers and sucked. Part of the problem was their fans, a single forty-something couple who cheered at the start of each song, knew all the words, and head-banged as aggressively as if they were part of a huge crowd and not the only two people within twenty feet of the stage.

Intermission. We checked the merch table. All of Andrew W.K. shirts featured violent and stupid imagery and they were all the wrong sizes.

Then The Locust showed up.

The Locust are a band that dresses in tight, full-body outfits resembling fencing uniforms with full masks. They play fast and jerk around spastically and the light show makes it feel like watching a film with frames missing. They keep a synthesizer at center stage that creates a buzzing noise (…like a locust) just to turn up as loud as they can. In one of their songs, that’s the song.

They’re utterly humorless about all of this — their Wikipedia entry says these elements are a means to reflect “how our brains have to function in order to be able to do anything in the Western socities we live in”– so when they came onstage and said “We are the locust” in an evil, menacing tone, I yelled back “Freebird!”

The lead Locust pointed directly at me and said, “Youuuuuuuu,” like some kind of insect witchcraft. Pete whispered in my ear, a la Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man, “Oh man. Oh Jeez. Definitely, definitely shouldn’t have pissed off The Locust.”

Then a funny thing happened.

Toad’s Place is an all-ages club, but unlike a lot places than slap a wristband on the over-21 crowd and let them mingle, Toad’s puts all the drinkers in the back behind a chain-link fence, giving them the privileged perspective of junkyard dogs. And because the drunks were packed tightly enough and sufficiently uninhibited, they helped finish what I’d started:

“Freebird!” “Freeeeeeebird!” “Freeeeeeeeeeeeeebiiiiiiiiiiiiird!” (And all other combinations thereof.)

A full minute of Freebirding took place before the lead Locust dropped the entire performance art shtick and said, with the tonality of a kid whose hat had been stolen by bullies, “Guys, come on. Stop.”

To their credit, the Locust then played a blistering set that split the audience 30/70 between moshing and covering ears to avoid permanent hearing loss. Those numbers are approximate; some were in neither camp, such as myself. I just stood there and took it. I now use an ear trumpet.

Andrew W.K. followed, and lived up to the hype, constantly pumping his fists and swinging his hair at the crowd. His backing band almost matched his intensity; one guitarist wasn’t even plugged in, freeing him up to jump all over the stage and not worry about tripping over wires.

At one point, someone from the crowd climbed onstage and started dancing. Rather than have him removed, Andrew W.K. invited everyone else up too. Before long there were 30 or 40 people up there. This wasn’t even the end of the show either, it was the middle. Eventually, the people onstage wore themselves out, while Andrew W.K. kept going.

Red used to say Andrew W.K. was a prophet, perhaps the second coming of Christ, for his boundless energy and positive messages (minus “Ready to Die” and that song about jumping on someone to death). We even caught an Andrew W.K. “sermon” during the show, when he took an individually-wrapped toffee candy from his pocket and preached about “tasting the sweet candy of being alive.” Red will tell you he followed that up with “Ready to Die,” but I don’t recall it that way. Andrew W.K. isn’t that dumb, or that smart.

Then the show ended. Right after we’d been blown away.

We ran back to the merch table, no matter the shirts didn’t fit. I ended up with a t-shirt of a wolf, size SMALL. Given that I’m 6’2” and was into bodybuilding in high school, I looked like a WASP from Jersey Shore. Bill got a shirt with a skull and bones, entrails hanging off both. Red’s shirt featured the album cover with Andrew W.K.’s bloody face.

We all wore our new shirts to school the next day. I was the only one who managed to last the day without being asked by a teacher to turn mine inside out. After all, it wasn’t obscene, it just fit like a surgical glove.

I lost track of that shirt over the years. Every time it got washed it ended up in my younger brother’s dresser. He wore it sometimes, then got too big for it himself.

It’s a sad fact of life that we grow out of the things of our childhood, but what of the things that are too sizes too small to begin with? Such was the case with that shirt, and Andrew W.K. himself. But I’ll never forget him, nor The Locust, nor any of the events of that fateful spring night.

…Does that answer your question, Nick?

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