the birthday party, i think, were almost as fascinating a unit visually as they were sonically - or maybe i should say, the fascination lies in how the two aspects played off each other. cave: christ-on-the-cross skinny, unruly mane of black, wild eyes - well-dressed, mind - nervously pacing around the stage, gesticulating, periodically doubling over in paroxysmic shrieks - spastically walking that tightrope between theatricality and genuine bubbling-over madness; pew, the meanest cowboy motherfucker you ever seen, gunslinger stance, never smiles - only befitting of the mean-drunk crawling king snakes he sent winding through the gutters of the songs. in contrast, there’s a disarming gentleness to howard; soft feminine features, low-key stage presence - in photos; where cave and pew look tough, or crazy, howard tends more towards inquistive. all of this betrayed, of course, by the ungodly howl he spews from his guitar.
going back to aforementioned tightrope: i think that’s the key dichotomy to the birthday party. in thinking about them, i kept coming back to the stooges - the party are the only band i’ve ever heard who really captured the stooges in covering them. (i’ve talked about this before.) i mean, i like mission of burma’s “1970” a lot - the damned’s too - and i’ve heard SY do a pretty solid “i wanna be your dog”; but those just feel like artistic approximations. the party really get that madness. they’ve swallowed it, let it infuse and they’re spewing it back out dripping with fresh bile. their “funhouse”, for example; iggy at least had swagger, albeit a warped, ugly, chase-you-down-an-alley-brandishing-a-hardon swagger - cave is too deeply thrall to the music’s chaos for that, he sounds like he’s going through the album’s lavahell cover. (on the live 1981-82 version, the bootleg quality pushes his tortured wails into the red; it’s near wince-inducing.) in context, though, i see that it’s not quite the same madness. the beauty of the stooges is their, well, artlessness. they take rock’n’roll on a joyride and leave it in a flaming wreck on the outskirts of town; their madness kills art. on the flip, the birthday party’s madness is their art. the stooges smashed the blues into the ground via garage rock, stripped down (in iggy’s case, literally) and got down and dirty in the guts of it; the party subjected it to torturous beefheartian corridors, cut it apart and frankensteined it back together with jagged post-punk sensibilities. simpler: the stooges were primitivists, the party were modernists. but wait, my point is getting mixed up, i think - what i mean to say is that “their madness is their art” could just as well be the other way around. at their finest, particularly in live performances, they sound like they’re possessed by their own music: howard’s careening feedback; cave’s vomitous lyrical rush, words coming so fast and furious they’re bumping into each other and getting scrambled - like the versions of “release the bats” where he just screams various combinations of “sex”, “horror”, “bat”, “vampire” and the occasional “cool machine” (“SEX!!! SEX!!! SEX THE HORROR BAT!!!”)