Parlour Steps @ The Warhol, Pittsburgh PA

Pittsburgh June 18
Another beautiful day in Pittsburgh. The sun was softly shining, there were gentle breezes and Jeff’s wife Rachel was up and about – breakfast was ready. Rachel herself seemed to embody the radiance of the morning. At eight-and-a-half months pregnant she was lovely, gracious, and full of life. Literally.

We had rolled in too late the night before for us to meet, and I was glad I got a chance to hang out a little bit with her today. I was already sure that she must be one very e-special lady. She had allowed a rock band to invade her house and then provided tasty vittles the next morning – before we got up – while navigating through her life with a front-end beachball sized bump that prevented her from seeing her toes. Frankly, if it had been me and my husband said, “Can five strangers crash at our house, by the way they’re musicians and will be arriving around 1:30 am, and they’d probably appreciate some breakfast in the morning”, I would have said, “Hello, I have a front-end beachball size bump that prevents me from seeing my toes, five strange musicians is the last thing I need right now, tell your little friends to go pound salt”. So right away I liked Rachel because I knew she was a much nicer person than me.

We had a nice chat about marriage, pregnancy, childbirth, the wondrous transition from ‘no-kids’ to ‘parenthood’, and the deep complexity of intimacy in a long term relationship…you know, your basic existential examination of the meaning of life. And this is something that I really, really love about women. We can ‘insta-bond.” In my experience, it’s quick and easy to have a great, interesting, complicated conversation with a woman I’ve never met before. Women are hardwired to talk and be open with each other- how else do you think those hunter-gatherer tribes survived for so long? Communication! Trading information. A hundred thousand years of cultural and genetic programming is a hard thing to override. And so women converse, chat, gossip, manage relationships and frequently ask those really difficult, awful questions i.e. ‘how do you feel’?

When everyone had jogged, yoga-ed, and showered (and breakfasted with Rachel) it was time to go to the Warhol. The Warhol is the Andy Warhol Museum, and we had free passes waiting for us courtesy of Shane, the guitar player in the Metroplitans who we had played with the night before. Gosh, was everybody in Pittsburgh this nice?

Andy Warhol was born in Pittsburgh and grew up there. Who knew? Certainly not me. I always assumed he was one of those New York City artists who appeared there fully formed, with no small-town childhood history. The museum contained seven floors of Warhols. Upon entering the building, one is confronted by a challenging piece. That is to say, there is an office chair spinning around in a glass box at an incredible velocity. You could not possibly sit on this chair, it would fling you all the way to the seventh floor. Hmm, I thought. I think I will see some unusual things today.
Here are some of them. I present them in poetic form for you because I too am an ‘artiste’. Just like Andy.

Meet Me At The Waterwheel (Made Of Giant Dentures)
by Alison Maira

A lifesize stuffed ostrich
recovered in snakeskin panels stitched with yellow rawhide
two metres tall; a sand sculpture half finished castle
giant rakes and shovels protrude

smashed pieces of toy soldiers and their weapons
glued together in haphazard lumps, guns and arms and legs
drenched in twenty four carat gold

a waterwheel made of giant dentures
powered by a tiny origami bird
her flapping wings are tied to a string
that leads to a spinning machine

enormous chess game played by giant bronze hands
peace sign versus clenched fist of power
one room filled with silver helium clouds falling rising spinning slowly

Yup, there was some pretty cool stuff at the Warhol. My favorite exhibits were ‘Julia’ – the one dedicated to his mother – and the Children’s Exhibit. The Children’s Exhibit was paintings for children, not of them. Those paintings were small, no larger than 8×10 and were hung three and a half feet off the floor. Simple, beautiful, sincere pictures of kid stuff – Teddy Bear, Helicopter, Apple, to name a few. Anyone who acknowledges his mother as a formative influence and paints for children is okay in my books. I saw all the famous celebrity portraits. Natalie Wood was my favorite. And the famous Campbell’s Soup boxes that helped him break through to the mainstream. There was also a fantastic display of all the album covers he made along with a letter from Mick Jagger entreating his friend Andy to please find a little time to crank out a cover for ‘Sticky Fingers’. And there was a exhibit featuring the ‘Scum Manifesto’, the book that was written by the woman who shot (and almost killed) Andy Warhol in 1968. She had some objections to patriarchy. If you think feminism is too ‘in your face’ in 2008, you would have hated 1968.

After making my way through all seven floors of Warhols, I found the other pSteps in the gift shop. Which was almost my undoing. I knew I had no money to spend (this is indie rock, not a sold-out stadium tour) but that didn’t stop me from picking up a gorgeous silk-screen bag and kitchy-cool height-of-irony gifts for my loved ones back home. I spent an hour lost in a haze of consumer delight, and got all the way up to the cash register before my self-discipline kicked in. Stupid discipline. How am I ever supposed to have any irresponsible fun? Sadly, I turned away and put my two hundred dollars worth of coolness back. I was already living off my credit card for this tour. Digging a gaping financial hole for myself in the name of rock and roll I can (sort of) justify, but just going shopping with borrowed money wasn’t something I could swallow. Ah, perhaps I’m growing up. No, probably not. I am still throwing money at the indie rock dream after all.

And so, after horsing around in the museum’s photo booth (Q. How do you fit a rock band into a photo booth? A. You stack ‘em in layers) we emerged into the late afternoon sun to take in a little more of Pittsburgh before our show later on. Downtown was quite beautiful. Towering brick buildings, immaculate public squares with fountains and lush grass, and a profusion of wrought iron suspension bridges. Pittsburgh is one of the oldest cities in America. Or so their newspaper said in the articles about the city’s 250th anniversary celebrations. It was founded at a spot where three rivers meet and thus many bridges, some black some yellow, crisscross the rivers around which the city is built.

Then it was back to Jeff and Rachel’s house to change and get ready for the show. Tonight we were playing at a pub called the Fox and Hound (“ An English Bar and Grille” said the sign) opening for Jeff’s pop duo. It was supposed to be an acoustic show, which I was sort of curious about because we have an awful lot of electrification and amplification that would to be rethought, to say the least.
We had enough time before we were on to have some dinner and I had my first experience with U.S. bar food. Pub food in America operates on two basic principles: meat and cheese. There was an entire “Melt” section on the menu, which was your choice of meat with your choice of cheese melted on top. No bread, no salad, just a pile of meat covered in cheese. Does beer count as a vegetable?

Finally it was our turn to play. We sat on tall stools, like folk singers from the sixties. Rees and Caleb played acoustic guitars, Rob played his snare drum, I sang and played tamborine, Julie sang too. It was very pretty all mellow-like. But I am a rock gal at heart and I missed the power and volume we can achieve with our full complement of instruments.

After Jeff’s show was done we headed back to his place again. His duo partner came too and they plied us with red wine. The conversation turned to art and artists and local Pittsburgh artists in particular. As Jeff and his friend described their favorite local artists and their works in their broad, thick Pittsburgh accents I thought ‘this is not what I expected’. Like a lot of Canadians, I have some prejudice towards Americans. I have bought into the stereotype of the stupid, backwards, good-ol-boy American and it was very good for me to hang out with a couple of these working class ‘good ol boys’ and listen to them intelligently discuss the relative merits of various artists and their works.
So far on this tour we have met lovely, kind, generous American people. Individually everyone has been so nice to us. But their government and their politics terrify me. What passes for news on U.S. television stations is so biased and seems (to me) to lean more towards propoganda. Opinions are presented as fact with no sources to back up these assertions. And there was so little coverage of the war. It’s like it’s not even happening. There were countless U.S. flags displayed on everyone’s front porch but overall the war is very distant, very far removed from the citizens here. Unless you count all the ‘Support Our Troops” bumper stickers.

America is a very complicated place. You get everything all at once, all the time. There are good people and beautiful amazing cities. There is an undercurrent of violence, fear, and ugliness. There is great big deep art and utterly vacuous superficial celebrity-obsessed pop culture. And all of it co-exists simultaneously.

Next we were off to an even bigger more famous U.S. city, Detroit. The good people of Pittsburgh had warned us that Detroit was big, and bad. I could hardly wait to see for myself.