I keep coming back to a concert video of Frank Zappa in Barcelona on his last tour in 1988. Wearing harem pants and a frumpy, white, suburban-dad Baja, Zappa smugly prances around the stage conducting his stacked band, rarely picking up an instrument. It’s simultaneously one of the most pretentious things you’ll ever see in modern music, but also one of the most intriguing, the most enthralling, eternally ambiguous and infinitely genius.
All through Ariel Pink’s soldout Detroit show in support of his latest opus, Dedicated to Bobby Jameson, I felt the same psychedelic wooziness and the same polarizing shrug. The man born Ariel Rosenberg is a lightning rod for controversy, schlock, and misunderstanding. The first time I saw him onstage, a decade ago at a solo and sparsely attended SXSW performance, he was unhinged, but ultimately his songs, were infinitely genius.
Now, mostly in shadow, shaking a wonky tambourine in a pig-tailed wig and jack o’lantern midriff, flanked by the skeletal frame of ex-Germs drummer (and equally prank-prone) Don Bolles, Rosenberg riffed through a catalog filled with pop wonders and hiss-tinged experiments. Like Zappa, Rosenberg was the center, the nucleus, conducting the chaotic folds of his usually lo-fi and overly condensed world into widescreen anthems. At this level, a place in which Ariel Pink considers himself a “career artist,” there’s no going back to being a loner, immersed in himself with a guitar and maybe a sampler. He surrounds himself in musicians who execute with a prismatic precision while at the same time maintaining the slightly oft-center mood that clouds Pink’s original recordings. Pink is essentially the proto to everything celebrated in indie rock these days, especially in the live format. “Feels Like Heaven” out-shoegazes the best of them. “Time to Live” out-ragas a band like Animal Collective, and on this night in particular, the album standout raged into an aural trip that exploded in raised fists and spilt beer. Even most of his filler out-DeMarcos Mac DeMarco. In several ways the guy is the godfather of all the weird strains of pop that have emerged within the last decade.
On this night in particular, in a deranged city, on a deranged night (the Sunday before Halloween), Pink and his band played it up. There were cheap candelabras, echoed psychobabble from the mic, and Bolles the perfect foil to Pink’s falsetto. In what sounded like either a carnival barker, a late-night basic-cable horror movie host, or just another acid casualty, Bolles presence as someone onstage who was even stranger than Pink was a highlight. Was it a joke or was it a symbolic ode to the forgotten hero he celebrates in his latest album cycle? Either way it worked, with Pink feading off Bolles’ insansity and vice versa.
There’s a jukebox quality to an Ariel Pink show, a static-filled jaunt though the AM dial in the Twilight Zone. It’s understandable that some would find it unsettling. Similar to Zappa, Ariel Pink attracts a cult, a tribe of fans who will dig and be content if they don’t always find gold. Thank goodness the guy tours, it’s a testament as to why it’s worthwhile to try your best to belong. He’s light years ahead of you and light years behind.