Dance Party By The Dashboard Lights
Phoenix performance artist The Ladies dance the pandemic blues away
I’ve been thinking about Zaireeka a lot.
Sitting in my apartment in week number Who Even Knows Anymore of the pandemic, I find myself thinking a lot about that album. It’s one of many tiny things I tear my hair over, now that I’ve had a few weeks to kick myself over not finding an enduring love before the quarantine started or learning life skills that would actually be useful if/when society collapses. Once you dig through all the major layers of existential dread and angst that get exposed when the apocalypse seems nigh, there’s nothing left to rue but this substrata of idiotic regrets. “I wish I saw My Bloody Valentine in concert.” “I wish I did DMT at my friend’s house.” “I wish I had a threesome.” “I wish I listened to Zaireeka.”
Ever since I first heard about The Flaming Lips’ 1997 record—the one that requires four separate sound systems playing it at the same time to produce the desired effect—I’ve wanted to experience it. Even contemplated renting out one of the D.I.Y. spots in town, a place like The Trunk Space, just to throw a Zaireeka listening party. But the logistics of it seemed like a hassle, and I kept putting it off and putting it off… and now doing the Zaireeka quartet in-person is an impossibility. The venues are closed, we’re all cordoned off on our Animal Crossing islands, and the possibility of being jammed in a room that’s quaking with deafening psychedelic noise with a bunch of friends and strangers seems as far-off as a Coronavirus vaccine.
Whether it’s listening to Wayne Coyne and the boys play a weirdo quadraphonic soundscape or seeing some improvisers turn a shouted suggestion of “Erectile dysfunction” into a great (or terrible) 40 minutes of longform comedy, I miss art that you have to make time for. Art that demands you leave your house, get off your island, and step onto its shores for awhile.
The directions to last Saturday’s Ladies in the Headlights show are fairly simple: “Please park at the rear of the building in spot number 3. High Beams on! Tune into 88.1 FM. Do NO get out of your car.” Driving my car towards the back of the Chestnut @ The Vintage on 44th St. and Osborn, I’m guided into my spot by a masked figure in a Richard Simmons-esque red top and shorts combo. Waving his hands like an interpretive dancer doing semaphore, the figure (Steve Wilcox, close collaborator and “third lady” in The Ladies) brings the rest of the audience in: 4-5 cars. 88.1 FM plays cheery exotica lounge music.
Sitting in front of our collected high beams in folding chairs is The Ladies: Leanne Schmidt and Marlene Strang. Rocking pink and turquoise fannypacks with matching rubber gloves, they look like moms that escaped from a 90’s Miller-Boyett sitcom.
Schmidt and Strang have been an active presence in the Valley's performance art scene over the last few years. As The Ladies, the duo (with assistance from Wilcox and a rotating cabal of collaborators) put on immersive performance events. Eschewing the physical divide between performer and audience in most theatrical venues, The Ladies don’t perform on stages: they put on their shows in bookstores, on the roofs of hotels, and in the parking lots of restaurants. Both performers come from dance backgrounds and share an interest in comedy—their shows merge these two disciplines into an odd but delightful hybrid, one that finds the duo doing comedic crowd-work as often as they bust a move.
Schmidt and Strang are also mothers; when I interviewed the duo back in 2019, they said that their “90’s mom characters” are modeled in part on their experiences as young mothers. They express the psychic toll of “juggling our careers, our artistry, our caretaking, being a good partner to our husbands, the laundry, meal prep” through their character work: Strang’s mom has a bemused grimace perpetually affixed to her face while Schmidt is wide-eyed and hyperactive like she’s trying to entertain a child that isn’t there. They have an exaggerated, bubbly energy between them that would make them right at home in the world of Three Busy Debras: ladies from some alternate dimension where every hour is Happy Hour and all the white wine glasses are laced with cocaine.
The parking lot performance is short and sweet: 15 minutes in total. Getting up from their chairs, the pair do a handwashing dance, grooving out to their pandemic anxieties as the music on the radio shifts from Esquivelian cocktail jazz to 80’s mall-pop (Martin Denny on the seats, Nu Shooz on the streets). Sitting in a nearby car, Wilcox narrates their inner monologues: "When was Wednesday? Was that a day ago? Two days? Does anybody know?"
“Give us a beep if you’re happy to be out,” Wilcox asks us. The audience responds with a burst of horns. The Ladies, using the same kind of semaphore as Wilcox did, guides the audience into switching their high beams on and off in time to the music. The people parked next to me are digging into a bowl of popcorn; in another car, a kid is poking their head out of the sunroof, grinning as Schmidt and Strang run around the parking lot and press their faces close to our driver side windows.
The fifteen minutes go by quick. Pulling a Miles Davis, The Ladies turn their backs to the audience and sit in their chairs. Wilcox semaphores us back out onto Osborn Rd so the next convoy of audience members can roll in. And so ends the first (and only) live show I’ve experienced since our (gag) New (retch) Normal has begun.
There's a passage in Mark Richardson's 33 1/3 book on Zaireeka that's stuck with me:
'To see a film in a theater is to partake in a certain ritual. It involves planning, being at the whim of other people, conforming to an arbitrary schedule, figuring out how to get there. It's also a compact with other theatergoers, an unspoken agreement that you will do what you can to make the experience enjoyable for each other. And the reward for engaging in this ritual and doing the planning is a more vivid and powerful sensory experience than is otherwise possible."
While Richardson is specifically talking about cinema in this passage, it’s a sentiment that resonates with why I love live theater so much. The art that I love most, whether its visual or performance-based or music, is art that isn’t afraid to be an inconvenience. It makes demands. It asks us for our time, our attention, our physical presence. The art I love asks for our active participation, our complicity. It demands that we find four people with CD players to hear it “right.” Like a drug dealer, art asks us to meet it in a dark parking lot on a Saturday night, no questions asked.
The kind of art that The Ladies did on Saturday was the sort of thing you used to see a lot more often in downtown Phoenix before the tidal wave of gentrification washed all the weirdos out to Grand Ave, to Sunnyslope, to house shows in Tempe, to parts unknown and unmapped for now (and may they stay off the radar, far from the eyes of scouts looking for the next hip terrain to terraform on behalf of Capital, for years to come). Art that you could stumble onto out in the wild, that you weren’t expecting to see, that could be experienced context-free. Part of the fun of these kind of happenings is seeing the occasional unsuspecting passerby come across it and get their mind blown in real time.
Before the Lips did Zaireeka, they hosted Parking Lot Experiments. They created music to be played out of 40+ cars’ tape decks. A symphony of atonal sounds where each player in the orchestra, behind the wheel of their car, could influence it by playing their tape in sync or monkeying with the volume. I wonder what it must have been like for some random Joe who parked their car in that same Austin lot to get off work, hop off the elevator, and walk right into the middle of an echoing cacophony pouring out of dozens and dozens of car windows. Maybe they would spend the rest of their lives wondering what the hell happened in that parking lot, why all the cars seemed to go completely berserk at the same time. Sometimes I think that disruption of reality is more valuable, more impactful, than the actual art itself.
That probably won’t happen with this show by The Ladies. It’s out of the way, out of view from the main streets. There aren’t exactly a lot of folks wandering down back alleys during a pandemic in this part of town. But still, I love the idea that someone might walk by and see those two ladies silently dance through a lattice of high beams without any explanation. That they could take that inexplicable vision home with them and haunt them for years to come.
Zaireeka’s title is a portmanteau. It combines Zaire and Eureka. For Coyne, Zaire had an anarchic resonance after hearing a radio news story about political instability in that country. So the title of Zaireeka could be translated as ‘an expression of joyous discovery.’ As good a word as any to describe the experience of seeing 40 cars sing to each other in the dead of night or watching two refugees from a 90’s sitcom dance their COVID-19 blues away while audience members, safely cocooned in glass and steel, munch on fistfuls of popcorn.
For PHX locals: The Ladies will be doing a final Headlights show this Saturday evening. Reserve your spot at https://www.wearetheladies.net/.
Still Reading? Here’s a Bonus Beat for you: the first (of many) Chris Gaines Facts.
“On this day in Chris Gaines history, Chris left his apartment in Brisbane in 1992 to go on a vision quest in the Outback. Bringing nothing but a guitar, a black leather jumpsuit, and an ironic cowboy hat full of water, Chris spent three weeks wandering the brutal and unforgiving Outback. Just when he was about to give up hope of achieving enlightment-via-sunstroke, Chris met a wandering Aboriginal wiseman named Burarrwanga Jeff. In an rare interview with Uncut Magazine in 2005, Chris said Burarrwanga wore nothing but a Van Halen 1984 T-shirt and that the sound of tambourines shaking followed the medicine man wherever he went. In exchange for the last few drops of Chris’s cowboy hat water, Burarrwanga Jeff told Chris to grow a soul patch. “This is the seat of power,” Burarrwanga said, jabbing Chris below his lower lip. “It is here where your genius shall sit, so you must grow him a chair.” Upon returning to Brisbane, Chris shaved his Outback beard, leaving only a small patch below his lip. Two days later, he got his first record deal. “
-Archibald Veljohnson, “Black Sheep of Brisbane: The Chris Gaines Story”