Photos by Mona Maruyama
One late autumn afternoon at an underused Cambridge event space, promoters and creatives are setting up the chairs for Cheap Seats, a monthly performing arts shindig where scores of artists perform back-to-back mini-sets. Today’s show is one-part open mic and one-part experimental theater, all conceived and whipped into reality by performing arts zealot Erich Haygun of Jamaica Plain. The Cheap Seats mission: bring artists together from scenes as divergent as music, poetry, comedy, theater, dance, and all of the cracks in between. The idea is that in those cracks, things often get most interesting.
A short-haired woman can’t contain her own smile as she performs a burlesque routine while wearing a ridiculously oversized sweater. A couple of guys neurotically patter about gingivitis while sloppily brushing their teeth like rabid cartoon dogs. A folk singer named ACLU Benefit takes a shit in a diaper on stage.
Let those words ring a bit longer. There is a folk singer named ACLU Benefit, and yea, upon a mountaintop, he took a shit in a diaper. On stage.
ACLU Benefit’s music is actually great, and like with his previous efforts, the charm of his latest release, LOVE and FAME (BUFU Records), lies in the songwriter’s damaged honesty. Here is a musician who is able to communicate not just his naked thoughts, but also the mechanics behind them. You’ll have to forgive the use of “actually” in the opening construction, but most people are probably remiss to think a singer-songwriter named ACLU Benefit, who sometimes wears a diaper on-stage, does indeed make great music. It’s just that he’s waiting for his first hit.
Before this current incarnation, ACLU Benefit’s sprawling attempted-claims to fame have translated across a multitude of ventures, from an all-autistic comedy troupe called Asperger’s are Us, to a line of absurdist t-shirts, to countless bands like the Best Thing Ever, whose members have performed in places ranging from the White House to public toilets. There might not be much surface seriousness visible in ACLU Benefit’s actions, but his lyrics reveal a rather brilliant heart within.
Back to the night of his fateful performance … The slender baritone singer stands like a tall needle, and steps up to the microphone (in a fully clothed state, thank you) to explain that he’s about to sing a song about forgiveness. He begins strumming his guitar stoically, leading into a song called “I Love You So Much.” The chords are simple and frail. The lyrics go like this: “I can’t draw/ I can’t paint/ I can’t write/ I’ll never be a saint/ But I can sing/ and I can say/ I love you so much.”
The basic message echoing beneath the candlelight of the Cheap Seats flood lamps is that those three little terrifying words are so simple, yet so profound. ALCU Benefit’s stone-faced delivery, combined with the facile nature of the tune itself, has a liturgical effect on the room—like early Smog minus the battery acid, or mid-period Jonathan Richman, minus the goofiness. Faces in the audience glow. Then the battery acid and goofiness arrive. Mid-strum, he begins preaching about the importance of forgiveness, and warns against the caustic indulgence of holding on to hatred.
“They’re a fucking human being, and they fucked up,” he yells into the shadows. “Stop being an asshole. Get over it!”
Then, to symbolically express the expelling of grudges in the spirit of forgiveness, ACLU Benefit proceeds to take a shit on stage in a diaper. The pants go down—extra strength Depends firmly (and might I say expertly) fastened on—and the singer expels what appears to be a satisfying shit. Jung might have labeled this a symbol of the negative emotions being exorcized. Freud might have said this is a man who doesn’t care how others feel, but who also rejects order. I just hid and said, “Eww.”
“The idea [with performance art] is that contrasts are both memorable and absurdly funny,” explains the singer, who counts Amanda Palmer as one of his allies. “I did a TEDx talk last month (a community based off-shoot of the TED phenomenon) and when I got the offer for it, I thought, ‘What’s something I can do that no TEDx speaker has ever done?’ I was looking around my room and saw these adult diapers I’d bought five years ago to shit in while hitting on single women at bars—I never actually did that idea—then I came up with making the climax of the TEDx talk me shitting out hatred in honor of forgiveness while playing “I Love You So Much,” the most mainstream-acceptable song I’ve ever written.”
While ACLU Benefit never actually pulled off the forgiveness-shit stunt for TEDx, the best was saved for last when it came to Cheap Seats. Whether or not it was real performance art or just plain old crap remains up to observers. Body fluids aren’t new to art, (remember Piss Christ?), but that doesn’t make it any less gross. To form an opinion on that particular question, though, might ultimately be less important than exploring the artist’s playing field.
There’s a trend in DIY music to borrow from fine art, but only when it’s convenient. Though DIY musicians often don’t want to be held to objective standards of criticism (everything seems to be “rad” just by inclusion), they still wish to “rehearse” instead of jam, “curate selections” instead of make mixes, and dabble in “performance art” rather than pull attention-seeking stunts. But credit to ACLU Benefit for being more interested in his prospective commercial successes than he is in exercising deep artistic motives. Otherwise, the “forgiveness-shit” stunt would deserve a much longer and more profound critique than this one.
“I remember the first time someone talked about going to an event that wasn’t a music concert,” the singer says, acknowledging that just being a musician might not be enough anymore. “It was about 11 years ago, and I was confused. Now that stuff is close to overtaking music’s popularity because it hasn’t been explored as thoroughly as an art form. Story-telling shows are selling out now.”
Maybe it’s not enough to be just a folk-singer anymore. Nevertheless, ACLU Benefit is a damn good one.