How I Survived Taylor Mac's 24-Hour-Long Musical History Lesson
In the annals of marathon concert experiences, Taylor Mac’s A 24-Decade History of Popular Music is right up there with legendarily lengthy sets played the likes of the Grateful Dead, Bruce Springsteen and Chilly Gonzales. The acclaimed New York drag performance artist and Stockton native appeared at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn, New York over the weekend, presenting a one-off, 24-hour-long musical journey through U.S. history comprising of no less than 246 songs. And I was determined to stay awake for every one of them.
When Mac brought the first six hours of his magnum opus to San Francisco’s Curran Theatre last January, covering songs that were popular from the years 1776 to 1836, I barely noticed the time shimmy by. Still, I approached the full 24-hour extravaganza with trepidation. It’s been years since I pulled an all-nighter; these days, if I fail to get my full quota of zzz’s, well, I’m just not very nice.
So I asked my friend Matt Walker, a U.C. Berkeley neuroscientist who studies sleep, for advice. “After 16 hours of continued wakefulness, the functionality of your brain and the health of your body start to degrade rapidly,” he said. “Stay away from coffee and alcohol. Do not do operate heavy machinery or drive.”
Okey dokey, then.
In the run-up to the performance, Mac shared with me his own survival plans, which included consuming Japanese rice balls, electrolyte water and apples, and every so often, giving his feet a break. “I've learned that changing shoes after every decade is very helpful,” Mac said. “And there are a few decades where I am not in heels.”
Just shy of noon last Saturday, I showed up at St. Ann’s, in flats. The cavernous space on the Brooklyn waterfront was decked out for the occasion with hammocks, a medical tent and a kiosk offering snacks. I settled into my seat with a notebook and pen. What follows are my impressions of one of the longest -- and greatest -- feats ever to have unfolded on the American concert stage.
Take heed; it's long. Believe me, I know.
1776–1786: Act I
After making a public apology and offering his grandmother’s beat-up ukulele to a Native American person for the way in which the early settlers and their descendants screwed over the indigenous people of North America, Mac begins the first of his eight, three-hour-long acts with a discussion about the core values upon which our great nation is based.
The performer takes us through spirited versions of “Amazing Grace," “Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair," “Yankee Doodle” and other period favorites charismatically arranged by the production’s formidable music director, arranger and pianist Matt Ray. (“Only 245 songs left to go!” Mac says after finishing the first one. Ray grins.) From these, Mac deduces that the United States’ founding principles, among others, include “hating Congress,” “liking black hair,” and “making things.”
There are several people knitting on stage throughout to underscore his point about maker culture. Mac’s getup sets the tone that will mark nearly all of the costumes for the show: he’s in a beribboned periwig and hoop skirt contraption that I imagine is what Marie Antoinette would look like if she lost her head at a karaoke bar.
A section on women’s lib involving a dress encrusted with disembodied doll’s heads, framed by a couple of smoking wooden chimneys -- an homage to the decade in which steam-power was invented. Matthew Flower (a.k.a. Machine Dazzle) is Mac’s costume designer, and truly a mad genius. The man stands about seven feet tall in stilettos and has as many costume changes as the principal performer.
In this decade, Mac tells a long yarn about an unhappy love triangle that stops along the way for a feminist take on the tune “God Save the Queen," as well as “Oh Dear, What Can the Matter Be?” and a lovely harp solo-infused version of the ballad “10,000 Miles.”
A memorable decade, playing ribald drinking songs (“Nine Inch Will Please a Lady”) off against hymns performed by a sniffy, bonneted temperance choir (“Drink to Me Only with Thine Eyes”) to provoke a discussion about the often strained coexistence between the puritanical and debauched in American society. Mac appears in an outfit shaped like a barrel with a headdress made of barley sheaths and wine bottle corks.
He has us drinking ginger ale (the venue’s license won’t allow booze unless it’s bought from the bar in the lobby) and passing ping-pong balls mouth-to-mouth with our neighbors. I could have used an actual beer to get through this part. But once I had plucked up the courage to pop a ball between the lips of the nice, young woman sitting to my right, and she had returned the favor, I knew Mac could ask me to do almost anything and I would probably comply.
During the hour, Mac asks audience members to share their their favorite puke stories. There’s also a gorgeous choral version of “Shenandoah.” Oh, and Mac’s monologue, about a performance artist who repeatedly pulls chicken legs out of her vagina, eats the meat and then throws the bones out to the audience, will likely stay with me for a long time.
1806–1816: Act II
If you haven’t already guessed, Mac takes audience participation in his shows seriously, and the floor is already a mess of ripped up paper, ping-pong balls, apple cores and empty ginger beer cans from the various antics of the previous three hours.
I’m gratified to see how many Bay Area people are in the house. A few are involved in the production, including cellist El Beh, singer Brian Rosen and Sister of Perpetual Indulgence Rose Mary Chicken, and many more of us are in the audience.
Mac devotes this section to staging what he calls a “heteronormative jukebox musical about colonization.” A lot of the songs over the hour sound boringly similar to the drinking songs in the last -- they go “oom-pah-pah-oom-pah-pah” -- and the story about young Irish lovers Harry and Jane separated in the old country and reunited in the new goes on for way too long.
But we get to sing along with the band for a bit, and Beh gets to perform a beautiful duet with Mac, “Bonnie Irish Maid.” As for the costuming, Mac looks like an ostrich had a collision with a candelabra.
Mac’s helpers -- whom he refers to as his “Dandy Minions”; Rose Mary Chicken is one of them -- pass out eye masks. We dutifully move several hundred chairs to the side. The entire audience then spends the next hour stumbling about in the dark. Why? That’s the decade braille was invented. Also, Mac wants us to rely less on our sense of sight. So he has us feed each other grapes, smell carnations, and play a giant game of blind man’s bluff.
I sit in more laps than I care to recall and exchange grapes with a large person with a bushy beard. All the while, Mac tickles our ears with songs. “Cherry Ripe” is a melodious thing. So is “Coal Black Rose," or at least until Mac tells us it’s about a bunch of sailors looking forward to ending their shift so they can go gang-rape a black female slave.
It’s a relief to get the blindfold off, though I had more fun going sightless for an hour than I thought I would. The next decade deals with the Indian Removal Act. Mac wears a cartoonish milkmaid dress with what looks like small plastic figurines protruding from it. He’s lost a sparkly eyebrow somewhere along the way. As we learn about the Trail of Tears and one poor Native American orphan’s journey from Cherokee lands in Georgia towards Christian salvation in Oklahoma, the cast performs hillbilly, washboard-infused renditions of children’s songs like “Turkey in the Straw” and “Goosey Goosey Gander."
When we reach our destination, Mac throws on the hideous white house lights (he says the lighting in Oklahoma is so bad, it’s “like shopping at Duane Reade”) and throws off his country bumpkin attire. Now he’s singing a murder ballad -- “Banks of the Ohio” -- in nothing but a pair of sequined crimson panties and a feathered headdress topped with a pair of angry-looking stuffed cockerels. I am in awe.
1836–1846: Act III
The Dandy Minions erect a runway from the stage that cuts the space in two. What follows is perhaps the most pensive and dream-like of all of the show’s sections, dealing with the subject of slavery and the underground railroad that brought captives to freedom. As Mac and his band perform songs like “I’ve Been in the Storm So Long,” “Wade in the Water” and “No More Auction Block for Me," puppeteers illustrate the spirit of the music with ghostly shadow puppet, marionette, and mannequin sequences.
The decades are all starting to blur into each other. I go to the bathroom, get some hummus and veggies from the snack bar and return to the fray. There I find Mac, dressed in another voluminous gown adorned with empty potato-chip packets (to mark the decade of the invention of the potato chip), cut-outs from gay porn magazines, and chess pieces, announcing an epic, lucha libre-style smackdown between Walt Whitman and Stephen Foster for the title of “Father of American Song.”
Mac doesn’t much like Foster, whom he feels is basically a good old boy, entrenched in the ideals of the Old South and undeserving of the musicological adulation he receives today. Whitman, Mac says, is much more progressive a voice. There’s now a boxing ring at one end of the runway. Mac hoists a befuddled young man from the audience to stand in for Foster.
Then Mac pits chestnuts by the composer like “Camptown Races” and “Massar in the Cold, Cold Ground” against eloquently delivered samples of Whitman’s verse. We’re to yell “Oh Captain, My Captain” if we want Whitman to win, and the flaccid “doo dah, doo dah” for Foster. Of course, the Captain wins every round of the fight, and the audience collectively pelts poor Foster with more ping-pong balls. Still, when Mac performs one of Foster’s most beautiful and socially conscious songs, “Hard Times,” most of us vote in the composer’s favor.
I’m sitting by the runway, minding my own business, when I suddenly hear a booming voice above me saying, “You. Up on stage. Now.” It takes me a few seconds to realize the man is pointing at me. Before I know what’s going on, I’m up there, under the lights, in front of around 650 people, with the show’s makeup artist busily applying gobs of black makeup to my upper lip. A Dandy Minion plants a Union soldier’s cap on my head. And there are I am, in sweatpants, Chuck Taylors and a prize handlebar moustache, representing, Mac says, all the women who had to disguise themselves as men to join the army.
There are lots of spunky war songs in this section, from both the Union and Confederate sides, including “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” and that sickly-nostalgic idyll to the South, “Dixie,” which causes half the audience to hiss in disgust. I consider wiping the makeup off right away. But strangers keep telling me how great I look in a 'stache, so I wear it for a few hours, with a mixed sense of pride and embarrassment.
1866–1876: Act IV
Somehow 650 people manage to turn St. Ann’s into a dining room complete with long tables and chairs and delicious food, all because Mac has decided it’s time for us all to have a “family dinner.” As we munch on delicacies culled from Catherine Beecher’s 1871 cookbook, Mac treats us to ditties of the era, like “Home on the Range” (done in a moody, Dave Brubeck jazz style), while a bunch of women circus performers make human pyramids and perform other tricks on stage -- and even on the dining tables.
After our civilized family meal, things start to get really weird. We’re in the Gilded Age, and Mac decides to spend an hour performing an homage to Gilbert & Sullivan, who were as popular in the U.S. in the late 19th century as they were in their native England. Only he sets his abridged and thoroughly hilarious version of The Mikado, in which England’s famous operetta composers covertly satirized British politics, on Mars. Why? Because the appropriation of Japanese culture -- or indeed any culture other than one’s own -- is tricky territory today. (For more on this, take a look at Cy Musiker’s story about how the Bay Area’s Lamplighters’ theater company tried to solve the problem for its recent production of The Mikado).
Mac’s martian Mikado is full of amazing glow-in-the-dark costumes and makeup, a spaceship, and reggae-style production numbers. Also, Mac and company sound like Teletubbies. I’ve never heard “Three Little Maids from School are We” and “Willow, Tit Willow” processed through Autotune before. It kinda works.
This section deals with the Oklahoma Land Rush of 1889. I watch it all unfold from the safe distance of the upstairs balcony. It’s a relief to take a break from the shop floor, frankly. From my safe haven, I watch as the Dandy Minions release a cloud of colorful, helium-filled balloons into the space. Mac instructs the audience to make a run for the balloons, grab them, and then use them to stake out their turf. There aren’t enough balloons to go around, so those left without have to negotiate with the new “landowners” for space in their domain.
Some of the musical selections in this decade are instrumentals, including Claude Debussy’s “Clair de Lune," to which one of the Dandy Minions performs a striptease. Only he’s already completely starkers to begin with; the garments he removes are invisible. The connection between the privatization of land and this case of “The Emperor’s New Clothes” isn’t lost on me, even though I’ve been in the theater for around 12 hours at this point and am starting to feel it.
1896–1906: Act V
It’s midnight, or thereabouts. We’ve officially reached the halfway point and are entering unchartered territory for cast and crew; the longest performance of the show they’ve given to date is 12 hours (at Vassar College, in the summer). I return downstairs, to the sound of energetic Eastern European music from the band. Mac is wearing his most beautiful dress yet, a figure-hugging, Gustav Klimt-inspired creation of black and gold. It’s festooned with Stars of David and other Jewish symbology.
We’re exploring what it means to be a newly arrived immigrant to these shores. Over the next hour, we flop about on mattresses and think about what it's like to have sex in a tenement within earshot of dozens of family members, while Mac performs tuneful renditions of popular songs by New York Jews of the time, like Irving Berlin’s ironical “All Alone."
Now we’re in the trenches. Mac, who is wearing a headdress with a gas mask incorporated in its design, invites all the men in the house aged 14 to 40 up on stage, to represent the demographic of soldiers who fought in the Great War. There are a lot of bodies up there. Mac gives several female audience members bandages and they go around wrapping the men up as if treating their wounds.
Mac’s songs about life during wartime include a terrific feminist take on “Keep the Home Fires Burning.” I am trying to get comfy on the mattress I’m sharing with several people and am finding it hard to concentrate. Even Mac is starting to show tiny signs of wear and tear. For the first time in the show, the performer has a memory lapse and asks his musical director for a cue.
In this section about the Roaring Twenties, Mac, ever the upender, chooses to view the hedonistic excesses of the era not as victorious jollity in the wake of wartime deprivations, but rather as post-war trauma.
Even though the hour is a loopy cocktail of balloons, good-time numbers like “Happy Days Are Here Again," a conga line, and a surreal dance-off between a group of ukulele-strumming Tiny Tims and a bunch of tap-dancers dressed in Grecian robes in a fanciful homage to James Joyce’s Ulysses, Mac keeps reminding us that 16.5 million people died in the war.
1926–1936: Act VI
The act begins with a doctor joining the performer on stage to give him a vitamin B shot in his behind to help keep his energy levels up. That’s surely got to be a first for a public performance.
Now we’re in the Depression Era. Americans across the land suffered. But musically, those times were certainly inspiring. In a tight black velvet romper, blue silk cape and sparkling bathing cap à la Esther Williams, Mac feeds our souls with “Minnie the Moocher," “It Don’t Mean a Thing (If it Ain’t Got That Swing)” and other hits.
He also feeds our bodies: The Dandy Minions emerge with huge vats of delicious split pea soup and bread rolls. We get into snaking soup lines and gratefully accept this well-past-midnight snack.
At some point during this act -- I’m a little hazy on which decade exactly it happens, but it’s the conclusion of a monologue about Mac’s dumpster diving days -- the performer transforms himself into a walking chocolate-vanilla ice-cream cone with sprinkles. A cherry-topped headdress provides the finishing touch. Only it isn’t a cherry at all, but a glittery red human skull. Nice touch.
I’m a bit lost though. “What decade are we in?” I ask a couple of couple of fellow audience members. No one seems to know. “It’s at that time when it all slips away,” I hear Mac say from the stage.
I listen to “Tea for Two” while sprawled out on a mattress with my eyes shut. I open my eyes to the sight of a couple of massive inflatable fish being gently tossed up and down in the air around the space and a scary narrative about the easy-listening favorite “By the Sleepy Lagoon” concerning the corpse of a dead baby. By the time Mac gets to a monologue about World War II Japanese internment camps and sings the song “Don’t Fence Me In," I’m wide awake.
This decade is all about the white flight to the suburbs and the threat of the atomic bomb. Mac wrenches the mattresses away from us, and we bring back the chairs. Then he orders all the white people sitting in the center of the room to find a seat -- or, if there are no seats left, someone’s lap -- to the sides of the room. That’s when I realize that the audience, though diverse in terms of sexuality, gender and age, isn’t so diverse from a racial perspective.
Mac now resembles a Stepford-Wife-on-acid, with a wig made out of cardboard 3D glasses and a shawl in the shape of a white picket fence. The songs are starting to become more recognizable to 21st century ears, ranging from Roy Orbison’s “Pretty Woman” to The Platters’ “Only You.”
I’m really tired. Wondering: can I get a vitamin B shot too?
1956–1966: Act VII
Only five more to go! Powerful guest singers from Detroit, Stephanie Christi’an and Thornetta Davis, join Mac for this section about the Civil Rights era and the March on Washington. Rambunctious performances of Nina Simone songs keep me going. When they get to “Mississippi Goddam," I start to cry. Someone hands me a boxed breakfast. I gratefully dig in, with salty tears pelting my yogurt.
An hour devoted to the disco era and the rise of gay activism, kicked off by an energetic rendition of Curtis Mayfield’s “Move On Up." Then Mac brings on an entire marching band from Brooklyn comprised entirely of young black men. The performer now has an enormous peace sign on his back and an oversized, tie-dye-effect macramé "bib" on his front.
As the company stage manager dances in roller skates and a purple wig to David Bowie’s “Oh You Pretty Things," there can be no doubt that we’re in the 1970s. We cycle through hits by Elton John, The Rolling Stones and The Clash. And I realize two things: one, just how much American pop music is actually British; and two, that we haven’t heard a squeak about The Beatles.
In a sly act of genius, Mac re-appropriates the homophobic Ted Nugent hit “Snakeskin Cowboys” as a gay prom song. Mac instructs us to find a partner of the same gender, and I find myself slow-dancing with New York Times arts reporter, Jennifer Schuessler.
This one’s all about a backroom sex party. It involves “Purple Rain” (which Mac, in a momentary but totally forgivable memory lapse, almost forgets to sing) among other great let’s-get-it-on tracks.
At some point I nod off for five minutes and wake to find rose petals strewn over the floor. My prom date tells me someone tried to give me petals to throw, but I was unresponsive. Am glad to be wide awake again for Mac’s mesmerizing rendition of Laurie Anderson’s “O Superman," for which the entire audience provides the backing track by chanting a staccato “ha ha ha ha” for the duration of the song.
1986–1996: Act VIII
Can’t believe we’ve come this far. My notes are almost illegible. In fact, my notebook is falling apart. I keep the pages together with an elastic band I find on the floor.
We’re diving into the AIDS crisis. Mac is wearing a dress covered in cassette tapes. The music is a mad mixtape of goth-pop hits like “Blood Makes Noise” and “Addicted to Love," with tracks like Whitney’s Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” mixed in to throw us off, I guess.
This decade, devoted to radical lesbian songs, is a bit of a struggle for me. I'm exhausted. And I’m just not all that into “The Pussy Manifesto” and K.D. Lang. That said, I appreciate Mac turning this decade into a “lesbian tailgate party” complete with vagina decorations, mimosas, hot dogs cooked up on a George Foreman grill, lawn chairs, and several happy-looking dykes. I eat two bags of popcorn in solidarity.
I forgot to mention that Mac has been steadily hemorrhaging musicians for 23 hours, at a rate of around one an hour. Now there’s no one on stage but him. Showing clear signs of exhaustion, with a hoarse voice and almost slurred speech, Mac performs the last part of his musical journey solo, accompanying himself at different times on the piano, banjo, and ukulele.
The songs are alternately angry and funny, and consistently moving. Mac composed them all himself. One track is dedicated to the recent bloodbath at the gay club in Orlando; another, to the life of a "Rank and File Queer."
The 24-hour act of heroism ends quietly. Then the room erupts.
“Perfection is for assholes,” Mac told me in the run-up to the show. That’s certainly a useful mantra to live by when you’ve got 240 years of pop music history to pull off. But it’s also not a bad way to approach life in general.
What Taylor Mac teaches us above all else with his exhausting, brilliant marathon of history and song is how a total breakdown can bring people together. “I’m going to be falling apart and the audience is going to be falling apart,” Mac said in an interview with Rachael Myrow on KQED Forum last January, expressing what he hoped would be the outcome of this weekend’s theatrical-anthropological experiment. “But as a result, we’re going to be able to create bonds and build connection.”