Sometimes you want to be, as Thomas Gray so eloquently put it, "far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife." This is exactly how I felt as, against my quasi-agoraphobic intuition, I walked into the Make-Out Room to see San Francisco’s Cotton Candy this spring. Feeling friendless, dateless, lifeless, and down after a huge blowout with an old friend of mine, and unable to procure a warm body to fill up my plus one, I walked into the dark club only to be reminded by the smattering of plastic beads and silly hats and feather boas that it was Mardi Gras.
Feeling the need for some kind of psychic security blanket, I stopped at the bar. I probably should’ve ordered a double bourbon, but I just wanted something in my hand, you know. Like, "Hey, look, I’ve got a beverage." I may not have beads, but I am enjoying myself like a motherfucker. I got a Coke and shuffle-stepped my crotchety, dejected ass over to the darkest, most uninhabited corner and sat down behind some sort of homemade percussion wingding — a two-by-four with a bunch of metal crap nailed to it — and did my best Greta Garbo "I vant to be alone" impression.
Almost immediately someone found me, dressed entirely in black in a dark club. Sometimes, you’re just lucky like that. I don’t have many people I don’t want to see. Usually if you’ve been in my life long enough for me to know your name, I’m always glad to invite you back. But this was someone I had a crush on, long ago in some other reality, and I think she kind of made me look like a buffoon. More likely, I made myself look like a buffoon, and she turned the screw a little, wound up the buffoon box, and let it go, careful to hold at least some of her laughter until I was out of the room. And now here she was, in the dark on Fat Tuesday, asking me about my personal life. There must have been something on my face that said, "I love to chitchat."
Phat blues day
My cover blown, I grabbed my chair and slid in a few rows back from the stage, under the disco ball, as Cotton Candy set up. I’d seen them before, at least once, and I knew that if any band was going to cheer me up, they might be the one. Actually, it’s a stretch to call them a band at all. I think once you include a marimba player, you are officially not a band. Maybe you’re an ensemble. At the very least they’re a quartet. In addition to Matt Cannon on the marimba, they have an upright bass player, Tom Edler, who uses a bow most of the time, the lovely Linda Robertson on accordion and violin, and Heidi Kooy, who can really only be described as a chanteuse. The ladies were bedecked in full-length Easter Parade dresses, though somewhat less flouncy, Kooy’s a gauzy pale yellow, topped with a putf8um Veronica Lake wig, and Robertson’s a bright blue. They looked like a Victorian engraving delicately splashed with watercolors. They calmly began playing an instrumental number, with the seated Kooy tinkling gracefully on a sort of laptop xylophone.
Me? I was striving to be enraptured. I leaned forward and tried to will myself out of a nightclub and into a setting where the music would’ve been more appropriate: perhaps a garden party with those small, crustless finger sandwiches. It’d be sunny and warm, and instead of plastic beads maybe there’d be a parasol or two. But despite the delicacy of the music, I remained in reality — thanks to the steadfast shouting of a girl in rabbit ears standing next to me, her back to the band, totally unawares. I scanned the crowd, and it seemed much the same: pint glasses bonking in revelry. No one in the cheap seats — meaning the people who were standing — seemed to notice they’d even begun playing.
That is, until Kooy said, "Well. Hhhi. We are Cotton Candy. There’s so many of you this evening." As the Candies started playing "A Public Service Announcement about Clowns," a psychological sea change took place in the music — and in me. With the addition of lyrics, the dainty hues of the presentation mixed with ribald reds, the color of a freshly spanked ass.
"Clowns," Kooy sang. "Clowns get urges too. In the backseat of the clown car we can do a trick or two."
For me, this is where it all happens with Cotton Candy: the collision between long, delicate fingers on a microphone, a stately soft-shoe across the stage in an ankle-length dress, and bawdy lyrics about horny clowns, psycho roommates, and — on a song omitted from the set that evening but featured on their self-released 2005 debut, In the Pink — a perverted landlord who’s fond of public enemas. (A second CD, Fairy Floss, is due this fall, and HarperCollins will publish Robertson’s autobiography, What Rhymes with Bastard?, in 2007.) Flash back to the garden party, and you’ll see that next to those repressed sandwiches are some cock-shaped cookies sitting serenely on a doily. And what’s that rustle in the bushes? Victorians have the rap of being antisex only because they were so sex-obsessed they had to put some strictures on it. Strictures that, I might add, must have added up to some frantic unlacing of lace bodices in pantries.
Fancy, albeit filthy, pants
The crowd bantering through the instrumental opener was one thing, but after they continued their coarse chatter through the licentious lyrics, the one thing that might have held them in thrall — well, that was unforgivable. I officially aligned myself against them. And despite the fact that I probably would’ve enjoyed a quieter setting, I got a good deal of pleasure fancying myself to be a true cultural connoisseur, someone who clearly got it.
This stance on my part was a total farce, of course, but that’s part of the fun with Cotton Candy. You can feel fancy and somewhat dirty at the same time. I liken the group to Shakespeare: On one hand, Cotton Candy are highbrow, and not a lot of people even attempt to understand them. Yet, on the other hand, they’re really just about a bunch of dirty jokes. "I don’t just want to be friends with you," Kooy sang. "I want to rip your clothes off too." They cut through the prim and proper façade while appearing to observe all the social niceties.
So as Kooy gracefully pantomimed a frustrated lover waiting for her tardy beau in "Late" — introduced as, "in essence, why Linda now has an ex-husband" — my disgust for myself was leavened, even replaced, by my disgust for the "madding crowd," the common rabble, the groundlings who were just too engrossed and gross to understand the finer things. If they only knew that a tune like the closing number, "Pick You Up," is basically a song about midget tossing: "Let me take you in my arms / And see how far I can throw you … I like to pick up short men / And throw them as far as I can / It’s a strange hobby, maybe / But it makes me feel like a man."
Clearly, they hadn’t made it far enough up Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to be able to see "self-actualization" with a telescope. Give a starving man a flaky, buttery croissant, and he’s going to jam it into his gullet like a three-day-old dinner roll. SFBG
With accordionist Isobel Douglas
Sat/20, 9 p.m.
Red Poppy Art House
2698 Folsom, SF
With accordionist Kielbasia
May 28, 7 p.m.
4 Valencia, SF