After a day of baseball excitement in Baltimore, where the Orioles' incompetence and indifference cost them a nail-biter to the Texas Rangers, Brett, Matt and I had about twelve hours to kill before their morning flights out of Newark. We headed up I-95 towards Philadelphia. We were on our way to see "Man... or Astroman?" do their space-age surf rock schtick at the Theater of Living Arts on some street called South. None of us knowing anything about Philadelphia assumed it would be in some sort of suburban sprawl. We were wrong.
With Brett navigating by the dashboard light, we pulled off the freeway at Washington Street, and found ourselves smack dab in the ugly ghetto of South Philly. Kids playing in big streets, broken windows and lots of unsavory loitering were at every corner. I figured this was the neighborhood where the Fresh Prince encountered a couple of guys who were up to no good before heading to Bel Air. None of us had any idea how to get to South Street, and our state map wasn't helping much. After a few twists and turns, we finally found ourselves where we wanted to be. Of course, South Street on a Saturday night appeared to be where everybody wanted to be. The traffic on the narrow one-way street was backed up for at least a couple of miles.
Some wise maneuvering by Matt got us out of the jam, then got us lost, then back into the jam, then out again, and finally into the general area of the theater's address. We argued for a few minutes about whether to park in a lot and pay or drive around for another hour looking for a spot on the crowded avenue and side streets. Finally Brett put his foot down, claiming to Matt and my disbelief that, unlike us, his time was valuable. Usually Matt and I have more time than we know what to do with and getting lost in traffic offers a thrilling diversion. However, Brett apparently needed to save time so he could work on the great American novel or but trousers at the Banana Republic. Realizing that the parking situation was futile and Brett was steamed, we headed for the lot. The first thing Philadelphia took from us was eleven dollars for 91 or more minutes of parking.
We stopped by the Theater of Living Arts to pick up our ducats, another $12.50 apiece. Spending all this money had made us plenty hungry, so we went in search of some decent grub. I had Philly cheesesteaks on my mind.
South Street resembles any number of similar districts in cities across the U.S. It is a hipster haven, home to a combination of trendy restaurants, noisy bars, tattoo parlors, voodoo shops, and chanis like the Gap. It's calculatedly chic and dirty in order to lure in not only conspicuous consumers but also the punks who think shoipping where there is gum on the sidewalks is rebellious. It beats being in the mall, but is not a place you would want to live, unless you really like the sound of people yelling and playing their car stereos very loud as they cruise up and down the street.
As we walked past ultra-hip restaurants where facial piercing was required attire, Brett noticed a sign for the South Street Diner, which appeared to be closed until further inspection revealed that it had just temporarily moved. We found it around the corner, and entered a tattered auxiliary room temporarily made into a dining area. It was mostly empty when we sat down to look over the menu, finding typical diner fare. Matt is on a strict "high-viscosity" diet and ordered onion rings and french fries. I didn't see the word cheesesteak anywhere, but did find steak sandwiches with cheese. Not wanting to sound like a rube who doesn't know that nobody actually says, "cheesesteak" in Philadelphia, I ordered one as it was written. The waitress looked at me a little funny, so I asked if people really called them cheesesteaks. She said that she did, and didn't even look at me with disdain. Phew. I may have been a rube, but at least I didn't have to pay for it with an awkward situation.
After dinner, we walked back over to the show. The Theater of Living Arts is an old playhouse which has been gutted of seats. It had the funky smell of a cheap concert hall and the concrete floor sloped down toward the stage. The room was filled with youngsters, and the three of us felt like old-timers. It was no fun looking for pretty girls because they were all about 15. We realized after a while that the reason for the skewed ages was due to the fact that the bar area, where 21-and over folks could drink, was cordoned off on the other side of the room.
We arrived too late to see the Rock-A-Teens open the show, but just in time to watch the euro-hipster-acting Blonde Redhead set up their stuff. They played a pretty annoying brand of prog-rock noise. The stick-thin girl tried her damndest to sing just like Bjork, and the guy with the many guitars did his best Sonic Youth art-rock impression. Every song started and ended with a lot of boring noise and feedback, but they got a pretty good groove going in some of the middle parts. None of us was at all disappointed to see their final dramatic freak-out.
Right before Man... or Astroman? got ready to go, a cute hipster my age came and leaned against the wall next to me. I contemplated chatting her up, but my shyness got the better of me, so I just stood there slack-jawed. Actually, I was partially stopped by shyness and partially by my confidence that Brett and Matt would do something really inane to ruin any hope I had with her. I see Matt turn his eyelids inside out and burp the alphabet often enough as it is.
Man... or Astroman? set the scene with their usual flair, coming out in white space suits to litter the stage with what looked like props recycled from a 1950s science fiction flick. They set up their guitars and Theremin along with a row of main frame computers, a big satellite dish, on which they projected scenes from B movies, along with demonstrations of electrical systems and other space-age kitsch. With everything in place, the band came back out in orange jumpsuits and launched into their first extremely noisy number, all the while dancing like robots hopped up on rocket fuel.
They put on one of the most visually fascinating shows of any indie-rock band, with their flickering computer screens and lo-fi pyrotechnics. Band leader Coco the Electronic Monkey Wizard muffed his flaming helmet stunt when a child-proof lighter outsmarted him at the critical lighter-fluid lighting moment. He did manage to scramble into the crowd, however, and make my cute hipster neighbor swoon, though, which was a lot more than I ever did. They played a short forty-five minute set of sweaty surf-rock.
For the grand finale Coco dragged his oversized tesla coil out on the stage to gasps in the crowd. The coil sends six foot sparks in the air, buzzes like a maniacal fly, and certainly provides a much more entertaining finish to a show than a tired Jimi Hendrix impression like the guy from Blonde Redhead.
It was shortly after midnight when the crowd poured back onto South Street, only to be hassled by power-tripping cops who waved their billy clubs and yelled rudely to make sure this gathering of high school honor students disbursed before a riot ensued.
It was more than four hours until we needed to be at the Newark airport, so we headed back to the South Street Diner for dessert and coffee. Finally, at 1:30 a.m., we headed north in search of the New Jersey Turnpike. As a perfect cap for the sci-fi evening, we tuned in Art Bell and his kooky UFO-sighting callers and guests on the AM dial.
For more information about Man...or Astroman? Visit their website. For more information about Art Bell, please ask some crackpot at your local nuthouse.
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