Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Outer Children:
The Moldy Peaches Slip You a Roofie

book cover

The concrete details of a vivid emotional experience have faded, and my notebook is only so much help. But this much I know. On September 10 I spent several hours with the Moldy Peaches and (was it?) 20 kids between the ages of one and 12. We were in the house where Kimya Dawson grew up, the house where she still lives at 29, though God knows she's been around. It's a small house by the standards of Bedford Hills, a leafy hamlet an hour north of midtown--a family house, built by Kimya's great-grandfather. And from seven in the morning until six or so at night, the four rooms on the first floor are devoted to the family business: a fully licensed day care center. Even Kimya's systems analyst dad joined on about a decade ago, thus occasioning one of the day's many remarkable sights--a man over 50 changing the diaper of a toddler not his kin.

Kimya's 20-year-old partner Adam Green, who grew up in neighboring Mount Kisco, was at ease, and I enjoyed the kids a lot--the pictures two of them drew me are on my office door. But Kimya--dressed in unlaced platform sneakers with unmatched socks, Bermudas that showed off the tattoos on her ample calves, a T-shirt I don't remember, and her big poofy yellow Afro--was in her element. She spent a fair portion of the afternoon buried in children--if not physically, on her lap, then mediating disputes or praising art projects or doling out turns on the guitar. At the same time she and Adam told their story. The generationally separated distant acquaintances got close in 1994, when Kimya went to work at the Mount Kisco record shop, Exile on Main Street, after dropping out of Olympia's Evergreen State College in a dispute over sexual harassment protests. She would drive her young friend to the city for shows and they'd hang out in his basement making music. There was a "Little Bunny Foo Foo" seven-inch in 1996 and an 11-song demo in 1998, with the rest of what turned into their eponymous debut cut in 2000, after Kimya had done another residency in the Northwest and quit drinking. Kimya and Adam have both recorded solo albums; the Moldy Peaches--occasionally still a duo, more often now a six-piece filled out with their antifolk buddies--is for the songs they write together, most often contributing alternate lines in turn, as in a party game William Burroughs might have invented for Peter Orlovsky.

It was raining, so the fluorescent plastic vehicles and swing sets and playhouses in the yard went unused as kids crowded indoors. Adam and Kimya played me the antifolk anthology they'd compiled, due out from Rough Trade early next year, discreetly skipping the occasional dirty word and the track that begins with the nipples of the female singer's girlfriend poking out of the Mediterranean. But it was hard to carry on a coherent interview, so we went for a tour of sleepy Bedford Hills and happening Mount Kisco. I took in the big secluded place where Adam used to live--his shrink and prof parents now have an apartment in Manhattan, as does he--and was deeply impressed by the greensward surrounding the public schools they'd attended. Eventually we returned to Kimya's, where her mom bid farewell, warning affably, "Today we let you work. Next time we're gonna make you play."

Some may see the Moldy Peaches' childishness as icky affectation. But while there's no arguing with squeamishness, an affectation it clearly is not. It's deeply imbedded in someone who has spent the better part of 30 years waking up in a house full of kids, who as a 21-year-old dropout from one of the most permissive colleges in civilization could establish a fruitful creative relationship with a superbright 13-year-old wiseass. (Adam's parents sent him to study film at another progressive bastion, Emerson in Boston. He didn't last a term. "I don't even care about film. I care about movies, not about film. And I don't even care about movies.") Thus the Moldy Peaches' penchant for performing in costume--traditionally, sailor or Peter Pan for him and bunny for her, although at the Mercury Lounge Thanksgiving Eve Kimya thanked her Aunt Patrice for her new designs, including the cape that had Adam zooming about like Captain Marvel Junior--grows out of a lifetime of dress-up; they even record in costume. Thus a seven-inch that went: "Little Bunny Foo Foo/Hopping through the forest/Scooping up the field mice/And bopping 'em on the head." Thus songwriting as party game.

And thus songs that hang growing up upside down till it shows its underpants. Some capture an innocence unknown to *NSync: "My name is Jorge Regula/I'm walkin' down the street/I love you/Let's go to the beach." Some unleash the id with an intimacy that could make Macy Gray blush: "Tried to buy your love but I came up short/So I fucked a little waitress in return for a snort." This is if-it-sounds-good-say-it music, played and sung with a pretty/noisy imprecision that transcends the gap between folk and punk like nothing since The Velvet Underground, which had the advantage of not knowing the gap existed. Its lyricism is heartbreaking--so tenuous, so vulnerable, so palpably subject to change. But the same record is also funnier than "Love and Theft". First time through I merely felt privileged to reaccess the punk miracle. Fifty plays later I think I've never heard anything like it, though there's some Jonathan Richman in there and some might cite Beat Happening. To me, everything cloying and manipulative in that defunct piece of in-group politics seems effervescent and loving in this cult band a-borning. I hope they can do it again, forever and ever. But I'm not innocent enough to think anything so young can last, even till the next record.

I could be wrong. Packaged with demolike black-and-white art and hand-printed track listings, The Moldy Peaches has the look of a single spontaneous outburst rather than something recorded over four years, and though the older songs include the opening "Lucky Number Nine" (first words on album: "Indie boys are neurotic"), and the essential "D.2. Boyfriend" (about being yourself in junior high so you can be as cool as Kimya later), the recent material is what stands out. It's where they leave their id showing: "Who mistook the crap for genius/Who is gonna stroke my penis" (that's Adam-only, simultaneous with Kimya's "Who is dancing on the ceiling/Who is gonna hurt my feelings"), or "You're a part-time lover and a fulltime friend/The monkey on your back is the latest trend," or their cover-stickered rock and roll singalong "Who's Got the Crack": "I like it when my hair is poofy/I like it when you slip me a roofie/I like it when [pregnant pause] you've got the crack." But it also includes the guileless "Jorge Regula" and the Kimya feature "Nothing Came Out," where all she wants is to maybe spoon and she needs to get drunk before she can admit it.

Another 2000 recording is their punk apotheosis, a loud and distorted if not crack-pated generational war cry called "NYC's Like a Graveyard." It yells its resentment at rock stars double-dating, yuppies getting married, bar-hopping hippies in 12-step programs, "suckers and fuckers and stupid retards"--all "corpses" even if they "like the way I play my guitar." "All the tombstones skyscrapin'," they observe. "If you hate me go on hating," they dare. "New York City's like a cemetery," they conclude. They used to climax their set with that unintentionally prophetic judgment.

I love the Moldy Peaches for how they play--not their instruments, nothing so sublimated, just play. They're not afraid to make a mess because they know life is a mess anyway, and although the mess can be painful, some inner confidence lets them fool around with it. You could attribute this to their privileged upbringings, I suppose. But if it were that easy Exile on Main Street would be Tower, and anyway, not only does Kimya come from service-sector people on the poorer side of town, she's black, albeit lighter-skinned than either parent. I just figure that growing up, they both maintained contact with their outer child, who was never scolded for touching his or her wee-wee and lived to tell the tale.

I met them on a Monday. On Tuesday the planes came. On Friday the band had a gig at the Merc, and I actually thought they might show, but instead Kimya invited everyone she knew to a Saturday barbecue in her backyard. My family and I stayed home. It was a month before I had the guts to play the album again--I'd loved it so, and I was afraid it would seem too small, too self-involved. It didn't. It seemed huge.

Halloween they capped a month-long tour with their friends the Strokes at the Hammerstein. They had adjusted nicely to the big stage. Where at the Merc they were sometimes too cute for comfort, here they were fast, loud, and tricky within a deliberately simplistic framework: They didn't "rock," they bashed. I could hear fans up front shouting "Jorge Regula" back at them.

Three weeks later they hit a packed Merc still bashing. It still suited them, too, as did the new song in which Kimya invites the world to lick her pussy. Someone requested "NYC's Like a Graveyard." "It's no fun to play anymore," Adam muttered. But I wouldn't put it past them to change their minds, if they last.

Village Voice, Dec. 11, 2001