Lou Reed is dead; long live the new King of New York: Kenyon Phillips.
When dear Lou left this mortal coil last October, a pall settled over "our" New York -- which includes the boroughs, New Jersey, Long Island and geographical pockets throughout America and around the world that are "New York" in soul, spirit, and the bard's beloved "chi" energy-force. Our rock 'n' roll poet laureate was gone. Fear not, I will refrain from adding to the host of hosannas to Lou and his importance to the silent strain of all "New Yorkers" who recognize that cool can never be co-opted at a CBGB contemporary menswear designer outlet or the like. We know who we are and what Lou meant to us. Now we have a reason to stop mourning.
I first met Kenyon Phillips in the early 21st Century, when Lou's career as a recording artist was slowing down considerably -- especially for those of us who treasure the era wherein one or two releases from rock and jazz musicians was the norm. Phillips was commandeering a band which performed under the name of Unisex Salon. They reminded me of the Velvet Underground; noisy yet melodic, sensuous but always sardonic, frightfully real yet comfortably surreal, modern but mindful of their influences, and always proud of the manner in which they portrayed the gorgeous in the grotesque. Akin to the Underground, Salon had a small but fervent following. They were outsiders in a city that was rapidly being swallowed by insiders.
Kenyon brought me on board to be band's publicist -- an easy job as they were beautiful to look at -- though brutal in their execution. Like Lou's Underground, Salon's media reviews were not always positive. Nonetheless hipsters, dilettantes, kinky Wall Street executives, porn actresses, cable TV divas, and downtown frat boys walked on the wild side to see and hear them. After much prodding from Mr. Phillips, I emerged from musical retirement to become the band's bassist. Our first gig was opening for Lou Reed and several other local luminaries of a bygone era, including Garland Jeffreys and Syl Sylvain, for a benefit at the Bowery Ballroom. Of course, we hung backstage to meet Lou. We expected the worst -- Lou's volatile personality was well documented. Not on that starry, starry night. The King of New York loved his subjects! Lou gazed at Kenyon the way people used to gaze at Lou -- with equal measures of disbelief, admiration, and fascination. When Lou jovially agreed to be in a photograph with us -- a verboten idea to begin with as Lou never, ever, ever took requests or hardly posed in pictures - I knew the torch had been passed -- or perhaps dropped -- onto Kenyon's lap -- flames notwithstanding.
After a year of gigs that were more like "happenings" ala Andy Warhol's Plastic Exploding Inevitable than musical performances - although the music was phenomenal -- I departed the Salon. They had their crack at the mainstream soon after by way of a network reality show appearance - however Kenyon and his troupe were too far ahead of their time for any American demographic. Even the show's host, Tommy Hilfiger, who has a yen for rockers, was baffled by Kenyon. Shades of Lou!
Time marched on and Kenyon's artistry evolved -- he formed another remarkable band Roma! He composed and produced songs for Amy Poehler, Joey Arias, Raven O., and Sherry Vine. You've seen Kenyon's dancing silhouette in campaigns for Apple iPod. You've heard his compositions on network and cable TV -- Showtime's Shameless, CBS Eleventh Hour,MTV's Teen Cribs, and Nickelodeon's The Mighty B! among others. Kenyon's current genre defying ensemble The Ladies In Waiting have found a home at Joe's Pub deep among the luxury condos and chic boutiques of Lower Manhattan. His debut solo EP, Fire in the Hole, sounds like nothing and everything you've heard before.
The new King's latest endeavor is The Life + Death of Kenyon Phillips -- a dreamlike autobiographical rock opera. Like most great works, its genesis was simple: a few of Phillips' artistically astute colleagues urged him to expand his patented rock cabaret format to a full-fledged piece about himself. Recalls Phillips "it struck me as narcissistic, self-indulgent, and intriguing - I loved it!"
Phillips found his template after viewing the film Lola Montes -- a 1950s release directed by Max Ophuls which portrays the romantically and politically tumultuous life of the 19th Century courtesan who bedded, according to an impressed Phillips, Chopin, Liszt, Wagner, and the King of Bavaria. Her story is told by way of a series of flashbacks in which the subject assumes the guise of a circus performer -- and a ringmaster acts as narrator. In Life and Death, Phillips assumes both aforementioned roles with the ringmaster serving as Kenyon's agitated alter ego.
The opera commences with the Kenyon's accidental conception and his graphically Monty Python-esque re-enacted birth, and follows through with various childhood traumas, adolescent sexual dalliances and fantasies, therapy sessions (helmed by Michael Musto, no less), his migration to New York, 9/11, his artistic triumphs and failures, and other incidents; some true, others not so much. "My intention was to create something original -- even though there is nothing new under the sun. This project comes from a desire to take the traditional one-man show idea of 'here's my life story -- and throw a grenade at it."
The world premiere of The Life + Death of Kenyon Philips will take place at Joe's Pub in New York City on May 2, 2014. The King is dead. Long live the new King of New York.