Babe the Blue Ox
A lament for Brooklyn’s late, great BOXIn 1995 or '96, I thought Babe the Blue Ox was the future of rock and roll. I saw Babe--or BOX, to use the band's acronym--as dreamdate, meaning nice, smart, funny, sexy, and challenging. I wasn't alone. At http://ectoguide.org/artists/babe.the.blue.ox, someone named Dixon once posted this comment: "Perfect, happy, complex, groovy pop. I expect many more great things from this band in the future, assuming they don't implode á la Tribe."
By Kurt Wildermuth
I don't remember Tribe, but I remember BOX, a Brooklyn-based indie-rock band poised for world domination, dangled cursorily over the public, then dropped onto the scrapheap. The band's two CD's for the major label RCA, People (1996) and The Way We Were (1998), failed to find the major audience they deserved and are out of print. But I wouldn't change a thing about People, one of my all-time favorite recordings, except its commercial history. And with each listen I get closer to loving The Way We Were just as much.
About a thousand years ago, I saw Babe the Blue Ox for the first time. That show, where BOX--drummer and vocalist Hanna Fox, bassist and vocalist Rose Thomson, and guitarist and vocalist Tim Thomas--previewed songs from People, remains one of the best-paced concerts I've ever seen. When I introduced myself to Tim at a Barbara Manning show a few nights later, he confirmed that the band had arranged the set list to build from slow and beautiful to fast and furious. During the fast and furious part, they covered a song from the first Pretenders album--was it "The Wait"?--and whipped the crowd into a frenzy.
Sometime after People--but was it after The Way We Were?--BOX performed original music for a dance performance in Central Park. I think it was a collaboration with Sarah East Johnson, but I can't remember the dancing. The music was all-instrumental, perhaps one long composition, certainly more sound than song. At one point--at the end?--Tim and Rose, who had been standing at stage right and stage left (but which stood at which?), moved toward each other, toward the center. They stepped slowly until they met, face to face, and Rose ground her bass against Tim's guitar. The squall was as exquisite as the image was surprising (Rose's gyrations against her bass always left an indelible impression).
In photos, Tim, Rose, and Hanna were always in close proximity or intertwined, sometimes kissing or holding hands. Some of their songs were frankly sexual, and the band members themselves were proud of their flesh. They appeared nude, painted blue and wearing ox masks, two of the three touching tongues, on the cover of their third release, Color Me Babe (1994, on the independent label Homestead).
Back in 1995 or '96, a friend who was friends with the band loaned me copies of Color Me Babe and BOX's first two CD's: the full-length (BOX) (1993, Homestead) and the EP Je m'Appelle Babe (1993, Homestead) (note the Barbra Streisand-inspired CD titles, a running theme. Also note that all three of these recordings are out of print). In those days, Nirvana's influence was everywhere in indie rock and alternarock, and BOX struck me as bringing together Nirvana's roar and Captain Beefheart's funk and grind. When the band played softly and sang sweetly, though, something special happened.
Listening now, I realize that BOX emerged both fully formed and full of potential. All the ingredients are in place at the start: melody, bounce, crunch, tenderness and power, heart and intelligence. Paul Bunyan. Elementary school. Children's books. Kids with crayons. The legendary "punk" trio Minutemen minus overt politics plus eros?
On (BOX) the band works in a box, or each song feels like a box, a series of lines and angles, so the whole forms a collection of boxes within boxes. Hanna and Rose mesh so well they might be one person. Tim's rhythms and leads, chiming notes and power chords, intertwine to the point that he forms a one-man team of guitarists.
The debut CD's most memorable song, "Snicker," could be Talking Heads on Fear of Music, but fronted by an earthy David Byrne you could sit and have a beer with:your heart burns the back of my neckJe m'Appelle carries on in much the same vein as (BOX), but adds some sonic meat to the bones. Musically, "Tattoos" wants to be an anthem, but its lyrics express, among other things, the struggle to express:
my mind and bed unmade
my voice a single syllable
not much more than breath
not much less like death
tongue my guide i crawl up deep inside of youstop light, red light, stop lightFrom the propulsion of the first track, "S'Good," which signals a desire to bust out of the box, the EP moves to chaos, then to the borrowed form of the last track, a remake of Billy Squier's big-rock FM staple "Everybody Wants You," with new lyrics supplied by Tim:
your need, your greed
and i don't know what to call you
i hope, when i grow up, if i grow up
i hope, i won't hurt, i don't hurt
anyone like yougot accounted for and mounted moreOn Color Me Babe, "Next Best Thing" seems at points to borrow the rhythm of "The Phone Call," another track from the first Pretenders album. But appropriation is only one of the band's strategies. Color Me Babe broadens the band's reach, stretches out the funk, introduces the huge shifts in dynamics, the anthemic choruses and soft instrumental explorations, that will become the meat and potatoes of People. "Ego Pimps" employs very tuneful three-part shouted harmony and a mighty roar, which drops out and leaves just silence and muttering, until that wave of sound returns and draws your body into it. Sounds of children, percussion interludes, circus noises create a flow more like progressive rock than old-style indie, and therein lie some of the band's dilemmas: how to follow the d.i.y. aesthetic when you can really play, how to experiment while maintaining pop accessibility.
than stuff in the Louvre
i'm an art and a part of the universal groove
"King of the Rain" is a graceful and lovely ballad, but the lyrics and the lack of dramatic climax toy with narrative, with monologue, with progression. Finding a form, that's BOX's quest. The content can take care of itself, if it will arise out of play. Or not! Mainly, they want to play.
Such song-length experiments with form/formlessness become absorbed into the song structures of People, which raises the band's many strengths to a pinnacle. The bigger recording budget expands the sound. The songs cohere in new ways but still fly off into uncharted territory without warning. Anthems soar unashamedly, yet never straightforwardly. No, there's always an undercutting, a hesitation before liftoff.
On "Rube Goldberg," BOX becomes an off-kilter machine, like a sci-fi contraption, part intercom and part air conditioner but not truly either, its central processor having melted or mutated or realized its hidden potential. The machine works, its parts move and mesh, but it operates autonomously, mysteriously, only some of its innards exposed to public view. Mainly, it makes a whole lotta noise, buzzing, clicking, whirring, booming, blasting, threatening to explode. Now and then, all activity stops, then just as suddenly restarts and, for a minute, seems to be doing what it's supposed to.
I vaguely remember an ad for the album that quoted these lines from "Breathe": "Excuse me one moment / while I explode." The invitation in "Stand by Your Man" (its title another appropriation) might have served as well: "we're like an open casket / so come on in." Or perhaps the ambivalence that powers the metallic "Fuck This Song": "screw this song / cause it's too fuckin long / but it's mine, all mine / and i'll sing it if I want to."
At a BOX show some time after People but before The Way We Were, I met a middle-aged guy who was just visiting New York City. Because he was from Minnesota, where the story and the statue form cultural bedrock, he couldn't resist checking out a band called Babe the Blue Ox. He left the show a fan, promising to buy the old stuff and the forthcoming CD.
The Way We Were is the band's most overtly autobiographical work, focused on childhood and on New York City (with references to Junior's cheesecake, the F train, kissing "deep in the Brooklyn night"). The band's newfound emotional directness--"If you see me the way you say you do / Why can't I see it too?"--appealed to me immediately. But I'm still not sure how to take the opening track, "My Baby ‘N' Me." Is it a straightforward rock and roll song with quiet interludes (where the speaker's baby seems to be weirdly empty space), or is it a parody? A little of each? An ironic Billy Squier emerging half-formed from the machine? BOX's way of appeasing or teasing the corporation, delivering a hit single that couldn't possibly hit? Was it a single?
The last time I saw Rose, Hanna, and Tim perform--in 1999 or 2000?--they seemed dispirited, mixing brilliant unreleased songs with fragments that crumbled under their hands, that didn't end but stopped, just like this.
"Babe may be in a deep deep sleep," Hanna told me via email in 2005, "but we are all alive and well and in touch with each other too." She added: "We are the future of rock and roll."
R.I.P, Babe, and rock on.
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