THE MOVIE IS what did it for me. The American Astronaut (2001) is a black-and-white western set in space, and it's a musical or maybe a rock opera, or sci-fi with rock songs—the lines are kind of blurred. Billy Nayer Show singer Cory McAbee (who wrote, directed, and starred in the film) plays Samuel Curtis, a Han Soloish rogue tailed by the murderous Professor Hess. As Curtis makes his way across space we run into a fruit smuggler named the Blueberry Pirate, an incubator with the soul of a "real live girl" (a rare thing in the future), and a flying barn full of Nevada country folk emaciated by the "space punies" and tormented by the son they thought would save them.
The music is written and sung by the New York-based McAbee, everything from the expressive, joyful "The Girl with the Vagina Made of Glass" to snarling punk songs and a capella gibberish.
After seeing it in the theater and showing the VHS to friends more times than I can count, I looked up McAbee and found out he's a man of many arts. But besides emceeing, directing, writing, art designing, and making extensive, detailed sidewalk chalk-drawing "posters" to advertise American Astronaut premieres, his band, the Billy Nayer Show, is a hot ticket to weird lands.
"Explaining the Billy Nayer Show is like the Supreme Court trying to define pornography: You can't describe it, but you know it when you see it," says the band's website (billynayer.com), and that, I think, sums them up well. It's a very singular world where absurdity transcends humor and becomes aesthetic. If you want to get really reductive, you could say it sounds like Devo, and even deeper, Devo's "Jocko Homo." With stories like the three colorful monkeys that walk eternally in a triangle formation and live off each other's shit, it's funny, but bigger pictures lie beneath. On records like Rabbit and Goodbye Straplight Sarentino, I Will Miss You McAbee shouts and croons about paranoia, sex, and politics, shrouding it all in metaphor and imagery, but it bites into real-life topics regardless, and writing the music off as comedy is missing the point.
This is all great and everything, but I've yet to meet anybody in Portland who knows the Billy Nayer Show. Are we bumpkins? Are they under-promoted? Am I talking to the wrong people? These are all questions I can't answer, but I will give you the formula for Cory McAbee appreciation: Rent The American Astronaut at Movie Madness—watch it alone, watch it with friends, get a lot of people into it, buy some BNS records, and cram. Then we'll all show up at Towne Lounge and know the songs and tell McAbee how much his art matters. I have a feeling he already knows (culture Bible The New Yorker tells him so) but it can't hurt to hear it from us hicks.