Fiona Apple: Wacked Out Crazy or Wonderfully Crazy Genius?

Fiona Apple has been in music news a lot over the last 18 months since the release of her 2012 album The Idler Wheel… . I hadn’t been interested in Ms. Apple since the ‘90s so most of these stories I just skimmed and moved on. That was the case until this summer when I saw this odd video of Fiona performing a song in preparation for her Fall ’13 Tour.

fiona 4What a strange video. She’s singing “I Know” from her late ‘90s album When the Pawn… Sitting in a living room and holding the hand of some older woman. Is she her Mother? Grandmother? Random elderly fan-girl? Who’s to say? I was mesmerized. At one point the woman gets up and answers the door. Presumably Fiona ordered a vegan pizza or something. After the first viewing, I had the distinct impression that Fiona was completely wacked out crazy.

I watched the video a few more times over the next week and realized I was no longer absorbed in the weirdness of the situation but was wrapped up in the song. She sounds amazing. I decided to revisit Fiona’s albums. Most notably the aforementioned Idler Wheel and When the Pawn. Since that time I haven’t stopped listening to them. So that got me thinking, maybe she’s not “completely wacked out crazy” but instead a “wonderfully crazy genius.”

Unfortunately, the weirdness in Fiona’s life continued. More stories of breakdowns, dead dogs, arrests fiona 3and tour cancellations came out. That’s when I started wondering. Which is it? Is Fiona Apple “Wacked Out Crazy” or is she a “Wonderfully Crazy Genius?

Let’s deliberate! The Honorable MoSS? Todd presiding.

MoSS? Todd: Now hearing arguments from the prosecution or the “Wacked Out Crazy” side.

WOC: Your honor, we plan to prove Ms. Apple is Wacked Out Crazy by showing a long history of crazy activities going back to the mid ‘90s when she first came into the public eye.

Crazy Exhibit A:

In 1997, Ms. Apple received an MTV Video Music Award. Instead of graciously accepting the award she decided to use her time to quote Maya Angelou and rant about the bullshit life of celebrity.

A normal, not wacked out crazy person, would have gotten onstage, accepted the award, thanked God, and then, being disoriented from the shock of the win, walked the wrong direction towards backstage until the beautiful spokes model that holds the awards pointed her to the correct exit.

MoSS? Todd: Defense, or “Wonderfully Crazy Genius” side, do you want to cross examine?

WCG: Yes your honor. While we acknowledge that getting on stage and quoting Maya Angelou is both annoying and pretentious, Ms. Apple’s speech was in no way crazy. She said the word bullshit live on cable TV. This was way back in the ‘90s before it was a dialogue staple on cable channels like FX, TNT, and Disney Jr. In our book that was kind of badass. She’s a rock star doing rock star stuff. If anything this makes her more sane than crazy.

WOC: Your honor, next I’d like to present to you a letter Ms. Apple wrote to her fans apologizing to them for cancelling her concert dates. I think this clearly shows her wacked out behavior. What was her reason for cancelling? Her dog was sick.

Crazy Exhibit B:

Fiona's letter to her fans

MoSS? Todd: Who wants to read all that? Give me the highlights.

“I have a dog Janet, and she’s been ill for almost two years now, as a tumor has been idling in her chest, growing ever so slowly… She’s my best friend and my mother and my daughter, and my benefactor, and she’s the one who taught me what love is… I can’t come to South America. Not now. When I got back from the last leg of the US tour, there was a big,big difference. She doesn’t even want to go for walks anymore… So I am staying home, and I am listening to her snore and wheeze, and reveling in the swampiest, most awful breath that ever emanated from an angel.

And I am asking for your blessing.
I’ll be seeing you.

Love,
Fiona

The concert was booked, people bought tickets and she cancelled over a dog. Come on. Adults have responsibilities and obligations to meet. I could understand cancelling from a family member’s illness but not from the family dog. That is just crazy.

MoSS? Todd: Defense, to you have anything to say about this?

WCG: Your Honor, do you have a dog?

MoSS? Todd?: Yes.

WCG: What’s his name?

MoSS? Todd: Rigatoni.

WCG: Cute name. I bet you love him very much. Is Rigatoni aging rapidly?

MoSS? Todd: Yes, he’s over 14 years old. I’m warning you counselor. Tread lightly.

WCG: Are you looking forward to euthanizing Rigatoni during his final days of pain, misery and helplessness?

MoSS? Todd: That’s enough! I won’t have you continue this line of questioning. (Blubbering uncontrollably) 1 minute recess. Watch this shot-for-shot remake of the Simon and Simon opening credits starring John Hamm until I get back.

MoSS? Todd: OK. I’ve composed myself. “Wacked Out Crazy”, What Else You Got?

WOC: Welcome back Your Honor. Next I’d like to present this home video of Ms. Apple acting erratically.

Crazy Exhibit C:

You can clearly see Ms. Apple doing strange things in this video like filming herself in a freaky face mask, cutting her own hair and speaking in such a way as to question her sanity.

MoSS? Todd: Defense, anything to add?

WGC: Ummm…No your honor. That is a pretty crazy video. Wowzer!

MoSS? Todd: I’ll now hear arguments for the defense.

WCG: Your Honor, we plan to demonstrate that while some of Ms. Apple’s behavior could appear to some as crazy, this behavior really just complements her musical genius.

Genius Exhibit A:

This is the video for Fiona’s song “Hot Knife.” The song is amazing. Layer upon layer of repeated vocals slow build into an explosion of songwriting genius.

Now after viewing this video, can you blame her for acting a little crazy if that was going on in her head all day? I can’t imagine the struggle it would have been to get this song out of her head and to translate it to a recording.

MoSS? Todd: Prosecution, cross examine?

WOC: No way. That was awesome!

WCG: I know right?!! Next, I’d like to show a video featuring crappy emo band, Panic at the Disco. They attempted to sample one of Fiona’s songs on their latest album and she told them to cease and desist.

Genius Exhibit B:

Would a crazy person do that? I make the argument that it would actually be crazy for her to WANT to be involved in any way with a Panic at the Disco song.

MoSS? Todd: Prosecution?

WOC: You got me there too. Panic at the Disco sucks!

MoSS? Todd: I think I’m prepared to make my decision. Clearly, there is a crazy magical world going on in Fiona Apple’s mind. Sometimes she demonstrates odd behavior because of it. It reminds me of another crazy genius, Willy Wonka. (Gene Wilder not Johnny Depp) And like in the case of Willy Wonka, I believe we should accept the craziness and embrace the wonderful treats we get in return.

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MoSS? Monthly Mixtape: November 2013

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Side A : Todd’s‘ Picks

Side B : Chris’ Picks

From the MoSS? Pit: My Bloody Valentine

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If My Bloody Valentine’s visual and sonic bonanza at the Aragon Ballroom is the last concert I attend this calendar year, it is the perfect cap to 2013. This trip around the sun gave me my third Cure show (at my first Lollapalooza in 19 years), a bucket-list cross-off (Sigur Ros), a “hi-how-ya-doin-great-show” moment with Bethany Cosentino at the Deadwood after a Best Coast show, a proper rock show by the Thermals at the Mill, a festive Wild Belle show at Gabe’s, and my son’s first concert, Vampire Weekend in Kansas City.

What a year. And what a show MBV put on for the Aragon faithful. And thank God, because since the day I bought these tickets, I had this small but nagging doubt that this band would be able to live up to the unbelievable standard set on the albums and EPs. Anyone’s who checked out live clips on YouTube might have the same anxieties. (As you might detect from my iPhone videos below, the camera phone probably isn’t sophisticated enough to accurately capture the pleasant onslaught on the senses.) I also had been experiencing so much joy from the anticipation of the event, I feared that perhaps I was setting myself up for a letdown.

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Bottom line: can the MBV experience really pay off in a live setting?

The answer is yes. No, it isn’t as precise and multi-textured as what you find on the studio output, but the spirit is still there. Gorgeous and lush, dreamy and dense, and, of course, loud as fuck. They still pass out earplugs at the door, with signs strongly encouraging everyone to use them “given the extreme volume of this particular artist” (I’m paraphrasing, but I think that was pretty close to the actual language). I kept them out until the last three songs; I think my friend Kory was the only person in the building who didn’t use them during the finale. (More on that later.)

So our gang of six (me, Kory, Nancy, Denise, Sam, and Travis) had a drink or two at a nearby bar, where I had blue balls.

(Wait, that sounds bad…)

Where I ate blue balls.

(Wait, that doesn’t sound better at all…)

Where I ordered a concoction that involved shredded chicken, peppers, and spices, all shaped into four spheres that were hand-breaded and fried, and then served over a bed of Maytag blue cheese dressing. This menu item was called “[something] [something] blue balls.” I ate those things. They were delicious.

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We entered the Aragon and snaked our way toward the stage as best we could. After a relatively short wait, the “mbv” logo from the new album appeared on the backdrop, and soon enough the house lights went down and out came the shoegaze legends. Well, most of them, anyway. So Kevin Shields starts strumming the opening part of “Sometimes” (a song I always thought was just an OK My Bloody Valentine song until Sofia Coppola used it to perfection in Lost in Translation). Debbie Googe was going to work on the bass and…well…um, someone else was playing a guitar.

Someone who didn’t look much like Bilinda Butcher.

And as someone with a minor crush on Bilinda Butcher, I really wondered what the hell happened to Bilinda over the past few years to end up looking like the drummer, Colm O’Ciosoig.

Until I realized it was O’Ciosoig, strumming away on a song that didn’t require his drum work. Whew.

Bilinda soon surfaced and we were off, bouncing around the catalog a good amount before the night was over. Naturally they played a good deal of Loveless (seven of the 11 songs), and five off the new album. We got three from Isn’t Anything (including one of my favorite songs from that album, “Nothing Much to Lose,” with its frenetic drum fills and guitar squelches bookending the nice verses and bridges) and a couple of songs from the EPs (“Honey Power” from Tremolo and “Cigarette in Your Bed” from You Made Me Realise).

Highlights? “Soon” was definitely cool, and was one of the renditions that probably came close to replicating studio sound. “Only Shallow” delivered, as Debbie just pummeled her bass throughout that one. I thought all the m b v songs sounded great; I was very happy to hear my favorite song from the album, “wonder 2,” and came away loving “only tomorrow” even more after hearing it live. That’s something that deserves mention: the new songs all sounded GREAT live. Really, there wasn’t a bum song in the whole bunch, and as you might note from the pictures, the visuals projected on and all around them were a nice complement to the performance. I especially loved the look during “To Here Knows When,” which you can watch below.

About the only thing that was a bit unpleasant was the way the crowd would become restless between songs. To be fair, there were noticeable gaps between songs as they prepared for each tune, but not everyone was equipped to handle the “uncomfortable silences.” In the video below you can see what I mean in terms of gaps; I hit record about the time I figured the song was about to start, yet I end up with 30-some seconds of nothing as my intro.

But let’s get to the finale, “You Made Me Realise,” infamous for “the Holocaust section” at song’s middle. When you hear the studio version of this song, there is a nice guitar riff intro and a harmonizing verse, a return to the riff, a second verse, the riff, a brief solo of sorts, and then about 45 seconds of repetitive guitar distortion and static and whatever else that builds and builds and then releases back into the standard riff, a final verse, the riff, and a crashing halt.

So live it’s pretty much the same thing, except that intense noise section builds and builds and builds for 10 minutes or so. For economic/fiscal nerds out there, think of the guitar/feedback/white noise in terms of compounding interest: each minute, it earns interest, with the interest earning interest and that interest earning interest, and so on. And while there’s nothing musically impressive about it, from a sonic standpoint it’s quite the experience. It becomes completely physical. (As Denise put it afterward, “I’m pretty sure that last song rearranged my internal organs. All of them.”) I wasn’t dancing by any means but I was grooving to it. The visceral response I had was impressive…almost as impressive as Kory eschewing the earplugs for the experience.

Eventually they crashed back into the main hook of the song, finished it out, and that was that. A band I feared would eternally remain on my bucket list, alongside the likes of Nirvana (argh) and the Beatles (born too late, of course), could now be written in “strikethrough” typeface. And it wasn’t a giant fail. At all.

2013 in live music is rivaling 2013 in record releases. Check back with Todd and me in December, when we tackle the impossible: cutting our favorite album list down to 20, and then ranking those 20 stellar albums. That’s a good problem to have.