philip sumner


Vincent Gallo: The King of Conceptualism (

I’ve been a fan of Vincent Gallo’s since a screening of The Brown Bunny at the Nuart Theatre. This was soon after the Cannes debacle and the curse, the notorious billboard, etc.

At the Nuart I found his film to be a carefully crafted, beautiful piece of work. The elements; the van, the motorcycle, the wardrobe; seemed thoughtfully and lovingly considered, and the care put into these things glowed from the screen. To those within the audience who were receptive, it was an aesthetic philosophy. I certainly will never think of Gordon Lightfoot the same way… or Jackson C. Frank. Come on. I was floored by this film.

What is seldom, if ever, mentioned when The Brown Bunny is discussed is the tension that spreads through the audience as the climactic scene nears. I had never felt anything like it in a movie-going experience. The air seemed thick. And this, the finale to something that moments ago felt on its own so entirely different and new.

After the film, the Q&A began. Gallo’s answers were thoughtful and delivered in a fierce, intelligent manner. I witnessed something very special. Something modern, well planned and real. Something that pushed the language of film and aesthetics into the future– and right here in my lifetime. I didn’t have to look back for Godard or Dylan. (I’d term Gallo the “anti-Dylan,” as Dylan relies on mystery and avoidance in interviews.) I didn’t have to wonder what any of those revolutionary times were like– those moments you read about. This was mine, it was right here and, thankfully, far more subtle.

Vincent Gallo and Sean Lennon at the Red Devil Lounge, San Francisco

So here now, five years later I find myself catching a flight up to San Francisco– literally hours before the show– to see Gallo perform at the Red Devil Lounge with Sean Lennon. I had read about RRIICCEE and felt I had a good idea of what I was in for: it was to be an example of spontaneous composition. This concept though turned out to be much more complex and its reception certainly differed from my expectations.

Sean Lennon played first with his band, or rather, with his girlfriend, Charlotte. Together, they compose The Ghost of a Saber Toothed Tiger (The GOASTT). Their set was fairly traditional. I found Lennon’s voice and presence soothing and was impressed by his kindness, self deprecating humor and skilled guitar work. Charlotte’s vocals were wonderful as well. It seemed clear her personality was well balanced by Lennon’s, and they were very pretty together. They finished their set, Lennon’s guitar blaring and cutting through the room louder than all the other sounds of the night.

Then came Gallo, and here is what literally happened: He, Lennon and Woody (whose name was mentioned once by Lennon) walked on. Gallo sat in the corner, his back to the audience, and played alternately guitar, bass and a melodica. Woody played a synth and sometimes guitar, Lennon played drums and guitar.

They played melody lines and simple progressions that melded into each others’. At times Gallo created different levels and tones of feedback. There seemed to be a moment fairly early on in which the three came together and the very unstructured sound, sonically nearly crescendoed. It did not. At another point Gallo played a touching line on the melodica. Again, as the trio moved toward unison, the momentum dissipated and the moment ended. Gallo sang a short, delicate, improvised song, and they walked off stage. Throughout the show, the din of the crowd had grown, and with their departure, the crowd’s confusion continued.

Later, Lennon played a set with Bob Weir, and the crowd hooted and hollered to traditional tunes like “Oh, Boy!” and “Pretty Peggy-O.” Gallo stood off to the side as a line of girls 15-to-20 deep waited to meet him.

Anthology was quite a different venue, an upscale dinner and Jazz club. This time Gallo took the stage first. He was joined by Rudy and two other performers. His only comment to the audience was to the effect of “We’ll play first, The Ghost of a Saber Toothed Tiger will play next.” They started with two players on drum sets at opposing ends of the stage, Gallo on guitar, and the other performer (a young girl in a red dress with a flower in her hair) sat on the floor with a keyboard. Gallo played facing away from the crowd on the far corner of the stage.

The band was projected onto a large screen above; the image looked as though there was no band playing. At times Gallo glanced upward at the image and seemed to remove himself farther toward the outskirts of the frame. Again, there was a buildup somewhat reminiscent of the pre-show tuning of an orchestra, and the group played into what nearly became a song. This time, due to the superior sound of the club and the extra players, the sound was large, and full and spread out– built of the intertwining melodies, loops and beats. In all, this, the first movement of the night was subjectively the most impressive, although it seemed the audience had not yet realized the show had begun. As soon as it seemed the song was found, one that could satisfactorily be improvised and embellished upon, it dissipated.

The show went on similarly. Gallo played melodica and bass. He sang more than at the Red Devil, and the quality of his voice was apparent here on the better system, his notes floating among the other instruments. One vocalization was similar lyrically, though not structurally, to another he sang at Red Devil. The final vocal was lyrically compelling, though I won’t document the lyrics here. They left the stage with a quiet “thank you” to the audience, who had chattered throughout the performance.

Lennon and Charlotte played their set next, and again it was traditional singer-songwriter, and very well done. Again Lennon’s guitar work and, more notably, his progressions were very interesting. I look forward to reading through The GOASTT’s lyrics, as they were hard to catch at times.

Much conjecture ensued through the nights following each show, in the cold parking lot of the Travelodge in San Francisco, and, ironically, over a cup of Ghirardelli’s chocolate in San Diego. Why was there so little contact with the audience? Why was his back turned? Why was the audience allowed to disengage itself? My friend Leona thought perhaps we were over-thinking things. I did not.

Gallo is, after all, the man responsible for arguably the most controversial and best film of the 90’s, and easily the most controversial and most progressive of the new century. This is the man who just finished working with Coppola, who lived briefly with Burroughs, played with Basquiat and who collects hi-fi gear 99.99 percent of the population can not even dream exists. EMT turntables?? The man whose 300-square-foot apartment was worthy of a magazine spread. Yes, the same man who gained the friendship and respect of Mr. Discipline, Johnny Ramone. Whether or not Gallo had the charisma to charm a crowd was not in question. In fact, a few words of explanation would have done the trick. Whether or not his actions were calculated was not in question.

After the first show, late into the night, I declared Gallo’s performance “perfect” to Leona. I did not fully understand why yet, but I knew that in its own way, it was. We had both yearned for the audience to be controlled and impressed– or at least for them to have been more receptive. That had not happened. I was beginning to understand that that was not an objective, though. And I was beginning to understand the magnitude of Gallo’s conceptual confidence, his willingness to commit to his conceptual vision.

Gallo has said: “I’ve been booed before, my parents booed me. No booing is going to hurt me.” And over the years he has made it known that he is not afraid to attack public figures with whom he disagrees or who have meant to harm him in any way– Kusturica, Harmony Korine, Tarantino, Christina Ricci, Roger Ebert and Steve Albini, to name a few.

This drums up publicity, but as well, lends an element of protection and personal preservation. You would be hard-pressed to find more vicious public attacks than those expressed by Gallo. In turn, you would be hard-pressed to find someone else who so determinedly injects their own personal, singular vision into the public spectrum. Vincent Gallo, the man with “the vengeance of a thousand men,” whose explanation of the public’s expressed opinion toward himself is most closely mirrored by that of Charles Manson.

I thought about my last moments in the Red Devil Lounge. Leaving, I’d passed Gallo and the line-up of girls and glimpsed his interactions. In them there was a sense of delicate joy and love. But it was more than that. It was as if a girded wall had been built and above it flew something gentle and light, understanding itself to be free in its recognition of its own safety. (Even that is not quite right, and I’ve been trying to express this feeling for four days.)

After the second show, falling asleep in my bed after a long drive home, I tried to figure out the riddle of these performances. I envisioned myself walking onto the stage, not knowing what I’d play or sing. I realized that the thought of addressing the audience did not sit well in this imagining. What would I say? Would I explain my intentions? Would I say: “We are going to approach these instruments innocently and play them as if none of us has any experience? We are going to try and find new voicings and if it seems like we slip into something redundant we’ll stop and laugh with you? We’ll chat about it?”

I envisioned facing the audience, but it didn’t make any sense. How would I make the presentation when it does not yet exist? I imagined quieting or controlling the audience, and it seemed wildly narcissistic. I thought of how our waitress had all but apologized for his act and how the bathroom attendant had put him down. I thought of the drunk lady outside the club shouting, “The one night I come out and this is what I get?” And then I fell asleep soundly, but before I did, I remembered Gallo saying to Howard Stern (of all people), “One would have to be slightly unpopular to have a profound vision”