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“The punch line” of Black Hole Buddha, explains Sean Harris, is “don’t fuck if you’re a girl.” Why not? “Because women are sleeping with men under men’s conditions, this ridiculous fast sex that lasts for a minute-and-a-half and results in the guy lying there panting, wondering if the Vikings are on TV on Wednesday and the woman having had no enjoyment, except for a very passing enjoyment that doesn’t lead to anything….Women only get off during two out of 10 sexual attempts; meanwhile the guy can be accidentally fucking the pillow and he’ll still get that orgasm, that moment that feels like forever.”
Peter Fox, Harris’ collaborator on Buddha, is squirming. Harris plows on—by withholding sex, “women would get what they wanted; they’d get what they needed, which is equality.” But wasn’t dealing pussy for power the bad old days for women? “First of all, in the 1950s, people weren’t withholding sex to get power for women. They couldn’t even fucking express that idea; it wasn’t in their literature. And the fact is, for much more than 50 percent of the world’s women, sex is consensual rape, and they just accept it instead of questioning it. I don’t think women even think about it, and that’s why I don’t respect them….I love women, but I wish they had more respect for themselves.”
The woman thing is only one of the demons being exercised—but hardly worked out—in Buddha, a CD and rock opera by Harris (book and lyrics, mostly) and Fox (music, mostly). Based on Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, in which the women of Athens and Sparta stop the Peloponnesian War by denying sex until a truce is called, Buddha’s heroes are four fed-up superbabes—a shaman, a mastectomied Olympic archer turned media mogul, a cannibal who hasn’t spoken since she was 13, and the gang leader, who may be God (more on that later). These comic-book Furies wreak havoc in the year 2000 by kidnaping, blow-darting, and eating chemical company executives. The shaman babe also has control of a deadly virus, and the God babe organizes a strike of all the prostitutes.
Harris divvies up his own preoccupations (media control, environmental destruction, and most poignantly, the future) among his leads, rendering them somewhat more distinguishable than Russ Meyer’s death-dealing dream girls. And the vixens do provide provocative personae for Fox’s lush, hook-filled pop songs, sung on the disc by D.C. divas Lisa E of the Zimmermans, Neeta Ragoowansi of Big Village, and Victoria Villalobos of Big Bang Theory.
Fox is a little defensive about the songs’ lack of grit (the first sax player they auditioned called it “candy-ass music”). He grumbles some about punk’s “enforced primitivism,” then shrugs. “Hey, I like simple, I like craft, I like a Lennon-McCartney middle eight. I think a bridge should be perfect.” Fox has been playing and studying piano and guitar since childhood; he’s labored over this, his first recording, for more than a year. The strings were arranged by cellist Tania Simoncelli; otherwise, Fox arranged all the music and played most of the instruments on the disc, which, according to roommate John Young, was recorded in his Mount Pleasant house “after the buses stopped running.” Fox’s painstaking musicianship is evident—this is the most unbasement-sounding basement album imaginable. The songs don’t exactly burn, but the best of them do linger like the summery confections of Phil Spector or Blondie. And that hummability quotient is important; they are, after all, show tunes.
Updating Lysistrata is clearly Harris’ thing; Fox reread the play recently and describes it as “kind of a one-joke deal; the soldiers are all running around with erections, talking about their cucumbers.” There’s more of a meeting of the minds over the other major plot thread—the one that has them billing Buddha as a “metaphysical musical” and that Harris claims “puts it into the Tommy league”: Two male detectives investigate the disappearances of the chemical executives; one has the virus and may die in 24 hours, and the other one is the universe (sung by lounge singer Mark Greene). According to the elaborate CD booklet, which spells out the plot along with the song lyrics, the universe dick thinks the gang leader babe is God and wants to know why “‘I have to be a rubber band and snap back into nothingness’….She laughs as she gives him a woman’s answer: ‘If I were you, I wouldn’t spend too much time thinking about it.’”
There’s nothing new in men marking the metaphysical high ground as their territory and designating as feminine the seething, unthinking muck of nature that they’re wrestling with: Camille Paglia is only the latest enabler of this long and noble tradition. Yet the “woman’s answer” is at the heart of both Fox and Harris’s philosophical worldview. They say their work on Buddha included not only brass arrangements and lyric-tightening but lots of reading—Buddhist teachings, studies of Joan of Arc, and psychedelic curios like Terrence McKenna’s Archaic Revival. The last, says Fox, “asks what if the reason human beings are here is so the universe can figure out why it exists, to give voice to that thought, that impulse.” Detective Universe and the other characters in the play find that, as Fox puts it, “there’s nothing out there, but that means there’s everything. Everything’s possible.”
These aren’t just dorm-room abstractions for Harris, who was diagnosed with cancer three years ago and “spent a year in the fetal position, weighing 122 pounds,” undergoing chemo, and being literally gutted. The cancer was not caught early, and he still faces bleak two-year survival odds of 50-50.
Harris worked large in his earlier projects with the Betapunks—huge casts of characters with immodest agendas like destroying or saving the planet—and he blows up his mortality to a universal scale on Buddha. His girl gang deals death not only to the executives and the virused detective but, with its no-sex agenda, presumably to the human race as well. As Lisa E sings a cappella on “Say No to Save the Future,” “Say no to save the world…/Don’t lie in a man’s bed if you’re a girl.” (I asked the singer what she made of the contradictory implications of extinction and redemption in the song, and she cautioned me, as Harris and Fox have, to “not take it too literally.”) “Rescue Me” addresses “falling into the big black hole” more directly: “I’ve got to find a new design/Find some mutant genes…/I want to recreate myself/And live a million years.”
Before the cancer and Buddha, Harris wrote, produced, and promoted an astonishing five movies and three plays over a period of several years, but he fends off the “artist” label. In Buddha, he claims, “we never tried to do anything we thought was artistic.” It’s a little late, though, for a timid disavowal from this obsessed storyteller: The guy has cast a whole opera with his fear and self-loathing, and his labyrinthine contempt for and identification with women. And he’s always soaking up ideas from the literary, scientific, and pop-culture canons (the male canons, that is; he never does mention just-say-no soulmate Andrea Dworkin). The arm’s length Harris keeps from his own process serves his work: The telegraphed “messages” about his more thought-out environmental concerns invariably gum up his narrative works. His best movie, Uncle Paddy’s Wake, explored a dysfunctional family reunion with wit and economy but was bogged down by the inevitable rants against Exxon. Buddha benefits not only from the raised stakes in Harris’ life and his evolving dramatic skills, but from Peter Fox, who provides some of the shaping that Harris’ sprawling creations need.
Fox and Harris share a sky’s-the-limit optimism and ambition for their project. They’ve had nibbles from record companies and theater people; Harris hopes the New York success of the late Jonathon Larson’s Bohéme update Rent will open some doors. Yet the entertainment product that they’re exhaustively and amusingly flacking (there’s a shampoo tie-in) doesn’t bear their names. Black Hole Buddha credits “Regular Joe Rahula” for the music, and no fewer than three aliases substitute for the slippery Harris.
Fox initially worried that the self-produced CD wouldn’t be taken seriously because he’s the entrepreneur behind a $4-million business. “I can’t call myself an artist….I’m the guy who started Burrito Brothers.” Harris, however, claims the use of aliases was “strategic,” noting, “We’re not famous yet.” CP
The dozen-member Black Hole Orchestra will perform Black Hole Buddha’s songs, and filmed scenes from the play will be screened April 26 at 9 p.m. at the Central Armature Works, 625 D St. NW. $8. Call (202) 387-5323 for ticket information.