On Feb. 3, 2010, the 43rd anniversary of Joe Meek’s death, Miami-based dancer and choreographer Ana Mendez presented Tribute, a performance art piece dedicated to Meek, a cult rock icon who made his name as a recording engineer in the UK. Pablo Pagan of Pagan Films was there to document the event on camera. On Nov. 16, Sweat Records, in Miami, will hold a screening of the results (click image at right for magnified information).
I was fortunate to see this extraordinary production in person. It had the Center for Visual Communication filled to capacity with more than double attending than the seats could hold. People crowded and sat on the floor right up to the edge of the stage.
As the lights dimmed to near darkness, a pair of arms (belonging to Mendez) drifted through a curtain of magnetic tape to play a piercing, high-pitched drone on a Theremin for several minutes (thankfully, Pagan’s film version diminishes the abuse to the ears). When her arms slipped back into the darkness of the film, the curtains were drawn and smoke wafted from the stage as an army of Joe Meek clones wearing dark shades and black suits and ties tore into a powerful rendition of “Johnny Remember Me,” a Meek-produced pop song by John Leyton that made it to the top of the British charts in 1961. I have placed this part of Pagan’s film on YouTube, with the blessing of the filmmaker himself:
The film carries on with a soundtrack of abstract tape loops performed by Richard Vergez, who also donned the iconic Meek look. Vergez perched himself on what seemed to be a reproduction of Meek’s bedroom-based laboratory. Vergez, who has been composing experimental/ambient music on the Miami scene under the name Drowning the Virgin Silence for several years, said the music was both inspired by and contained music produced by Meek. In an email, Vergez explained how he concocted the soundtrack:
“When originally asked by Mendez to join the project, I set out to create something close to Meek’s concept album I Hear a New World, only somewhat abbreviated to fit the structure of the show. A lot of it contains actual elements from Meek’s recorded work, manipulated to fit the score I was working with. Stuff from New World is included, mostly looped in certain sections and then me adding guitar and analog noise on top. I wanted to find a way to highlight and reconstruct the more experimental techniques Meek used in his original recordings. “Telstar” and a few others of his more pop productions appear chopped, delayed, reversed, etc. within my soundscapes. Most of the music I composed is electro-acoustic and more on the ambient side. For the show, I used playback on the material I had prerecorded, but also improvised live in sections using a shortwave radio and a few tape machines run through effects.”
Accompanying the strange soundtrack, and the true centerpiece of the event was an abstract dance featuring the same musicians who performed “Johnny Remember Me” and Vergez identified as Federico Nessi, Liony Garcia, Alex Puentes, Ricardo Guerrero, Rick Diaz and Sleeper.
Garcia, Vergez pointed out, was the only classically trained dancer of that group. “Alex Puentes and Ricardo Guerrero play together in the band Animals of the Arctic,” Vergez stated. “Guerrero’s solo project is This Heart Electric. Rick Diaz plays in Ha Ha Help, occasionally collaborating with Guerrero as well. Nessi and Guerrero, along with Ana Mendez, founded the performance troupe Psychic Youth Inc., which has expanded to include many different members and collaborators, such as myself.”
For the next 30 minutes or so the Meek clones took to the stage to perform Mendez’s choreographed tribute to Meek. As ignorant to the world of dance as I am, I shall not feign the ability to describe what I saw. Suffice it to say, I witnessed a form of controlled chaos in movements that varied between spastic fits to calculated stomps, not to mention the precise birth of a pentagram on the stage via masking tape placed by several of the dancers during the routine. Mendez would later join the troupe dressed in flowy ethereal white for the climax of the performance.
This performance-art “séance” eerily unfolded on the anniversary when Meek murdered his landlady and then shot himself. The dark circumstances surrounding his death, not to mention his growing irrelevance to pop music at the time of his death, left him an obscure footnote in rock ‘n’ roll lore. As England’s pop scene– a pale copy of the teen idols and surf bands produced by the US– began to be overshadowed by groups of songwriters who recorded and performed their own music (think the Beatles), Meek’s stamp of over-compressed quirky sounds became trite and irrelevant.
When recalling the sixties sound, Americans like Phil Spector and Van Dyke Parks became touchstones, not Meek. Even the revival of lounge music in the nineties celebrated people like Mexico’s Juan Garcia Esquivel over the UK’s Meek.
All this in mind, it was quite a surprise that Mendez and her Miami-based Psychic Youth Inc. art collective staged a production in tribute to such an obscure music icon like Meek. The production values, for a one-night event were extremely high. Thanks to Pagan, who also had a hand in the staging, the event was immortalized on video and will finally have a public screening at Sweat. The UK-based Joe Meek Society has rightfully acquired a copy of the film, Pagan has informed me.
Also available on the night of the screening and for a very limited time, is the soundtrack to Tribute by Vergez on CD. “I will be including all the music I created for Tribute on the soundtrack, even one piece which was not actually used. Also on the soundtrack will be the original version of ‘Johnny Remember Me’ as well as another Meek production, ‘Tribute to Buddy Holly’ by Mike Berry & the Outlaws, which is quite appropriate considering Meek and Buddy Holly died on the same date, February 3, also the date of Tribute. This last song was used to close out the show.”
The screening, which also includes live musical performances that followed the show by Harry Merry (Netherlands), The Electric Bunnies, and Dino Felipe, begins at 8 p.m. There will be complimentary cocktails, as well.
I leave you with Leyton’s hit version of “Johnny, Remember Me” (with a video montage that includes Meek, as well as Leyton’s TV performance):