Articles in the Oct. 18 Weekend section and the Oct. 21 Style section about They Might Be Giants incorrectly identified the producer and distributor of "This American Life." The program is produced by WBEZ in Chicago and distributed to public radio stations nationwide by Public Radio International (PRI). (Published 10/22/02)
Whatever this was, it was billed as McSweeney's vs. They Might Be Giants, and it was a Friday night of poets and short story writers and one of the most inventive bands in contemporary music.
Whatever this was, an enthusiastic Dave Eggers -- in burnt-orange shirt and jeans -- hosted it, and in his never-resting campaign to become a brand name, "Dave Eggers" proved to be delightful and self-deprecating.
Most of the 1,300 young students, old hippies and soccer parents who showed up at Lisner Auditorium at George Washington University seemed to revere -- and revel in -- the written word.
Even if you've been living in a cave, you probably know that Eggers is the youngish author of the 485-page fiction extravaganza "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius" and editor of McSweeney's, a literary quarterly that, Eggers says, is published three times a year.
He is almost too hip for words. But words are his weapons. Last year he collaborated on an issue of McSweeney's with the Grammy-winning band They Might Be Giants, famous for "Boss of Me," which is the theme song of the TV show "Malcolm in the Middle," and the James Bond-spoof music from "Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me." Together they created this antic roadshow, which is on a multi-city tour. On this night there were a handful of performers, including witty essayist Sarah Vowell and short story writer Arthur Bradford.
The evening got off to a surreal start with the Trachtenburg Family Slideshow Players, a Seattle-based ensemble. Jason Trachtenburg -- a Rick Moranis look-alike and act-alike -- plays a campy little keyboard and sings lead vocals. His pigtailed daughter, Rachel, 9, is the drummer and backup singer. Wife and mother Tina operates the carousel slide projector.
Jason laid out the group's post-postmodern premise: They buy old slides at estate sales, make up stories about the people and places in the pictures and then write funny, creative and slighting, biting songs about the unfortunate subjects of the photos.
Their first number, "Look at Me," set the tone for the whole show. This was a night of look-at-me lyrics and literature.
Eggers kept the show flowing by introducing each act. Bradford read a short story about becoming a dog while accompanying himself -- mostly with the same old four chords -- on three different acoustic guitars. He smashed two of them onstage for reasons unknown and unnecessary.
Vowell, a regular contributor to National Public Radio's "This American Life," tickled the crowd pink when she read -- in a thin, history-major voice -- from one of her essays. Here's a for-instance: "The most bizarre episode in Puritan history is the Salem witch trials. Twenty innocent people were executed in Salem during the witchcraft hysteria of 1692. Which is horrifying, yet manages to make for a surprisingly nice weekend getaway."
The centerpiece of the show was the truly smart rock-and-roll-and-well-read band They Might Be Giants. Indeed, they just might be.
Many in the crowd came mostly to see the Giants. Led by John Flansburgh and John Linnell, the band, which has been together for two decades, played its catchy history lesson "James K. Polk" and other favorites.
Whatever this was, it was less than a concert and more than a reading. This was tailor-made for the literocki.
There were some home-run moments, when stories were enhanced by songs. As Eggers read a comic middle school French-kissing scene from his new novel, "You Shall Know Our Velocity," the two Johns from the Giants occasionally broke into appropriate melody. And the Giants fashioned a song from a short poem in Vowell's piece: "Gallows Hill and Andersonville / It could be worse, it could be worse."
Writers have tried -- with mixed results -- to integrate music into their work. Beat poet Jack Kerouac read his cool-daddy poetry accompanied by a jazz combo. And writers have acted like rock stars. Stephen King, Amy Tan, Dave Barry and others formed a rock-and-droll band, the Rock Bottom Remainders, a few years ago. Madison Smartt Bell recently recorded several songs to go along with his novel "Anything Goes."
The McSweeney's revue, with its odd melange of tunes and tales, was like a well-crafted college follies or a talent show at a creative writing retreat. This was performance art, at times more the former than the latter. This was flawedville.
The Giants are no strangers to performance artists. They once shared a stage with a man who counted in German while standing beside a naked armless guy.
Around 10:30, the poets and writers retired and the Giants took the stage all by themselves. They soon had the crowd pogo-going in the aisles and singing along to songs every bit as literate as many of the short stories and poems you find these days in avant-garde literary magazines.