Licks, literature go head to head in cerebral rock 'n' roll reading / McSweeney's crowd, They Might Be Giants perform at Stanford

San Francisco Gate, April 29, 2003
by James Sullivan

They Might Be Giants, the long-running absurdist popsters from Brooklyn, find song material in the most unlikely of places. On Sunday afternoon the group anchored an odd duck of an event at Stanford's Memorial Auditorium, performing songs about the sun, President James K. Polk, pedestrian safety and being dead, among other things.

It was just weird enough for the celebrity fun bunch of Dave Eggers' literary journal McSweeney's, several of whom, including Zadie Smith, Sarah Vowell and Eggers himself, were on hand to read from their work. Their presence added an amusing extra dimension to this nerd-chic sock hop, dubbed McSweeney's vs. They Might Be Giants.

A while back the band recorded a CD for issue No. 6 of Eggers' deeply quirky, erratically published "quarterly," instigating a match made in free- spirited heaven. Fitting as it is, the McSweeney's-Giants pairing almost didn't happen, joked Eggers.

"They said it was wrong," he said. "They said it was immoral. They said people would get hurt."

No one, to the best of our knowledge, got hurt Sunday, though the dead person in the song about being dead did, in fact, remain dead. But lots of folks in the sold-out hall left with smiles on their faces, and they say that's good for the health.

Eggers, celebrated author of the new-breed memoir "A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius," is well known for the pranks he has pulled at his bookstore readings -- slide shows, bus rides for fans. With the current McSweeney's road show he has formalized the act a bit, making it a gathering.

With trademark cheek, he compared the show to famous historical happenings: hippie festivals such as Altamont ("without the Hells Angels"), the original dada salon of the Cabaret Voltaire ("without the lobster costumes") and the contemporary desert spec-

tacle Burning Man ("without the middle-aged men riding bicycles naked").

The core They Might Be Giants duo of guitarist John Flansburgh and keyboardist-accordionist John Linnell, accompanied by a touring group of three guys named Dan, acted as the show's house band. (They play tonight and Wednesday at the Great American Music Hall.)

They indulged Vowell, the onetime San Francisco writer best known for her contributions to public radio's "This American Life," with a song featuring her lyrics. They noodled like a lounge band during a short story by Zadie Smith, the award-winning author of "White Teeth," and they played a tongue-in- cheek version of the Alan Parsons Project's "Eye in the Sky" when Eggers goofed on it in his story.

The adorably cranky Vowell, author of the essay collections "Take the Cannoli" and "The Partly Cloudy Patriot," read a piece that epitomized her bookwormy, social studies-loving persona. At one point, recalling a field trip to the inane witch-hunt tours and gift shops of Salem, Mass., she interrupted herself to note that Flansburgh is a direct descendant of the founder of Salem (great-grandson 12 times removed, he hollered from the shadows.)

Bay Area resident Don Novello, the comic writer who played Father Guido Sarducci on "Saturday Night Live," read from his collected letters to the rich and powerful, including Hugh Hefner and Saddam Hussein. The latter, he said, was written just a few days ago. Eggers read a story about a 13-year-old boy enjoying his sexual awakening by daydreaming about the matronly woman whose lawn he mows. Clearly autobiographical -- painfully, hilariously so -- it was full of the excruciating cultural signposts (Duran Duran, "That's Incredible") that have helped make the writer a pop phenomenon all his own.

After an intermission, They Might Be Giants returned for almost an hour of unembellished music. Unembellished, that is, by the literary guests. All of They Might Be Giants' music is embellished by the two Johns' near-identical nasal deadpan.

Some of the faculty types chose to opt out of the rock portion of the program, so the band invited audience members to fill the empty seats (and aisles) down front.

"Supersize your show!" suggested Flansburgh, but they'd long since accomplished that.