1996, Fall - World Of Wax

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World Of Wax

A great challenge touring bands often face is finding some form of amusement that is unique to the location and takes only the brief amount of time available. What can a visitor to say, St. Louis do in the hour between lunch and sound check that he or she can't do at home? Indeed, this particular city presents some difficulties to the business traveller in search of some quick local color. Generally TMBG stays in a cobblestoned neighborhood adjoining the famous arch along the Mississippi River called Laclede's Landing. Some time ago the district was completely renovated with old-timey street signs and bad restaurants with fake antique names to attract the out-of-towner. It's the kind of thing that tends to annihilate any sense of history that may have existed there in the first place. Instead, Laclede's Landing offers a richly contemporary American experience, impersonal in its attempts at personality and folksy in ways it does not intend. The folksiest place I've ever seen in St. Louis is the very personal Laclede's Landing Wax Museum. Across from an ornate post with four clocks stopped at four different times, the museum is easy to miss, especially if you're repelled by T.J. Booger's and the Dirtwater Fox and are trying to get the hell out of there. I've stayed in Laclede's Landing about 20 times and I only went in there for the first time recently.

The first sign that this was not going to be your slick Madame Toussaud's type establishment was that the woman who took my money was having some kind of personal crisis. After I stumbled through the pitch dark exhibit I came back downstairs and politely told her that the lights were off. She was effusively apologetic. "This has been a really hectic day here," she said in a tearful voice. "Busy?" I wondered. "Actually you're the first customer," she replied.

One of the personal and folksy aspects of the museum was that nothing looked finished. Dioramas trailed off into debris and incomplete carpentry, blurring the line between representation and real hackwork. Sometimes the debris was fake debris, like the diorama showing the world leaders during World War II looking resolute amid a heap of broken stonemasonry, and sometimes it was bits of junk visitors had carelessly thrown into the mix.

There's something exciting about the failure of modern technology to make a convincing looking fake human. You'd think that by now the great artisans of waxology would have perfected their craft to the point where you couldn't distinguish the beeswax Marie Antoinette's vitality from that of the 10 year old girl staring at her. Oddly, one of the major stumbling blocks still seems to be the hair. For some reason every figure in the museum looked as if they just returned from a camping trip and didn't have time to shower. Even the characters with famously un-kempt hair, like Albert Einstein, were that extra bit disheveled, pushing them into the Don King bracket. It made me wonder what Don King would look like in wax. It made our bass player Graham Maby wonder what I would look like.

In spite of the trouble they were obviously having maintaining the collection, the Wax Museum's creators came up with some ambitious extra work for themselves. The Six Wives of Henry VIII exhibit was equipped with a malfunctioning motion activated recording which abruptly lurched into the middle of a recorded text when you approached the glass and then randomly stopped and started regardless of whether you moved or stood still: "-atherine of Aragon... intelligent companion...shown here with his six...of Cleves...six...Henry..."

At a certain point it seemed like they created wax figures for which there was no setting or theme. These figures were stuck together randomly, or so it seemed. Was there a connection between Salvador Dali and Howard Hughes, who shared a display? Hughes was represented in his late period, after he had gone into seclusion and grown his hair and moustache, so maybe they were pointing out a peculiar resemblance between the flamboyant artist and the eccentric millionaire.

The museum came into its own downstairs in the Chamber of Horrors. I think of the existence of the Chamber of Horrors as a kind of formal obligation in a wax museum, and it may not be sincerely scary if the sculptor's heart isn't in it. Vincent Price played such a lofty artiste in the 3-D horror movie "House of Wax," when his character decried the pandering of the Chamber of Horrors just before he was nearly burned to death by his evil partner and changed his mind. No such qualms stymied the creators of the Laclede's Landing Chamber of Horrors. Everything that made the historical figures upstairs look fucked up and disturbing was well employed in the service of horror down here. The untidy workshop of slapped together human parts put one in mind of Ed Gein. Cardboard signs with things like "HUNCH BACK NOTRE DANE" written with an unsteady hand in magic marker leaned against truly horrifying artificial ghouls. The devil stood smiling between two devil-high piles of human guts. Even more worrying, there was a female figure oddly reminiscent of the ticket taker lying dead with her hand in a baggie of sleeping pills. A lot of thought and imagination went into this place, as though the artists had been saving it all up. And yet, the style was consistently unpolished and crude. On a wall covered in splashes of fake blood there was a note scrawled in pen which may either have been some visitor's graffiti or further proof of the museum's blunt originality: "TWO PEOPLE IN HERE LIVE."

In contrast to the art brut of the museum in St. Louis, New Orleans has a disciplined and carefully organized wax museum which is focused on the history of this fair city. The Museé Conti is located on Conti St. in the famed French Quarter of New Orleans, the home of many homeless people and the haunt of millions of loudmouth drunks. Most visitors wouldn't find any lack of entertainment in this colorful town, and it would be small of me to argue with that, but for my part I don't really drink and I already spend too much time in noisy clubs so I'm usually in need of some quiet daytime activity. Picky, picky. We performed at Tipitina's in New Orleans last fall and the next day I paid the Museé Conti a visit.

Like the St. Louis museum, the Conti had a handmade look, and also more or less failed at blowing one's mind with its realism. But the Conti had an earnest mission to inform and illuminate, and in this regard it did not disappoint. It was organized chronologically, with a polite and understated Chamber of Horrors at the end, and the visitor was funnelled unerringly through the exhibits in the correct order. Beginning with the first European settlement at the mouth of the Mississippi, I time travelled forward through the Louisiana Purchase, and several dioramas before the Battle of New Orleans I heard an eerie creaking, scraping sound which made the hair on my neck stand at attention. It turned out to be the sound of a mechanical device in the chest of a dying soldier which made his chest rise and fall and simulated his moribund gasping.

Further on was a riverboat poker game gone sour, with one player getting shot in the chest by another as aces spilled from his sleeve. Mark Twain was shown entering the room at that precise moment and scowling at the lurid scene. I was repeatedly informed that the exhibits were historically accurate in every detail.

The sordid history of "Storyville" was depicted. This was the old red light district which has since been razed and turned into the shopping district where a runaway barge made some further renovation after we left. The scene representing Storyville showed two prostitutes under a streetlight pulling each other's hair as a band of pre-teenaged musicians played some unimaginable tune on homemade instruments. The accompanying text identified the group as the "Razzy Dazzy Spasm Band" whose "news-boy" members sported "jive-talk" nicknames such as "Warm Gravy, Family Haircut, etc." It seemed like an unlikely piece of information to find it's way into a museum, but it made me wonder if there will ever be a diorama in some future wax museum of New York showing waxy likenesses of Richard Hell and Lydia Lunch.