Hey! Orpheus

Sometime afterwards I recall “Hey! Orpheus,” a song by Michelle Mae’s group The Make-Up.

Vocalist Ian Svenonius’s Prince-like, Eros-stricken shrieks of pain — a signature of his performance ever since the days of his band Nation of Ulysses — are put to good use throughout amid a sound aligned with and inspired by organ-laden psychedelic pop groups of the late 1960s. Michelle slides her finger down the neck of her bass and sets the song in motion, with drummer Steve Gamboa and the rest of the band leaping forth to join her moments later.

The band adopts the guise of a collective subject — Earthlings, mortals, “We the Living” — singing through Ian to an Orpheus other than the Black Orpheus of midcentury France.

“Hey! White Orpheus,” he sings,

“Do you remember us?

We’re up in the sunlight.

You’re down in the furnace.

Hey! White Orpheus,

in the Earth’s crust,

open up all the doors,

come on and bury us.

Living there, down below,

gave your soul to Pluto,

all for your Eurydice.

I want to eat pomegranate seeds.

White Orpheus,

don’t be so jealous.

Up here it’s the age of elephant ears

laced with angel dust.

Hey! White Orpheus,

from dawn to dusk,

you’re oblivious

to anything other than

your sacrifice for love.

Living among stalagmite floors,

bellows pumping Devil’s calls.

To be like you, what must I do?

I wanna eat the pomegranate, too.”

Organist James Canty interrupts to deliver a punchy, powerful organ solo mid-song — perfect for a work that revels in speed and brevity. Contemplating the song now, though, I find myself wondering after the whiteness of its Orpheus. Why does the band recast the color of Orpheus from black to white?

Black Orpheus is a 1959 film made in Brazil by French filmmaker Marcel Camus. The film reimagines the myth of Orpheus set amid a favela in Rio de Janeiro, so it has its hero Orfeo descend into the underworld by attending a Macumba ritual to save his lover Eurydice on the night of Carnival.

The Make-Up, meanwhile, a band based in Washington, DC, preached a variant of liberation theology that they took to calling “Gospel Yeh-Yeh.” Might their recasting of the color of Orpheus teach us something about the tenets of the band’s theology?

My inquiry leads me to “Black or White Orpheus: Votive Transmutation Shrine,” a 34-minute jam by Portland-based artists Corum & Zurna.

The Spread

Tarot: great modular graphic novel, arranged in a spread and read by super wise super cool Sacred Expanse rock-witch Michelle Mae. I’ve been a fan of hers since 1995, when I saw her band the Make-Up on a bill with Fugazi and Slant 6. Michelle has me set intentions. I share with her my questions for the cards — “What should I be open to? How do I make the best of the year ahead?” — and, upon her instruction, also voice them again silently, eyes closed. She pulls the spread: lays it out on a table, explaining that it can be read both linearly and holistically (i.e., taken as a whole). The two of us then proceed to do so as follows. She introduces the cards one by one, naming them, raising them into my field of vision one at a time, without my knowing at any given point until the end how many there are in total. “Some difficult cards,” she reports. “Two of them major arcana.” Michelle helps me make sense of what she admits with a laugh is a bit of a crazy spread. She sends me afterwards a sacred Tibetan meditation practice, urging me to approach it with utmost respect.

I am to visualize my demons sitting across from me.

I am to ask them what they desire, and I am to feed it to them.

By these means, the instructions suggest, we convert out shadow self into an ally. We become whole again, filled with a sense of power, compassion, and love.

The Session

Mind blown by the experience of seeing musician Michelle Mae’s group The Make-Up perform at Irving Plaza in the spring of 1995, the Narrator had kept up with Michelle’s bands over the years. Never, though, had he met Michelle in person. Life is like that sometimes, especially for those of us with rich fantasy lives. Rarely do we get to sit down one-on-one to converse with the heroes of our youth.

“But early last September,” notes the Narrator, “I did exactly that.”

Thanks to a most excellent gift from his friends, he had the pleasure of meeting with Michelle and working one-on-one with her on Zoom in her capacity as a tarot reader.

She appeared onscreen sitting at a table in her home in Tucson. “I remember noting in the room behind her,” notes the Narrator, “a handcrafted besom leaned upright against a gray stone hearth.”

“There were some difficult cards in my spread,” confessed the Narrator to his friends in the days that followed. “But Michelle is super wise, super cool. She helped me see what the cards might be trying to teach me.”

News from Tucson

There came a time in the Narrator’s life when the best thing he could think to do was to seek the help of a tarot reader.

And sure enough, he was confronted soon thereafter with a way to do so. The opportunity presented itself, he recalls now in retrospect, at a backyard barbecue one afternoon last summer. “I was there chatting with my friend Saylor,” says the Narrator. “The latter, newly returned from the desert, leaned in and shared some exciting news with me.”

“You’ll appreciate this,” said Saylor with a grin. In the course of his summering in Tucson, he explained, he’d begun to hang with tarot reader Michelle Mae.

“Saylor had good reason to assume I’d be wowed by this news,” adds the Narrator, “as indeed I was, for as I’d confided to him in the past, I’m a longtime fan of Michelle’s band The Make-Up.”

So much so, in fact, that when asked to name the best rock concert of his life, the Narrator always refers to a Make-Up show — one he caught in high school. Make-Up shared a bill with two of their Dischord Records labelmates, fellow DC punk superstars Slant 6 and Fugazi. “What a night,” says the Narrator, recalling the show proudly now in hindsight. “Seminal. Life-altering. I was sixteen years old at the time. The Make-Up were a new band, so I hadn’t heard of them prior to that evening — but I liked and admired frontman Ian Svenonius’s former band Nation of Ulysses. As for the other acts on the bill, Fugazi and Slant 6 were as good as gods to me in those days. All of it blew my mind.”