canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Lemonade: Live
by Mary Prankster
Palace Coup Records, 2004

Reviewed by Michael Bryson

It wasn't supposed to be this way. A website devoted to Canadian small press books reviewing a live album by a USAmerican. What gives? Maybe it's the comment a friend said to me: "Tough chicks are cool." Maybe it's that old desire to keep trying something new. For sure it dates to a night back in December 2002 when I saw Ms. Prankster at Rancho Relaxo on College St. in Toronto. Her band had split from her after recording her then latest CD, Tell Your Friends, and she took to the stage solo with acoustic guitar. I knew nothing about her, but soon learned that she was woman of undeniable charisma, wit and intelligence -- and kickass tattoos.

See more of Mary Prankster at her website.

Lemonade: Live showcases 10 songs and some in-between-song-patter: "welcome to my late-twenties." Like many live albums, it's a kind of greatest hits package. Seven of the songs on the album are from Prankster's previous releases, three are previously unrecorded. For my money, Lemonade: Live is not the best place for a Prankster first encounter, but it is a love-in for committed fans of the albums Blue Skies Forever, Roulette Girl and the already mentioned, Tell Your Friends -- the most recent studio album ... and the one interested consumers should check out first, though those wanting a rawer Prankster experience should probably go for Blue Skies Forever, which includes titles such as "Tits and Whisky" and "Mercyfuck," two songs that have zero chance of getting played on mainstream radio.

Mary Prankster is, of course, not her real name. She's a persona rooted in the Merry Pranksters, the band of proto-Hippies ostensibly led by Ken Kesey, author of One Flew Over the Cockoo's Nest, and Neal Cassady, the object of Jack Kerouac's eye in On The Road. The Pranksters were the subject of The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by the godfather of New Journalism, Tom Wolfe. What Mary Prankster has to do with this group of 1960s swingers ain't exactly clear ... but the Pranksters did drive a multi-coloured bus named "Further" across the country ... and that's where Mary takes us. Into a space where life can be honestly confronted. And a place where goofiness is a key strategy for resolving life's conundrums.

Baby, you're a poseur
Honey, I should know
You ask me where the show's are
But then you never go

Poseur purgatory
Awaits you in the end
But that's not my story
I'll tell you why my friend

Got my Martens on with steely toes
Spike my hair and pierce my nose
I'm going up to Punk Rock Heaven

"Punk Rock Heaven" (from Roulette Girl)

This song is sung as if Prankster were a swinging 1920s flapper. It's an interesting song because it showcases Prankster's propensity to jump genres, but it also shows she's self-conscious of her lineage. Kesey, Johnny Rotten, our Sweet Mary as Ella Fitzgerald. Most recently, Prankster has been experimenting with country music stylings ... and Lemonade: Live includes her in full imitation twang, among other incarnations. Lemonade: Live is Prankster with new bandmates and a variety of cameo musicians. Like I said earlier, it's a bit like a greatest hits collection, but it also seems like a document of Prankster at a transitional moment. "Welcome to my late-twenties," she says right off the top. How much longer can she go on singing, "The world is full of bastards/ I've dated every one" among other such lines? 

As I was thinking about what to write in this review, I kept coming back to the question: Why do I think there is value in the songs? It's not the music, which is fine -- but could be from many other people. It's not her charismatic personality, which comes through in performance and in the recordings -- but there are thousands of charismatic people. 

Ultimately, I decided the songs have value because they're fundamentally honest. Some are funny, some are quirky, all shine with a bright intelligence. Honesty may not be a rarer commodity than groovy music, great teeth, and cherry cheeks, but there is a difference between confession and art ... honesty and art are mutually reinforcing; they make each other better; transform each other in an act of alchemy ... and Prankster, remember, is a "Prankster." As she sings in one song, "I know who I ain't." She presents herself as a mask, all the better to get at the truth (Bob Dylan, a man of many masks and much truth telling, started life as a Zimmerman).

And what of the songs? The earlier ones are goofier, rawer. The songs on Tell My Friends are more lyrically complicated. All of the songs shudder at pretense ("poseur purgatory/ awaits you in the end"). Finally, Prankster is capable of being both hopeful and hopeless in love.

I fucked a bunch of stupid men
Went back and fucked them all again
Was never much for romance anyhow

"New Tricks" (from Roulette Girl)


Wake up every morning
In the breaking heart of town
On the half of couch
I can't be bothered to fold down

Here's the thought that gets me
Out of bed and to the bong
What if I said
I could do better I was wrong?

"None for me" (from Tell Your Friends)

Not that it's all self-pity with Prankster. Actually, I don't think any of this is self-pity, it's just a scrupulous self-examination, a la John Lennon ("I'm a Loser," "Help!", "Mother"), about the challenges of finding a way through. Like Lennon also, Prankster can write lovely love odes:

You're an answer
In the form of a question
You're a riddle
That's just aching to be solved

If I many be so bold as to venture
A suggestion
Hey - I would love to see the way this gets resolved

Because you're hotter
Than an August in El Paso
And you're colder
Than a January 5th

And you tie my silver tongue up
Like a lasso
And your smile shines like
The ribbon on a gift

"Spill" (from Tell Your Friends)

She also does rage outs:

Heard what you said about me
You're better off without me
Heard I was begging you to stay

"Tell Your Friends" (Part One) (from Tell Your Friends)

It's this mixture of gloom and brightness that is at the centre of the title of the live CD: "I've seen the future/ And it looks like lemonade." Lemons may be sour, but they make a sweet drink. Life ain't so different. 

Here's my favorite Prankster lyric:

Shoplift ideology
So at a loss for leaders
When the flame-retardant books came out
They had to burn the readers
And the politicians' patriot pride
Seemed more convincing when they lied

Oh my melancholy baby
Is the whole world going crazy?
'Cause it can't be me who's mad
I got it bad, but it sure is hot in here

"Brave New Baby" (from Tell Your Friends)

As Michelle Shocked said, "Keep on rockin', girl. Yeah, keep on a-rockin'."

Michael Bryson is the editor of The Danforth Review. Photo credit for Mary Prankster with knife: Wenona R. Daniel.







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