Not being from New York, I always thought the city was sort of in love with itself. Now I realize that New York is in love with what it used to be as the city’s original artistes bemoan 21st century tourism the same way the gangsters of Casino shuddered at the idea of a family friendly Las Vegas. Those living in the Big Apple during the late ‘70s and early ‘80s who are still around today tend to look back at a pre-Bernard Goetz era fondly, where the prospect of “making it” in the big city was just as romantically appealing as getting wasted by a criminal. They loved their artists poor and their neighborhoods slummy. Stories thrive in these conditions, and the slaying of a waiter outside a restaurant known as the Binibon is just one of them.
Writer/criminal Jack Henry Abbott had recently been paroled, thanks to the efforts of one Norman Mailer who in Abbott saw a blossoming talent and possible research aide. His prison life memoir/manifesto In the Belly of the Beast was about to achieve important critical acclaim. He was going to contribute research to Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song. He was on his way to being the toast of the literary world. All of those perks were just around the corner for Abbott when he decided to knife a waiter to death outside the east village restaurant Binibon in 1981. Ever the volatile and tortured artist, Abbott spent the rest of his life blaming his surrounds, the penal system in particular. He took his own life in his jail cell in 2002.
Avant-garde guitarist Elliott Sharp was at the Binibon that night, though he did not witness the murder. In fact, he was just leaving as Jack Henry Abbott and his entourage entered. This near-miss story had quite a profound effect on Sharp, who seems to struggle with the murder to this day as if he were an eyewitness himself. This is the basis for his radio play Binibon, which fuses murky New York with Bohemian New York, since the Binibon’s 24 hour kitchen made it a magnet for artists.
The music of Binibon is its most appealing trait. Positioning himself to the side of the stage, Sharp sits in the dark and makes noise that never competes with the monologues. Sometimes they’re even outshined by the monologues, no doubt an intentional move to provide mere background for historical drama. As one would suspect, the music itself reflects violent murder with equal parts chaos and tension, one never completely overriding the other.
Unfortunately, Binibon isn’t all music. No, the program is dominated (invaded?) by awkward soliloquies and sometimes meandering singing meant to set the scene and tell the story of Binibon’s final days. Jedediah Schultz, giving voice to Abbott, delivers his lines in a forceful manner meant for the stage rather than the recording studio. A night shift waitress at the Binibon is portrayed by Queen Esther, serving as a more level-headed (and level-voiced) character in the proceedings. Then there is Sonja Perryman as “Contessa,” a woman so distorted and ragingly pissed-off that you can barely understand what she’s yelling about. What her role is in the story isn’t clear, but she is quick to remind you that “hey artists, think you like blood? You don’t!” Duly noted.
These are minor complaints in the presence of sci-fi author Jack Womack’s libretto, whose hammy delivery undermines all of the drama, humanity, and inhumanity of the story. Sounding like a cross between Ben Stein and the criminal Snake from The Simpsons, Womack bridges all of the separate stories with such labored cadences in his voice that it’s a freaking relief for me to finally write this review—it means I won’t have to listen to his voice again. And his voice is all over Binibon, from the second track to the last track. He even interrupts Jack Henry Abbott’s lines at one point to observe “now there’s a man who digs metaphor”. At first, it sounds like a lounge singer joke. By the end, you’re ready to leave New York.
Although the overall concept of setting a real life murder to some pretty out-there guitar music is awfully fascinating on its own, Binibon will fail to reach many listeners as it gets bogged down in details. If you frequented 24 diners in Manhattan at the height of the No Wave movement, this program will certainly have greater meaning for you. For everyone else, you’re left out in the cold. The name-dropping of subway stops, a flamboyant character that spits so many words yet says so little, the spastic and drug-addled ravings of another writer who didn’t get a proper introduction—it all just amounts to how, in one way or another, New York is still in love with its older self.