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Will the Real Tony Clifton Please Stand Up?

Who knew that Andy Kaufman's alter ego didn't die with him? The current incarnation of Tony Clifton tells us much more than we need to know.

There are those who "got" Andy Kaufman and those who didn't. The line wasn't gray. One of the most polarizing comedians of modern time is laughing from beyond the grave as his inspired creation, the paunchy, racist, foul-mouthed, third-rate lounge singer Tony Clifton, packed the house at Chicago's Lakeshore Theatre Oct. 12. Kaufman and his partner in crime, Comic Relief founder Bob Zmuda, regularly traded duties portraying the leisure-suited Clifton, baffling talk show host David Letterman and terrifying the late Dinah Shore by pouring eggs over her head. The bit never aired, but the legend grew. Both Kaufman and Zmuda vehemently denied their involvement in creating Clifton, which is beside the point. Clifton is a living, breathing, behemoth of anti-comedy, his persona so foul and antics so outrageous that one is left slack-jawed at the sheer audacity of his being. Clifton's live show is a throwback to Rat Pack-era Vegas Revues, the stage filled with his Katrina Kiss-My-Ass Orchestra and his backup singers and dancers the Cliftonettes. Presented by Comic Relief as a benefit for displaced artists of Katrina, Chicago got over four hours of Clifton (set times vary, depending on Clifton's inebriation) and the audience was bombarded with extremely racist, sexist, and hilarious jokes, lit cigarettes, and cocktails. After the show, I was whisked backstage for an exclusive interview with Clifton, and began by asking what prompted his comeback, and what he had left to prove.

"I've seen it all, my friend," barked Clifton in his nasally register. "I got arrested down on Bourbon St. and they threw me in jail. Comic Relief came forward and asked me to front the Katrina Kiss-My-Ass band as a benefit for Katrina victims. The band said to the judge, 'Don't put Tony in jail. Let him do community service for the charity.' So that's why I'm here. I've got 60 hours left in my community service. Believe me; I need this gig like I need a fucking shotgun blast to the face." When asked where he's been for the last 25 years, Clifton replied, "I've been playing soccer stadiums in Third World countries. I fill 'em up. These US gigs are small time, bozo shit to me. I heal people in those Third World countries, and that's a fucking show. These Mexicans roll in on wheelchairs and I place my hand on their heads and pretend to heal them, because they're stupid there. I don't charge 'em much either, and that's why I fill up the stadiums. In US currency I charge them around 85 cents. They come in, and if they don't have the change, I tell them to bring canned goods or a young daughter."

Clifton's show is an endurance test, both for the audience and for the performers. Speaking with his keyboardist before the show, I learned that several players recently left the band after a Clifton tirade. For what is in practical terms a novelty act, the show is elevated by the terrific backing band, which is a ramshackle collection of New Orleans musicians and Katrina victims. Show-stopping renditions of Chicago's "25 or 6 to 4" and an epic version of "The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald" brought the house down, the latter dedicated to the memory of Gordon Lightfoot, who Clifton mistakenly presumes dead. Add the showgirls, Clifton requested audience ejections and gallons of booze, and the performance took on a nirvana-like transcendence from satire into full-blown extravaganza. "We have 126 songs nailed," said Clifton. "Talk to anybody who has seen a show and they'll tell you that we change it up. We put the list together 3 minutes before the show, because I don't want anybody getting stale. You come see Tony and you get a fucking show. I'll do anything. I'll fucking throw lit cigarettes and give out free booze."

One of Clifton's on-stage antics involves chasing and groping his "daughter", the beautiful Keely Smith who Clifton presumably adopted after he picked her up hitch-hiking outside New Orleans. "She's fucking hot, isn't she?" growled Tony with a libidinous sneer. "I'm taking her to Hollywood to make her a star. That was my promise to Keely, in addition to banging her every night backstage." Mauro Di Gioia, Clifton's artistic director, explained that it takes a strong backbone to work with Tony. "It takes a kind of misfit to run away and be a part of this circus," said Di Gioia. "They not only have to be great players, but they have to have the right personality. We've had several people leave because they couldn't handle Tony. [Clifton cackles maniacally in the background.] Tony was unhappy with some of the guys and ... it takes people with a thick skin because Tony can get real ... real quick. You gotta be tough and wear your ego on your sleeve."

Due to the mysteries and hearsay surrounding his past, I asked Clifton to set the record straight about his history and his relationship with Andy Kaufman. "Andy Kaufman died for my sins, and I will not insult his death by not committing 100% in my act, even though he was kind of a fucking little Jew bastard," said Clifton. "But he put me on the map. In 1969 he came to Vegas and saw my act. Then he started doing an impression of me, and he became famous. After I heard about this, I tried calling Kaufman's manager George Shapiro, the guy who Danny DeVito played in the Man on the Moon movie, and the guy won't take my call. About a week goes by and I'm getting nowhere trying to get this Jew bastard to speak to me. So a friend of mine says, 'You know how to find a Jew? Get another Jew.' So I hired a big shot Hollywood Jew lawyer to get in touch with that other Jew bastard Shapiro to tell them that Kaufman is using my name to get places by riding my coattails."

"They thought I was such a fucking loser that they could just steal my act," sniffled a visibly choked up Clifton. "I've never gotten any respect. It's always been very hard for me. But in the end Kaufman did the right thing. He told Shapiro, his Jew manager, 'From now on, you book me with Tony Clifton.' So I would then go on Letterman, Merv Griffin, Dinah Shore, and they would think I was Andy Kaufman. I'll never forget when David Letterman said to me during one of the commercial breaks, 'Andy, if I didn't know that was you I'd swear it's someone else.' Little did that prick know that it was really me! Big fucking sophisticated Letterman who knows everything ... fuck him! He still doesn't want to talk about it ... talk about egg on the face. Then there was the time I threw eggs over Dinah Shore's head. That never made the air. She was dripping eggs, and it was like that movie Carrie where the broad had pig blood dripping all over her. Charles Nelson Reilly was the other guest that night, that little gay fucker. He got so scared that he ran back to his dressing room. Jean Stapleton, Archie's wife, was there as well and she ran to her dressing room and locked herself in. She was terrified. She thought that Tony Clifton, being played by Andy Kaufman, had lost his mind and was killing people. Honest to God, that's true. It was beautiful."

After over four hours onstage, it's clear that Tony has energy to spare. During our interview, he intermittingly hollers and catcalls his dancers, and it is clear that he is relishing every moment of being Tony Clifton. As he gives me a big bear hug on my way out, I can almost spot a twinkle in the eyes hidden behind those dark glasses. "I can't play by the rules," said Clifton. "It's not in my D.N.A. I'm a song and dance man. I do it because I love it. It doesn't matter if there are two, two hundred, or two thousand people. I perform for my fucking self. I'm working for free. I'll never take a nickel for performing, unless it's in a Third World country."

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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