There’s, of course, the 1990 film Ghost, starring Patrick Swayze and Demi Moore. Then, there’s Kesha’s claim that she had more-than-platonic relations with a spirit in 2012.
Joseph Keckler, however, says that none of these inspired “Ghost Song,” his most recent bit of alt- lieder released on YouTube.
“I had no idea,” he said in an interview. “In my case, I was inspired by fucking a ghost.”
“Ghost Song” opened Keckler’s performance at Joe’s Pub on Thursday night. The song—which is about an artist residency in the woods that turns freaky—works well live.
Though it was distracting that English subtitles to the song’s Italian lyrics had to be projected on a screen overhead, it was really the only solution. Especially in this mostly monolingual country.
While Keckler’s singing voice—from velvety bass-baritone to theremin-like falsetto—is astonishing in its range, his speaking voice is surprisingly monotone. It’s oddly calming, in its own way.
But, because of it, the spoken introduction to “Ghost Song” really needs audience laughter for momentum. Thankfully, there was plenty of that last Thursday, even after some of the less-funny lines.
“It touched my arm! The other arm!” sings Keckler. “And it felt…”
The “moment of contact” is interrupted by Matthew Dean Marsh’s rolling piano. Then, Keckler sings, “Ho fatto sesso con un fantasma!”
“It wasn’t traditional sex. No, it wasn’t ‘normal,’” sings Keckler, rolling his eyes “But it was chill.” This is followed by ghostly “oooohs” that Keckler sings in his head voice.
What didn’t work as well live was “Strangers from the Internet.”
As the video played on screen, Keckler sang into a microphone off in the corner. With the sound of crunching nachos beside me, it felt a bit like a weird TV dinner.
Keckler’s “Goth Song”—about guy with a desk job who is distracted by the allure of buying emo clothes online—also translates well to the stage.
When Keckler sings, “I must have this vinyl,” it’s with a maniacal, elfin voice, evoking Erlkönig. At one point, an offstage plant chimed in with “Ein grufti!”
“‘Goth Song’ is my conscious Schubert tribute,” said Keckler in an interview. “In some parts of this one—because of how I wrote it, and other parts, because of how Matthew plays it—‘Ghost Song’ feels a bit French Impressionist. It’s really an intuitive blend. Schubert was one of my two top Sp*tify artists this year, however, and the other was Bob Dylan.”
The weakest part of the night was Keckler’s “birthday party” monologue, which went on for far too long.
If anything, I would have liked more analysis of whether Keckler is or isn’t a vampire, which was mentioned offhand and never revisited. “I don’t go to bed,” he said. “I simply collapse at dawn”
Other Lieder included one about a midnight Amtrak ride on New Year’s Eve. “The unmasked, the unhinged, these are the people of the ground,” sang Keckler with impeccable comedic timing.
Another song featured a chorus of animatronic frogs singing “Jingle Bells.” Another, about the 2012 apocalypse that never happened, included the clever rhyme “afraid of dying… blame the Mayans.”
Keckler accompanied himself beautifully on piano in the only cover of the night, Nina Simone’s “I Put a Spell on You.”
In “GPS Song,” about an ex-lover who called Keckler “baby potato,” the refrain “recalculating, recalculating, recalculating, recalculating” becomes absurd, funny, dark, and sad.
The encore was about Keckler’s mentally ill friend Milly (who earlier appeared in the “birthday party”) At first, the under-practiced song sounded shaky, but Keckler salvaged it with the quip, “It’s a song about dementia, so I have to live it.”
Keckler detests labels. “I’m a writer and singer and some sort of creator (but not a creative.),” he said in an interview. “People should use categories if and when they find them useful, grounding, clarifying, rather than confining. As for me, and for the moment, I believe I put it best when I was twenty-one, in a short story called Andragon—“I’m a liquid asset in the economy of desire.”
Asked whether there’s such a thing as “highbrow” and “lowbrow” culture, Keckler responded, “The terms you mention originate from phrenology and have as much credence at their core. Artists have played with these designations—entire movements have strategically embraced both the ‘lowbrow’ label and related vocabularies.
“There’s a history of intentional kitsch as well. My position is that there are possibilities in every form. When someone announces, ‘I like everything except [insert genre],’ that often has to do with an unexamined cultural bias more than some refinement of taste.
“As an artist, I perform in bars, clubs, museums, ‘high’ and ‘low’ places, for many different sorts of audiences; I’ve wanted to stay outside any particular economy and play multiple angles at once.
“As an audience, I am interested in experiencing art that has layers, cracks, empty spaces, and new possibilities of pleasure—I want something that can change my life! Something free and freeing that could last a long time… into an afterlife.”
I’m not sure if Keckler’s performance at Joe’s Pub changed my life. But it definitely didn’t shorten it.