No Lactards Allowed: The Pizza Underground @ Brooklyn Bowl
“Do you guys like pizza?” asked Macaulay Culkin moments after emerging on stage at Brooklyn Bowl. “Do you like rock songs about pizza?” The actor, smirking at the crowd behind dark sunglasses, was met with affirming cheers. (Not that 99% of people would say “no” to either of those questions.)
Culkin and his four bandmates–collectively known as The Pizza Underground–were opening for Aesop Rock and Kimya Dawson’s group The Uncluded, but a headliner-worthy buzz of anticipation filled the room prior to their set. In December 2013, just weeks after Lou Reed’s death, the band announced itself to the world with “The Pizza Underground Demo,” a nine-minute medley of Velvet Underground parody songs containing pizza-related lyrics. The pun-filled recording instantly went viral. There’s something bizarrely intriguing about the sadness of losing Lou Reed, the universal appeal of pizza, and millennial nostalgia for Macaulay Culkin all coming together at once.
Poker-faced and dressed in black, the band launched its 30-minute set with the medley heard on the first half of their demo. It featured snippets of songs like “Papa John Says” (“Stephanie Says”), “Beginning to Eat the Slice” (“Beginning to See the Light”), and “I’m Waiting for Delivery Man” (“I’m Waiting for The Man.”) “Cheese Days” (“These Days”) was one of the set’s longer songs, during which the entire band sang about favoring cheese over all other pizza toppings: “I had Meat Lover’s / I don’t think I’ll risk another / Cheese days.” A projection of spinning pepperoni pizzas ironically swirled on the screen behind them.
The Pizza Underground is musically minimalist, which allows its lyrics to take the spotlight. The band’s “drummer” beat a drum stick against an empty pizza box the entire time; other instruments were a guitar, a keyboard, a glockenspiel, and a kazoo occasionally played by Culkin. Lyrically, some songs are more creative than others. There are genuinely clever lines that reveal the band’s deep knowledge of various pizza-eating experiences: “Come from Domino’s / 1-2-3 / More than 30 minutes and that pizza is free / I’m waiting for delivery man.” Then there are songs that are more about the raw feelings created by the presence of pizza–for example, when the band replaced the words “sweet Jane” with “Pizzaaaaa!” (This one is acceptable, though, because “Pizzaaaaa!” is a legitimate expression of the excitement one feels when the delivery guy arrives.)
After playing some songs that weren’t on the demo–most notably, “I’m Little Caesar” (“I’ll Be Your Mirror”) performed with a well-executed Nico impression, and a version of “After Hours” that included the line “If you close the box / I’ll never have to eat it cold again,” things got considerably weirder. Culkin invited his girlfriend onstage to sing a duet that he called a “cheesy love song,” which was a version of “I’m Sticking With You” that literally was all about cheese. It seemed apparent by midway through the show that The Pizza Underground is an inside joke-slash-art performance shared by Culkin and his friends–and this became more obvious as the set progressed. Inexplicably, a group of people dressed as cats ran out and carried The Pizza Underground offstage. They performed a long dance to “We Didn’t Start The Fire” with a slideshow of adoptable cats projected in the background.
The Pizza Underground returned for a rendition of “Venus in Furs”–“Sizzling, sizzling / Sizzling slice of pizza”–and then Culkin abruptly asked another question to the crowd: “Did you ever wonder what the songs of Nirvana would sound like in the past tense?”
Enter Toby Goodshank of The Moldy Peaches wearing a blonde wig and a replica of Cobain’s famous black-and-red striped sweater. The band introduced him as “Kurt Cobained” of the band “Nevermound,” then exited the stage once again. Goodshank performed a mini solo-set medley of Nirvana songs with the lyrics changed to the past tense, including “Smelled Like Teen Spirit,” “Came As You Were,” and “All Apologized.” His deadpan delivery of lines like “Came as you was / As you were / As you wanted to have been” was an unexpectedly hilarious set highlight.
The Pizza Underground came back to impart their final medley on the equally amused and confused crowd. This time, the audience was treated to “All the Pizza Parties” (“All Tomorrow’s Parties”) and “Pizza Gal” (“Femme Fatale”). The band saved its version of one of Lou Reed’s most famous songs, “Take a Bite of the Wild Slice,” for last. Culkin concluded the song with a raucous kazoo solo.
Just as no one expected that Lou Reed would release an album with Metallica, no one ever expected that the kid from Home Alone would one day play an elaborate joke-show based on the concept of pizza/Velvet Underground mashups. Lou Reed’s death initiated an era of abundant tributes to his work. Many are heartfelt and moving, while others–The Pizza Underground’s performances in particular–adopt the spirit of unorthodoxy that defined him as an artist.