Attendees at a Green Day Concert, 2001
Fine, fine piece in Sunday's Washington Post Magazine by David Segal, "Memoirs of a Music Man," about Creeping Phonyism in big-name rock shows. Segal was a rock critic for the Post for several years but has now given it up for a beat in New York. Segal writes passionately about something he and I have shared since we were both 12 years old -- an incurably romantic belief in the transformative power of the Bacchanalian excess of Rocking Done Right.
I don't think we're alone in this, ol' Dave and I. I think most folks going to a show, be it a small club or a huge stadium gig, have an inkling of an expectation of some sort of Tribal Moment, some kind of Kozmic Koming Together when the vibrations from both the audience and the performer coalesce into sine-wave perfection, a joyous Yes! that (if we're completely honest with ourselves) might be just a little sexual.
The problem is that rockers and those who run them have cottoned on to the importance of this Money-Shot Moment, and have taken to larding them deliberately into performances. He recounts a detail of an Aerosmith gig he saw in which Steve Tyler grabbed hold of a conveniently placed trapeze, thrilling the punters:
It's fair to assume that Tyler rode the same trapeze in the same spot during the same song at every concert that summer.... The whole trapeze thing was almost surely dreamed up before the band strummed the first note on the tour. There was probably a trapeze roadie, with instructions that read "9:15, hand Perry an Aquafina. 9:18, go get the trapeze."I think with a little sadness of an Iggy Pop gig I witnessed at the Peppermint Lounge somewhere in the mid-Eighties, in which the Igster climbed a wobbly amp stack and then treated us to a view of the Magnificence That Is Iggy through some flimsy, tearaway trouser fabric. Thrilling then, yes, but in retrospect... Dammit. Calculated.
That's the way pop concerts are these days, especially large ones. Everything is choreographed, even the parts that seem unchoreographed, and there is no room for unplanned derring-do.
You know about the great Live Concert Moment, right? I'm not talking about the kind of show where you leave thinking, "Those guys rule!" and then buy a T-shirt. I'm talking about total-body bliss, a rush so strong it turns brain cells into Jell-O and, for a moment or two, you sort of leave your skin. Art lovers would probably argue that they get the same feeling by looking at a great painting, but they're fools, and you should ignore them. A good part of what I'm talking about here is sheer volume. A painting can be many things, but it will never make your ears ring.I do have a collection of Moments that, like Segal, I treasure. Talking Heads, Forest Hills Stadium, 1983 -- David Byrne unveiling the Big Suit. Wow. XTC, Cleveland Agora, 1981, making the transition from hairy-chested art-rockers to omnivorous synchretists between Black Sea and English Settlement. James Blood Ulmer, CBGB, 1982, Coltraning away on that wonderfully weird jury-rigged guitar of his -- to a rapt audience of exactly three -- me and Wonder Woman and my roommate. Going to see the remnants of The Band at the Lone Star, watching some guy before the gig trying to serve papers on Rick Danko, who did the most expert melting-away act I've ever watched; a surprise Bob Dylan joined for a two-hour drunken hootenanny. James Chance and the Contortions playing for me and about six other people in a ridiculously tiny club in Columbus, Ohio -- Psychotherapy Through Sweat!
The Pixies, my friend, can make your ears ring.
But the Moments get fewer and farther between. There are lots of things to blame for that -- my own cynicism and lowered expectations being in no small way responsible. Still and all, you have to feel some small frisson of jealousy at what Segal characterizes as his Favorite Moment of them all. I'm mostly green-eyed because I had every intention of being at this show, as I'm a huge fan of Squeeze, but didn't make it out of pure apathy:
But the greatest Moment was a solo show by Glenn Tillbrook, the former lead singer of the now-defunct British band Squeeze. Just him and an acoustic guitar. Near the end of the evening, at the tiny Iota Club in Arlington, he posed a question. How many people would like me to play the next several songs in the parking lot? It was nearly unanimous. We trundled out the door, maybe 50 people, led by Tillbrook, who took his place on a ramp in the rear of the club and played -- unamplified -- the Squeeze classics "Pulling Mussels (From the Shell)" and "Goodbye Girl" while people danced under the moonlight. It was my kind of ecstasy. Then the cops came and shut it down, after complaints by neighbors, which made it even better.This was voted the Best Concert Moment of that year by the Washington Post -- no doubt at Segal's impassioned urging. Would have been mine, too.