Monday, August 29, 2005

You Sort of Leave Your Skin

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."

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.
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.
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.

The Pixies, my friend, can 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!

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.


Bobby Lightfoot said...

More and more, I'm attracted to the part where it ends. Then I can go home and flush my head.

Anonymous said...

This post rocks, Neddie.

As you pointed out in your recent Rolling Stones post, though, part of the attraction of these shows for the apathetic bankers with comped tickets is that they'll see a show in the theatrical sense rather than the rock sense. Big props, scripted moments, and fake spontaneity are necessary if you're going to justify the ticket costs.

For what it's worth, there was a recent show in Philly that sounded pretty cool. The show took place in a venue that was apparently extremely hot. In a gesture that typifies the abstemious oughts, a band whipped out a $100 bill and asked a member of the crowd to run out and buy everyone there some water. Not sine-wave perfection, but cool nonetheless.

Simon said...

Ugh. Crowds. I could never stand large groups of people. School, sporting events, live music. No thanks! A crowd is just a mob without the unifying force of purpose.

Now *playing* music, that I could understand. I've only had three experiences when i realised you could gain respect simply for playing music.

My year seven music class: (13 years old). The metalheads get the guitar, drums and bass. The teacher gets the slightly out of tune piano. One of the girls gets the electric piano. The rest of us are all given those little toy xylophones and told to hit the C on the first beat of each bar.

We play 'Smoke on the Water'... (Seriously). The sound of 5 real instruments and 20 xylophones 'bonging' away. It's horrific.

I think 'fuck it' - if i'm going to be patronised i might as well patronise back, so i play the riff. On the toy xylophone.

Ding ding ding, ding ding ding ding...

The teacher stops. "Simon, you're not hitting the note"

"I'm playing the riff." I don't see why I need to explain myself. Surely that's more interesting than going 'ding!' once a bar.

"You're confusing everyone else, just play the note or you'll go to the office."

I play the note.

Later in the year a few guys are in the classroom jamming on 'Twist and Shout' in the break before class. The bassist is only hitting the root note at the start of each bar. It doesn't rock even remotely.

I slowly walk up to the electric piano. It's three chords, and my sister's played her Beatles records enough. I've know McCartney's part by heart.

I let rip with the bassline, playing off the drummers somewhat shaky time. Even keyboard bass suddenly makes the song *work*.

One of the guys comes over and watches my hands.

"What are you doing?"

"Playing the bassline. I know the song, it's an easy part."

I'm hoping he'll be impressed. he watches my hands some more. Maybe they'll ask me to play with them.

"Cool." He nods, in time. "Now fuck off". He puts his hand over my face and pushs me away, then starts playing the part instead of me.

Everyone congratulates him on how cool it sounds now.

Just before the end of term in the break at the end of class they're playing Van Halen's 'Jump'. The keyboardist gets his part wrong *every* time. (Can you think of an easier part that that? And I don't even like the bloody song!)

They start packing up to leave and I watch them go. As the door closes, i walk up to the electric piano, turn the sound down *really* low and play the part, and I get it spot on the first try.

I turn the piano back off and bow to my audience of no-one, then leave for my next class.

And that, my friends, was the last time I ever played music with other musicians.

Anonymous said...

Pah! I fart in Aerosmith's general direction, especially after reading the latest rocking vicar which tells of Steve Tyler's Face Spray Roadie. Rock with a silent C.

The Viscount LaCarte said...

I blame Kiss.

Seriously good post Neddie.

The newly revitalized Allman Brothers Band just gets up there and kicks ass. It is all about the music.

When I was living in NY around '93, I got tipped off that Donald Fagen was going to do a suprise gig at some small club in Manhattan. I got there early with a couple friends and grabbed a table up front. The band included Will Lee on bass and Steve Ferrone on drums. They warmed up the crowd with some rock and roll. Then Donald came out, Then Phoebe Snow. Then Pat Metheny. Phoebe held a lyric sheet for a couple songs. It was an incredible moment.

I know you like Joe Jackson. From his album "Blaze of Glory"...

"Well nowadays there's a lot of guys like Johnny
they got it all worked out - like working 9 to 5
But they're all just cartoons - all think they're Superman
but they can't even fly"

Kevin Wolf said...

Never been too quick to go to live shows, esp the large scale rock concerts. (I'm thinking of an REM show in an arena that was far more trouble than it was worth.)

But there've been some good shows, certainly. John Hiatt rocked the house in Northampton once. When my drunk buddy was run over by one of Hiatt's break up songs he yelled out at the end, "Hey, did you know my ex-girlfirend?" Hiatt: "Yeah and she was some fine bitch too." After the show, though, Hiatt was perfectly nice - "Oh, you're the guy with the ex-girlfriend."

Though Elvis Costello's stuff has gotten increasingly uninteresting, he did make an interesting comment when he started branching out from his rock/Attractions years: Rock concerts were getting too predictable. You could guess the ending.

Anonymous said...

I read this article too and loved it. I thought it was a great idea for him to bring a 12 year old to an 'NSYNC concert to explain to him what he wasn't getting.

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