Thursday, December 13, 2007

5000 words about seeing Neil Young at the Tower 12/9/07

Philadelphian Chrome Dreams: 12/9/07.

caveat: this is more of a personal essay than it is a critical review of a two and a half hour performance. My words often veer into territories of bias and heavy charge. And in the end the piece that follows is probably at least as much about me as it is about Neil Young and his band and his music. But at least in my mind it all connects very strongly with the night of Dec 9th 2007.

Also, some typos and grammatical errors are still probably mixed in

Part I: the Build Up

It's been a long time since i've been as excited about a show as I was about Neil Young playing the Tower Theatre. Any friend who's had any contact with me in the last month can probably tell you that I've asked them at least 3 times "Did I tell you I'm going to see Neil fucking Young on December 9th?" Each time I'd say this I'd have a huge grin on my face.

In the past couple years I've really deepen my Neil Young fandom. 2 years ago I was just someone who had a handful of his albums and always enjoyed listening to him whenever he came on the radio. But then I read two books on him nearly back-to-back:
Sam Inglis' Harvest book from the 33 1/3 series of short books focusing on particular albums. And after enjoying that I dove into Jimmy Mc Donough's exhaustive and dense Shakey biography.
Through Shakey especially Neil came across as a tireless, self-deprocating, eccentric, moody, and at heart good-natured genius whose personality seemed quite similar to mine (minus the propensity towards cocaine and alcohol abuse in the mid to late 70s)
Within a year I owned the majority of his albums in either CD, shared file, or used vinyl format. I found myself greatly enjoying his questionable early to mid 80s genre-hopping period and also enjoying various bootlegs of concerts and outtakes.
And I became familiar with the line-ups of his various bands ad his his ongoing love/hate relationship being the sometime Y in CSN &Y.

I told myself, next time he plays in the area i have to go. So when the Chrome Dreams II album and acoustic + electric tour were announced I got quite excited. But since he was playing theatres that held a couple thousand as opposed to the arenas he could easily fill, I knew this was gonna be an expensive ticket. As dates went on sale, i realized it was even more expensive than I had anticipated. I was preparing myself to bite the bullet and pay $80 to get floor seats near the front. But it became clear this wasn't an option. Floor seats were $160 face value, Lower balcony were $99 and the nosebleeds were $64.
It was immediately clear it was gonna be nosebleed or nothing. I could afford the $160 for floor. But it would hurt, a lot, and I'd feel dirty. As it was, $64 for the "cheap" (heavy emphasis on the quotes) was more than I'd ever paid for a single evening's concert. But I knew I had to get in the door. It was just a question of home much I'd grumble before I gave the MAN my money. I might feel dirty for spending so much money on a concert, but I knew I'd regret it if I didn't go. And when it comes to legendary artists who are 60+ who've lived less than gentle lives, the threefold question always arises: how much longer will they a)be alive b) be performing live and c) be any good at performing live.
There probably would be other opportunities to see Mr Young after this tour, but realistically, this could be the last time (cue the Stones riff, just for the heck of it!)
Maybe. I don't know.

Now $64 face value rarely means just $64 when it comes to rock tickets. There's a sadistic little thing that's so accurately called a "convenience fee." $10+ added on just because you couldn't make it to box office in the one 4 hour window it was open. And then there's shipping charges, because god help you if you choose free shipping and the plain envelope with the 40-something odd cent stamp on it doesn't arrive. Ticketmaster assumes no responsibility (eg Sigur Ros in Portland, 2003)
If you've gone to any concert in a venue bigger than a bar in the last decade, you know all this, but it's still a pain. I've made it through all sorts of obstacles
to get tickets in person, to avoid the service charges. Once I rode my bike 45 minutes in the rain to go to the regional Clear Channel box office only to be told I still had to pay $3.50 in "convenience fees" because it was apparently so easy to haul my ass out to some god forsaken suburb named Bala Cynwyd to then have the privilege of laying down $40 (cash only of course [in small, unmarked bills?]) for a concert .
Well at least it wasn't the $15 i'd have had to pay if i went for the convenience of buying it online. I considered myself lucky, but come on, this is rock n roll not getting a quart of milk from the local 7-Eleven! Convenience Fee my ass! The "Charging you a few bucks more just because we can and really what are your other options anyway?" fee is more like it.

For Neil at the Tower, I did have a surcharge-free option, and that was showing up on a saturday morning and waiting for the box office to open at 10AM. But I work most Saturdays and was already on the schedule when the on-sale date was announced. So with a very solemn face, I informed my boss that a "family issue" had come up and that I couldn't be at work at my normal 8am arrival time, but could definitely be there by 11. "Family Issue" was ambiguous enough to not require too many explanatory lies and the studied gravity that I used when informing my boss of this nebulous "issue" discouraged further questions as to the details of said issue.
It could be a death, it could be a sickness, it could be my sister's addition to demerol, it could be my girlfriend's unwanted pregnancy. It was rude to ask. So I didn't have to elaborate. I got the morning off and my lie remained white.
Still, things were getting dirty. I'd not only lied, but also conceded to paying more than I'd ever paid for a concert before to have the privelage of watching Neil shoveling whatever he felt like shoveling into my ear. The focus of the tour hadn't been announced. He could be playing 4 hours of Boys II Men covers for all I knew.
But I was willing to bet that a rare small venue tour would call for pulling out some rare chestnuts from the sprawling back catalog of Neil Young/Crazy Horse/Santa Monica Flyers/Stray Gators/International Harvesters/ (though hopefully NOT from the slim catalog of the Shocking Pinks)
Now if tickets go on sale at 10am, one can't just waltz up to the box office at 10am expecting to get choice seats or even any seats at all for a date as hot as Neil Young. A certain amount of camping out would be necessary. So I got to the box office at 8am with some coffee and a good book. Already 2 people were ahead of me, seated in folding lawn chairs, but not bad I thought. Still I knew I wasn't gonna get "good" seats. I was obsessive enough to sit on the sidewalk for two hours but not enough to pay the $160 for floor tickets. Two hours with my ass hurting would get me nosebleed seats IF I was lucky.
There was also the internet to reckon with and the quick-fingered/ hyper-refresh fans and scalpers all across the country just waiting for the stroke of 10. There would be no special allotment for the box-office said the lady working to keep the growing line of "Rusties" in order. In a sad irony, we the dedicated who were up at the break of dawn to get tickets for this rare and special event might just get shut out by the guy under the covers still in his boxers and stubble who knew how to sculpt linux to auto-buy him a pair at 10:000000000001AM. Grrrrrrrrrrr.
Obviously I got tickets, though, since this is just a long (too long) intro to a report of my experience attending the show. They were indeed nosebleeds about 11 rows from the very top of the venue, just below the old projector booth from the theater's days as a 1920s movie palace. But I was happy just to get inside the door. I'd previously been to the Tower a number of times to see Trey Anastasio, and Phil Lesh and Friends and I'd yet to see a bad show there. I felt that bands rose to the occasion, making elegant music to fit the red-cushioned gilt-edged decor of a venue from another era. The Tower was certainly not a shed or a makeshift cavern with an hockey rink hiding beneath retractable panels.
And David Bowie had recorded his classic TSOP-influenced David Live album at the Tower. The venue had a reputation. In a way, last row at the Tower was better than front row at the Spectrum.

I hyped the Neil Young show way up in my mind. As I said at the beginning, from the purchase of tickets until the day of the show I had to mention that I was seeing Neil "fucking" Young to everyone I knew whether they gave a rat's ass or not about that cranky balding ex-Canadian.
The time, money and effort involved in getting the tickets made the event huge for me. I've seen hundreds (probably thousands) of concerts of varying size and quality over the last 14 years. I have a tendency towards giddiness and gushing. But of course I can't get excited over every single concert I attend. It takes a lot of energy gushing giddily. I need to pace myself so i can do the OTHER stuff in my life (eat, sleep, work when necessary...) And as I've gotten older and have seen legends of many different sub-genres, I've become a bit cynical. It seems to take more to impress. Going to concerts has become a natural regularly scheduled event in my life. It's something I need to do frequency to stay healthy. Sometimes the necessary act of going to see live music borders on the mundane. Concerts become like brushing my teeth or eating my 5 daily servings of fruit and vegetables.
But the Neil Young show felt special from the moment I heard about it via the internet. I was gonna see a verified rock legend in a revered venue at the height of my interest in that artist.
So during the build-up to the fateful night of December 9th 2007, I bought the new Neil Young album Chrome Dreams II and like most Neil albums since the early 90s it had some great moments but was a bit uneven. Nothing was outright bad, but there were a fair amount of forgettable moments, or at least moments that took months of repeated listening to become memorable. But what really got me excited was following the setlists and reviews of the tour which went on for about a month before it hit Philly (ok technically Upper Darby, as the Tower at 69th is just beyond the city's western border.)
On the tour Neil was playing unreleased mid 70s gems and deep cuts that had rarely been played live during my lifetime. The 1st set was going to be solo acoustic. Most of the songs comprising it were ones that appeared on the widely circulate "1976 Joel Bernstein tape" recorded in November of that bicentennial year. And the songs he was playing from the new album were among my favorites from that set.
The basic sets remained the same during the month preceding the Philadelphia show. Usually there were one or two variations or surprises per night. Only days after it happened I also found online a bootleg of the 11/8 minneapolis show. The performance quality was great, adding to the anticipation (and the practical guarantee) of a great show!

Part II: inside the venue and the opener

So the rainy night of December 9th finally comes. I take a bus to the venue. From two blocks away at the bus terminal, I can already see the rea neon "Tower" sign on the tower that has stood on top of the lobby portion of theatre since it opened in 1927. I smile as I see the "tonight-Neil Young-sold out" sign on the rounded marquee.
Entrance security is pretty much non-existent. There are nominal checks of handbags but that's about it. There's no pat-down. My Finnish army surplus coat is full of semi-hidden pockets so I'm able to smuggle in the most G-rated of all contraband--- a couple Clif bars to keep me from having to pay $5 for a pretzel when i inevitably get hungry during the show. I also have with me my Nalgene bottle to be filled with fine Philly tap water once inside because I believe firmly in hydration within the hot confines of rock shows. And damned if I'm paying $4 for god's gift from the sky packaged in disposable plastic.
And in a less personal way I'm glad that security at the door is light. That increases the chances that a fan has been able to smuggle a recording rig inside to document this event.
In the lobby the talk is of the quality of the venue. Middled aged folks in faded Ragged Glory shirts are asking each other "have you ever seen Neil play here?" and the response is always "I don't think he's EVER played here since i've been seeing him!" And while a little online research after the fact proved that statement wrong (he also played the Tower 3/22,23, 24/1992 and 4/24/1999,) the chatters were right that Neil at the Tower is certainly a rare event and this is actually the first time he 's playing at the Tower with a band, since the previous shows were all solo acoustic. Online research also revealed that floor tickets for the 1992 run were $25 while for Dec 9th they are $159. grrrrrrr. Well at lot has changed in the last 15 years. And someone's got the concert-lover by the balls (either Neil or Clear Channel, or Neil in cahoots with Clear Channel.) Oh well. I was at the show! The money had already been spent. And despite the evil grinning guy in a perfectly crisp suit in a board room, in the end I was gonna remember the music and the EVENT, not the nosebleeding $64...
...Well unless the show sucked. But I was pretty sure that wasn't gonna happen.

When I got to my seat, Pegi Young was already on stage. She's Neil's wife and back-up singer and opening act for this tour. Reviews weren't very positive for her sets. But the sound and sight lines were great. Her music had the alt-country feel you'll hear a lot these days on WXPN in Philly and/or on Radio Paradise online (the two default music sources in my house's kitchen.) She was backed by a 3 piece band: bass, pedal steel, and guitar while she herself strummed an acoustic.
Pegi's voice was warm and I could tell she was excited by her speaking tone and between-song banter. But she frequently fell off key. Not extremely off key but enough so that it definitely soured her tight melody-centered, quiet pieces. But her sour vocals were balanced by the presence of Rick Rosas and Ben Keith, respectively playing bass and pedal steel guitar. They were also in Neil's band and had been in various NY configurations for many years. Ben Keith was the pedal steel player on Harvest was back in 1971.
I enjoyed Mr. Keith's pedal steel especially. I've never heard one played live with such clarity and not buried beneath layers of percussive rock instrumentation.
Pegi introduced a guest as an "electric sitar" player. I missed the name. The instrument he held looked more like an electric guitar, though it did have a resonant chromatic sound that I associate with sitars. I thought maybe Neil would come out for a duet, but he never did.

The change over between sets seemed short. There was a veritable army of stagehands moving stuff around. There seemed to be a different hand for each individual prop and piece of equipment that needed to be moved. I wondered if this was Neil's personal choice or just some sort of union quirk.
The stage was mapped out in a graph. From my high up perspective, between dabbing the blood coming from my nose, I could see thin white perpendicular lines covering the stage. The set was a random collection of lights in the shapes of letters and numbers, a tall wooden Indian, an industrial-sized fan and a man in a red jacket and a boater hat painting on a large canvas near the rear of the stage. This red-jacketed man on the stage right side painted before the acoustic set and during the electric set. For the first set of Neil, the painter left the stage, and a canvas filled with a Monty Pythonesque cartoon mouth sat on his canvas. Also at the edge of the stage (left) there was a board that for Pegi's set had a big "P" on it and was replaced by a big "N" for Neil's set as if the fans might get confused between the two.
The over-all effect of the stage set made me think of a Chili/TGI Fridays/Bennigans restaurant. Random kitschy stuff in random places. But unlike at those places, there were no onion rings or Caesar salads at the Tower. And while it was random, the set wasn't too distracting
Before Neil came out, a stagehand requested that cellphones be turned off and that no pictures be taken during the acoustic set. The stagehand announced that the setlist had already been decided and that it would be "intense" and asked that people refrain from shouting out requests, as Neil wouldn't be honoring them and wanted quiet so he could better concentrate.
Signs out in the lobby also announced that no food or beverages would not be sold during the acoustic set or even allowed inside the hall.
Neil was taking extreme measures to ensure a space that was free of distractions for both himself and for the audience. In an Oct 28th New York times article about the upcoming tour, Neil said he"“ want[ed] to control the environment” of the venues.
In the same article he was also quoted as saying of the venues that he personally selected:

“They have to be auditoriums. The audio part is very important. I prefer that they be old. I prefer that they be in cities. I prefer that the outside elements are totally blocked out. There’s no sunshine coming in through a window; I don’t want any of that. I don’t want to have anything to do with the real world while you’re in there. It’s not where we’re going.”

In the same article, Writer Jon Pareles also noted that "[Neil] had further stipulations. The stage lighting will be incandescent — no arc lights or halogens — and not automated or computerized. A spotlight will be operated by hand; changing the color of a light will involve replacing a gel."

This article and my experience at the Tower show reinforced what McDonough stressed in Shakey, that Neil Young is a control-freak. And in this case, it was a good thing, mostly.
I had the gut feeling that Neil came up with his exact non-negotiable demands for the tour and then went to his financial people and asked "OK what will this cost us?"
My gut was Neil was bent on doing the tour exactly how he wanted it, come hell or high water. Having complete control over the performance environment certainly has its cost and I think it trickled down to the fans to pay the cost. And again, the high cost of tickets is my one consistent grumble about the show.

The high ticket price seemed to skew the audience towards the middle-aged well-dressed types. There were a few ponytails on the guys (including me) but there wasn't too much of the working class flanneled house-paint-stained jeans, hard-drinking rowdy set that are echoed throughout Neil Young's lyrics. I always figured these people created the backbone of Neil's fanbase, but I guess they were priced out of this show.
It's disappointing to think that a musician who seems to be of the "Ordinary People" (to invoke a song on the Chrome Dreams II album) is made inaccessible to these same people. But a lack of rowdiness certainly enhanced the aural power of the acoustic set.

Part III: the acoustic set

Neil came out dressed in white and sat down in the middle of a tight circle of guitars. The guitars made me think of circled conestoga wagons. Their wooden warmth was there to protect Neil during a performance of him at his most exposed.
He opened the set with the same song he had for every other show on the tour: "From Hank to Hendrix." And despite knowing it was coming and knowing what the solo arrangement would sound like because of my incessant listening to the 11/8 Minneapolis bootleg of the last month, i was still amazed by the song.
There was the warm blast of the realization "here I am with Neil!" This feeling stayed with me and kept me smiling for the whole set. Yes my nose was bleeding, but it felt like Neil was singing right to me. The silence of the crowd was amazing. It was as quiet as at an orchestral performance. I knew all all the words to all the songs. My urge was to sing along, but I didn't dare break the hush. So I just sat tapping my foot silently with my chin resting on my arm, mouthing along silently to every line.
The original Harvest Moon version of "Hank to Hendrix" is great to begin with. The countrified accompaniment is subtle. But stripped naked, it grabbed me by the throat. Neil's voice cracked/quavered/strained from time to time and throughout the show, but it only increased the power, honesty, and intimacy. Neil moved constantly, channeling through his body even during the quiet seated acoustic numbers.
And the opener's lyrics of a marriage in middle age going into peril and then saving itself were beautiful especially with his wife of nearly 30 years, Pegi, on stage with him for most of the show. Later on, he introduced her as his "sou mate." I'm not a sappy guy, but there was an audible "awww" from me when he said that.

Harvest Moon was the first Neil Young album I bought, on cassette, soon after it came out. This was 1992. I already knew vaguely of Neil from classic rock radio. I knew of his CSN association and solo stuff in heavy FM rock rotation. But the real stripped-down, countrified Neil was new to me. I first heard "Harvest Moon," the song, via the MTV video, yes back when MTV frequently played music. I was drawn in immediately. I was in 8th grade. I'd just started going to school-sponsored gym dances. And my interest in the opposite sex was increasing. I thought this is the perfect slow dance song.
I don't think it was ever played at one of those "save room for the Holy Spirit" dances and my vision/dream/hope of slow-dancing to "Harvest Moon" alone with a girlfriend in a kitchen has yet to come to fruition even 15 years later...... sigh.
Well it was fitting that a song from Harvest Moon started the show since it was my real introduction to Neil. I remember standing in the school yard in my Carhartt jacket listening to the tape on my Walkman thinking "a boy of my age in Central Jersey shouldn't be so into this." I was digging a country album and that made me feel rebellious and different. And I got high on that rebellion while my classmates were into Nirvana and Pearl Jam.
Later I'd realize the affinity between the grunge and Neil, but at that point Neil was summarized for me by Harvest Moon which was somewhat atypical among his catalog up until that point (if there is actually something that can characterize the NY sound amidst all the experimentation and genre-hopping.)
So wrapped into that warm blast of happiness that hit me at the beginning of the show was memories of me as shaggy-headed Catholic schoolboy. And you can practically heat a house with the warmth that nostalgia brings to me
Since there was pin-drop silence during the songs of the solo set, the crowd exploded between the songs. Once the song ended from the hush came a great release. A "wow" expressed in 2000 pairs of hands.

"Ambulance Blues" came 2nd. It's a long sad song that rattles off a melancholy litany of images worthy of Dylan's "Visions of Johanna." I saw no teleprompter or cheat-sheet (though again my nose was gushing red) but Neil nailed every line with accuracy and emotion. The friend I went with sat next to me sobbing joyously, quietly throughout the song; bowled over by hearing live for the first time a song that meant so much to her, connected to events and people and places in her life that I'd probably never really know about. But her reaction made me glad I'd asked her to come with me because I now knew the performance was affecting her as powerfully as it was affecting me.
Music is the most spiritual thing in my life because my intense interest and reaction to it defies all reason. Music is the thing that is always there for me and never lets me down. This acoustic set with its hushed intensity seemed downright sacramental.
For his last Philly-area show, Neil performed at the big shed-and-lawn Tweeter Center. A song such as "Ambulance Blues" wouldn't work in a venue like that. The sound would have inevitably been muffled and muddy. At 9 minutes long, things would've grown tedious.
With Neil at 61, the world-weariness of "Ambulance Blues" is even more striking. He'd catapulted to fame and seen an awful lot by 24, but in the nearly 40 years since, he's seen even more.
And since Neil always sang like a grizzled old man, even when he was a young fresh-faced man now that he is (nearly) an old man he can still hit all the notes with the same feeling. There's none of the extreme octave drops like at the hallowed Led Zeppelin reunion (that'd take place across the pond the next night. Neil's range and tone have stayed pretty solid. If i closed my eyes I could think I was at one of his 1976 acoustic shows.
Next was "Sad Movies," another unsurprisingly sad song that has never been released and prior to this tour had only been performed a handful of times in Europe in 1976. In hindsight, the song with its vivid description of old movie theatres was perfect for performance at the Tower, a former movie palace from the days before even Neil was born.
Then Neil sat down at a grand piano that was painted day glo yellow with bright blotches of red or orange. Before he sat down for each piano song, he walked around the piano looking down at it as if he were accessing the quality of used car at the dealer's lot or strategizing how to do battle against a formidable opponent.
Maybe this was how he focused. Maybe it was just a nervous tick.
When he finally sat down, he gave us "A Man Needs a Maid." In its Harvest London Symphony Orchestra-backed version, it sounds overblown, but just voice and piano made it poignant. Also Neil only played piano. He played the between verse interludes on the piano itself and not on the thin-sounding organ-toned keyboard that he used earlier on the tour. And it sounded better with only the piano and no artificial sustain. The atmosphere of loneliness created by the narrator increased because there were now little pockets of silence between the notes .
Throughout the acoustic set, silence was very important to the music. There wasn't the alcohol-fuelled buzz of a rock show. The space between notes was vividly apparent, accentuating the notes that were played. You could hear yourself breathing during some of the songs. I've never experienced that before at a "rock" show.
At once point during the set, I got hungry and decided to munch on one of the Clif Bars I'd smuggled in. It was only with the utmost care that I could open the wrapper without causing a disturbance.
And of course, thank goodness, there was none of that most typical of annoyances at shows: someone climbing over you every 5 minutes either going to get beers or bring them back 4 at a time, dripping over everything. Everyone was seated and at rapt attention. I don't anyone even thought about smoking a bowl despite the hippie-ish roots of the music and Neil's own well-documented love of the "home grown."
After some more accessing/strategizing next to the piano, Neil sat down again and played the 2nd ever live performance of the mid-70s outtake, "Mexico."
Another leg-stretch/assessment/tactical analysis and then back down on the stool for another unreleased 70s song, "No One Seems to Know." As Neil sang of weakness, his voice choked up slightly as the sound reverberated through the hall.
Then back to guitar for the title track of Harvest, a rarely performed cut from his best-selling album.
Then back to a piano, but a different piano. There was also an upright on the other side of stage. And he approached it in the same way that he did the grand. He played "Journey Through the Past," adding some trills that gave the piece a slight saloon/music hall tinge.
He stayed at the upright and played "After the Gold Rush." A song that (unfortunately) is still very relevant with environmental destruction continuing. He acknowledged this by singing "look at mother nature on the run in the 21st century" which got a cheer from the crowd. Of course "and I felt like getting high" got a big cheer as well, although as I already noted, marijuana was conspicuously absent during the show.
Neil played the horn part on harmonica. I love that part because French horn is the only instrument with which I have any proficiency. When I listen to the original album version, i can imagine myself seated next to Neil, playing along.
The mood lightened a bit with the most joyous song of the set, "Mellow My Mind" with a bit of falsetto and Neil playing a guitar/banjo hybrid.
After the song Neil said "this is a real good place, isn't it." And of course the whole crowd cheered in agreement. He then went into his longest piece of onstage banter. He talked about his love for theaters and the "struggle" to play at places of this size while being apparently forced to play sheds and arenas. He didn't really explain why it's a struggle. Superficially, it seems he could play any venue of any size any time he wanted. And he did play a low-key stand at 350-capacity bar near Santa Cruz back in 1996. But I'm sure there's a lot of behind-the-scenes politics that pushes artists to play in larger venues than they're comfortable with. I just wished he'd explain why tickets were $150+ dollars for many seats. But of course, he didn't.
The mood stayed light with another mid-70s unreleased gem, "Love Art Blues," a jaunty tune that inspired a a brief pocket of handclapping somewhere down on the floor. But even with the happier songs, silence seemed to be the best atmosphere.
"Love Art Blues" hit home with my own conflicting urges of going off alone and being creative and finding romantic love and spending time entwined with someone else.
Neil then noted that election time was drawing closer. And since he'd already released his very pointed Living With War album, I expected him to make some sort of polarizing political statement. But he didn't. His views on the current administration and the Mideast situation are already clear. So he just launched into yet another unreleased mid 70s song, "Campaigner." The opening chords tricked me into thinking this was "Pocahontas," a song that I really wanted to hear. My heart jumped and I ready myself to hear "Aurora Borealis, the icy skies at night" but then the tune shifted and I realized, with slight disappointment what was actually being played.
The set ended with the most rhythmic, aggressive, and loosest song so far, "Cowgirl in the Sand." It was still solo acoustic, but it prepped us up for the fuzzy pounding we'd get in the next set.
Neil let the music sway him. His arms and guitar moved back and forth. And the guitar neck knocked into another guitar in the circle that surround him at center stage.
But he took it in stride, joked that the guitar "just wanted to jam" and he continued with the song, giving the falling guitar a symbolic strum. Neil and the crowd shared a smile and a laugh.
Despite the aggression of the song, the crowd remained hushed, but still did the "echoing response" lines very quietly. Beautifully and tunefully the whole balcony sang "hello ruby in the dust" after Neil, becoming one big hugely quiet Crazy Horse Choir!
Then the house lights came up and slowly my pulse returned to normal.
I turned to my friend and said "I got my $64 worth. I could go home happy now." And I really meant it. When a good is set is still echoing in my ears I often feel like making statements such as "best set ever." I certainly felt it after that first Neil Young set and have yet to change my mind in the days that have followed.
Through the magic of the internet, I've already downloaded a crystal-clear bootleg from the show. Often once I hear a recording of a performance the reality of imperfections clouds my "best set ever" fantasy. But after 4 times through, the audio document only confirms what I felt.
I'm gushing. And I have been gushing since the set break.
I said to my friend I didn't think they could top that intensity in the electric set and she agreed. She responded that perhaps Neil should have done the electric set first and ended with the acoustic. Anyway, at setbreak I was glowing. Anything left to be played would icing on the cake!

Part IV: the electric set

Again, the army of black-clad stage hands came out to rearrange the set for the band. And there were cameramen too. A typed legalese notice posted in and around the venue stated that the show was being filmed for a possible DVD release. Apparently Jonathan Demme, the man behind both Silence of the Lambs and Neil's last concert film, Heart of Gold was directing. At least from the upper tier, the camera crew was unobtrusive and didn't distract from the real action on stage.

The setbreak seemed relatively short. Catching me off guard, the band charged into "the Loner" and I jumped to my feet. There was now fuzz and drums and bass. The sound was still crisp, though. Well as crisp as the "grungy" Neil is supposed to be in its ideal form.
I started to just let the music move me, bopping and such. But I realized that only a handful of people were standing. Everyone else was STILL SITTING DOWN. When music is as raw and visceral as electric Neil, willfully taking it sitting down just doesn't seem to compute. But the "sitters" definitely far outnumbered the "standers" as far as the eye could see. Neil himself was standing and rocking out with white wisps of thinning hair flying, but apparently that wasn't permission enough.
I think I wasn't the only one caught off guard by the arrival of "the Loner." The standers didn't get to their feet quick enough to inspire others to join in. So the tyranny of the majority ruled.
Within a couple minutes, the middle-aged paunchy guy SEATED behind me said "I can't see!" So I moved to the wide aisle between the upper and lower balcony, joining another rocker. But the inevitable happened: the usher came to us as asked us to return to our seats. Oh well.
But despite the weirdness I felt sitting down for a set fueled by the Crazy Horsed beats of Ralph Molina I still really enjoyed it. I had a different perspective. Sitting made the set seem more like a performance than the participatory celebration of many other rock shows. It definitely felt different, but not necessarily bad.
And I still rocked out hard in my seat. I was on the aisle so I could stretch my legs out, stomping the beats using my thighs as drum pads.

The raw high energy continued with "Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere." The backing vocals were great. Pegi the Wife and Anthony Crawford sang while standing on a platform towards the back of stage right. And Ralph Molina was high in the mix, nearly dueting with Neil.
The first new tune of the evening came next, "Dirty Old Man," sounding like classic raw Neil. This was a song about working class people. This was a song for drunken fist in the air dancing. And yet there was only a small handful on their feet. A middle-aged woman in my row clapped out the 2s and 4s during this and many other songs of this set. It annoyed me slightly. It seemed like a poor excuse for rockin' out. Her clapping made me think of politicians' wives clapping along to the beat of their partners' campaign songs trying vainly to appear energetic and cool.
Another new song from "Chrome Dreams II" followed: "Spirit Road." Neil's voice was passionate and angry. During the instrumental breaks in this and other songs, Keith, Rosas, and Neil huddled together a bit right of center stage playing to each other with Neil adopting his trademark wide-legged stance.
A pair of 1969/1970 Crazy Horse live staples (unreleased until very recently) followed. "Bad Fog of Loneliness" took the energy down a notch for he first time in the set with a country shuffle beat and Ben Keith sitting down to play pedal steel.

Throughout the set, Eric Anderson, the painter in red with the boater hat, painted large canvases that had song titles on them. Just before each song the painter put a canvas with a corresponding title on an easel at the left corner of the stage. While he was never introduced or acknowledged by Neil, I later found out that he's painted all the canvases live as the band plays. They're developed as the tour has progressed.
At the end of the tour, the paintings will be put up in a charity auction to benefit the Bridge School.
Visually, the painter in red balanced out Neil in white very well. The live painting combined with the continued seated hush of the crowd gave the event a "high art" atmosphere.
After "Bad fog", Neil introduced Ben Keith saying that they'd been playing together since they met during the Harvest sessions in 1970. While Neil biographies state that they did meet during the Harvest sessions, these didn't happen until early 1971. A small error that more concerns the rabid stat-chomping fans than the object of their obsession. But while know neither Ben or Neil and wasn't even alive in '70, i'd bet five dollars that they didn't meet until 1971.
"Winter Long" followed with more pedal steel,and Pegi and Anthony providing gentle backing vocals and Anthony also banging sleigh bells near the song's end, fitting the Christmas season.
Neil strapped on an acoustic guitar and harmonica again for his radical melancholy reworking of Don Gibson's old upbeat country hit "Oh Lonesome Me."
The verses featured gentle backing vocals again that were angelic and wordless.
An older guy in my section with baggy jeans hitched way up high, really wanted to sing along loudly for this quietest number of the set. He was shouted down very quickly and left the hall grumbling.
Neil stuck with the acoustic and played another new song, "the Believer." It's an optimistic uplifting number with a strong backbeat. /it had a good call and response between Ralph and Neil. (At least I think it was Ralph singing "I believe in you," though it actually might have been Anthony Crawford.) Pegi also played vibes at the back of the stage for this song, though they were the one inaudible instrument of the night.
The electric set ended with he evening's fourth and final new song, "No Hidden Path." Neil played "Old Black," the black guitar he seems to favor for his noisiest numbers. At 19 minutes, it was by far the longest song of the evening, with Neil interspersing the words with fuzzy guitar explorations, playing with Rick and Ben in a tight circle, occasionally stepping to the mike to sing a few lines.
The soloing/jam had good moments, but seemed a bit circular and unfocused as if Neil and the boys were playing the same five minute loop over and over without any real climaxes or progressions.
After about the 10th minute of "No Hidden Path" a few people near me started leaving the hall with coats in hand. I guess they weren't planning on returning. I got the feeling that a lot of the folks in attendance were much more enthusiastic about the acoustic Neil. The reverb, new songs and rambling instrumental passages of te second half perhaps scared them off.
Towards the end of "No Hidden" path, Neil seemed to throw a few curveballs at the band. Molina on the drums seemed to fall off rhythm from time to time. Or was it that Neil refused to follow Ralph's rhythm. Anyway, the sole representative of Crazy Horse definitely had some moments of ragged glory during this song.
Neil then finished off the song with some falsetto vocals and the set was over.
Part V: the encore

Since it was the first encore for every show that preceded it on the tour, I knew "Cinnamon Girl" was next once the band was back on stage. And the classic rock radio staple didn't disappoint. Hardcore "rusties' and the people dragged to the show by their wives/husbands/girlfriends/boyfriends all sang along. A few more people stood up during the song too. This was the peak of rockin' out. And the song's one-note guitar solo still sounds joyous and amazing.
The band lingered after the applause died down. Neil made some indistinct noise on his guitar. Then a keyboard on ropes was literally lowered from the ceiling, Neil hit some sort of distortion pedal and I knew my hope for the second encore would
come true. And sure enough, he busted out the riff for "Like a Hurricane."
This was a rough and raw version. Neil dropped a whole verse early on and then repeated a few lines over and over again. I wasn't sure if this was for effect or because he couldn't remember the next line for a moment. Well he never repeated lines in any of the other live versions I've heard (1976-1983 and 11/8/07 from earlier on the tour.)
After about 6 minutes, I thought the song was ending. Molina was making a racket, pounding his whole drum kit and Neil was just shredding and making droning noise. But surprising me, Neil started playing the main riff again alone at about half the regular tempo, but still full of hellacious reverb and distortion. He started singing the opening lines again, repeating "dancing on the light" a few times like a skipping record. Then the whole band complete with back up vocals kicked in at regular tempo for the chorus, but Neil soon veered off again instrumentally after repeating "somewhere safer where the feeling stays" a few times.
It seemed the whole band was looking at him, trying to follow Neil where ever the spirit took him. He and band got back together with the verse melody and he sang a few more lines before the song collapsed into a lingering noise, finally ending the the 2 and a half hour show.
After all the twists and turns and stop/starts of the previous 9 minutes, I was only sure the song was over when I saw Neil start to take his guitar off, with a obsequious roadie literally running out to grab it before the strap was even fully off.
I wonder if Neil's policy for the roadie is "I'll doc your pay if you're not at my side by the time the guitar is off." Even from the back of the house, I detected a sense of nervousness from the way the roadie moved. This apparent nervousness said a lot to me about Neil's merciless control-freak tendencies, ironically just after hearing a song the seemed always at the edge of spinning out of control.

I must admit that I wrote most of the above observations on "Like a Hurricane" after listening very closely to a clear-sounding bootleg of the evening. I also listened to the Minneapolis 11/8 version of "Hurricane" and the two are definitely very different. In Minneapolis, it seemed more focused and was about 2 minutes shorter. The lyrics were sung basically the same as the studio version and there were none of the unexpected instrumental digressions that split open the Tower version.
I think "Hurricane" is a song that Neil likes to leave open for different interpretations depending how the spirit moves him. But regardless of how he gets through it and regardless of whether the climaxes come at the expected moments, every version I've heard sounds emotionally intense and heavy as hell. And perhaps the 12/9 version being the heaviest and most hellacious.
Not bad for a father in his 60s playing a song her origininally recorded 32 years previous.
It would be interesting to compare all the different versions from this tour and hear how they vary. In the moment, the full on ragged glory of the December 9th version seemed sloppy, probably because I couldn't just sing along to it because I wasn't really sure what Neil was doing up on stage. And I don't think that Neil even knew what he was doing up there on stage. He seemed to be letting passion and primal energy overwhelm perfection and careful thought. He was playing in tongues that only made sense to him and whatever spiritual power exists.
But at the same time that "Hurricane" seemed sloppy at first, it was exciting not knowing what was coming next as the song unfolded and writhed. The excitement was similar to the feeling I get during the between song connecting jams at Phil Lesh or Phish shows.
I had no idea what was gonna happen next. But in the moment there was slight disappointment because I WANTED to know what was coming next. I wanted the peaks of the song to come in the same way I had memorized in my head; the way I was expecting. But Neil defied a lot of expectations at the Tower and in hindsight getting something amazing that I didn't know I wanted was more satisfying than just hearing an exact live manifestation of the beloved notes in my head.

Overall, the material Neil chose for his first set was stronger lyrically and melodically and I was probably a bit bitter that conditions prevented me from standing up during the second set, while I was quite comfortable and in fact preferred being seated for the acoustic set.
With all the spaces between notes during the acoustic set and the set's stripped down nature, the solo portion was more powerful for me. The electric set was anticlimactic but only slightly and still highly enjoyable and worthy of gushing.
And I also sort of enjoyed just sitting down and letting the electric set wash over me, without being able to stand up and dance. To get metaphoric, it was like being at the beach and letting an ocean wave hit me full force knocking me off balance. It's a very different experience than trying to move with a wave, bobbing up and down in its peaks an valleys. But it's perhaps an equally exhilarating experience.

Part VI: After the show

I went home with that warm feeling of floating a few inches above reality that I get from the best live music events. I was glad to have my friend with me during the trip home to confirm that we'd just witnessed an amazing event.
I stayed up later than I should have since I had to work the next morning for the first time in two weeks after a vacation, and my internal clock was still probably 3 hours off . But I had to at least start writing about my experience at the Tower. I had scrawled many notes in the dim light during the show, but of course I couldn't write it all down then and there. Neil Young's music had been such an important part of my life, especially in the last year that I knew it'd take me a while to write down all my feelings and observations tied into the night of December 9th. And I collapsed in exhaustion that before I was even near finished with this "review with digressions". In fact 4 days later and I'm just finally finishing it.

There's also a very pleasant coda for the evening too. The next morning at work I had to stop at the Four Seasons Hotel on the Parkway to check in with the concierge to see if any guest needed a shuttle ride to the starting of the guided tours of the city that I lead. The Four Seasons is the default temporary residence for all sports teams, and top name performers staying in town. Parked outside the hotel there was an absurdly beautiful tour bus. It was rounded and silver, looking like a converted 1950s Greyhound. It had a blueish rounded stained-glass window on the side and for skylights at its top there were the upper parts of the windows, windshields and roofs of 2 50s era cars seamlessly welded on.
Neil Young is a well-known collector and restorer of vintage cars
I went inside the Four Seasons and walked up to the concierge. He's a handsome man about my age who looks like an indie rock hipster hiding in a well-pressed grey suit. I said, "hey is that Neil Young's tour bus outside?" He raises an eyebrow. I pause for a moment and then respond, "I know you're probably not allowed to tell me if he's even staying here, but I'm a big fan and I just saw him play last night." The concierge then gives me a big smile and wink and says "I think it's Neil Young's bus outside."
That made my day. I gave the bus another look when I went back outside. I'm not one ogle opulent motor vehicles, but Neil's bus really struck me. Later in the day during one of the tours, we passed by the Four Seasons and that Chrome Dream is still parked outside. I point it out and tell the guests on board that it's Neil's tour bus and that i just saw him play last night at the Tower.
I was hoping one of the tourists would say, "I was there too! What a great show."
No one did. No one even as much as pointed a camera at the bus. But it still felt great being able to mention Neil on my tour and seeing his bus again, providing a little shining evidence that something amazing did in fact happen the previous night

12-09-07, Tower Theatre, Upper Darby, Pennsylvania
w/ Rick Rosas, Ben Keith, Ralph Molina, Anthony Crawford & Pegi Young
1. From Hank To Hendrix
2. Ambulance Blues
3. Sad Movies
4. A Man Needs A Maid
5. Mexico
6. No One Seems To Know
7. Harvest
8. Journey Through The Past
9. After The Gold Rush
10. Mellow My Mind
11. Love Art Blues
12. Campaigner
13. Cowgirl In The Sand 
14. The Loner
15. Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere
16. Dirty Old Man
17. Spirit Road
18. Bad Fog Of Loneliness
19. Winterlong
20. Oh, Lonesome Me
21. The Believer
22. No Hidden Path 
23. Cinnamon Girl
24. Like A Hurricane

and for the uninitiated, here's a shakey(!) long-distance audience video of Neil doing "Ambulance Blues" from earlier on the tour: 11/29/07 at Massey Hall in Toronto
just to give an idea of what I just gushed about. The picture is pitiful and virtually non-existent but the sound is clear, giving an example of how hushed the crowds were on this tour.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

701 words about Pink Floyd's "Echoes" at Pompeii, 1971

This is the beginning segment of one of my favorite rock movies. I first stumbled upon the At Pompeii film on VHS at a movie rental store in my high school homestead of Bridgewater, NJ. back in 1994. (I'm sure the rental place is long gone now, unable to compete with Netflix and big video chains.) A fellow marching band member, Billy Poorten had suggested I check it out. And despite the store's limited collection, they actually had a copy.

I first remember watching it alone, late at night, with snow on the ground outside.

At 11min27sec, this is the longest clip I've posted so far. But a long clips befits the epic nature of this spacey Floyd piece recorded in Oct 1971 just before they transitioned to the tighter more conceptual, multi-platinum structures of DSOTM.

On the surface, Pink Floyd at Pompeii screams 70s rock self-induldgence: "Let's set up our equipment in the ruins of Pompeii and play songs with long instrumental passages for NO ONE and film the whole thing for release as a movie.....Oh and let's tae our shirts off for a bunch of it!" (As I noted in my previous post about New Order, playing shirtless is never a good idea in my book.)

But the think is, it somehow works brilliantly! The desolate location, and the exposed nature of the band's set up--- beneath the unrelenting sun, and the evidence all around of an ancient catastrophic event (with liquid hot Mag-ma) creates an atmosphere that adds to the music's feeling of doom and isolation.

There are some great camera angles. And the angles shift a lot between the 4 members of the band, so it creates a feeling of true ensemble play and musical conversation and not guitar solo whammy bar wankery (though later in feature-length At Pompeii movie, Rick Wright "plays" a dog for the "song" "Mademoiselle Knobs." I guess you can call it "experimental rock" but it seems more like Spinal Tap...and perhaps PETA might have some issues with the songs instrumentation.)

I recommend watching the Echoes clip in full-screen mode, [though of course you then can't follow along with my (possibly) insightful commentary unless you print out this text]

The very slow pan-in that opens the movie is one of my favorite (extended) moments in rock cinema. And the larger your screen, the better the effect works. It firmly establishes the desolation of the locale and accentuates the slow wandering nature of the keyboard and guitar intro.

At 2:05 Nick Mason's drums enter fully into the mix in a wonderfully jarring way, bringing a devastatingly heavy rhythm to the piece. The drums are remarkably high in the mix, especially the crash cymbals--often creating a shimmering drone with their continual shakes throughout the song. The smoothness of the other instruments and the vocals seems a bit too perfect for a "live" setting, especially in the hot breezy outdoors. It makes me wonder how much studio overdubs come into play in the sound mix. The drums, though, always sound live, raw, and uncompressed. The cymbals are given room to ooze on top of the other sounds like they were never allowed to in the studio.

When David Gilmour's guitar solo close-up tiles the screen around 6:00, if you try to take it in as a whole, without focusing in on any particular tile, you'll experience a pleasant 3D effect that compliments the psychedelia.

At 6:25, Nick does a cool little flip with his right drum stick that's so quick and subtle you'll barely notice it, but it quietly screams coolness and percussive mastery, as if he were saying, deadpan , "yes, I am the greatest drummer in the world. I am aware of that." From 6:25 to 7:36, the dialogue nature of the Mason/Gilmour exchange is highlighted by the quick cuts and split screens between the guitar and drums.

When 70s Floyd is discussed, you always hear Gilmour or Water's mentioned. Very little is ever said about Nick Mason's drumming. But gets an awful lot of (deserved) close-up time in this clip

At 7:37, there's an awkward jump in the sound that suggests a splice in the audio. An accompanying jump in the camera angle to the huge mass of the band's gear suggests that this second part of the tune is from a different performance. Certainly, there were multiple takes of the extended tunes during the week of filming that took place at Pompeil

This second part of segment, starting at 7:37 belongs to Roger Waters. His bass suddenly becomes very prominent in the mix at this point. Gilmour begins to wail on his guitar, on top of everything. But his playing is more of a garnish. The important dialogue is now between Waters and Mason.

Waters gets his first close-up of the movie at 7:49, but its just of his bass and his right hand. Over the next few minutes, the camera cuts a number of times between Gilmour's guitar and Water's hand/bass strings but it's not until 10:22 until we see Water's whole upper body. And even then, he's cut off from the chin up.

We never get to the face of the co-founder of the Floyd for the entirety of this opening segment of the film.

He was so tall, dark, and mysterious. Or maybe he was just self-conscious of his very prominent nose...

It's not until the self-indulgent restaurant scene that follows "Echoes" in the movie that we get to see his mug.

Rick Wright gets the least screen time in the clip. He's barely seen after his vocal duet with Waters near the piece's beginning. But after Mason's drum entrance destroys the fragility of Wright's water-droplet keyboard intro, Rick's contributions to the momentum of the piece are minimal.

His shirtless ivory-tickling certainly doesn't detract from "Echoes" but if one member had to be axed because of budget cuts on this song, Eugene's arm would certainly fall down on Mr. Wright. He never does anything essential during the song's instrumental jam-out. so close-ups would be out of place.

For those of you interested in seeking out the whole movie: A few years ago Pink Floyd at Pompeii was released on DVD being touted as "the Director's Cut." But this is misleading. The new version IS longer, but it's lengthened by CGI animation and video clips that are incongruously modern in their origin (1990s? 2000s?) Director Adrian Maben obviously went back and added new stuff instead of weaving in old bits from the vault. This new stuff seriously detracts from the impact and atmosphere of the movie. It has the same effect as the CGI additions in the re-release of the original Star Wars Trilogy (ie episodes IV-VI)


The At Pompeii director's cut is about 30 minutes longer, so I think there might actually be additional vintage performance footage included, but I strongly recommended seeing the original cut first (thankfully included on the DVD) and then just skipping around the "Director's Cut" to see what additional vintage bits have been pulled from the vault.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

480 words about New Order's "Age of Consent" live '84

Well, playing shirtless is always ill-advised. It seems like a cheap rock star move. And looking at Bernard I can't help but think about how that guitar strap would chafe his pasty bare skin. And if he's sweating (if he's not, why'd he take the shirt off?) and if that strap is leather, then it's gonna be a slimy, smelly mess by the time they get to the "Ceremony" encore.

And he's wearing white pants too. Always a mistake in my book. I hope, at least, that it's not past Labor Day 'cause he might be engaging in an even bigger fashion faux pas. But he's a Brit performing in Spain, so I guess different rules apply anyway. If you look closely, below the belt, you'll notice he's making rhythmic pelvic thrusts to keep the beat.

Three cheers for Steven fuckin' Morris. He's an absolute powerhouse on the drums. He's the rock steady counterweight to Barney Sumner/Albrecht/Dicken's shaky antics. I get tired just watching Morris. And the unrelenting nature of his beat is accentuated by the synth tom pad/treatment. Each hit sounds sort of like a labored exhalation, sort of like when Glass Joe gets hit on Mike Tyson's Punch-Out.

Peter Hook doesn't get nearly the amount of close-up time that he deserves for this song. I mean the man flawlessly plays the melody on his bass while half the time Bernard is just standing there getting prepared to play his guitar, or just letting it hang there Elvis style as he sings. A certain tentative nervousness pervades all of Mr. Sumner/Albrecht/Dicken's performances. He never seems to be comfortable or having any fun I often get the sense that getting him on stage is like pulling teeth. He can't seem to multitask (i.e. play guitar AND sing at the same time.) And based on the other New Order live clips I've see on youtube, he only hits the right notes with a 60-70% accuracy. Sure he can play guitar better than me, but he's a professional I don't get the sense that any of his parts are even that complicated. Peter Hook is usually the lead "guitar" and Barney just gets to do rhythmic flourishes. Admittedly, though, Bernard's angry near-Gang of Fourish guitar slashing at 2:38-2:54 is quite effective and indispensable to this version's success.

Being a Deadhead ("laugh it up, fuzzball") I can't help but compare Bernard to Bob Weir. Both seem to play with a consistently tentative approach despite having played some of their material for 10,15,20 years. Both seem to be a bit nervous trying to fill the shoes of dead bandmates (Ian and Jerry respectively) and seem like the weakest links in their bands. You can see it in Bernard and Bobby's faces. They don't quite know what's going on around them. You always expect them to turn to their bandmates with a bemused look and say "hey, woah, what key is this one in again?"

A good example of this apparent incompetence is a live 1984 in-studio version of "Age of Consent" on youtube.

Bernard completely blows the guitar intro. He starts hitting wrong notes and then just gives up...though he later makes up for it with his raw, passionate scratchy guitar solo around 2:01. Again, people make mistakes, and Bernard's a better guitar player than I. But come on! The guitarist of the band who released the best-selling 12" single in British history ("Blue Monday" 1982) should at least be able to play guitar with 90-95% accuracy (then again, does "Blue Monday" even have a guitar part? Apparently not, as is evidenced by this uber casual, passionless performance also from the '84 in-studio:

...I guess it was originally a radio-only broadcast...) But occasionally, Bernard's tentative, introspective, faltering performance style is an asset. It's one of the main reasons I love this 1981 version of "Ceremony" (in addition to Steven Morris' ridiculously powerful drumming.)

"Ceremony" is Ian's last song. So a year after his suicide, it seems fitting that Bernard should be mournfully uncomfortable singing it. Yet since it's a beautiful piece of melancholy and Ian's last testament, it does seem like Bernard has a certain obligation to sing it.

Unfortunately, there's not much to say about Gillian's keyboard part in the Barcelona "Age of Consent" except she's too low in the mix and completely inaudible during her one close up at 0:57. Why is it that keyboards are either blaringly loud or inaudible in live performances?

Randomly: I'd love to see Hooky and Morris face off against Sly and Robbie in an ultimate bass and drum new wave vs. dub battle for sonic supremacy. Bernard could just put down the guitar on a short skirt, grab some pom-poms and stick to the sidelines as a cheerleader

Monday, April 16, 2007

549 words about REM's "Boxcars" live on Nickelodeon

First of all, the host of the show looks like some overgrown Aryan Hitler Youth in the midst of some "Traditional Rhineland Pageant." He's wearing suspenders, and a waist-down view would surely reveal his lederhosen.

The incongruous host just adds to the absurdity of R.E.M. appearing on Nickelodeon(!) And since they're playing a cut from the Chronic Town EP here, I wonder if this was even before the Murmur LP was released? What preteen Nickeleon-watching kid in 1983 would care about, or even know of R.E.M.? Was the programming director for this "Live Wire" show just really cool? Getting paid off to promote this new "jangle-pop" by IRS (the record label, not the government bureau you're supposed to send your taxes to BY TOMORROW)? Or was the show simply unable to afford a 1st tier 1983 act that preteens of that year would be into, such as....hmmm....what were preteens of 1983 listening to anyway? I'll turn that question over to any dear readers born in the 1st half of the 70s. Feel free to post in the comment section bands that your 11 year old self was into back then. I'm ignorant because I was 3 in '83, so I was listening to PRE-pre-teen stuff such as Disney musical compilations, Big Bird Meets the Orchestra, and my mom's Hooked on Classics discofied orchestra medleys.

Maybe there's a good reason or interesting story about R.E.M.'s appearance here, recounted in some biography of the band. But again, I'm ignorant. I've only read Niimi's 33 1/3 volume on thr making of Murmur. Again, if you know more than I, post a comment.

Anyway, even without a back story, this clip is just great. There seems to be a bit too much reverb/echo that enters the mix halfway through Stipe's first line, but you can now look at this as foreshadowing of the arena era R.E.M. of the following decade. Not only is the band looking youthful and sounding energetic, here but the young studio "audience" makes it easy to imagine that this clip was actually R.E.M. playing at some high school homecoming gym dance: The jocks move out of the way, feeling out-of-place with nary a Journey power-ballad to fondle their favorite cheerleaders by. And suddenly all the socially awkward "indoor kids" move to the front, finding comfort and grace within the Bill Berry beat.

Well, actually the kids in the studio look a little too cool to be dancing this passionately to R.E.M. I'm sure they're getting paid. And they probably all had aspirations of getting "discovered" and then getting signed up for a small role on Dallas and then moving onward, upward to Hollywood. But to get noticed they had to shake all they had to.....ewww.. an underfed band from the backwoods of Athens, Georgia!?....puh-lease! I could see these kids maybe dancing sincerely to New Order (you could splice their dance moves into the club scenes of the "Confusion" video) but R.E.M. just doesn't seem like their thing.

Fashion seems very important to these kids in the studio. Shoes are especially important. 0:41-0:47 is literally all shoes. And there's a nice close up of white low-cut boots at 0:57 to match a white headband up top.

The kids in the studio are doing "the 80s Dance." I don't know if this relatively free-stepping "to the left then to the right" style actually has a name. And I don't know if kids in high school in the 80s actually danced like this. All I know is that kids in 80s high school movies certainly danced like this (eg the Karate Kid, TeenWolf, Pretty in Pink, Better Off Dead.) And I aspired to dance like this one day, but by the time I actually made it to a gym dance, it was already the early 90s. And the only moves that us guys seemed to do were the hands-in-pocket-against-the-wall and the '"save room for the Holy Spirit/I'm not sure I actually like girls' 'November Rain' slow dance with arms straight ahead against the girl's waist" move. But maybe if R.E.M. was there in the gym, we could've lost our self-consciousness and danced like this.

Back to the studio dancers: the girl up front in black with a feathered hat looks like she just got out of a 1940s funeral, but she's determined to win that spot as the waitress serving JR on Dallas. Just look at how her knees bend back and forth around 1:30. Is that even physically possibly? Can you only move like that if you're double jointed? You get another glimpse of her flexing legs as the credits roll around 2:40-2:45.

The one thing that really doesn't work in this video is Stipe's costume glasses. They make him look like he had to be begrudgingly pulled away from his copy of Finnegan's Wake just to sing this song. Still, I'd take the bespectacled professorial Stipe over the skinhead post-Monster Stipe any day!

The clip cuts abruptly, but I think thats more just a fault of the taped-from-tv VHS source. Even slightly truncated, this is a gem. And watching this makes me very thankful to my old central Jersey friend, Doug K. He popped the cassette of Chronic Town into his car's tape deck as he took the turn a bit too fast onto Brown Rd. to drop me home after a 1995 high school day. Previously, I'd known only "Nightswimming" and "Everybody Hurts" and was lukewarm. But on that sunny afternoon, the speeding car and the Buck-ensian jangle seemed perfectly complementary.

And so began my love of REM.

Friday, April 13, 2007

588 words about a Neutral Milk Hotel live youtube clip of "Song Against Sex"

this happened somewhere nine years and one day ago:

I posted the words to this song in an earlier Space blog without any explanation. I included no additional comment because the words pretty much speak for themselves. I posted them because "Song Against Sex" also speaks for me. If you could open up my head and peered inside, it would resemble this song.

And the first one tore a picture
Of a dead and hanging man
Who was kissing foreign fishes
That flew right out from this hands
And when I put my arms around him
I felt the blushing blood run through my cheeks
And an eeriness surrounded when his tongue began to speak
And he said...Oh boy you are so pretty
Enough to wrap tight in rice-paper string...
And when I finally kissed him the whole world began to ring
Lost like a bell that's tipping over
With two cracks along both sides
And I knew the world was over so I took a look outside
And watched the fires that were reaching
Up to the weather vane and the tops of trees
And the waiting scene and the sunday dream
They're all waiting here for me

Deli markets with their flower stands
Pretty girls and the burning men
Hanging out on the hooks next to the window displays
And I took out my tongue twice removed from my face
Across a bridge and across the mountains
Threw a nickel in a fountain
To save my soul from all these troubled times
And all the drugs that I don't have the guts to take
To soothe my mind so I'm always sober
Always aching, always heading towards
Mass suicide, occult figurines
And wasted gas-station attendents
Attending to their jobs
And a nice drive in the country
Finds a nice cliff to drop off
Oh when this world just gets so grating
All the grittiness of life
But don't take those pills your boyfriend gave you
You're too wonderful to die

And the last one tore a picture
From a pornographic page
But all the pleasure points attacking all
The looks of love were staged
And its a lie that you've been giving it hurts
You everyday so why should I lay you naked
When its just too far away.
From anything we could call loving
Any love worth living for
So I'll sleep out in the gutter
You can sleep here on the floor
And when I wake up in the morning
I forgot to lock the door
Because with a match that's mean and some gasoline
You won't see me anymore

I know of no other songs that come so close to capturing the simultaneous feeling of anxiety, doom, wonder, and fun I have on a daily basis. The song also captures in words, a belief that I hold and hope to have proven wrong some day: that the ultimate joy of sex is really just a lie. As the lyrics state:

"It's a lie that you've been given/It just hurts you everyday/So why should I lay here naked/When its just too far away/From anything we could call loving/Any love worth living for/ So I'll sleep out in the gutter/ You can sleep here on the floor."

In the end, sex and all its after affects seem more about anxiety and isolation than ecstasy and feeling as close to another person as possible.

So far, as I've experienced it, music is our true communion. It is with music and through experiencing and/or playing music together that we feel closest to one another. And this raw, joyous Neutral Milk Hotel clip is a prime example of that closeness.

Jeff Magnum and his band seem squeezed together on a stage that seems barely big enough to hold them. "Song Against Sex" comes across as chaotic, even in the studio original. And the sense that everything could fall apart is increased by the of claustrophobia of this live setting. The band is physically close to each other on the small stage , and playing their instruments together in song form requires mental and emotional closeness as well.

The band is mashed together, Jeff knocks into the bassist seemingly as an outlet for his punkish nervous energy and because there's simple no room to move around otherwise. Meanwhile, the crowd is mashed against the low stage and is pogoing and dancing and seems like it could rise up and envelope Magnum and Co. at any moment, if the stage holding the band doesn't collapse first under its weight, bringing the band and crowd together into one sweaty pit.

The lyrics are of fire and the apocalypse and yet also of whimsical things such as kissing fish and throwing a coin in a fountain. This contradiction is underpinned by the sliding trombone that comes in around 1:05, turning the world's end funeral into a New Orleans (pre-Katrina) style event. And Magnum's wordless vocals at the end of the verses encompass joy and pain and EVERYTHING else intense.

And that's a summation of my own life: a feel of intensity. And the experiences of intense joy/pleasure and pain/sorrow have a similarity to them, as if the extremes of positive and negative emotion meet at their ends like a Mobius strip.

Watching this video I feel a kinship with the bassist. I don't know his name, but he reminds me of myself. He's tall and thin and carries himself in a hunched over way that's similar to my own posture. Also he has a shaggy hairstyle that looks a lot like my own did before I decided to start growing it long. And while I've never played bass, I've been fascinated with its sound and place in rock music since my teens. In high school I wanted to be a bassist in a punk band because it seemed like the bassist was essential to the driving rhythms and breakdowns of punk/hardcore . And yet it also seemed that the bassist never played anything too complicated and only had to reckon with four strings. So with my limited skill, aspiring to be a bass player seemed a lot more realistic that becoming a guitar player. I also liked how in the live setting, a non-singing bass player could often hang towards the back end of the stage, feeding off the crowd's energy but feeling little pressure to be a showman himself. The bass was often only conspicuous when absent. The bassist seemed like he could get lost in the music. He could lock in with the drummer and just ride the sound waves.

In a notebook dating from the summer of '95, there's a sketch of myself with a bass guitar slung over my shoulder. In the picture, I'm wearing the big JNCO jeans and long-with-narrow-graphics t-shirts popular in the mid 90s among the skate punk crowd of Somerset County, NJ---though I never wore clothes like this in reality. Above the drawing is the text. "I Want to Be a Bass Boy!"

Becoming a bass player never happened. Instead I just stuck to French horn and lived vicariously through my friend Allie. She lived near my neighborhood, played bass in a band called Dilemma and wore the JNCOs and long t-shirts I so admired.

Still, it's easy for me to imagine that Magnum's bassist in this clip is me. He carries himself with an awkwardness I can relate to. On the small stage, he doesn't have much room to move around , but also doesn't seem comfortable just standing still amidst the high energy melee. For the first minute, he looks for a place to go that isn't there. And then he just settles on walking around in a small circle, subjected to the nearby spazzing of Mr. Magnum himself. If I were on that stage I'd probably settle on a similar pattern of movement. This song has a fair amount of dark imagery. But in the end, I come away from this live clip with a sense of catharsis and a smile. It's a bunch of people together playing and experiencing the music that they love.

Life has got a lot of lows and worries, but sometimes it feels great to sing about them or to hear someone else sing about them for you .