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An Evening With Mick Jones & Paul Simonon

In the late 90s, I used to have this recurring dream about seeing the reunited Clash again. At the time, I was living in Seattle, so in the dream I was always in the back of Mercer Arena and I was always standing near some Seattle rock luminary: one time Mark Arm, another time Kim Thayil, one time Eddie Vedder and his wife Beth. (Their presence in the dream was actually not the fantastic part; had there been a Clash show in Seattle, I can pretty much guarantee all of those people would have been there somewhere.) I remember the red and orange of the lights and I could hear Joe’s voice clear as a bell. The dream always came in on the middle of songs, never the beginning, and I never heard an end. But the feeling was always the same, every time, that sense of awe and waves of rolling thunder emanating from the stage.

The dreams usually came in the winter, when I missed New York and my old punk stomping grounds the most, so I always attributed their presence to some form of homesickness. For all their Britishness, there was so much of the Clash that was influenced by New York City, so this didn’t feel wrong, exactly. I also felt that they were admonishment for never being able to see Joe with the Mescaleros in Seattle–there was always some kind of unavoidable conflict, and I just kept thinking that I’d see him next time.

The dreams stopped for good in December of 2002. I can remember standing in the hallway of my parents’ house on the morning of December 24th, just having come in on the red eye from the West Coast. Text messages were coming in with such frequency I thought my phone was broken. The phone wasn’t broken; but Joe Strummer had left us and the world spun off its axis briefly. And suddenly, there was no more time.

It seems like every other week these days I am losing heroes and idols and friends. I am very much in a place where I feel the need to settle old debts with myself, close loops, tie knots tighter, check in with old members of the brotherhood just in case the clock is ticking closer than we know. I listen to the music of my youth (for lack of a better word) not because I want to relive it, but because I want to make sure I remember, make sure I enjoy it as much as I can. Mostly I still listen to much of it because I still LIKE it, because the notes vibrate at a cellular level, still. Because the only possible answer to “This is a public service announcement…” is “With guitar!”

This is how I come to find myself on a Thursday in September, sitting in an art gallery on the Lower East Side, waiting for the Clash. I observe that it is telling that I freely let myself call them by their former name, even though only Paul and Mick were going to appear, while I gave Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey endless amounts of shit for referring to themselves as the Who; maybe it’s because they doggedly went on, days after John made his unfortunate exit, while the Clash never did. For all of the dreams and the subconscious longing, I am in some ways glad that they did not come back–even though I absolutely know I would have been the very first person waiting on line for a reunion show.

I expected there to be more butterflies in my stomach as I sat in the tiny, airless room, shoulder to shoulder with media and friends of, waiting for Mick Jones and Paul Simonon to make their entrance. When they do arrive, Mick looking every bit as dapper as he did back in the day, gangster suit, black shirt, white tie and all, there is a momentary flash of teenage angst before I just feel happy and content and grateful that we are all still here. I am happy to sit three feet from them. I am happy to listen. I observe that I still know their voices, even their speaking voices, so well. There were so many hours, days, weeks, months, years, devoted to pouring their sounds into my ears that it should not be any wonder, but it is a thing I marvel at, still.

I am walking that tightrope between media and fan and am glad my emotions are willing to keep themselves in check. Unlike the events in London or in Paris around the box set (including a dedicated storefront exhibit called Black Market Clash in London), this is a small, press-only affair, with only the downstairs photo gallery open to the public. Although Mick would turn up later at the unveiling of the restored Joe Strummer mural on the wall of Niagra in the East Village, this lack of public access seemed unfortunate.

Former (and by some accounts, still) manager Kosmo Vinyl tagged along and pontificated exactly the way Kosmo has always held forth. In some ways, his obsessive, loquacious behavior was the most predictable of the evening. Mick just seemed relaxed and happy to be there, and less engaged in the process than I would have hoped, while Paul seemed the most on and ready to talk about the box set and the body of work. Given Paul’s historic detachment to the Clash in the previous years, while Mick had been digging in the archives and making more things public, it is an interesting turn of events.

Tonight, from all appearances, Mick just wanted to sit back and laugh with his mates, and none of them were particularly in a mood to engage in Serious Questions from David Fricke, who was called on to moderate the event. (This is not a dig at David Fricke; I was beyond impressed at the end when he pulled out a few typewritten pages and referenced them as his notes from interviewing Joe Strummer at the Palladium in 1979, after the London Calling show.) I have enjoyed the recent bout of interviews because there is no more pretense to uphold, there are no revolutionary mores to stand by. In short, there has been a marked lack of bullshit. I appreciate that. So I was hoping to get more of this live and in person.

Paul revealed that the boombox which is the container of the elaborate, sprawling, complete-except-for-Cut The Crap box set was his radio. The boombox as symbol of the Clash might seem strange unless you accept it as a very urban, very American token that spoke very directly to them. In another interview in this press series, Paul very specifically related how that it was how they shared ideas, that that wouldn’t have happened if they’d all had headphones. Which is probably more important than any other meaning it might have.

Paul and Mick told a few stories about meeting with Sony on the project; there was, apparently, a Spinal Tap/Stonehenge moment with Paul’s first prototype, when he drastically under-estimated the size needed, and Mick talked about getting the weight right. They seem proud of it and they should be. The box set is enormous and sprawling, and I opened mine with a sense of both apprehension and wonder. But it is truly fantastic and worth every penny; the sound is gorgeous, the details precise. But my Christmas morning feelings about the package were immediately followed by a wave of wistful sadness at the finality of its completeness. This band that almost took over the world–it certainly took over my world, and maybe yours–is now condensed into tiny silver saucers inside a cardboard box. (The only negative is figuring out storage of such an enormous thing inside a New York City apartment.)

Fricke tried to draw them out on the early days, and Mick and Paul just kept insisting that they created so much so quickly because they didn’t know any better. Kosmo said that he actually used to get on Joe’s case that they weren’t creating quickly enough, invoking the early output of Creedence Clearwater Revival (of all things) as the productivity milestone they should be striving for: “We’re dragging here!” Paul said, simply: “Well, we weren’t doing anything else.” Mick: “We just did it instinctively.”

Fricke: “There were records to be made.”
Paul: “Clothes to be painted.”
Mick: “Rivets to be applied.”

Did it ever feel like stardom?
Paul: “It meant nothing to us because we were too busy doing.”
Mick: “Stardom was what we tried to bunk the train to.”

Fricke tried to draw them out on New York. As New Yorkers we always feel that everyone has a special relationship to our city and that they love us more than anyone else, but there are many points in evidence with the Clash which would seem to provide validity to that claim. However, neither Mick nor Paul seemed to have any interest or willingness to declare allegiance, Paul tossing it off as “Well, New York was closer,” when questioned more pointedly. But I cannot think of a three-record set that sounds more like New York than Sandinista, even if, as Fricke noted, “You were getting played on WBLS before WNEW,” an old familiar story.

But slowly, the NYC-centric memories came out. They had no specific memories to offer about the shows at Bonds in 1981, except their universal disappointment at the audience’s reaction to the opening acts. Paul and Mick shrugged off any questions about the tensions around the fire marshalls and no one mentioned the mini-riot the next day when the show was called off by the fire marshals. I can remember that afternoon in specific clear detail, which is probably not surprising given I was running for dear life to get away from the NYPD on horseback. (For those not around back then, the venue was massively oversold, and the legend goes that the clubs that didn’t get the booking called the fire marshall out of spite. The band then agreed to extend their booking by double the number of shows in order to accommodate all of the ticket holders, keeping the band in town for three weeks total.)

That was 32 years ago. (I had to take out the calculator while writing this to be certain I had the numbers right.) It is one of those moments where I am not sure how I got this far and completely dumbfounded that that much time has passed.

As the questioning continued, the band’s relationship with their New York counterparts was brought up. Suicide were lauded for their professionalism when opening for the Clash, despite absolutely unsympathetic audiences. Patti Smith was mentioned with respect and reverence by Paul: “[She] gave the other option.” And Mick charmingly smiled at the mention of the Ramones before remarking, “They had a lovely way with a two-and-a-half minute tune.”

Mick began a reminiscence of when the New York punk bands first came over with, “Those who had seen Rock Scene magazine and CREEM magazine–” only for Paul to interrupt him with an abrupt, “You mean you.” Mick cackled in response, and it felt like you were sitting in a bar listening to your friends talk about the old days.

The last successfully retrieved New York story was the tale of opening for the Who at Shea Stadium. When those shows were announced, I walked around proclaiming to the world that this was the best concert lineup ever, and after these shows I could die happily. It was my own personal nirvana, even if most of the audience not only didn’t give a fuck about the Clash, but in fact actively despised them and everything they stood for. Mick perked up and wanted to talk about Townshend. “Pete was always on the case, even in the early days,” he began. After they had played their first show as support, Mick said he ran up to Pete and said, “‘Pete! I understand what Quadrophenia is about now!’ I felt I connected to something.” And the tale of Pete saying, “Come on, boys, come and meet the rest of my band,” only to take the Clash into the Who’s dressing room and get zero response. Pete then went to their dressing room at Shea Stadium and played soccer with them, using a tin can.

When Fricke broached a question about whether or not the outing opening for the Who on their First Farewell Tour (my words, not his), Mick looked surprised and said, “If they’d handed us a baton, we would’ve dropped it.” But still showing where his fandom lay, Mick then told a story about a recent interview with Townshend in Brighton, where he pointed out a venue and said, “See that place? I played there with the Clash.”

Not long after that, Sony pulled the plug, the boys left the room, and I turned back into a pumpkin. The open bar (sponsored by Sailor Jerry, with Clash-themed drinks like “Death or Glory,” all of which I avoided) was set to continue for another hour downstairs in the gallery which featured all those iconic photos you know from Kate Simon and Bob Gruen and Adrian Boot. But I had already spent enough time staring at them longingly, and wanted to hold on to the tiny bubble of memories for a little while longer. So I slipped out a side door, put “The Maginificent Seven” on in my headphones, and made my way uptown.

At 14th Street I stop and think, “I saw the Clash play there,” while giving the New York State salute to what was once the Palladium and is now NYU’s Palladium Dormitories, before getting on the subway and heading for home. I could feel old and ancient or I could instead opt for feeling lucky to have been there.

I choose the latter, and turn up the volume.

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David Bowie is…. exhibit at the V&A in London

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We arrived at the Victoria & Albert Museum at 9:45am, thinking we were late and had just missed our 10am ticket entry time–only for the guard to tell us the museum wasn’t opened yet, but that when it did open, we just had to walk straight ahead to the entry for the exhibit. And we stood there as the crowd grew and grew, and people walked up and said that they were there for the Special Exhibit but didn’t have tickets, and the guard told them that there were already 400 people waiting upstairs (we took the subway route from the South Kensington tube station, so were underground) and that they had to go up there. I clutched my tickets tighter.

And then, 10 am, we walk up the stairs and straight through several galleries and I keep waiting to hit some kind of queue, but then there are the signs and someone checks my ticket and hands me an audio guide, telling me to hit play when I walk in the gallery. One more ticket check and I am in. There is, quite honestly, one person ahead of us and we had about 15 blessed minutes with no one else in the gallery because we went in the alternate entrance.

I am not much of an audio guide person but I went in and clicked play and it took me 5-7 minutes to realize that this is not your mother’s audio guide as it plays based on where you are standing in the gallery, not based on some rigid recitation of a path it requires you to take. Once I realized that I could walk where I wanted to walk and skip what I wanted to skip and the guide would go with me – or that I could go back to something and hear it again (or not) – I was a big, big fan. This is genius. It was a little buggy – there was a lot of waving of receiver boxes at antennas in some spots – but the ability to proceed at my own pace, in my own order, was vital to my enjoyment of this exhibit. It also meant that I wasn’t stuck behind people from Iowa who had no clue as to who David Bowie was but could spend extra time reading handwritten lyrics (and there are quite a lot of those).

I had been warned about the introductory plaques at the start of each exhibit section and how I could skip them, and you might be able to do that too. There was a lot of standing and staring at items of clothing that I had seen him wear over the years, and being a few feet or inches from this stage costume or that one – that one I had in a life-size poster on my wall for so many years, seeing it in person was kind of odd and jarring and yet – hello, old friend. The Scary Monsters album artwork was actually produced in a format about sixteen times an album cover, and then reduced to size. There is a computer program called the “Verbasizer” and Bowie talked about how it helped him access a subconscious part of his brain with his conscious self. I think I watched that about five times.

The amount of planning and work and visualization is not astonishing because it is Bowie but to see the work on paper, the makeup charts and the lighting cues and the stage sketches and models and the fabric swatches. None of this could have possibly been accidental or thrown together and I am glad that I can appreciate it now and not be chided that this kind of work was not very rock and roll. It made me feel lazy and self-indulgent.

You walk into a room and it’s, “Oh, it’s the Berlin room,” and I think that one got me the most, the handwritten thank you note from Christopher Isherwood and the koto he used on “Moss Garden” and a painting of one James Osterberg and it is a tiny room, really, but yet they managed to somehow pick the pieces that would put together the entirety of his Berlin phase into this room. And it is sparse yet overwhelming. It was put together the same way the rest of the exhibit was, with a fan’s eye and a curator’s eye and a historian’s eye, all at the same time, working together. That is really the genius working here.

And then the final room, floor to expanded ceiling of more stage outfits and video screens and PLAY THIS ALBUM LOUD with live footage, you move from side to side or stand in the middle and your view is different, what you hear is different, and other times you take off the headphones because it is ear-splittingly, concert-volume loud. That was where I felt kinship with some of the other people there, the ones moving their lips probably without realizing they were doing it, the ones whose faces filled with recognition or remembrance when a different clip hit the screen: We know. We remember. We were there. We watched this a million times. At first I wished it had been in the middle of the exhibit, because I was worried I didn’t have enough time (I had a budget of 2 hours for the exhibit and then half an hour for the gift shop before I had to get on a train back to Paris) and then I realized it was the second-to-last room and that I had plenty of time. And of course it would be the second-to-last room because it was the room that synthesized everything you had just seen, if you didn’t know anything about him or didn’t know anything beyond the fact that he was David Bowie, here is the summation of everything you just saw. This is what it produced. I was just glad I had all those memories and I could attach them like velcro to items that I watched or saw or listened to as I passed through the rooms.

The gift shop will only take you about 15 minutes if you look at the website ahead of time and know what you are going to buy. The catalog is a must and I am just glad that I had a friend get one for me well before I knew I was going to be able to visit.

There are no more advance tickets so you have to show up and wait, but if you are reading this web site you know how to do that. (I ended up with tickets simply because a Twitter-friend was at the museum with her dad one morning and I said, “I wish I knew you were going, you could have gotten me tickets” and she said, “I’m still here, what do you need?” Because advance tickets sold out not long after that.) The exhibit is also coming to Toronto later, and you should go.

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Nothing To Say: Soundgarden at Terminal 5

haven't seen these four guys in one place since 1996

I have not been certain at all about this reconstituted Soundgarden, so uncertain that despite my great love for that band and their music I did not leap through hoops or get on planes to go see them. I missed all the gigs last summer because I was on the road anyway and so when they turned up back in NYC, I decided it was time. I heard all the whispers of separate tour buses and less than cohesive energy between the lead singer and the rest of the band, and it was just time that to go, to find out for myself.

And as it turned out, it was lovely to see them, you know, those four guys onstage making the noise that many have tried to emulate but none have equalled. They were loud and huge and noisy and smart, they were smart more than anything, and I got sucked into them when many of us were finding what piece of the noises coming out of Seattle we wanted any part of. Everyone was flocking to Pearl Jam and Nirvana but I actually attached myself to Soundgarden first. I loved Cornell’s hair and THAT VOICE and Thayil’s presence and guitar playing and MATT CAMERON, who made that enormous drum sound come out of that tiny kit, and this fucking punk rock bass player over in the corner.

And then I moved to Seattle in the middle of everything, in enough time to be able to see some of the great shows, that Lollapalooza 96 tour, a club show at the Showbox (which went on sale at 5pm on a Friday at the Blockbuster on Queen Anne. I ran out of my office at Second and Pine, took cash out of the ATM on the corner [promptly leaving my card in the machine], and hopped on a bus. I was the third person in the line), and other stories that are more of the same, that overwhelming love of a band and its music and being able to immerse yourself in it until it decides to call it a day. I was not cheated but I wish I had gone to Europe to see them those times I was sitting in the MIddle East and watching MTV Europe and realizing that this was all going on at home without me, but that is another story for another day.

The verdict is that I’m glad I went tonight, but I don’t need to go again. It’s like seeing that guy you dated 10 or 15 years ago, wasn’t a bad dude but you just kind of drifted apart, and it’s lovely to see him and he looks good and has a new hair cut and likes his job and you had a nice evening but you don’t need to, you know, rekindle anything. The new material is certainly respectable but, let’s be honest, even the catchiest ones don’t hold a candle to the most obscure track on Down On The Upside. I mean, I tried, and the crowd tried, but even the kids at the front didn’t know the words to the new stuff.

But ,it was so good to SEE them on that stage again and after that rush of deja vu and memories (during “Spoonman” I was having all the Seattle feelings and memories it was possible to have in one place at one time). It was good to just enjoy all those songs again. And it was good to enjoy them from the balcony like a grown-up, without six large frat dudes pushing against my back the entire show. I liked being able to EXPERIENCE THE MUSIC, to catch the little jazz fills Matt throws in (that break in “Spoonman” will always get me, you don’t expect it there but yet, there it is), the arpeggios Kim sneaks by (“Fell On Black Days” has one of my favorites), those vocal riffs Cornell can do when he wants to and showcase that voice that entranced us all the first time we heard it, and Ben, dear Ben, who I lamented years ago would have a less than happy fate, looks healthy and happy and has morphed his Sid pose into, well, I was going to say Entwistle-ian but maybe more like, if Sid had gotten old and grown up. Cornell has lost much of what made him so compelling back in the day, but, you know, Audioslave, and I think maybe he lost it because he wasn’t that person any more, he was already not that person any more when he first went out solo with the folks from Eleven.

I was happy with the set otherwise, I didn’t get “Searching” but I got “Outshined” and “Jesus Christ Pose” and that’s all I would have asked for. The set was surprisingly heavy on DOTU material (in a good way, because I’m not sure they liked it that much when it came out) and the crowd reacted more strongly to that than “Black Hole Sun,” during which most of them read their email. Kids down front with a sign for “Head Down” got their wish. “Fresh Tendrils” out of nowhere. It was good. They were solid. They were having fun, or at least they didn’t hate being up there together.

I did, at least, feel like they mean it, and that they are a band, but I’m not sure that this is grown up Soundgarden. They could do that but that would take work and being brave and, again, they could absolutely do it but I’m not sure that’s what they want to do. But they didn’t make me sad or break my heart and I just wanted to walk up and hug them and be all “Dudes! It’s been so long! You look great! Nice to see you.” And it was.

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my best shows of 2011

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Even I am not immune to the year-end listing process. Here’s my list of favorite/best shows of 2011. It’s so skewed as to representative of nothing except my particular universe – but it’s not like I’m pretending that 2012 isn’t going to be a laundry list of Springsteen and Afghan Whigs shows.

1. Twilight Singers, San Francisco
2. Wild Flag, Bell House
3. U2, Montreal night 1
4. Big Audio Dynamite, Roseland
5. Horrible Crowes, Bowery Ballroom
6. Twilight Singers, Webster Hall
7. Gaslight Anthem, Asbury Park Convention Hall [I feel the need to footnote this show by pointing out that it was amazing before Bruce showed up.]
8. U2, Giants Stadium
9. Bryan Ferry, Beacon Theater
10. Patti Smith & Lenny Kaye, St. Mark’s Church

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Remembering Achtung Baby, 20 Years On

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I remember Achtung Baby as the record where it was not just about what and who U2 were as it was about what and who they weren’t. At the time, people weren’t just U2 fans, you were either fans of the Joshua Tree– era U2 who didn’t love what was perceived as this sudden change, or you were the people who were starting to — not so much lose interest towards the end of that particular phase (including, by all accounts, the band themselves), but might have tired of some of it just a tad, and you loved Achtung Baby not because it was U2’s next album but because it was Achtung Baby. To me, it was closer to the era where they made their bones. For all of the insistence on noise rock influences and Einsturzende and their ilk, I heard the Stones at Nellcote, I heard Marc Bolan’s gold lame pants, I heard the Silver Factory, I heard the Bowie of Heroes, the Lou Reed of Transformer, the Dolls at the Mercer Arts Center. It was Manchester meets Motown.

It was iconic, it was ridiculous, it was groundbreaking. It was overwhelming and exciting – if you wanted to be overwhelmed and excited by all of the above, which I most certainly did.

“The Fly” flooded MTV and after years of gritty black and white earnestness there was a pulse, there was rhythm, there was Edge’s guitar shimmering around the edges like runway lights, reminding us that this was still U2. The video or the promo for the video or the ad for the album was on MTV once every fifteen minutes, and I am not sure that is an exaggeration of any kind. It’s no wonder that by the time that ZooTV went live on tour that the iconography was already so comfortable and familiar to everyone when this was burned into your brain nonstop for so long.

When the record was finally in our hands – and oh, this was still the day of the record – the cover was Robert Frank in technicolor, and the music did not disappoint. It opened with a one-two punch and it closed with a triad taking you in the other emotional direction. “Zoo Station” was a clarion call, chanting “I’m ready” every line. “Even Better Than The Real Thing” felt and sounded like the sun rising. “Ultraviolet” was liquid hope (“baby baby baby, light my way”) anchored by the rhythm section, “Acrobat” was despair set to 6-8 time, “Love Is Blindness” was quicksilver anguish channeled through Edge’s guitar strings.

The sounds and the spaces were colossal. It was big and brash and loud and dark and shiny. It was huge. It wasn’t what we had expected, it was more than we needed, it was what we dearly wanted. It walked that edge between dark and light and between heaven and hell. This record wasn’t about being in God’s country, these were songs about walking the planet every day.

It is a record of anthems, of battle cries, of hymns. After 20 years of hearing “One” in grocery stores and while shopping for jeans at the Gap, it’s hard to remember that you could ever listen to that song and find it evil, haunting and too close to the bone, but the first listen of that song had me on the floor the first time I heard it. I used to sing it at karaoke with my best friend and we’d piss everyone off. We pissed off the guys we dated, who knew we were trying to tell them something but couldn’t figure out what. It pissed off other women in the crowd because we were reminding them of things they didn’t want to think about. It pissed off the other guys in the crowd because our anguish was hot and we always leaned into each other when we sang, which gave them ideas that had no basis in reality. Of course, we sang the song and put on the performance because we wanted to piss everybody off. We sang “One” to each other over the phone. We sang “One” to each other on our answering machines. I marvel that now “One” is a song during which I take a break during a show, and certainly wouldn’t stop the car and turn up the radio if it came on, but back then, it rated that kind of reverence.

I got into the most trouble with the “Ultraviolet”/”Acrobat” axis at the end of the record. I would walk to the beach at sunset with the record on tape or I would sit in my living room with headphones on at sunrise, usually coming home after being out all night, back when that was something I would do. “Oh, sugar, don’t you cry,” Bono would sing, but I would usually be doing just that, exactly. “You I need you to be strong,” he would sing, and I would shake my head to myself in assent. It was the anti-“One,” it wasn’t about regret, it was about moving up and on: “light my way,” over and over again. I would listen to the song grow and expand and open itself up into the bridge, where Larry and Adam were right up front in a giant cavern that filled my heart with sound, and Edge was in the back scratching and Bono singing, pleading, begging, with a voice that sounded like it had been dragged through sandpaper or whiskey or both.

And then, just when you’d recovered, you’d be thrown into “Acrobat.” I should not like “Acrobat.” I do not like 6/8 time, not in a rock song. If you had told me “U2 have a song on this record that’s in 6/8 time” I would have dismissed it out of hand as being entirely too precious. But it works, that’s the thing, it works here without being pretentious. It is the perfect device to give the feeling of being on edge, the manic madness that takes you into another perfectly orchestrated break where the drums parry the guitar and Adam is holding them all down so they don’t swirl into the ether. “You can dream/so dream out loud/and you can find/your own way out, and the Delmore Schwartz reference (which once woke me up in the middle of the night as I was falling asleep to the record and finally placed the line), it’s another rung in the ladder to climb up or out, whatever you need at the time.

You think you’re going to be able to relax by the time “Love Is Blindness” shudders into your ears, and that’s just what they want you to think. They want you to be off-guard, they want you to take a breath or two and listen, and that’s where they get you. They get you with those initial guitar licks in the background, glowing, glimmering, before taking over and shrieking into your brain and your heart at the end.

And then you would start it all over again.

This record stayed with me. I never needed to put it away or give it a break and even with every very specific, very raw, very emotional association I had with it, the music trumped the memories and I never had to give it up. I would drive late at night with the roof open and it ringing in my ears, I would walk through the rain with the volume up just enough to not overshadow the raindrops, I would lie on the floor and stare at the ceiling and look for an epiphany. Nowadays I walk with it, I let it take me through the streets of New York City at twilight, for comfort or strength or solace or all three. I let it power me up when I have something to do or somewhere to be. I decided that if I was a Major League Baseball player, I would choose “Even Better Than The Real Thing” as my walk-up music. When I am facing the public or giving a reading, I will have listened to side one at some point before I got there.

So on the 20th anniversary of this record, it is being revisited and re-examined and re-explored, and I am at a loss at all of this RE-ing because it was the second or third album that went onto my first iPod in 2003 and I have never stopped listening to it long enough to be able to re-anything when it comes to Achtung Baby. It’s hard for me to revisit that which has never left.

In 1993, I was living overseas, and had been there for over five years already. I was living this odd no-man’s land of not being quite American but not being quite European either. In a way, Achtung Baby also occupies that emotional space, the band still being who they were, despite the previous few years of pursuing their Kerouac-like On The Road fantasy through the USA. Joshua Tree was white lights and cowboy hats, Achtung Baby was strobe lights and leather pants. When the tour rolled out in the US, despite being thousands of miles away, the magic of MTV made you feel like you were there. We knew everything that was going on, we knew about the calls to the White House and the pizzas and the video confessional as well as if it was in our backyard. I wanted to see it live but I didn’t know how I was going to make it happen – until my sister’s wedding in August of 93 required my presence back on the East Coast. I could route myself home via London just in time for Zooropa at Wembley Stadium.

I will tell you that nothing, not a damn thing, not a MTV News report or a photo essay in Rolling Stone or in-depth Q Magazine coverage prepared me for the sheer size of things. Part of it probably had to do with the fact that I had been living in a country that would neatly fit inside the state of New Jersey, everything was going to be massive by comparison. I had seats in the stands, about 1/3 back, halfway up. I looked at the mass of humanity on the pitch and wished I was there. I was by myself; despite the obsession my particular circle of friends had over this record, I don’t remember why I ended up traveling solo. It was an odd, disjointed time in my life, where I didn’t know what was going to happen next. Everyone around me streamed into the stadium in large, laughing groups, and I found my way to my seat by myself, feeling like a country bumpkin.

I was utterly not prepared for this. I was a girl who didn’t do stadium shows, who had sworn them off after surviving the Who and the Stones at the beginning of the 80s, who skipped her beloved Bruce Springsteen by the time Born In The USA got to the blimp nests because it wasn’t about watching the show, it was about spending some time in the same physical space as an artist and I wanted more from my music than that.

And then the lights went on, Edge hit the intro riff, Larry smashed the drums, and every single person at Wembley got to their feet. There was Bono, silhouetted against the blue, the fly against the TV screen. There were the leg kicks, there he was, humping the microphone stand. The music reached out across the enormity and pulled me in like I was standing at the edge of the stage.

I knew what “Zoo Station” was going to be like because I had seen it so many times, it was almost familiar, the first number had been in countless tv broadcasts. I even knew small details, like that last song before the band came out was going to be “Television, the Drug of a Nation” by the Disposable Heroes of Hiphopiacy (just like I’d known that John Lennon’s version of “Stand By Me” was the last song before the band came out on Joshua Tree). But nothing was going to prepare me for being there, and even being so far away from the stage – I didn’t! Do! Stadium! Shows!- it was overwhelming, even from where I was. I was glad I wasn’t closer because it would have swallowed me whole if I had. I held my breath through “Zoo Station” and “The Fly” because I was in shock. I was physically, mentally, emotionally unprepared for the spectacle, the power of the music live, the energy generated in such a large space. For London greeting U2 at Wembley fucking Stadium. 

And then the trabants went up and the lights flashed on and “Even Better Than the Real Thing” roared out of the speakers and into the center of my chest and it was like I had just woken up, like I had been frozen and had thawed out, that moment in the WIzard of Oz where everything goes from black and white to color. It was so big, so bright, so all-encompassing. It’s going to seem stupid when I tell you that that was the moment that I realized that I was moving back to America, that I had been heading in the wrong direction, that I thought I was doing the right thing with my life but that I had been doing anything but. Even at the time I said something to myself about being so cliche as to having a catharsis at a stadium rock show but there was something about the loop being closed, the circuits being opened, seeing this record live. It was the size, it was the sound, it was the power, it was something shaking you upside down until you came back to your senses.

I laid awake in bed that night staring at the ceiling and not believing I was going to do it again the next night.

There was a problem with my tickets the second night. They were legit, but they had been given to someone else more important than me, so a security guard took me to the production office to find another place to sit. Apparently I was the only person who didn’t walk in there ready for a fight – to be fair, would you want to find out there was a problem with your U2 ticket? – but I was just so happy to be there, to be able to be part of the circus one more time that as long as I had a ticket, I would be okay, which is what I told them. That’s when they noticed the accent, and asked me if I’d come just to see the show, and I said yes, and before I knew it I found myself on the same side of the stadium (Adam’s side, stage left) and a much much lower row. This was still Wembley, so I was still miles away, but after the previous night, I knew it wasn’t going to matter.

I got to my seat and noticed the entire row behind me were wearing MacPhisto horns. No sooner did I sit down than I felt someone tapping me on the shoulder and proffering a set of horns.
“What’s this?” I said.
“You have to get into the spirit of things,” he said.
“Don’t worry, I’m in the spirit of things.”
“You’re American!”
I nodded.
“I brought enough for everyone,” he said, “But you have to wear them.”
I put them on my head immediately.
“Now, that’s the spirit!” he said, standing up and waving at the people behind him who were not wearing devil horns. “Look, the girl from America put them on.”

This was the best possible section of people to be with for this show, people who stood up and danced and sang and shouted all night long. Tonight was participatory, yelling comments at Bono as though he could hear them, my new friend imitating every single one of Bono’s moves onstage with gusto (especially the crotch-in-camera ones, to much hilarity). You haven’t quite lived until you’re imitating belly dancing moves during “Mysterious Ways” with a motley group of kids from the London suburbs, all wearing devil horns. Everyone knew all the lines because they had been watching and listening and paying attention for the past year or so: “You didn’t come here to watch TV, now have ya??” we yelled with Bono as though we had heard it every night of our life.

In a way, of course, we had.

When the show was over, I walked out of Wembley with my new friends, several of them insisting on getting me back to the tube station even though I kept telling them I knew where I was going just fine. I didn’t realize I was still wearing my MacPhisto horns until I got off at my stop and walked into the off license to buy a drink. The elderly shop clerk looked up at me, saw the horns, did a double-take and I caught my reflection in the window just as a big smile broke across his face.

He said, “So, who did Bono ring up tonight, then?”

I wish I knew what happened to those devil horns.


(For the record: the first night was — I believe — the Archbishop of Canterbury, and Bono and the crowd sang “I Just Called To Say I Love You” and the second night was the coach of a football team whose name I have long since forgotten, but understood enough about UK sport to get why we were singing “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” I am hoping a kind commenter will fill in that gap.)

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memories of the croc

In answer to this tweet asking for memories of the Crocodile Cafe in Seattle:

THE CROC: the line along the plate glass. the chicken fingers. the neon sheep. drinking whiskey in the back bar. THE GODDAMN POLE IN THE MIDDLE OF THE ROOM. watching ebay sellers stalk mark arm and steve turner for autographs while they ate their chicken fingers. young fresh fellows. girl trouble. THAT POLE, WHAT IS IT DOING THERE. stubbornly refusing to believe that yes, r.e.m. WERE playing there on monday night and sitting on the sidewalk for three songs before getting inside. the supersuckers. gas huffer. the fastbacks. mike watt. mike watt 4 days after 9/11. mike watt any time. the curtains. the paper mache snakes. THAT EFFING POLE. Endless Mudhoney gigs. Wellwater Conspiracy. Pre-Bumbershoot Under Assumed Name gigs. Cheap Trick, three nights in a row. The Knitters. John Doe solo. It almost doesn’t matter who was playing there, if it was at the Croc, guaranteed it was worth seeing.

P.S. when i came back to Seattle last year to see Greg Dulli at the Croc, I ran up to the pole and hugged it.

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Why Styx is not good, funny or ironic.

It was hell.

I’m talking about what it was like in high school at the end of the 70s, when the music on the radio was just awful. It was bland and overproduced and you were faced with trying very hard to convince yourself that you liked “Hotel California” or what you would do with the four copies of the Foreigner album you got at your birthday party (hint: march them down to Discount Records, where manager Greg used to let me have the run of the returns bin in exchange for updating the fiddly catalog with the tissue-thin pages that was supposed to be a listing of every record ever made).

I wanted to talk about the Clash and the Ramones and Patti Smith and instead everyone around me talked about going to see Kansas and Foreigner and ZZ Top (who I don’t have much problem with, but back then they were considered music for rednecks and stoners) and you would buy a Yes record just to see if you could find something redeeming there.

Instead, I would just fall asleep somewhere in the middle of side one and have to pretend the next morning that I knew all about what it was like to use Yessongs to clean my pot, while trying to find someone who would buy me a copy of Rock Scene or the Village Voice the next time they went into the city.

(HELLO. DAD. ALTHOUGH THIS IS A PERSONAL ESSAY I NEVER LIKED SMOKING POT AND DIDN’T DO IT VERY MUCH AND DEFINITELY NOT AT HOME. TALK TO YOU SOON. XO)

The music was stifling, there was no other word for it. It was oppressive and soul-crushing and the polar opposite of the stuff that I loved. Sophomore year, I went to a journalism conference at Columbia and on the way in, defiantly pinned a Clash button onto my purse amongst the pins of the Who and the Stones (which were safe enough, although I wasn’t brave enough to put Springsteen on there, because I got shoved into the lockers enough over that to last a lifetime), and when I got to Columbia, met city kids! Who wanted to talk about the Clash with me! And didn’t think I was gay or a drug addict or weird because I liked them! They read CREEM and Rock Scene and could talk about Lester Bangs and Lisa Robinson, and rolled their eyes, hard, the way I would have liked to when someone mentioned seeing ELO with the spaceship at the Garden. They didn’t want to talk about Styx or Skynyrd or Pink Floyd or all of the other stuff I had to pretend very very hard that I liked (even though I knew more about any of them than the people who really liked them did).

So when I read that an indie band has covered Styx, and then watch Twitter explode with excitement over this cover, I want to stand there and scream. This is not a good thing, this is a dumb, pointless, useless thing. Styx was bad – Styx is bad. Covering Styx in any kind of scenario is embracing mediocrity and a time when music was bland and oppressing and in the hands of the record companies. Styx represents embracing bombast and excess. It’s not cool. It’s not retro. It’s not ironic.

It’s just dumb.

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“For Clarence”

IMG_1595

It was inevitable, it being New Jersey, and it went on all night – adding “Promised Land” at the end of ISHFWILF, thanking Bruce for the loan of the hall, getting the crowd to “Bruuuuce” them. It was inevitable, and I knew it was coming, but when Bono went to the front of the stage and pulled out the sign – and that person had to have gotten online at the stroke of dawn to get that spot – it didn’t make it any easier, as he proceeded to dedicate “Moment of Surrender” to the E Street Band. And again, again, even with all of that, even though I knew it was going to happen, I’d seen the video, I’d heard the song files from Oakland, Bono invoking the last verse of “Jungleland” in New Jersey, across the parking lot where we stood and watched them all there not that long ago – well, goddammit, you learn from the best, you Irish bastard.

I didn’t expect Bruce to play and I realized on the train home that I had no real need or desire for him to play.

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Jesse Malin & “Bastards of Young”

The video above is Jesse Malin onstage at the Stone Pony Saturday night. Yes, that is me, singing along in the background, even though I was taping. I hit record because I was anticipating some kind of hopeful rumination about Paul Westerberg or the Replacements or something similar. Instead I watched a bunch of people stand and stare at the stage.

I continue to remain amazed that in 2011 that “Bastards of Young” is not canon, that it is not mandatory, that everyone in the world does not know the words to it. Or even at least a Jesse Malin audience who presumably bought the covers record for which this was the lynchpin (as per Jesse), that they would know this song. I remain amazed that the Replacements continue to fade from view, that people don’t know and don’t care and don’t care to know. I am like one of those old people who remembers when things were one way and they still think things are that way, because in my day everyone I knew loved the Replacements (or made a conscious decision that they did not) and they were huge and important and hugely important, they were massive, they were the kind of thing you planned your life around, an album, a tour, a show, a television appearance was like a national holiday of some sort.

You argued. You defended. You loved passionately – or, quite possibly, you hated them passionately and would argue and defend your opinion just as vehemently as I would defend my love for them. You cared, one way or the other, you cared. I would have applauded a raised middle finger over standing around looking bored complacency. Back in the day, I saw more than a few raised middle fingers in the middle of Replacements audiences.

(And before you get all “What do you want for a Pony audience on a Saturday when 75% of them were staring at the stage door the entire time, waiting for Springsteen to walk in” [which was, sadly, true] this has happened at Irving Plaza too.)

These days, no one gives a fuck. And I don’t know how you can listen to music or care about music and not give a fuck about the Replacements, because I guarantee you that the people you are listening to right now would not be doing what they are doing without the Replacements.

This ties in nicely to one of my pet causes these days, Gorman Bechard’s documentary on the Replacements, Color Me Obsessed. [Full disclosure: I was interviewed for, and appear in, this film, and am a supporter via Kickstarter as well.] Conveniently, his most recent blog entry talks about the day they interviewed none other than Mr. Jesse Malin.

Maybe this movie will help. At least it will make me feel better that I have done something to help keep the Replacements alive in people’s minds.

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SOUNDGARDEN LIVE. hells yeah.

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