Saturday, August 19, 2017

Alone with Lucifer

The day I left the US I lost my ipod. Life in Europe involves endless modes of public transport, so being without a musical device can be challenging. I keep telling myself, this is how we all went through life when I was young, and when I was young was when I was happiest. But I am still fraught by the wailing babies and cockney arguments that I have been subjected to in the last few days. Plus – and here’s the rub – no Afghan Whigs' “In Spades” to obsess on, a loss which felt even more abject when I found myself on my way to see them in a secret city on the continent.
secret city

Yes, a secret city! The words conjure up something shimmering and hidden in a random Alp, a dystopian hideaway for when LUCIFER, the heatwave I had to fly directly into, intensifies -- but what I mean by ‘secret’ is, coming to this particular city was my little secret – it was a present to myself, a rogue moment of old, when I snuck away from my life a few hours too early, and cut time out of another obligation, so that I could have 24 hours to myself.

I used to do this kind of thing a lot but that was before I had a kid. When I was a rock critic. Nowadays, doing so requires much, much, much more planning….as well as a lot more guilt. What it doesn’t take that much of is money. Months ago, I bought myself a sort of hedge-ticket to the secret  city, in the hopes I could make this work, and it was well under a hundred dollars.

For a long time, though, it looked like it wouldn't happen. Then at the last minute, it did. The only thing was, the whole project was so time sensitive that the best I could manage was to book a flight arriving at 3 p.m. For an 8 o clock show, which I didn’t think was very safe, the way airlines are these days. Plus, customs, taxis, yadda yadda. But check it out: my luck was in from the moment I left London. My flight was half an hour early, customs took one second, my uber (Mustafa) came in 3 minutes…I was at my HOTEL a little after 3 p.m. WHEN DOES THAT EVEN HAPPEN? You know when it happens? In the past, is when. Before the size of the population and the madness at airports and on freeways and the whole TSA thing messed everything up. In fact, the whole experience on this trip was like the dark ages revisited – and I mean that in the best possible way.

See, it turns out, all you have to do, to make that happen, is know exactly what your perfect day is, and somehow or other I knew. I knew, back in May when I had to miss their gig in London, that it had to involve seeing the Afghan Whigs, and not in my own city. I knew it had to be at a venue that was small, not at a festival or someplace I’d been before, and I knew I had to go alone. When I looked at where I was going to be this summer, there was a single place that fit that bill, and it was Vienna, the first night of the second leg of the band’s European tour.

Vienna on a Friday afternoon in August feels like a Sunday in some religious town in 1952. There was no one on the street, or in the cafĂ©’s, just me sipping some water and eating a pizza the size of a tea tray in some empty place on Wahringerstrasse and contemplating my luck. Because it is lucky, for sure, to be able to enact your perfect day. And this was my perfect day, no question about it. My perfect 12 hours.

The venue, WUK (Werkstatten und Kulturhaus), was perfect: some kind of an art commune funded by the government, housed in an old brick vine covered building, built approximately around the time America was founded. I am not sure what this place was, but it certainly housed a kindergarten, an art gallery, and a post office, among other things: when I went there early in the evening to check it out, there were four muslim women in burkas talking and laughing in the courtyard, plus an old guy grilling sausages and corn on the cob in a corner. Once, a long time ago in a galaxy far far away, I was at a place like this in Holland, and the sound man was a woman. At that time, I thought, “In my next life I want to be her.” But now in another life, I want to be a woman who lives in this place and brings up her child in the communal kindergarten – a woman like the one who performed in the band that played the courtyard a few hours later, who let her two year old play a pretend guitar on stage with the band the entire time.

I think they were called The Squatting Teachers. At least, that was a sticker on the drum. They were highly influenced by the Velvet Underground, but hell, who isn’t?

Anyway, after my reconnaissance mission I went back to the hotel and slept for a while, and when I came back the place was hopping. I had my long awaited aperol spritzer and then I went into the venue.  I figured that, having come so far, I should probably make the effort to stand at the front, so I staked it out during the opening act, Ed Harcourt. I liked Ed Harcourt’s music, it had a Whigs edge to it, emotionally, plus an impossible to miss musicianly-ness that made it all the more resonant.
And then, during the interval, I sat on the floor and went into a zen state as I awaited the Afghan Whigs.  In my zen state, I thought about all the times I have listened to In Spades, and how much it will always remind me of my brief time at Evergreen State and my life in the rain forest, and driving up to Tacoma and to Vancouver and everything else that happened there, which was all so weird and spooky. And I thought about other times I’ve seen the Afghan Whigs, particularly one time, in about 1993, or it easily could have been 1988 -- when they played a really awful bar in Carmichael, California, and I went with my friend Isabelle, and there was no one in the club hardly and one member of the band – the drummer? -- seemed to have lost a bet or something and arrived on stage stark naked.

That time, I remember, they played hardly any of their own songs – maybe none, it was all covers – which enchanted us: we were seeing them the next night in SF, so we got to see their ‘real’ set too. Maybe it was that time that cemented my notion that you should go see your favorite bands multiple times, in every possible venue, because they won’t always be good and you want to see the whole range of possibilities. Anyway, it was somehow the time that led me to this moment, some twenty five years on, to be sitting on the floor of this nightclub, about to experience what would turn out to be my favorite show that I’ve ever been too – which, given my history, is saying quite a bit. But there I was, center front, chest pressed against the stage, and it was exactly as if I had written the set list myself and the band was playing solely to me and just a few of my friends, in a room that I had maybe dreamed about.

It was a little bit unreal. But you can only imagine all the life experiences that occurred before to make that particular thing happen.

I know. I know. 25 years is a lifetime. And yes, I know I am an old lady. In fact, it is weird to think about that – earlier in the evening, at Hotel Olde Worlde, I was putting on mascara or something and I suddenly was like, “why am I doing this, I am an invisible old woman now,” and I stopped. It’s definitely a different state, a different state of mind. Because, you have to…to enjoy live music, you have to let go of that self-consciousness, which is one reason it’s good to be in a foreign country where you can’t even speak the language, and you know you’ll never see these people again. Or maybe that’s just me. It’s not right, but I know that I used to care what I came off like in public, and what I looked like in public. And there is still a very damaged part of me that still thinks older women – and men, for that matter, but less so - shouldn’t be rocking out at concerts, that it is not dignified or something.

And to be honest, that’s why I snuck to Austria to see this band, rather than just seeing them at home. I have tickets for the show at home, but I doubt when I see the Afghan Whigs in San Francisco at the Fillmore in October, I will stand against the stage and really rock out. I mean, I know I won’t. And that’s sad. But it’s true. I’ve been to the Fillmore so many times, and I will probably end up standing behind one of those poles, and seeing a lot of people I know, and it’ll be a good show, because the Fillmore brings out the best in people, but it holds five or maybe ten times more people than this venue, and anyway, to reiterate, I was just so glad to be  there at WUK instead. So glad. It made me happy to be me, and there’s not so many times I feel that way anymore.While I was waiting, I actually had the thought that I didn’t want the show to begin, because all too soon it would be over.

But time doesn’t stand still so presently, the Afghan Whigs came on, and at that I will draw a veil, because words fail. I didn’t take any pictures, because for one thing, I can’t stand to experience a show through a camera, and for another, I was so close to the band – and underneath them, sort of -- that the shots would have literally got their nostril hair, and that seems unkind and pointless.

 Suffice it to say that they played a ton of songs all of which I love, and sometimes they were played slightly different from the record – “Oriole,” my favorite song, was played way faster, and “Going to Town” was way slow, and some of the songs went off key, and some of them were truly sublime, and sometimes there was cello and violin in them, and sometimes, in contrast, as on “Arabian Heights,” four whole band members lined up across the stage with four passionately electric guitars raging out at us in a manner that made me supremely happy – but it doesn’t really seem pertinent to describe the show since it is a hole that I burrowed into that is my own personal nest and it has no room for anyone else in it. I can show you the set list, which I grabbed from Rick T. Nelson’s set up. And I can show you some pictures of the venue. But I can’t make you hear the Whigs the way that I hear them, that would be crazy. Indeed, what surprises me, is when I look around the front of the stage and I see all these other people who are clearly feeling exactly as I feel…exactly. Who are they and why do we have this thing in common? We are all strangers in a strange land, who are able for an hour or so to bind ourselves into this beautiful union. That’s what music does, I guess. It’s why music is magic. Because it does my wishing for me. Because for the time it is on, I have the ear of the Other.

And then, they played “Faded,” and it was over. Our oneness dissipated, and I was briefly, void. I was also sweaty, so sweaty I had to go in the rest room and splash water on myself. In fact, the heat was a real feature of this concert; it was like a visible thing, another member of the band or something. There was a point during the concert when I wanted so desperately for the man next to me to spill his beer on my head, or for Greg Dulli to take a water bottle and squirt it at us – though I suppose with all the cameras out that’s a no-no now. It was that kind of hot where you know you won’t be peeing for a long while, because your body is absorbing every drop of moisture it can get. It was that kind of hot that made Frank Herbert to write Dune. It was that kind of hot that named this heatwave Lucifer, and I, for one loved it. I’ve rocked in this weather before.

So all too soon it was over, and I went into the bathroom to splash myself, and walk myself back to ye olde hotel to sweat out the night and think about my past. The only other time I was in Vienna it was to see the Pixies, and they also played one of the best shows I have ever seen by any band, ever. It was a standout show in a lifetime of standout shows. But this show, the Whigs show, was better. That night that I saw them, the Pixies were the best band on the planet playing at the height of their power; it was like electricity was pouring out of them, they were so ferocious. I think that the Afghan Whigs are in a phase right now that is similarly super-charged, although I also think this gig wasn’t faultless, like the Pixies one. The thing is, it wasn’t faultlessness I sought here, it was personal satisfaction, a kind of reassurance. And I got that. In spades.

In the morning, it was time to go to Budapest, still without an ipod, and thus at the mercy of a series of taxi drivers who, this being Central Europe, insist on playing radio stations that perennially play the Eagles.  The train – on which I wrote this blog – was packed. But before that adventure begins, I want to leave myself back there for a minute, back in Wien, walking down Wahringerstrasse at midnight, humming a fragment of the song “It Kills”: “Over and over, I get to know myself.” Truer words, you see. Truer words have never been spoken.






Friday, August 18, 2017

Queen of the World (PJ Harvey, August 11, 2017)


On the day I left Budapest, I saw an English language newspaper for the first time in 8 days. One glance at the headlines and I was like, Nope. What’s that quote from the Young Fresh Fellows? “I wish I didn’t know now what I didn’t know then,” and by then, I meant, yesterday. Because ‘yesterday’ – metaphorically speaking -- I was at Sziget Festival awaiting PJ Harvey in a bean bag chair, surrounded by Europop, techno beats, foreign voices and the pungent smell of sausages, and I thought I’d never get up again.
Sziget Main Stage during Rudimental

For one thing, I was in a bean bag chair. For another, I’m old, and I’d climbed Buda Castle Hill that day in 100 degree heat. (Remember Lucifer? If not, see last post.) I was exhausted.

So. Lying in a bean bag chair, staring at the Hungarian sky, thinking. It felt to me like the air was alit with information, buzzing across our heads like the fairy lights and the circus poles and the fireworks and the music. The whole place was rocking. I wrote my Ph.D. dissertation on rock festivals, but I’ll be honest: this was my first time attending one in seventeen years. Sziget is one of Europe’s premiere summer rock festivals, the Coachella of the Ottoman Empire. It takes place on an island in the Danube and calls itself “the Island of Freedom,” but the only thing that’s really free there is data charges – if you have a European carrier.

Still. You do get to take a boat there. Plus, I was there to see PJ Harvey, to which one can only say: fuck yeah!

In 2001, PJ Harvey won the Mercury Prize for her album “Stories from the City, Stories from the Sea,” and she did so again ten years later in 2011 for “Let England Shake,” putting her in the Guinness Book of World Records. Yet when someone in Budapest asked me what kind of music she played, I was at a loss. I could name some song titles, but none he’d know, and as for the sound…Punk? Blues? Folk? Jazz? Indie? None of those words work. You could call her a blues artist at a considerable stretch, because she does cover some real blues songs – her version of “Wang Dang Doodle” is, in my opinion, as good as the original, or at least it’s transposition of gender and power makes it  deeper and more personally meaningful to me than the original, and that’s saying something. But a fan of Etta James (or Bonnie Raitt) would be startled to hear this jagged and edgy, harsh music put in that category.

John Peel once wrote that Polly Jean Harvey “seemed crushed by the weight of her own songs and arrangements,” but that’s not exactly right: what he must have meant was that we are. Her art is demolition. She eviscerates songs and reconstitutes them so that their notes and emotions are rubble, carefully sifted and then built back up into brand new edifices. And then, she has this band: nine, count them, nine men in black, and it is breathtaking to see her conduct them; to see them conducted by her. They are her commandos, and she is a witch controlling a coven of scary old white male warlocks, and what a sight that is to see. More than any other female artist I have ever seen, she demands complete attention.
I was close up but my camera sux.

She demanded it of me at Sziget, and she got it. Having just come off a show high in a tiny nightclub where a wall of guitars pinned me to the ground all night, I may be forgiven for thinking that an outdoor daylight festival full of drunken Magyar revelers was possibly not the ideal venue for her, but I was wrong. There in the crowd, I pushed forward to the very edge of the crush, to the place of danger where it becomes uncomfortable, and there I stopped. The terrain we were on was quite unpleasant: bottles and cans and other detritus stomped into a melange on top of a “floor” made of screwed down plastic, but the sky was an awesome pale violet color when she ascended the stage, and it was lit up with Festival fairy lights, and her sound, when it began, well, the only way to say it is, it tolled.

Imagine seeing an artist so good that you can ignore them for 16 years and when you check back in they are far, far better than you remembered. That was what this was. The best shows are the ones where you suddenly think, mid-show, that there is no better place to be on earth than where you are at that moment, when you feel like the artist is literally sucking the air out of the sky in order to form the music out of it, when it seems like what you are hearing must be being heard all over the continent. This was it. I haven’t followed her catalog since 2001, but I knew each (unknown) song intimately - it was as if I'd been listening to  ”Dear Darkness.” “The Ministry of Social Affairs.” “All and Everyone.” “The Words That Maketh Murder.” “The Wheel.” “The Community of Hope,” and other numbers from her last three albums for years. Hearing them for the first time in this context was like a sonic deflowering. It was extremely intense.

Only at the end of the set did she play some cuts from “my” era: “Fifty Foot Queenie,” “To Bring You My Love” and “Down By The Water,” and they were fantastic, a chilling distillation of anger, remorse, and the brutality of lust – but they were not even my favorite songs of the night.  “Fifty Foot Queenie” – hey, I’m king of the world, you ought to hear my song/ ah, come on measure me, I’m fifty inches long – surely now evokes the pathetic tweets of our dear leader, but the later material, from the last two records, though, is if anything even better suited to these crazy times. To reflect on the deaths of soldiers 1500 years ago, to describe WW I, to honestly assess the awful abyss of love and death and psychosis, to speak the unspeakable about the ravages of living life, feels so fucking apropos right now that it’s positively cathartic.
Here's to witches and their craft

And Polly never spoke throughout her entire set. She merely sang, stared, and welded a saxophone, a pixilated Lisa Simpson with a swans down fascinater on her head. Near the final number, “River Anacostia,” she broke the spell by introducing her bands members – Mick Harvey, John Parish,etc. – and, one by one, they all came forward to the front of the stage. Some beat drums, but the drums faded out, until they were all singing a capella, a ten person line of intensity, creating one long black stare that pierced the Hungarian night.

Then: silence. Blessed, blessed silence, 'til the clock started ticking a gain and we were blasted back into the here and now.

Monday, July 31, 2017

Irony. Utility. Pretext. Algiers, July 17, 2017

Last semester I co-taught a course at Evergreen called Race & Rage: the Civil Rights Movement, the Counterculture, and the Turn to the Conservative Right. Well, it seemed like a good idea at the time, until, thanks to various alt-right anti-PC groups, Fox News, and the actions of one super-entitled white man, by its end it turned into actual performance art where we had to live out everything we were teaching. Evergreen is all about learning through doing, but having to battle domestic terrorists on campus last quarter was taking that idea too far.

Prior to the riot police and Tucker Carlson shutting down our campus, however, one of the things we studied in detail was the Black Panther movement, so you can imagine my joy when I found myself sitting in Huey Newton’s former residence in the Oakland Hills last Monday night. My friend Tim and his wife Donna live there, and although they have remodeled it somewhat since his time, they kept a fragment of the old brown shag carpet in the closet as a memorial to the 1970s aesthetic.


Tim and I were on our way to see Algiers, a new band on Matador, at the Starline Social Club in downtown Oaktown. Donna declined to go as she hadn’t been impressed with their record. Her reasoning was sound, of course, but lead to a debate over the idea of going to see bands we don’t like. Most people don’t have the patience to do that, but I do, to an almost pathological degree; it’s essential if you want to be a critic. These days I won’t actually lay my money down for something awful, but back in the day, I almost preferred it. Pulling apart the reasons for my dislike was an enjoyable intellectual exercise.

Listening to a record, or reading a book, and figuring out why you dislike it is one thing, but standing in a room watching a band in that state is another, so I didn’t blame Donna for her choice. Tim and I both really liked what we’d heard of Algiers, however, particularly “The Underside of Power,” the single from the record (if there is such a thing as a single), and the rave reviews we’d heard on the drumbeat of the internet. Also, we like going to dive bars, so there’s that.

The Starline Social Club isn’t even a dive bar, really, it’s just on a divey corner in Oakland, right next to that tent city I wrote about a few weeks ago when I went to Burger Boogaloo. In the Bay Area, you know you’re in a super dicey area when you can park right next to where you’re going. I could tell instantly, however, that it was the kind of club I love to go to. To begin, the music venue was on the second floor – just like at the I Beam, the Fillmore, and various other beloved nightspots , and that’s always cold because you can feel the floorboards shake. When we got there, the show had already started, and we could sort of see the band through the upstairs windows. Lights were flashing and shadowy people were moving up and down, and the sound was bleeding out of big picture windows: I could see the shadows of the performers cast against green and pink lights on the ceiling. It was highly inviting.

The bar part of Starline Social Club looks very nice, but Tim and I made our way upstairs, through a groovy , and thus came upon Algiers mid-set. They were playing “Cleveland” – a song about Tamil Rice -- led by the arresting sight of bassist Ryan Mahan’s frenetic right hand. At first I thought he was some kind of dancing-mc thing, like in the Stone Roses, or that homeless guy in Hazel (now that’s going back!) but then I realized his right hand works independently while he plucks his instrument’s strings with his left. The hand seems to have a life of its own, tapping autistically on his chest and his head, curving outward heiroglyphically, actually speaking, in its own dumb way, to me, the listener…and here’s the thing: it doesn’t just dance along to the beat, it helps one understand what the beat is saying. I’m not even joking when I say  that his right hand is the star of this show. It drew me to Algiers in a way that I think has sewn up my , despite some reservations that I had about the efficacy of their set.

As I said, when we hit the Starline Social Club, Algiers were in mid-set, and much of that middle part was somewhat experimental. On the very next song, the band started to do what I’d call ‘space out’ – that is, the music got slow, there was lots of repetitive stuff that would be super fun to do, but not so great to listen to, and, as Tim noted, the Black Power “Power To the People” poster started to fall imperceptibly off the wall behind them. “I hope it’s not a metaphor for the show,” he said anxiously, though later we felt it was. Clearly, the Black Panthers were the theme of the evening: we were only blocks from their old HQ, and the band has a song, “Walk Like A Panther,” which uses as it’s intro a speech by Fred Hampton, the BP leader who was murdered by the Chicago police while he was sleeping next to his pregnant wife, an enraging event which makes my blood boil whenever I think about it. )

The problem with being my age, and the reason that many people my age don’t go out to see new bands, is that you feel so jaded. Example. When Algiers guitarist Lee Tesche pulled out a violin bow and started playing his guitar with it, we both looked at each other with a giant invisible thought bubble of Jimmy Page appearing above our heads.  We kept saying things like, “Oh look – a new tuning!” And, “thank god, a capo.” (To me, a capo implies a tune is forthcoming, because/singing.) Singer Franklin Fisher was often hunched over a keyboard; he rarely straightened up, and we were puzzled by the anvil case he had in front of him which blocked much of the view. It was frustrating, because I could feel, coiled up in this band, a powerful core that could burst into flower at any moment. I was dying for them to do so. But this was not that night, I guess.

Algiers has a new record out, which showcases what the rock writers of the world are pleased to call their “experimental” music. Presumably “experimental” is code for, “blend of styles,” or, ‘not catchy,’ or, potentially interesting, or something like that. There is certainly something incredibly compelling about this band, enough that Depeche Mode (of all people) asked them to open for them in Europe recently; it’s hard to imagine what that must have been like, since Algiers and Depeche Mode are practically diametrically opposed musically, and Depeche Mode’s audience couldn’t possibly intersect. Tim, who was in a band for many years and therefore should know, says that opening for huge acts like that is such a thankless task that it hardly matters who opens and that it ought to be an opportunity for a band to hone its chops.

So we waited patiently for “The Underside of Power’ to blow us away, but it never happened – not because it wasn’t a great song, but because, as we found out later, they had already played it before we arrived. That was our bad, however, not theirse, and I still trust Algiers to become a great big band. I know it like I knew it about others before them: there is something you can sense in the atmosphere. Anyway, those of us who still go to clubs like the Starline on NoisePop night are like Christians, waiting for the new Messiah. I no longer really remember why we want to be in on the birth of that thing, but I suppose neither did those kings and shepherds. Or  Joseph. Or the asses.


Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Summertime Blue



Blue Oyster Cult
Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, July 14th 2017


Friday night is Band-on-the-Beach night at the Santa Cruz Boardwalk, and I was planning on going there to see Blue Oyster Cult play all alone, the way I like to go to shows. I pictured myself cruising over the hill blasting the Afghan Whigs new record for the billionth time, doing a little shoe shopping at the mall, and eating crappy boardwalk food with no one there to see me do it. But at the last minute, Caitlin wanted to come along with her friends, and then the friends-plans fell through, and one way or another I ended up at a show with a sixteen year old plus one.

It didn’t seem like an ideal situation, as Caitlin hates my music. If it has guitars in it, she calls it ‘hippie shit’ and what could be more guitarsy than Blue Oyster Cult? However, despite the unpropitious prospect of seeing a band from the 1970s with a kid from the 2000s, it was a hot July night and we had only been back from Washington for a few weeks. We have been trying to revisit all the fun places we love in California; Santa Cruz tops that list. So we set out together, our differences briefly on hold. “Let us go then you and I, when the evening is spread out against the sky, like a patient etherized upon a table...” That’s what it looked like at the top of the mountain pass you have to go on to get to the Monterey basin. You top the summit and look down on a verdant carpet of redwoods that falls away to a vista of ocean. Normally, it’s shrouded in mist, but sometimes in the summer there’s a hot spell and you can practically see the curve of the earth.

This was one of those days. First, though, we sat in traffic. We crawled up to the top, and we crawled all the way down, but it never grew foggy: instead, sky blue and forest green and dark gold it was, a perfect Californian day, with the Victorians in pastels and the shadows lengthening on the mall, and a lot of kids playing guitar and singing. We ate fish tacos and went shopping, and when we were good and satiated, we headed over to the shore, walking slowly down Pacific past the Golden State Warriors B team arena, the soccer practice fields, and the Dream Inn.

Boardwalks are funny places, a rare  mix of total seediness and charm. I suppose it is because they are always in places – oceansides – that are almost unspoilable in their loveliness, or maybe it’s because they emit this ghostly air of nostalgia, but boardwalks of any kind are hard to resist, and the kind with rides are crystalline, perfect. You practically can’t ruin them, try as you might – and the bookers for Santa Cruz do try as they might: had I gone the week before, this blog would have been about Quiet Riot. Blue Oyster Cult, though, are almost the humano-aural equivalent of a seedy old American Boardwalk. As soon as the pier came in sight, we could hear the music, but it faded out as we got nearer and nearer, drowned out first by the cries of seagulls and people playing beach volleyball, then by the canned music of the promenade (Rhianna’s “SOS”) and finally, when we entered the pavilion, by the awful beeps and clicks and buzzers of the pinball arcade. God, I hate the noise in that room! When Caitlin and her friends were little they liked to spend time in there, it was awful then and it still is.

Then aesthetic of the video game arcade is truly abysmal, but it’s a different story under the portico where the taffy machines and the t-shirt stores are. I know it’s equally cheesy, but it’s cheesy circa 1911, which is a different thing altogether. Out there with the sea in sight and the screams of seagulls and children surrounding us, we began seeing large men with handlebar mustaches and beards wearing Lamb of God and Korn t-shirts, and yet we still couldn’t hear BOC: from afar I heard a snippet of “Burnin’ For You’” and something like “Harvest Moon,” but it was hard to tell. The band was drowned out by the terrorized shrieks of thrill-riders on the roller coasters that overlook the beach. Up the boardwalk we walked, past the haunted house and the merry go round from 1911, and Neptune’s Kingdom, alongside games like Plinko and Skeeball, at which you could win plushies of Spongebob, plushies of dolphins and plushies of, I kid you not, poop.  Poop plushies seemed to be a thing. There were also plush poop hats you could buy, which I refused to even take a picture of, on the grounds that if my camera phone was every hacked or somehow commandeered by the government, a picture of a poop-hat was just too shameful of an artifact to stand by.



In addition to the plushies and the knick knacks and the strange games and the rides, there was the usual array of horrifying food stuffs, including deep fried Oreos, artichoke hearts and PBJ sandwiches, garlic fries, corndogs, and something called Tacolocos, and I wondered if backstage they were bringing BOC a platter of this stuff to choose from. I like to think that there was a table with a little of everything from the boardwalk food booths, but especially the signature Americana foods, like dipping dots, saltwater taffy, roasted corncobs, rainbow colored daiquiris and so on. You’d never see those foods anywhere else, and you’d never eat them anywhere else, but somehow when you’re walking by the seaside in 70 degree weather and the sun is going down, it all starts to look strangely appetizing.

Indeed, I will confess I bought us each a softie ice cream, for the outrageous price of $4.50. Mine was dipped in sprinkles, but it couldn’t hold a candle to those ones you get in New York City from the Mr. Softie Truck, which I personally consider a culinary peak.

To pay $9 for bad ice cream is not a good thing, but if you think of it as the entire cost of admission to an evening with Blue Oyster Cult, it is pretty darn good. When they played the Emerald Queen Casino in Tacoma recently, tickets were $65. And even though I wanted to go to that show, and even though I only stayed for part of this one and couldn’t hear or see a lot of it, I think this one was better.

BOC were playing two sets, and we were aiming for the first. Alas, we only parked at 6:30 and it took a half hour to make our way through boardwalkmania to the stage; only when we were right on top of them could we finally hear BOC again, and – though according to set list.com they began with “The Red and the Black” and played a few other numbers I know, at this point they were jamming. And when I say jamming, I do mean jamming; that kind of jamming from older-than-I-am-fashioned-days with traded off wheedle-wee guitar solos and a drum solo and so on. (Setlist.com calls it, “Buck’s Boogie.”) We could barely see the stage, so we just looked at the people around us who were wiggle-dancing, as one HAS to, to a guitar solo jam, and I think it went on for fifteen minutes, minimum. I could only just see Buck Dharma – who is very short – and Eric Bloom over the heads of the people in front of me. I could only just relate the band in front of me, playing essentially in daylight, with the darker, more typical Blue Oyster Cult that I had seen a few years earlier at a club in San Jose; that draws a crowd of fans in tour thirst, whose index fingers stay aloft throughout, and who – like one guy I saw here, like to tape the shows on sticks with recording devices duck tapes to the top of them.  

But I could still hear the cowbell. And I could still hear the Blue Oystery-sound of the wall of guitars that makes this band special and unique, even today. Blue Oyster Cult don’t, in my opinion, play metal music. But it’s sort of what a lot of that music is derived from. In a more ruminative moment I might have spent some time pulling apart what is good about metal (its actual timbre) and what, to me, is bad (its, for lack of a better word, white, beatless, soullessness), but a free show at the boardwalk doesn’t lend itself to that kind of analysis. The boardwalk lends itself to smearing your face with salt grease and sugar, and then wishing you could find a place to wash it off.

In other words, it’s distracting.

The people in the comfy beach chairs in front of the stage had had to line up all day to get there, so most of the crowd was, like us, jammed along the actual boardwalk-walkway, hovered over by scare-rides. The whole time BOC was playing, people were literally shouting with terror on top of them, and I wondered if that was bothersome to the musicians, or if they just took it in their stride because playing the beach boardwalk is probably good fun in its way. The only thing is, the band’s backs were to the sea, so all they saw was red-faced revellers, with our pot bellies and our sunburns and our faces smeared with ice cream and chocolate, whereas what we saw, out beyond the stage, was a dead still blue ocean, a sail boat, and the pier with its pretty lights strung along, and the cliffs. In that way, we had the better deal.

Presently, the jam ended, and BOC began playing “Don’t Fear the Reaper,” possibly the greatest pop song ever written and surely the greatest one ever written about suicide, the meaninglessness of life, and the ravages of time. I mean, seriously. “Seasons don’t fear the reaper, nor do the wind, the sun and the rain and we should be like they are,” seem to me to be words to live by, even more so now that I am older than when I was young.

If anything, I find I like this song better than I did in high school; only today it reminds me of my parents, rather than Romeo and Juliet; if that doesn’t date a person, nothing will. Still, I never fail to get choked up at the end when they look backwards and say goodbye. Caitlin tells me that this song is a perennially loved by kids her age as well, who hear it on video games, in fandoms, memes and other solemn, doom-laden YA artifacts;  “Thirteen Reasons Why,” and so on. No wonder BOC are on permanent tour: according to the interwebz, they recently played a bunch of shows in Europe (including one at which the opener was Sweet);; in California, they were heading on to play a number of county fairs.

“Don’t Fear The Reaper” is surely BOC’s finest moment and it was the end-song of both sets. But while others at the Boardwalk rocked out to it and grooved on seeing a live band jam, Caitlin and I found ourselves drawn more intently to  the ASL interpreter who was an excellent one. Caitlin has taken ASL for the last two years, so she could understand some of it – the signs for “gone,” for example, and “fear,” and “40, 000 people” – and she showed me how the interpreter was singing the La-La-Laaaa-la-la part on the chorus  by lifting her hand in the ASL alphabet letter ‘L’ and then lowering her index finger to make it an A, over and over again. It was easy so we did it too: hand in the air, finger in ‘L’, “LA-LA-LAAAA, LA-LA,” and when the whole thing was over and people started to disperse, Caitlin turned to me and said, “Wow, that was so fun!”

I couldn’t believe it. Blue Oyster Cult! That’s what she said, I am not even making it up. It was like a miracle. Caitlin, who only listens to old jazz standards and Gorillaz, who thinks Kendrick’s new record isn’t as good as his last one and who won’t go see him because the venue is too big; who hates anything I like and who has just started listening to music 80s music ironically…liked Blue Oyster Cult.

You know how we live in these most  polarized times, when everyone hates each other and constantly says mean things, when democrats and republicans can’t agree on anything and most of us can’t even get behind either of them anyway? When the smallest comment creates an argument or accusation, when music, especially, divides rather than unites? How there is nothing on god’s green earth that we can all seem to agree about? For those who are disturbed by this turn of events, this night on the Boardwalk would have been heartening, since it turns out even now there is one thing we can all rock out to with no argument whatsoever, one single sonic moment of bliss that unites us, young and old. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Blue Oyster Cult.
Ain't no cure.