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 café’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.