Wednesday, April 26, 2017

doubt club

We were only a few miles outside of Olympia when the regrets began to set in. We were on our way to see the xx in Seattle, and Caitlin turned to me and said, “I am forcing myself not to say the words ‘I want to go home.’”

I knew just what she meant. I too had that deep knot of dread in my stomach, that sigh-full feeling that Seattle was just so far. I used to call it ‘club doubt.’ You know that feeling when it’s almost time to leave for the show and your couch or your bed beckons you lovingly back? That’s what club doubt is. Going out seems like so much trouble; so inadequate compared to the pleasures of reading a book (or paging through tumblr, if you’re Caitlin.)

It was ironic really. Because if anyone on earth would understand club doubt, it would be the xx themselves. Indeed, their music is like the soundtrack to club doubt. But what I learned in my long life is, however assailed you are by this feeling, you just have to force yourself.  So I said to Caitlin, ‘you won’t be sorry.’ And I meant it. However, briefly, it was hard to recall what our motivations for going to see the xx were, especially on a Monday night.

One reason was that, the day I looked into purchasing tickets, they were only $20 on Stubhub and hence, irresistible. Another reason was that the xx are one of the only bands that Caitlin and I feel almost the same about, i.e. we both really like them. (Sadly, according to Caitlin, no one else at her high school does. “They like Drake,” she says, witheringly.) A final reason: a few years ago, I read an article about a gig they did a site specific show in the Drill Hall at the Park Avenue Armory in New York City for forty people or something, where each song was designed to fit a different room configuration, and ever since I’ve wanted to see them. I thought it meant they would put a lot of care into their performance (although in fact I now think it may just have been another manifestation of their almost pathological shyness).

So there we were, together. It’s not very great that neither of us knows anyone else to go to gigs with; I personally believe that there is something very pathetic about the sight of a mother and daughter at a concert, but we have no choice. As with club doubt, you just have to push on through. So an hour later, after the quickest journey to Seattle ever, there we were at WaMu Theater, either outside or inside Century Link Field, I am not sure which.

First we staked our places.  My chosen place was seated about five rows up in the bleachers. Caitlin’s place was as close to the stage as she could get. During the somewhat dull opener (name redacted) this was easy, but at intermission tons of people flooded into the hall and began pushing and shoving their way forward. I know this, because we were in communication by text.

She: “There was almost a fight in front of me! B/cuz cutting.”

Me: “Put your elbows out and kind of biggen yourself. Like you’re supposed to do if you see a wildcat on a hiking trail.”

I had this sudden realization that this was possibly not the life skill I was supposed to be passing on to my child. But what the hell. Truthfully, going to shows alone isn’t the burden it used to be. Caitlin was easily able to cruise tumblr while she stood there. And the guy ahead of her was watching the Warriors.

“Find out the score,” I texted.

 “90 something,” she said. “But the guy seems upset.”

Upset? How could that be? Caitlin and I come from a world where it is totally unthinkable not to absolutely love the Warriors, so it took us a minute to remember they were playing Portland. I’m sorry, by that I meant, they were creaming Portland, up by 50.

She: “What is the plexiglass thing in front of the stage?”

Me: “IDK. Either they have see-through monitors, or it’s a giant sneeze guard like you see on a salad bar.”

As I said, the waiting is no longer the hardest part. Even so, we were happy when the lights came down and a host of cell phone screens rose up, like tiny stars on stalk like hands, to dot the darkness with square pinpricks of light. Normally I decry that loose garland of cell phones lights that surrounds the modern concert, but the xx seem to have planned for them. Their set was designed to be reflected back at us, so that when an aurora borealis of lights flooded the stage, the accompanying cell phones would sort of echo that in miniature around the edges of your eyesight. It was glorious.
photo by gina

And then, the music. I have long admired the xx for being one of the few bands with a distinctive sound – a sound that, like the Pixies, the Cocteau Twins, and Portishead, all of whom they remind me of a little bit, is pretty much un-repeatable. The xx don’t actually sound like any of the aforementioned bands, but there is some similarity nonetheless. They sound spare; sparse, even, and in this kind of setting, an enormous room, the contrast is arresting. They use the space between notes as well as the notes, and it resonates. Usually, it’s referred to as minimal, but to me it is the actual sound of timidity, only writ perfectly clearly, like a thin black line being dragged slowly across a white white wall. And since the xx write songs that seem to be for, by and about two people and two people only, it is sort of proper, as well; that is, the proper sonic interpretation of these little, tiny, emotional swells we sometimes have in microcosm, the sound, for instance, of small sad sentimental nights spent on your own, of club doubt, in all its agonizing rectitudinal wrongness.

The xx might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but I have always loved a dualing boy-girl vocal. All my favorite bands have that sound, the Reivers, Glass Eye, the Go Betweens, the Bats, the Chills, the Fastbacks, you name it. It’s such a better thing to have than just the voice of one gender.  I can certainly appreciate a good singer-songwriter dude or lady, but at least on this one night, I thought, there ought to be a law that all bands must have dualing gender vocals. ALL OF THEM. Think how much better Fugazi would have been. Or the Replacements. Or even the Beatles or the Clash or the Ramones. Here: just click this link of a Bob Dylan song being done by Matthew Sweet and Susanna Hoff. You know I’m right, right? I mean, what’s The Rolling Stones demonstrably best song? “Gimme Shelter.” Q.E.D.

All this I might have predicted from the xx's records. What surprised me about seeing them live – and it was apparent the minute they opened their mouths – was how damned good they are. Good as in talented: the musicianship, the singing, the extremely perfect aurality of it all. The sound is mesmerizing, but so is the performance. On paper one sees them as that rarest and most suspect of things, the drummer-led band, but in performance they aren’t quite like that. True, the set is surrounded by rotating mirrors (so it looks like the world’s largest changing room), which gives the effect that Jamie xx is about five different people, and hence, subtly reminds us of his centrality. But Romy and Oliver are extraordinarily, especially Romy. Shouldn’t she be more famous? She’s a little like Kate Bush crossed with St. Vincent, if both of them were stone cold introverts. That shit deserves some serious attention, rock scribes.

photo by caitlin
Despite the smallness of their ambitions, the xx are super professional now; this was a set that clearly came direct from Coachella. But even so, there is something really homey, and maybe even homely (in the German sense, ‘heimlich,’ familiar) and organic about their presence that is hard to describe. They are, dare I say it, visibly sincere. Caitlin, who was closer to the stage than I, said that they really seemed to be performing in a tiny club, making eye contact with the audience. At one point, Oliver said “We just played Coachella, and that was fantastic, but it’s so nice to see the audience up close.”

Later, both he and Romy shouted out Seattle for being their favorite place to play. One of them said, “We first played here eight years ago at Nuemos, opening for Friendly Fires, and no one knew us at all, and I will always remember how welcoming and warm Seattle was for us.” This jibes with my sense of Seattle as of a place where music is embraced in a really serious manner (for the contrasting view, see blog post called “Under the Marquee Moon”). I had not heard of the xx eight years ago, but I can easily imagine what they were like then, i.e. much like they are now, minus the giant light show. In Seattle, they would have been met with the exact same serious sincerity that they themselves exude so effortlessly. It would have been a beautiful thing to be at. 

As was this. Club doubt – vanquished again.

Friday, April 21, 2017

The Soft White Underbelly (of my life)

Every Tuesday night, I drive to Federal Way. I leave at around 4 p.m., in the hopes of getting there by
5:30, and usually I do so, unless there’s a jam around JBLM – Joint Base Lewis McChord, the nearby airforce-army compound that can gum up traffic on Highway Five at all hours of the day or night. The trip to Federal Way is only about 40 miles, but it often takes well over an hour.

At first, I found this journey frightening and dull. It bothered me that there were so many slow-downs, and I felt alienated by all the exits I knew nothing about. In California, there is hardly an exit anywhere in the Bay Area I haven’t been down at least once, to go to a diving meet, or to see a friend, or to buy some obscure tool, or whatever. But here, it’s all a mystery, and everything seems a little sinister. My neighbor Kelly once told me that Lakewood is where they film all the worst episodes of Cops. My friend Jason told me that Pulluyup is full of Trump supporters and people with guns. Caitlin is keeping track of all the near-school shootings that have happened in Lacey and Dupont and other nearby communities, since there seems to be some kind of High School tribal hot line abut that. So driving down Highway Five through all these places – slowly – was initially a bit of a chore.

Now I like it though. I look forward to it, even. I like it because I charge up my ipod and listen to my favorite songs or to the latest episode of Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me or S Town. I like it because for a long stretch just past Lacey toward Tacoma you keep seeing Mount Rainier peeking in and out of the horizon, and some nights it’s just beautiful. And I like it most because I am on my way to diving practice.

Diving practice ends at 7 and I always do the same thing: I call Vic’s pizza for a pickup at 8 and then I get in my car for the long drive home. Often traffic on the Five is still really bad towards Tacoma so I  take route 99 – the Pacific Coast Highway – through Fife. This  leads me past the Emerald Queen Casino, the Indian Bingo Parlor of the Puyallup tribe, and whenever I drive past an Indian Bingo Parlor, I fall into a kind of fugue state, thinking about those places and how they intersect with my past.

There are actually several other casinos on 5 towards Olympia, but the Emerald Queen Casino is the biggest. You can see it coming up for ages as you round the corner for Tacoma, because it has a giant flashing billboard sign advertising its upcoming shows as well as other important things – job openings, food specials, giveaways, boxing matches, all kinds of bingo parlor fun. I wait eagerly for those signs, because I have a weird fondness for Indian Bingo Parlors, born when I lived in San Diego and used to cover rock shows at the Viejas and the other casinos in El Cajon and San Diego counties. There was a period of time when I went to them fairly frequently, though the only show I can remember in detail was one by Jerry Lee Lewis. He played one of those shows like all those old guys do, where the band vamps for five songs and the artist comes on and plays, like, his three most famous numbers, and then goes off and the band vamps another five songs and that’s it.

As expected, Jerry Lee was an asshole, plus he could barely stand up and kick his stool out behind him during “Great Balls of Fire”, though he did manage to do it on about the third or fourth kick and being young a cruel and knowing his past as a wife-beater and not yet having been trolled into psychic oblivion,  I probably had a rock critic field day with that in the subsequent review I wrote. What I remember best about the experience, though, was that the ticket came with a free meal of BBQ and several side dishes, and as I was eating an elderly man came up to me and asked if he could have my baked potato. I am pretty sure that was the last show I covered at the Viejas Casino, but when, out of academic interest, I tried to look up the review the other day on the San Diego Reader archive, the only thing that came up was a letter the editor from that era saying: “Gina Arnold: Rape Victim or Bad Lay” that then proceeded to hope I was both. Those were the days, alright.

Like Viejas, the Emerald Queen Casino has rock shows too. On Valentine's day, they had a special concert with Air Supply that especially intrigued me, as did a subsequent one with Blue Oyster Cult, a band which I actually like. I went to see BOC last year with a friend from diving, and we put our index fingers in the air and yelled “more cow bell” and "go go Godzilla!" had a rollicking good time at it. It was at this terrible hard rock club in San Jose and we went to Applebys beforehand to get in the spirit, and my friend told me all about how he can play “The Red and the Black”. Later on, a Facebook friend who has made many records that I actually like mentioned that his high school band played that song too and I thought how perfectly odd it is that Blue Oyster Cult sits right there in that intersection between people with no discernable taste in music and people with MY taste in music. My Facebook friend is super leftwing, while my diving friend is one of those right wing, Harvard-educated Silicon Valley tech-millionaires who sold his shares out young and is in retirement. He plays in bands in a Paul Allen kind of way - in fact, playing alongside Paul Allen at a tech show hosted by Esther Dyson is one of his favorite band memories (they played "Brown Eyed Girl"). In other words, he and I had different agendas at that BOC show but we had a really good time anyway and therefore put paid to any idea that you can judge people by their record collection. And therein lies the mystery and magic of music. Or at least of Blue Oyster Cult.

But back to the Casinos. Every time I see that sign on Highway Five, I think, “Oh I should go,” but I just can’t face it – not Air Supply, or BOC, or next month's tempting act Randy Bachman either. Can you imagine having gone to the Emerald Queen Casino alone, on Valentine’s Day, to see Air Supply? I mean, it’s such an awful thought that it practically tempted me: I could have written the living shit out of that sucker, plus, I am actually dying to see the carpet there. (I collect pictures of casino and hotel carpets.) The problem would be, when I walk into places like that alone now I always get hit on. I didn't get hit on a lot when I was rock critic - unless you count writing letters to me hoping I’d get raped as a form of being hit on -- but nowadays, old men in their 70s have absolutely no problem asking if they can buy me a drink, even when I am not at Casinos. The last time it happened the guy was a former Marine who now runs fitness classes at an old people’s home. It was very disconcerting.

The other day when I drove by the Emerald Queen Casino I considered going there one last time, but I rejected it. I thought, ‘let’s not and say we did.’ After all, back when I was a rock critic, we did not have the internet. Driving around weird empty counties in California, infiltrating arenas where audiences congregated to see acts of yesteryear, and then opining cruelly on the whole phenomenon was, I see retrospectively, perhaps not the highest of callings. Today I can probably find out what the carpet looks like online, remind myself what hits Air Supply had via Wikipedia -- did you know they are Australian, and that one of them went on to form the Divinyls? -- or watch a BOC show on YouTube.

Compared to actually going, this method of writing about it would probably lack aura, and insight, and authenticity, but then so too would Air Supply’s performance. So tonight when I drive home from diving, I'm going to put on some music I actually like.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

The Felt Gap

The other day  in class we showed the first two episodes of “Eyes On the Prize,” theaward-winning PBS documentary on Civil Rights movement that was made in the 1980s, and on my way home from work I heard that, while I was busy watching legions of white racists in Mississippi and Alabama throw bricks at tiny school children in the mid 1950s, the USA had bombed Syria and surreptitiously confirmed Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court.

My takeaway? America is full of  mean people and injustice, and it always has been. Nothing changes, it just gets covered up for a time and then breaks out again, like measles or bamboo. If you’ve ever looked at a comments thread on literally any YouTube video, the only conclusion you can come to is that we live in a mentally ill society that deserves to be blown to smithereens.

The news made me want to go out and protest the shit out of something. That’s what you should do in the face of cruel and idiotic public policy. It’s what people did after My Lai and the Tet Offensive. It’s what we did a few weeks ago, with the Muslim ban, and it worked: it got overturned. It’s a thing. But it doesn’t seem to be happening now; people are too confused. People seem to be giving other people the benefit of the doubt. People don’t know which side they’re on.

One night, long ago, the USA bombed Kuwait while I was at a Replacements show. The band, one of the least political of its ilk, mentioned it before playing the song “Sonic Reducer” as an encore; I remember leaving the gig at the Warfield and walking into a small band of protesters on Market Street.

That didn't happen in Oly after the dropping of MOAB, and not just because there’s a windy rain storm going on. I think everyone is waiting for the Science March as well as sunshine. But I feel like sunshine is gone in my life forever.

My sense of unease may be heightened by the fact that the courses I am teaching this year are, quite frankly, downers. Necessary downers, but nonetheless. This quarter I’m co-teaching one on Civil Rights, the Counterculture and the rise of Counter-conservatism. My job is the Counterculture, with especial attention paid to the music; my colleague, Geoff, is a historian whose sandbox (as we say in academia) is the history of the American South. That being the case, he opened class with a two hour lecture on Reconstruction and it made me think of the song “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.”  

Now that’s not protest music – unless you consider protest music in the widest possible vein, as in, ‘music that comments on the effects of historical events.’ But it seemed worth playing to a class full of young people who had actually never heard it, as it is, in fact, about Reconstruction. The only question was, ought I to play the original version by the Band, or to use the cover – and hit – by Joan Baez. To decide, I asked my Facebook friends.

The first six responses said, simply, “JOAN.” Then the tide turned towards the Band in a flood of argumentativeness that could hardly be stemmed: "Musically the Band itself could be seen as a reactionary response to the psychedlic and never-since-as integrated influences on the pop music of the time -- I'm thinking of top-40 as well as say Jimi Hendrix or Sly and the Family Stone," opines one friend, while another argues "...the song is not explicitly a reactionary protest number in that slavery, African-Americans, etc are never mentioned at all, so it's hard to see it as a direct response to the rise of soul and funk in the '60s unless you're going to pitch pretty much ALL white Southern music as reactionary and urban black music as progressive."

Meanwhile, many other commenters point out, as Greil Marcus once did, that Joan Baez's version turns the line "There goes Robert E. Lee" into "There goes THE Robert E. Lee," as if he is a steamboat churning up the Mississippi River.

God, I love Facebook! How did I live without it? At least, I love my particular iteration of it – I think it’s important to remember that every person’s Facebook page is different: it depends a lot on your curation. If in some ways it is the product of a life well lived, then I have lived the best life ever. If it is just some kind of shadow-version of real life, the reflection on Plato’s ever present cave-man wall, then, well, I don’t know: I still think my cave man wall is smarter, better-mannered and more intelligent than most.

But back to the Band, whose version I played in class after all. (Joan fans should know she has gotten a fair share of time already, having contributed greatly to earlier lectures on Civil Rights protests.) In the book Mystery Train,  the critic Greil Marcus described the song as being less about the Civil War than about “the way each American carries a version of that event within himself.” Perhaps this echoes Robert Penn Warren’s claim that the Civil War is America’s only “felt” history, i.e. history lived in our national imagination, or as Pierre Nora once put it, a way to participate emotionally in history.  It may not be protest music per se, but “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” is an important reflection of popular memory of the Civil War.
Jacob Lawrence, Migration Series

Marcus went on to say, “It is hard for me to comprehend how any Northerner, raised on a very different war than Virgil Kane’s, could listen to this song without finding himself changed. You can’t get out from under the singer’s truth—not the whole truth, but his truth—and the little autobiography closes the gap between us. The performance leaves behind a feeling that for all our oppositions, every American still shares this old event; because to this day none of us has escaped its impact, what we share is an ability to respond to a story like this one.”

You know that quote by William Faulkner, “the past isn’t over, it isn’t even past”? So many things this year have conspired to remind me of that that I don’t feel I even need to name here.  Clearly, the repercussions of the Civil War are still with us, which is reason enough to listen to “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” again. The gap between everyone's truth has gotten so large. Is there anyway we can close it now?