By Brian Cogan
I thought that I had retired from top ten lists. For years Terry Sheldrake (the idiot savant behind the vast media conglomerate that counts Go Metric as a cog in its vast empire) had asked me for top ten lists at the end of the year. Although my rather lengthy Go Metric contract stipulated that I turn in a certain amount of writing per year or else face the revocation of my 10% off croissants at the Go Metric canteen, I had gotten lazy and had regularly been turning in pieces entitled, “Top ten things I ate for lunch last week” or “Top ten annoying secondary characters introduced very late in the plot in A World of Fire and Ice,” but, corporations are apt to catch up to your shenanigans eventually and this year the proverbial boot dropped (by Sheldrake, thrown from his fourth floor office, it was a Doc Marten as I recall) and I am forced to write an actual column about what I saw in music this year. Actually, let me rephrase that. I saw, as usual, a ton of great shows from here and there in the musical spectrum, lots of late nights and groggy days in class after, but some stuck with me more than others. It is a truism that the older one gets; the more one actually notices the passage of time and its inevitable nod to entropy. But, some experiences actually seem to slow time down, make one live in the moment and experience it with all senses. While a lot moved me this year, here are ten moments (I cheated a bit as you will see) that struck me as not just concerts or shows, but totally immersive experiences.
In no particular order:
In the great British TV show Young Ones, when faced with the menace of a vampire, Neil (the Hippy) bemoans their imminent demise by exclaiming, “Oh no, a vampire! He’ll bite us and we’ll become dead, yet alive, like Leonard Cohen!” Well, in some ways, that is true. It has been remarked for years that Cohen has always been an old man, even from his early days as a folk troubadour, but it’s not just the obvious nature of Cohen’s years, the man is 78 years old, and is touring on what will undoubtedly be his farewell tour, but his mature and knowing attitude towards life. The man who wrote the lyrics “Everybody knows the dice are loaded/everybody rolls with their fingers crossed/everybody knows the war is over/everybody knows the good guys lost” has to look in the world in a way that does not reflect youthful enthusiasm, but a sad, but determined approach to life even atypical for most people his age. But Cohen, who plays for three hours every night (not counting intermission) is not merely, in his words “the little Jew who wrote the Bible” but a man who superbly mixes the sensual with the spiritual. Even his best-known song “Hallelujah” is as much about lust as the Lord. And when the elderly Cohen ably drops to his knees, or prances off stage mock-satyr style (it’s clear his years in a Buddhist monastery have helped his posture and tendons) you can see not just the sad wisdom, but the sheer glee that the man has in still living, still performing, still loving.
Fucked Up/Titus Andronicus
Is there a better hardcore band out there than Fucked Up? Possibly? But did any other punk band put out a fucking hardcore rock opera last year? An incredible mix of blazing riffs, heart-felt lyrics that (almost) make sense and a (somewhat) cohesive narrative? Nope. I’m not even mentioning the tuxedo clad string quartet that played along (apparently it was filmed by Pitchfork, so look it up online.) that nicely countered led singer Pink Eye’s bare-chested sweaty in-your-face aesthetic. Some people at the show knew all the lyrics by heart, not me, as that would have required memorizing a small book. It was heart-felt, raging, but somewhat sweet. Titus Andronicus opened and played their weird combination of Mission of Burma meets Minutemen. Somehow it not only works, it kills, and to see a band run on all cylinders like Titus Andronicus does, it’s awe-inspiring. What is sad is that lead singer/guitarist Patrick Stickles is (probably) the only band member left from that line-up. As you read this paragraph, they have probably shuffled the line-up again.
Einstein on the Beach
I know most of my friends would rather have their toenails torn out slowly rather than endure four hours of Robert Wilson’s direction and sets and Philips Glass’s repetitive but haunting music, but I had waited years to see it and if there had been more tickets available, I would have gone again and again (as the Teletubbies might say). I know for many of you reading this article Einstein is a hard sell, so I’ll say it again, I loved it. I know for many of you reading this article Einstein is a hard sell, so I’ll say it again, I loved it. I know for many of you reading this article Einstein is a hard sell, so I’ll say it again, I loved it. I know for many of you reading this article Einstein is a hard sell, so I’ll say it again, I loved it. I know for many of you reading this article Einstein is a hard sell, so I’ll say it again, I loved it. I know for many of you reading this article Einstein is a hard sell, so I’ll say it again, I loved it.
Dead Can Dance
I rarely cry at concerts these days, but vocalist Lisa Gerrard, with her beautiful Persian sacred operatic voice (that’s what I call it) sings in such a beautiful register that I couldn’t help but get teary-eyed. Dead Can Dance is a band that started out as Goth, became world music (in the best possible sense of that word) and by the end of their run incorporated Irish ballads and medieval music into their work. They have returned with a set list that mostly hits older benchmarks, but even the newer songs (mostly by the other lead vocalist Brendan Perry) do not quite capture their past (although many come close), but as in any failed relationship (Perry and Gerrard are divorced) there are always moments where you look at each other and almost cry because you can remember how good things used to be. Listening to Dead Can Dance makes me think not just of the romantic past, but of how this is the best part of the often abused emotion of nostalgia. Not nostalgia in the sense of reliving glories or fondly remembering old buildings one used to live in, but nostalgia for the things we will never see or experience. Seeing them live gives me a glimpse into worlds I would have lived in and lives I could have led.
When I told my cousins at a party that I was going to see the Monkees, they practically guffawed at me. “The Monkees, like, ‘Hey hey we’re the Monkees?’” I almost snarled and said “No, the Monkees who do “Just may be the one” or “What am I doing hanging round!” Great news, Mike Nesmith is back and touring for the first time in about six million years. Horrible news: Davy Jones is dead. Weirdly enough, I had seen the Jones/Tork/Dolenz combination tour a few months before Davy died, and in a weird way this was my way of completing the Monkees experience. (I also saw the three piece back in 1987). And by the way cousins, yes, the Monkees were manufactured but even at their most controlled period, the quality of the songs as astounding and I can argue they even get better when the workers seized controls of the means of production…err…recorded with their own instruments on the under-rated Headquarters album. It’s sad to see a three-piece Monkees, sadder (but in a good) way to see the lengthy and well-planned tributes to Davy, (having the crowd sing “Daydream Believer”) but what would have been far sadder would have been to miss them do it one more time with Mike. As the Monkees sang in their weird masterpiece of a film Head, “Hey hey, we are the Monkees/You know we love to please/A manufactured image/With no philosophies.” BTW: I know Jack Nicholson and Bob Rafelson wrote those lyrics, but still it does encompass the way the Monkees could take the piss out of themselves at times.
This is another one where the setting was also key. Sadly, it was a very exclusive concert as Kraftwerk were doing (most of) their catalogue in separate shows at the Museum of Modern Art. The computer-based band had left many a fan frustrated by the complete inability of the ticketing system hired by the Museum to handle ticket requests. Naturally, all the shows were sold out and I despaired of paying exorbitant prices on the ticketing websites. However, there was a contest from a car company whose name I will not mention, and my crafty wife won us a set of tickets to the “Tour de France” night. It was a marvel to see a concert in the architectural and acoustic environment of the museum and Kraftwerk did not disappoint, working their sound system to match the environment, and providing their usual stunning video/computer animation backgrounds with matching costumes. Even though the on-stage movement was minimal, four aging Germans behind podiums playing laptops (I swear that at least two were checking their email during the show) but the combination of the visuals and the mix was enough for an ecstatic experience. AND, this is despite the fact that about half the crowd had clearly scored tickets through connections and spent their time talking to each other and drinking over-priced beers. I expect this now at “exclusive” shows” but the fact that despite this I was able to dive deep into the show to wake up only at the end is a testament to Kraftwerk’s power to engage the listener. Endnote: I did not see Dieter or the Sprockets cast there, but ?uestlove did show up.
Screaming Females/Tied For Last/Bloody Muffs/Enders/Left on Red/Black Wine/Night Birds/Martin Rivas/Spanking Charlene.
This list is what I think of as my list of perennials. More or less local bands so awe-inspiring great live, but also so capable of writing actual songs, and you know how rare that is, that I am consistently amazed that not only do I see them in clubs, but they have yet to become egotistical wankers and not talk to me after a show. Go see these bands, support them, and buy their stuff. They are amazing and I feel privileged to see them as often as I do. I’m almost tempted NOT to mention them here, for fear I’ll be going to a stadium show to see them next, but I’ll take a chance.
Mike Scott from the Waterboys/World Party
Once upon a time there was this band called the Waterboys and they were supposed to be the next U2. Except they weren’t. As we all know, U2 was the next U2. The Waterboys were the next Celtic soul rebels, (not Dexy’s Midnight Runners, although at that point they pretty much dressed the same). The Waterboys did some wonderfully evocative weird music for a while, driven by Mike Scott’s soulful voice (and subtle, but mysterious lyrics) as well as multi-instrumentalist Karl Wallinger who contributed heavily to the sonic landscape before Wallinger acrimoniously departed. After that shift, the band added fiddle great Steve Wickham and decamped to Ireland’s west to make the stunning Fisherman’s Blues album. Meanwhile, by then Wallinger had formed his own band, World Party, that seemed to be a poppier and more intricate version of what the Waterboys had been before going Irish and folky. But that was a long time ago. Both Scott and Wallinger made seminal albums and then both fell off the map. After Fisherman’s Scott could never recapture the groove and stumbled through the next two decades adrift. Wallinger made compelling music until a brain aneurism struck him down in 2001. This year both started comebacks of a sort. Wallinger with a new version of World Party did some limited dates and Scott announced a new project turning the poems of Yeats into a stage show and writing a book about his own life. Scott was also recently in town on a book tour, where he read from his new work and played for about half an hour with the returned Wickham on fiddle. Both the “Waterboys” and World Party seemed incomplete and a bit rusty. Two middle-aged men trying to recapture the momentum of almost three decades ago, but both still had that spark in them. Wallinger, visible sweating and a bit frail held his own and Scott seemed to enjoy the interplay of his guitar and Wickham’s fiddle. In both cases, you watched while wondering what could have been. And, as that’s pretty much how we live our lives, to say that both are still here, both still with flashes of ecstatic brilliance and almost transcendent moments, is to say that that we are still here as well, still trying and still trying to hit those high notes while we can.
Bob Mould Band
Okay, I gave him one more chance after years of disappointment and he won me back as a fan. I wasn’t going to see him until I heard Superchunk drummer/comedian Jon Wurster was in the band. Any band with Wurster is ten times better and funnier than any band without him; so I went to see him doing all of Sugar’s Copper Blue album live in Williamsburg. Wow, not only do the Sugar songs sound better than I remember, and the Husker Du songs are, of course, still amazing, but his new songs are back on the level of a man who wrote some of the best songs of the nineteen eighties and then some great songs from the first two solo records, really good stuff with Sugar and then increasingly bland and boring stuff after that. I don’t mind the dance music side project, or the fact that he for years ignored his older songs, but what galled me years ago was seeing his “retirement from amplified music tour” whereupon he only played recent songs (with one exception, “See a Little Light”) and said, that’s it, no closure/soup for you! I understand how every band that said they were retiring has come back for further artistic exploration (read as more moola), but Mould came back ready to play and to say this is a return to form is a severe understatement.
Sleep No More
Like Einstein, Sleep No More (a performance art adaptation of Macbeth) is not really a musical, not really a play, much more of an experience. There is no dialogue, just a completely thought out world to inhabit and explore. You can follow actors who fight, make love, sleep, dance, climb on walls, etc. But just as fun is to read the notes on the desks, to try the open bottle of scotch, to get lost in a world where all the audience wears Venetian carnival masks. One compelling moment was following the actor who played Lady Macbeth as she looked into a large mirror up on the wall. Behind her floated either the masks of the audience, or the ghosts of her haunted conscience. Rarely do I see a theater experience where I wish I could stay after and find out more, but that may be the point. The sheer mystery of human behavior and existence. We know in the play that Macbeth, basically a good, if ambitious man is lead astray by his even more ambitious wife, but I always wondered, why is he led astray? Are all of us that vulnerable to temptation? Would we do the same thing in his place? Sleep No More provided no answers, but may provide a way to explore that world and try and draw our own conclusions.
In rereading this a few days later, I sort of cringe a bit and wonder if this is middle-aged malaise, or just a reflection of what I did see and feel this year. I look at the review and think to myself that I come across as a bit of a curmudgeon, seeing bands who are mostly either in their late career or reflect in some way my on relationship with my mortality. I try and be hopeful, and listen to a lot of music that can be described as joyful, but sometimes that music does not hit me the way a Leonard Cohen song does.
Years ago, in my teens, I was talking to/trying to pick up, a woman who worked at a record store on Staten Island. At one point in our lengthy conversation, she remarked, “Wow, you are cynical. I knew you would be a Clash fan as all Clash fans are cynical.” That kind of hurt me then, and I bring it up now, because I think one of my strengths is the fact that I balance sadness with pleasure, and I can see both the start and the finish of life and still marvel at wherever I am in that spectrum. There is a classic line in one of my favorite films, Network, which in some ways summarizes what I think about both music and the live experience of almost anything. At the end of the film, the aging “Murrow boy” Max Schumacher leaves his ill-advised paramour Diane Christensen, the head of the entertainment division of the Network and the personification of the endless entertainment loop that now subsumes modern society. When she rails that she does not need his middle aged decay and impending death. Max responds by telling her that it is not that he represents age and mortality, but that he is the last vestige of the previous world of love and legitimate emotion, rather than the endless distraction and constant entertainment that television has created. When she briefly reconsiders, Max answers her recalling all the films characters that were corrupted by mindless distraction, “It's too late, Diana. There's nothing left in you that I can live with. You're one of Howard's humanoids. If I stay with you, I'll be destroyed. Like Howard Beale was destroyed. Like Laureen Hobbs was destroyed. Like everything you and the institution of television touches is destroyed. You're television incarnate, Diana: Indifferent to suffering; insensitive to joy. All of life is reduced to the common rubble of banality. War, murder, death are all the same to you as bottles of beer. And the daily business of life is a corrupt comedy. You even shatter the sensations of time and space into split seconds and instant replays. You're madness, Diana. Virulent madness. And everything you touch dies with you. But not me. Not as long as I can feel pleasure, and pain... and love.”
I’m not saying I’m Max, I am saying that sometimes seeing someone who performs that has some gravitas (and yes, even the kids in Tied for Last have gravitas), shows me that having some kind of emotional response to a performance, I mean a real emotional response, one that makes me feel more alive after it is over, whether for happy or sad reasons is the reason I go to shows. Maybe seeing acts that touch on real emotion is in some ways sad, and an indication of my age, but I would like to think that in doing so, I can still feel real emotion and pleasure, and pain…and love.