The Only Live Review I’ll Ever WriteWell, maybe the title sucks, but I don’t care. Why should I rack my brain trying to find the perfect title for a concert review? It’s all about the music, baby. Besides, I’m not even going to start with the concert, I’m going to start with how life seems to work against me sometimes.
I had no intention of ever writing a live review, much less publishing one, because I’ve always felt that there’s no point in reviewing a concert—it’s never the same show twice. Just because some reviewer liked some show two weeks ago doesn’t mean anything about the show I’m going to tonight. I’ve seen a few bands on consecutive nights and unless they suck, they do something a little different every time. There are so many variables: the crowd, the sound system, how the performers are feeling, the set list, etc. I mean, if that weren’t enough, I know that I’ve been to shows that I hated where a trusted friend, standing right next to me, thought it was awesome. It’s all too subjective for me.
But this is a little more than a review (of course, I’m saying that in the beginning, having no fucking idea where this is going). Lately when I am writing for the zine I don’t focus on anything but the forward momentum. I’ve come to trust my own ability to dig holes and then dig right back out of them. I know, you think that’s arrogant. But you know what? I honestly think that people who constantly denigrate themselves, especially in print, are the worst kind of liars. Everyone likes themselves sometimes, but everyone plays the game. What game is that? The game where they pretend not to care, or they pretend that they think they suck, when you know that they’re very taken with themselves. It’s bullshit. They’re either pretending to be insecure so you’ll stroke them, or they’re actually insecure, which is even less attractive than being a liar, if you ask me.
Last October I read that Cornelius, one of my favorite bands in the world, was going to be playing a show as part of the CMJ festival at a small theater at NYU. Tickets were only $6 and I figured that even if others had heard of them, they would have a hipper show to attend that night, since during CMJ every fucking venue in the city is booked by some aspiring band hoping to either break big or get a deal and the city’s musical community is awash in suits, whores, dealers and assorted hangers-on.
It was incredibly hot outside the day that I walked down to NYU to tickets. I kept trying to stay in the shade but I was getting all sweaty and miserable very quickly. When I finally got down there, the box office was closed for a three-hour lunch break. It even said so on the sign, like it was a regular thing. Damn, I want a job with a fucking three-hour lunch break! So I stood there trying to decide if I could kill three hours near NYU in the heat. I realized that I couldn’t and that I didn’t want to walk home, I just wanted to be home. So I took a bus home and resolved to come back earlier the next day. The next day I went down there and got three tickets, one for me, one for my wife and one for my friend Peter.
Days before the show, I was killing myself to wrap up NegCap #2 so I could send it to the printer. The big problem was that they said they needed ten days to make me a blueline and I was about to go on my honeymoon for two weeks in London and Amsterdam. Working backward, I realized that I had to FedEx it to them by November 5 so that it could be printing while I was gone and I wouldn’t be delayed another month. It was very important to me to get it going while I was gone so at least there was a chance it would be waiting for me when we got back. The night of the show I agonized about going because while I did want to see what the fuck Cornelius would do live, it was more important for my emotional well-being that I finish the zine in time.
On November 3 we all met up right outside the building, since we were all coming from different places. I was pretty psyched because on my quick glance at the theater I noticed that there was no one hanging around. I figured, hey, the show’s early, it’s a weeknight, and it’s the middle of CMJ. Maybe it will be a nice intimate show in a new venue.
Once we were all there, we went to the theater and realized the place where I was looking was wrong. The right place was up a few flights of stairs, so we headed up. When we finally found the right theater, there was a dance troupe rehearsing on the stage. We checked the theater, then the ad, then our tickets. It was then that I realized the show was not the 3rd, as I’d been telling myself for a month, but the 4th. Right at that second I realized that the whole thing was fucked. I knew Peter couldn’t go the next night, my wife was going to have work late and I had set aside the whole day and evening to finish NC2 on time. I wanted to say that if I finished the zine I could go, but that pressure would fuck me up to the point where I wouldn’t even trust my own proofing instincts. I just said that it wasn’t meant to be and gave up. It’s New York, I rationalized, he’ll be back!
In late May of 1999, I decided that I wanted to go see a taping of the Daily Show. I knew that we’d be moving to San Francisco before too long and I wanted to do a few NYC-only things before we bailed for good. I happen to really like Jon Stewart and I enjoy him a million times more than Craig Kilborne. That dude reminds me of every spoiled WASP motherfucker I hated in school and at camp. Jon reminds me of myself, because he’s a funny Jew (though he’s from Jersey, which gives him a nice underdog edge to me) and because he’s done his best and failed anyway, which I identify with very strongly.
So I went to their web site, got the number (212-586-2477) and called to get tickets. It was too fucking easy. They were friendly and personable and said that they would send tickets for a taping that was three weeks away. I got all excited and called my wife to tell her I had gotten four tickets. She told her friend Martha, who is also a big fan of the show, and I figured I could find one more person to join us. A week before the show I still couldn’t find a fourth, but figured I could still find someone. The people from the show called a few days before the taping to make sure we were still coming and I said that we were. The day before the show, I made arrangements to leave work early so I could stand in line for everyone else, who would be coming a little later. The day of the show my wife called and said that it was looking very bad because some asshole had dumped a ton of work on her and Martha and not only could they not go, they probably were going to be stuck at work until 11pm.
I came home by myself and decided that I didn’t want to look like a complete asshole by showing up solo with four tickets that I’d assured them I’d be using. I also didn’t want to sit on line and through the endless waiting that accompanies every single TV taping I’ve ever been to and keep pretending I had something better to do. It would just remind me a little too much that I need more friends. So I just went home and watched it on TV. Of course, the guest had to be Heather Graham. I’m figuring the only guest I’ll get to see up close and personal is Guy #2 from Two Guys, A Girl, A Pizza Place and Precious Little Comedy.
My wife felt awful about it but I didn’t blame her because these things happen. I know it’s not her fault that work gets in the way. She knows how to get things done and I know if I had a lot of hard work to do, she’s the only person I’d need on my team to kick ass and take names. She’d even put the names into a spreadsheet with separate columns where I could notate exactly what kind of asskicking the person got, the impact of said asskicking, and, of course, she could sort it eight ways from Sunday. So she said she’d call and get us new tickets because I figured I’d get an earful from the nice folks about my promising to show with four people and standing them up. So my wife got four tickets and we planned to go a few weeks later.
Do you see where this is going? My wife confirmed, Martha and her sister were on-board and I was psyched. I saw on Comedy Central’s web site that the scheduled guest was going to be Janeane Garofalo and I got all excited. I’ve run into her a few times because she lives downtown and I completely embarrassed myself in front of her once in 7B, a bar in Alphabet City. I was on E, as usual, and saw her hanging out with some friends. After taking a few minutes to screw up my courage (literally), I walked up to her and said something like, “You rule!” I just had to say something. But she came back and said, “No, you rule!” and all my friends started laughing. Hey, like I said, nothing’s more expensive than regret. So I was looking forward to seeing her again because I also figured I could give my zine to the PA and have him throw a copy to her and Jon and next thing you know, Heather Graham’s slurping my silly straw poolside in L.A. Well, it could’ve happened. But my wife got called to fucking San Antonio and had to fly out the morning of the taping, after she’d said to the Daily Show folks that we’d be there. Martha had to deal with a move that weekend and had to meet people to sell her furniture, so again, I was left holding four tickets to a show that I didn’t want to attend solo. That’s my life, okay?
A few weeks later, my mom gave me tickets to see Jeopardy! and Wheel of Fortune at Madison Square Garden and, of course, that weekend I had plans. A few months later, my friend Ron from Concrete TV got me tickets to the NY premiere of Fight Club, but that night I was on the phone trying to figure out why the fuck the movers hadn’t come when we had three days before our big move to San Francisco. So, again, I missed out. I know I may seem like a busy person, but if I have the time to sit and write all this stuff, it must mean my life’s not nearly full enough, wouldn’t you agree? It just seems like no matter what I do or try, whenever opportunity comes knocking, I’m in the shower.
My favorite performer—no, I mean, my favorite musician, singer, songwriter, guitarist, writer, entertainer, painter, director, genius, in the whole stupid fucking world, is Robyn Hitchcock. He’s been my favorite since 1985 and I’ve had a longer relationship with him than anyone else in my life outside my family. I’ve seen him at least once a year, every year, since 1987. I don’t care what the reason is, if he’s playing, I’m going. My wife’s also gotten into him (though quite honestly, if she hadn’t, it might have been an issue between us) and always loves going with me. I clearly remember the first Robyn concert that I saw. My friend John Dickstein got us tickets at the last minute and even though John and I weren’t really close, I figured it might be fun. The problem, as I learned that night, was that John was a complete fucking nutjob of the highest order. It was at the old Ritz (which is now Webster Hall) and he snuck us up to the balcony where the comfortable tables are. I don’t what he said or did, but we ended up seated at a table on the perimeter of the balcony which said, “Reserved for Jools Holland,” who I knew as a member of Squeeze. I figured if he showed up, we could make up a story, and if he didn’t, we could enjoy the show. John showed me what a true nut he was by breaking out a case of whippets in the middle of Robyn’s second song. He stood up at the edge of the balcony and hung his head over the edge while singing along. Then, when Robyn did “Balloon Man,” John started chucking empty whippet canisters over the edge and into the crowd below. I guess I could’ve stopped him, but the whippets were really good.
So while flipping through Time Out NY one lovely day, I came across an ad for a show called Music Against Brain Degeneration at a club called Tramps in Chelsea. I’d seen Robyn two nights in a row at Tramps back in 1990 and I even have both shows on tape. I remember it so clearly because I was on E and just having the best fucking time in the world with eight friends in the back of the place. During the encore he came out and read something from a piece of paper that went, “My name is Juanita and I am cracked...” and then ad-libbed a story. As soon as he was done he tuned his guitar a little and someone shouted out a song. He just ignored the shouter. Then another dude did it, and then everyone started to scream out songs for three minutes, but he didn’t blink. He kept looking at his paper and tuning his guitar. I shouted, “Surgery!” because I’d never seen him do it live, and it’s obscure enough that I really wanted to hear it. Immediately he stopped tuning, put down the paper and did “Surgery” for me. “You’ll never have the damn thing out, or meet the Queen, and kiss her throat,” he sang to all of us. It was really amazing to me because for one second I felt like I’d communicated with him and he’d appreciated it.
After the show I walked up to the stage because the piece of paper he’d been reading from earlier was taped to the microphone stand. I plucked it off and read it. It said, “My name is Juanita and I’m FREE if you’ll take me home. Sorry I’m so cracked but that’s life.” I thought it was cool, but I realized he hadn’t said exactly what was on the paper. I also didn’t know what it meant, but I wanted it. I put it in my backpack and decided to get some Robyn swag to commemorate the evening.
The Junkie and I ended up talking to the girl selling T-shirts because I was feeling all gay for Robyn and the E was slowly being filtered out of my system. The Junkie told me that we should hang around and wait for Robyn, but I felt like a loser stalker. And I said to myself, even if I do meet him, I doubt I could say anything that he’d like or be interested in. In retrospect, I’ve come to realize that from the point of view of the stalked musician, you’d prefer it if people just said something vague and pleasant and then left quickly. People waiting to talk to famous people are like Jacks-in-the-Box. They seem calm, but they’re all wound up, and all you have to do is touch them and they’ll go off. I know if I was the musician, I’d be scared that every fan clutching my obscure 45 would be crazy, armed and HIV-ved up. I know that I’m not scary, especially since I’m 5'7" and Robyn is taller than six feet. So I figured I’d talk to the nice T-shirt girl, who was a really hot young blonde, and if Robyn came, fine. If not, I’d just leave quietly.
As I was talking to the blonde, this creepy chubby girl came over and kept interrupting our conversation to say that she’d tried to give Robyn a plastic fish but he didn’t want it and he liked fish, didn’t he and why wasn’t he coming out and what was she supposed to do with the fish, because Robyn did like fish, right? Because he wrote those songs “Midnight Fish” and “Bass” and sometimes talks about fish, and he likes crustaceans, too because his publishing company is Two Crabs Music and he always does stories about fish and shrimp, but he calls them prawns, right? She started to name what she said were “all three” of his albums, even though at the time he’d just released his seventeenth “official” record. She just babbled on and on without even noticing that no one cared and that she was making no sense. I swear, if I’d had a letter opener, I would’ve thrust it right into her fucking eye. I was trying to get her to just go away, but she continued on, babbling mindlessly about some retarded notion that had obviously been festering in her head for some time.
I was starting to get really uncomfortable with the girl, and the blonde was pleading with me with her eyes to do something. As she was looking at me, her eyes lit up and I got this really warm feeling in my stomach. At first I thought maybe she dug me, but when Robyn leaned over me and kissed her, I realized that it must be his girlfriend. He called her Cynthia, just like in his new song, “Cynthia Mask,” where he sings, “You’re wearing a Cynthia Mask,” and I immediately thought, “any girl in the world could get laid if she were wearing a Cynthia Mask!”
It must have been some form of shock that hit me because I suddenly felt like I was in the middle of something private and felt really weird and self-conscious. I wanted to say that I was the one who had requested “Surgery.” I wanted to thank him for all the great music. I wanted to tell him I’d be coming back the next night to see him again. I wanted to tell him that I always talked him up to anyone who would listen. I wanted to say, “Thanks, Robyn. You’re the coolest.” But I couldn’t say anything. He looked me up and down, and I completely forgot that I’d actually brought this weird vinyl record he’d done a long, long time ago in case I could get him to sign something. I didn’t know what to say, so I showed him the paper I’d taken from the stage (see below, with his autograph upside down at the bottom). “Is it okay if I keep this? It’s from the show.”
He smiled at me and said, “Sure, great! Want me to sign it for you?” I really felt like my heart might burst right there. As he grabbed a pen from Cynthia, the fat fish girl walked over and said, “Omigod! It’s really you! I like that shirt so much! I have a shirt like that only mine has a different pattern and no buttons or lizards on it. I wanted to give you a plastic fish because I know how much you like fish because once I saw you in Ithaca for the record with that song on it that I like. It was really good. So I got you this fish...” Robyn tried to tune her out so he could sign, but he didn’t seem to be having much luck. He looked nervously at me, then at her, then back to the paper. He signed his name for me and I said, “Thanks” as sincerely as I could. Then I said, “That was a really great show. Thanks for playing so many old songs and especially ‘Surgery.’ It’s one of my all-time favorites. Do you think you’ll ever release it on CD?” (I asked because it was only released as a free flexi with an old magazine.) He smiled and said that he was planning to put out a rarities collection, but not for a few years. “Oh, that’s fine. I mean, I have it on tape, but I just retired my record player for good because it got to be kinda old and fucked up.” I was nervous because I’d cursed, like he was a teacher or something.
He said, “I still have lots of old vinyl back home but I try to keep my phonograph in proper working order.” Then the fish girl started in again. I think for a second he thought she was with me, or worse, that she was my girlfriend. He turned away from her, helped Cynthia out of the little T-shirt booth and he thanked us for coming. As he walked out of the club, the Junkie, who had been standing behind us the whole time but didn’t want to interrupt, turned to the fish girl and screamed, “What the fuck is wrong with you? Are you some kind of retard? Take your fucking medication, you idiot!” She started to explain that she knew that Robyn had wanted to meet her and that I was fucking up her big encounter with him. At that point the Junkie was so annoyed that he called her a bunch of names and gave her a shove. I just kept staring at the piece of paper with Robyn’s signature on it, feeling like I’d done everything I could. I’d finally had the nerve to meet him and I had handled myself reasonably well. Since then, I’ve seen Robyn in concert at least a dozen times and have never tried to meet him again. It’s not that I’m afraid or anything, it’s just that most of the famous or even semi-famous people that I’ve met have turned out to be total assholes. I figure the fewer chances I give my idols, the less likely they are to disappoint me.
Once, when I was walking around on a break from work on the Upper West Side I saw Joe Jackson walking around. I followed him for ten blocks, trying to think of something to say. I stopped in a deli and got a paper and pen, figuring that by buying them I’d have to say something. I’d have to at least get an autograph, though I’m not even sure what I’d do with it. I followed him quietly for another six or seven blocks before he finally stopped, turned on his heels and shouted at me, “What the hell is your problem? Why are you following me?” I didn’t even know what to say, so I blurted out, “I’m not following anyone, I’m just walking this way,” and walked right past him. I didn’t even look back because I really wanted him to think that it was his mistake, not mine. He was a total douche and scared the hell out of me when he knew exactly why I was following him.
I’m not always so great at meeting famous people, especially if I’m expected to do something interesting, you know, be their dancing monkey for a moment of their bored lives. So, one freezing winter night I was hanging out at Roxy (18th St. and 10th Ave.) with the Junkie. I was sitting on these giant couches staring through the glass at all the people dancing, drinking and trying to get laid. I was waiting for the E to kick in and I was feeling really nauseous. Sometimes E makes me throw up, but I’ve found that if I smoke a little pot right as it’s coming on, I don’t puke. But I couldn’t smoke in the room where we were because it wasn’t that big and someone would either come begging for it or take it away. So I sat and drank water and watched everyone. The Junkie started tapping me on the shoulder because he had somebody he wanted me to meet. I turned around and he was standing there with some jive-looking older dude wearing full cowboy regalia. I hate hicks and cowboys about as much as anything else and I couldn’t figure out why the Junkie even cared. The Junkie smiled at me because he knew I had no idea who the guy was. The cowboy stuck out his hand for me to shake, so I got up off the couch and felt really dizzy. I walked over to him to shake his hand and I just lost it. I leaned forward and puked all over his shoes and the floor where he was standing. I immediately freaked out because it was a little early for me to hurl and if I’d puked the E, I only had two more. The cowboy just laughed and thought it was really funny. He shook my hand and then asked if he could get me anything. I said that I was really sorry and I just feeling a little sick and I should’ve stayed home. He said it was no problem at all and went to the bar to get a towel to clean up his shoes. The Junkie got him some drink tickets from my stash and apologized again for my puking. Then he came over and said, “Dude, you just puked on one of the Village People!” The Junkie thought it was the funniest thing I’d ever done and spent the rest of the night bragging that I’d puked all over the Village People. So what’s the point? Joe Jackson was a douche to me for not having the nerve to ask for his autograph. The cowboy was gracious when I puked on his shoes. It takes all kinds.
I realize that I’ve written this much of a live review and I’ve yet to even mention the show I’m talking about. So fucking what? I’m a kook and you like it like that, toots. I needed to give a little background before I do the review, and I like to just start writing and wing it the whole way sometimes. It’s more natural, more organic, and it gave me the chance to tell a few stories that really don’t belong anywhere else. Stop complaining!
After that first Cornelius show, I read this excellent English zine called slampiece that did a live review of Cornelius. They loved the show, but I was shocked to see that in the picture he was strumming a Flying V guitar, instead of huddling behind a bank of machinery and samplers. If you’re not familiar with Cornelius or their music, let me give just enough background to satisfy everyone. I discovered Cornelius while I was at my friend Jeff Price’s apartment shooting the cover picture for NegCap #2. While we worked, he kept shuffling in new and weird CDs. When he threw in Cornelius’ U.S. debut, Fantasma, I was freaked out because I’d never heard anything like it. Sure, it didn’t help that we did bong hits out of a modified honey bear at 11am, but after a few listens I realized it was one of the coolest things I’d ever heard. Cornelius, as a recording “band” is just one odd Japanese dude named Keigo Oyamada. He’s really into Cornelius, one of the apes from Planet of the Apes, so he named his band after him. He’s also very into 60s American pop, weird samples, harmonies and is also a master of the breakbeat. There are a few records that he’s only put out in Japan on his own Trattoria label, but beginning with Fantasma, NYC’s own Matador has been his US label. He’s done two CDs recently, one where artists remix Fantasma, and the other features him remixing their songs. Most people just refer to Keigo as Cornelius, since he’s the guy that writes, produces and plays everything on the records, but I think it’s more appropriate to call the man Keigo and the band Cornelius, even though it seemed like it was only Keigo in the band.
After we missed Cornelius at NYU, I had resolved that no matter what, I was going to be at his next NYC appearance. So when I saw the ad (see above) for a show called Music Against Brain Degeneration scheduled for two consecutive nights at Tramps, I got excited. The line-up was going to be something called IQU, then Cornelius, then Robyn Hitchcock, followed by Sebadoh and the Flaming Lips, two bands I had no interest in whatsoever. I couldn’t believe it. I was in the middle of planning to leave NYC for good (see “How to Visit NYC,” on page 24) and figured that I’d never see another show here again. To find that the one man I was dying to see would be playing with Robyn Hitchcock, a man I always see when he’s in town, was too much for me. That weekend, my wife and I went down and got tickets for the show on Wednesday, Aug. 18. Peter said he was up for it again because he also wanted to see what would happen in a live setting.
As you might expect, I prepared the worst. I thought for sure that something major would happen to us and we’d have to move early, or I’d get sick, or we’d lose the tickets, or some butthole from Sebadoh would get the sniffles and they would end up canceling the goddamn show. Maybe because just this once my expectations of failure were so high it worked out that nothing came between me and Cornelius. My wife was still in Texas working hard but she was also looking forward to the show and told her co-workers that she’d have to be in NYC that night. Unfortunately, the San Francisco office wanted to interview her about the transfer within the firm, and that was set for the day before the show. Even though she offered to fly home to NYC for one day, go to the show, then fly to Texas for two more days, I couldn’t make her do that. I figured I could give her ticket to Peter and we could go enjoy my last show in NYC together.
The night of the show I didn’t know what to do with myself. When I was a teenager, going to a live show was a really cool thing to do with your evening. Even if the show was awful, I always enjoyed the anticipation of it because everything in the future is going to be great. It was the same thing with our honeymoon. For six months we planned to spend almost three weeks going to London, Amsterdam and Edinburgh. We comparison shopped, saved, evaluated, bought guide books, made plans and thought about it all the time. It doesn’t really matter now that the trip was awful and we ended up having to pay it off for a few months after we returned. At the time, however, it was awful, not just because everything and everyone sucked, but because we had had such high hopes going into it. Since I was expecting everything and everyone to suck at this show, anything good that happened would be even better. Again, it’s just a theory.
I realized that it was never important for me to try to dress up for concerts—or worse, to wear an old concert T-shirt to show everyone else that I’ve been there from the get-go. I’ve no longer got anything to prove to anyone. I wear clothes that I won’t mind being without because as I get older, I’m much less tolerant of others. I hate coming home reeking of cigarettes, stale beer and abject failure. I figured that this show would be very smoker-intensive so I made sure to bring two of my asthma inhalers and plenty of meds.
On the night of the show, we arrived an hour before the doors were scheduled to open—no, wait. I arrived an hour before, then Peter rolled up a few minutes later, since the plan was to meet outside the show. I brought my Walkman with me so I could listen to music on my walk over to Tramps. It also helps me to tune out the world, and gives me something to do while I wait on line. I was really glad to see Peter when he rolled up, not just because he’s become my best friend, but because I never feel weird or uncomfortable around him. He’s just a cool person—never wants to argue, never wants to complain, always willing to share. And he’s so fucking funny that it takes the pressure off me. I also realized that my wife and I were going to be moving very soon, and I tried as best I could to really cherish every good moment I had in NYC before we left for good.
We shot the shit for a few minutes and then Peter offered to go get some pizza for both of us. I said fine and put my Walkman back on, but then felt weird when a Robyn song came on the mix tape. I used to always listen to a band on the night of their concert, to get myself psyched up or something. But I felt like such a choad doing it for Robyn, since I listen to Robyn almost all the time. So I listened to the conversations of the dudes who were behind me on line. I know there’s a regional thing where people say either “on” or “in” line, but where I’m from, it’s “on.” It’s on and poppin’, yo.
After another forty-five minutes the line started shuffling toward the entrance. As we entered the club, I realized they had completely changed the interior. Instead of a small space covered with round tables and a small stage, the stage was huge and it was standing-room-only. The bars had been moved and it was really dark and smoky, even though the show was still a while away. There was also a line forming at a table right by the entrance. Rather than immediately get on another slow-moving line, Peter and I found a comfortable vantage point right in front of a square concrete pillar. From there we were only about fifteen feet from the stage and even if a tall dude got in front of us (Peter is about my height), we’d still have space to move around to get a better view.
As people came off the line by the front, we saw that they all had these cheap FM Walkmen and headphones. For a second I thought they were just giving them away, but Peter wanted to investigate. It turns out that this was supposed to be the world’s first “headphone concert,” which confused me. I wasn’t sure if the bands were going to sing and broadcast the backing tracks on an FM band or what. I remembered reading about this concert that Cornelius did in Japan a while ago where the audience all wore headphones. Apparently, the song “Star Fruits Surf Rider” is actually two different songs played at exactly the same time. So, once, in concert, he played the live version of “Star Fruits” while at the same time, on a local FM station, they played “Surf Rider” and the song was literally put together in the head of each listener. Because I’m such a fucking cynic, I decided that not only would it not work, but that the concert would be so loud that the headphones would be inaudible. I guess that might have been yet another attempt to use reverse psychology on whatever force ruins things for me, but this time, it didn’t work. Peter got on line and traded his license for a Walkman, but I figured I could just use my own radio and headphones and avoid the lines altogether.
Up on the stage, the whole time we were milling about, was an attractive Asian-looking brunette in her 20’s. She was chain-smoking Camels and drinking a Corona with lime while spinning records. It was a weird ritual she was performing, and after a while it was mesmerizing, but not in a sexual way. She was clearly trying to look cool, so she’d take a big drag off the cigarette, take a big swallow of beer, then make a big display of choosing a record to play. Peter was also fascinated because she’d sometimes take out a record, cue it up using headphones, and then, at the last minute, she’d pull it off and replace it with something else. The thing is, every single song sounded exactly the same. Just constant drum loops, feedback and sequencers all working to produce the aural equivalent of mush. I don’t know how anyone can listen to that while retaining their frontal lobes.
While we waited, I listened to others make their predictions for the concert. The dudes behind us said that they’d never seen Cornelius, but figured he’d just stand behind a bank of keyboards and play a tape of his greatest hits. No one had ever heard of IQU, which I kept pronouncing as eye-cue-you, because it reminded me of that internet instant messenger which is called ICQ (or I-seek-you). After what seemed like two hours of standing around, this other Asian-looking dude came out and stood at the keyboard at the edge of the stage. It was then that I noticed that he had a Theremin and when I pointed it out to Peter, we both wondered who would play it. [In case you don’t know, there’s an excellent documentary about it, also called Theremin, which profiles its inventor, details its history and shows you how it works.] Basically it creates a magnetic loop and you “play” it by bending and interrupting that magnetic loop—but you never actually touch the machine. It creates a waveform that you can manipulate and modulate by placing your hands near it. It might sound easy, but I’m sure it’s not.
The head Lip from the Flaming Lips came out and welcomed everyone to the show while the Asian chick just kept smoking, drinking and playing her records. He said that he’d seen the first band, which was actually pronounced “ick-ooh,” open for some other Seattle flannel band and wanted us to know that they were just the greatest. Anyway, the DJ girl turned out to be the keyboard player for IQU and then this other dude came out with an upright bass, which was fucking huge. The Asian dude whipped out a guitar, the girl started playing keyboards and the upright bass guy started playing and they were off. They rocked up and down the stage, but barely interacted with each other. Their songs were either just incredibly noisy messes or noisy songs, but it didn’t make much difference. It was way too loud for anything to really be heard clearly, but I can’t say I didn’t like them. When the Asian dude started doing a Theremin solo in the middle of a song, I was impressed. They even did a good cover song and the dude went from keyboard, to guitar solo, to Theremin and then back to keyboard. Even if the music wasn’t that great, I gave them an A for effort.
They only did half an hour, which was just fine. I can’t imagine them filling up an hour and a half and still retaining the audience. They were novel in that they were very untraditional in their choice of instruments and their line-up, but the music didn’t do much for me. The cool thing was that there was a big screen set up on the back of the stage, and there were tiny cameras mounted with fisheye lenses all over the stage. So while they played, oversized, distorted images of them playing would flicker and dance on the screen behind them. It certainly livened up their performance, though not nearly enough to get me to actually like them.
As is typical for rock concerts, there was a long break between bands. King Lip returned to the stage to proclaim that Cornelius had come all the way from Tokyo just to play and while that sounds nice, I’m sure there were other items on their agenda than the chump change they’d make being the second of five bands at a small venue in New York.
When a blond Japanese woman mounted the drum kit, I knew we were in for a show. A tall, skinny Japanese guy came out with a double-necked guitar and then Keigo (who is Cornelius for all intents and purposes) came out with another dude who picked up his bass as Keigo hit play on a VCR. On the screen behind them were flashes of scenes from Planet of the Apes with a haunting musical score behind it. As the dialogue swirled and mixed with the music one voice came out of the darkness. “Warning! There is an escape from the Planet of the Apes! There is an escape from the Planet of the Apes. Name: Cornelius. Adult chimpanzee!” And then as the sound reached a crescendo, they started playing. Keigo was playing guitar and the band just start wailing through this b-side called “Ball In–Kick Off” which starts and stops over and over. It rocks really hard, then pauses for a whistle sound, and then a sample of a soccer ref saying, “Ball in, kick off!” over and over. It’s really cool. After another song, everything got very quiet on stage and in the crowd. Up on the screen, numbers were shooting by so quickly I couldn’t even read them, but as they slowed down, I could see it was just the numbers 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6. I realized that they were about to do one of my favorites, a song called “Count Five or Six.” As the numbers hit a steady pace, the computerized voice in the song came on which basically counts over and over while they stop and start the music. The numbers would fly by as they counted and jumped up and down. Instead of showing close-ups on the screen behind them, they had prepared hundreds of images on a videotape to serve as a backdrop for their performance.
After a few minutes I wanted to see what was going on with the Walkman so I put my headphones back on. After about ten seconds I realized that even at when I blasted it at full volume, I could not hear a goddamn thing through the headphones so I packed them up and put them away. I looked at Peter to see if he was digging it and he was smiling blissfully. I guess we both were expecting less and were delighted to be overwhelmed. They just kept rocking through a bunch of his obscure songs. I was a little worried that they wouldn’t do any songs that Peter knew, but the fourth song in was “Star Fruits Surf Rider” and it was an incredible performance. At one point, during a solo in the song, Keigo took to the Theremin and rather than just make weird noises, started playing the hook from “Star Fruits.” It was ill how smoothly his hands moved and how well it went with the song. He kept playing and playing the Theremin while the other band members wailed on their instruments.
Each song left the crowd breathless and frantic. It was around that time that I started feeling like I was part of something cool rather than the one person in the crowd who just wasn’t getting it. I imagine that many people at concerts feel awkward or out of place while others have no problem shedding their inhibitions and rocking out all night long. I often find myself unable to shake my awareness of self long enough to enjoy anything, but with Cornelius playing all kinds of great, original, daring music, I felt like it would be a crime not to enjoy it.
They must’ve played for forty minutes when they came to the end of their set and even though few in the crowd had come specifically for Cornelius, I could tell they’d made some converts. It was kind of sad for me because for some reason, I got it in my head that soon Cornelius would be too big to play dinky clubs as an opening act and the next time I’d get a chance to see them would be from the 1,000th row at some giant stadium and I would never go to a stadium show, not even to see the all of the Backstreet Boys get shot in the head one by one. It’s not even so much that I don’t want them to succeed, I just want to have the experience of some kind of false intimacy and shared joy with cool performers.
When the head Lip came back out, I started to feel all protective. I mean, I’m sure that the Lips’ fans are nice, easygoing folk. I also know that even though I love Robyn Hitchcock more than life itself, I don’t even seem to have much in common with his other fans. Even on line for a solo Robyn show I am skeeved out by the acid casualties, dirty hippies and former Deadheads. I was worried that Robyn would be all weird and obtuse and no one would get it at all. Even when you don’t know any of his songs, he’s a brilliant performer and always so in the moment. But if you’ve come to see bands number four and five, you may take out your impatience on my poor Englishman.
When Robyn finally came out, he was smiling broadly and I was instantly relieved. The crowd cheered and he launched into a rockin’ number that got the crowd moving. Even though many of his songs are uptempo, when he plays live Robyn has a tendency to do the soft songs early, take a break, and return for a closing set with an electric guitar. This time it was all electric, though on some songs he turned off most of the effects. He did a blistering performance of “Freeze,” which, from what I understand, is a rather mean song about his ex-wife that culminates with the lines, “I know who wrote the book of love—it was an idiot, it was a fool. A slobbering fool with a speech defect and a shaking hand and he wrote my name next to yours—but it should’ve been David Byrne or somebody.” Depending on his mood, he’ll change Byrne’s name to someone else and when I saw him this time, he said, “It should’ve been the Sebadoh or somebody!” It was really great because everyone got the joke.
He did some slow songs from his CD Jewels for Sophia, then amped everyone up again with “Viva Sea-Tac!,” his tribute to Seattle and Tacoma. When he got to “I Something You,” which is a love song where he can’t say “love,” the crowd started getting swayed. It’s a love song to his girlfriend Michele and there’s a couple of great, funny lines that really display Robyn’s charms to the uninitiated. During Robyn’s set I kept trying to take pictures because halfway through IQU I decided that I should write about the experience. So, after every other song, I would hold my camera over my head and basically shoot a picture of the ceiling like the fucking moron I am.
Just as I was expecting the set to end, the guys from Sebadoh came out and joined Robyn on the stage. It was really shocking to see him with a full band because he’s been doing it pretty much solo for years now. I wasn’t sure what they were going to do, but as soon as I heard the opening jangles of Robyn’s “Queen of Eyes,” I knew they’d stick to Robyn’s material. It was really cool to see these other guys basically playing a Robyn cover while Robyn sang, but I’m sorry to say that Sebadoh don’t have the vocal chops of the original Soft Boys and don’t seem to harmonize very well. They did one more song together that started falling apart midway through, but they rocked until the very end. Robyn took a polite bow, thanked the guys from Sebadoh, and wandered backstage.
As the big Lip returned, he promised that Sebadoh would be right back, but we could all take this opportunity to go buy T-shirts in the back. No thanks, I thought. I’ve already got too many Robyn shirts that I won’t wear for fear of fucking them up. I turned to Peter and he confirmed my suspicion that he, too, had had enough of the show. We returned his Walkman to the counter and hit the streets, our ears still ringing and our clothes caked with tar and nicotine. I was going to remark that it’s an odd coincidence that I just threw in some music to listen to while writing this, and a Robyn song came on first (a cover of Morrissey’s “Everyday is Like Sunday”), but it’s not that odd because almost all my tapes have Robyn on them in some form or another. So forget I mentioned it.
As Peter and I walked toward Fifth Avenue I felt this odd sadness. I knew it was almost over for me in New York. I knew it would be a long time before I’d spend a long night hanging out with Peter. The sky was perfectly clear, the air was warm and a little moist and the streets were still buzzing with people. As we approached Fifth, Peter asked if it would be okay if he just jumped on the subway and went to his girlfriend Lisa’s place down in SoHo. He knew I wouldn’t care, and as soon as he finished asking he answered his own question. I’m not one to sit and be sentimental. I was only twelve blocks and a few avenues from home, so I figured I’d walk. Since we were going in different directions, it only made sense to split up.
As he headed down to the subway, I thought about my beautiful little bug, sleeping in a hotel somewhere in San Antonio. She seemed so far away from me, but I knew that one of the many reasons we were leaving New York was that we needed to be together more often, and if she stayed in NYC, we would be apart too much. I wished that she could’ve come to the show, I wished that I could just see her, I wished so much that I could just kiss her goodnight. I missed her so much at the show and it didn’t hit me until I was finally alone, walking briskly up the east side of Madison Square Park. As I put my Walkman back on to tune out the city, an old Robyn Hitchcock song came on and I couldn’t help but sing along.