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Memoirs of a Music Man
I immediately wrote Ms. Shorrock, and we became pen pals, though there was never anything friendly in her letters. I told her we'd have to disagree about 'N Sync but that I loved how viciously she defended the group. This failed to appease her. Every time I published something sniffy about 'N Sync -- the lads were the biggest thing in music for a while -- Roxanne lobbed another letter at me. So I had an idea. The next time 'N Sync came to town, I would bring her along, and she could point out all the things that geezers like me fail to appreciate. My tastes aren't that arrested, so maybe I needed a guide.
"Do you get good seats?" she wrote back, when I proposed this in a letter.
I did. A few weeks later, I met Roxanne, and we went together to MCI. It turned out that Roxanne wasn't small and feisty, as I'd imagined. She was tall and feisty, and she'd just entered that part of adolescence when you think everything sucks. The lone exception was 'N Sync, which reduced her to a sweaty, pogoing maniac. She started screaming when the lights went down and unless you count the moments when she needed to inhale, she didn't really stop for about 10 solid minutes.
I left with unexpected insights into the genius of 'N Sync -- or the group's extensive team of handlers and stage managers. Toward the end of the show, there was this 10-minute lull where the guys just stood around onstage and pretended to banter with one another. Small talk, no music. I thought it was a momentum killer, but Roxanne knew better. She needed a break, she explained, in order to regain her strength and composure for the frenzied sprint to the encores. 'N Sync understood the biorhythms of its fans. Without the chance to rest, Roxanne told me, she was going to throw up.
On some level, I envied her. My Live Concert Moment success ratio -- the number of shows attended divided by the number of Moments -- was lousy by comparison. There are a lot of overhyped bands out there, and just because I have the taste of an 18-year-old doesn't mean I've got no taste. As a critic, if I chanced into one Moment a month, that was a pretty good month.
What wrecked a lot of shows was pretentiousness, the bane of the indie rock world. By far the most insufferable was a band called Godspeed You! Black Emperor, a solemn bunch of Canadian posers who came to the 9:30 club a few years ago. I was chilled by their self-seriousness even before I showed up, having learned that the band had actually moved the exclamation point in its name (it used to be after "Emperor") and having read an interview in which one of the band members likened nightclubs to concentration camps. It seemed to be part of some anti-capitalist shtick.
The 10 or so members of the ensemble slunk onstage without so much as acknowledging the audience. Each song was an eight-minute epic, with no vocals, which started slow and then built to a soon-predictable crescendo. A video screen behind the band played gray and numbing images in slow motion -- bombs falling from a jet, a car parked by an underpass. I had nothing better to do, so I started dreaming up better names for the band, like Chill Out You! Silly Frostbacks. Someone in the group waved when the whole thing was over, but that was just about the only sign that they realized a crowd had come to watch this lugubrious affair.
Godspeed owes me two hours of my life back.
The trick for every band is to keep fresh something that is forever threatening to go stale. This was the secret to the longevity of the Grateful Dead. People followed them around full time because the show changed every time they played, and if you missed a concert you missed something singular. A Bruce Springsteen concert is unforgettable because you always get the sense that you just witnessed something so heartfelt and draining that it couldn't possibly be reproduced. To a degree, that's an illusion, since many of the Boss's shows are pretty similar, set-wise, on a given tour. But the guy is such a gifted showman that it doesn't matter if he does a note-for-note replica in the next city. People leave those concerts feeling like they've been given something they'll never lose. And Springsteen always seems like he's having more fun than anyone else in the building.
There's a kind of uneasy peace that rock has to make with show business. The former is obsessed with authenticity, the latter with fakery and spectacle. There are bands, like Kiss, that just meld the two, and do so with a shamelessness that's sort of winning. All the stage blood, the pyrotechnics, the hydraulic lifts, the smoke -- that's what the Kiss army demands. But I marvel at the lengths to which other bands are now going to provide fans with the illusion of a one-off experience. The best, for my money, was the Metallica tour of 1997. Fans at USAir Arena were startled when the pyrotechnics show went seriously haywire. Amps crackled as though short-circuited, flames were spotted in a lighting rig, and suddenly a roadie ran onstage, on fire. Once he was fully doused, medics showed up, and the carnage continued as the set collapsed and the burn victim was carted off on a stretcher.
Psych! The same "accidents" happened in every city, in the exact sequence. The whole thing was staged.
As ridiculous as it all might sound, I would bet that few people who understood it was all a stunt felt cheated. That's the state of the art in the concert business -- it's getting closer and closer to professional wrestling all the time. You know it's plotted and rehearsed right down to the toasted roadie, but you cheer like it's not, or you buy into the illusion for as long as you can. Unless you can't, unless planning is exactly what you can't stand in a concert. Which is why the search for the Live Concert Moment is getting trickier.
I gave up pop music journalism last year, a decision that had very little to do with live concerts, carefully engineered and otherwise. I've long wanted to live in New York, and The Post had an opening in the Manhattan bureau, which is where I work now, covering intrigue and weirdness wherever I can find it. I certainly wasn't burnt out, though I do remember getting my hands on a then-new Patti Smith album and realizing that I'd reviewed another Patti Smith album a few years earlier. What did I have to say about Ms. Smith that I hadn't said already? Maybe nothing. Maybe a lot. Part of me didn't want to find out.
But I left the job with vivid memories, and some of the most vivid were Live Concert Moments. At a Green Day show at American University, the lead singer, Billie Joe Armstrong, interrupted a song to ask if anyone in the audience could play the guitar. He picked one of the kids who raised a hand, then hauled him onstage, and handed over his instrument, while the drums and bass churned away. Then Armstrong asked for a bass player, who was promptly hoisted onstage and handed the bass, also in mid-song. Finally, a drummer was recruited, and pretty soon Green Day was watching as three kids who'd never met thrashed away.
I've heard that the band has done that a bunch of times, but I'm also pretty sure it's never the same thing twice because the kids are never the same twice. Armstrong wouldn't let the drummer, a 12-year-old named Zack, back into the crowd until the audience chanted his name over and over and Zack then leaped head first into the arms of fans. You knew you were watching the most excellent 10 minutes of his young life.
Then there was another Moment, when a guy named Andrew W.K. came to town. W.K. is famous for his chucklehead party anthems, such as "It's Time to Party" and "Party Hard." I had him pegged as a novelty act, but this concert at the 9:30 club was astounding. It didn't just break down the wall between performer and fan -- it smashed that wall and ground the chunks into dust. W.K. apparently has a standing offer to the audience, mostly 13- to 15-year-old boys, to join him onstage, and by the end of the night a kid was on his shoulders, riding him like a show pony. Another 50 fans were just jumping around the stage, knocking into the musicians. It was close to pandemonium for a while, and W.K. loved it. He kept shouting about how fantastic it was for him to be there, and he wasn't kidding. If that guy is medicated, I'd like to know the name of his medicine, because it works.
But the greatest Moment was a solo show by Glenn Tillbrook, the former lead singer of the now-defunct British band Squeeze. Just him and an acoustic guitar. Near the end of the evening, at the tiny Iota Club in Arlington, he posed a question. How many people would like me to play the next several songs in the parking lot? It was nearly unanimous. We trundled out the door, maybe 50 people, led by Tillbrook, who took his place on a ramp in the rear of the club and played -- unamplified -- the Squeeze classics "Pulling Mussels (From the Shell)" and "Goodbye Girl" while people danced under the moonlight. It was my kind of ecstasy. Then the cops came and shut it down, after complaints by neighbors, which made it even better.
To be in that parking lot was to feel like you were in on something that was sublime but fleeting. It's hard to explain, but I can sum it up with the highest praise in the history of high praise: You just had to be there.
David Segal is a staff writer, based in New York, for The Post's Style section. He will be fielding questions and comments about this article Monday at 1 p.m. at washingtonpost.com/liveonline.