By David Segal
Sunday, August 28, 2005
A few months before I left my job as pop music critic at The Washington Post, a reader called to accuse me of a journalistic crime. The message, forwarded to me via voice mail, came from a 20-ish-sounding woman who seemed really worked up. I'm paraphrasing here, but she said something like this:
I don't think that your critic was at the Aerosmith show on Saturday at Nissan Pavilion. In his review, he wrote that in the middle of the show lead singer Steven Tyler grabbed a trapeze and swung out over the audience. I was at the show in Connecticut, and he did that there. But he didn't do it at Nissan. My guess is that Segal went to the Connecticut show but didn't go to Nissan. Bye!
Now, at first, my feelings were hurt. A review has to be pretty lacking in local color for someone to accuse you of skipping the concert. (I called this young lady to discuss this matter, but she never got back to me.) And, of course, the trapeze swing really happened. Tyler had grabbed it, dangling near the lip of the stage, as Joe Perry took a guitar solo during "Walk This Way." The crowd hooted -- Tyler was briefly sailing above the heads of fans in the first eight rows or so -- and it was over in about 10 seconds.
Maybe the caller had lousy seats and didn't see it. Maybe she went to get a beer as the song began. Either way, as soon as I got past my indignation, I felt a wave of nostalgia. This woman believed, as I once believed, that rock concerts are spontaneous affairs where anything can happen. A lead singer might suddenly spot a trapeze and, on a whim, take a ride.
Ah, sweet and innocent youth.
It's fair to assume that Tyler rode the same trapeze in the same spot during the same song at every concert that summer, Nissan included. The whole trapeze thing was almost surely dreamed up before the band strummed the first note on the tour. There was probably a trapeze roadie, with instructions that read "9:15, hand Perry an Aquafina. 9:18, go get the trapeze."
That's the way pop concerts are these days, especially large ones. Everything is choreographed, even the parts that seem unchoreographed, and there is no room for unplanned derring-do. I knew this before I signed on as rock critic in January 2000. But there's something about going to dozens and dozens of concerts that makes the artifice of these productions even more glaring, and when I go to shows now, it's hard for me to see anything else. What we've got here, all too often, is musical theater masquerading as improv.
I have nothing against musical theater, but when you're expecting a concert, it seems silly and very much against the impulsive, unruly spirit of the genre. Broadway's "Mamma Mia!" never pretends to be free-forming it every night. U2 does, though a U2 concert is essentially the same thing, night after night, right down to the encore. Yes, the bonus part that's supposed to be extra because you clapped hard, that's planned, too.
"Whoa! Next you'll tell us that Britney lip-syncs?" I know, I know. These impressions won't exactly shock you jaded longtimers out there, but it seems to me that concerts are getting more ossified and more mannered every year. And the more schematic the production is, the less likely you are to come across the great Live Concert Moment.
You know about the great Live Concert Moment, right? I'm not talking about the kind of show where you leave thinking, "Those guys rule!" and then buy a T-shirt. I'm talking about total-body bliss, a rush so strong it turns brain cells into Jell-O and, for a moment or two, you sort of leave your skin. Art lovers would probably argue that they get the same feeling by looking at a great painting, but they're fools, and you should ignore them. A good part of what I'm talking about here is sheer volume. A painting can be many things, but it will never make your ears ring.
The Pixies, my friend, can make your ears ring.
The great Live Concert Moment is born of something heartfelt and in some important way spontaneous. Not necessarily made up on the spot -- although that's never a bad idea -- but improvised to some degree. You might catch something similar in Boston next week, but it won't be exactly what happened in D.C. This is what sets a great concert apart from a great album. It's about music, but it's also about an experience that's ephemeral and communal, that you share for a couple hours with a bunch of strangers who, at some level, you feel like you know because they have the same idiotic glint in their eye when the lights come up. It's the sense that this whole evening means as much to the band as it does to you. It's great songs multiplied by killer performance multiplied by giddy fan reaction.
I've been chasing these Moments since I was 12 years old, and, during my four years as rock critic at The Post, I hunted them the way Ahab chased the white whale. I looked everywhere -- in stadiums, arenas, clubs, basements, studios, garages, even parking lots. It didn't happen often, but on a few unforgettable occasions, I stumbled into a Moment. Finding one just made me crave another.
For me, the pop critic job was a cheap way to feed an old habit. I'd been buying records and "wooooo"-ing at concerts ever since I laid eyes on Elvis Costello in 1977, when he sang on "Saturday Night Live." Pigeon-toed and decked out in a cheap suit and twerpy glasses, he started a song called "Less Than Zero," then, after a moment or two, very dramatically halted the band, shouted some weird apology to the crowd and then launched into "Radio, Radio."
I was a goner. I loved the sound, the song, the drama, the sense that this excitable nerd had taken control of the show and seemed ready to run it into a ditch. He looked like the future of music, a guy who could crash a very dull party and turn it into something that would scare your parents. I wanted to meet him, even though I had the sense that he wouldn't like me, that he wouldn't like anyone, himself included. When I bought his debut album, "My Aim Is True," it wouldn't leave me alone. For a while, my friend J.P. and I were so reverently attached to Costello that we instituted a rule: No leaving the room when Elvis Costello is playing. That would be disrespectful.
After Elvis, there were Graham Parker and Joe Jackson, then Devo, then the Ramones, then Lou Reed and Bruce Springsteen and then a ton of New Wave bands (the Rings, the A's, the Sinceros) that no one ever heard from again. I went to a local chain in Providence, near where I grew up, called Strawberries and bought albums because the covers looked cool or because the name sounded good (how about 999 or Pearl Harbor and the Explosions?).
Oddly, my first concert was jazz crossover Chuck Mangione when I was 13, and, God help me, I loved it. That man could make a fluegelhorn sing! After that, Blood Sweat & Tears, then a blur of arena rock bands from the '70s, all of them peddling irony-free bombast through a pungent cloud of pot smoke, like Blue Oyster Cult, Aerosmith and the J. Geils Band. After I turned 18 and could get into clubs, I bluffed my way backstage whenever possible. I still have an index card signed by every member of the punk band X. I caught a guitar pick tossed into the crowd by Lenny Kaye, Patti Smith's guitarist, and had it framed. Once I interrupted Joe Jackson when I spotted him conversing in a bar. "I think you're being rude," he told me. He had a point.
To me these people weren't people. If you grow up, as I did, with the hunch that we live in a godless universe and you believed, as I did, that Bruce Springsteen was the nation's only home-grown prophet, then a live concert was about the only place you were going to have a religious experience. It's a whole lot like a prayer service, actually, since everyone knows the words and you leave feeling uplifted. I had far more epiphanies in the Providence Civic Center than I ever did at Temple Emmanuel.
I'm sure a lot of people at those shows felt the same way, but very few of them became music journalists. So why did I? Sometime in my mid-twenties I realized that writing was the only thing I wanted to do, and after I was nearly fired from a political consulting firm when I moved to Washington in the late '80s, journalism seemed my only viable option. I freelanced for anyone who'd publish me. A few years, and many stories later, The Post hired me, in 1993, as a reporter in the Business section. I covered serious matters, like HMOs and law firms. But all the while I wrote the occasional pop music story, and, when the rock job opened up, I had enough clips to apply with a straight face.
Elvis Costello once said that writing about music is like dancing about architecture, and I quickly saw his point. Explaining what makes music great is kind of futile, since the tools at hand never seem equal to the material. I'm not sure if music criticism is something I ever excelled at, but I'm certain of this: When I started, I stank. My first review, about a Snoop Dogg album, somehow opened with a riff about Elvis Presley, which my editor wisely cut. When I first put on headphones in the newsroom, at my desk, I felt like I was getting away with something, or loafing, like I was about to get busted. All around me, colleagues were reporting real stories -- corruption or calamities or political scandal -- and I was listening to "Brake Fluid (Biiittch Pump Yo' Brakes)."
That feeling soon passed. Even in hindsight, I loved just about every minute of the gig. Just about. Some stories went horribly awry, if you want to know the truth. Like the time I tried to coax some memories out of Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, a legendary guitarist and fiddle player in the world of Southern roots music who's been making albums and touring for decades. This was backstage at the Birchmere, and I'd brought along 10 songs by other artists that Brown said had influenced him, the titles of which he'd given me a week before our meeting. Gatemouth puffed on his pipe while I played the songs on my portable boombox. The music was supposed to provoke some anecdotes and kick-start him into an explanation of the origins of his style. It didn't work. A lifelong abstainer, he could focus on just one thing -- that most of his musical heroes were drunks.
Piano player Cecil Grant? "He drank a lot," Brown said.
Texas swing man Bob Wills? "Liquor carried him out."
Hank Williams? "Whiskey and drugs got him."
On he went. I envisioned the poor jerk that I would become in the next few days as I struggled to turn this gruel into a feature story, and I actually began to sweat.
Those few fiascos aside, the job has a lot to recommend it. The free albums never stop. I'd get 25 in a slow week. The tickets are comped (when you're doing a review). Ditto the backstage deli platters on those occasions you end up backstage.
Initially, I worried that turning pop into a profession would make me hate it. I'd read an essay a long time ago by George Orwell about how he'd taken a job at a bookstore, mostly because he was broke but also because he loved being around books. You love books, you need a job, you get a job at a bookstore. But it backfired. Lugging around crates of hardbacks and doing all that inventory work turned books into a commodity, which he grew to despise.
When I thought about jumping from business reporting to pop criticism, I worried the same thing would happen to me. But it turns out that consuming a huge amount of music actually expands your appetite. You come across bands you've never heard of; you get into genres you never bothered with; you attend shows you would have skipped. Best of all, you get to hunt for those Live Concert Moments for a living.
Before I go any further, maybe an example of an LCM is in order. Here's one of my favorites. About 10 years ago, I fell hard for a band called Guided By Voices. Since disbanded, they were a quintet from Dayton, Ohio, led by a tipsy genius named Robert Pollard, a guy who'd spent most of his professional life as a (perfectly sober) school teacher and then broke out when Rolling Stone hailed the band's eighth album, "Bee Thousand," as an instant lo-fi classic. Some friends and I became loony fans of this group, to the point where we actually flew to Dayton, where we practically stalked the band. On tour in 1995, GBV opened a show in Washington for the mostly forgotten Urge Overkill.
Now, one of the great things about Pollard is that he often spilled beer, by accident, on the set list -- that's the list of songs the band is going to play -- and at some point in just about every show, he would mutter something like, "The set list is completely unreadable," and then he'd ask for requests. It was like the band suddenly became a jukebox, and with a few dozen songs to its name, there was no telling what the group would actually play. These shows were as close to random as it gets; they all were great, but none were great in the same way.
In the middle of this particular concert, my friend Eli shouted for a song called "Matter Eater Lad." As rock songs go this one is a trifle -- sample lyric: "He constructed a factory . . . Just to see how it tasted" -- but its inanity is kind of magnificent. Pollard immediately went to his drummer, who happened to be subbing in for their full-time guy. The drummer didn't know the song, so Pollard taught it to him, right then and there. You could see the lesson. And then the band played it, and it was a beautiful shambles.
We grinned about that for a couple months. Actually, I'm grinning about it right now. If that's pathetic, so be it. That's the sort of moment I live for.
Maybe you hear a tale like that and think: "Um, you lived for that? Hey, isn't it time to grow up?"
It is, and you have a point. But the truth is that every pop critic, to one degree or another, is a case of arrested development. You have to be. What plays on MTV isn't made for adults; it's made for kids or teenagers, or people in their twenties. I'm now 41. You know how many 41-year-olds are on the Billboard pop music charts right now? Very few. Which is what sets pop music criticism apart from other beats at a newspaper. Restaurants, dance, plenty of movies, theater -- these are all generally produced by grown-ups for grown-ups. Blink-182's "Enema of the State" wasn't made for adults, and neither was Busta Rhymes's "Ass on Your Shoulders." To enjoy this line of work, you really need juvenile tastes.
You can, of course, fake your affection for bands like Blink-182, but it's hard to do that for long, and the people that stay in this line of work aren't faking. I remember reading a rave review in the New York Times of an album by Korn, a crew of goth metal heads who make grim and furious rock for disaffected 14-year-old boys. The review was written by Jon Pareles, the head pop critic for the paper -- and a man in his fifties. He went to Yale, where he majored in classical music. I thought to myself, "This guy must be kidding." How many middle-aged Ivy Leaguers in this country would even listen to, let alone rave about, the new Korn album?
So, initially, I assumed that Pareles was slumming it for credibility's sake, or because he felt the pressure to praise the band because it was so huge. But a few months later I was at the Grammys, in the media room, tapping away at a story about the winners. Korn's lead singer, Jonathan Davis, came out to take a bow and answer questions after collecting the best metal performance trophy for "Here to Stay." Pareles was sitting in the first row, and he asked Davis a question in the slightly breathless tone of a sophomore in the grip of a crush. When Davis was done, Pareles burbled, "It's a really good album." This wasn't a put-on, I realized. Jon Pareles loves Korn. He really loves Korn. The man was born for his job.
Beyond the tastes of a teenager, most rock critics have a hard-core addiction to the Live Concert Moment. Like Jane Scott, who retired a few years ago as the pop critic at the Cleveland Plain Dealer at age 82. Yes, 82. She was already in her forties when the Beatles came to town, and when she figured out that nobody at the paper had signed up to cover the event, she volunteered.
For parts of the next five decades, she went to hundreds of shows, always with her ticket pinned to her chest, so she wouldn't lose it, usually armed with a peanut butter sandwich in case she got hungry. She's met everyone -- Brian Wilson, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, to name just a few. When I asked her what kept her going, she brought up the Doobie Brothers, of all bands. At some point in the '70s, they came to town and toward the end of their set played that FM staple "Black Water." There's an a cappella moment in that song, and when it came, she explained, everyone in the building was locked arm in arm, swaying and singing.
"Until you've experienced that," she told me once, shaking her head, "you don't know anything."
For Scott, understanding the power of amplified pop was nothing short of the beginning of enlightenment.
I hate any talk about the good old days of rock criticism, but Scott surely lived through some kind of golden age of the genre. It's not merely that concerts are more programmed, the stars are programmed, too. You know what I'm talking about if you've ever seen "Almost Famous," the film about a young rock critic working in the mid-'70s. I hated that movie. Or maybe I just resented it because the world of music journalism in that film seems like more fun than the one I know. The writer in "Almost Famous," a character based on the film's writer and director, Cameron Crowe, himself a former critic, has amazing access to the bands he covers. He flies with them, hangs out with them. When the lead singer of one band takes off on a bender, the writer goes right along with him.
I'm sure the intimacy is exaggerated, but I don't doubt that it was easier to have a real conversation with a pop star when the industry was far younger. It was less of a business plan back then, less uptight. There were label flacks hovering then, too, and men in satin baseball jackets owned everyone, then as now. But those people were tolerated by the band, whereas now the bands often allow them to call the shots. The act is in on the act. I interviewed a few dozen musicians in my 50-plus months of pop writing, and I think I had three, maybe four, true conversations. I'm talking about times when a performer wasn't on message, sounding like a senator with a stump speech.
One exception was an interview with Nick Lowe, a huge hero of mine. He's best known for "Cruel to Be Kind," a semi-hit in the '80s, and for producing the early classics of Elvis Costello. His solo albums never caught on huge in the United States, but they are amazing -- smart and catchy pop with a sly naughty streak. He had come to town in 2001 to support a superb album called "The Convincer," and, while we talked over lunch in Chinatown, he said that if he hadn't become a musician he would have liked to become a journalist.
"Have you ever seen a newsroom?" I asked him.
He had not. So after the fortune cookies we walked to The Post. The only problem was that to get into the building you have to show some sort of identification to a guard in the lobby. Lowe had nothing on him, not even a wallet. For a moment I thought I would miss my once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to impress my colleagues by walking around saying, "I'd like you to meet Nick Lowe." Then I remembered that I had a copy of his CD in my bag -- and I remembered that the cover of "The Convincer" is a close-up of Lowe's face. I showed it to the guard.
"Wow," he said, looking at Lowe, then the CD, then Lowe. "Go on up."
Part of the fun of music journalism is that even when you're not having your own Moment, odds are good that someone near you is. If the average age in the crowd is under 15, it's a sure thing. When I started, in early 2000, the teen pop craze of Britney and 'N Sync was just getting started, too, and I had a sense the whole phenomenon would provide a rich vein. Those acts are easy to ridicule, but even better, they brought out a ferocious, almost tribal reaction in their fans that you just don't see at, say, a Moby concert. The first time I laid eyes on 'N Sync, at a stadium show at RFK, I was jolted by the unearthly shrieks of 30,000 tweeners. In my review, I professed amazement at the scene but was pretty dismissive of the music.
This angered a few fans, among them a 13-year-old named Roxanne Shorrock, who denounced me in rather tart terms in a series of letters. The first, a masterstroke of invective, accused me of forgetting the meaning of the word "fun" and alleged that 'N Sync, in her memorable phrasing, "had just nailed [my] ass." I wasn't sure what this meant, exactly, but it sounded painful and the sort of thing I might have said to a rock critic who talked smack about Elvis Costello, had I been literate enough to read the newspaper at 13.
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.