Images of sorrow, pictures of delight
Things that go to make up a life
Endless days of summer, longer nights of gloom
Waiting for the morning light
Scenes of unimportance like photos in a frame
Things that go to make up a life
The very first concert I ever went to was one given by John Denver at the Worcester Centrum in 1982. I don’t really remember a lot about this particular concert, as I was about three, except for this strong mental image of the lights going dark, and then coming up over the stage as John made his way through the crowd. Now, there aren’t a lot of ways I can spin this experience as cool, and, to be honest, it really is incidental to the story. Suffice it to say that this was the first time I’d ever seen so many people in one place, and it has come to mind at every concert that I’ve attended since. Really – even at Nine Inch Nails concerts. (How’s that for street cred?) I suppose, though, that the reason I was there in the first place was that my mother’s albums had largely consisted of singer-songwriters from the 60s and 70s. People like Don McLean, Joan Baez, and so on. I will admit that I still know the words to almost every John Denver song I’ve ever heard, though. And, between you and me, I even like some of them.
The reason I bring this up is that I keep in mind the distinction between the first time I attended a concert and the first time I watched a concert. (More on that in a moment.) While the former is the John Denver concert, the latter is the video of Genesis’ Mama Tour that used to screen on PBS. My father and I used to watch this all the time. (This is probably not too far from the truth, actually, as it ran almost twice a day for a while.) At any rate, I remember being fascinated by the notion of performance. The way that Phil Collins moved about suggested that every lyric had a real weight to it – that there was something impossibly important about even the simplest things. And the lights, the crowd, the curious drum solos – these were all especially captivating, and gave my young mind the idea that “concerts are important.” Looking back on it, I can’t help but be a little bit embarrassed to admit that I was especially fond of “Illegal Alien” (principally for its silly voices). Ok, very embarrassed. But if I had to find the real heart of the concert, just as with the album itself, I would have to choose “Home By The Sea.”
When I was in first grade, I transferred, mid-year, to a new school. On my very first day, I rode the bus to school. As soon as we arrived, I did what every kid does and ran as far and fast as I could from the bus – straight into the skull of one Tim Thompson. Tim was to become my best friend, and we spent many weekends playing with Construx, or Nintendo, or, building elaborate forts of sheets and blankets. I would be astonished if there were more than ten weekends out of a year that we didn’t have sleepovers. Tim and I wandered to all sorts of unlikely places – his cabin in New Hampshire, a bike rally (that’s motorcycles), historical re-enactments on Patriots’ Day – everywhere, really. One of the things that would inevitably happen once the forts began to sag was that we would put on “concerts.” We would take his boombox, load up on tapes, and head out to the porch to mimic what little we knew of musical performances into the wee hours. (Wherever you are, Tim, I apologize for the friendly-fire of humiliation that might come your way.) My Genesis cassette was a fixture in our repertoire, and I can’t help but be amazed by the surreal experience that was “performing” with Tim. Given its length, and range of moods, we were especially fond of “Home By the Sea.” (Thinking back on it, now, I’m fairly certain that one game was a sort of standard-issue Rambo-esque thing, which, for reasons unknown, featured interludes of musical performance. Our day jobs, perhaps? Were we spies? Honestly, I just hope we weren’t espied.)
I bring this up to illustrate just how important concerts have been to me, and to the ways in which I’ve grown. This concert, especially. Chances are, that if we’re friends, we’ve been to a concert together. Indeed, it’s a sign that I well and truly care for you. I positively love the thrill of the gig, and the fact that you get to carry with you the memory of a performance that was shared by a relatively small portion of a band’s audience. You get famous gigs, of course: Dylan’s “Judas” moment in Manchester, or Springsteen’s debut of “The River,” or that one L7 gig where… actually, let’s skip that. Ick. The point is that it’s inherently personal. You get the “I was there” factor, and it remains a perfect idol in your memory’s temple. Honestly, I find it all rather addicting. In my short time, I’ve seen over one-hundred-and-fifty shows. And, when I think back on them, they all come back to two things: Genesis with Dad, and John Denver with Mom. These representing excitement and mystery. The excitement that I used to feel when I watched these strange things on television is something I really can’t explain, but something that hasn’t ever diminished, and the mystery I feel when I look back into the past is something that I simply cannot dispel. Each concert is a search for the rekindling of these two elements – a ritual of rebirth. The greatest concerts of my life – or, indeed, some of the greatest moments of my life – have combined these two elements perfectly.
There are two moments that come immediately to mind. The first involves R.E.M. and “Let Me In.” That gets its own entry. (See you in April.) The second was at a Sigur RÃ³s concert with Lucy. It is, sadly, the natural order of things that audiences will yell through any quiet part they come across. I’ve not yet learned why people feel the need to yell “yeah, I like beer, too” (No, really.) at a band, and I really haven’t found a band that will willingly stop what it’s doing to play “Freebird,” but I’m sure that these things must be possible. Multiverse, and all that. Anyway, the point is that I don’t generally anticipate getting to enjoy a moment of silence at a rock concert – and I certainly don’t expect it to overwhelm me. Sigur RÃ³s, however, aren’t your usual band. During my time in Oxford, Lucy and I went to see them at Hammersmith Palais in London. At the height of one of the louder tracks on the ( ) album, the band hits this sixteen-measure rest. It’s a great bit of dynamic tension, but after being pushed up and up for six minutes, I had been completely prepared to hear some serious yelling. What I heard, instead, was the door in the back of the auditorium creak. That’s right. A door hinge creaked, and it echoed. Absolutely perfect stillness fell like a blanket over the crowd. It’s moments like this, when the magic and the mystery combine, that really do make life worth living. And when the band came back in, it was like the Sun returning after a long Winter away.
This sounds insane, but I really do think of this whenever someone talks about Bronze Age festivals commemorating the Winter Solstice. Of course, then again, the lyric “When you cycled by…” in The Smiths’ “Back to the Old House” always makes me think of Chaucer’s “Troilus and Criseyde.” What can I say?
Returning, then, to “Home By the Sea…” It’s an eleven-minute track (actually, it’s in two parts), largely comprised of instrumental, but I’ve always felt that it was a short song. I suppose this has a lot to do with the fact that there’s so much movement – it really does move like a sort of micro-symphony, full of motifs and themes. Stretching back to the Peter Gabriel days, this really is the strength of Genesis’ music. Well, when they’re on, at any rate. My most vivid memory, though, isn’t the sound of the song, but the look of the liner notes for the album. There’s this little black-and-white picture of a tiny cottage in a cove under a grey sky that really captured my imagination as a child. These are the sorts of details that you can get from interacting with a proper album. Yet, for some reason, a lot of bands really don’t make albums anymore. And I suspect it has something to do with the corporatization of music, and the expense of album-crafting. There are plenty of LPs, but few albums. The distinction, of course, being that the former can be put together by any band that knows how to write songs, while the latter is something that provides a total experience – from the notes, to the package, to the sound. The album aims to provide a complete aesthetic experience…a deliberate invocation of a particular mood. “Kid A.” “Time Out of Mind.” “The Downward Spiral.” “Homogenic.” – These are albums. It’s a rare art form, but I bet you can think of one or two in your own room. Even when I don’t care for the music, I have a respect and admiration for artists that go the extra mile to present a complete experience. “Mama” is an uneven album, at least in terms of mood, but its jumble of geometric shapes reflects the multi-directional approach that follows.
Returning from this digression, I remember one day, just after we’d watched the concert, my father and I sat looking at the picture of this cottage while we tried to make up the story of the ghosts who lived there. It took a long time to decide whether or not they were friendly ghosts, and how many there were, and whether or not we might be able to meet them, but the stories were full and lively. My father wasn’t always given to imagination and storytelling, but such is the power of song. Or, rather, the love of song. The force behind that moment is what drives fans to fall in love with silly pieces of music, and to obsessively collect b-sides and bootlegs. It’s what brings people to take road trips across the country just to see a show, and it’s what weaves the soundtracks of our lives.
The first time I saw that little cottage, combined with the experience of hearing and seeing a concert, a door opened in my heart that my father holds open to this day. Or, indeed, I hold open for his ghost. In the patchwork narrative that is my own musical biography, I like to think of him there in the great chair that sits by the fire. Waiting for the morning light…