Facing facts: I'll be 31 in a couple of weeks. I have a daughter and a lovely wife and a house in the country. I still listen to a lot of music, and I don't see that changing. But live shows? I’m coming to grips with the fact that that's more or less a part of my past now.
I still make it to the odd show. Very odd. Maybe a couple a year. Now that fewer friends' bands are active, that might dwindle to one. Or none. I think the thrill of being a part of something larger, a nascent social milieu grounded in music, has worn off to a degree. The shows that thrill me the most nowadays are by artists who fit beneath the broad umbrella term "improvised" - jazz, New Thing, fire music, out music, etc. The very fact that an artist is operating atop the precarious wire of improvisation is compelling enough to hold my interest. But rock shows, punk shows, even the best of these often feel rote to me. In truth I know that the charge is still there to be had, just not for me. I've mellowed, aged, settled down. I get that. I sure as hell didn't anticipate it, but there it is.
But, in the way of things dead and lost, I am moved to an unforgiveable nostalgia by thoughts of the things I have seen, and which I now acknowledge are largely in my past.
I remember knob-twiddlers – the spectacle removed from performance – men standing hunched over boards, seemingly ignoring the crowd. A single man at a desk, with a laptop, in a largely empty room, playing to a handful of people, coaxing forth drones and clicks. I remember not knowing if and when to clap. I remember “legends” doing nothing but spinning records and dropping anecdotes that seemed to anticipate LCD Soundsystem’s “Losing My Edge,” as well as calling back to Gregory Corso (“I did those then, but that was then, that was then”). I remember sitting onstage – literally on the stage – with a handful of other bewildered kids during a Fugazi show, and Ian McKaye having to lean near me in order to pick up his guitar from its stand. “Uh, hi,” he said. What the fuck were we doing on that stage? I remember Superchunk in Frankenstein make-up on Halloween in Montreal. I remember an impromptu show by a band stranded in town by a busted van. I remember sweating buckets – even the walls were sweating! – while the Planet Smashers played a small room, and thinking that I’d discovered, in ska, a new direction. I remember being wrong about that.
I remember Archie Shepp in the heat. It had to be 40 degrees outside, even as night fell on Montreal. And inside the hall, the air was bottled, still, thick as fabric. I rolled up my pantlegs and opened some buttons on my shirt. No relief. But then I remember not caring. Archie Shepp and Roswell Rudd blowing sweet and furious. I sweated. I hollered. I stamped my feet, arched my back, clapped my hands. Andrew Cyrille’s drumbeat smacked against me, provided the only movement of air. My clothes clung to my skin. It was glorious. I remember that heat so vividly.
I remember interrupting Kahil El’Zabar during a conversation at the bar between sets. I said, “Thank you for bringing this music here.” “It’s my pleasure to do it, brother,” he said, not a bit perturbed that I had been so rude only a moment before.
I remember standing next to a friend while he had a similar conversation with Alan Silva. This was in Montreal again, on the way back from a show by the Hives. We had both been profoundly underwhelmed by that show and the people we found there. “That felt like the final nail in a coffin,” my friend said. “Problem is I don’t know what coffin.” So we headed home, or so we thought. Headed up the Main and, on a whim, and still disillusioned, we pulled over to see what was happening at Casa del Popolo. Who was playing but Sunny Murray, with Silva on bass. We peeked in the window, and the guy at the door said, “Set’s almost over – go ahead in.” Charged us nothing. We stood there for maybe half of one piece before they wrapped up the set, but what we saw and heard lasted a full ten minutes. And then my friend approached Silva, who was taking his rest near the bar, and said, “Thanks. You played on records that changed my life.”
I remember, too, accosting Joe Pernice one evening while I was on my way back from the washroom. He was humble enough, after I introduced myself and he put his water bottle beneath his arm and took his cigarette from his teeth, to say “My name’s Joe. Good to meet you.”
Such gracious people, these musicians!
So I remember it all, or most of it. The shitty little shows. The big ones that felt beforehand like they might prove momentous, life-altering, only to turn out to be something rather less. The surprises, the festivals, shows in tents, in churches, in basements, high school auditoriums. Taking in three shows in one night and driving home, arriving by the light of dawn. Being so broke I could only afford the cover charge and so drinking water all night. Stuffing my ears with wadded toilet paper when I forgot earplugs. Fred Anderson with a bottle of Jack Daniels smuggled in my pocket. Pulp, at the height of BritPop, attended by the strange feeling of being in the presence of celebrity, which ran counter to what I had learned to feel about punk bands. Hothouse Flowers in the pouring rain singing “Don’t Go.” Furnaceface. The Skatterbrains at a shitty club in Gatineau on Canada Day. Shotmaker. Kids on acid, drunk kids, hyper kids. Shouted conversations at merch tables, winding up with the wrong sized t-shirt as a result.
So yes, these things have largely passed me by now, or I them. Jazz/improv concerts likely pepper my future, and if the Pernice Brothers happen to be nearby, I’ll be there. But as an exercise, as a regular part of my life, live music belongs to those extended adolescent years, the passage of which I can no longer deny. And nor do I wish to. As a culture we're behaving like teenagers well into our 20s. There's really very little to differentiate one from the other now. Both are marked by fecklessness and restlessness and dissatisfaction. Well, my dissatisfaction’s still there; it’s just aimed at different targets. And the nervous uncertainty has morphed, in that I know what I want, I just don’t always know how to achieve it, or why anybody else would care to deny me my small rewards, nor those of anybody else on this planet. My life isn’t a project or a question mark the way it once was, it’s a life, attended by all the usual compromises and sacrifices and impossible decisions. What I don’t require is a musical culture to identify me. I don’t have to search for a tribe. I am me, and music is something I love. Period.
There’s an enormous freedom in that. It’s a personal choice; evidence of life hewn closer to my own truth. It is a glorious and wideopen and supremely democratic thing to feel as though you are approaching a state of knowing yourself, and that you are capable, in your mounting years, of tuning out the hivemind and connecting with something in a very real way.