Saturday, July 22, 2017

Of Robyn Hitchcock, John Fogerty, and the Age of the Selfie

Richard Butler of the Psychedelic Furs, by the great bev davies, not to be reused without permission. Note: I make almost no mention of the Psychedelic Furs below, but there are some vintage bev davies photos of the band in Vancouver here!

Sometimes, I don't enjoy a concert for reasons that make no sense to the people I tell about it (and which have very little to do with the artist in question). I don't always write about these experiences, because there's always a strong feeling of "maybe it's just me," and it seems like bad form to put the blame on any artist associated with the show.

Take John Fogerty at Deer Lake Park some ten years ago (almost exactly, in fact). I brought my uncle, who had come to town to visit his brother, my father, who was slowly dying of cancer. An ex (one I am on good terms with and was glad to see) was there with her new man. Esteemed colleague Adrian Mack was there. Hell, a whole park full of people were there, all of them apparently having a great time - certainly everyone I talked to did. And I cannot really fault Fogerty at all for my not being one of them: he smiled and played a long and energetic set (including unexpected tunes like "Ramble Tamble," the inclusion of which I recall impressed Mack a bunch). He looked great (are those his real teeth?), and said "how y'all doin'" to us a few times (which the Reverend Horton Heat - AKA Jim Heath - had once coached Vancouver audiences into responding to with a big "fuck you," since - he explained - it's one of the laziest ways to get applause you can resort to; Jim actually DRILLED us in this response one night at the Commodore some time ago, rather to my delight, so much so that I considered whipping it out myself that day at Deer Lake. I was pretty sure doing so would get me in trouble, though). Fogerty maybe didn't seem to be that SINCERE in his engagement with the event - for all I knew he was growling inside himself the whole time, because we gather he's a somewhat growly guy, about wanting to get off the stage or how applause is bullshit or blah blah; he could have been hating the whole experience, for all I knew. But if he was, he didn't let it show: he worked hard as hell and played his hits and some surprises and did it all well, and if he was maybe faking it a little - he did seem to be - it wasn't glaringly obvious. So I couldn't really justify the bad taste it left in my mouth, or my grumpy mood when it was all over.

In the end, I decided it wasn't on Fogerty at all. It was the fault of the audience. Though it was, properly speaking, not "the age of the selfie," back in July 2007, there was already a sort of narcissism that wafted off the crowd that day: the event, for them, seemed to be not about the music, but about themselves, being there to experience it. That's my theory, anyhow: going to the show was about standing in the aura of stardom, and more than that, the aura of 1960's rockstardom, and celebrating their own beauty and significance, their own participation in the lineage of that music, their being dressed up and seen and sharing the experience with their peers looking good amongst them, which the music and the artist only existed to facilitate. I couldn't help but think to myself how DIFFERENT the context of reception was from that in which the music of CCR had initially functioned (I presume; maybe rock music always has a bit of narcissism in it, but it's hard not to view the 1960's as some time very other, more sincere, authentic, engaged).

That same sort of narcissism, ten years later, could do something to explain why, a couple of nights ago at the Commodore - and very much in the age of the selfie - several hundred people, perhaps the majority of the audience, talked ceaselessly through Robyn Hitchcock's set, creating a background din of considerable depth and thickness (though because it was a bigger and better-attended venue, it was nothing akin to the wince-fest of the Wreckless Eric show at the Astoria which I wrote about here last year, then removed from the blog at Eric's request). "Why pay money to go to a show if you're going to talk all the way through it?" my wife observed, afterwards - a thought I've often had myself - but the sad answer is that a lot of people, in fact, don't pay money to go to a show to hear the music, these days; they go to be there, to be seen there, to partake in the "significance" of the event, and to have some of it conferred upon them, they hope. It is all about celebrating yourself; it has absolutely nothing to do with hearing music, which is a secondary, inconsequential aspect of the evening. You don't need to pay attention to anything external to you at all in order to pose for a selfie, it is just you and the camera and the thousands of people you imagine looking at the photo afterwards and being impressed. 

I don't remember it being like that, at all, when I saw Mr. Hitchcock at the Town Pump back in the 1990's, with NO FUN opening. It was a more intimate venue - as indeed RH acknowledged between songs, suggesting the next time he comes to town it will be at a "place like the Town Pump." (It prompted me to shout "Jimi Hendrix," riffing on my favourite memory of one of his shows there, but if he heard me or recalled the moment, he didn't let it show; some wag that night had called exactly that out when Robyn asked if we had any requests, and after drily retorting on the extreme unlikelihood that Hendrix would manifest on stage, Hitchcock proceeded to play an impromptu version of "And the Wind Cries Mary," which he obviously only half-knew, such that the audience occasionally shouted out chords to him when he couldn't recall them - one of the funniest, most inspired, and most memorable bits of "interactive performance" I have ever witnessed). Thinking back to the other night - I guess the past is always subject to idealization - it seemed to me that people knew how to listen better then; that they wanted to listen, that in fact, THEY HAD COME (mostly) to listen. Maybe it was never thus, maybe narcissism and "I was there"-ism have always been present in the rock transaction, but it seems to me now that it wasn't like that so much then.

It sure was like that last night

Of course, Hitchcock, going on mostly solo around 9pm (with some vocal support from a "Garfunkel" named Sean, I think) was blameless. He played brilliantly; there were some unfortunate loud pops from his guitar plug in, but he soldiered through and in fact kind of blew me away with his guitarcraft, which is not something I'd ever paid much attention to before (I'm more interested in him as a songwriter than player, but I was quite impressed by his flying fingers and his raga-moments; he had seemed a bit creaky when playing the opening tune, "I Pray When I'm Drunk," the most Merle Haggard-y song on the new album, but he warmed up really fast). Hitchcock was perhaps less chatty than he is at one of his own shows - I gather he was quite warm and friendly at the Biltmore last year, a show I missed due to illness - and his set was relatively short, but he sang songs that he obviously has a great investment in (a few of which I did not know, but there were three or four off the new album, plus a lovely reading of "Madonna of the Wasps," and a surprise inclusion of "Balloon Man" - a song we gather he is tired of, but which made perfect sense as a crowd-pleaser for a crowd running on nostalgia, since it is one of his bigger hits, and which I didn't mind hearing at all, since I am not tired of it). For me the high point was that he played "My Wife and My Dead Wife," which my living wife (I don't have a dead wife) knows from having heard David M. perform it a few years ago at Slickity Jim's; it was an even bigger treat in that David M. was standing with us last night, watching the same show. I'd bought him a ticket to thank him for performing at our wedding. Of course, it was doubly fitting that I had first seen David play live (with NO FUN) opening for Robyn Hitchcock at that very Town Pump show I mentioned (I gather Pico was in the house last night, too, since her boyfriend apparently was).

No, there was nothing that Hitchcock did that bothered me. He maybe was working hard to please - he spent nearly as much time as he was onstage at the merch table signing CDs, afterwards including one for me (The Man Upstairs, with him doing covers of the Psychedelic Furs, Roxy Music, and the Doors among his originals; I'm really glad to have it!). He was quite generous with fans, posing with total strangers for selfies. It seems to be increasingly an expectation of artists that they do that, that they break down the barrier with fans and meet them; Michael Gira, Lee Ranaldo, Pere Ubu and a ton of other bands I've seen come through town have made a point of making themselves available. In fact, one of the few shows I've been at in years where the artist wasn't hanging out to sign things or such - who actually declined the request - was Richard Thompson, who somehow impressed me for going against the grain (even though I had brought a Shoot Out the Lights LP to ask him to sign it; go figure).

In any event: I didn't really enjoy the night, and on consideration, once again, I think it comes down to the audience. There was a standout, telltale moment when I knew I was in the wrong place, in fact. I had gone back to the front of the stage to try to seek out David M., having left him there to go get a CD. As I weaved my way to the front of the crowd - seeing no M. anywhere - the house speakers started in with Depeche Mode's "Personal Jesus." And the crowd cheered (cheered for CANNED MUSIC, more loudly than they'd cheered for Robyn Hitchcock) and some of them began to dance enthusiastically, gyrating to that bass riff...

...And suddenly I was back in Deer Lake Park, grumpy all over again. Surely some of the people dancing to Depeche Mode had been the same people who talked through Hitchcock's set. And suddenly I really, really, really didn't want to be among them. 

By the time the Psychedelic Furs took the stage, I was in no mood. It wasn't improved at all by them looking EXACTLY like I'd imagined they would look; but they sounded fine, and hey, now I can say I've seen them, too (for half a song). Again, no judgment is implied: I'm glad to have reevaluated the band - an underrated group with some fantastic popcraft, even in their hits (though check out that first album sometime if you haven't, it's quite a bit darker and edgier than songs like "Heaven" or "Love My Way," more of an undergound new wave kind of thing, and just fantastic). As they delivered "Dumb Waiters," I think it was, I gave up my attempts to get Mr. Hitchcock's attention. I'd wanted to tell him that David M was in the house, ask if he remembered NO FUN, but he was, it seemed, uncomfortable with the "I want to talk to you" vibe I was projecting, had made eye contact with me a couple of times and looked away. I wasn't going to press the matter and add to his stressors. Plus Erika and I were both sore and tired after a long day at work, and both of us having to get up at 7am. We left; it was fine. The evening was worth it insofar as I closed a circle that began when I saw NO FUN open for Robyn Hitchcock some 25 or 30 years ago, by bringing David to the show. It was further worth it for Erika getting to hear Robyn sing a song she knew from David. And it was worth it, I suppose, to confirm once again that I really don't enjoy rock concerts that much anymore, and need to choose the ones I go to carefully. 

It did help me in appreciating the new Robyn Hitchcock album, mind you. I have now progressed past the obvious and immediate favourites on the album - "I Want to Tell You What I Want" and "I Pray When I'm Drunk," both on the set last night - and now am fascinated by the suicide-themed "Virginia Woolf" and the more elusive "Sayonara, Judge," one of the more haunting and ethereal tunes on the disc. Seeing a few of these songs performed live also helped me understand a couple of lyrics I'd been mishearing - that he sings about competing to shoot blood "furthest" into "the mouths of our cannibal overlords" rather than "first," and that in fact it is "Mad Shelley's Letterbox," not "My Chinese Letterbox," as I'd been mishearing it. There are still songs that are wholly mysterious to me on the album, that haven't given up their riches yet, but I fully intend to keep listening to it until I love every minute of it equally.

Finally, an amusing note: having thought cynical thoughts the whole time I was at the merch table about people wanting to take photos with a total stranger, and having resisted the urge to take a single photograph myself of the night - let alone a video - it turns out that Erika, while I briefly interacted with Robyn Hitchcock, was snapping photos of her own, of the two of us, as he signed my CD. Here are my favourites:

What is funnier still is that on David M's Facebook page, photographer Dan Harbord also posted a photo of Robyn Hitchcock where, if you look to the right, it is unmistakeably me, standing next to David M. (whose head is identified as Erika's, but I believe she is either not visible or visible as a glimpse of cheek on the far side of me). I didn't ASK for a single photo of myself at this show! I was trying to feel SUPERIOR to the people who were asking for photos of themselves at this show, for fucksake! And now I have more photos of me at this show than I have of me at any other concert I've been to in years. I have so many photos of me at this show I feel like the Pointed Sticks should have been taking some, too.

Photo by Dan Harbord, hope he doesn't mind my using it!

Speaking of being seen, I didn't see the Pointed Sticks, but I did see Tim Chan, Danny Nowak, and Dave Bowes in the audience. Hi to all of them. Hope you enjoyed yourselves, and I'd be very curious to hear how the rest of the evening went, as I grumped off home, muttering about "audiences these days." The nice thing about seeing local shows - like David M's upcoming Lilith for Dudes dates! - is that the people who aren't there to hear the music are usually just drunks who didn't pay to to get in, who are fair game for heckling and sometimes bring their own unusual dynamic to the event. I'd much rather see a show amongs a bunch of drunk working guys who don't give a shit about the band than a bunch of self-important selfie-takers, actually (though I'll take a devoted and attentive audience over either, any time).

Note: David M. has TWO SHOWS coming up this week, one in Vancouver, with added drunks, and one in New West, with no one but his friends and collaborators! Come see them! I will be at at least one of them! And they're probably even FREE!

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