This review is a truncated version of the one that will appear in my book Spirit Desire. The pre-show and post-show sections have been edited for space and palatability therein. The show review is as it will appear in the book.
A person can be homeless despite having four walls to call their own (or four walls they can pay someone else for the right to pretend they are their own). Patrick and I, individually and as a crime-fighting duo, have many a home. Our respective pads in Maryland, paramount of course; Seattle, which never fails to entice Patrick despite its very real status as the most sprawling gray anything on the North American continent; San Francisco, the city I fell in love with either because of or in nose-biting spite of the hilly streets I walked over and over for six hours; Baltimore, which is so much more than what was shown on The Wire, but is all of that without question; Washington D.C., the richly textured American capital, where the haves and have-nots co-exist in desperation; and New York City.
Our trip on a weeekend in early October to see Erase Errata, Talk Normal, Edie Sedgwick and this art-scat duo that were so unforgivably self-aware and uselessly indefatigable in their quest to confront the disengaged crowd that I have forced their name from my brain. (They’re just gonna have to find another four walls.) It was EE’s first NY gig in five years (and four years since we saw them in Baltimore) so our attendance was a given.
The show, save naturally for those unnamed twats above, was sweet as the empty sugar factory across the street from the venue no doubt once was in its halcyon days. But as I mentioned earlier, we made a weekend of it, and something about that combo of music, visual art (a ceaselessly fascinating trip to MOMA, and a fruitful venture to the not-gone-yet St. Marks Bookshop) and the satiation of culinary rapacity (Japanese street food at Otafuku; Sri Pri Phai in Queens, the best Thai food to yet touch my tongue) ignited our shared tinderbox. We’d been to NY many times before, done so much fun shit, but this trip, of all the trips, this one tripped the wire?
Well, yeah. It was just an unspoken understanding (that didn’t stay so for very long, ’cause we are some fuckin‘ silence-killers) that we would have to up the frequency of our visits. We became determined to detect any excuse to return, then jump on it, wrestle it ground-down, and tag it with a big ol‘ blue and red sticker that said “J & P.”
Wild Flag’s forthcoming tour in support of their imminent debut album seemed the optimum opportunity to sidle off and on subway cars and cast shadows on sidewalks wider than Santa ass. Of course we were going to see ’em in DC, I mean that’s one of our shared homes of the heart after all, but why not in NY too, goddamnit? As it turned out, the most exciting not-precisely-new racket-gang of the past five years were touching down twice–the Bell House in Brooklyn, and then the Bowery Ballroom in Manhattan. Well, the latterly, more alliterative gig was not a go–fell on a Wednesday and we both got jobs. The Bell House gig was ideal, falling as it did on a Saturday. Small snag, though–it was already sold out.
Paul Lynde’s ball sac! Yet, we remained hopeful, or at least I did. Trick is oftentimes crazed inscrutable. It got worse when we discovered–independent of each other, mind–that the opener at the Bell House gig would be Lee Ranaldo. By turns a member of Sonic Youth, a writer, a string sculptor, and a bike enthusiast, whose long-awaited “singer-songwriter” solo rec is slated to be released in early 2012.
Charles Nelson Reilly’s taint! I brought to Trick’s attention two things: first, my agitated attitude, and StubHub, where a couple tix to the gig were going for double face value. To me, it was a no-brainer. The J & P Show goes to shows like this, or what’s the point of us? My nagging and whining was operating on peak championship levels, but Patrick deflected my pleas.
Le sigh, Charlie Brown.
The next day, he casually announced he had purchased the tickets.
Whenever feasible, make your time in NYC stretch. Stuff the fresh space created by elongation with wish fulfillment. Do your research, but never lose the element of surprise.
Surprise, however, can bring things to a halt as much as propel them forward.
9:30 Friday night, Olney. (Patrick’s home-away-from-heart.) The house was all ours, what with Trick’s mother attending some pseudo-bacchanalian soiree, and his pops wisely ensconced at the family’s beach house in Delaware. Patrick whupped up a couple soothingly cool drinks–Cosmo for he, SoCo Lime for me–and then settled in to fiddle with his new toy, an iPhone 4S, which he had received at his door earlier that morning, as he was virtually just out the door for work. AT&T’s 3G was presenting some problems, namely that it wasn’t registering on the damn thing. He was a sight to behold, butt riding the edge of so-soft lazy chair, brow furrowed, light of the MacBook screen completely whiting out his eyes behind his glasses. I was semi-sprawled on the couch nearby, red velvet cupcake in hand, eyes glued to a rerun of that weeks Parks and Rec via OnDemand.
Without a word or even sound of warning, Patrick paused the show. I was a bit taken aback at the sudden cessation of the only actually funny sitcom on network TV, but that was baby emotion compared to what I would soon have to process.
Patrick was now gaping at the computer, his features softer now.
“What? What, man?” Somebody died.
Minutes within seconds.
Patrick’s eyes became visible to me again as he leaned back a bit in the chair. Always gorgeous whatever the mood of the man who boasts them, they had widened just enough that I could tell this was some news beyond a new-fangled tech gadget, or a particularly assholish display by cops in the midst of peaceable people, this was the kind of news that was going to hit our chests with a thud and leave a ringing in our ears that maybe only a good nights sleep would shoo away.
“This is from Spin.com.” Man, do you have any idea how many times either of us has not spoken that sentence? Already everything is all off. He read the following aloud, in a voice that sounded like it didn’t believe a syllable of what it was actually saying.
“Musicians Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore, married in 1984, are announcing they have separated. Sonic Youth, with both Kim and Thurston involved, will proceed with its South American tour dates in November. Plans beyond that tour are uncertain. The couple has requested respect for their personal privacy and does not wish to issue further comment.”
“The fuck?” Eloquence is my true middle name. I just use three of the letters to make it easier.
Not terribly long after that initial volley of shock, my phone went nutty from Twitter and FB. I checked messages and notifications as my Sonic brethren registered their reactions, and repeated, “‘Plans beyond that tour are uncertain.’ Oh I don’t like that at all. Christ, Trick. I think hearing news that someone died of smallpox would be less of a shock.”
And that still remains to me the most devastating sentence of the whole statement. For Kim and Thurston’s family and friends, the dissolution of their marriage actually hits home. For the people who know them, this is a haymaker. I’m grateful for what their relationship made possible, and I find them both interesting creatively, but I don’t know them. I don’t care how many records I have, interviews I’ve read, videos I’ve watched, shows I’ve attended, I do not know who they are. At all. I know what they have shown me, what they have shown all of us, but that’s still a kaleidoscope perspective itself.
The very real possibility of no more Sonic Youth? No more albums, no more tours? What the hell am I gonna do for my summer vacations now? I’m two concerts shy of 60, damnit! I know Sonic Youth. Yeah, that’s a kaleido-view too, but they’re an artistic collective, that’s how it’s supposed to come across to our eyes. 21 years now they’ve been the biggest positive influence in my life that I don’t also refer to as “Mom.” Where would I be if I hadn’t found them and decided they were worth keeping around? As a woman, as a writer, as a daughter, as a friend, as a partner…it does my head in to consider it otherwise.
The Internet is absolutely nothing if not a dumping ground for jejune spew, and there’s more Tumblr posts, tweets, forum ramblings on no longer believing in love than I can handle. More than a couple people are saying–without caveat–that this news is affecting them even more than the separation of their own parents. The people who made them possible versus the people who made “Sleepin‘ Around.”
My parents never divorced (it took death to part them after 49 and 1/2 years, imagine that) but even if they had…I can’t imagine the end of a semi-famous couples marriage would mean more to me. These folks saying such things don’t seem especially stupid, as I check out their other web feats, so I can only conclude they are in fact insane.
Of course…the news is fresh. First reactions are often over the top. But some of these folks are scaling the planet in a single half-witted bound.
Confusion is certainly next. And next after that is…conclusion?
Some of my friends online take this news harder than others. I empathize. My buddy Mike puts the video for “The Empty Page” on his Facebook, and dedicates it to me, and we both know why.
So the Bell House, as it turns out, is in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn. We begin a walk that will take us over several thousand avenues before Patrick realizes he has misread the address and notice immediately the WANTED posters with sketches of at least six attempted rapists plastered on a few storefront windows. Then we notice the children. Then the pharmacy advertising the surplus of herpes medication. Annie and I quickly conclude that Park Slope is run by children (and thus undesirable to either of us as a place of future residence) and Brooklyn is unquestionably the rapiest borough in all New York.
When we pass by a stoop and spot a young towheaded boy teetering on his feet in front of his mother, li’l dark blue GAP sweater on, quiet oh so quiet, we all three decide to nominate him for mayor.
“Why is there a stickball game happening in the street right now?” I ask with a desperation I’m kinda surprised to realize isn’t a put on. “Is this 1940s Hells Kitchen or some shit?” Turns out the street was blocked off for some mild construction work. All the better to let your children run wild and free, ’cause as they say in Park Slope….
The Bell House holds 350 folks standing, which is a nice crowd to be part of. Not terribly small, not at all large, and as a bonus the stage is like a half-octagon. Tempting as the sides looked, we made our way up front, side Mary B. T. Trick and Annie grabbed a trio of Stella cans while I protected our spots, and Patrick beat me to the “Slayer back cover” reference upon their return.
I had voiced earlier in the day that our pal George would no doubt find us at some point in the venue, just like he had at the much larger Williamsburg Waterfront when the Flag played with SY. When he did, I was just a couple sips into my beer, and felt kinda guilty that I had to give him a cold-can handshake. The yak was SY-heavy, of course. I was personally surprised that George wasn’t on side Carrie, as he has a confessed crush on the rather rambunctious Ms. Brownstein. But, that meant he’d be with us, and I’m all for friends not letting friends attend shows alone.
Doors were 8, but Mr. Lee didn’t set foot on stage till round about 9:30. The pre-gig music did its best (B-52s, Gang Starr, and some non-obvious Beatles–“It’s All Too Much.” Which even reminded me of SY, with that “Catholic Block”-esque intro) but damn. Not as bad as the solid two-hour wait for Devo at the 9:30 Club (I wanted to amputate my goddamn feet) but I was struggling to nurse my Stella and frankly, I was about to bust from the anticipation. Lee’s solo shit! The drama, real and imagined! How many peeps would want to be one of the few hundred packed sick in that space that night? I knew quite a few personally.
Before hearing note one, I could tell that Lee’s new solo shit was going to be superior to the most recent offering of his much taller bandmate. Demolished Thoughts is not a bad album, but you can’t see review after review liken a record to a classic (in this case, Beck’s Sea Change, the comparison abetted by the presence of Mr. Hansen behind the boards) and then have it be just good. Also, I’m lately thinking of “Benediction,” and its recurring hook of “I know better to let her go,” and shit is massively depressing.
The repeated threats of a “singer-songwriter” offering from SY’s resident Dylanophile led a few in the fandom to expect a laid-back Lee, gentle acoustic and sweet croon, serrated poetry and wide swaths of branding colors. As the guest list on the album became public knowledge, however, expectations changed. Bob Bert, Nels Cline, Steve Shelley, Alan Licht, John Medeski. Not the stuff of “Gentlemen of the Echo Canyon.”
My own personal hope as a listener was more or less made manifest by Lee’s set that night. With help from a band of Licht on guitar, Irwin Menken on (sometimes 8-string) bass, and SS Beat Sgt. himself playing Janet Weiss’ drumkit (save for a tom and cymbal that he switched out at set’s end), Lee presented an eight-song set that sounded pleasingly similar to his tracks on latterly Sonic Youth albums–verse chorus verse, strong searing melodies, thoughtful lyrics presented with a warm delivery, and generous delay pedal, baby.
Patrick shot vid of two songs, “Angles” and “Xtina,” on his phone. (If he’d known somehow in advance that “Off the Wall” was going to be the most enthralling of the whole set, he’d-a got that one too. Oh well, next gig.)
Surely we weren’t the only attendees wondering how if it all Lee would broach the shocking news of the previous day. He got it out of the way before strumming chord one, doing the standard stage chatter of greeting and preemptive warning before musing that it was “a strange night to be starting a new project.” Some tittering in the audience. He then introduced “Angles” as “kind of a love song. This goes out to a couple of dear friends of mine who are going through some shit right now.” He said this all with barely a change in vocal intonation, reminding me–again–how useless the speculative essays of imperfect strangers are in response to news of this nature. I felt for the guy right then. Steve, as well.
Lee has that knack, though, if his songs are anything to go by. He’s won a fair legion of devotees with a bracing approach to his art, that plain-spoken even whilst plain/plane-traversing style that has stood in such stark contrast to Kim and Thurston’s approaches since way back “In the Kingdom #19.” If you count yourself among that crowd, I can tell you that you will love this shit he has forthcoming. Straight on. Patrick and I agreed, not one hitch on the setlist, every tune a winner.
The highlight, as previously stated, was “Off the Wall,” which fucking rocked picture frames, clocks, shelves, posters and plasma screens. Best origin story goes to “Shouts,” which was inspired by the photo of a couple making out in the riotous Vancouver streets, post-2011 Stanley Cup Finals. (Patrick and I vow to engage in some really intense hugging right outside Verizon Center when the Capitals finally win the Cup, just FYI.)
When Lee introduced his stage mates, Steve naturally got the most enthusiastic reaction. Almost lost in the applause was Lee’s remark: “Still playing together.”
Lee and band were a good lubricant for the crowd, who were ready to fly the Flag, or have the Flag flown, or what the hell ever. This would be our third time, and Annie’s true first, as she arrived late to the Williamsburg gig and that was an opening slot anyway, and those kinda don’t count. (To me, anyway, and even then not always.)
I was a bit surprised they kicked off the set with “Black Tiles,” which ends their debut, and not “Romance,” but I shouldn’t have been. It has that rug-ripper riff and the mystical influence of so much Mary Timony work. “Romance” was right on its heels, however, a great song about great songs. Wild Flag are definitely less political than Sleater-Kinney, which is not an “X” in their column at all, ’cause not all ballads should be about ladymen, nor should all songs about ladymen be ballads, necessarily.
High-energy, occasionally high-wire (an incorrigible pedal of Carrie’s threatened to derail “Future Crimes,” but thankfully Janet Weiss refused to relinquish the reins), if my big goofy ass is in the front row fuckin’ rockin’ then I’m not sure what anyone can use as an excuse. Strong female presence no shit, but salutes aren’t gender exclusive. The good stuff never is.
The good stuff doesn’t have to clash to matter, but with Wild Flag the admixture makes them a fixture in my heart, mind and gut. Carrie’s raw, base musings on the power of music, Mary’s whimsy in spell-casting and virtuosity in dragon slaying, Janet’s redoubtable power, and Rebecca’s keyb waves, which come together with the more angular riffs to create a definite B-52-ish effect on a song or two. Annie opined that Ms. Cole is the “Tito” of the group, which if you’re going by star power alone she is, but that’s still not too fair. Oh Annie.
“Boom” remains my favorite, on record and in crowd, an electrifying chromatic rebirth, and I swear I heard Janet add some “ooh” on the chorus (couldn’t glimpse her sufficiently, sadly.)
“Something Came Over Me” is a grower. Mary’s verses are pre-sunset but the chorus is new sunrise…huzzah? Dusk or dawn, damnit pick one! You picked both! And we love you for it.
“We’re gonna let the good times/Let the good times toll.” And wow are they.
Two new songs in the set: Mary’s “Nothing,” a constant jog of a song and Carrie’s “Winter Pair,” a staccato burst that sounded like nothing else they’ve put to record thus far (there was something very Devolved about the workmanlike structure and even tone of the guitars). Nothing rocked like “Racehorse,” though, which treated doors jammed shut like they should be treated. Dollars, pounds, Euros, lira…Wild Flag are a solid bet regardless the currency exchanged. Serves much the same purpose “Let’s Call It Love” did for last-tour S-K–an excuse to stretch out (sometimes, literally) and celebrate the moments.
Two covers finished the night, one of which I did not recognize (and later found out was “She,” by the Misfits) and one of which damn near blew us away: Television’s “See No Evil.” (I distinctly remember the wide-eyed “Oh fuck are you kidding me?” look passing between Annie and myself as that classic li’l riff filled the air.) Mary on vox! She’s my Richard Lloyd. Can you really fault Carrie for being up in her Kool-Aid half the show? Mary B. Timony, and the B doesn’t stand for bacon but it should, ’cause she sizzles.
Sweaty and sated, we stood back and let the crowd disperse. Trick noticed Lee hanging out in the space near the steps leading up to the right side of the stage, just in front of the doors permitting backstage entrance, chatting it up with some folk he knew. Figuring that I fall into that category, I let Patrick talk me into sauntering over and waiting my turn to hold court with dude. I knew somewhere deep down Patrick wanted badly to atone for his first and only time speaking with Lee, Cincinnati 2003, where dude was so shaky-legs he accidentally called Jim “Lee.” To Lee’s face. (Man, if you don’t have No Setlist by now…there’s only three copies left. Just sayin’.)
With Annie and George hanging back, we waited, J & P Show in the wings.
Man, I hope he remembers me to see me. I know he remembers my name, I got one of those names you remember, last name anyway, but he might not know me to look at me. I have lost some weight. My hair’s a little longer. Oh man, I don’t wanna pull a Patrick….
In an absolutely unnecessary face-saving move, I meekly asked Lee if he recognized me. I don’t know why I’m so ruthlessly self-deprecating, y’all, just am. And sure as sugar boots, he did. He momentarily threw Trick off asking him if he had a handle on the board (we both initially misunderstood it to mean if he had some hand in site maintenance) until Patrick recovered in time to introduce himself as AKA “Pantophobia.”
The three of us had a nice talk. Really couldn’t praise the new stuff enough…found out the record will be out Feb./March next year, he will be touring, and his band will hopefully feature an organist, as John Medeski’s key work features on the album throughout. So there’s a whole other element to look forward to! Talked about that news, talked about WF. Didn’t get to touch on if O’Rourke is on the album anywhere, or the Brooklyn show in August, or his personal recommendation for where to get pizza in the city, but fuggit. Next time?