As the TV on the Radio show let out last night, and the First Avenue crowd spilled onto the corner of Seventh and First, a short fat dude with a beard held up a sticker of the Grateful Dead’s “Steal Your Face” skull, the red white and blue one with the electric bolt. He held it forth as if it were a holy relic, and bellowed at the crowd like a mentally ill “The End is Nigh!” evangelical. “When Barack Obama wins, the time will come for the Grateful Dead!” He rushed down Seventh Street pointing to the plastic decal. “The Grateful Dead! One of the greatest groups of artists and musicians the world has ever known! Barack Obama will be President and the world will be ready for the return of the Grateful Dead!”
As I rode my bike away from the scene, I thought, “Seriously? Did that really happen?”
Have you ever missed something that you’ve actually attended? You were there, you saw what was going on, but it was so foreign to your frame of reference that you mentally bailed out on it as it was happening? Sometimes it’s due to circumstance—the person you brought with you is a bummer or just a distraction, or maybe you’re in a bad mood yourself, preoccupied with office drama or an outstanding bill or a recent row with your girlfriend or something--and you just can’t get into what’s happening right in front of you.
But maybe you just weren’t prepared, whether it was a movie or a concert. Maybe even a book or an article in which you didn’t invest your mind completely. Maybe you even finished it, only to half-realize as you’re doing it that you’re sleepwalking through this, and your ultimate retention percentage will be virtually zero. That’s the worst part: you know you’re blowing it as you’re blowing it. You actually know that it’s great while you’re reading or looking or listening, that you really should be spending more time in front of this self-portrait of Frida Kahlo, or you should be concentrating more deeply on these pages of Flaubert, but you just didn’t show up with the goods. Some art—arguably all great art—demands an investment prior to the experience. And when you experience it, there are times when you realize that you should have gone on wikipedia to look up that war a couple chapters back, or you should have listened to that record another couple times in the last month since you’ve had it. These are frustrating, impartial epiphanies.
So basically, I missed TV on the Radio last night. They opened with “Young Liars,” and I heard a great song. I wasn’t sure I felt a great song, but I definitely heard a great song. With the lead singer Tunde Adebimpe out there switching over between crooning like some sort of avant-garde jazz musician and growling like a rock star.
Well it's cold and it's quiet
and cobblestone cold in here
fucking for fear of not wanting
to fear again
lonely is all we are
Clearly this was something to which more attention should have been paid: these black hipsters from Brooklyn, with chunky eyeglasses and fantastic facial hair. Adebimpe held the microphone in his right hand and whipped his left forearm and elbow around like a blade. The lead guitarist, Kyp Malone was shorter and rounder, with a huge bushy beard (he actually does look like a black Jerry Garcia, which makes me wonder even more about that crazy town crier) and he sang both lead and harmony with a killer falsetto. And they had this white girl shimmy-shimmy-shaking in a spangled black dress that I’ve only since determined was Katrina Ford.
See, I was not an early adopter on this one. I own TVOR’s Return to Cookie Mountain and I listened to the new one they’re touring, Dear Science, on their Myspace, but I hadn’t spent much time with either. My ignorance was not shared. By the end of the set, Adebimpe had taken off his flannel and this sort of maroon blouse he had underneath it was soaked through. The crowd—pretty sure it was a sell-out--was delighted with the performance: clapping along, shouting out the lyrics, even dancing in spurts, or at least bobbing. The band came out for their encore and closed with their hit, “Staring at the Sun,” which I’ve heard before: sort of a more aggressively angular, Williamsburgh’ed-out Genesis song that has definitely made it onto a couple movie soundtracks or car commercials by this point.
The other two songs in the encore were great too, but I’m not really sure why just yet. I think Adebimpe was singing about how his life’s an open book on one and about how nobody really knows some girl’s name in the other one—both of them had strange percussion, and there was a lot of scatting and yelping en masse.
Throughout the whole set, both the music and Adepbimpe’s lyrics seemed opaque. You could tell he was doing something a little more indirect and poetic, like a Michael Stipe or a Win Butler--you could tell that there was something dramatic in these words--but I wasn’t able to decipher them. And you could tell the band was doing something interesting too, with weird atmospherics and jarring sections of drum and bass. And then to hear everybody else singing and clapping along—it was discouraging. When confronted with what this situation, on the brink of something the sociologist Anselm Stauss called a new "social world," unless you're in a completely dismissive place, it's impossible not to feel left out, and ashamed to realize that with a little effort, it didn't have to be this way.
See, that’s the thing about something new and weird—it can go either way, whether it’s Barack Obama or the Grateful Dead or any unexplored social world framework. I remember I took my buddy Dan to the comic book store once. I was looking for an Ed Brubaker Captain America comic. Up until that point, I’d never read Brubaker, but I read one of his Captain America’s and I realized here is something that I wanted to commit to--I wanted to read everything Ed Brubaker had ever written, especially every Captain America he’d ever written. So I was asking about this comic book up at Comic Book College and I was trying to explain to the comic book store owner what issue it was—“House of M storyline; one shot, maybe?”—and why it wasn’t included in any of the paperback compilations, and Dan looked at me and said, “Dude, you sound like a Scientologist.”
So obviously, Dan is intimidated by the world of Captain America comic books. Look, I get it. You're not going to want to explore everything. I’m fairly certain my father is never going to dive into the Barack Obama phenomenon. Myself, I’m probably never going to get into the Grateful Dead (FYI, all you Deadheads, I’ve really tried. Really. I just can’t do it. I’m sorry). But there are some things that seem initially impenetrable, but that also start to speak to you—maybe only in tongues at first, but they start to speak to you. And you figure out that you have to invest in order to ultimately understand them.
Last night, I found one of those things. And after the show, I went home, and I listened to that first song, “Young Liars,” about nine times in a row. At this point, I’ve determined that it’s about the people you spend time with between serious commitments, whether romantic or intellectual or whatever. On the track, Adebimpe sounds so over it, singing about these people; very Julian Casablancas over it and kind of Julian Casablancas disappointed with the whole situation (unsurprising maybe: “Young Liars” is from TVOR's first EP in 2003, right in the heart of the era that saw the Strokes as kings of hipster New York). But Adebimpe sounds more upset with himself—and also maybe more upset with everybody else--that he and they are so over it. It’s an interesting point of view, and a powerful kind of indirect melody, and I realize I need to spend more time listening to it.
Unfortunately with these things, time elapses and sometimes you have to wait a while until you get another chance--if you ever do. Thankfully, TV on the Radio plays for a second time tonight, at an early show at First Ave.
I’m listening now.