Taking a trip on SS Coachella has caused my thoughts to turn, once again, to the different manner in which bands age. Not as individuals, since of course we all age as people, but how they mature, grow and evolve over the decades. I’ve been seeing live music for over 20 years now, and it’s given me the privilege of seeing bands play several shows over their entire careers. There are some bands I’ve seen 15, 20 times now, every year or two for two decades or more: Low, Greg Dulli, Spiritualized, and Mark Kozelek come to mind. Others it’s been less frequent, but over an equally long period of time: The Jesus and Mary Chain, The Verve, New Order.
You’d think I would have thought about bands aging through the years during Pulp, the band Ive been seeing the longest live through the years. But in truth I barely thought about it with them. They’re older as people, they are slightly more likely to play a hit. They don’t have a new album to promote. But their musical style and technique is notable, really, only for the fact that it hasn’t evolved. One wouldn’t go so far as to say they are note-for-note perfectionists, trying to replicate the album. And indeed, one could safely say that their manner of band-aging is probably the most common: keep on doing what you have always done. Try and look the same, try and play the same. Maybe grow a beard, as Jarvis has. Duran Duran is another in this vein. Simon LeBon and Jarvis have aged, and their fashion has evolved slightly, keeping time with the outside trends of the world while nodding to the fashion of their youth. But as bands, they play as they always did, they function as they always have. Of course, with Pulp, their longevity may play a part. I first saw Pulp some 15 years ago, but at that point they had already been a band for over a decade (America, and indeed most of the UK, forgets the many albums Pulp released before their breakout His N Hers).
But no, it wasn’t Pulp that made me think f this topic on this ocean-faring journey of Rock. Rather it was a newer band, or at least new by my old-man-of-the-sea standards (aside: leave it to me to find the one cruise ship on which I feel old). The Band was Yeasayer. And in truth it was the Juxtaposition of seeing Yeasayer right after the newer-ish Father John Misty. And perhaps we should start there. Father John, is it a person or a band? We are in the PJ Harvey period of his/their career, where music aficionados start to take note of the rather great album and start paying attention, hoping to see the band-person live. And so I found myself, last night, in the Sky lounge, deck 14, SS Coachella.
(It should be noted, too, that this overgrown party yacht is devoid of internet, or at least internet of a reasonable price. And while I consider myself rather more than well off, the old Alaskan in me finds it unconscionable to pay such exorbitant rates for a digital connection. Or, rather, I find it unconscionable to pay such rates for trivia-satisfying internet connections. Perhaps if I had some pressing work. But as I am on vacation, I have none, and going four days without the internet is part of the charm. The point of this digression is to say that in my normal life, in the 21st century, I would be able to quickly look up and answer definitively, within seconds, whether Father John Misty is a man or a band or both. A man a plan a canal panama. Except we are in Jamaica’s shadow. It’s weird to write without the internet anymore. Recently a novelist I rather like, who I cannot remember right now and, again, cannot look up, said that Wikipedia was the novelist’s best friend. Worth millions in research dollars and thousands of hours. How right he (Nicholson Baker? Franzen? No, I do not especially love Franzen. But that is a confession for another time) was.)
So Father John (let us toss aside the stubborn unknown number of Father Johns and work in the singular) comes on stage with his band, all-pro, sound checking and ridiculously handsome. Right here, before Father John begins his set, there are a few things that strike me.
First, Father John is not alone. We have alluded to this, of course, but its significance has not yet been made clear in the context of this essay supposedly about aging bands. For this is a big deal. Father John Misty. I was “hipped to”* Father John by my friend Kenji, earlier this year. He was raving about the album. It was not out yet. He gave me an illicit copy. I loved it. It sat in this realm between early Devendra Banhart and Fleet Foxes. It was enigmatic and well crafted and one of those albums that come from some new talent that you cannot believe hasn’t been around before. I had this feeling the first time I saw Connor Oberst play solo acoustic, at the ripe old age of 20. I was in awe. Say what you want about Bright Eyes and the level of bombast they occasionally reached, but that first live moment was transcendent. Connor turned out to actually be one of those amazing new talents that came out of nowhere, so that makes the moment even more special in my mind. Father John, if I recall correctly some of my mid-spring research, (remember, again, internetless, and we have pretty much completely outsourced our memory to the internet by now, haven’t we?) had actually done some stuff before. If I recall correctly Father John is more in the vein of Francis and the Lights and that band my friend Rob loved. G Love and Special Sauce? No, that’s Rosey’s ex. Gary Glitter? No, that’s the pedophile. Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeroes. Imagine my disappointment when I learned they were some of the dudes from Imarobot. Weird.
But ere last spring, Father John, to me, was still of immense interest and mystery. Was he a new Devendra or Conner Oberst? Or was he a Fleet Foxes or Grand Archives? I began to suspect the latter as my email box pinged me of Sub Pop’s promotional efforts on his behalf, but I wanted the mystery to remain. I probably could have looked him on on that handy internet I miss so much at this moment, but I never did. Rather I went to SXSW and hoped to spot him in the wild. He did a few shows there, but as it is with South By, I never got a chance to see him. So last night, on this boat, was my first chance.
I should pause here for a moment and talk about Devendra Banhart and Iron and Wine, specifically, but the trend of those two more generally, including, perhaps, the likes of Cat Power, Conner Oberst and the grandfather of this trend, Leonard Cohen. What is is within the immensely talented artist who makes some of the most beautiful, haunting, wonderful music with little more than vocal chords, wood and wire that compels them, upon commercial success, to hire something like 15 musicians to accompany them on stage? I have never understood this. The first time I saw Devendra, opening for my sister’s band in a church in Allston, Massachusetts at the close of the last century, he was an artistic force to behold. All charisma and court jester and Charles Manson and the Beatles rolled into one. The last time I saw him, in the desert sun of Indio in a tent at Coachella, he was a ramshackle farce of Robin Hood’s merry pranksters scarcely differentiated in any major way from every other drum circle in the campgrounds beyond the fence. So, too, with Bright Eyes, whereas the last time I saw them Connor had apparently decided to enlist the aid of 10 of his friends and every cute girl from that midwestern town where Saddle Creek resides (Norman? Lawrence? Curse you internetless ship). I’ve often wondered what lies within these talented artists that make them need to cover up their amazing artistic talent with a bunch of gawdawful noise. And this isn’t me being old or austere - I’m a sucker for symphonic rock and large bands. When a person I meet out in the real world what kind of music I like, and I need to answer quickly without using musical touchstones they do not know, I usually say “oh, you know, 13 member Scottish noise bands playing symphonies in feedback.” Alas, such a band does not exist to my knowledge, but it gets the point across. I love A Silver Mt. Zion and Arcade Fire. It is not the largeness of these songwriter’s new bands that irks me. It is the newly accompanying loss of direction. Maybe it works for A Silver Mt Zion and Arcade Fire because they’e Canadian. Maybe that’s why Leonard Cohen is still okay even when he has is unneeded 10 piece band. Ha ha. That was a joke. More seriously, I believe it’s a different artistic muscle, making a great, simple, pure folk song and making an alt rock symphony. This is probably the secret truth that keeps Win Butler up at night, knowing it will hinder his dream of being the next Springsteen.
In any case, when Father John got up on stage with this group of dashing men, this was going through my head. I quickly counted them. There were only 4 others. This was an encouraging sign. Suddenly I found my brain immediately flip flopping. Earlier, I had hoped that Father John would be the next incarnation of Devendra of Connor, an enigmatic, haunting soloist whose purpose in life was to fulfill the destiny of Jackson Frank and convert our raving, Max Martin-and-hip-hop-mad world back to its artistic inner roots. This is, of course, a perilous journey, and few succeed. But Dylan and Springsteen are getting on in years and while they are doing what they can to keep at it until they drop, the need for fresh reinforcements is getting dire. Lately, I’ve found, most fall by the wayside in the Devendra/Oberst model, rather than the flat out madness of the Jackson Frank model.** Seeing all those band members on stage made me worry that Father John didn’t have the fortitude, and the best we could hope for is that he was a new, better Fleet Foxes. I found myself suddenly fervently hoping for this lesser but still rather positive outcome.
The second thing I noticed about Father John, even before the band started, was that he was insanely, ridiculously handsome. Just stupidly so. And in a very specific way. Long 70’s rock hair and beard, and that same loose-fitting pale blue/periwinkle button down shirt they all wear, with the sleeves halfway rolled up and two buttons unbuttoned. You know the one. As my fiancée commented out loud, “he’s hot,” she also mentioned Stillwater, the band from Almost Famous.
And that was it. “If you put the dude from Stillwater, this guy, the dude from Yeasayer and that hot guy in Miike Snow all in a row, you wouldn’t be able to tell them apart. They all are even wearing the same shirt.” I said to her, fascinated.
Before we move on in our essay from Father John, I will say that they were pretty damn good, his banter wasn’t quite reaching the level of the masters such as Jarvis Cocker, Tom Waits and the guy from the Dirty Three, but he is obviously a man of thought and intelligence. There is hope for Father John yet. Don’t give up the ship, Father John, Springsteen’s mantle awaits those brave enough to stay the course.
So here we come to our first point, for Father John did, actually, look exactly like the picture of the lead singer of Yeasayer in my mind’s eye from the first time I saw them, at La Zone Rosa, March of some past year, I’m gonna say 2007 or so. Nonternet. It was uncanny. And yet, and yet.
And yet, as Father John finished we all shuffled down 10 decks from Deck 14 to Deck 4 to the Silhouette Theater, a two-story ornate theater in the front prow of this floating pleasure palace to see Yeasayer. I’ve seen Yeasayer four or five times across the six or seven years they’ve been a band. Made a point to see them at least once per album, etc. They are a band I like to keep tabs on. I’m not sure, exactly, why. As we waited for the show to start Emma and I were having a rather entertaining discussion about the merits of bridges in songs and our preference for or against them, and the verse-chorus-bridge structure. We brought the conversation around to Yeasayer specifically and I said that was one of the things I liked about them: they messed with traditional verse-chorus-bridge structures but stayed near them. That they sort of dabbled in that art of combining two songs into one in an interesting way that keeps you intrigued and when it works it’s wonderful (The Beatles in their later years were great at this but I’ve always found the best example to be Haunted When the Minutes Drag by Love and Rockets).
And then Yeasayer walked on stage and imagine my surprise when their lead singer had short hair! He had the alt frat do! I was already in shock after seeing !!! earlier in the day and realizing they had all cut their hair, but now! Yeasayer too? For indeed, nearly everyone in the band had cut their hair (except the drummer. Bless you. I’ve always loved your hair). WTF!
The show progressed. The theater was full. This boat is generally filled mainly with two broad groups (though ample exceptions abound): the rock-industry-as-lifers, all tattoos, smoking, and hangovers as badges of honor to get through with Mimosas and porkpie hats, and the modern alt frat boy, Jack Johnson and Ween lover who would do a bit of a hippie ranking-roger-drunken-rock-with-yeah-dude-fist-in-the-air dance even to a Tori Amos show if it had a beat (and indeed, that actually happened, later in the evening, albeit with all-female dance shoegazers Warpaint). The latter of these two crowds seem to like Yeasayer because they do have a beat, albeit a complex one that makes it a little hard to dance to when drunk, but they are, I have no doubt, pretty awesome when they’re stoned.
Yeasayer seem like a smart band. I can only imagine what the toll of touring to people like that must be for them. And look, no I don’t have a problem with having a good time or getting drunk or stoned or rocking out. I’m more projecting here onto the band. Because this is their job. This is their work. They have to do it, every day, and they have to look like their having fun. And you know what? I like to drink and have a good time like the rest of them but I have no doubt that if I were sitting at my desk trying to do some work and some shirtless drunk guy with a fake snake tooth necklace made from hemp and plastic came over and was like “hey dood do you smoke?” I’d get irked. And is this, I wondered, why the lead singer of Yeasayer cut his hair? To put a subconscious boundary between him and his fan base?
No, it didn’t seem right. Perhaps it was more something about being on the forefront of some zeitgeist. Because Yeasayer are, really, pretty monstrously talented and unique and really do a good job at capturing the cultural moment. Thinking about this combined with the earlier realization about !!! cutting their hair and the fact that just an hour before I commented that Miike Snow’s lead singer (another solo/band mystery but I’m fairly confident I got this one even with nonternet) and Father John looked just like him. Perhaps the lead singer of Yeasayer (robbed of a first name by nonternet), realized this too and was like ‘fuck this shit, I am having my beard, cutting off all my hair and hanging up my pale blue/periwinkle button-down shirt with two buttons unbuttoned and the sleeves half rolled up. Yes, it will mean that i look even more like my fan base, with whom I have a love-hate relationship, but that will be okay. I will just never purchase or wear a snake tooth necklace made of hemp and plastic. At least not while performing live.”
And it was here I thought of a third alternative. And I have already alluded to it: that of Ween.
For this we need to go back to 1992. Boston. I think. I can’t remember exactly. Nonternet. It was in college. I was living with a guy named Mark. He wasn’t a stoner, but he had a stoner’s sense of humor and a mild sympathy towards them. More relevantly to the immediate story (the stoner comment was mere foreshadowing), he was from a town near New Hope, PA. There was a new band from there that he really liked. They were called Ween. He dragged me to see them at the Middle East. Upstairs. I don’t even think there was a downstairs yet. Ween were performing for an album called God Ween Satan: The Oneness. They were hilarious. Brilliant. Musical prodigies effortlessly playing in any style that struck their fancy. Brilliant banter (oh, they were among the banter greats in those days). One hell of an entertaining show. We bought the album from the band, and not much later found an amazing video tape of videos from the label Shimmy Disc, their record label. On the tape featured two or three “videos” of Ween, which were basically home movies of them getting stoned in Jamaica with their producer/label owner, Kramer. They were, are, hilarious. I should dig them up. I recently had them digitized. Mental note. Not long after, The Pod came out, we saw them a few more times. Many more. Maybe 5 or 6 times total in that period, including a show of note near their home town in that famous club in that town near them that I can’t remember anymore. Not Maxwell’s. Though we saw them there too. It had a balcony. They filmed the video for the first single from their new, upcoming album there. Mark and I are briefly in the video.
The album was called Chocolate and Cheese, and the song was called “Push the Little Daisies.” It was an inexplicable hit. Ween became huge. The band you least thought would be huge, did. Now, in hindsight, it totally makes sense. This SS Coachella crowd (I am writing this as I survey their daily 18 hour long pool party, a surprising number of the girls in bikinis have bruises on their legs here in day four) must have existed even then, and they would love Ween now, and they would have loved them then.
I kept going to see Ween for a while after that, saw maybe 20 shows or so in the early days. I particularly loved the country album and shows. Those were great. Way more fun then back when they played just the two of them with a DAT (god, those guys would have LOVED having an iPOD in those days - they were always rewinding, changing DATs to find the song the audience had just requested).
But eventually, I stopped going to their shows. No reason, really. I still liked them. Nothing to do with them getting big. In honesty, it was probably because Mark, and my other Ween-fan friends, Hugh and Mike, had all moved away and I had no one to go with.
Until about 2004 or so when my girlfriend at the time turned out to be a Ween fan (it did not figure in our initial courtship, I assure you). Quebec was coming out, and she wanted to go see them. So we did. At Avalon. Or House of Blues. Or whatever it was called then. Nonternet. I’m gonna go with Avalon.
The scene was totally different. The Dead had broken up (yegads, I date myself) and Phish were on haitus, apparently. I don’t really know much about that scene (though yes, I have seen the Dead, Phish and even Max Creek), but I was basically informed of this fact by a Ween fan out back when I was smoking (a cigarette). But I get ahead of myself. Band first.
Gene Ween had always been a pudgy guy. Built a little like me. Big belly, sorta fun seeming, jolly, not exactly the kind of guy you thought was hot, but you liked him, because he was talented and funny. Now, here in 2004, as they went into the song I liked best on Quebec, Alcan, I took stock of him. He had easily lost 50 pounds, perhaps more. His hair was shaved. He looked like a totally different guy. The difference was staggering. Dean Ween looked the same, but Gene? No idea what had happened.
My conversations out back should have been a hint. I got to talking to a kid who asked me how many times I’d seen Ween. “Twenty or thirty” I said, kind of confused why he asked.
“Woah. That’s crazy. Did you see ‘em last week in Jersey?”
“Oh god no. No I don’t think I’ve seen them in like five years.”
“Wait. what? You’ve seen Ween 20 times but not recently? When did you first see them?”
“God Ween Satan? I dunno. I used to go all the time. I haven’t been in a while.”
If you’re a Ween fan, this exchange probably looks like bragging, and I do confess that as I age, I do occasionally throw out bands I’ve seen to look cool, but i assure you, this was not was not my intention during this conversation. Indeed, the conversation had me generally perplexed. Why was this a big deal?
I eventually learned from this kid (he was 21) that Ween’s entire scene had changed. The kid used to follow Phish, and when they took a hiatus some friends of his suggested they started following Ween around. Lots of people did. He started pointing out people in the smoking area out back, saying “that guy and that guy. They used to go to Phish shows.” etc. He had some term for Phish followers. I don’t remember it. If you know, you know.
I looked around. It suddenly all made sense. Ween’s entire fan base had changed. And Ween had correspondingly changed.
It was only a couple weeks after that that I read in the paper (ha. It was almost certainly, in that year, NME.com) that Gene Ween had been admitted to rehab for drug abuse. It was all so obvious, in hindsight.
Bands change with time. Their fan base changes them. Some change very little, some change a lot. Bands that stuck together, that evolve and tour forever change more than bands that reunite, having taken long breaks, though reunions bring their own evolutions. I recently saw Dead Can Dance after a long hiatus and the inner tensions, politics, etc., from the past were still oozing out. The crowd loved Lisa Gerrard, enigmatic, haunting, still beautiful, still with the voice of angels. Brendan Perry still seemed like it drove him crazy, still wished that the audiences’ adoration fell on him principally. Perhaps I am projecting. And in fairness Perry is a highly talented and charismatic artist, he just suffers from standing next to a superhuman being.
Broken Social Scene have gotten hairier, looser, Kevin Drew’s banter has reached a high art.
New Order have become much more technically proficient, but are beginning to be weighed down by their history, something that seems antithetical to Bernard Sumner’s whole artistic being.
Bands have different relationships with their past work. U2 and the Stones and the like, of course, have no shame, play the old hits without any angst, do occasionally make new records, but seem comfortable in the fact that no one buys them, that they are just talismans against which they tour. The setlists reflect that.
Other bands revel in their history. It should be no surprise that The Wedding Present are comfortable with their past, since David Gedge’s lyrics drip with nostalgia as it is. Bauhaus put on a bunch of clothes and play their old parts to pitch perfect perfection, the dissonance only reveals itself when you go see any of them solo.
With the Pixies, Frank Black seems to have settled into a Dick Dale like life of constant alums, touring, and a small but dedicated fan base and seems to have made his peace with the fact that Kim is more popular, even though he rightfully finds it paradoxical given how much of the Pixies‘ sound is owed to each of them in different measure. Kim, herself, has been fascinating to watch through the years, from the first time I saw her, towards the end of the Pixies, clearly unhappy, to the early Breeders years where she was so ridiculously happy and bouncy and freed of all the burdens in her life. You could walk up to her and give her a hug in those days (I did not, no, I am not like that, but friends did), to the most recent Breeder’s reunion, where the banter was hilarious but there was definitely an element of paying the bills. The personal troubles she and Kelly have been through show on their faces. She is the queen mother of the lifer-rocker contingent on this boat. The retinue of merch girls, sound technicians, tour managers, label owners and session musicians. The life I so desperately wanted for so long and so luckily fell out of through circumstances beyond my ken, to which I owe my life today, and my blissful dearth of tattoos.
So, what, then, of Dylan? You may have gone and seen him on the never-ending tour. I did. The first time was not long after Time out of Mind. My friend David, a musician himself, loved that record, and got me into it. For I had given up on new Dylan records. He was right, though, it was good, and so we went to see him, at the Paradise. At was completely confusing for me, took me years to really grasp it. He didn’t play the hits, and when he did, you barely recognized them. It rambled. His lyrics were, it would be fair to say, incomprehensible. Yet I was completely intrigued, and now, I think, I get it, after years of thinking about it, reading about it, going to see it once or twice more. His whole life is an art, he’s taking live music to places it’s never been. Not like space rock or experimental “places it’s never been” but rather through the endless, nonstop reworking and reinterpretation of his songs. It’s been said that his band knows thousands of songs, and can immediately launch into any of them with the most subtle sign from Dylan himself that this is where they’re going.
Who will pick this up? What will happen when he stops? Recently I read about David Bowie’s stopping. I don’t think the world has really cottoned to this fact yet: that Bowie may never tour again. He may never play again. We’ve thought this about people before, and they’ve come back (My Bloody Valentine, Jeff Mangum), but this seems at once more plausible and more devastating. I managed to see Bowie once, and it was great, but now all I can think of is all the times I stupidly skipped him. This is bad enough. How will we react when we realize we can never see Dylan again? I’m still hurting over the end of Johnny Cash: my first show, for the record, and I saw him again, 20 years later, Parkinson’s in full effect with Rick Ross handling most of the guitar duties himself.
Actually, the more I think about it, the boomers are in for some tough reckoning soon as most of their live idols, already playing out for far longer than anyone ever imagined, start to hang up their guitars.
A strange thing, live rock and time. You can be moved by a live show. You can spend your life chasing after being moved in the same way by the same band again. In rare, beautiful moments, the feeling can be fleetingly recaptured. Yet at the same time, out of the blue, the feeling can be felt by some new band. And then the circle begins anew. You can dedicate your life to it, as the tattooed lot does, huddled by the ashtray, bloody mary in hand at 11 AM. Or not. Either way, it can wrap you up, and give you a new friend for life, even if they do cut their hair when you least expect it, or forever refuse to grow up, even as you do. Sometimes both.
* Insert a whole nother aside about the ironic use of aged vernacular phrases like “hipped to” and the consternation it causes as you age and worry people won’t realize you’re being ironic. For good measure, throw in a third aside on splitting the word “another” and how it really ought to be allowed.
* 2 Perhaps I should not be so harsh. Perhaps the 2010’s are their off-period, much like that bad Neil Young dance single, Born in the USA and the Travelling WIlburys. The People’s Key, actually, is a pretty damn fine album.