A couple of weeks ago I hung out with a very old, very dear friend. We hadn’t seen each other in quite some time, and I was looking forward to catching up. We have one of those friendships—you know the type—we can go years without seeing each other or talking or really communicating at all, but when we finally do see each other we pick up right where we left off and it’s as if no time at all has passed.
That’s usually how it is anyway, but not so much this last time. Or the two times before that. It ends up that in the past few years, my dear friend’s life has become more problematic than I could ever believe, and he’s become somewhat of an alcoholic. This has put somewhat of a damper on our friendship, a damper that I hope is only temporary. The whole encounter left me feeling somewhat depressed, but also inspired me to want to write. I began penning a blog post entitled “On the Tragedy of the Human Condition.” Shortly after I began, I got sucked away on a deal for work that involved working 10+ hours 12 days in a row—it made me kind of nostalgic for Tokyo (for those of you lovely people who read my Tokyo blog post before I had to take it down). Then the shooting in Connecticut occurred. My deal signed and I got the weekend off, and continued with my blog post on tragedy, haunted by a highly unwelcome source of new inspiration.
Then, on Sunday night, I decided to take a night off from depressing thoughts to go to a Barryington Levy concert in Oakland. I normally don’t go out on a school night, and I knew it was going to be a late affair (doors opened at 10, Barrington came on at 1…I had to take the late-night bus home because BART was done), but it was damn worth it. At 48 years old, the man still knows how to put on a show. If you can’t remember who Barrington Levy is, I present you with his biggest hit:
Admittedly, he didn’t do so well with that track live, but he completely killed it on every other song so it was worth it. I hadn’t been to a really great concert in a while, and this performance reminded me why there is sometimes no substitute for a kick-ass live music performance. I got home at around 3:30 Monday morning and was on the Muni to work by 9, and as I rode, I was thinking about how in a world full of violent political unrest, mental illness-fueled murder, poverty, alcoholism, and unthinkable tragedy at seemingly every turn, sometimes it’s most important for us to focus on what brings us unbridled happiness. There’s enough shit in this world; you don’t need to read about it on my blog (at least not this week).
As I rode, I thought more about how happy the Barrington Levy show had made me, and reminisced about other live performances that have put a grin on my face that lasted a few days after the music ended. I think I’d like to tell you about these shows—maybe they’ll make you smile a bit too. There’s plenty of tragedy all over the ‘net these days, and the world is ending on Friday for all we know [UPDATE: I was late on this post. As you know, the world didn’t end]. Let’s spend a moment thinking about the things we love, shall we? To this conversation, I will contribute memoirs on the TOP 10 LIVE SHOWS I’VE ATTENDED IN MY LIFE:
10. Byron Bay Blues and Roots Festival, (Byron Bay, Australia, 2003). I liked to think I was laid-back growing up in California, but 2 harsh winters in New York my freshman and sophomore year of college made me into a bitter, cynical asshole, completely incapable of smiling. I realized that I couldn’t handle a third winter in a row, so “Spring” semester (let’s face it, it’s Winter, not Spring) of my junior year I “studied” abroad in Sydney, Australia. I began to get my smile back, but it wasn’t until we took a road trip up to Byron Bay for Spring Break that I entered a state of happiness that I hadn’t felt since leaving California. Ben Harper and Jack Johnson were headlining, but I was more interested in Ozomatli, Violent Femmes, Shane McGowan, G-Love, and a bunch of local, slightly hippie-ish Aussie acts. I was with a few close friends, and after trying to camp out on the beach and getting soaked in the pouring rain, we met some kind folks who were renting a house let us stay with them, precipitating a weekend of amazing cooking, kick-ass music, and complete and utter debauchery. From that weekend on (I think the festival was 3 or 4 days), I started smiling, and didn’t stop smiling again until I started law school 5 years later. That sure as hell killed my smile good. The music of Byron Bay wasn’t too memorable (except Ozomatli—they are really fucking dope live), but the good times will forever remain in my heart.
9. Joe Strummer Tribute Night in Toyama (Toyama City, Japan, 2006). On the fourth anniversary of Joe Strummer’s death, I found myself in Toyama, the small rural area of Japan where I had taught English for 2 years. In the summer of 2006 I moved from Toyama to Kanagawa—a large step up (I was now striking distance from Tokyo). However, come Christmas time, I missed my old little Japanese shtettle, and I went back for a week to visit my friends. One friend from my jiu-jitsu dojo was very into music, and he invited me to go to a Joe Strummer tribute night being held in a studio on the fourth floor of some random building (in Japan, the best shit is always on the fourth floor of some random building). We ate some tripe ramen and then went to the show. Arriving just as the first band was playing “Safe European Home”, I noticed that everybody was sitting around on stools, so I sat down, bummed a cigarette from my friend (because everyone was smoking), and took it all in. There were 6 bands in total, 3 from Toyama and 3 from nearby Ishikawa, all playing all Clash (except for one band that also played some Mescalaros). Nearly all of the bands were decked out in full-on Clash-era rockabilly gear (duck’s asses and all), and a few of the bands had a bit of choreography going on. It wasn’t really a concert, in that the only people in the studio were the band members and their girlfriends, but all in all it was a great time, and thinking back on it, it reminds me one of the things I love the most about Japan—the beauty of a group of people devoted to a random subculture with the perfect amount of enthusiasm and passion to make it all click together. BONUS: One of the bands was called “Crash City Fuckers.”
8. They Might Be Giants (San Francisco, 1992). This was my first concert ever, and there’s nothing quite like your first time (except, in this case, the seven concerts that appear below this one, but that is neither here nor there). TMBG entered the mainstream in 1990 when they dropped Flood, and my sister became a huge fan, which, at that time, meant that I also became a huge fan. By the time Apollo 18 came out in 1992, I had memorized and analyzed every word of every TMBG song to date (and that includes the songs on Miscellaneous T, the oft-neglected remix album). I went with my buddy, and his dad helped us navigate the Tenderloin to the Great American Music Hall (I saw my first concert and my first trans hooker in the same night!). The Young Fresh Fellows opened up (yes…as in “She doesn’t have to have her Young Fresh Fellows tape back”…they’re a real band), and somebody in the audience stole the lead guitar player’s mike. The crowd was very friendly, and helped my friend and I push to the front in time for the Johns to take to the stage. I don’t remember the entire set list, but they definitely busted out “Birdhouse in Your Soul”, “The Guitar”, “Mammal”, and a fun version of “Lie Still Little Bottle” where John banged a beam of wood against a cafeteria tray in place of the snapping. I outgrew TMBG shortly after I started high school, and that was fine—the beauty of TMBG is that while many music acts target teen angst, TMBG was really trying to hit on the angst of the 10-15 crowd, and I thank them for helping me get through those rough years, at least until I replaced them with the Kurts Cobain and Vonnegut.
7. O Rappa (Salvador, 2007). In 2007, in between two teaching stints in a small university in Kanagawa, I took the pension refund I got from two years of teaching on JET and went to Brazil for nearly two months. I explored Sao Paolo, hung out on the beaches of Floripa, hit up Rio for Carnival, took a riverboat on the Amazon, and eventually made my way down to Salvador, where I met up with a friend who had lived in Brazil a couple of years earlier. He had clued me into O Rappa before, and they quickly became my favorite Brazilian band (and I love Brazilian music, so that’s saying a lot). My first night in Salvador, they just happened to be playing, and my friend just happened to score us tickets. We walked to the arena, a journey that included an attempted mugging from a group of very scary 8 year-olds high on airplane glue, and eventually found our way in and to our seats, which were pretty far up front. They played all of their best hits, and the show just all-around rocked. Since you may not know the band, here’s one of my favorite O Rappa songs:
6. DJ Kyoko/Hifana (Tokyo, 2011). Many years ago, I flew into Israel and rescued a frightened Japanese woman who spoke no English or Hebrew and was getting the third degree from security at Ben Gurion Airport. It ends up that she’s a fairly well-known Tokyo DJ, and we became friends. Years later, when I returned to Japan for some lawyering, she invited me to one of her shows, where she happened to be opening up for Hifana. If you’ve never heard of Hifana, then you need to remedy this ASAP. Of all of the Japanese extreme electronic Hip-Hop DJs (and there’s a big scene for that over there, as you can well imagine), they are the kings. I always appreciate it when a band that sounds great in the studio is able to add a new dimension to their music live, and Hifana more than delivered in that department. Check it out:
Fucking rad, right?
5. Lollapallooza 3 (Mountain View, 1993). Some of y’all may be too young to remember this, but before Lollapallooza was strictly a Chi-town thing, the whole shebang toured around the country, and always made a stop at Shoreline Amphitheatre. I went with 2 buddies in the summer between 6th and 7th grade. The line-up that year was amazing: Rage Against the Machine (before their first album came out…and they sucked! Zach read from the Communist Manifesto for 20 minutes), Front 242, Babes in Toyland, Arrested Development (possibly the best act of the day), Fishbone (complete with Angelo nudity), Dinosaur Jr., Alice in Chains, and Primus. Remember when Primus was the dopest band ever? Did they ever have any popularity outside of the Bay Area? And did they ever have a single female fan? That Les Claypool was one odd dude. I walked around barefoot all day, and severely burned the bottoms of my feet when I walked on the asphalt to the T-shirt stand. Still, one helluva show for a 12 year-old to witness.
4. George Clinton and the P-Funk All-Stars (New York City, 2004). I’ve seen George and Co. a few times over the years, but the most memorable time was my senior year of college, when I went with a buddy who, like me, was a die hard funk fan. Senior year of college was such an amazing time in my life—going out and getting wasted with my friends at least 5 nights a week, taking interesting-but-pointless classes (“History of Horror Films” was a favorite), and in general, trying to squeeze in as much enjoyment as possible before entering the “real world” (which, incidentally, I wouldn’t enter for another 6 years after college). The George show just kind of played into all of that carefree enjoyment. The show was at B.B. King’s, which, despite being in Times Square, is a great venue—very intimate and fun. George put on one insane show, and Eddie Hazel, the Nose, and that Indian chick who sings in that incredible high voice were all there on stage, along with probably 20 others (sadly, no Bootsy). They played both Parliament and Funkadelic tracks, tearing the shit out of both. I absolutely should have been around in the 70s, but since I wasn’t, this show was the next best thing.
3. Pharcyde (Los Angeles, 2009). “Imani Booty Brown Fatlip and Slim Kid Trey, we do it this way, we do it this way.” My sister put “Passin’ Me By” on a mixtape (as in, an actual cassette tape with a mix on it) she made for me in middle school. I listened to it over and over again (I was a master of the rewind button), and eventually got the entire Bizarre Ride album. My two best friends and I used to listen to it on repeat, until we memorized every word of every song. For years after that, we’d get drunk and just sing the entire album, from start to finish—I think I probably still can do that. Flash forward 15 years. I’m chilling in my Hollywood apartment, studying some IP law, when a friend notifies me that Pharcyde is playing at the Key Club that night. He can’t go, and I can’t find anybody else to join me, so I just go by myself. It’s the first time in years that the original band is back together, and they stuck mainly to Bizarre Ride and Labcabin (because let’s face it, all of their other albums kinda sucked). The audience was almost entirely dudes my age who had been obsessed with Bizarre Ride back in middle school, and you’d better believe we were all singing along with every song. I guess the band members were all in their late 30s (or early 40s?!), but they were still as energetic as ever. Remember, they got their start as dancers on In Living Color, so they have no problem bouncing around. The whole thing was surreal and incredible—well worth the 15-year wait.
2. Pixies (Los Angeles, 2009). The Pixies came to town about a month after the Pharcyde. Talk about being worth the wait! I first really got into the Pixies after they were already broken up, in the early ‘90s. The Pixies got me through high school…and college…and most of life after that. They’re just so fucking profoundly raw and awesome. I’m not sure how else to describe them. Anyway, my senior year of college they got back together and played Coachella, and a bunch of my friends who had never heard of the Pixies before Fight Club went, and it pissed the hell out of me. I missed the Pixies consistently for the next 5 years, until I finally got to see them in their Doolittle Tour. That was when they just went on stage and played Doolittle from front to back, with B-sides before and after, and at my show, an encore set with most of the songs from Come On Pilgrim. During “Into the White”, I happen to peer over at a girl standing next to me who was texting her friend. She wrote, “Pixies is rocking my world. I feel like I’ve been fucked hard and left out to dry.” That pretty much summed it up.
1. Phish (Mountain View, September 30, 1995). I put the date in there because some hardcore Phishheads may know that show—it was the opener of the famous 1995 chess game, and is generally recognized as one heckuva show. Let’s get the record straight here: I no longer listen to Phish. While I acknowledge that they are talented musicians, I’m no longer into the “jam band” sound, and lyrically they are utterly pathetic. To think I used to get really excited about songs about nipular paper cuts and mudrat detectors (ribbon reflectors, penile erectors, etc.) makes me smirk now and want to punch 14 year-old me in the face, but from the summer before 8th grade (when I was introduced to the band at Jew camp) through my junior year of high school, I was legitimately obsessed with the band. I’d collect tapes of their shows (which is what Phishheads do), and bought Phish books, was down with the “secret language”, received Doniac Schvice regularly…you get the idea (and if you don’t, that’s probably for the better). At the time of this show, Phish was unequivocally my favorite band, and seeing them live was literally a life-changing experience. I’m not just saying that–I consider September 30, 1995, to be a turning point in my life—the night I decided to be a free spirit. Everything interesting I have done in my life—my travels, my writing, my philosophical meanderings, my appreciation for art, my obscure tastes in everything, my beliefs in the liberal cause—all of this can be traced back to that Phish show. Was I sober at the time? Uh, no. But that’s largely irrelevant. Kind of. Although I only listen to Phish now on rare occasion, mainly for comedic or nostalgic purposes, I will never forget the impact the band had on my life, that one night in Mountain View. And if I ever want to re-live that magical experience, the magic of the internet (and unabashed copyright infringement) allows me to do so:
So there you have it. One of my New Year’s Resolutions is to go to at least one live show every month (the fact that I didn’t do that last year is pathetic). If you’re around in the Bay Area, please drag me out!