I have mixed feelings about live music versus studio albums. Some live shows I’ve seen were memorable, but I could probably count those on one hand. There was my favorite show EVER, which was at the Bitter End in NYC in 1995 to see Jeffrey Gaines with my friend Sue (who, not coincidentally, factors into many of my top music experiences, including a recent Squeeze acoustic show, where we kept getting whiffs of marijuana but couldn’t figure out where it was coming from because there didn’t seem to be any actual telltale SMOKE, and Nick Cave outdoors on a gorgeous summer evening in Prospect Park). At the Bitter End, we had great seats, up near the stage. I was about 8 months pregnant and, during his finale, a cover of Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes”, I openly wept, whether from the perfection of his voice and guitar, or the crowd gently singing the backing vocals, or raging hormones, but probably a combination of all of the above.
The last Bowie show I saw, a few summers ago at Nikon Theater at Jones Beach, was also an unforgettable one. This amphitheater is in a completely unique location, on the shore of Zach’s Bay (“Field 5”, for all you Long Islanders), with the broad expanse of Jones Beach and the Atlantic Ocean in the background, going on seemingly forever. There used to be an actual MOAT separating the stage and the audience, although in recent photos I’ve seen, it now appears to be covered over. I remember when I was very young my family went to see a production of “The Sound of Music” there, and they would actually bring in actors and props on little barges via the moat. On this particular summer’s day, it started out sunny and hot but just before Bowie took the stage, the gray clouds started moving in on the wide ocean horizon like churning waves, flecked by lightning strikes in the distance. Then, inevitably, came the rain. Bowie, ever the showman, was willing to continue, but for safety reasons the show was shut down two-thirds of the way through.
I’m pretty sure I remember seeing the Talking Heads and Graham Parker and Blondie (among others) at this airplane-hangar sized venue in Hartford when I was at Trinity College from 1977 through 1981, and Sue and I also saw “young” Squeeze at the Malibu nightclub here in Long Beach back in the early ‘80s. We were at the Squeeze show so early that we actually chatted with Glenn Tillbrook, his mop of strawberry blonde hair hanging out the window of a car being driven around the empty parking lot hours before the doors opened for the show. But aside from the historical significance of seeing early incarnations of now-classic artists (including my awe at seeing Tina Weymouth, pioneering chick bass player, kicking major rhythm section ass, especially on “Psycho Killer”), I don’t actually remember the concerts themselves.
We witnessed a ton of musical performances in the East Village circa 1990, because I was a bartender in a club, Downtown Beirut II on East Houston Street, that featured live music and was good friends with the guy who booked the gigs, Gene Perone. Gene was the drummer in a band called Bad Tuna Experience that also featured our favorite green-haired bartender Caroline on lead vocals. [An aside: Gene was/is also a “personality” and comedian known as Buddy Flip, who I understand still tours and performs [http://www.buddyflip.com]. I did not know about his alter-ego when I, with my 3-year old daughter and future ex-husband, moved back to my mother’s house in Seaford, NY, from North Carolina in 1998. One night I was watching TV and on came a commercial for a fun place to take the family out in Suffolk County, on Long Island, called White Post Farms. It was an actual working farm, where you could pet and feed baby animals and go on hay rides, especially around Halloween. The spokeperson on the commercial had a certain catchy patter, like, “Hey, kids, it’s your old pal Buddy Flip!”, and was wearing a cowboy hat and overalls, talking about all the fun you could have at White Post Farms. I sensed something familiar about his voice, so I took a good look at the guy and shouted aloud, “THAT’S GENE!” So of course I grabbed the closest 3-year-old and went to White Post Farms and there he was, standing on a stage getting ready to lead kids on a pumpkin hunt or some such activity. We had a friendly little reunion, quickly realizing that we were already nearly ten years removed from our East Village heyday. I’m glad to see he’s still doing his comedy thing. I always found him to be a very entertaining and talented guy.]
CBGBs was experiencing the beginning of the end in those years, but as it was right around the corner from my basement apartment on East 1st Street, we went often and saw a wide range of musical acts, including my ex’s ragtag band, the Diabolix (not a particularly gifted bunch but I still think it was a pretty damn good band name) and my personal favorite band of the day, the Press, featuring Andre Schlesinger as the semi-dictatorial, semi-genius singer-songwriter. Like Gene/Buddy, Andre is still following his muse as headman of ManinBlack [http://maninblack.org], producing typically dark and sardonic but also really clever and witty music. I must say, though, one of my great disappointments is that we missed the prime creative years in the East Village. During the time we lived there, the East Village and the Lower East Side were undergoing a gentrifying transition, and unfortunately there were no more Patti Smiths or David Johansens or even Ramones being discovered; out of all the bands we used to see during that time, no one ever made it big. The music “scene” by then was shifting to the Pacific Northwest, where Nirvana and Pearl Jam and Alice in Chains and their grungy ilk would dominate the musical airwaves for the next decade. We were, unfortunately, all gone by the time bands like the Strokes and Interpol and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs made their appearances in the same LES vicinity later in the 1990s.
The East Village years could (and probably will) comprise an entire separate blog post, but my musical experiences there played a key role in my love/hate relationship with live music. I was often able to get extremely up close and personal with the performers in those days in those hole-in-the-wall clubs, so now I’m ruined for huge crowds in large venues. I just don’t see the appeal. Of course tickets are obscenely expensive so my seats are usually not very good, and I’m short so there are always too many heads blocking my view. The sound systems are also hit-or-miss: They can be pristine (like at the Nick Cave show in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park that I heard but did not see thanks to the aforementioned heads) but more often than not they’re too loud and fuzzy and muddy. (One time, back when I was in college, I went to a Ramones show and actually squeezed myself INTO the speaker, absorbing the sound – and Johnny Ramones’ sweat – like a sponge, after which I couldn’t hear for three days.)
Live concerts can certainly create a unique aural and visual atmosphere but, with very few exceptions, I rarely (if ever) listen to live albums. I prefer a studio version of a song every time. Although I can appreciate that there are emotional moments and vocal and instrumental nuances that create one-of-a-kind experiences at live shows, by definition, once that moment has been captured on video or audio, doesn’t it no longer qualify as one-of-a-kind?
But I’m such a music lover that there is nothing that gives me a thrill like being up close to musicians, hearing them sing without the use of the microphone and watching every pluck of the strings and bang on the drums (I confess, I’ve always had a thing for drummers). So that is why I really enjoyed a performance last weekend of Four Way Street, a new CSNY cover band featuring a high school classmate of mine, Chris Cangeleri. Chris also plays in a Bruce Springsteen cover band called Badlands, but I prefer CSNY to Springsteen so I saw Four Way Street first. I may go to see Badlands next weekend, if I can manage to convince someone to come with me this time. On this particular evening, I went to the Four-Way Street show alone, which didn’t bother me when the band was playing and I was actually able to stake out a prime viewing spot for myself. But I felt a little awkward just standing around on my own when the band took a break after their first set, so I left early and missed their second set, during which I am sure they played my favorite song of theirs, “Wasted on the Way”. But as evidenced in the photo below (I’m the little face in the glasses near the pillar to the left of the stage), a good, live musical performance can bring me great joy, even when I think no one is watching.