Monday, September 08, 2008

After the Goldrush Part II: Since Arcade Fire

Surgeon General’s Warning: The blog contains more self-indulgent introspection and/or Kevin Arnold-like inner musing than even the average National song. It is not recommended if you consider sappy a bonus four letter word and/or actually have real problems to worry about. But, hey, every once and a while I’m allowed to look at my life and in that "glass of chocolate milk is half-empty/half-full" kind of way, right? We’ll be back with some more jamband indie-rock outings later in the week…

If you are reading this on or after September 8th, that means it has been five years since I first stepped foot at Relix Magazine. That's right my good friends, casual onlookers and people who stumbled upon this page by mistake while googling Trey: it has been five years of obtuse Phish references, gratuitous post-jam remarks, and failed attempts to convince you that our magazine is pronounced Relix, not Re-lix.

If you are reading this on or after September 8th, then it also means it has been five years since I pulled off Shakedown Street and into New York City to start my “real life.” Five years since I left the small fish, collegiate confines of Saratoga Springs for the concrete wilderness that is Manhattan. And, in many ways, I’d say things really haven’t changed that much in those five years. I still make typos like George W. Bush preaches about patriotism, I'm still not exactly sure how to tie my shoelaces, and I am still looking for a neurotic girl who will drive me slightly insane for all eternity.

Indeed, if you asked me five years ago what I did last weekend, it’s a fair guess I might have said something like, “seeing My Morning Jacket, hanging with my friends and trying to figure out what I want to do with the rest or my life, or at least the rest of my twenties.” And five years later, that’s still largely the case. Sure, My Morning Jacket is playing larger venues, my friends dress in slightly better clothes and the rest of life has expanded to my early thirties, but in general, I'd say things are largely the same, five years, five desks and five masthead titles later.

If I had to pinpoint my biggest fear in life, the thing that keeps me up late and will make my hair look like Steve Martin’s years before it should, it’s time---more specifically in relation to loss and change. No mater how hard you try, there is no way to beat time, or even stop it, and no way you can control its pace, no matter how hard you worry.

And, if I had to pinpoint the turning point of my professional career, the moment that defined the last five years, I'd have to go all the way back to the pre-post-jam era of November 2003, just two months after I sheepishly stepped through Relix’s front door.

I remember being so scared when I first started, so nervous, that I had to stop by a local diner to get a soda to calm my nerves before my interview. This was, after all, the magazine I hung on my wall throughout college, and I remember sitting at a small table, peering around, wondering if any of these customers were my possible future co-workers. I applied that day and scored the internship that led to my current (and only) post-college job two days later. My editor Aeve gave me the good news during an Addison Groove Project concert at B.B. King’s on September 8---a Monday, just as it is this year---and just two days later I settled into my first cubicle.

But, I didn’t really feel like I arrived at Relix until that November. Aeve had an extra ticket to a SIRIUS launch party, and I remember going with another girl who was interning with me at the time. We had dinner, went to the party and I had just enough to drink to forget about being nervous. Of course, she also had enough to drink to later tell me “I was somewhere between getting the girl and not getting the girl depending on my mood,” but that was the first time I listed to what John Lennon once sang, “life is what happens to you while you're busy making other plans.”

If I had to pinpoint the other moment that sticks out my mind, it would be just last October when Arcade Fire played Randall’s Island. I’ve found that some shows are so big, or at least so hyped, that more often than not I find myself asking those around me “what time they are getting there,” or “who they are sitting with,” instead of “if they are going” in the hours before show time. At one point in my concert going career, this felt like the rule, not the exception, but in the post-Phish/post-summer/post-wide eyed days of my mid-20s, I’ve found it increasingly difficult to get my friends to agree on pretty much anything except, of course, that the prefix “post” probably jumped the shark in my articles well before the first member of The Slip actually moved to Williamsburg last summer.

But, thanks to George W. Bush’s environmental policies we now have 80 degree weather in October, and thanks to his cronies over at Halliburton we now have Win Butler and his orchestra-size collective Arcade Fire, or as I like to call them, modern indie rock’s answer to Phish (only with less hemp and more hair gel). And, while I probably listen to other indie rock bands more often than Arcade Fire (The National, Ryan Adams, the Shins), and have a far greater respect for other types of modern music (My Morning Jacket's hickster rock, Akron/Family's freak-folk), I can't think of another band in the post-Radiohead era that posses the unifying grandeur of Arcade Fire. They are the rare band that both record geeks, and kids who don’t like music, can safely claim as their own, and whenever they roll through New York, it’s nothing short of an event. The group's October 5 performance at Randall's Island had something for everyone: longtime fans (the rare early EP track "I'm Sleeping in a Submarine"), jamband geeks like me who still get hard at the idea of a unique sit-in (Win Butler playing with opening act LCD Soundsystem), causal listeners (a mammoth reading of the bar anthem "Rebellion (Lies)"), the kids riding the rail (a surprise post-show Violent Femms cover in the audience), compleatists (the rare "Cold Wind" track from the Six Feet Under soundtrack), people who don't like music, but like to drink (multiple bars), sexy girls (who sung "Haiti"), people who don't like music, but like sexy girls and like to drink (multiple bars, sexy girls) and of course, haters (who left early to attend apparently much hipper performances by Caribou and Sigor Ros).

I've been listening to Arcade Fire for a few years now and have probably surrendered a good deal of whatever credibility I earned serving as an editor for Relix fluffing them on this space, but something keeps me coming back. Perhaps, it's the realization that I'm not the only one. Last May I wrote the following after spending a few days on "Arcade Fire Tour" around New York City:

As the story goes, after spending a year studying poetry and art at Sarah Lawrence College, Win Butler dropped out of school and began slinging wooden clogs in Boston (heady). Soon after, he followed his high school friend Deu Montreal, enrolled at McGill University, met his future wife, a Haitian-born singer named Régine, and changed the face of popular music while I was still figuring out how to change my own sheets (ah freshman year). His story reminds me of another former prep-school hippie, or hip school preppie, who graduated from Taft in the early-1980s and spent the rest of that decade working his way through the northeast’s maze of clubs and keg parties. Like Butler, his family came from a decidedly square background (lest we forget Ernest Anastasio II helped write the SAT) and, I suspect, much like Butler, Ernest “Trey” Anastasio III had at a young age, a charm, a charisma, which allowed him to do something different, something special.

I’ll admit it: I didn’t find Phish during the “Nectar’s-era,” “the Big Ball-era” or even the “Clifford Ball-era,” but, instead, during the high-school yearbook era, which roughly stretched from the release of Billy Breathes until the start of Phish’s first hiatus (was there ever a song more custom designed for yearbook pages than “Chalk Dust Torture.?”) Now, my high-school alma mater is known for many things: the place Barbara Bush spent her pre-teen years, an average SAT score which is easily divisible by the number 1400 and an alumni board filled with names that end in suffixes like Esq., MD and III. But, the one thing my prep-school isn’t exactly known for is its command of the jamband alphabet (indeed, our jam-rock education seemed to stop at the letter d with the discovery of Dispatch and Dave Matthews). The first person in my prep-school class to find the Vermont Quartet, as far as I can remember, was a girl named Sarah, who, in retrospect, probably found Phish through her slightly older brother. She’d talk about the mid-1990s Phish shows I missed (Big Birch ’94, Great Woods ’95) and I wasn’t surprised when I saw her in the hallway the first time I caught Phish at Madison Square Garden. We both kind of looked at each other from a distance and grinned, as if to say ‘what are you doing here.’ Some questions don’t need to be answered.

After graduation, I attended a heady college, stored the Pharmer’s Almanac under my pillow and gradually found the other bands now stuffed together in the favorites section of my MySpace page. I remember bumping into Sarah the summer after our freshman year of college at an early Berkfest, right before moe.’s main stage set. I wanted to tell her about all the new bands I’d found in the intervening year, how Phish led me to moe. and moe. led to String Cheese and String Cheese led to me to the Berkshires, but, instead, we both kind smiled with that familiar grin. Around the same time I also heard her older brother overdosed near the end of his senior year of college---the first person I lost on the long journey from high-school to Coventry. I saw Sarah a few times on Phish’s final tour in 2004 and then again at a Flaming Lips show at Webster Hall, but, as I began to see more and more music, I began to see her less and less.

In retrospect, it feels pretty silly to equate the act of discovering new music to adventurers flocking west for the first time. But, like those settlers, after a band’s time has come and gone…after the hype…after the gold rush, all that’s left is some good music and a hopeful search for the next big thing (and, of course, a web of poorly updated fan-sites).

It’s eerily fitting that as one of my high-school peers ascends to international fame, my high-school hero finds himself court-ordered to live in my college town, to eat at my college coffee shop (“large, no sugar”), shop at my college record shop (“new vinyl player”) and not? drink at my college bar (sorry DAs). After Coventry, my friend and colleague Jesse equated the end of Phish to the proposed final chapter of the Superman saga, when, instead of being gunned down in a Sopranos-style shooting, Clark Kent met his final fate by simply become human. And, if the simple thought of Trey Anastasio wandering through my old college town isn’t enough anymore to make me quit my job at Relix, grow out my latent Jew fro and signup for another four years at Skidmore, it’s certainly enough to remind me that at the end of day, rock-stars are nothing more than normal, talented people with something special.

I guess part of me wishes I saw Arcade Fire at Arlene’s Grocery that night in 2004, before David Bowie sat-in and the gold rush really set-in. But, at the same time, I wonder if that experience would have changed the memory I have of hearing my favorite Arcade Fire song, “Haiti,” for the first time, if that nugget of music would have felt as fresh and original. I tried to remember the first time I heard Arcade Fire at Radio City last week, but I couldn’t focus on my memories. The music felt too good, and the only thing I could think about was how expensive their dry cleaning bill must be each night (I guess you need a Halliburton inheritance to clean ten outfits each night).

Like a not as deep as it sounds scene from Garden State, as I left the show, I saw Sarah in the corner of my eye, talking with a group of friends near Radio City’s marquee. She looked just as I remembered her, perhaps a bit older, cleaner, and all around more “indie-rockafied.” I thought about walking over to her, wondering where she was going, remembering where she had been, but, instead, I stepped into the subway, knowing we’d meet again, sometime after the gold rush.

As I watched what was, by all accounts, an average at best Arcade Fire performance, my mind began to drift back to those thoughts, the feeling that we are part of some sort of collective post-adolescent experience unique to our time. It made me wonder what drew me to the "Relix/Jam scene" in the first place and how many people I’d met through that world. It made me happy to be in New York where I can experience a show like this and still sleep in my bed and it made me think about the indie-rock summer on my forecast since Coventry. I thought about the day: the fresh pre-thaw calm, the rare day I spent not thinking/worrying about the past and future, but living in the semi-intoxicated present tense and most of all, it made me think about Phish, specifically Trey, and how much haschanged in the three short years since Coventry and the time since I’ve started at Relix.

I looked up and saw Win Butler, a giant boy of a man I probably would have hated if I spent a day with in high school, and saw a piece of Trey in him. It wasn't the way he played or even the way he moved, it was the weight he carried.. It made when I think of this picture I keep on my cubicle wall at Relix of Trey and Mike bouncing on their trampolines, how free and natural they seemed, and how over time that faded away.

I remember reading this one quote from Trey, maybe in Rolling Stone or maybe even in Relix, about how he admired the Beastie Boys and Radiohead and their freedom to make an album and then disappear, only to recreate themselves three years later. That has always been the key to rock-and-roll success, the ability to change naturally over time, to grow. It is what has allowed the Rolling Stones to age from a rhythm & blues cover group to the world’s most famous rock-and-roll band and what has allowed U2 to move from being alternative to an icon. If Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead are now “hip again,” as Relix and The Fader seem to agree, it is only because 13 years have passed since they last played, and it is easy to remember the good years, not the tour from hell. And then, as these thoughts segued in-and-out of my mind like that "Tweezer" from the Bomb Factory, Arcade Fire did something I never expected and Phish never could until Trey’s unfortunate arrest: they disappeared into the night with these words, “we’ll see you all in a few years.” They’ve yet to come back, but I have no doubt they will, bigger than ever, having grown stronger over time.

I didn't really know how to feel at the end of the Arcade Fire show, disappointed about Arcade Fire's performance, or excited that I had a great day, but I sure didn't feel like waiting 45 minutes for a bus home, so I decided to walk back to Manhattan over the Tri-Borough bridge. I've always had a secret fascination with bridges and old buildings because, no matter how much life seems to change, they manage to remain the same, stationary pillars in the world around us. That night took me all over the city, each call leading to a new location and at some point until I found myself at a small bar on a forgotten street, surrounded by people I barely knew.

Now, I don’t believe in fate and I feel that coincidences are actually some sort of Facebook plug-in I haven’t entirely figured out how to use, so I was surprised, but not that, surprised when later that night that same Sarah walked through the door, towards my table and took a seat not far from my friend. As it turned out she was friends with my friend’s friend, which is kind of what has always fascinated me about our distant friendship, that we are part of the same post-adolescent experience unique to our time. We got to talking about all sorts of things; high school (of course it sucked, isn’t it supposed to?), Arcade Fire’s show (of course she was there) and even apartments (of course she lived on a parallel street two black away). She asked me “what’s new?” and at some point the conversation drifted to Relix and then eventually Phish, and she uttered six words nobody has said to me since the 10th grade, the last time we really talked; “I didn’t know you liked them.” At first I tried to explain all that I had seen, all that had happened and all that I had done at Cliff Note speed, but then I stopped and realized that there is no way any of it would stick.

For a second it was almost as if I was frozen in time and the last decade had not happened and tried to remember what I was like not only when I moved to New York, but when I left for college. My apartment is sandwiched right between NYU and the New School, so as I walk home each September evening. I can’t help starring at the fresh cliques of freshmen banding together for support, finding strength if not direction in numbers. At times, I feel like the old man in Death in Venice, admiring the freshness of youth or Kevin Arnold when he visited his middle school for the last times in the Wonder Years, or even Screech Powers when he scored a spot on Saved by the Bell: The New Class.

It’s strange to think about all that’s happened in those five years, as I type in a cubicle that’s now messy enough to be my room at hom. Phish and The Dead have broken up and come back to life, Wilco and the Flaming Lips have aged from alt-rock heroes to classic-rock stalwarts and my bad haircut has gone from being out of style to suddenly retro (or at least it’s on its way, I promise). I've been in love, had a broken heart and questioned if all that was real, or just something a bartender slipped into one of my trademark 7 & 7s. But in reality, things feel pretty much the same, only filtered through Facebook not Friendster.

My outlook on life has always been "don't get too deep, you might lose touch with the surface," which I guess is kind of what John Lennon meant, and in her own drunken way, what my friend was also trying to say with “you are between getting the girl and not getting the girl depending on your mood.” Which is also why “what’s new?” is sometimes an impossible question to answer. I used to think I could change the world in five years, but then again five years used to feel like a longtime, so for now I’ll settle on trying to figure out how to change my own sheets, keep my antennas up for what's next and hope the world will change with me, one typo at a time (ok, so maybe I should learn how to use grammar check).

So I just smiled, listened and eventually stepped into the night, wondering where I was going, remembering where I’d been, knowing we’d meet again, sometime after the gold rush.

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