Bowery Ballroom, downstairs, Thursday, October 19, 9:30 p.m.
"We're just jaded," says a journalist friend once we're waved inside. She's a mere 23, mired in the sort of dissatisfaction that greets anyone's first "real" job out of college. Hers happens to be with the online branch of a national music glossy that offers far more prestige than pay. I suppose she'll either outgrow this feeling or flee the biz.
"I love talking to musicians, but I hate interviewing them," she continues. "Here are these people whose music I care about and, because I'm a journalist, they can only see me as their adversary."
Me, I'm not jaded: I'm just trying to get up the guts to ask Robert Vickers for a Jetset three-quarter-sleeve shirt. Vickers is the head of publicity for Jetset, the indie label sponsoring this showcase, and he also happens to be the former bass player for the Go-Betweens. He's a slim fellow possessed of a quiet intensity. Upstairs, the Spoozies, a Jetset band I'm sure he wishes would garner more press, are playing. And each time Vickers passes our table, he glances ever so slightly over at our gaggle of accumulated writers, as if to say, "Why aren't you upstairs listening to the Spoozies?"
But that's not why I won't ask for the freebie. I just feel weird asking publicists for favors. Okay, I feel weird asking publicists anything. To be fair, three of the most decent people I'll meet this weekend are publicists, Vickers included. That shouldn't be a shocking revelation, I suppose--here are people who, for the most part, loved music so much they wanted their jobs to reflect that affection. Just like me. Well, not just like me. They get paid to push product while I--okay, when it comes right down to it, I get paid to push product too, only in a roundabout way that assuages my conscience. So let it be said: There are plenty of "journalists" who function as industry lapdogs. There are plenty of honorable publicists.
I make a note to listen to that Spoozies record the first chance I get.
Bowery Ballroom, upstairs, Thursday, October 19, 11:30 p.m.
Scottish mope rockers Arab Strap have always bored me too much on disc to annoy me. But, in this context--surrounded by gape-mouthed adoration--there's a difference. The band's drone, combined with the slurred mutter of frontman Aidan Moffatt, results in an undeniably sexy mood, with an underpinning of violence that's just as inescapable--and inseparable. I watch a guy stroke his girlfriend's hair, and I'm creeped out.
"We've got time for one more," Moffatt shouts. "You want an old one or a new one?"
"An old one!" shouts a crowd already nostalgic for their sophomore year.
By contrast, until this year, headliners the Go-Betweens hadn't released a record since 1988, before most of my fellow attendees were in high school. Yet the band's lovely reunion disc, The Friends of Rachel Worth, has accrued college-rock points by including instrumental support from Sleater-Kinney, including drummer Janet Weiss, whose understated work is easily topped by the Swedish fellow playing drums this night. The suavely affected Robert Forster stands center stage and dominates the show, wearing pastel pinstripes and wielding a fey attitude. (He emphasizes lyrics with a weird flick of the wrist that suggests Brian Ferry imitating Beyonce from Destiny's Child.) To his right, balding, casual, workmanlike Grant McLennan plucks out contrapuntal hooks on his acoustic and sings far too infrequently.
I've always appreciated the literate lull of Go-Betweens records more than I've actually enjoyed listening to them, but by the end of the evening I'm as swept away as the faithful who surround me. The Go-Betweens close with Forster's lovely reflection upon a Patti Smith performance, "When She Sang About Angels." The song is a prime piece of rock criticism, about loving a performer so deeply you forgive her bullshit, and no one else, to my knowledge, has written a song nailing this emotion.
I look over at erstwhile Go-Between Robert Vickers, who has an unreadable smile on his face. Behind him, my writer friend is leaning against the wall, and it looks like her eyes are misty. Or maybe she's just drunk. I wonder how long she's going to stay at her job.
Greenwich Village, Friday, October 20, 8:30 p.m.
Since this weekend is beginning to feel like a tightly compressed recap of my college years, it's only fitting I should get a chance to meet the Dean. Robert Christgau, pillar of the Village Voice music section and self-dubbed "Dean of Rock Critics," is, at age 57, the grand old man of my trade. He also happens to be a professional acquaintance of my friends Jon and Laura, the floor of whose uptown apartment I'll be sleeping on throughout my Manhattan stay. Our plan: Visit Christgau's apartment, chat for a bit, then head over to Irving Plaza for Texas up-and-comers At the Drive-In and my beloved, wistful Grandaddy.
"So, you're off to see the Dean?" a friend grins when I tell him my plans.
"Yeah, Jon wants a brain, I want a heart, and Laura wants some courage."
When we reach his apartment, Christgau is set on automatic putter, his CMJ badge already dangling around his neck, thoughts about a baseball piece he's writing dribbling out into conversation. He and his wife Carola Dibbell playfully bicker about whether to keep a wicker filing cabinet they ordered from a catalog. They bustle about, offering us beer and sorbet, then regretting that they have neither beer nor sorbet to offer, then running down to the deli across the street for beer and sorbet, then returning to the discussion about the cabinet.