The question was clear and hovered over your head like a tiny, angry cloud: How did these people get here? These people didn’t belong here. These people had, it would seem, taken a series of wrong turns, and instead of ending up at the Josh Groban/Fantasia show at the Limelighter, they were here, standing in front of you at the Thrills/Grant-Lee Phillips/Pixies concert at L.A.’s Greek Theater, and they were about to fuck it up completely.
Have you seen this place, the Greek Theater? Nestled into a hillside, trees everywhere, lights anchored to trunks, the leaves purple and crimson and blue, it seats 5,700 and really couldn’t be better as a place to see a band on a clear and moon-blessed night. Which is what this night is, as you stand next to your friend Thom, who is wearing very bright white sneakers called Stan Smiths and talking about how they don’t make Stan Smiths the way they used to. They used to have more heft, Thom is saying. They used to have more strength. Now they are flimsy, he says with a sigh, and you wonder if Thom has again changed his medications.
You are trying to listen to Thom while you feel the vague residual sting of knowing that a few days earlier, you almost met Cyndi Lauper and thus almost solved one of the great riddles of modern music: Exactly why is “Girls Just Want to Have Fun” the saddest song ever sung? You had planned to write about this, but-and this makes everything so much sadder-due to an illness in her family, Lauper could not sit down and talk. So you are trying to shake this off, you are trying to rev yourself up about the Thrills/Phillips/Pixies concert, although you have already missed the Thrills/Phillips portion, because for some reason they started the show at 7:30, not 8:30, and worse: No one told you there was often traffic in this city called Los Angeles.
You have missed the Thrills even though their tour manager or label or whatnot got you into the show, and you feel awful. You hope you don’t run into some member of the Thrills, who no doubt saw the empty seats where you and Thom should have been. But you are nonetheless looking forward to seeing the Pixies for the first time since you were 21. Back then you were attending a huge state college in east-central Illinois, you were on the concert-promotion committee, and when it was decided the Pixies would come to Champaign-Urbana, you just about shat yourself. Good bands came to, and came from, Champaign-Urbana all the time-the Smashing Pumpkins played at tiny clubs, Uncle Tupelo seemed to perform there every weekend-but the Pixies? The fucking Pixies had been removing and cleaning out the heads of everyone you knew that year and now they were coming to your school. Doolittle was your Sgt. Pepper’s, the album after which nothing would be the same, the album that would spawn a thousand imitators, most of them very poor.
In your capacity as concert-committee person, you helped decorate the Pixies’ dressing room, watching in helpless horror as one of your co-members created and hung a huge glitter-inclusive sign that said WELCOME PIXIES: WHERE IS MY MIND? and listed the full lyrics to the song, should the band need to brush up. You helped buy the water, beer, and soda. And, most important, as a valued committee member, you were allowed to sit in the near-empty 1,750-seat Foellinger Auditorium during the band’s sound check, watching Black Francis run through “Debaser” with a degree of technical aplomb that terrified you. He sounded exactly like he did on the record, over and over again. That scream? He could manufacture it on demand. It was scary and unreal. And next to him, also technically perfect, was Kim Deal, who was smoking no-handed and who was easily the most attractive woman you had ever seen, outside Olivia Newton-John’s transformed Sandy-the one in six-inch heels-in the finale of Grease. Did you hope, all night, as you hovered near the dressing room, that Kim Deal liked young meat? You did. Did she indeed, in the end, like young meat? Perhaps, but not yours.
But now you’re at the Greek Theater, with very good seats, and standing in front of you-with better seats!-is this couple we were talking about at the beginning. The man is tall and is wearing a black silk button-down shirt. His pants are leather, or leatherette, or pleather, or maybe rubber. The amount of gel in his hair would seem to make it difficult for him to keep his head up. How much weight until one’s neck can no longer keep one’s cranium upright? Forty pounds? Sixty? He passed this mark long ago. Perhaps he has a neck reinforced with steel cables or cement.
His girlfriend is worse. She is a bottle blonde, also wearing black, also pantalooned in leather/pleather/rubber, and she has painted her face with crayons and grease markers. For the larger areas-cheeks, neck-she has used a mop. Her mascara is a feat of the most precarious architecture, like the makeshift structures Wile E. Coyote would build with scrap wood to bridge a gully or chasm. Each time the woman turns her head, you get breakaway mascara detritus tossed at you, much the way a spinning tetherball would spray mud at observers, if the tetherball were muddy when it started spinning.
To compare them to yuppie villains-who deal drugs to middle-schoolers and eat fur-seal sandwiches-would be too obvious. If you were casting actors to play this couple (Klaus and Jennifer) and wanted to camp it up, these two would seem excessive. You would need to pull back.
“We should pull back,” the casting director would say. “Okay,” your friend Ron would say. (Your friend Ron is an assistant casting director.)
These are the people directly in front of you. The Pixies have begun to play, and these people are occupying easily 40 percent of your vision.
Did you ask if they are being frequently affectionate? It’s so interesting that you asked, because the answer is yes, they are being frequently affectionate, much in the way the captain of the clay-court doubles team would be with his best girl, circa 1956. Every 11 or 12 seconds, they turn to each other and nuzzle. In fact, as the renamed Frank Black sings the first words of a very slow version of “Wave of Mutilation,” Klaus and Jennifer look at each other, kiss like grandparents, and then slowly shake their heads in unison, as if to say, “Isn’t it all just so crazy?”
Each time a new song starts, Jennifer sort of wrinkles her nose, indicating that she’s not yet sure she likes it. Then Klaus leans down and whispers something to her, an explanation no doubt, and then she faces the stage to give the band another chance. You can’t actually hear anything the two are saying to each other, but because they spend so much time nuzzling and whispering and kissing with lips puckered, you can parse together the following likely conversation:
She: “Sweetnibbens, who are those people down there?”
He: “I think it’s a band, Stiffmittens.”
She: “But they’re so loud!”
He: “They are being awfully noisy. Should I ask them to be more quiet?”
She: “Would you do that for me?”
He: “I sure would, Breadbottom. There’s nothing I wouldn’t do.”
She: “Then yes, I want you to ask the bad band to shush up so I can hear the beating of your big red heart.”
He: “Oh, Mopmakeup, you’re the best!”
At this point Thom suggests that you and he take a pair of meat hooks and thrust them into the thighs of the couple, making it easier to drag them out of the Greek Theater and into the parking lot, where they would be picked over by coyotes. You contemplate this, examining the meat hooks that Thom has brought. How did he get them through security? Thom is a smart man.
Now Klaus and Jennifer are rubbing each other’s backs in circular motions. Kim Deal, who forsook your young flesh for no good reason at all, is singing with her bell-clear, completely unchanged voice, and you can only half-enjoy it because you’re concentrating on the couple’s uncanny ability to rub each other’s backs in perfect unison. You are being hypnotized-round and round. It is incredible and bad.
Is it wrong to allow yourself to detest these people? It’s very wrong, and it’s very small. It brings you back to a quaint time in your youth when you floated through your high school hallways, smug and serene, with a bunch of records you’d brought in for your lunchtime radio show. Your high school had a radio station consisting of one record player and one tape deck, and it broadcast to exactly one speaker in one dark corner of your school’s basement cafeteria. And because the reach of the radio station was so vast and its influence so great, you felt burdened with divine responsibility to make sure the minds of your classmates were blown-blown!-during your 40-minute radio hour. This was why your arms held records, kept pristine in thick plastic coverings, by music makers the June Brides, the Specials, and a band called the Smiths, who had just released their first album. Of the Smiths you were particularly proud. No one in your high school had any clue who the hell they were, because out of 1,300 students there surely could have been only one person prescient enough to recognize the band’s genius, and this one person was you. And just as you were feeling most smug and serene-when you were sure that you very well could have been among a small, elite group of people, perhaps 43 or so worldwide, who had any idea how to process and understand Morrissey’s words-you passed a small group of almost-goth students your age, who were singing, at their lockers, “This Charming Man.” And they knew the lyrics. They knew the lyrics better than you did. You had thought it was “Let’s bicycle / Down a hillside / Don’t you say?” and then you realized it was actually “Punctured bicycle / On a hillside desolate,” and you were crushed. You asked yourself this: Can I enjoy a band enjoyed by someone I do not enjoy? If someone undesirable likes something I desire, can that thing still be in any way desirable?
Is this question worth exploring? It’s not, of course, because it belongs-then and always-in high school, in the dark corner of the cafeteria, with your two-years-late-in-hitting-puberty (and in most ways greatly undesirable) self. Thankfully, at some point we-you, me, Klaus, Jennifer-leave the cafeteria, we go outside, we walk along the railroad tracks across from the school, and we hope that someday we will outgrow our need to separate ourselves from others via our taste in music, or books, or shrubbery, or anything else. We hope we will live to see art as a uniting force, not a divisive one, and we look forward to finding a way to accept the pleather pair and their particular way of enjoying-on one level-the band that we enjoy on a thousand levels at once. We will accept them, and Thom in his Stan Smiths will accept them, and Conor Deasy, lead singer of the Thrills, will accept them, and will accept us, even though we missed his show. We will actually, strangely, incomprehensibly, run into Mr. Deasy hours later at a diner in Los Angeles (a city of 465 square miles; the odds?), and we will thank him for the tickets. He will have no idea who we are or who gave us the tickets, but he will slide over to make room for us in his booth, because all he really wants to ask is this, the only question that ever matters in matters like this: “Did you have a good time listening to music tonight?”