The fact that the two most significant New York bands of the past decade crowned their careers with headlining shows at Madison Square Garden on consecutive nights is mostly a fluke of logistics, owing more to the Knicks’ schedule than any intended referendum on the current state of millennial downtown cool. But it still seems fairly impossible to talk about them as two wholly separate, sovereign events.
Fond as we are of our place in the center of the universe, it is easy for New Yorkers to forget that to the rest of the country, the Garden may just be another basketball arena. But there is a weight to the name, and playing there does Mean Something in the course of any career, musical or otherwise, but particularly if you’re the kind of artist whose career has been consumed since inception with the idea of Meaning Something.
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For the Strokes, that meaning was foisted on them by a culture that craved a certain style and emotional detachment, while LCD Soundsystem has always been an exercise in unvarnished self-awareness. Both happened to have arrived at a moment when the eyes of the world truly were on New York City. Yes, the back-to-back shows were a coincidence. But maybe they shouldn’t have been.
It’s not easy to exude ambivalence and rouse 16,000 people at the same time, but this is Julian Casablancas’ singular talent. Heroically slouchy in his leather jacket and hoodie and ever-present sunglasses, the man is even laconic while crowd surfing. “Thanks, I guess,” he said upon his safe return to the stage following a sortie during “Life Is Simple in the Moonlight” and “Juicebox.” “But you’re supposed to tear me apart. Next time I go in, don’t let me back out.” (Casablancas’ withering asides are so baked into the band’s narrative by now that this almost read like wishful thinking; even the act of stage-diving seemed as much rock-god pose as an attempt to get as far as possible from his bandmates.) But, as almost always is the case with the Strokes, they shine not just despite their patina of casual indifference, but because of it. They kicked off their most triumphant evening with “Is This It?”, the musical equivalent of a shrug, and made it sound like a full-throated call to arms.
Of course, the Strokes’ on-the-record misgivings about the Strokes are not shared by Strokes fans, who shouted back every artfully slurred word, including those to the new, seemingly insta-classic “Under Cover of Darkness,” and most forcefully during “New York City Cops” — “Fuck tha Police” for kids who got hassled about open containers on 33rd Street. “Ask Me Anything,” possibly the closest thing the Strokes have to a lighter-waver ballad, packs a droll anti-chorus: “I got nothing to say” — crooned to a packed, humming arena, it feels almost grand, sloganeering. We will rock you.
Adding to the coronation vibe was the presence of surprise opening act Elvis Costello, who came out again after Casablancas introduced “Taken For a Fool” as the band’s own homage to the man himself. Playing behind Costello, everyone’s posture seemed to straighten a bit, then the song ended and…he left. Which begs the question: You guys couldn’t learn, like “Oliver’s Army” or something? Elvis Costello just came out and nailed one of your songs from an album that’s been out for nine days, milk the moment. Like the man says, you only live once.
Casablancas headed into the crowd again during the closer, “Take It or Leave It”, and once again, the crowd refrained from tearing him to pieces. By now, a full head of steam had been worked up, and Casablancas seemed not only punchy and invigorated and defrosted, but happy. Then it was over.Read about LCD’s Madison Square Garden finale on page 2 >>
If the Strokes’ M.O. is ennui, then LCD Soundsystem’s is unabashed joy and earnestness; it is safe to say there’s a degree of artifice in both, but the latter makes for a better party. For all the parsing of James Murphy’s motives and methods for staging his Last Ecstasy-Fueled Waltz, it felt like a proper event, and not just because of the finality, right down to the crowd’s impressively observed black-and-white dress code. (Just a theory: If, after the final notes of “New York, I Love You” gave way to the release of the few thousand champagne-bubble balloons, Murphy had announced a couple festival dates and cackled, “Ever get the feeling you’ve been cheated?” — no one would have answered yes.)
Decked out in a rumpled tux, clutching his trademark vintage mic, Murphy cut a bizarro-Sinatra figure, and by the time the drums kicked in for “Dance Yrself Clean,” the building was throbbing in a way it hadn’t since John Starks was in uniform, even though the set itself may not have differed greatly from the shows at the 3,500-capacity Terminal 5 that led up to this.
For all the attendant hand-wringing that comes with club bands’ graduation to arenas, LCD didn’t spread out and use the full width of the stage, instead bunching together as ever. One of the reasons people seem to be confused by Murphy’s decision to break up his band is that they think he is the band, a misconception he tries to correct almost immediately at every show. (I will miss many things about this band, but few more than the puppy-dog look in Murphy’s eyes when “It’s Tyler Pope!” doesn’t quite get the ovation he knows the introduction merits.)
And they deserve every bit of adulation they can get. What LCD play — ugh, played — is dance music: repetitive and metronomic by design, but rendered by actual humans. Drummer Pat Mahoney is a national treasure, and the fact that his arms didn’t fall off at some point during the nearly three-hour-and-45-minute set is not the least of this band’s marvels.
At that length, save for breaks for Nancy Whang costume changes, the show was an exercise In indulgence to be sure. Including “45:33” must have sounded like a hoot and watching Reggie Watts come onstage and do anything onstage is interesting, but unless you were running laps around the concourse, it was a chance to catch up on your bladder-filling and bladder-emptying needs. Yet it also epitomized the oh-fuck-it-ness of the entire night. (Obvious takeaway from “Us V. Them”: There’s a lot more of “us” than we’d realized.)
Maybe the most surreal moment was “Losing My Edge,” the single that launched LCD’s career with a litany of dropped names and archly defensive poses — Hipster Runoff 1.0, kinda sorta — accompanied by projected photos of the actual record sleeves in question, ostensibly from Murphy’s own collection, bringing the whole gag to a conclusion so rich and absurd that if you really stopped to process it, your eye would start twitching.
“All My Friends” does more to explain the reasoning for quitting than any interview ever could — there’s a dignity in getting older, and that’s ultimately more badass than grinding your teeth at sunrise. But this song, tailor-made to reduce several thousand music dorks of a certain age to emotional ash, came surprisingly early in the set, leaving “Someone Great” to deliver a lot of the late-inning pathos. “North American Scum” was rendered extra-raucous thanks to guess caterwaulers Win and Will Butler, Regine Chassagne, and Jeremy Gara of Arcade Fire. (Win’s plaid shirt was one of the few noticeable turds in the dress-code punchbowl.)
A cover of Harry Nilsson’s “Jump Into the Fire,” a.k.a. “The Song in the Goodfellas Coke-and-Sunday-Gravy Sequence That Isn’t ‘Monkey Man,'” also a dusty LCD b-side, was the penultimate son, which left only, of course, the woozy elegy “New York, I Love You,” climaxing with the aforementioned balloon drop while Murphy’s retinue clustered along the back of the stage for a final toast. For once, the song’s disappointment in a city kneecapped by gentrification and actual jerks — the “but you’re bringing me down” part — rang hollow.
So, yes, LCD Soundsystem can come back and headline Coachella in five years and maybe render our city a sucker for caring so much. But has any career ever ended like this? Traditionally in rock, the only way to go out at an absolute commercial and critical peak is with the aid of a single-engine plane, a shotgun, or a drowning-by-vomit. This is retiring with a World Series MVP trophy in your hands and champagne in your eyes and two good knees.
Instead, the last scene in the LCD Soundsystem biopic gets to feature slo-mo shots of 16,000 saucer-eyed disciples in black and white swatting at oversized party balloons. Stories just can’t end better than this, and James Murphy understands a good story as well as anyone. That’s how this whole thing started in the first place.