Sunday, July 15, 2007

A Funny Moment in London

This has nothing to do with sex ed or anything, it's Sunday morning and I just want to talk about a funny moment I had the other night. I was in London, and David Fishback's son's band was playing there, so I went to hear them. They were in a part of North London called Kilburn; I took the tube out there but I mistimed it and got there too early. So first I walked around the town and located the club they were playing in, called the Luminaire, a hole in the wall really, and checked to find out what time they would start. The guy at the door -- shaved head, tattoos, pierced stuff -- said that Cheese on Bread would start at ten thirty. It wasn't even nine yet, and I didn't really feel like listening to all the opening acts, so I wandered around Kilburn.

Funky place, Kilburn, but cool. Most of the newspapers in the stands were in Russian, and I heard some people speaking Russian, but most of the people hanging out on the street appeared to be from the Middle East or northern Africa, women with their heads covered and guys with sandals and beards. And Indians. Streets lined with pawnshops and little shops that sell beer and wine, and cell-phone vendors, and Halal groceries. Then you'd come across a pub with dozens of extremely-British people sitting drinking beer and socializing in the evening glow, everybody happy on the street and in the pubs. Working-class neighborhood, busy people living their lives, finding their place, fulfilling their destiny in Kilburn.

In England every town has a High Road, which is what they call the main street. When I was looking for the club, one guy, a dad walking with his little daughters, told me how to get to, I thought, the "Cuban High Road." I couldn't figure that one out, until later when I saw the sign and realized he was saying "Kilburn High Road." They do weird things to their vowels over there. And their consonants, actually, now that I think about it, they talk funny.

After locating the club I wandered around for a while and then decided to get back on the tube and ride to some different station and see what it was like. Went over to St. John's Wood, which I knew from the Rolling Stones' song "Play With Fire." Beautiful neighborhood, very clean, luxurious, just as implied by the song; I sat on a bench and watched the cars drive by for a while. Then I got back on the underground and went the other way, to some dumpy, graffiti-scribbled little stop where I didn't even go outside the station, just crossed the platform and caught the train going the other way. In London you buy your ticket and it's for zones, but it's good all day long.

Back to the Luminaire. They charged me five pounds cover, which was really supposed to be the price if you ordered tickets in advance. At the door it was supposed to be six, I think, but it was getting late and I'd missed the warm-up acts so the guy let me in cheap.

Cheese on Bread was setting up. Remember, I did that for a living for twenty years, played the gigs. Plugged in the cords, tuned up the guitar, tested the monitors, and then tore it all down again at the end of the night. I used to say that was the part they paid us for. The band might play for thirty minutes or five hours, that doesn't really matter, setting it up and tearing it down is the hard part.

I ordered a Guiness (three pounds) (these days, a pound is almost exactly two dollars, so figure I paid six bucks for a beer) and stood at the end of the bar next to the sound man. That's always the best place to stand to hear music, next to the sound guy, because, of course, he's mixing the sound so it's good where he is. Unfortunately, I was also next to the trash can, I mean, the rubbish can, and it was a little ... aromatic.

The place was great. The ceiling and walls were black, actually the ceiling looked like somebody had nailed a bunch of black doors at different angles up there, I don't know if it was some kind of modular design or what. There were, as everywhere in England, video cameras pointing every direction, all over the place. Back behind me were rows of couches, like, I don't know what else to call them, plush vinyl-covered pews, and some kids were back there making out. I'd guess there were about fifty people in the place, almost all, let's say, less than half my age. There was one other old guy in there, about my age, drunk, and he kept walking past me staring at me, like, hey, there's two of us here. I expected him to try to strike up a conversation but he wasn't quite that drunk. Everybody else was just regular self-conscious kids, like you'd see anywhere in the world. Flawed, every one of them. Fat, or stringy-haired, or bow-legged, or skinny, or stupid haircut, or overdressed, or hyper, or something, every one of them.

As the band set up the kids started to gather on the dance floor, checking them out. You know, I'm thinking, we're here in England, these kids are probably real critics. Do you have any idea why so many rock and roll bands come from that little country? There's fifty million of them and three hundred million of us, but every other band on the radio is English. So I figure the local bands must just be great. But the kids seemed kind of star-struck. They wanted to see the Americans, weird, huh?

Cheese on Bread starts playing. I won't go into each of the songs or anything, but let me talk about the performance. Dan is the main attention-getter, and he and Sara do almost all the vocals. He's extremely ... outgoing? Waving his arms around, extemporizing outrageously and chaotically into the microphone, bouncing around the stage. Sara, on the other hand, is sort of the anti-chick-singer, with her glasses and her barrettes -- she looks like that girl that sat across from you and got good grades without studying, who you never saw hanging out, a girl who watches TV with her mom. And the two of them have these interacting vocal parts that are just hypnotic somehow, their melodies weave in and out and they finish lines for each other and if you stop paying attention for a second you miss something. Sometimes you have to watch just to figure out which one is singing; kind of like Sonny and Cher, sometimes she gets the low parts and he gets the high ones. Well, it's not very much like Sonny and Cher, except for that.

The songs are bouncy, light, with an acoustic guitar on most of them but sometimes weird instruments, like, she plays a pitch-pipe on one, and the band rocks at times but you wouldn't go hear them to dance. You go because of the songs. The melodies and dynamics are unpredictable to a point near absurdity at times. But really, I think it's the lyrics that get you. You just ... don't ... know ... what ... they're ... going ... to ... say ... next. So you have to listen, and it's worth it. The songs are funny, personal, wise, political, vulnerable, ridiculous.

I nursed that dark, six-dollar Guiness for about forty five minutes, and then had to get back across town before the subway shut down. But it was interesting and cool to watch, the kids on the dancefloor watched and listened, and then you saw some dancing around a little bit, and then a little bit more. While I was there it didn't exactly turn into a Teen Dance Party, but there were ripples of enthusiasm and you could tell the audience was really appreciating the band. I did notice that the bartenders were, uh, not busy. Like, nobody was spending any money. That's a good thing in one sense, it means the kids aren't drinking much (you had to be eighteen to get into the club). But you wonder how the place stays open. Fifty people, they might have taken in two hundred fifty pounds at the door to pay four bands, two bartenders, a bouncer, a ticket person. And maybe sold ten three-pound beers, call it two hundred eighty. Less than six hundred dollars to pay for all that.

So here's the weird moment. I was standing there at the back of the bar watching all of this, an old guy in a young world, been there etcetera. And I was watching these kids and seeing how dorky they were, and seeing how eager they were to enjoy this band, and how intensely good and focused the band was, and seeing how, I don't know, how old-fashioned it all was, I had this thought: the kids are all right.

I wasn't thinking about the Who. I was just thinking about the kids, and the music, well really I was thinking about kids and music, in general. It's just good, young people full of life reacting to the world in their dorky, inexperienced, unjaded way. And the band giving them something back to react to, and the band reacting to the kids, and after I thought that, standing there I was reminded of an interview with Pete Townshend many years ago, where he talked about the Who playing gigs for the mods in the sixties, and the crowd would try to copy the band's clothes and dance moves, and the band would try to copy the audience's clothes and dance moves, and the whole thing sort of took off on its own. My thought, the kids are all right, was identical to Pete Townshend's thought, probably in a club exactly like this, in the very same city, looking out from the stage of some local dive all those years ago.

And so I'm standing in the back of a little place in Kilburn, North London, watching this band interact with this audience, and I'm thinking the kids are all right, and they are, the whole thing is all right. I don't know, it was just a funny moment.


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