Sunday, July 25, 2010

A Night at the Temple

Concerts. Kirtan. Vodou ceremonies. I don’t care, as long as there’s music.

My body is caught in the current that flows over and from 18,000 people screaming along to Tool. I had a bad day, but that’s gone now. When the music starts, the music is everything. It both brings me completely into, and totally out of, myself.

50,000 people fall silent at the opening chords to The Smashing Pumpkins “Disarm.” We are sitting on a hill on Harriet Island, back when Lollapalooza was a tour. 10,000 people chant ancient hymns on the huge ghat steps leading down to the river in Varanasi. The whole city is lit by oil lamps on this sacred night. The State Theater is packed for the Black Crowes. We have balcony seats. I will talk about this night for the rest of my life, but right now, my whole world is Chris Robinson, on stage, wailing and dancing barefoot on a Persian rug. Over the course of two hours, 1400 people at the (old) Guthrie slowly lean forward more and more and more until we are all perched on the edge of our seats, breathless, as Ali Akbar Khan first caresses, then strums then totally fucking shreds on the sarod. All these experiences were distinct, but they are all the same.

Music usually raises a fierce joy, but there have been grueling times I endure only because music protects me, insulates me, wraps around me, and keeps the world out. Sometime the only thing that keeps me from being alone is a song that express what I am unable to articulate. Music lets me know that I am not the only one to feel something; it both helps me feel it more keenly and to overcome it: with music, the only way out is through. Sometimes I think that in buffering me from the reality around me, the music somehow absorbed it. So when I hear that song again, a little of that reality leaks out.

Music has always been something that frees me. At First Avenue, 200 people dance to P-Funk. George Clinton swings his multi-colored hair in a circle and yells “Are we LIVIN?” We roar back an affirmative: yes, we are livin. 100 people on a River boat chugging along the Mississippi jump up and down in unison to Michael Franti telling us to “throw your hands up high, ‘cause you never know how long you’re gonna live till you die.” The boat is shaking. 40 people crammed in an unfinished room at The New Orleans Healing Center groove to the Afro-Jazz rhythm of Kora Konnection from Senegal. There is no room to dance. A dozen people dressed in white do have room to dance around the center pole of a Vodou temple, as the drums call the Spirits. I am barefoot on the sand, under the stars, listening to music played by gypsies. We are deep in the desert of India, and I dance with my oldest friend.

Live music is best, but my everyday life has had a variable soundtrack coming from the radio, records, tapes, CDs and now our ever expanding digital collection. I love discovering new music, but I treasure the old stuff too. It can take me back to moments, places, people I have not seen in twenty years. The beat kicks in and suddenly I am there again, the memory stored in the music.

My husband and I, and most of our friends, slamdance to Ministry’s “Jesus Built My Hotrod” in the ballroom at a Marriot: he is wearing a tux, I am in my ivory silk wedding gown. We are grinning, young, drunk. I plug my headphones in and listen to Guns and Roses. Axl Rose is the only other human being who might be as pissed off as I am right now. I am in a car with my three best friends when  Prince comes on the radio. We crank it up, pull over on the freeway, and dance. We laugh like loons, and hug each other. My mom puts on a Peter Tosh record and we move to the sound of the Caribbean. Outside, the Minneapolis streets fill with snow. I must have been about six years old.

This is the story of my life. Then, now, always.

Bands I have seen live (as well as I can remember): 
Pixies, Beck, John Mooney, Smashing Pumpkins, Twilight Singers, Tori Amos, Ministry, Dead Can Dance, Flock of Seagulls, PJ Harvey, Bela Fleck, Ani DiFranco, Stanton Moore, Beastie Boys,  Sade, Black Crowes, Blink 182, Fall Out Boy, Sean Johnson and Wild Lotus, Panic! At The Disco, Gypsy Kings, The Decemberists, INXS, Beck, Billy Idol,The Killers, Liz Phair, Gypsy Kings, Modest Mouse, NIN, Roxy Music, Rage Against the Machine, They Might Be Giants, The Black Keys, Tool, Jewel, Ravi Shankar, Trombone Shorty, Jimmy Eat World, Aerosmith, Trip Shakespeare, Lenny Kravitz, Burning Spear, Alice in Chains, Ziggy Marley, The Breeders, Ali Akbar Khan, Babes in Toyland, Tracy Chapman, Michael Franti.

I would see every single one of those bands again, with the exception of Lenny Kravitz, who was so surly and wooden that he has the distinction of being the one artist who managed to make me dislike his music, which I previously liked, after seeing him live. Maybe he was having a bad day. But come on, man, you’re opening for Aerosmith. Have some humility.

Bands I hope to see:
MIA, Primus, Santigold, Lady Gaga, White Stripes, Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Rolling Stones, Snow Patrol, U2, Gaslight Anthem, Arcade Fire, My Morning Jacket, Muse, Gutter Twins, Wolfmother, Rob Zombie, Vampire Weekend, The Strokes, Ozzy, Sleigh Bells, Prince, ZZ Top, Marilyn Manson, B.B. King,  Pink, Godsmack, The Cure, Atmosphere, Black Eyed Peas, Arctic Monkeys.

Bands I wish I could have seen:
Ramones, Queen, Johnny Cash, Joy Division, GNR, Led Zep, Patsy Kline, The Clash, The Beatles, Nirvana, Bob Marley, The Doors, Peter Tosh, The Grateful Dead, Jimi Hendrix. The thought that I will never see Jimi Hendrix live in concert sometimes depresses me.

I almost didn’t go to the last show we had tickets for (Modest Mouse at the Orpheum) because I felt crappy. I have endometriosis, which results in chronic pain. I’m not in pain all the time, but when I am, I’d rather be curled up on the couch at home. But I wanted to go, so, fuck it, I went. There was a great crowd, everyone on their feet, screaming, cheering, singing along to the music. I look around at the wonderful cross-section of goateed, pierced, vintage-clothes-wearing Minnesota geekdom, and think: these are my people! At first I just stand there, sort of bouncing, listening to the show. But music comes in my ears and out my hips, so pretty soon I am swaying and grooving. Tentatively. Pelvic pain and pelvic motion do not go together. But after awhile, the music just…takes me, and I stop caring. I dance. I stop feeling anything besides the music. I stop being anything besides the music.

When the music gets going the beat comes up through the floor and pounds through the air, pulsing my sternum like another heartbeat. Everyone is moving, jumping up and down or swaying in place. I feel the life coursing through me, those around me, the universe. There is no difference. How can there be? We share a heart.


  1. If we could make a soundtrack of our lives, it would be ever changing, just like us. However, there are those moments of transportation where we are shuttled back to a time and place and remember with that song: where we were, what we were feeling, so much of ourselves.

    It's true that some songs make me relive old pain, but it's just as important to recognize what that music did to help us make it through to the other side -- to keep going. The soundtrack of my life would be varied.

    With that, we are sometimes embarrassed with those old tunes -- the 80s sometimes scare me, did we really look like that and listen to that music -- I could still probably remember the lyrics to old HoJo songs. But that's who we were, and who we were made us who we are; as much as Also Nova, The Pixies, Jane's Addiction and all the other music -- like my first concert (Air Supply, don't tell anyone).

    There are so many memories in our lives framed by music. I have old loves and past embarrassments like old girlfriends -- until I finally find that one true lasting love. The soundtrack I can't do without. I'm happy you're listening to it with me.

  2. Just got back from seeing Passion Pit and Muse at the Target Center. Awesome show.