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Friday, May 11, 2018

Don't Die; Don't Disappear. I Swear to God We Need You Here

I started to write this when Chris Cornell died.  I tried again when Chester Bennington died. Ultimately I realized that I didn't have anything relevant or specific to say about those two gifted but deeply troubled artists that hadn't been more adroitly expressed by others who knew them better. Now again I'm hearing friends express loss about an artist (Scott Hutchison of the Scottish indie band Frightened Rabbit) whom I didn't get the chance to appreciate while they were alive. And I'm realizing these stories are coming out at alarming intervals.

The thing that each of these deaths brought out for me is a sense of threat for a community that I've been blessed to stumble into, probably later in life than most people would think is normal, beginning with a concert in Philadelphia in the summer of 2010.  I attended to see a band called Chamberlain which had reunited briefly after a long hiatus to tour with The Gaslight Anthem. I only knew the latter's radio hits going in, but I came away a fan of both them and pre-opener Tim Barry, and have since been drawn into a community of their fans, a core group of which I have come to know as friends.

I have found myself spending more and more time at shows by a handful of bands whose fans seem to overlap quite a bit. Gaslight and their lead singer Brian Fallon are at the nexus, but I've checked out new bands just based on the t-shirts of the people around me and rarely been disappointed.  Thus I've come to be familiar with the music of The Bouncing Souls, The Menzingers, Hot Water Music, The Loved Ones, Lucero, and others.

This is a little bit of a different experience than following an act like Bruce Springsteen who can sell out Giants Stadium for multiple nights (or a Broadway theater five nights a week for six months).  That is a great atmosphere, but a fairly anonymous one; you only interact for the most part with the people who came with you and maybe the tall guy who keeps blocking your view. The likelihood of seeing them again is pretty much nil.

Rather than stadiums, these gigs tend to be in smaller theaters and even bars. You start to see familiar faces, and become one yourself. I made friends with the tall guy at a subsequent show and he made sure I could see. And in between shows, you can go online and quote lyrics, brag over autographs, answer endless polls, and generally bond with your fellow fans. To my surprise, my age and general awkwardness didn't set me apart

The artists in venues like Crossroads in Garwood, The Saint in Asbury Park, and any of a dozen clubs in downtown NYC are often a few yards away, and some, like Chuck Ragan and Dave Hause, come out and talk to fans before and after.  The up-and-coming acts that open for them frequently staff their own merch tables and carry their own gear in and out, and sometimes look to you for help. Sometimes they stay for a drink or four, and you have the opportunity to actually interact as, if not "friends" exactly, still more than just performer and fan. You might catch a glimmer of recognition in their eyes (it helps if you have something unique like my friend Beth's cool boombox purse) and you exist, if even for just a few seconds, as something beyond the aggregate of ticket sales and chart positions.

Someone asked me, after I mentioned seeing Jared Hart of The Scandals perform live for probably the tenth time, how I can see the same act over and over (particularly if they are fairly new and have a limited catalog from which to build a setlist). I had to think about that, and the truth is that the repetition doesn't bother me. Every show is different, with a different energy and banter, and there is even something comforting in the ritual of hearing your favorites again.

On that note, I had an epiphany during a recent set by Tim Barry, who opened that show in Philly: these shows are, in a sense, a similar experience to church when it's at its best. Whether it's shout-singing the lyrics of your favorites or the chaotic society of the mosh pit, I wondered if the a generation growing up in an increasingly irreligious time finds at these shows some of the community and energy a faith community might have otherwise provided. At a time when the pews have become somewhat of a no-man's land for me, I know I certainly do. While there is little in the way of "preaching" I've been relieved to discover by following them on Twitter and Instagram that I can feel good about being associated with them based on the worldview they put out there.

Thus when these guys share, either through lyrics or between-songs banter, anything that suggests they are struggling, it is unsettling. As much as you think they "get" you, you don't really know what's going on in there, and feel like you can't really help. Fallon in particular keeps a pretty solid barrier between his work and his personal life, probably wisely.  But when you've trusted someone to contribute to the soundtrack of your life, it's hard not to feel at least a little protective in those moments. I won't pretend to understand what drives so many creative people to these dark nights of the soul: maybe it is a heightened perception of this troubled world that seems like too much to bear. And, perhaps selfishly, I worry for the fragile sense of togetherness these fandoms provide.

So even though I've never been in the crowd at an Avicii or Frightened Rabbit show, I mourn with their fans tonight. I can keenly imagine what they're feeling. I never want to hear the news they got this week.

The title of this post is from "I Just Died (Like an Aviator)" by Matthew Ryan, another of my musical finds.  That is my message to the artists, both the ones whose work I love and referenced here, and the ones who are just as important to someone else. We need you here.

In the wake of Bennington's death, Music Minds Matter was launched in the UK. The group offers 24/7 mental health services to not only artists, but anyone involved in the music industry, with a 24-hour helpline. By using this link to listen to Tyni's song "Fighter", fans can contribute to the organization. I pray that any artist who is struggling finds the help they need.

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