Sunday, August 27, 2006

REVIEW: Rock en Seine: ça rocke pas

Friday, August 25, 2006
Paris, France

I like the idea of a rock festival. I have fond memories of Lollapolooza--what was it?--1993, with acts like Luscious Jackson, Sonic Youth, Yo la Tango, George Clinton, and R.E.M. (before they started to suck beyond redemption) on dueling, yes, multiple, stages. I also always forgot how disappointed I was each time I attended such a supersize-me-goes-musical event, with their mostly short, drunken or lifelessly indifferent sets. It was punch in, punch out. Of course, most of the fun was social, not strictly musical (if the sociologists of music will permit me this indulgent categorical split). The Grateful Dead concerts are a case in point (not speaking from experience, but so I've heard; that reminds me of one of my favorite old jokes: "what does a deadhead say when he/she runs out of pot? This music sucks!").

As you can tell from this photo. I'm feeling good in the solidarity of rock...

[are you a new reader? You must see immediately that I have a dangerous compulsion toward the parenththesis (!). Refrain from judgment for a moment. Be transgressive. Consider that there might be pleasure in the parenthesis, perhaps even new knowledge, new paths, new directions. Let yourself go. Feels good, don't it?]

There was joy in being part of a partying little group that was part of a huge, anonymous but somehow shared experience/group, like having a national, ethnic, or fan identity. But I digress.

So it was with some nostalgia that I the American in Paris marched into the Rock en Seine festival with the old ball 'n chain (;. The first thing we recalled of such events is the annoyance of lines. Snaking into the horizon at least a mile long (still haven't learned kilometers: Thanks, Reagan) were the hordes (now I know why they called one of these things Hordefest in the American 90s; I didn't know that from experience, either, mainly because I never liked the Spin Doctors or Big Head Todd). One wondered how many French there were in the hordes, since our little everywhere in the blob-line was like a special EU task force sent to the festival, mostly in Morrissey t-shirts, and speaking creatively accented English. But you could spot the Froggies, as the blagueur has already noted, by their comme il faut scarves and blazers (no, not all of them, but enough to stand out). Hip is a culturally specific concept, despite the globalization of, well, everything, including hip.

So thirty or forty minutes later they took our tickets and we entered the park to find three stages vertically staggered over about a half-mile, and connected by tents full of heineken and Coca Cola, ipod and Levis peddlers. We had missed Calexico, one of the two main bands we had paid some forty euros to see/hear (we originally got there at about the time the thing was to start 15:00; it went 'til midnight). The first act we heard was
Dirty, Pretty Things, the Libertines break-up band. I don't remember much. It didn't suck. Some down time eating sausages, frites, and guzzling 5euro pints of Heineken--pas trop cher.

Alec Ounsworth of Clap Your Hands Say YeahThen the band we'd been waiting for, Clap Your Hands, Say Yeah. They were almost worth the entire ticket. Heady lyrics ("We can do the Zarathustra") and melodic but patently quirky vocals (high and vaguely David Byrne-like with the long-lilt abruptly punctuated by staccato yelps, though he contorts his voice and jumps around the scale more than his ancestor) and lively compositions. The band's other members provide some fascinating hooks that clearly glean from a hybrid of folk like Tom Waits and 80's synth-pop like O.M.D. They looked like indie American thirty-somethings. The lead singer was losing his hair a bit, and, as it turned out, also his voice. Still, he was a good sport; all of them were. They gave it their all and appeared to have fun doing it. This is stuff to jump around and smile to, even when the content defies the form.

It was tough to follow Clap Your Hands. The popular in Britain Kasabian fell flat for us. More top-40 pop dross, neither terribly catchy nor smart, derivative beats that the kids can hop around to and open the pressure cooker of teenage anxiety. The hopelessly insecure lead singer who kept asking for applause didn't increase the appeal.

Jack White's latest effort as part of the Raconteurs (which they gleefully mispronounce in front of their Paris audience) struck me as sad. Yet another talented rock flash (I really only liked the first White Stripes and a couple of tracks off later albums) flailing about in the limelight. Nothing will ever be like it was. So he reverts to the past, the deep past, getting together with old friends with whom he is supposed to be just another band member and pumping out un-ironic 70s c*%ck rock. High decibel, hard guitars, but without the catchiness, the melody, the memorable chorus that blunted the hard edge of the best Kiss, Cheap Trick, or (at their hardest guitar moments) Queen or Styx songs. As with these 70s rockers, when it loses a melody, even a hard one, it's like any other kind of monotonous noise.

Speaking of monotonous noise, there was Morrissey for the festival's finale (actually he dueled DJ Shadow for the bounty of attention at night's end). But before him there was TV on Radio. These three African-American (plus one white guy) rockers were endearing. The vocal style did deliberately invoke Hendrix, and the music was pretty rockin'. Yet, it was also uninsprining, thoroughly mediocre. Again, nothing really "stuck." A bit disappointing given how much they've been feted in the indie press.

And Morrissey. I had never seen the man, the legend, the freak (depending on your taste). I confess to being one of the tormented youth to whom he extended solidarity, a counter-public if you will, in the late 80s. One of my favorite contemporary quirkpop songwriters, Joe Pernice, caputred the subcultural zeitgeist in a recent novel on how The Smiths helped him survive high school. I spent a good deal of college listening to the Smith's, admiring Morrissey's articulately lyrical alienation and Johnny Marr's beautiful guitar compliments. They could rock, they could weep, they could laugh, sometimes all in one or two bars ("What She Said, I smoke, cause I'm hoping for an early death and I need to cling to someone..."; "I was looking for a job and then I found a job, and heaven knows I'm miserable now."). This was no ordinary performer/fan encounter for me. The Smith's are in the pantheon for me, along with the Clash, Johnny Cash, Billie Holiday, and Uncle Tupelo.

Morrissey strode into the limelight, a dapper sixty-year old (I'm guessing) in gray-black blazer and marroon shirt, accompanied by five young men in white pants and green t-shirts that read "playboys." In the background was a giant projection of Oscar Wilde in his wavy bob. What are you trying to say with this, Morrissey? Ah, the same thing you've been saying for over twenty years. But alas, it was tired, the whole innuendo now a cliche'. He started off with a misleading bang, rescuing "Panic" from the Smith's dustbin (no little irony that DJ shadow was performing to the electronic crowd a few meters aloft, though I actually like what I've heard by him). It got us all going: "Burn down the disco. Hang the blessed dj, for the music that they constantly play, says nothing to me about my life, hang the blessed dj...." The accompanying band actually rocked it pretty well. But then he proceeded to trot out a seemingly endless string of near spoken-word, obviously auto-biographical tripe. Heaven knows he's miserable now. But it ain't catchy.

I say "near spoken-word" because it was if he was trying on the spot to come up with a melody while reading his un-edited diary. I've always felt Morrissey solo suffered from the compositional genius of Johnny Marr and the creative relationship of the Smiths as a band. There's a disjuncture between Morrissey's lyrics, his vocals, and the musical accompaniment. I liked a couple of songs off "Suedehead," and then I really stopped listening to him. Now and again, a friend would put on something like "the more you ignore, me the closer I get, you're just wasting your time, " or "the last of the international playboys," and I'd feel a taste of the Smith's madeleine and the guilt that I'd given up too early. But his performance last night reassured me that it's somtimes better to remember what inspired as it was, not as it is. If Keats and Shelley had lived to a ripe old age, who knows: perhaps they would've sucked consistently for some thirty odd years. I loved most of Morrisey's Smith's lyrics, but now, the les bons mots are few and far between. At least I know what I've been missing, and it's best that way.

As I was leaving, I wondered if I was too old for this, even though I hate those people who live life according to the Miss Manner's age-o-meter ("You're still doing that? You still go to bars? Well, you don't have kids, afterall, but..."). No, I thought, it's not the event en principe, which is the problem. But I vow never to go to a festival again unless there at least three bands that I really like or love. I love Clap Your Hands. But even they aren't worth 40 euros and 7 hours of waiting for a Morrissey who no longer exists.

1 comment:

le Meg said...

"accompanied by five young men in white pants and green t-shirts that read "playboys."

To clarify: these were white pants with PLEATED FRONTS.

Which seems a particular sadistic choice on Morrissey's part.