374. Rock of Ages

(Thanks to donations this week, here is a Saturday post!)

Ziggy put my eyeliner on. He didn’t say anything, but it didn’t feel weird that he wasn’t saying anything. It felt nice to have him touch my face, like it usually did. His hands were only a little shaky.

So were mine. Once the opening act hit the stage, my adrenaline level peaked and stayed there. I always got a little hyper before a show but not usually to this extreme.

As Ziggy sat back and looked at the job he’d done on my eyes, I looked at his face, the pale green swath of color across his own eyes–from ear to ear really–and his hair. “Wait a second,” I said. “Are you supposed to be the Statue of Liberty or something?”

“I’m the torch,” he said, completely seriously. “Which reminds me to touch up the copper highlights on my lips.”

I smiled. I couldn’t help but smile. You crazy fantastic creature, is what I was thinking.

To stop my hands from shaking, I sat down with the Ovation and played around with it, making mental notes. He and I were more than ready to debut “Moving Parts,” and we could do the song we’d recorded in New Orleans, too, what were we calling it now? I often had a title in my head for songs that didn’t match the “official” title we put on them. The important thing when I do that is that I tell the other guys so they know what I’m talking about.

I heard a radio squawk outside the door. Barnaby stuck his head in. “Ten minutes to curtain,” he said.

“But there is no curtain,” Ziggy said, raising one eyebrow. “Is there?”

“That’s just how we say it,” Barnaby said with a shrug.

“Why not say ‘Ten minutes to showtime’ then?” Ziggy asked.

“You want me to say ‘Ten minutes to showtime?'” Barnaby frowned and flicked a glance at me.

“Not necessarily,” Ziggy said. “I’m just pointing out, you know, that might be better. And more accurate. Don’t you think? And applicable to all arenas, especially since most of them don’t have curtains.”

“Um, okay.” Barnaby glanced at his watch and cleared his throat. And then, with something of the sound of a carnival barker and a bemused grin on his face, he called, “Niiiiiine minutes to SHOW-time!” And then added in his regular voice. “So get a move on, eh? It’s a hike to the stage from here.”

So we started the hike. I could hear the crowd cheering like a giant animal waiting for us in the arena. We passed people in the hallways like usual but I didn’t really see them. The sound was almost like a storm, like a windstorm or some other force of nature, the cheering, whistling, clapping, and stamping melding together into something gale force.

At the edge of the stage Colin took the lanyard with my passes off my neck and put it on his own, like he always did. A set of metal stairs led up to the stage.

We didn’t usually go onto the stage in any specific order. And some of the places we’d played, walking from the wings onto the stage was something we could all do at the same time. But with a stairway like this we had to go single file. Somehow it seemed to me like the others were all waiting for me to go first.

I was probably over-thinking it.

Up I went into the blast of cheers. I made a quick check of my foot pedals and my mic height and I knew when Ziggy passed behind me toward center stage because the cheering got even louder. I hadn’t thought that was possible. I checked to make sure my ear plugs were in place. They were.

There was no playing with the set list tonight. No injury or illness adjustments, no complaints about how it–or the band–was getting tired. None of that. It felt like the whole rest of the tour had been a series of dress rehearsals for tonight. Why? I don’t know, it just did. It was New York and everyone watching and all the execs there and the fact that it was almost the end of the tour and that it was Madison Square Garden.

My heart raced as we plunged into the first song, and I’m sure every else’s raced, too. The more adrenaline there is, the more it feels like you’re on a tightrope without a net, and the more exultant you are when you get to the other side. I knew this. We all knew this. We couldn’t be any better prepared than we were, though. This is what it’s all about.

They had built the stage with a pit set-up, which made it difficult for anyone to rush the stage, and also so if anyone swooned and fainted they could pull her out easily and revive her. I’m not being sexist saying “her,” am I? Male fans don’t seem to scream until they faint. At least, I haven’t seen one yet.

Compared to many of the shows, there were relatively few stuffed animals being thrown. New Yorkers are too cool for that, I guess. Or maybe more of them were landing in the pit than I realized.

I should pause to tell you something that broke my heart about David Gilmour, the guitarist for Pink Floyd. At least two of the greatest guitar solos in the history of rock and roll are his, the one in “The Wall” and the whole instrumental run-up in “Wish You Were Here.” When I was listening to those songs as a kid, they seemed like they captured two of the most fantastic, virtuosic performances in the history of rock guitar on those recordings.

I got my illusions about that shattered by an interview I read with Gilmour where he described how he developed those solos. He would go into the studio, and play solo after solo, and then take tape snippets of the parts he liked, and then paste all the good bits together, and then learn to play that note for note.

When I think about that as a technique it makes perfect sense. But it still broke my heart to realize that what I had assumed was a spontaneous performance was actually so carefully manufactured. Manufacturing a solo like that is not less musical. It’s not “worse.” It’s not “cheating.”

But it takes the magic out of it, doesn’t it?

Of course when you play live you need magic. That’s what it’s all about as far as I’m concerned. I often follow the general shape or melody of a solo if it’s a short one, but sometimes I don’t. I don’t over-think it. The whole point is that it happens in real time, you play it as it comes. Sometimes it crashes and burns, or falls flat, but not that often with me. If I ever needed something to be anxious about, I could worry that I’m going to run out of ideas, I guess. But that’s the thing. There are only so many notes, and only so many ways to put them together, and yet in the whole history of Western music we’ve NEVER RUN OUT. Yeah, no, I don’t worry I’m going to run out of ideas. Not even a little.

And even if I do play something the same as it is on the record, it doesn’t come out the same, anymore than Ziggy singing the same words comes out the same. Because part of the magic is that this moment won’t ever happen again. The people there, the exact color of the light, the air molecules around us, they won’t be the same again, for us or the audience. Moments happen and you have to be there to experience them.

I think every concert-goer grasps this on some level. This is why you go to the concert instead of staying home and listening to the album really loud, or watching all the videos.

Magic can’t be captured. It can only be set free.

Which is a long way of saying once it got going, the show at Madison Square Garden was exactly like any of our shows, which is to say it wasn’t the same at all, and yet it was totally familiar. One thing that was different was we took slightly longer pauses between songs. Ziggy was stopping to drink a lot more water and we all gave him a breather each time. Louis held the light cues. The crowd was so large and loud that the empty spaces felt intentional. Instead of feeling like dead space, it felt almost like we were asking the crowd to fill it up, to answer us, and they did.

I filed that away to think about later. Maybe giving people more spaces to cheer in was something I should think about when building our next live set. I’d never thought of a show as a conversation between the band and audience before, but after that, I could never think of it as anything but.

(Daron here with a mini liner note. If you believe the VH-1 special on Def Leppard, it was producer Mutt Lange who suggested that Def Leppard lead singer Joe Elliot switch to his upper range instead of singing everything in a low growl. If it’s true, it’s one of the best things a producer ever did to help a band reach their potential. And as long as I’m here, here are the two songs I mention above by Pink Floyd. The Wall solo begins at 2:17 and runs until the end of the song. In fact this video fades it out a little early. And Wish You Were Here starts really quietly because it’s the sound of the guitar being played through the radio. The solo starts at 0:42 and it’s louder because it sounds like someone playing along with the radio in the room with you. The solo works so well partly because it’s so damn simple. But the blues is like that, you know?)


  • Janie Friedman says:

    Daron I agree with you about how Gilmour puts his solos together taking away some of the magic. And Wish You Were Here does contain one of my favorite of his solos and one of the first I taught myself, but I think my all time fav of his is the one at the end of Comfortably Numb. Although he’s one of my favorite guitar players of all time, so picking out one or two solos may be an exercise in futility.

    • daron says:

      Comfortably Numb is outstanding, too. Gilmour is one of the best guitar players of our lifetimes, don’t get me wrong, and if you watch some of the live concerts you know he can improvise perfectly well.

      I think it says something about the drastic difference between building a track in the studio and playing it live. You can record with everyone playing simultaneously or you can record each person separately to a backing track and then layer them together, and by the mid-seventies (everything post-Beatles, basically) doing it track by track was the standard. It’s not such a leap from tacking a song together layer by layer to piecing a part together and from there it’s basically a tiny step to piecing a solo together.

      But I think I would have just played 20 takes of it until I got all the ideas I wanted into it. But that’s me.

  • cayra says:

    “a show as a conversation between the band and audience”

    That’s a really great way of putting it!

  • LenaLena says:

    Don’t overdo it with the dead space. I went to a concert last Wednesday with a friend (because she’s a big fan and needed company) and not only was there an excessive 75 minutes between the opening band leaving the stage and the start of the concert, they took several minutes between each and every song, effectively stopping any buildup dead in its tracks. I couldn’t believe much that ruined a concert that would have been perfectly fine otherwise. My friend, the fan, even insisted that next time she felt like going to a concert she’d make popcorn and just play the album loud instead.

    • daron says:

      Jeez, that sounds extreme, like they were having some kind of issue. Whether a technical issue or medical/medicinal who knows…

      I don’t think most venues would let us have a 75 minute gap between the opener and us. The unions control how late you can go and that would cut into our stage time.

      • LenaLena says:

        My bet would be technical issues, judging by all the roadies running around behind the stage.

        They came on at 9.45 pm and were off by 11 pm. Actual playing time was considerably less than an hour. Another 15 min break and then the encore. We were out by 11.30 pm.

        • daron says:

          Ick. I mean, there are artists who just aren’t great live acts. And then there are some who play short, I guess. Robert Smith of the Cure tells of saving up his money to get a ticket to see Bowie in the early 70s and being just crushed that Bowie’s set was only 40 minutes long and boom, that was it. Smith says feeling that disappointment helped him form the work ethic for The Cure, though. He never wanted to be the wanker who disappointed that kid sitting up by the rafters who had scrimped and saved to be there.

          I can appreciate that.

        • LenaLena says:

          Man. That is just wrong.

          And I can feel Smith’s pain. When people ask me why I go see 20 year old bands like Soundgarden and Smashing Pumpkins the answer, besides the fact that they are still great, is that back then I was too poor to buy concert tickets.

          • daron says:

            I wonder. If Bowie comes around now, after 10 years of hiatus, after he had that massive heart attack, am I going to go see him? If I have the chance… will I take it? I don’t know. (Far as i know he hasn’t announced any tour plans though so this is purely hypothetical…)

        • LenaLena says:

          If you can afford it and you haven’t seen him before? Why the hell not? At worst you’ll have wasted an evening. At best…. Well, you know what that’s like.

          I can tell you that the Pumpkins and Soundgarden were worth it. Honestly some of the best concerts I’ve been too. And, back in the day, the venue would have been triple the size and I wouldn’t have been able to get as close to the stage.

  • deb h says:

    Loved it ,Glad the show went well for some reason I thought something bad was going to happen .

    Ps def leppard counts mutt as the 6th member of the band,they really owe a lot to him and they know it.(my fav band of the 80’s)

    • daron says:

      Sometimes having that person who can hear what you all sound like together is so important. You can always hear yourself better than the other guys–it’s hard to know what it sounds like from out front.

  • steve says:

    ‘I’m not being sexist saying “her,” am I? Male fans don’t seem to scream until they faint.’

    Close, once or twice, but I pulled back each time, so not yet.

    • daron says:

      It occurred to me later that maybe some guys do faint but no one helps them up the way they do with girls. Maybe they just get kicked around on the floor until they revive on their own…

      (kidding, but makes about as much sense as other sexist weirdness…?)

      Haha, Bart just reminded me *I* passed out once at The Living Room in Providence, but I wasn’t screaming. (I was in a crush of people against the stage, though.)

  • Sara Winters says:

    Makes me wish I was at the show. I could practically feel the energy in the room.

  • Joe says:

    “Magic is what we do. Music is how we do it.” said some famous guitar player. It was a different type of music but it’s what I love about live music, or perhaps I should say it’s what I look for in live music, the attempt at magic. It doesn’t always have to get there; it’s the attempt that’s important.

    re: conversation between the audience and the band — the bass player of the afore-unmentioned band was fond of saying in later years: Thanks for coming out to make this music with us. It would never happen without you; without you all to close the circuit we’d just be up here staring at each other.

    Anyhow, I’m glad the show went well. Love the Gilmour stuff and I love the talk of live music. May you always remember to reach for the stars every time you step out on stage and may you never run out of notes to play.

  • Connie says:

    Okay, Ziggy, I got it. Little slow, but I finally got it. You’re the torch, as in torch singer.

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