(I meant to post this yesterday, but no matter. One day’s delay shouldn’t make too much difference, in the overall scheme of things.)
The band sounded more like Dymbel’s cup of tea than my own: well crafted, neat and tidy US college rock, and the sort of thing that Uncut magazine were big on at the time. If you liked REM, Wilco and Big Star, then you’d probably be into them. Dymbel loved all three acts – still does, for that matter – and so we decided to give them a punt.
It felt odd, and strangely inappropriate, going out to a gig on the night after the news event which had locked us all in front of our TV screens for hours on end, in slack-jawed, dumbfounded horror. Especially since the band were American themselves. Far too early to contemplate a rocking good night out, surely. But what else were we to do? In any case, the tickets were already purchased. Might as well, then.
The Social was far from full. A subdued smattering of diehard music geeks, mostly male, stood around, making quiet conversation. Everything felt slightly unreal. We were all still in that initial, shell-shocked, calm-eye-of-the-storm phase: trying to absorb the enormity of what had happened, but still some distance away from being able to analyse the background, predict the implications, super-impose our own world-views. It was enough, at this stage, to feel the loss.
The band took to the stage. Unassuming, non-starry, dressed-down, regular guys, with solemn, somewhat distracted expressions.
The singer grasped of the microphone, and said something like this.
“Obviously, we’ve been thinking all day about the terrible events that took place yesterday, in our home city of New York, and trying to make contact with our friends and families over there. We don’t want to say anything more about it, though. The only thing which makes much sense to us right now is our music. So all we really want to do is play our music. Thank you. And if anyone’s buying, mine’s a Jack Daniels.”
Within the first few bars of the opening song, a member of the audience had placed a glass of Jack Daniels at the front of the stage. Every time that it was emptied during the set – which was more than a few times – a new glass materialised.
Having vaguely expecting some sort of Major Statement, I couldn’t help but feel a guilty twinge of disappointment. This wasn’t the sort of music that fitted a tragedy of these dimensions. Too polite, too constrained, too rooted in seemingly small, everyday concerns.
The band played on, brows knotted, eyes to the floor. The crowd applauded, in diffident moderation. The bar did a steady, roaring trade.
Slowly, the mood of the crowd and the mood of the band converged. An intensity grew in the room, of a nature that was over and above the material being played. Something was passing between us, that could not be expressed in words. Words were immaterial.
Towards the end of the set, someone shouted for a song off the new album. The singer dismissed the request with a quick, momentarily appalled shudder.
“No, there’s no way we can play that tonight.”
The set ended, to sustained, fervent applause. Everyone in the room was steaming drunk – but drunk in a contained way. Like at a wake.
“F**k it, let’s do it anyway.”
The encore commenced. It soon became clear that this was the song that was requested earlier. The lyrics were about someone dying in a plane crash. It was jarringly inappropriate and yet horribly pertinent, like that heartbreak song on the radio which wasn’t exactly about you, but which you related to anyway, because you needed to universalise your pain.
The song concluded – but the band played on, seizing its basic chord patterns and jamming on them, with steadily increasing noise and ferocity, losing themselves in the music. With every repetition, they moved further and further away from the neat-and-tidy college-boy politeness, and out into something quite other, above and beyond themselves.
The singer bent himself double over his guitar, his face contorted and crimson, thrashing furiously yet purposefully. His thick, nerdy spectacles fell off the end of his nose, toppled onto the stage, and remained there. He didn’t even seem to notice.
The jam drove ever onwards. This no longer felt like a gig. It was a communal catharsis; a doomed exorcism, which could only hope to hold the demons at bay for as long as the band kept playing. Perhaps they would never stop.
In a squall of feedback, stepping back from the brink, they stopped. And humbly stepped straight off the stage, and into the sparse crowd, who tentatively edged around them, still roaring their applause, but not wanting to intrude too far.
Behind me, sensing my hesitation, a tall stranger nudged me forwards.
“Go on, mate! They f**king deserve it!”
I smiled, but stayed put, keeping a respectful distance: drunkenly dazed, but keenly aware that we had witnessed something unprecedented – and hopefully never to be repeated.
I doubt that the band would want to be remembered for this, so I shan’t mention them by name. You probably wouldn’t have heard of them anyway.
Besides, it was, in a strange way, private. Just between us.
Exactly five years ago, plus the one day.