Wish You Were There
I watched Live 8 twice last weekend, once in person and once on TV. I’m still not sure which one was a more authentic experience.
Since I could remember, I’ve been firmly of the mindset that being there’ is, for better or worse, the purest way to experience pretty much about anything in life—-a concert, a baseball game or, unfortunately, a face-to-face rejection by a member of the opposite sex. I’m not the first writer to describe a concert’s musical offerings as, simply, the soundtrack for a united experience, the bait to draw hundreds, thousands or hundreds-of -thousands of otherwise foreign personalities into a confined place. And, I’m certainly not the first unaccredited, cultural historian to dub Live 8 the ultimate being-there’ experience —- an iconic festival sure to be remembered through sweeping Life magazine photo spreads and in the dusty, rock-and-roll history books which line my bookshelf.
Most of my greatest regrets revolve around missing something I could have attended like, say, Big Cypress. So, two-days shy of our nation’s 229th birthday, I packed up a few friends, hopped on an Amtrak and headed to the City of Brotherly Love. From the slightly jumbled Jumbo screens to the not-so-Atkins approved Turkey legs, it was pretty much what I had expected: lots of overheated people spending more time trying to get close enough to see’ some music than caring if they hear any of it. I don’t blame them. After a half-day of crowd maneuverings, I only managed to get about ten city blocks away from the stage—-roughly the equivalent of the back of the main field at Bonnaroo. I heard bits and pieces of music interspersed amongst a collage of American chatter. From hippies to hiplets, homeboys to hobos, jocks to jerks —- pretty much every type of cultural stereotype sent at least a few able-bodied representatives. And, while the music also ran the gamut, each of the day’s offerings could be described in single word: pop.
For the first time ever, really, I wish I had stayed on the sidelines.
Even a week removed, my Live 8 memories are decisively non-musical: a haggard looking mother trying to control her children, a pack of urban women breaking the human decibel level, some dude pissing under a tree. Each image seemed to push the music simultaneously farther away from reality and deeper into history books. Unlike the somewhat blurred fan/performance lines that define the jamband scene, the pop world has always hidden behind spectacles, turning its celebrities into somewhat non-mortal entertainers—-a far cry from a scene filled with real-world celebrities like Marc Brownstein and Al Schnier.
So it’s no surprise that 98% of the day’s offerings also seemed somewhat intangible—-I’m sad to say neither Will Smith nor Bon Jovi call the Relix office very much. Two acts stood out in stark contrast: Dave Matthews Band and Maroon 5. Both originated in the jam-world, eventually abandoning improvisation for more polished sounds to varied results. But even after years of radio overexposure, it must have been weird for Dave Matthews to be lumped with acts known more for their studio work than live performances. Despite his strict set-time, the guitarist spent upwards of 5-minutes, a lifetime by Live 8 standards, fooling around with the same simple acoustic guitar that anchored his all-night Wetlands jam-sessions just over a decade ago. As Richard Gehr looked on, I couldn’t help remembering how this Virginia bartender had evolved from the leader of a baby Dead-band into a generational icon, how a band who once counted Widespread Panic and Phish as its peers, now played comfortably alongside the Black Eyed Peas. His story seemed so real and his roots still seemed so tied to the same tree that provides my own salary.
Perhaps the Philadelphia Live 8’s breakout personality, Maroon 5’s Adam Levine commanded a million-person crowd, immediately aging from suburban-pop homecoming king to a celebrity worth of his own Stevie Wonder cameo. As it happened none of his celebrity strings showed—-the fact that he spent his early 20s on Phish tours, or his tweens at my summer camp or, according to his t-shirt, at least one day in 1988 on the Beastie Boys’ Licensed to Ill outing. He suddenly seemed like my generation’s first rock icon. Later he mentioned Pearl Jam’s performance with Neil Young at the MTV Music Awards, one of my first connections with classic-rock. I felt old, unproductive and, all of the sudden, realized that the events which scored by child had suddenly aged into moments of relative cultural importance.
After returning home, I decided to watch Live 8 through MTV’s eyes. Like the Live 8 I experienced, MTV’s coverage emitted a sense of grandeur. Only, instead of putting my already active social schizophrenia to the test, this grandeur was expressed through sweeping crane camera shots not an army of individual stories. The cultural icons rolled by fast, plowing over the faceless crowd at rapid speed and, at the center, stood Pink Floyd.
For me, Pink Floyd has always had a sort of voodoo. The group’s classic lineup last performed the year I was born and Roger Waters severed ties with his bandmates shortly after my third-birthday, ruling out a chance for any post-uterine performances. Not that it really mattered. Pink Floyd, in my mind, always had a mystic quality, a loose collection of sounds and voices tied together somewhere in space. Unlike more iconic figures like John Lennon or Jerry Garcia, David Gilmour’s voice, in particular, was never attached to his face but, instead floated free into the sky filled with lasers, smoke and strobe lights. And, now, a decade after their last public performance, Pink Floyd stood in the present —- real people playing to a post-9/11 crowd. A few vocal scratches aside, Pink Floyd sounds just as I remembered them or, more precisely, how I envisioned remembering them. But, as close as I sat to the TV, I tried not to look.
It sounds clichnd suburban, but, then again, so am I. I remember really listing to Pink Floyd for the first time late at night, slightly buzzed in a room lit solely by the sticker neon solar systems which color every dorm room in America. As I faded in and out of dreams, Pink Floyd’s lush soundscapes seemed to fill that space you can’t remember right before you fall asleep, a blank face singing a wordless lullaby.
I bumped into Roger Waters, quite literally, about a year ago at New York’s BB King Club during a performance by the Ozric Tentacles, which, at the time, featured his son Nick. Sitting in one of the intimate club’s plush VIP booths, wearing a button down and flanked by industry friends and associates, I remember seeing how strangely human he looked—-like any proud parent using connections to give their kids a professional push. Unlike the other entertainers I’ve had the privilege of meetings in my two-year post college music-journalist hangover, I tried hard not to notice his strings. Pink Floyd’s heavenly message sounds so much more grounded knowing that Roger Waters shops at the same stores as my Dad.
Since Saturday, I’ve rewatched Pink Floyd’s reunion performance at least a half-dozen times. Something about the experience is so magical that I think I hoped that, by watching it enough times, I’d somehow feel like I really was there and been able to add the Floyd date to my archived list of past-concerts. After all, I felt closer to the Floyd than any of the acts I experienced first hand at the Philadelphia Live 8 and I watched most of those, in reality, on a TV wired to so super huge speakers. Come to think of it, more often than not, it’s easier to truly judge a show’s musical value in a quiet room with headphones than while fighting traffic, heat and drunken friends on the lawn of some amphitheater.
Oddly enough Live 8 took place just two weeks before my 24th birthday. Looking back over my short life, I can still remember the first child stars who become celebrities, how real they seemed and how fragile they appeared. It’s odd to think that Adam Levine spent time in the same lake I learned to swim or that Roger Waters reads Hampton Magazine enough to earn a spot on its cover. But, I guess Pink Floyd wasn’t created in a vacuum and, if this really ends up being its final performance, they won’t die in one either. I probably won’t ever get to see Pink Floyd with my own eyes. And, I guess, sometimes that not necessarily a band thing.