Photo: Eric Perez
In his already seminal chronicle of the 1980s American underground, Our Band Could Be Your Life, Michael Azerrad writes that, “[Lou] Barlow was the type of person who needed to pick over his feelings like an archeologist at a dig; he needed a lot of feedback and encouragement.”
Barlow himself puts it even better in the first verse of “Free to Go” from The Folk Implosion’s One Party Lullaby: “I had seven good years ‘til I noticed they were looking at me/I didn’t like what they’d see.”
He was “the sensitive one” in Dinosaur Jr, and for a band full of head cases that’s saying something. Even if you disregard his new solo effort’s title, Emoh, it’s still obvious that he’s had an enormous influence on the habits of punk’s twerpy kid cousin. From a tendency for thick glasses and pointy-headed introspection to reckless use of emoticons, Barlow is partially to blame.
But Barlow always saw past the token stereotypes and the limitations. He was honest, sure, but his execution was eloquent as hell. He knew how you really felt behind that carefully constructed image so integral to the scenester existence. He was someone the socially marooned indie rock kids could look up to, but more importantly, empathize with on a very complex personal level, without fear of reprisal. Before legions of frat boys got to be on a first-name basis with Dave Matthews, the rest of us had Lou.
So I have a confession to make. No, I don’t have a LiveJournal. But since I first discovered One Part Lullaby I’ve had a serious man-crush on Lou Barlow. The best albums change your life; One Part Lullaby filled me with the desire to one day pack mine up and move it to California, and that craving has yet to subside.
Last December I finally boarded a plane for Barlow’s “E.Z.L.A.” He tried to tell me: “it’s nothing like I thought it was after all.” Indeed, my expectations were exceeded.
On the other hand, when Barlow himself shuffled past me to take the stage of Philadelphia’s Khyber Bar, he was exactly what I expected. Not in appearance, per se—I’ve seen pictures so I recognized the tousled, dark hair and brooding eyes (and of course the glasses)—but in the way that he moved: a mass of pent-up anxiety, resolutely avoiding eye contact with the fixated throng.
When someone called out, “Dinosaur!” he finally cracked a smile and responded, “Actually, J. Mascis and I got together last night and wrote five new songs.” Then he lost it, stifling giggles as he added, “And they’re the best work either of us has ever done.” In fact, Dinosaur Jr may be reuniting—to pick the pockets of a new generation of hipsters who didn’t become fans until after the fact (guilty)—but the quip proves that Barlow is more than capable of standing comfortably on his own.
He dove right into it, setting the tone for the evening with Emoh‘s no-frills acoustic lead track, “Holding Back the Year”. Hearing the sound of his voice, ten feet from the source and minus the crude boundaries of digital media, was even better than the first time. That voice is truly his virtuoso instrument, and it carried the show. Once again, I was smitten.
To be honest, I’d only listened to Emoh two whole times since it came out earlier in the week, and I wasn’t crazy about it. I knew this was the stuff he’d be pulling out at the Khyber, yet the week of the show I still wasted time preparing myself with a steady regimen of Folk Implosion and Sebadoh listening binges. Of course, it was not to be. At one point he did open up the floor for shouted requests and rejected about fifteen (including mine: “Free to Go”, of course) before settling on one that suited him
Sure, I was a little disappointed that I didn’t get to see some of the most important music in the world—to me, at least—performed live now that I finally had the opportunity. But it was well worth it to see Barlow up there doing things his way. It finally occurred to me that this was probably the closest anyone could ever get to Barlow at a show: standing at the front of a tiny venue while he plays the most naked songs he’s ever written.
For an hour and a half, everyone present got a glimpse of Lou Barlow being exactly the musician and the man he wanted to be. In some small way it felt great to be a part of that.
After his set, Barlow stood at the front of the room, selling his own merchandise. I pulled my copy of One Part Lullaby and a Sharpie out of my coat pocket and pressed them into his hands. We never made eye contact, but as he signed the inside of the liner notes I leaned in and simply said, “Thank you.” I doubt I could have explained it to him any better, so I hope that was enough.