A third of the way into Adam Green’s set, an audience member who had been mimicking the performer’s Snoopy-on-roller skates dancing felt compelled to issue a demand. “Look at me!” he screamed as his embarrassed companion edged her way into the shadows. “Hey everybody, can you see me?” Green, in the midst of mechanically thanking us for skipping the Super Bowl to jump on the PATH and trek out to New Jersey, suspended his monologue and blinked for what might have been the only time all night. He looked dumbstruck—but only half has much as the audience members, many of whom turned around to glare. Maxwell’s got silent for a moment as time, in one of those car accident-like moments, accelerated to a stop that lasted just long enough for each of us to die several shame-induced deaths on behalf of our loud-mouthed interloper.
1 Feb 2004: Maxwell's Hoboken, New Jersey
Moments like these are rare during a performance of any sort, but they are even rarer at indie rock shows. Just a guess, but they probably never happen to Adam Green. Sure, it was a staccato glitch in the forward momentum of the evening—like a record skipping or a stick becoming lodged in the spokes of a bike—but it was just enough to throw much of what was going on into brief flux. This is because people watch Adam Green for different reasons than they watch anyone else for. When a band takes the stage, the audience presents the illusion that it must be won over; the instant the lights flicked on to reveal a smiling Green greeting us into the microphone, we knew implicitly that he had already won. Or, possibly, we knew that he didn’t care to win. He stared out at us doe-eyed, unflinching, crooning his dirty kindergarten-rug songs about cunts and the art of seducing amputees. Between verses, he twirled his arms and lost himself in gleeful, awkward dances. Between songs, he spoke little because talking wasn’t necessary. Until that outburst from the crowd, it had never occurred to any of us that we should be—could be—doing anything other than watching Adam Green as he refused to doubt whether or not he had the right to be onstage.
Which is strange, because beyond his voice there was nothing particularly commanding about his presentation or demeanor. His hair was shabby and mussed as if he had just cut it himself with a dirty mirror in a dimly lit room. He wore a taupe sports coat, draped over a V-neck T-shirt, with sleeves too short and shoulders too wide. But though he looked the part of a slummy downtowner there to bore us with his talent deficiencies, his voice had the fullness and polish to carry the songs more or less unadorned. The band assembled behind him was bare-bones, consisting of a bassist, drummer, guitarist and keyboardist. A welcome departure from the saccharine orchestral flourishes of his post-Moldy Peaches solo record, Friends of Mine, the backing musicians gave Green’s voice plenty of room to stand on its own.
The show managed to assuage my suspicions that Green’s appeal lay in the cognitive dissonance between the preciousness of his music and the vulgar absurdity of his lyrics. It does feel mildly naughty to hear him sing, “she was a man with herpes,” over an arrangement that could just as easily be on Nick Drake’s Bryter Later. But irony this obvious is barely irony, and anyway it doesn’t explain the doting young fans professing their love—literally: “We love you Adam!” they kept shouting, with total earnestness. And it also doesn’t explain the believability of his cover of the Boss’ “Born to Run”, which he used to close out the show. As we all know, covers are a tricky business in indie rock. Other than Yo La Tengo dredging up record geek obscurities that are sure to have no cultural context, most covers elicit a “Do they mean it or not?” response from the crowd. But Green, by softening his gaze and allowing his face to not be blank, cut through those layers of doubt. He had fun as he yelped out the song’s lines, especially the one about the ever-lasting kiss. It was proof, should any have been needed at that point, that he had every right to be on that stage.