PopMatters Gauges the Heat at NXNE 2005: We Just Came for the Wristband
We Just Came for the Wristband by David Marchese - David Marchese examines NXNE, the uneven blessings of talent and exposure, and the slippery notion of success.
PopMatters Gauges the Heat at NXNE 2005
We Just Came for the Wristband
David Marchese examines NXNE, the uneven blessings of talent and exposure, and the slippery notion of success.
by David Marchese
Part One | Part Two
Unless you have a dedication for Canadian independent music beyond that of 99% of the general public, it’s unlikely that you’ve heard of Phattoe, Arsoncityscape, or Junior Pantherz. You’re a little further away from the margins if you’re into The Dears. At the vanguard of Montreal’s recent explosion of big-hearted, big sounding pop bands, along with The Arcade Fire and The Stars, The Dears have received positive press from widely read publications like Rolling Stone, Spin, and the NME. Even Morrissey himself, the Tigris and Euphrates for so many of today’s young musicians, has publicly championed The Dears. While certainly not a mainstream band, the Dears have already achieved a level of success far beyond everyone else I’d seen at NXNE.
Before the concert was underway the differences between this show and the others were hugely apparent. No trendy hotel lounges or stained-floor clubs for The Dears; they’d achieved the distinction of playing “concert theatres”—a sobriquet which appears to be bestowed on places where 500-1000 people can overpay for beer while standing on a cement floor and being burdened with terrible acoustics and the flicker of neon lights.
The possibility of meeting the band was almost non-existent: meeting the Dears would have involved locating unseen dressing rooms and evading tight-shirted bodyguards. That palpable sense of distance would be carried over into the show.
The curtains fell and the lights went dim. A few minutes passed before the curtain raised and the band appeared on stage. Amidst a barrage of flashing lights, the Dears dove into their brand of archly dramatic mope-rock. The crowd responded knowingly to the rises and falls of each songs, and kept the cheers going between songs. As someone who neither liked nor disliked the band, the mood quickly became stiflingly antiseptic.
Even at this modest level of notoriety, the distance between performer and audience becomes a great one. The previous night, when I could’ve reached out and touched the bands as they played, and I spoke to all of them when they where done, the atmosphere was somehow more human, more real. Put the band on a raised stage, pay for a light show, and fill the space with only those who are already fans and it becomes less about music and more about worship. It’s possible that my experience had been sullied by the intimacy of the previous night, but after four or five songs I got bored and left.
It’s alternately easy and hard to understand why a band would want to reach a level of success similar to that of the Dears. On the positive side, the money is more certain, more people hear the music, and you don’t have to work as hard to win over an audience. On the negative side, you could probably take a shit on stage and people would cheer. There’s also none of the electricity created by playing in the midst of people who may or may not like you. If I were a musician I think the positives would far outweigh the negatives. As a music critic, I miss the conflict. For success to occur there must also be failure, and in the music racket the critic wins more often than not.
The following night’s target was an easy one. After seeing assorted nobodies, could-bes, soon to bes, and kind-of-ares, I had a band of has-beens in my sights. Thirty or so years ago, the New York Dolls brought a new kind of sexual and musical energy to the rock and roll world. New York tough-guys dressed like street whores playing rock with all the danger and precision of a drunkard in a knife fight was something fresh and exciting. Profoundly more influential than popular, they have been fondly remembered as a key progenitor of the punk revolution—and now they’re back.
Well, some of them are. Their original drummer, Billy Murcia, died after their first tour of England in 1972. Original lead guitarist and sleazy rock icon Johnny Thunders died of a drug overdose in 1991. His death was followed a few months later by the death by stroke of Jerry Nolan—Murcia’s replacement. Bassist Arthur Kane died of leukemia in July of last year shortly after the Dolls reunited.
The New York Dolls I was going to see consisted of frontman David Johansen and rhythm guitarist Syl Sylvain. Stick around for a while in rock and roll and what do you get? Death and a reunion tour. I had to be there.
Johansen and Sylvain, in their finest garbage glam finery, sauntered on-stage to the cheering of an enthusiastic horde. For a band whose memory is more alive than three fifths of the original members, the show was not the necrophilia pageant it could have been. But I wouldn’t say it was particularly vibrant either.
Still in good voice, and with the charm of a gayer, less eager to please Mick Jagger, Johansen strutted across the stage and playfully slapped the asses of the other musicians. He fared better than Sylvain, who has grown fat and was upstaged all night by the hotshot hired hand lead guitar player.
Everybody played well, but it was strangely unaffecting. I got the feeling that the mere act of SEEING THE NEW YORK DOLLS was enough for most of the people in attendance. But I couldn’t get into it. The Dolls lasting influence had as much to do with their attitude as their music, and when that attitude has been absorbed and expelled for over 30 years the music is all that’s left – and it might not be enough. Johansen is a charismatic dude, but that can’t disguise the fact that the nature of the Dolls’ music means that two-fifths of the New York Dolls playing the music of the New York Dolls is not that far removed from the sound of a spirited bar band.
The most emotional moment of the night came when the band paid tribute to their fallen guitarist by segueing from Thunder’s junkie lament “You Can’t Put Your Arms Around A Memory” into their own “Lonely Planet Boy”. Unlike the rest of the evening the poignancy of the moment had less to do with past glory and more to do with middle-aged men remembering a long dead friend. Was this the moment that Johansen and Sylvain came back for? To be playing long after their friend has died, playing karaoke with themselves, they achieved a beautiful and honest moment of sadness. At this point in their lives, it’s easy to believe that they relate to the sadness in a way that they can’t relate to the sleaze anymore. But nobody would pay to see the New York Dolls sans sleaze.
After three nights, I found myself no closer to a definition of success than when I started. It may be a more successful human experience for a go-nowhere band to play their hearts out in front of 15 people then for a rock and roll legend to play to a packed house of screaming fans. But playing your heart out isn’t what pays the bills. I hope the Junior Pantherz and Frontier Index find success, but I don’t want to be there when I can’t go up to them after the show and shake their hand. Maybe, if they find an audience, they’ll never again play like they did on the nights I saw them. That’s not, nor should it be their concern. To hope they don’t achieve even a modest level of success like The Dears due to some rock and roll idealism isn’t fair to them or their pocket books.
On the Saturday night, vaguely depressed from the Dears show and tired from the previous evening’s club-hopping, I hopped in my car and headed off to try and see Magneta Lane – a group of hot girls who play catchy pop and are generating major buzz. Perhaps unsurprisingly, I couldn’t get in to see them. Figuring I had done all my investigation for the night, I headed back to the Drake to gather my thoughts. It was there, when I wasn’t busy thinking, that I saw the band that salvaged my night.
Frontier Index is one of the best country-influenced rock bands I’ve ever heard. With their mix of heartfelt twang and epic guitar bliss-kriegs, Frontier Index are what I’m hoping to hear every time I listen to alt-country. Frontier Index is cooler than the Jayhawks, more romantic than the Sadies, and more real than Ryan Adams. Deep in the throes of music fatigue, after having gorged on sound and vision, the beautiful and expansive music of Frontier Index helped remind me of why I give a damn about this whole thing anyway.
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As of June 19th, the band's website reports that Junior Panther have broken up.