Why exactly had we come on this 17 of April—mind you, Tuesday, a school night—to this hostile joint in San Francisco, a pretty sum of miles from home?
Was Godspeed You! Black Emperor enough of a motive?
Make no mistake: I thoroughly enjoy their music. Though my memory of the band fetches only a couple of years, their work has proved important, maybe even essential on more than a few occasions. Lift Your Skinny Fists…, F#A#∞, Slow Riot…, Yanqui U.X.O.—all have seen me through my most severe insomnias and my most pathetic episodes of writer’s block. Perhaps I was there in the front row of the Great American Music Hall, cramped between my associate and a burly menace of a speaker, simply out of tribute. I was willfully offering my health and comfort to the artistic godhead that had come to shape my own creative process and output. My 21st century pilgrimage. For good measure, to win the favor of my deities, I had brought along a novitiate, whose only experience with the band at that point had been listening to my zealotry on the 2-hour car ride over.
We both could have been in much better shape, however. I had only recently recovered from a wicked infection, and my associate was beginning to exhibit symptoms of that same devil, which had just a week ago floored me and made a red mess on the nice hardwood floor of my brother’s bedroom. Physical collapse from either one of us was probable. But physical collapse is routine and could be remedied. We only had one shot at Godspeed. Hunter S. Thompson again sprang to mind—the Gonzo doctrine: We must cover the story, no matter how twisted we may find ourselves in it. Sadly, our sickly spirits weren’t at all availed of their miseries by the image of invincibles Raoul Duke and attorney taking on Las Vegas. Instead, the array of instruments that already crowded the stage brazenly reminded us of the peril that expected our evening. A stout percussion section glared and licked its teeth at us from a darkness behind the throng of instruments. Much closer in sight, a crimson drumkit was smaller yet more belligerent, defying us to stick around to hear its racket. The guitars and amps around it edged it on. All devices on-stage were Gorgons, deathly to look at, with their manifold thick, rubbery snake-hairs wound infinitely among themselves and ultimately connected to some invisible source of atrocious power. We were going to be rocked—were we ready? Though we shared an illness and an exhaustion, my associate and I could not come to agreement on that. She insisted she was ready. And I, the pusillanimous, attempted to wrench her from that resolution.
But to my greater misfortune, in the space of enumerating the plen-ty of ways our scheme might go awry, an hour elapsed—Pierced Arrows took the stage, and our life-changing-for-better-or-worse experience impended.
In all likelihood, my life changed the moment I got a good look at the trio on-stage known as Pierced Arrows. Wryly to my associate, I might have said something to the effect of “Damn, they’re old.” Maybe a little insolent, but I was awed more than anything. Could I even pretend to rock a music hall in my late fifties (taking a stab at the band’s median age here)? Then I remembered what my father said to me in my younger and more vulnerable years, when I attempted to inherit his love of 80s hair metal: “You’re never too old to rock ‘n’ roll.” The title of Pierced Arrows’ unpublished manifesto?
Despite the age gap—not to mention other biases—between the rockers and the audience, Pierced Arrows showed they weren’t there to fuck around or please ‘nobody’ but themselves. The crimson drumkit that had so rudely threatened my associate and me was tamed by a long-haired bad-ass with a sick-as-hell design on his sleeveless shirt. So sick-as-hell, in fact, that it transcends recollection and has comfortably dissolved into the subliminal substance of my dreams. What remains distinct is how the guitarist and the bassist were dressed. The male guitarist wore snakeskin boots and the biggest belt-buckle in attendance. Opposite him, a lady bassist—she played it meanly—wore a red blouse with Western embellishment. Pierced Arrows chained-smoked their set, and it became clear to me that they had been chosen to open because it was unheard of that a headliner of such legendary esteem as Godspeed You! Black Emperor take the stage before 9pm. Just another one of Godspeed’s ingenious artifices, damn them; Who better to fill the space of an hour than a band whose members’ repertoire extends more than five decades? Hell-of-a-decades they must have been. These were roaring tunes with the fervor of punk, but the lyrical dimension of, well, 80s hair metal. Plenty of heads were bobbing and banging, not excepting our own, and a few chorus-heavy jams (Ain’t Life Strange) were kindly adopted by a crowd that had frankly come to see a completely different band.
But were the two even that different? Pierced Arrows feeds on riffs and drum fills; to some extent, so does Godspeed. Consider the entirety of Yanqui U.X.O. or the last four minutes of “Providence.” It might very well be that the apocryphal demo All Lights Fucked on the Hairy Amp Drooling is more parts “Pierced Arrows” than “Godspeed You! Black Emperor c. Lift Your Skinny Fists….” Then, there’s that narcissistic thrill of balls-out rocking. Pierced Arrows didn’t give two of anything about that young man in the front row who sat down on the ground to play on his smartphone in the middle of their set. They’re in it for themselves. Is that the case for Godspeed? They’ve certainly been called narcissistic in their time. Or at least, self-indulgent. Drawn out ambient movements, the sampling of street preachers and train track traffic—maybe not severely different devices from Pierced Arrows’ windmill guitar solos and chanted choruses. A love for the offering, if indeed it is offered, is natural in artists. Did Godspeed still love their music, as much as Pierced Arrows loved tearing down walls and amassing cop cars? I was enthralled by the connections I drew. By the time Pierced Arrows had delivered its (by their standards) long finale, I felt I was—finally!—ready to confront the head honchos, those brilliant bastards, Godspeed You! Black Emperor.
Of course, I had still to wait an unknown stretch of time, and my mental arousal peaked and leveled off without so much as a note written. Not that I even had a notebook handy. I was counting on my associate to double as secretary. She’s been known to impeccably remember most what I say, no matter how unintentional. I had no reason to doubt her skills of recollection on this momentous occasion. To make sure she was in top form, I engaged her wits in a riveting exchange:
“What did you think?” I said.
“They were cool,” she said.
“Yeah,” I said.
So it went, and I would have remained confident that the event would go on/off without a hitch, were it not for my associate’s intemperate urges. As is often the case, you can’t count on anyone, especially not your associate. During the intermission she tried to get her hands on some bar juice. I was just in time to intercept the order and demand she settle on a ginger beer with a lemon wedge. Wholesome, goes down cleanly. Though she would hate me for the rest of the night, I knew she knew we both had to remain completely lucid should the need arise for one of us to jump on-stage and resolve a crisis—the case in several of the daydreams I had been having the past few weeks. And I couldn’t risk an inebriated ejection—or rather, I didn’t want to risk having to fend off an ejection. Removing me from the premises was going to be an impossibility. Best for all parties to avoid confronting the impossible at all costs.
There was a mission, a guile still left to be unmasked, stripped naked, apologized to, then reported of. The guile of Godspeed’s malicious design.
[Part 3, finale, awaits].