No Guile: Godspeed You! Black Emperor in Concert, Part 3
Once again before I knew it, Time—apparently the only thing on my side—passed by.
By the time my associate’s ginger beer had turned ice cubes and a lemon wedge in a red plastic cup, the stage had dimmed considerably. Everything was becoming more Godspeedian. New instruments were being carried out, moved about. Pedal boards filled in empty ground. Chairs and amps were two-stepped around them. Feng-shui? The charges against Godspeed kept rising.
From some eavesdropping, I learned a little about the guitar that had been placed a few feet from my face, with a headstock that resembled a tuning fork. I could have touched it and made some sort of history. The band certainly cultivates lore, I commended them for that. Almost as soon as I noticed that the Hall’s intermediary soundtrack had been compromised by some low frequency soundwave, Godspeed You! Black Emperor were ready to play. I had no time to disdain the way we had been treated—acclimated to the band under our very noses, like Pavlovian dogs. Enthusiasm—applause and cheers led me to believe for a second that maybe this was just a music show, that there was nothing to suspect, no aspersions to cast, no mystic syzygy to fear. This was just a handful of dudes + young woman playing what they loved to create.
They began. To my associate, I said “Kiss me, you’re beautiful—these are truly the last days.” She grabbed my hand, and we fell into it. Like a daydream, or a fever.
But really, more of a fever. The band landed on us all violent gust and wall of noise, all sounds I never knew a violin could make. They regularly opened with this, I had learned: “Hope Drone.” An oxymoron if I ever saw one, unofficially or officially titled thus because of the hypnotic home movie projected above the band that would sooner or later read HOPE in scraggly script. HOPE, alongside the hiss of speakers and superimposed on a maelstrom of typewritten letters and lines. HOPE was just another word, like the “SMILE” on my associate’s wrist. The latter word, for all its worth in the outside world, meant nothing in the Hall. Every able-bodied 21+ patron carried it somewhere up their arm, and never gave it a second thought. But HOPE meant something right to our faces, in the context of that music and film. In the context of its supposed title—the paradox which distracted me from my investigative duties. If hope drones, what does that tell us? Hope must be a ubiquitous, yet subtle process—a fundamental interaction of the noosphere—working between the letters of a word, the words of a sentence, or in the “space between the notes.”
Intense drum fills joined Godspeed’s drone. Spikes in the seismograph: those moments of pronounced hope. Brilliance in our otherwise oppressed globe. In Godspeed’s visions, the sewers are muddied with a thousand lonely suicides, and America is a third-world, third-rate, third-class slum. But here they speak of hope. Even they can’t deny hope. The drone neared the semblance of a climax by cacophony—a raucous and serene outburst like the instant of supreme revelation before the bomb hits and all knowledge turns vapors. Vapors to mix in the chemistry of existence. It was the affirmation that all things possible in our continuum would come to pass given the eternal and cyclical—eternally cyclical—nature of our universe. If you believe in that sort of thing. If not, there’s hope that you will some day.
The hope drone persisted for 15 minutes, then was followed by a roar—a track called “Albanian.”
In the face of panic, I snapped out of a near-epiphany. At the time, “Albanian” was completely unknown to me. I had not been apprised. I felt a mixture of things, but mostly like an imbecile. Shouldn’t I know this song? Silly me had thought I knew Godspeed’s ouevre backwards and frontwards, but this track—that was proving to be a bit of incredible—shamed me to myself. In that moment, I envied my associate in all her ignorance of the band. At least hers was self-avowed, and not proven in fact. A rage against myself soon turned into renewed suspicion of God’s Pee—were they on to me, trying to make a fool? Never mind that the song was the perfect amount of too loud and that I already knew, then, that I was going to hunt it down for my enjoyment many times in the coming months. The hope drone had been the perfect prelude. “Albanian” was more tangible: a burning core with a rhythm we’d be more inclined to dance to if it wasn’t so frightful. Quintessential Godspeed. At times they were a full orchestra on stage, at others just an instrumental pg. 99 cover band with a violinist. Realizing they had to keep the audience alive, for the night had just begun, the band ended “Albanian” with a movement of understated grace and power, almost matched in volume by the ensuing applause.
With such an impressive performance already behind us, I allowed my suspicions of Godspeed to be subdued. In any case, they still had plenty of time, I expected, to renew their villainous visa. Indeed, they almost did with their transition to the next track. A chanting sample that any fan will recognize from “Providence” on F#A#∞, led me to think that I would be allowed a favorite movement of mine—”Kicking Horse on Broken Hill.” But in every way the band exceeded my expectations. They pleasingly pulled the rug out from under and played the beginning notes of “Storm.” Their absolute best song. Yanqui U.X.O. may be my favorite album, but I find no singular track more inspired than “Storm.” The first movement alone, “Gathering Storm,” is the most uplifting work I’ve been privileged to come in contact with—a Muse of mine, were I so vain to have one. And though there lacked the horns that punctuate the original with the immaculate rays of what I can only imagine to be the rising sun of dawn, the spirit of performance did well enough to make the live rendition every bit as worthy.
There might have been a film in conjunction, slides of a clandestine journey over nondescript lands. In fact, I’m sure of it. But a clear vision doesn’t readily come to mind. The performance was either a blinding eclipse, or saturated with the brilliance of musical ecstasy. And indeed there burst a storm to the Hall. After gathering might and rising, it left all of us breathless, slaked by nectar: the drink of the Gods. God’s pee—forgive the crass imagery. By the end of the song, the hour mark had passed, but I silently demanded “Godspeed, exhaust your discography tonight. I’ll hold the Hall ransom, dammit. That’s right, play ‘Motherfucker = Redeemer, Part II’—blow out our ear drums forevermore.”
But of course, I already knew that there was irreparable damage in store for my ears no matter what played—still beside that huge speaker and enjoying every second of it. They never really stood a chance. Godspeed was merciless, intent on living up to their name, the way the proceeded through their set. When the violin swept in, everyone knew the song: “Static.” Movement: “World Police and Friendly Fire.” Another infamous sample: an insane sermon given on the light of God, the heavenly man, the heavenly woman, the heavenly child; and a climax bound to be the loudest of the night, as trenchant as its eponymous fire. Following the sampled sermon, in a quiet moment of disquiet, we entered an asylum: a tiptoeing guitar melody astride the stark drum beats of slammed doors in the darkness and the languished cries of a violin bow just on the other side of the walls.
Off the side of the stage, one of the percussionists performed voodoo on a xylophone with violin bows of his own. The video above the band showed a dormant factory that awoke in fire the moment of eruption—one of the moments that every Godspeed fan knows when you mention “Static.” Ablaze, the bodies of the audience wailed along with the guitar, or whatever the hell it was that wailed, and surrendered to the loud and absolute anguish. The band was determined to violate the decibel ordinances of the city. My clothes vibrated around my body like poltergeists anxious to possess it. The ground itself seemed to shake. I, a tourist in San Francisco, thought of the inevitable. The earthquake. I thought Sherman Alexie: “I would have earthquaked Los Angeles, Paris, and Rome, and killed a million innocent people.” Why did you eschew the obvious San Francisco, Alexie? Political correctness? And in the contemplation of that odd phrase, political correctness, the epiphany came: the reason for Godspeed’s week long crusade. They meant to destroy the San Francisco Peninsula, possibly disconnect it from the mainland—Bill Hicks’ twisted fantasy moved north! Five days of “World Police and Friendly Fire” at this volume would surely do it. And who would dare put a stop to it, in the process of such an enthralling composition? I should have sounded the alarm, made Godspeed’s guile known at last, but I felt accomplished enough having uncovered it. By Godspeed’s estimation, it would take another three days to fulfill their task. Tuesday had been the perfect day to go, after all. By Friday, I’d be reliving the glorious moment of truth in my mind.
So, suspicion left me. My investigative work was over. Godspeed had been figured out. The tunes left were for my pure enjoyment. I took the loudest applause of the night that followed the song as congratulations from my fellow crowd for having fulfilled my task. Perhaps congratulating me themselves on a job well done, the band plunged ahead with a complete pleasant surprise. For the only time that night, I joined the select group of hollering fans when the first notes of “Rockets Fall on Rocket Falls” rang out. The supreme masterpiece of Yanqui U.X.O, second only to “Storm” on my all-time list. I remembered just about a year ago, when all my rainy May evenings were marked by this track playing just a bit too loud for whatever time it was. Neighbors might have said something once, but they’d never understand. Noisy and beautiful, Steve Albini’s lovechild with Godspeed spoke to us in hoary whistles. Resolute drum pounds were part of its idioglossia. They were tribal, maybe even primeval—before Man. Maybe after Man, too. We’d have to invent a word for that. Maybe. Certainly, it was tense in the Hall. My associate stood immobile where for the last songs she had swayed or rocked. She must have known that symphony of apocalypse coming. The resolute end of Godspeed, Tue 17 Apr. Even on the album where it cleanly divides two suites, the track always seemed so final, in no small part because of its title. But I couldn’t believe they’d end us like that, as glorious as it would be. The track effaced itself with one of those soft rains, the vibrations of an accomplished purging. Libation. But more like marination. It hadn’t been the end. Just the dress rehearsal.
Slow Riot came at last. The last thing I expected to hear that night—and indeed, it was the last of Godspeed I’d hear that night. “Moya” was first, of course: upward, transcendent as ever. By then, I had completely lost sight. But I Tiresias, though blind, throbbing between two lives—the speaker and my associate—was able to see the moving images above Godspeed’s heads. And it mattered not. It was only necessary to stand in my place and be awed at the sounds of the slow riot. I might have taken a moment to think about what slow riot meant. And it mattered not. Futile for me to try to comprehend what Godspeed tries to speak of in their music. My interpretations of the previous songs were shaken, almost eradicated. I returned to the question: could I ever know what Godspeed is about? At best, I could appropriate their symbols, try to make sense of their aesthetic. Draw incoherent associations. Was that enough?
In my quiet crisis, the band moved forward from “Moya” to “BBF3.” I knew the sample was coming, the infamous man named Blaise Bailey Finnegan III, an example for us all. It was torture, the pace of that song. And it was all for me. Godspeed held up the cruel mirror of proverb, reminding me of my inane paranoia from earlier. When I was so convinced the band meant to shake San Francisco to the ground. I was no better than the mad BBF3. Suspicious and hostile when there’s nothing to fear. BBF3 predicts chaos for 2003, but insists he is ready. The paranoid are always ready. Or they’re convinced they were, after the fact. And yet, maybe the band respects BBF3. Standing firm to his convictions. Determined on not being the sucker. Firm, unlike yours truly, who resists taking a side: am I for BBF3 or against him? Godspeed You! Black Emperor reveals a stormy world through a windowpane that’s not entirely closed. Raindrops splash on your face when at their loudest notes, their most uplifted crescendos. Whether this world reflects ‘reality’ is not a concern. Reality should never be a concern. With the end of “BBF3” came a final rage against those who lack hope and conviction: the few who hold the rest back from the Empyrean, Olympean spheres.
Maybe. Whatever Godspeed offers, we can’t hope to comprehend. It’s music, after all. But how was I expected to walk away from it? How could I face the end of such a night?
In a haze of feedback, as ‘reality’ imposed itself upon the crowd, one by one the band fled the scene of their crime. Not bothering to send us off with a good night and good luck, they dismissed us by dismissing themselves. “Where are you going?” the speaker spoke when all members had left, having been healthily applauded. A famous sample, from “Providence,” again. The tail end of “Kicking Horse on Broken Hill.”
“Where are you going?”
For an instant, I took it as a gybe against me—they knew what they had done. How they were leaving me aimless, bereft of sense, full of bread. With questions that would never be answered.
“Where are you going?”
I might have married that spot, front row, next to the speaker, a brother to me now, till they shut down the Hall for good and tore us down. But my associate—she had somehow stuck through it all—still had some sense of direction in her. “Let’s go buy you a shirt,” she suggested, and I likely agreed. “A shirt might be neat,” I must have thought or said, not considering that any relic of the event could pose a risk for a harrowing flashback of the highest order. I stood in line and checked the designs of the T-shirt in two colors: gray and black. The front was emblazoned with a bird, banner in beak reading “WE DRIFT, LIKE TREMBLING FIRE.” The back read ritual instructions—an incantation, to summon the band at will, anytime anyplace. Incantations for a burning band. As I approached the merchant selling the shirts for $20, two lines of text on the back caught my eye,
(decant – incant – recant), in the middle, beneath a triangle diagram.
‘ALLELUJAH! DON’T BEND ASCEND, the final line.
There was no cant beyond the mystery. No guile bespoke the band.
incant – recant
For better or worse, a genuine article.
DON’T BEND ASCEND
“A small, please. Gray.”
[A bootleg recording of this show can be found here.]
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