The Aging Punk.003

Tuesday, 11 September 2007

Part 1: The Concert

King Crimson, Nov. 30, 1981, somewhere in Seattle.

It is, I'll admit, a close call. In competition for the honor are concerts by Bob Dylan, The Who, The Rolling Stones (with Guns 'n' Roses), The Clash, Talking Heads and Iggy Pop. But the King Crimson concert always wins out. It's a combination of an incredible musical experience, and, admittedly, the circumstances surrounding the concert.

For those of you unaware, King Crimson, in the early 70's, was the epitome of progressive rock. Symphonic song structures, long bouts of instrumental virtuosity, jazz-like time signatures and tempo changes, and lyrics featuring a combination of medieval and futuristic imagery – that was prog rock. And that was King Crimson.

In a way, King Crimson was as much a musical collective as a single band. The line-up varied with every album. In the process, Crimson included past and future members of Yes, Emerson, Lake & Palmer, Roxy Music and many other prog rock bands. The only constant was guitarist and musical visionary Robert Fripp. It was Fripp who put together each line-up, and although band members shared songwriting duties, Fripp definitely provided the direction. The final (early) version of King Crimson broke up in 1975.

In 1981 Fripp began rehearsing a new band. It included Bill Bruford (who had played with various previous King Crimsons, as well as Yes) on drums, Tony Levin on bass (Levin had recently played on albums by Peter Gabriel, Paul Simon and John Lennon), and, fresh off tours with David Bowie and Talking Heads, Adrian Belew on guitar and vocals. After a few rehearsals, Fripp decided this band was the next incarnation of King Crimson. It was a sensible choice (although, as Fripp told it, more a gut feeling than a logical conclusion)—they had the same musical adventurousness as previous incarnations.

But much had changed in popular music in those six years. Prog rock was out, new wave was in. But the new Crimson adapted to and reflected those changes. In fact, I refer to this version as "the New Wave King Crimson."

Musically, this was a tighter, harder version of the band. While still capable of spacey, instrumental jams ("Sheltering Sky," "Satori in Tangier"), songs like "Thela Hun Ginjeet" and "Indiscipline" were almost punk rock in their harsh edges and aggressive lyrics.

This is not surprising. As I said, Adrian Belew had just finished recording and touring with Talking Heads, and brought much of their attitude with him. But even more, Fripp himself had been an active participant in the musical changes of the late 70s. He had helped established musicians, such a Peter Gabriel and David Bowie, adjust to and even influence the new realities. Fripp seemed to welcome the new musical climate; it freed him to be both more experimental (his ambient recordings with Brian Eno, and his tape overdubbing experiment Frippertronics) and more basic (he formed a New Wave "dance band" called the League of Gentlemen). So it was only logical that the new King Crimson would fit right in with the new musical trends.

I had been an on and off King Crimson fan in high school; loved some of their albums, was totally indifferent to others. But I had followed Fripp's post-Crimson career fairly closely, especially his work with David Bowie (the albums Heroes and Scary Monsters). I had seen The League of Gentlemen, an all-instrumental, punkish dance band. I was also familiar with Adrian Belew; I especially liked his guitar work on David Bowie's Lodger and Talking Heads' Remain in Light.

I had not heard anything from the new King Crimson. I don't think their new album, Discipline, had been released yet, or maybe it just hadn't reached Idaho (where I was living). So, while I wasn't sure what to expect from them, I did expect I'd enjoy it. I only did not know how much.

It was an amazing concert. As I've indicated, the band consisted of four extraordinary musicians. The key was how well they played together. The concert wasn't about soloing, although everybody certainly took their turn, it was about blending their instruments into a single, complex sound. This was especially true of the two guitarists, who meshed their notes so well it was often impossible to tell who was playing what. Which is a little surprising considering their differences in style. Fripp is known for playing rapid, repetitive runs of notes; Belew loves sound effects (he is especially fond of animal noises). But they were able to match their playing styles into a seamless whole.

I only recognized one song ("Lark's Tongues in Aspic," the title cut of one of their old albums). But it didn't matter. In fact, I would propose that there is an advantage to not knowing every song when you see a band perform. Knowing every song allows you to be a lazy listener—you can enjoy the familiarity of a song rather than its particular performance (unless the musicians play a radically different arrangement from the recorded version). Not knowing the material forces you to listen to what they are actually playing at the moment. In any event, I got totally caught up in their performance that night.

For any curious King Crimson fans, they played most (possibly all) of Discipline, plus "Lark's Tongues…" and "Red" from their back catalog, and "Satori in Tangier" from Beat (more on that in moment). I particularly remember "Indiscipline," "Sheltering Sky" and "Thela Hun Ginjeet" (which included an extra verse about being hassled by the police as well as the street punks). There is a live album, Absent Lovers, which captures much of the sound of the show, even though it was recorded three years later.

I not only got caught up in their performance, at times I got totally lost in it. There is a state of listening I have come to call "musical transcendence." The music takes you over. Your thoughts shut down, your other senses drop away, until there is just you and the music. I reached that state during their performance of the appropriately titled "Satori in Tangier." It was the most beautiful music I had ever heard, and it was all there was in my mind. It was the first time a piece of music had swept me up that totally, and it does have a lot to with my considering this the best concert I have ever seen.

"Satori in Tangier" did not appear on an album until their second album, Beat, came out a year and half later. That caused me much frustration, as I searched desperately for that magical music. I wanted to reproduce that moment, recapture at least part of the magic. Of course, when I finally heard its recorded version, it was still a beautiful piece of music, but no longer magical.

Okay, having described all this, there is another aspect of this concert I should probably mention. I was on mushrooms.

Aha, you say! The music had nothing to do with it. You were just high. I'm not going to deny that the mushrooms helped. They helped me to enjoy the music, they helped me to get lost in it. I very well might never have experienced that moment of transcendence without them. And since that moment is key to my considering this the best concert I have ever seen, if I hadn't been on shrooms, I might not rank it as highly.

But I also never would have experienced it if they hadn't been playing transcendent music. It's a fine line, but, while the mushrooms may have helped me enjoy the music more, I don't think they necessarily made it sound better than it was.

But the larger question is, can you ever truly judge the music played in a concert objectively? That is, can you entirely remove the concert itself from its context in your life? Can you remove all such externals—your history as a fan (or not) of the band, your mood that day, they people you are with, the traffic on the way to show—and just judge the concert? I think not.

Which brings us to part two of this story—how I got to Seattle to see King Crimson.


Part 2: The Road Trip

As I described last month, in 1981 I was living in Ketchum, Idaho, a town I found to be a musical wasteland, especially after living in New England in the center of the late 70s punk explosion. This was particularly true when it came to live music, which, in Ketchum, consisted primarily of bar bands (again, see last month's essay on how I eventually came to appreciate this).

So when I saw an ad in Rolling Stone for the new King Crimson, with a list of tour dates including one in Seattle, I vowed to go.

Don, a friend who lived in Olympia, WA, scored the tickets, and I set out for Seattle, with Doug, another friend and music fan. That is, we set out to hitchhike from central Idaho to Olympia. On the day after Thanksgiving.

I don't know how I can make you aware of what a gloriously stupid idea this was, except by describing the trip as it happened.

We made it as far as Boise the first day (about a four hour drive under normal circumstances). We then spent a very cold night sleeping under a freeway overpass.

The next morning, after, in desperation, accepting a short ride in the back of a pick-up (it was winter and felt like it), we got picked up by two young men in a beater of a car. They had seen Doug in the back of the pick-up, and figured we were as crazy as they were. As you shall see, maybe we were.

Their story (which, I must admit, I find less and less believable as the years go by) was that they were driving from Clearwater, Florida to Seattle, with no money. They claimed to be stealing their way across the country, siphoning gas, shoplifting food, even breaking into motel rooms for real beds and hot showers. Actually, they claimed to have not just shoplifted food, but to have burglarized grocery stores. Even at the time I wondered about that, since all they had to show for it were cases of Pepsi, Three Musketeers bars and potato chips. I mean, if I was going to break into a grocery store, I'd certainly grab some steaks.

Oh, and they stole parts for the car, which should not have made it even this far. For one thing, the bearings were shot in the steering column. As we drove over the extremely icy pass from Idaho into Oregon, they joked that it was like driving a snowmobile, you just pointed the skis and hoped you went that direction.

Out of all of this, the most important thing Doug and I heard was that they were going all the way to Seattle. If you don't understand that, you've never hitchhiked a long distance.

Now we weren't total idiots. We kept a close eye on our backpacks. We made sure one of us was with the car at all times. We kept them fed and fueled. We wanted to keep them happy, and keep them on the road to Seattle.

We came into Portland in heavy rush hour traffic. At one point they pulled over to the shoulder of the freeway. I got out to stretch, while they checked something with the car. I heard one of them kick something, and a lug nut skittered by my feet. "Damn!" he said. "Down to two."

Once we arrived, miraculously, in downtown Portland, Doug and I decided we had had enough. We wished them good luck in stealing more lug nuts, and set off on our own again.

We spent that night sleeping in the bushes in a shopping mall parking lot on the outskirts of Portland. We quickly got a ride into Olympia the next day.

The trip back was another ordeal altogether. After a full day of standing in the rain and getting nowhere, we took a bus from Olympia back into Portland. (Washington state had much stricter hitchhiking laws than either Oregon or Idaho.) Then we managed to get dropped off in the middle of nowhere, Oregon. And I'm talking real middle of nowhere, too—flat land covered in sagebrush, and nothing else, no town, no gas station, not even a single house in visible range.

After 24 hours of not getting a ride, we decided to split up, to see if that would improve our chances. I watched Doug walk off into the distance, while I stayed where I was. I finally got a ride as far as a supermarket, where, nearly broke, it was my turn to shoplift dinner (I justified it as a question of survival).

I then caught a ride from a guy in a camper. He almost stopped for the night in Baker OR, at the top of the aforementioned pass between Oregon and Idaho, about the coldest place on the entire trip. But after smoking a joint with me, he decided he had the energy to drive on into Boise. So I only half-froze that night, again sleeping by the interstate off-ramp.

I did not have much trouble catching rides back to Ketchum the next day. My main memory from those rides is hearing "Abacab," by Genesis, for the first time. "Abacab" has long, bluesy, and very un-Genesis like jam at the end. Another prog-rock band attempting to adapt to the new musical world.

My point here is the mushrooms were a minor factor in my appreciation of the concert. After everything I went through to get to it, and back, it damn well better have been the best concert of my life. I'm not just talking about looking back on it, that I've built it up in my mind over time. I walked into the concert expecting (hoping?) that it would be great, or at least I was in a frame of mind eager to see it as a great show. I guess I'm just lucky that it turned out to be just that.

And that was the last time I ever tried to hitchhike a long distance.

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