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Friday, March 19, 2004
Just got back from seeing Courtney.

Um. Whoa.

First off: if you think Courtney is insane--and she is--her fans are in. fucking. sane. Like, in that bad way. In that really bad way. Seeing a girl who previously told me that she wrote her art history thesis (?!) on Courtney (and asked me if Courtney would think this was "psycho"--I didn't know quite what to say) stroking her hair in a way reminiscent of the scene in Hard Day's Night where they're playing in the train and that blonde mod girl keeps sort of darting her hand out at one Beatle's hair. Real star worship stuff, but from someone who's not playing with it. This is someone who kind of gives back as much as her fans want to give, and while in a way that's pretty cool, in a way it inspires some pretty insane, charismatic devotion. I mean, there were no ethics there, no morals, no sense of decency that you might find at a regular show where we understand that we're sort of all in it together; these people just wanted to get as close as possible to her, to touch her, and didn't even notice if you were in the way. And yes, I know that happens at shows, but it was different here. (And also yes, I myself touched her. It was fine.)

She went on around 12:20, which is 2:20 later than she was supposed to, but to be fair, the first band did go on 45 minutes late themselves. (About whom, more later.) The crowd was a weird mix of old people, subculturey girls, and gay men, which I wasn't expecting, I guess. There was a pretty small hipster quotient, and the two we were standing next to were some of the saner, and nicer, people there. (Although I never did get to read the whole tattoo on the girl's neck. It looked interesting.) The place got fairly packed, and there was a lot of security. (About whom, again, more later.)

Courtney led off with "Mono" and "Hold On To Me," I'm pretty sure, but what happened was that her voice was pretty much shot by the end of "Mono." In "Hold" she was really only able to get out about two lines before deep-breathing through the next two. After "Mono" she told us about the vocal troubles, which despite my doubts seemed genuine, and noted that she'd have to modify the setlist (I'm paraphrasing, of course) and kept conferring with the rest of the band about what to play next. She just couldn't sing "Hold," and the band was kind of powering through the ballad a bit more than they should; I was disappointed, even when she started interacting with the crowd. But at the end of the song, she did one of those things that Courtney does sometimes which totally makes everything else worthwhile: the rest of the band stopped, totally silent, and the crowd was totally silent, too, and she just kept singing, and singing, and singing, croaking it out, rasping it out, crouching on the stage and clutching her microphone in a pose that can seem affected, but with her for some reason just seemed totally, totally natural. She crouched there on the stage, out of sight of most of the band, and blasted her way through her voice, through the lyrics, I don't even remember what she was singing, if it was an ad-lib or the chorus or whatever, but it was perfect, so perfect, and I admit that I shuddered and teared up a little. It was worth waiting for, worth all the rest of it: it was what music can be, and yes, it was that good.

And yeah, that was about the high point, except for maybe when she did a similar thing at the end of Malibu, although her voice was totally fucking shot by that point and the band ended up crashing in after about a 30-second a capella repetition of the chorus. But what made those two moments so memorable wasn't the cheap a capella drama, or Courtney's performance, or anything having to do with what was going on on stage. It was perfect because the crowd was silent, and it's so much harder to get a crowd silent than loud, since we're trained to be loud. Some people (Tori Amos comes to mind, about whom...well, you know) do this by having perfect emotional control over an audience; Courtney did it by being so fucking crazy that all we could do was stand there with our mouths open and listen. And that's cool, too.

She did a lot of crowd-diving, which was nice, and pulled a lot of fans up on stage, but there were about 5 people just there to take care of her, especially these two big beefy bodyguards in suits, real Mafioso-looking types, who would come and fetch her out of the crowd. This was weird. We didn't know quite what to do with her, sometimes; she didn't know what she was doing either, I suspect. But the bodyguards and the freshly-hired Bowery security would come up and kind of shove people around and kind of try and get her back, and like that.

It was particular jarring when it first started happening, because she fell into the crowd and sang the line about getting "our punk rock back" just as this doubtless quite pricy private bodyguard dude was shoving crowd members out of the way and forming a circle of protection around his charge. (By the end of the night, they would just try and stop C-Lo from stagediving altogether.) And I had one of those moments of cynicism we're all prone to as seasoned music fans: that's not very punk rock!

But the thing was, as the night wore on it really was punk rock.[1] It was, hands down, the most unprofessional show I've ever been to, and I'm including shows I've played at here. There was no semblance of a setlist, people were just sort of running around on stage, the singer/guitarist could neither sing nor play guitar, apparently. It was utter chaos, but it had nothing to do with the other band members, consummate professionals all. This was all caused by Courtney herself, fucking everything up partially because she was trying to and partially because she couldn't help it. In many ways, it reminded me of the description of early Ramones shows in Please Kill Me, for better or for worse. There was no barrier between the audience and performer, ultimately, but there was very much a stage and a microphone: we were all focused on Courtney, and we were all supposed to be. It was religious, in a way, or charismatic, as I say: the utter devotion, the encouraging of devotion, the passing of the lifeless body over hands. At the end of the night she crowd-surfed all the way from the front of the room to the back and then back again, and it was funereal, in a way. But she made us promise not to say anything bad about the show, and I'm not: it was amazing. But disturbing. And that's OK.

There should be an axiom in the music business to the effect of "you like Courtney up until the point where you have any personal contact with her whatsoever." I've already detailed some of the reasons for that, and I don't need to get into most of the rest (suffice to say I've known 4 people who have personally worked for Ms. Love, and it's not pretty), but part of it lies in the Tori Amos comparison. As I say, both sets of fans were similar in demographic makeup--subculturey girls and gay men--and both had a similar sense of devotion. Both can put you off, quite a lot, and Tori's fans are one of the big reasons I don't have much interest in Ms. Amos anymore. But Tori doesn't encourage the devotion the way Courtney does. As much as I love her insanely beautiful and smart, smart, smart Internet posts, that kind of direct contact with fans is quite sensibly avoided by most artists, since you don't want people who already have a strong emotional connection with you that's not reciprocated get any further impression that they have a personal relationship with you. This just doesn't seem the case with Courtney. And, again, I like that, but up close and in person it's pretty disturbing. And keep in mind I was there with someone who's been a Courtney fan for almost 10 years, and she felt the same way, if not more so.

As for the opening act, the Sexy Magazines...well, all I can do is repeat the crowd gossip that they got the gig because one of their moms is Courtney's publicist.[2] They were pretty sub-Strokesy. (And I like the Strokes!) I guess my opinion might be colored by the fact that the hipster-fuck lead singer, upon trying to stage-dive, hit me in the head with his head and hit some girl in the face with his boot, making her bleed, but no, I wasn't too fond of them before anyway.

There was little applause at the end. The lights came up, and we left.

Wshew. OK. Did I hit everything? Well, I might add more later. For now, there are cheese sticks to be eaten.

ADDENDUM: VR thread on Courtney's NYC escapades.

[1] It also struck me as pretty metal, although I'd have a hard time pointing to any specific signs aside from the fucking-awesome-but-not-getting-along-with-Court-so-well drummer's DOUBLE KICK DRUM! Which was rad, even if it didn't go out over the audience on a hydrolic platform. Anyway, with the sort of speed-freaky fans, the overenthusiastic bodyguards in a venue that wouldn't seem to require them, and the general air of a fucked-up lead singer in a downward spiral, it sort of reminded me of what I imagine a pop-metal show must've been like in the early 90s.
[2] Which makes me wonder if there's more to that whole annoyingly-sedate-NYC-audience thing than just your basic cynicism. New York, like LA and Nashville, is a biz town, somewhere where acts go to get discovered, and so when someone's playing there, you can't help but think if they're really doing it for you. Are they really trying to give it all to the audience, or are they trying to give the appearence of giving it all to the audience so the three or four important people in the room will do something for them? Sure, people can get opening slots in other towns for opportunistic reasons, but it's nothing as elite as this, and even then, you can still enjoy it, because who's going to get discovered in Raleigh, or Boise, or Houston? Maybe somebody, but they're clearly mostly doing it for the love. In the biz towns, though, everything is inevitably tainted by the constant reminder of the art-as-product thing, although a) I wish it weren't, and b) NYC seems nowhere near as bad in this respect as LA.