Fear and Loathing in Clubland

Written on April 16, 1986

We were just past Barstow on Blackstone when the drugs began to hit. Finally, the Actifed in my system was going to clear my sinuses, and the Coke (Classic, not that NewCoke abomination) would stimulate my body for the grueling trek ahead. For we were on a high-speed trip out of the Valley to the City-by-the-Bay ("The City" to you, buddy) on what I thought was going to be a trip into the heart of the rock and roll dream, but turned out to be something quite less. Nevertheless, we still had to be psychologically and physiologically prepared for the ordeal.

And what an ordeal it could turn out to be, since, after all, the Bay Area had been hit with a couple of minor earthquakes in the prior week. What if the Big One hit while we were crossing the Bay Bridge? Or even worse, at the club itself. Theoretically, it could all end just as the band, a young Scottish quartet called The Jesus and Mary Chain (more on them later), hit its feedback-laden peak. We would be crushed in one huge orgy of falling debris and panicking people.

There is something almost perfect in that idea: a truly rock and roll way to die. And since, as I write this, we're gearing up for a senseless war in the Mid-East, we could all die at any time anyways. (Of course, with that attitude, there really isn't too much of a reason to continue with this paper, and I might as well just get drunk and not worry about it. But I could be wrong.)

I didn't mention any of these thoughts to my traveling companion (let's call her Cyndie, since that is her name), since she was concentrating on getting us there as fast as she could and she was already a little nervous at the prospect of encountering any cops that might consider the 85+ clip at which we were traveling a tad bit excessive. And maybe she was wondering why we were undertaking this desperate trip to SF to see a band that might very well represent the final de-evolution of popular music in to vicious noise only fit for people who wear all black and don't smile very much.

I'm pretty sure that her main reason for going was that she really liked the band, but mine (besides the fact that she was paying for the trip and ticket) were more complicated. I was going up there to investigate the nature of cult-oriented music and the cult's relationship to the larger music audience, as well as the way that these times can generate an intense fanaticism for an entertainment medium, and I wanted to describe the experience of going to a club to witness live rock.

Plus, I really liked the band.

You see, "rock and roll music" may very well be the #1 entertainment in our society today. More than ever, it is everywhere. The majority of radio stations up and down the dial play some form of what they call rock and roll. The kids in the '50s who kept their love of early rock as secret as masturbation have grown up through the Beatles '60s, the Led Zeppelin '70s and now they listen to Born in the U.S.A. with their offspring on their brand-new CD players.

And, of course, it's Bruce Springsteen who is the symbol of this overt popularization of rock. Which is ok, since Bruce is the epitome of a rock and roll fan. Which is why he gives four-hour concerts and makes records that everybody who has ever professed to like rock and roll can relate to.

What I really wonder is how many claim Bruce's stadium shows last summer as their only experience with live rock and roll. Because while something that big and important reflects our society and its values, we have to see the other end of the spectrum of popular music to understand the entire picture. Rock and roll on a club level is just as important as rock on a stadium level. It's just not as big.

But, by definition, very few people have experienced it at a club. And even less with a band like The Jesus and Mary Chain, who play their own music, and have caused riots with their drunken 35-minute shows in England. In most respects, rock and roll at a club level is more true to the music itself than the big stadium shows, for reasons of immediacy and audience-performer interaction. And since rock music on any level tends to mirror our society, it is strange that so much of our society has never experienced it on its purest level.

Being a very, very serious rock music freak (I own over 1200 albums, most of which can be called "rock and roll."), I enjoy, more than anything else, live rock and roll. Because of that, I've ran the entire gamut of live rock music experiences: from the first US Festival with 200,000 other sweaty, dusty idiots to a cramped office-turned-practice-space watching some friends of mine in a band write a new song. So I know about the sometimes horrible, often rewarding experience that is clubgoing.

Still, the real reason Cyndie and I are both going to the show has to be that damn album.

The Jesus and Mary Chain's debut album, Psychocandy, is either the most brilliant pop album in years or a perfect indication of How Low Things Have Sunk. Almost every song on the album as a wimpy little melody (think Beach Boys or Archies) that's catchy. So they take these bare bones of songs and graft the most horrific sheets of hard rock feedback noise arrangements on top of them. The end result is something you can sing along with as other people run from the room holding their ears. This is music that draws a line. Most people either love it or hate it.

But once having heard it, they can't ignore it. Because, unlike Bruce Springsteen, who is a big fan making hugely likable music because he has no choice, this music is calculated to appeal only to a small audience. In one respect, both Bruce Springsteen and The Jesus and Mary Chain are working the same territory - popular music - yet only a handful of the zillions who now worship Bruce are even going to hear of The Jesus and Mary Chain.

And right now, it doesn't look as if Cyndie and I are even going to see them, because we can't even find a parking place. That's probably because The Stone, the small SF club where we are going, is located right in the heart of North Beach, where, if we wanted to, we could have ditched the entire concert idea, and instead enjoyed the company of strippers and live sex acts. Another tempting thought, except that sports and sex are the two things I'd really rather do than watch.

And, of course, there is a line. I hate lines, I will refuse to wait in them for almost everything but a concert. Of course, paradoxically, I've gotten up at 6:00am and waited all day in line to see huge stadium shows. I remember getting in line to see the Rolling Stones at the L.A. Coliseum on like, 3 1/2 hours of sleep and a stomach-centered hangover so fierce that I was practically doubled over. This line was pretty much a piece of cake.

Once inside, its time to people-watch. Because The Jesus and Mary Chain is a "cult" band, I figured that they'd attract a "cult" audience, in this case, lots and lots of people dressed in black, with make-up for both sexes, and almost nobody's hair in its original color. But I'm surprised, its a fairly mixed crowd, and I think that the "candy" part of their sound drew as many people as the "psycho" part. Good sign.

Still, there are signs of an "underground" concert: the air is heavy with clove cigarettes, and the huge video screens are alternating videos by little-known groups with drug-oriented pop-art graphics by the house video designer. And no doubt, the drug-orientation of the graphics are probably well-appreciated.

The one thing that has really paralleled the popularization of rock and roll is the acceptance of drugs into middle-class society. And, of course, at an actual rock and roll show, drugs are fairly commonplace - so commonplace that people that are taking them almost become blasť about them. It's just not that huge of a deal anymore. In the '60s, it was "hey man, I'm wasted, whoooaaa, trip out," but now it's just a fact of life, just as getting drunk used to be. In fact, except for the obvious extreme cases, I'd defy anyone to even tell the drunks from the druggies.

And it's still a pretty big fashion crowd. How rock groups dress seem to influence the fashions of their listeners. (See Elvis, The Beatles and the '70s punks and how they influenced fashion for proof.) And because The JAMC dress entirely in black, many of the people here have some black clothing, but its not the sea of white kids in black clothes like I halfway expected . . .

In time, the video screens recede into the roof, the opening bands play, and we head towards the middle of the crowd on the "dance" floor to wait for the band to appear. If anything strange is going to happen, it's going to happen now, as the crowd gets worked up into a hate frenzy by an extra long wait for the band.

But nothing happens as we wait. And wait. And wait.

Finally, they take the stage. God, they're young. They play a 35-minute set, barely acknowledging the audience, and leave. The crowd, knowing in advance that this was all they were going to get, collectively shrugs its shoulders and wanders off into the night.

The band itself concentrated more on their songs than their sound, but they concentrated more on their image than anything, trying to look somber, dour and mean, but mostly just looking silly. We were close enough to see their drummer fighting outright laughter the entire time, while the drunken singer and guitarist went through their paces and the bassist just looked bored, as bassists are apt to do.

It seemed to me that the whole thing was sort of anti-climatic. They played their songs competently enough, but there was no feeling that this moment was all that had ever existed and will ever exist.

And that sense of the now, of the moment, is what has made rock and roll music such a major part or our shared experience. More than any other entertainment medium, pop music is geared towards the here and now. You have to read a book, or watch a movie; and these experiences, by definition, take a lot of time.

But music, and rock music in particular, is the epitome of instant entertainment gratification. And in this point in history, more people than ever don't want to wait for gratification, because, subconsciously at least, they think that there may be very little time left. So they want it now, whatever it is. I don't even know if this is good or bad on any cosmic scale, it's just the way things are.

I had originally planned to use this concert as an example of how low popular music, in an artistic sense - and, by analogy, our society - had fallen. But the band itself screwed me by turning out to be "just" a young rock and roll band who had made an incredible album, and wasn't, despite their seeming assurance, up to caring about what to do about that fact.

I went up expecting the Final Answer to the relationship of rock and roll to today's world, and got music instead. So, while from a fan's standpoint it was cool; from a sociological standpoint, it was a disaster. From this paper's standpoint, it was a major drag, because it didn't really help me show the way that a rock concert in a club reflects our society as a whole, rather it's just a gathering for a certain sub-culture who may or may not be the future. Remember, people used to see Bruce Springsteen in New Jersey clubs in the early '70s, too.

But we still had fun, and the Coke (Classic, of course) in my veins was more than enough to help me stay awake on the long drive home in the cool California night.

(Me in 1986) Me in 1986

I wrote this for some English class way back in 1986.

While some of it makes me cringe now, mostly in terms of sloppy sentence structure and word choice, it still stands up pretty well after a decade. I like it cos it's a pretty coherent explanation of my theories and philosophies of rock and roll, all in place at the tender age of 23. I even believed them and everything.

Still, writing wise, god knows how much having the ability to immediately correct mistakes, or to do draft after draft with very little pain or fuss, has really improved my writing. All I did for this was break up the interminably long paragraphs.

Content-wise, this was at the very outset of my club-haunting days - when I still went to see particular performers and not because I was part of the scene. While that was already starting, it wouldn't really kick in for a couple of years.

Oh yeah, Barstow is a street in Fresno, making it irresistible for the Hunter Thompson-loving younger me not to parody/steal/homage the opening of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas - hence the title of my little essay. I have no idea if The Stone, (or was it the I-Beam, as I read last year in Addicted to Noise??) the long-gone club where we saw them, was actually in North Beach or not . . .

The other reason we went, we joked, was so we each tell our grandchildren "I saw The Jesus and Mary Chain on their first American tour."

Yeah, whaddya think??

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This document HTMLized on 04 April, 1996

I was listening to Guided By Voices -- Sandbox
and Aimee Mann -- I'm With Stupid