Radio City Music Hall
Friday, July 30
Jason Pierce sits on a chair at stage left in Radio City Music Hall in front of a backdrop of hi-watt stars with what looks to be 29 other people. He wears white, says nothing, and only gets up from his chair once, to leave. The onstage excess includes two other guitarists, a robed gospel choir, and a guy playing kettledrum and little cymbals to ensure the live performance has as much gratuitous boom and crash as the music does on record. Radio City Music Hall seems only semi-prepared for how loud everything is.
Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space is an album Pierce recorded in 1997 and promises he’s only playing top-down this one last time–a promise that draws out the rock tourists, the bedroom astronauts, and the dedicated students of the late-90s alt-music canon. It’s an album filled with steroidal lullabies; Stax and southern blues-rock songs played with the blissful repetitions of 60s minimalism; noise and feedback breakdowns; choirs and orchestras; complaints of heartbreak and loads of drugs. It is British, and extremely fucking cool in that egomaniacal, rock-and-roll sense of the word.
The myth about Ladies and Gentlemen is that Pierce wrote and recorded it after his girlfriend, Kate Radley–who was also Spiritualized’s keyboardist at the time–left him abruptly for the Verve’s Richard Ashcroft. Unmoored, Pierce–who never seemed to have a problem taking every drug in front of him–went into a life-muting spiral of so on and so forth. Pierce has always denied this, and subsequent interviews by former bandmates have suggested that he was not only conscious on a medical level, but with-it enough to do a clever job of cheating them out of some money.
Still, hearing him play through the songs on Friday night, I kept thinking that there must’ve been some part of him that understood the material well enough to write it with all the unselfconsciousness and ego you’d probably have stored up if you were actually a heartbroken drug addict. (Another reading reason I’ve always had a hard time believing the record didn’t at least partially involve Pierce’s autobiography is because Spiritualized’s previous albums, Lazer Guided Melodies and Pure Phase, mimic the oceanic warmth of drugs while Ladies and Gentlemen mimics the chaos and misery of coming off them. I’ve always preferred the earlier ones because they sound gorgeous, ignorant, and happy.) The best line here isn’t “All I want in life’s a little bit of love to help and take the pain away,” it’s “I don’t even miss you but that’s ’cause I’m fucked up”–the suggestion being that he realized drugs aren’t making him happy, just standing between him and misery.
The first thing we hear in the hall is Kate Radley’s voice over a telephone saying the album’s title. I’d imagined how this call went every time I heard the album, and only got a good sense of how recently, when Ladies and Gentlemen was re-released with bonus material. Pierce calls and she answers the phone with the phrase. He hangs up and calls again. She repeats it, over and over. At the beginning, she sounds dreamy, but by the end sounds bored.
The band–if you call 30 people segregated into sections a band–stretches each song out beyond its already-long original running time. This is more welcome on the pretty songs than the noisy ones, because it’s the pretty ones that seem the most committed to the possibility that music can transcend life’s banal nastiness (or at least the banal nastiness of the narrator’s life when he’s coming down and lonely). There is no acknowledgement of the crowd, and Pierce’s small concession to dynamics is to tap his foot.
I get a little anxious and bored wondering why the majority of Spiritualized fans consider Ladies and Gentlemen “the classic.” (A companion comes back from the merch table in the lobby saying, “There were some special T-shirts made for the performance that are pretty cool, but they’re $80.” $80?) I always thought Ladies‘ cacophony was routine, and some of the lyrics are as hard to listen to as a friend who never really stops complaining. But on some of the songs–including the title track–I arrive at what feels like the logical conclusion that the performance should go on forever.