Are you feeling buzzed out? Bored by the latest round of hot-coiffed publicist-pumped Grammy-nominated artists making the late-night-TV rounds? Burned from another cycle of troll bait think pieces and Twitter meta accounts highlighting the crises in indie rock, pop-chart accounting, symbolic Brooklyn, actual Brooklyn, and how they’re all the same anyway? Too disconnected from youth to drag yourself down to your local noise squat? Depressed? Well, don’t be. It’s the holidays, things
are going to be irredeemably doomed in the long run anyway, and music is too important to be fraught about.
If the goal is a satisfying emotional experience, one surefire way to shock yourself free of unnecessary numbness is to slap down a few hundred dollars and make for your neighborhood multiuse dome for a holiday visit with your closest musical relatives of a certain age. You can get back to pondering problems of how contemporary musicians might cut through the gray morass later.
There has never been a shortage of ’60s-weaned artists passing through the New York area during a given season, but the opening of the Barclays Center as a destination for high-priced tours underscores this particular class of sexa- and septuagenarians. Brooklyn has already welcomed Barbra Streisand back. Canadian and/or Jewish uncles Neil Young, Bob Dylan, and Leonard Cohen will be arriving soon, all with new or recent albums. The Who are at the Garden. The Monkees play the Beacon. The Stones justify every nasty thing ever said about them by pillorying people with $750 tickets for their Hanukkah shows in bloody Newark. Probably the Mike Love iteration of the Beach Boys is playing a nearby casino. Patti Smith and band are skipping their usual New Year’s shindigs but playing with non-Jewish Canadian uncle Neil at the Garden and Barclays. John Cale will be along in January to replicate Paris 1919 in its entirety at BAM.
If you belong to a different musical karass, there’s a good chance that some other classic artist you made a deep connection with long ago is playing somewhere in the New York area while the nog is warm and your consciousness still dewy with New Year’s reflection. If you like folk or jazz or soul or another genre that the old folks play, your options might even be cheaper.
Probably you’ve been well-demystified already. Maybe it was that show you saw in high school, with the synths and specious comeback album. Could be that you even checked out a recent release and were distinctly unimpressed. Like, who needs 14-minute near-monotone ballads about the Titanic anyway? Or a drum-machine-spangled album produced by Danger Mouse? But this snarkiness will not dissuade you. You will pay your money, and you will sit (or, if you’re lucky, stand) in a room with thousands of others who have, for reasons of their own, chosen to do the same. At or near the appointed time, the lights will dim. In the near distance, directly proportional to your income level or degree of passion, the headliner will appear, far smaller than life.
Unless that person is a former member of the Grateful Dead (like Phil Lesh, in NYC in November and likely two dozen more times before the end of 2013), it’s probable that you’ve spent far more time listening to the artist’s recordings than observing live performances. Which means the person onstage probably exists mostly in your imagination, a character spawned from voice grains and fanboy myths and old clippings and rockumentaries. It might be easier to employ (or stifle) laughter to deal with the semi-recognizable figure gargling through the hits. How else to react to such a sight? But you wouldn’t laugh at your rarely visited great-aunt, cornering you on Thanksgiving. Likewise, this spindly figure onstage might—accidentally or intentionally—have accumulated wisdom to transmit. Unlike (probably) your seldom visited great-aunt, this figure might be able to do so in song.
Seeing the Beach Boys front a small orchestra of backing musicians at the Beacon Theatre in May was a revelation, watching Brian Wilson semi-petrified behind his stunt piano, realizing that Mike Love’s awkward finger-wagglings were only ever just earnest attempts to work the room. This was confirmed when—standing 10 or so rows back—I was able to make contact with Love, finger-gun at him, and have him finger-gun right back, and happily. The layers of nostalgia crested during “Disney Girls, 1957,” Bruce Johnston’s 1973 attempt to channel 1964 Brian Wilson channeling 1957, sung in 2012 by a 69-year-old in a baseball cap. Their whole history came pouring out, each Beach Boy clearly in possession of an intricate relationship with their music, and the result was the kind of natural, authentically emotional performance that comes with age. The crowd loved it, too, or were at least genuinely on their feet for the majority of the night, hardly a given for generally older fanbases. It was a beautiful reminder that life probably won’t ever get less messy, and that there’s value of looking beyond blemishes for the sake of some sun-soaked harmony. The nine backing singers helped.
Should you shell out the big bucks for one of this winter’s big acts, though, the songs probably will not sound how you expect or want them to. Or, if they do, it’s equally likely that they won’t feel as you remember them. In the case of Dylan, you might not even recognize a number until he’s two or three verses in. It is in that gap that the expensive tickets reveal their true money’s worth, providing experiences not only different from their recorded selves but potentially deeply unsettling, depending on one’s previous relationship to the music. Vocal deliveries will be imperfect, questions of taste will arise when considering the current band’s arrangements of familiar tunes, and musicians’ bodies will be examined for signs of their former iconic poses. What auxiliary band members are present? What were you expecting to hear? Why doesn’t it sound like that? Is it really their fault? Maybe it’s you.
Almost assuredly, Neil Young has never read The Dead Father, Donald Barthelme’s 1973 ode to the cruelty of parental aging in which a massive I’m-not-dead-yet father figure is dragged across the landscape en route to his (spoiler alert) burial. But with “Walk Like a Giant”—the closing song on Young’s pretty all right double LP Psychedelic Pill—the Canadian legend pens an unintentional answer song to it, just as sure as you can sync up Dark Side and The Wizard of Oz. This is an anthem for AARP rockers everywhere, Young and Crazy Horse convincingly topping Young’s earth-perambulating declarations with a vivid noise jam, the kind of all-entrenched screech befitting the enormous prop amp facades Crazy Horse has been sporting onstage lately, dusted off from Rust Never Sleeps.
“In the left leg, in sudden tucks or niches, we find things we need,” Barthelme writes of the 3,200-cubit-long Father in his novel. “Facilities for confession, small booths with sliding doors, people are noticeably freer in confessing to the Dead Father than to any priest.” These have been the conditions of rock stardom at least since the Beatles grew, Hulk-style, bigger than Jesus.
Another reason to let giants be giants, though, is because inevitably, the musicians we love today will be in the same position. Their magic will diminish, young space-alien auras hardening into something held in place by decent haberdashery and loud-enough drums. Maybe they already are and we haven’t noticed, since we’re getting older at the same rate. The imminent arrival of actual climate change has blessedly shut people up a bit about 2012 and the Mayans and such, but the improbable stream of new global stars from Gangnam style–dancing South Koreans to British wuss-folkers Mumford & Sons signals the arrival of the pop singularity. In a music world where anything seems possible, why shouldn’t some 70-year-old geezer romp and stomp and debauch and end up back in your heart in some mysterious way?
Or it’s possible you’ll think the show totally sucks, all your suspicions confirmed about the finely honed state of your critical sensors, and you can proceed back to the early 21st century, ready to steel yourself with New Year’s resolutions about finding paths through the new micro-cultures, or just give up entirely. But no matter what choice you make, they’ll be out there, those characters that sweetly roamed the imaginary song worlds of your mind, now ensconced within virtual arm’s reach, making enthusiastic oversharing posts on Facebook and—without a recent hit to project some magic—in some ways performing with far higher stakes than they ever did in their primes.
If you like the performance, think of all the places you’ll go, the open expanses of scorched microtonal gravel you’ll fly over, the transfiguration. The memories will be worth every penny of the drastically overpriced ticket, all your sins forgiven by the musicians, all the musicians’ sins forgiven by you. Except the Stones. Fuck those guys.