Here’s a weird thing to think about, the next time you’re paralyzed by the sheer amount of music available on your phone: recorded sound has only existed for about 140 years. If we’re talking about popular music and the culture that’s sprung up around it—the kind of recorded sound this website is concerned with—then the timeline is even shorter, about a century. The oldest recording on Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums list is Uncle Dave Macon’s “Way Down the Old Plank Road,” which was first recorded in April of 1926 (and later collected on Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music). The most contemporary inclusion, Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, was released in November 2010. Somewhere between those two recorded monuments lies the wild and weird history of American music: the story of how, within the span of one human lifetime, we went from singing about whiskey over a banjo to rapping about Pharaoh-sex over Auto-tune.
Before Edison invented his mechanical version of the eardrum in 1870, music was constrained by time and space and wealth. If you wanted to hear Beethoven’s 5th, that meant you had to pay to get your actual ear drum within audible distance of an orchestra playing Beethoven’s 5th. Unlike literature, which became mass-produced in the 15th century, and visual art, which followed suit in the 16th century, music before 1870 was an elusive art form, unique to each performance. Sure, there were systems of musical notation, but there was no way to bottle the music itself.
Think about that for a moment. Mozart never heard an Indian raga. Chopin never heard the blues. Robert Johnson, king of the blues, never heard a West African drumming ritual, nor the polyphonic chants of central African pygmies—the roots of his own music. The idea that, with only a few smudges of our thumb, we might hear music outside our own desolate crossroads of geography and time, is, in the context of human history, a deliriously strange novelty, a gift.
So why then, in an era of unprecedented access to recorded sound, do we still go to such great expense to see live music? In 2015, Nielsen reported that half of every dollar spent on music in the U.S. went to a live event. In 2016, we spent twice as much on concert tickets than on total music sales. Just last month I doled out 3% of my monthly income for tickets to see U2 perform The Joshua Tree, an album recorded to the highest degree of sonic fidelity in a studio. The concert ended up getting canceled and the tickets refunded, but still: why put so much emphasis on “seeing” a music performance?
I blame my Mom. Before I was old enough to read, she was dragging my two siblings and me to Mass every Sunday, where the only thing that kept me from falling asleep in the pew was the church’s drummer. I imagine that, at some point in his life, this middle-age man with a rat tail had had musical ambitions other than keeping time for a Catholic church choir. The 16 pieces of his drum-set practically said as much. As a rule, I hated the placid, Christian pap the choir sang at Mass, but when his drums came thundering in on “On Eagles Wings” or “Jerusalem My Destiny,” I was transported. This guy was a one-man drum line, a 12-armed monster of rhythm, the John Bonham of church choirs. Sitting there in the pew, listening to him incorporate every single one of those floor toms, I found the seeds of a religious fervor blooming, just not the kind I think my mother anticipated.
Not long after my parents split, Mom started taking us out to a local concert series that featured mainly washed-up talent from the ‘70s and ‘80s—groups like Three Dog Night and 38 Special. We must have seen tons of these concerts over the years, but I retain a distinct impression of only two: Pat Benatar and the Village People. As a ten-year-old, I was at a disadvantage, lacking the equipment necessary to fully appreciate the social contexts of these performances. I had no idea, for instance, why the audience for the Village People was mostly men, dressed in extravagantly revealing costumes, nor why Mom, in the midst of a custody battle, sang along so loudly to “Hit Me With Your Best Shot.” What warped me about these concerts was all music and spectacle. The moment when Pat Benatar’s guitarist climbed off the stage during “Love is a Battlefield” and ripped a solo a couple of yards from my face. The moment during the Village People’s encore when, after several choruses of watching Mom configure her arms into the shape of various letters over her head, I finally, hesitantly, attempted to join in.
There are certain monumental occasions that define a young life. Your First Kiss. Your First Drink. The First Time You Hear “Dancing Queen.” I submit that learning the YMCA deserves a place on that list. With all due respect to the Macerena and the Electric Slide, and with absolutely no respect whatsoever to the Cha-Cha slide, the YMCA is the closest thing my family has to a communal dance, the kind of thing that brought our pagan ancestors together. Learning to do it has served as an initiation ritual into a lifetime of dancing with people I barely know who hardly dance. Two decades of school formals and wedding receptions may have taken their sad toll on our relationship, the YMCA and I, but I swear, the first time we met, in the company of the three people I loved most, at a Village People concert, it was pure, unadulterated joy.
When I was 15, my brother took me and a friend to see a now-defunct punk band called the Blood Brothers play a now-defunct venue in Richmond, Virginia called the Nancy Raygun. There was a now-defunct quality in the air that evening: the teenage excitement of being downtown and not in a suburb; of being driven by my brother and not my mom; of being in a bar before I was old enough to drink.
The opening act was a band called the Plot to Blow Up the Eiffel Tower—who, it turned out, were more of an anarchist performance art project than a band. The lead singer opened their set by miming fellatio with the microphone. About a song or two in, the singer spat on an audience member, and the crowd imploded. Someone behind me got punched. At some point, the crowd surged toward the stage, knocking me to the ground, where I lay for a few suffocating seconds, until a stranger extended their arm into the fray and pulled me up. I managed to squirm my way to the wall, where I watched my brother throw his elbows around in the pit, flailing like some kind of mystic lost in an ecstatic trance. Even there I could feel the noise from the stage humming through my body like a tuning fork. Nothing in my young life had prepared me for this, the wild communion of a mosh pit. It was a revelation, an awakening, a public exorcism of private angst. I don’t think I’ve experienced anything quite like it since.
Which isn’t to say I’ve stopped looking. But as I’ve gotten older, these moments have gotten rarer. Certainly my aging music taste hasn’t helped, steering me, as it often does, toward a predictable kind of live show. A band singing and strumming the same things they sing and strum on the recordings that garnered them an audience in the first place. In a weird twist from the freewheeling era of Uncle Dave Macon and his bottle of whiskey, recordings—whether made by the band in the studio or taken by the crowd on their phones—now seem to take precedence over the performance itself.
Of course, there are exceptions. About a year ago, I was lucky enough to catch pianist Hailu Mergia on his first tour in at least a decade. Hailu had been something of a household name in Ethiopia in the late ‘70s, but after his band toured the U.S. in the early ‘80s, during Ethiopia’s Civil War, Mergia chose to stay in the U.S., to settle in Washington D.C.. He gave up the life of a professional musician to became a taxi driver. Fast forward a few decades, and a small label was reissuing his records to wide acclaim, and he was touring again. The point of all this being that here was a musician who had good reason to sound rusty.
Quite the contrary, it turned out. Not only did Hailu sound as good as those early recordings, he improvised the whole set, his nimble fingers running up and down the keys, layering melodies over top each other with a casual grace my fingers maybe only achieve in the act of tying my shoe-laces. It was a stunning performance, one that left me marveling not just at the power of improvisation, but the vulnerability required to pull it off. Jazz fans will maybe scoff, but as someone raised on Pat Benatar and the Village People, this was new to me, how gripping improvisation could be in the ear of the beholder. There was a pre-1870 urgency to the act of listening to Hailu play, the realization that whatever sequence of notes was passing through my ear drums would not pass that way again.
I’ll confess that I have very little idea about the kind of person who reads these things. Who reads anything on the internet, really. In this time we live in, the golden era for having the attention span of a goldfish, I sometimes wonder if these readers exist at all. I imagine that if you’ve made it this far, there’s a good chance you’re a writer yourself, have written things on this site, or sites like it. And as someone who spends an increasing amount of their time writing, I wonder about the performative aspect of what we do, of how difficult is it to channel that vulnerable voltage when you’re sitting alone in front of a computer screen. Unlike the musician improvising on a stage, we have the liberty to write and rewrite our vulnerabilities, to consider and reconsider—a process that I can’t help but suspect is not super conducive to actually being vulnerable. If the best writers alive could somehow condense and transform their talents into a band, one that revised with the same frequency as a writer, I suspect the results would sound pretty abysmal. That this literary super-group would make Steely Dan sound like The String Cheese Incident.
No, writing is an extremely weird kind of performance, one in which the performer is physically estranged from the audience. The writer doesn’t get the laughter or the applause, the bored yawns in the front row or the distracted texting. And the audience doesn’t get to subject the writer to their gaze; at best, they get a well-lit head shot inside a book flap.
No, the audience has to make do with reading the words on the page, a process so basic to literate society that we often forget just how strange it is, the ease with which we translate written symbols into thought. Writing, when it works, allows us to perform across time and distance, not with our actual voices, but with the much weirder, disembodied one in our heads—the one that, during the writing of this paragraph, informed me that I suck and should stop writing and go make a quesadilla. The one that decided I should take a nap afterward, and when I woke up, that it was a good idea to call my Adderall-enhanced grandfather, who spent the better part of an hour explaining the fine print of his current cell phone plan. The same voice convinced me to quit this sentence mid-thought so I could Google the girl who got me in trouble in second grade for putting boogers on her arm. (She’s a project manager now, it turns out, for a charity in Ohio.) Writing, on those rare occasions when it’s going well, feels like a way of going to war with this voice, of wrestling it to the ground and pinning it into the shape of something intelligible. Writing, on those even rarer occasions when I manage to get something satisfying on the page, reads like a carefully rehearsed performance of how I wish my mind worked.
I wanted to write this because I wanted to learn about Quicksilver Messenger Service, a band that, three months ago, I knew next to nothing about. Over the summer, I picked up three of their records for cheap. I figured that writing an essay would be a good way to learn more not just about Quicksilver, but the Grateful Dead, too, and the San Francisco acid rock scene in the late ‘60s that gave birth to them both. As it turns out though, I really just don’t care about Quicksilver Messenger Service. I listened to the records I picked up—Just for Love, What About Me? and the self-titled one—five or six times apiece, in various states of listening engagement: while cleaning, while reading, while writing, while doing that thing where I pretend like I’m writing but I’m really just staring at my computer screen, waiting for my brain to tell me I’m hungry enough to make a quesadilla.
I listened to Quicksilver while I cooked quesadillas, and I listened to Quicksilver while I ate. It didn’t matter what I did. Every time I put their records on, I’d zone out, mentally preoccupied with the some other more urgent concern—the cheesy goodness of a quesadilla—only snapping to the fact I’d hadn’t been listening when the record ended. At one point I actually forced myself to sit down in front of my stereo and devote the full force of my attention to Just For Love and still, I wasn’t up to the task. The record is plodding and aimless where I want melody and momentum. I got up halfway through and made another quesadilla. I wasn’t even hungry.
Happy Trails though, is a different thing entirely. Happy Trails is a live record, culled from recordings at the Fillmore in San Francisco, in 1968. The entirety of Side One is an extended riff on the Bo Diddley song “Who Do You Love?” It begins with a recognizable take on the original, and then digresses into several different sub-versions of the song, all titled with different interrogative pronouns. On “Where Do You Love?” they break the riff down into an eerie drum and violin dirge that’s so quiet you can hear the crowd clapping and yelping along. In fact, for a minute or two, as the music drops off, the crowd, which is beginning to sound un-ignorably drug-addled, is the loudest part of the song. Just when it seems like the musicians have abandoned the stage entirely, and the concert is about to devolve into total anarchy, the original Bo Diddley riff storms back in, crackling and humming with voltage, drowning out the crowd. You don’t have to have been at the concert, or on drugs, to get a thrill from it. They caught it right there on the recording.
Rather than sludge through Quicksilver’s studio records, I found myself going through my favorite live recordings instead, wondering what made them all so memorable. I’ve found that a lot of them, like Blink 182’s The Mark, Tom, and Travis Show, Neil Young’s Live at the Riverboat, and Judy Garland’s Live at Carnegie Hall share a certain magnetism of personality. Some, like Van Morrison’s It’s Too Late to Stop Now, are documents of a performer transforming their recorded body of work into something else entirely onstage. Then there are those performances that feel very much of the moment, where ego breaks down and the music becomes a weird synthesizing force between the audience and the performer. “Having a Party,” the last song on Sam Cooke’s Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963, when Sam’s about to take his leave, and the crowd’s singing overtakes his own, is a famous and justly-praised example of this kind of moment. Donny Hathaway’s live take on Carole King’s “You’ve Got a Friend” is another one. I wouldn’t put even the most exciting moments of Happy Trails up with either of those, but you can tell the band is gunning for the same idea. On the back sleeve of the record, the song “Where Do You Love?” is credited to Quicksilver & the Fillmore Audience.
Last spring, my sister and I went to see Kevin Morby play a packed room at the Rock & Roll Hotel in Washington D.C. It was the day after terrorists exploded a bomb at an Ariana Grande concert, a fact that I don’t think either of us acknowledged out loud but was undoubtedly on both our minds, being in a crowded public place in our nation’s capital in 2017. A relationship I’d been in for a long time had ended recently, too, and I felt anxious and sad, stuck in a weird loop of public and private loss. I was hoping the concert would be an antidote to this feeling.
To some degree, it was. Morby has an incredible band, one with an intuitive grasp on when to bust a song open and jam for five minutes, and when to get quiet and let his voice linger. His guitarist, a woman named Meg Duffy, is a marvelous talent in her own right. More than once that night, I experienced that weird involuntary grin that happens when you’re hearing songs you’ve learned to love privately be performed well publicly. It was a good show is all I’m saying, but it still wasn’t enough to erase my crumby mood. Then Morby sent the band offstage, and came back up alone for an encore performance of a song called “Beautiful Strangers.”
I spend a lot of time thinking about the lifespan of a song: the length of time between first listen and when I start to lose interest. Depending on the song and the frequency I hear it, this period can range anywhere from a week to several months. “Thrift Shop” by Macklemore & Ryan Lewis lasted a couple of days. “Get Lucky” by Daft Punk lasted about a month. Some songs, like Third Eye Blind’s “Never Let You Go” and Sheryl Crow’s “Everyday is a Winding Road,” have been bringing me joy for over two decades. Rarely lately though, has a song’s life span exceeded a year.
“Beautiful Strangers” is one of those songs. Why, is hard to say. I suspect it has something to do with how big a song it is, how much it manages to contain. On some level, it’s a topical protest song—it directly mentions the Bataclan attack in Paris and Freddy Gray—but what it’s protesting is never clear. It’s more of an elegy, really—for victims of gun violence, for victims of police brutality, for any young person whose life we lost too soon. Ultimately though, it’s just a really catchy, haunting pop song. It has that timeless quality that the best pop songs have, in that it sounds both primordially old and refreshingly new all at once. It’s only been a year since it came out, and I can already imagine referencing it, some 20 years from now, as a musical shorthand for it felt like to be at a concert in 2017, the first year of my life where it wasn’t hard to imagine dying at one. “If you ever hear that sound now,” goes a line in the song, referring to gunshots. “If the door gets kicked in, here they come now. Think of others, be their cover.” The song makes explicit certain questions my sister and I were trying to avoid, big questions about the value of human life and music performance: If gunshots ring out at a concert, what would you do? Are you willing to risk your life to drag a stranger to safety? Are you willing to risk your life to see a band?
Sometimes audiences at a concert help shape a moment through their audible enthusiasm—clapping, whistling, shouting. And sometimes they communicate their engagement by going silent. At a venue like the Rock & Roll Hotel, where the bar is loud and not far from the stage, the silence that descended when Morby strummed the first few chords of “Beautiful Strangers” was absolute, even before he dedicated the song to the victims of the Manchester bombing. It gave me that goosebump-y feeling I associate with being young, at concerts. The feeling that whatever we were all doing there that night was more urgent and important than anyone’s individual life, anyone’s private feelings of loss. It was the same feeling, I imagine, that caused my mother to drag my siblings and me to Mass every Sunday. The same feeling that gripped me when I was 10, doing the YMCA with my family, at 15 in a mosh pit with my brother, and again at 27, at a Kevin Morby show with my sister.
It was that same feeling, I imagine, that inspired Andrea Castilla, on the occasion of her 28th birthday, to drive from Huntington Beach, in California, to Las Vegas to attend the Route 91 Harvest Music Festival with her sister. The same feeling that convinced 39-year-old Brian Fraser, who was also in attendance, to move closer to the front, in hopes of hearing Jason Aldean play “Dirt Road Anthem,” his favorite song, moments before a terrorist shot open a hotel window high above the crowd and opened fire.
I’ll never know Andrea or Brian, but I feel a weird connection to them anyway. It could have been one of their arms that picked me up off that mosh pit floor at the Blood Brothers show. It could have been their faces in the crowd, at any of the concerts I’ve been to, when I turned around to see if the place had filled up, or if my sister was going to be able to find her way back to our spot from the bathroom, and was struck suddenly by how many strangers had gathered behind me to be a part of whatever was about to happen. Make no mistake, there’s a reason the terrorists keep coming for our concerts; in the world I live in, where almost no one I know goes to Church, these are the last sacred communal spaces we’ve got left.
With the rise of the internet and the digitization—you could call it the disembodiment—of music culture, we have websites like this one, too. A space where, if our bodies can’t bounce off each other, at the very least our minds still can. It might not evoke that goosebump-y concert feeling, but that’s a cross that all music writers bear. You spend a month or so writing an essay you hope will help make someone feel something, and then some teenager with a decent voice comes on the radio and does it in three chords.
I know that 2017 has been a hard year for mental exercises like this, but still, think: what a time to be alive. What a gift, to hear all this music.