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 that Rolling Stone is concerned with—then the timeline is even shorter. The oldest recording on the RS 500, Uncle Dave Macon’s “Way Down the Old Plank Road,” was 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. Stretching out between those two musical landmarks lies the wild and weird landscape of American music: the story of how, within the span of only one lifetime, our culture went from picking a country banjo to rapping lines like “Have you ever had sex with a Pharaoh? Put the pussy in a sarcophagus.”
Before Edison invented his mechanical version of the ear drum in 1870, listening to music required putting your actual ear drum within audible distance of a musician. Unlike literature, which has been widely distributed since the printing press in 1440, and visual art, which has been widely reproducible (via etchings and then lithography) since the mid 16th century, music before 1870 was an elusive art form, unique to each performance. There may have been a number of ways to musically notate a performance, but there was no way to bottle the performance itself. Think about that for a moment. Mozart never heard an Indian raga. Louis Armstrong never heard the rain-forest chants of central African pygmies. Unless you were born in New Orleans before the Depression, you will never hear legendary trumpeter Buddy Bolden. The idea that we might hear music made 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, do Americans continue to go to great expense to put their ear drums in arenas, clubs, and other music venues? 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 total music sales. I have no idea how much money I’ve spent on live music in my life, but I know that figure dwarfs whatever I’ve spent on recorded music. I recently paid 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 was eventually canceled and the tickets were refunded, but still, I’m wondering: why do I put so much emphasis on “seeing” a music performance?
When I was 15, I went 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 excitement in the air that evening: of being downtown, and not in a suburb; of being driven by my older brother, and not my mom; of being in a bar before I was old enough to drink. I don’t remember much about what the opening band sounded like, but I remember that all the band members wore ironic Nazi arm bands and that the lead singer opened the set by miming fellatio with the microphone. About a song or two in, he spat on an audience member, and the crowd imploded. People got punched. The crowd rushed toward the stage, knocking me down for a few panicked, suffocating seconds, before a stranger extended their arm into the fray and pulled me up. I squirmed my way out to the margins where I found a person-sized envelope of space from which to watch my brother, as he threw his elbows around like a madman in some kind of ecstatic trance. Nothing I’d experienced in the privacy of my Walkman headphones 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’ve never seen anything quite like it since.
Mostly, though, I’ve stopped looking. Surely that fault lies with my own aging and boring music taste, but a great many of the shows I’ve seen lately have been predictably dreary affairs. Groups of mostly white guys singing and strumming the same things they sing and strum on the records that garnered them an audience in the first place. In a weird twist from the era of Uncle Dave Macon, recordings now seem to take precedence, and often prefigure, the performance itself.
The exceptions are those performers willing to improvise, to be vulnerable in front of an audience. About a year ago, I stood three feet from Ethiopian pianist Hailu Mergia, my jaw agape, as his nimble fingers ran up and down the keys, layering improvised melodies overtop each other with the same casual instinct my fingers tie my shoelaces into bows. There was an electricity to watching him perform, the urgent sense 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. In this time we live in, the golden era for having the attention span of a goldfish, I imagine that many, if not most of you, are writers yourselves, have written things on this site. And as someone who spends an increasing amount of their time writing, I wonder about the performative aspect of what we do, of how vulnerable we can be, 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 on the page, to consider and reconsider—a process I can’t help but suspect is not super conducive to being vulnerable. If the best writers could somehow transform their talents into a band, one that revised with the same frequency as a writer, I can’t help but think that the results would be horrible. That they would make Steely Dan sound like the String Cheese Incident.
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 our minds. Writing, when it works, allows us perform across time and distance, not with our actual voices, but with the much weirder, disembodied ones in our heads—the one that, throughout the writing of this piece, decided I needed to learn how to bake cornbread, to call my grandfather and listen attentively while he explained the fine print of his current cell phone plan, to Google the girl who got me in trouble in second grade for putting boogers on her desk. (She’s a project manager now, for a charity in Ohio.) Writing, when it’s going well, feels like a way of going to war with this crazy, chaotic voice, of wrestling it into the shape of something intelligible. Writing, on those rare moments that I’m satisfied with it, reads like a carefully rehearsed performance of how I wish my mind worked.
I signed up to write this essay because I was interested in Quicksilver Messenger Service, a band that, three months ago, I knew next to nothing about. A friend I rely on for music recommendations is a big Dino Valenti fan, so when I found his name on the back of a couple Quicksilver records in a junk store over the summer, I bought them. I figured that writing this essay would be a good way to learn more about the band, the San Francisco acid rock scene in the late ‘60s, and why, exactly, I can’t get into the Grateful Dead. 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 Quicksilver— five or six times apiece, in various states of listening engagement (reading, cooking, doing the dishes) only to zone out each time, lost inside that chattering voice in my head, only snapping back 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 do nothing but listen to Just For Love and still, my attention span wasn’t up to the task. The record is plodding and aimless when I want melody and momentum. Even the Grateful Dead, it struck me, aren’t this boring.
Happy Trails, I’m happy to report, is a different thing entirely. Happy Trails is a live recording, the first half of which serves as 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 songs, all titled with different interrogative pronouns. On “Where You Love?” they break the riff down into an eerie drum and violin dirge that’s so quiet you can hear the evidently drug-addled crowd clapping and yelping along. A chord change later, and the original riff storms back in, crackling and humming with voltage. There’s an urgent energy, listening to them pare the moment down—almost to silence—only to pilfer a bit of a Bo Diddley riff and burn rubber like bank robbers in the other direction.
Rather than sludge through Quicksilver’s studio records, I found myself rummaging through old favorite live recordings instead, searching out more of these moments. What I’ve come to understand is that different performances are great for different reasons. (A shattering revelation, I know.) Some, like U2’s, are great as a kind of rock theater: a visual spectacle worthy of the music, a band worthy of going “to see.” Other recordings, like Blink 182’s The Mark, Tom, and Travis Show, or Neil Young’s Live at the Riverboat, or Judy Garland’s Live at Carnegie Hall are great because of 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, that rare confluence of the performer and audience entering a mutual zone, where ego shuts down and the music takes over. “Having a Party,” the last song on Sam Cooke’s Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963, when 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 classics, but it’s the same idea. These are the moments that, love them or hate them, just about every Phish fan will tell you about—the ones where the performer and the audience meld together, into some Hydra-headed creature of the moment, two massive eyeballs a stage’s length apart, staring back into the other.
Last spring, I saw Kevin Morby play a packed room at the Rock & Roll Hotel in Washington, D.C. It had been a while since I’d gone out to a show, but Morby does this ‘70s-era singer-songwriter-y thing that my sister and I both adore, and she bought the tickets and coaxed me out. It was the day after terrorists exploded a bomb at an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, England, 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 sad and anxious, stuck in some inescapable vortex of public and private loss. I was hoping the concert would provide an antidote to this feeling. And to some degree, it did. Morby has assembled an incredibly tight four-piece, one that has an intuitive grasp on when to bust open a song at the seams and jam for five minutes, and when to get quiet and let Kevin’s 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 being performed well publicly. It was a good performance, but it didn’t entirely erase my crummy 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 when it first slips through my ear drums to the point when it starts to bore me. Depending on the song and the frequency I play it, this period can range anywhere from a week to several months. “Thrift Shop” by Macklemore & Ryan Lewis lasted a couple of days. 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 two decades now. Rarely lately though, has a song’s life span exceeded a year. “Beautiful Strangers” is one of those songs. The song is, among many things, a meditation on the value of community and the arts. It’s also extremely catchy and haunting. A big chunk of the second verse specifically addresses what happened at the Bataclan in Paris in 2015. “If you ever, hear that sound now,” a line goes, referring to gunshots. “If the door gets kicked in, here they come now.” The song makes some discomfiting questions explicit: Are you willing to risk your life to go see a band play? If shots ring out, are you willing to put your body between a gun and a stranger?
Sometimes audiences help shape a moment through their audible enthusiasm—clapping, singing along, whistling, shouting. And sometimes they communicate their engagement by shutting up. At a venue like the Rock & Roll Hotel, where the bar is loud and not that far from the stage, the silence that descended when Morby strummed the first few chords of “Beautiful Strangers” was eerie. It gave me that goosebump-y feeling I associate with being young, at concerts, when the communal mass of a mosh pit could still overwhelm me. It was the feeling that whatever we were experiencing that night was more urgent and important than anyone’s individual life, anyone’s private feelings of loss. It was the same feeling that gripped me at 15, at a show with my brother, and the same one that struck again at 27, at a Kevin Morby show my sister, who took this short snippet of the moment on her phone.
With the rise of the internet and the digitization—you could call it the disembodiment—of music culture, this is what we’re left with. This song means X-thing to me, and maybe it could mean X-thing for you, too. The fact that a crowd of beautiful, faceless strangers is able to listen to the same recorded things and then write about them, and maybe understand each others’ minds a little better because of it, without ever having met, makes my head reel a little. 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.