I have never seen a shooting star. I have never been to the Grand Canyon, nor the Great Wall of China. I have never heard a lick of Swahili spoken, nor have I eaten shark. I have, however, seen Nick Cave run across an audience held up by their hands. I’ve seen Jonny Greenwood tear up a violin bow on a guitar Jimmy Page-style, and Kanye abduct an entire audience like a UFO atop of a floating pillar. These are all monolithic markers for which we attribute our universality to. You may not have seen them, but maybe your best friend has, or your teacher, or your parents. They are landmarks and sights we recognize, a single universal point we all focus on in awe.
The events of the past couple months have made me think of these pilgrimages, especially in the void of live music. If you live in New York, L.A., Chicago, Austin, or any metropolitan area, live music has simply always been there. For years on end I feel I’ve taken for granted the spiritualism of going to a live show, no matter how intimate or stadium sized. It may seem trite to say and the least of our worries, but the fact that we used to gather in large or small confines to witness something ritualistic is baffling to me, given the tribal effect it conjures as we go from one show to the next. It all seems like a past life.
I think of lines from several post-apocalyptic films in times like these. There’s a line in 28 Days Later when Selena says, “You’ll never hear another piece of original music ever again. You’ll never read another book that hasn’t already been written… or see a film that hasn’t already been shot,” along the lines of Children of Men’s tagline alluding to a world without children’s laughter.
So, what then, is a world without live music? It’s not just the tribalism that is gone, but to live in a concert-less world is to live in a world without the ability to rise above human restraints. When we see a show, what we are actually witnessing is human limitation, and the audacity to transcend it. We don’t think of Jimi Hendrix simply “playing” the star-spangled banner. Rather, we are seeing him set fire to his own instrument. We are seeing Iggy Pop run across his audience’s hands smeared in peanut butter while singing “1970.” We are seeing Beethoven conduct the “Ninth Symphony” almost totally deaf. These are the moments, sights, and sounds that we take the trek to see, to see humans do things that no one else is capable of. If concert performances are the ultimate form of human transcendence, who do we look to to feel inspired to rise above these limitations?
Music listening to me, has always been an anti-social activity. It’s a spirit that cleanses the palette and resets the synapses, which is a large reason why I attend live shows in the first place: to find out if these chemical reactions in my brain are real, and in turn, develop special relationships through something that’s meaningful to me. I’ve fallen in love at shows, fallen out of love at shows, passed out at shows, tripped too hard at shows… but it’s in these ceremonial spaces that behavior like that can almost be accepted.
And that’s the whole treasure of live music – you make friends and connections with people through something that’s meaningful to you. There are hundreds, thousands of other people who have heard the same sounds you have and felt the same way you did, who have felt isolated the same way you have, regardless if it’s at a punk show with eight people in a basement or at Madison Square Garden. Point is: humans crave this universal communality, something we can all talk about and take part in, especially in a public setting. There’s a reason we crowd into basements, house shows, and unsafe spaces – we want to take part in something that is much greater than ourselves.
However, the sacred assembly for a live show will now be forever changed. Just like how we live in a post-9/11 world, we will now come to live in a post-Coronavirus world. There’ll be checkpoints in addition to security – just like how we already walk through metal detectors, we will be scanned for viruses, have our temperatures checked, and endure whatever methods that’ll come to deduce if someone is a risk or not. The sheer act of gathering in a public place will be altered once again, so forth if everyone takes precautions.
So then, we return to our question: what can we look to now for human transcendence? Well, to be honest, there’s not much that we can look to that’ll give us the same magnificence of a live concert. But in this mass isolation, we are all taking part in a universal communality whether we know it or not, participating in an all-inclusive longing to connect with others based on what’s important to us. But, rest assured, it’ll happen again. It may be months and months away, but we will be back to those sleazy after hours, we will be cramped shoulder to shoulder in those drafty basements, we will wait in long lines, we will try to make eye contact with the bartender for a drink. The lights will go down. We’ll hear someone cough into a microphone. They might even make a banal remark about the peculiarity of this year’s events. Then notes will arise. Then harmony. Light. Rhythm. And we’ll be right back to where we feel like we’ve never left, and we’ll remind ourselves how much of a gift live music can truly be to the world.
Featured image courtesy of Tom Copi/Michael Ochs Archive/Getty
“Saint Pablo Tour” image courtesy of Reddit User Caleb2320