In which I review the whole of LA, along with two Dead Weather shows on August 26th, 2009
The Vault website said that there would be a show August 246th (sic)at Third Man Records West and I would have to apply before midnight on August 26th. I did so – actually I applied on August 25th, as midnight on August 26th would have been twelve hours too late to see the show, which was on August 26th at about 1pm. If I applied, I would not have to line up and would be guaranteed entry, it said. I turned up at 10 am ("arrive from 10", the website suggested, in its faintly alien way) only to find a line around the block. Line up with them, the TMRW guy said, and we'll get you in the show early. Guaranteed entry, it had said, not get in the show early, so that was a trade off. Two hours in the blazing heat but a front row spot. Early entry is always good.
Line up properly, we were admonished by a crew of TMRW employees, the city is thisclose to shutting us down. Yeah, because there are never any entertainment events that draw crowds around here. That would be so un-LA. So I waited for two hours in the line, in the full August LA sun. About 93 degrees, I'd say, with no wind, and no movement at all to keep the circulation going. Sweat was running down my back, my hair was plastered to my face, which in turn was plastered – under orders from my dermatologist – with SPF 50 sunscreen. Eventually I got to shuffle around the corner into the shade, but it was so late by then that the sun just shuffled round the corner with me.
The show was in the garment district, so the walk up to the line had been particularly interesting. The district reminded me of Singapore, except the third world aspect was our third world aspect, not someone else's. It was bustling and productive. Many people, all doing something. Activity and life. There were lots of rugs for sale, fake jewelry, bridal dresses, mantillas and the streets lined with the usual detritus of poor LA. There was a thick layer of heavy smoke hanging in the air, looking like a thicker than usual smog, the residue of a fire in the local mountains nearby, the San Gabriels. The show was at the old Regent cinema, currently painted yellow, the traditional Third Man Records' color, and with its little marquee letting us know what was going on.
TMRW had organized a barbershop quartet to entertain us, in White Stripes colors. They sang a song to each group of us and let us know to plug their name, Fantastic Shenanigans. All right. Another band came by later – a Mexican group hauling their instruments, upright bass, guitars and all, with a version of Guantanamera. Didn't catch their name. Nice of the record company to put them on for us. I managed to score a bottle of water from a water seller, who accepted 96c because that's all I had and he couldn't be bothered to make change for a five dollar bill. LA people are so nice. It's actually hard to get ripped off here – well, having said that, many of the line sellers were not official TMR representatives and were selling an eclectic range of shite stolen goods, so I guess some people get ripped off. Sheets of silver dollars, knock-off wristwatches, a man selling badge lanyards labeled (on his right hand) "Jesus loves you" and (on his left hand) "Hollywood", for instance. We debated if they would cancel each other out if we wore both.
I talked to a young woman who was an out of work actress (this is, after all, LA), lived in Hollywood and had studied Drama in Liverpool, England, but had not been able to finish her course due to a robbery. What a shame. We talked about England, America, acting and life. Pleasant conversation. After a while, the band's videographer came down the line soliciting stories. She looked at him and he stopped in front of her.
"It's for the band," he said.
"What shall I say?" she said.
"Tell us why it's worth waiting in line to see this band for hours in the hot sun. Tell us why it's generous of this band to put on a free show for its fans. Tell us a bit about their music and why you love it so much. What really excites you about this band?"
He switched on his camera and she improvised two and a half minutes based on his cues in perfect, flowing fan-girl. She certainly learned a lot in Liverpool. I'd hire her.
He gave her a release and she signed it.
"Have you read it?" I asked.
"It's standard," he said quite quickly. "Waives your rights to money, that sort of thing."
"I don't mind signing that," she said, still not reading it.
He took a photo of her signing it, which was clever. No writing down the shot number or difficult record keeping there. Just add in the photo and the releases are done. Off he went down the line. If the others were as good as she was he'll have a couple of dozen videos to show Jack White about great he is. He may well get a raise. We will all benefit. Unless Jack reads this. Let's hope not.
To give him credit, even after seeing me watch all this in astonishment, the videographer did offer me the chance to say a few words and didn't cue me positive at all. I said no, though.
The TMR staff came out and escorted us Vault members to the front of the line, as promised, and I said farewell to my new friend. We were taken to The Regent and led to the front. The early entry meant I was in the first 50 out of five hundred or so at the show. I stood at the left, by Dean's set up, in the third row back. The Regent is a hollowed concrete shell of a cinema. All the seats and soft parts are gone, making a theater shaped box with a proscenium. It was considerably cooler inside, although generally speaking one would not call the low eighties cool. Anything less than one hundred was a chance to cool down on that day. The stage was quite high, about shoulder height. The show started promptly after we had filled it up. No more waiting or rock star tantrums or anything – the lights went down and a fully professional-acting Dead Weather entered stage left.
Alison came out smoking a cigarette and prowled on the edge of the monitors, sometimes standing tall and menacing, sometimes walking slowly, one foot in front of the other like a tightrope walker. It was loud, not irritatingly so, but loud enough to be felt. The sun had dried my hair into porcupine quills and they rattled in the blast as the speaker cones moved. The raw concrete made the sound harsh.The band opened with their cover version of Forever My Queen, which is growing on me. The way Alison tackles it makes a Class B song into a chance to add carefully calibrated poison drops to each line like a Master Borgia, the types of venom selected and matched like a composer writing harmony. The lethal preparation drips with finality, a promise of forever togetherness in desert desiccation and seas of unquenchable thirst. They played Hang You From the Heavens, the new one, Jawbreaker, which sounded like a late period Marc Bolan song – a sort of Jack White's Zip Gun - backed by a resolutely British garage sound, a British Invasion riff driven hard by Jack Lawrence's bass. We all sang along to So Far From Your Weapon, a little chance to be vicious and depressed in our otherwise unbrokenly happy and middle class lives. We got Cut Like a Buffalo – fuck knows what that's about, but I assume violence, decay and ruination if previous form is anything to go on – with Jack White singing and playing drums seamlessly. Even at the third row, I spent quite a bit of time watching the screens of other people's cell phones, and I guess the poor buggers behind me spent time watching mine. Sorry. They played five or six songs, and then left, in a fairly good mood for The Dead Weather, inasmuch as it's possible to tell with this group. They did a bizarre interview shortly afterward that proved they can keep their temper in the face of inanity - so I assume their mood was really good beforehand.
I tumbled out through the foyer and took a snap of tonight's Mayan poster, with the reflections of us all piling out of the cinema showing up in the photo as a wave of lost souls heading towards the light appearing in the space around a bride with a grinning skull in place of a face, a memento mori, as they say. Remember you shall die.
I walked next door to Third Man Records, and lined up at a door like the last airlock open on the last environmental dome on a dying Earth. You were only allowed in as a body tumbled out, and even then I did not realize I had walked into the bizarro TMR. Jack White had set up two –one in its traditional yellow, selling normal vinyl and one in blue, the opposite of yellow, selling many singles which had text printed backwards on them and (I heard later) the sound printed backwards too. The singles did not have a hole in the label, so they can't be played without breaking their hymen, like women. (Although I suspect most collectors will be able to get around this little problem without too much trouble, as with women.) I did spot a copy of backwards Horehound on the wall – dnuoheroH – and asked for it but apparently it was display only, the stock having not been printed in time. As well as being printed backwards, Alison's face had been replaced by the craggy and stubbly face of Dean Fertita, rendering the thing astonishingly different for such small changes. I didn't really follow the backwards singles – still a little dazed and confused – and so just bought a blue printed copy of Buffalo – a 12 inch single, with only one side/track, for $20. I astonished myself. I'm from Yorkshire. We don't pay $20 for a track that's on iTunes for 99c. But as a friend said later, best to keep feeding Jack money, and Jack will keep feeding us stuff in return. This is the social contract of the oughties.
Feeding us stuff like this. I missed this, but in the bizarro TMR, there was a pink piano, and at one point Jack White came out dressed as Little Jack, wig and glasses and all and LJ came out dressed as Jack White, with wig and bright red pants and t shirt. 'Jack White' sang Dead Leaves and the Dirty ground, the White Stripes song on which LJ does not play, and 'LJ' played lead bass, complete with lead runs and feedback. There are YouTube videos of that here and here. Alison can be seen cracking up behind them. As I walked out I picked up a bunch of "You Can Tell Me To Fuck Off If You Like" postcards. They'll come in handy if I ever live somewhere the post office cannot speak English.
I put the vinyl in the car, knowing full well what happens to vinyl in cars at 160 degrees, and wondered if anyone much younger than me at this bash knew what was going to happen to their collectors' items. I put it down flat with a weight over it. If anyone put one upright or draped over an object, I dread to think what they had when they got home. We used to make them into ashtrays. There's little else you can do with them. They don't bend back. For some reason I didn't change boots and ended up having to hobble in my stood-around-in-for-almost-four-hours ones the two miles to the Starbucks where I was meeting STB. I got a nice hot coffee and a banana for my pains. The clever reader will immediately note this has put me two miles from the car, to which I will now have to hobble back.
I'd straightened my hair that morning and as the suntan lotion dried in it, it set hard into a head of porcupine quills. It occurred to me, as my hair rattled, that porcupine quill-ization is probably a sort of body-weaponization that even The Dead Weather's Baby Ruthless has never invented. I should show her how to do them.
We walked back through the garment district, with its thousands of suit stores selling business suits for surely less than the cost of the cloth and selling 'rebel' clothes – mostly eagles and skulls and other Mexican/Aztec devices. I lived for a long time near Whitechapel, in London, so I know from garment districts and this is a huge one, though nowhere did I see a billboard as clever as the one on the Mile End Road which said (over an establishment called Sheldon):
She'll don a Sheldon style!
I used to queue for a bus near that sign and I read it in increasing astonishment every day for years. Yay, London wins.
Fast forward twenty years to LA, again: We walked to a café called the Blu LA, a little slice of up-and-coming yuppiness in a very leveled-off area. Had a lovely Panini with grilled salmon and salad vinaigrette, along with a pot of café-press. They were playing either Oasis or Pulp or Blur (I'm congenitally unable to tell them apart due to a chromosomal abnormality involving, I believe, a translocation on 13, which a lot of people must have, as a lot of people have said the same to me.) I used the yuppie bathroom – hadn't had a pee since 8am and it was now 4pm. There was a low flow toilet but the faucet was full-flow without automatic cut-off, which I'm surprised people can still get planning permission for. Even more excitingly, the faucet was a willowy designer thing about a foot tall, which meant that a carelessly angled hand could cause a stream of water to splash over your crotch, which of course it did. The walls were filled with art, as cafés do by tradition, and this art was interesting in that it wasn't very good, which happens to be STB's and my favorite sort of art, so we had a great time. We are connoisseurs of the less-than-adequate, though we are more used to paying $15 at the thrift store than $750 at the café and left without buying any.
On the way back, we discovered the real Third Man Records, the yellow one. Inside was almost empty, the day's stock having mostly sold out. I bought three poster-sized Treat Me Like Your Mother pictures – the ones I've called lobby cards before now. I love those. They were basically giveaways at $5 each.
By the time we got to the car, my feet had broken out in blisters and I knew I was already dehydrated and not really doing the best for myself. I changed boots, changed t shirt, combed the quills back into hair (losing a handful in the process) and then we zipped round to the Mayan, which was only a couple of miles away from TMRW. The smoke had died down by then and LA was heading for the Golden Hour, the beautiful gold sunshine as the sun starts to set which made the films shot here so much more attractive than those shot in Elstree or other British and even American studios – the foundation of the success of Hollywood.
We stopped in a parking lot where you memorize the number of your parking space, go to a set of slots in a tin wall and feed $5 into the slot with the same number as your parking space. Somehow this magically gives you the right to park in it, even though it's pretty clear the $5 doesn't go into a box, and even if it did, how would anyone know if it were you that had posted the $5? STB gamely tried to sleep in the car but I dragged him off to astonishingly long line of five people thronging the Mayan and we lined up in the lovely golden glow. He worked on his laptop while I chatted to a man in purple clothes who knew every single thing about music I did and a lot more too. He even knew every Jimmy Page story ever promulgated so we spent quite some time setting them all up and then delivering each other's punchlines like two comedians with the same material meeting in a bar. We chatted for hours – literally. When we were in the show he told me his first record (though he feels it doesn't quite have the right impact in retrospect) was KISS' Alive – meaning he's a little younger than I am. A drummer, he said. Nice guy, one of those happy meeting-in-line accidents.
For quite some time there were more security guards than fans. Tens of 'em, their motorcycles and their cars and their take-out food cartons. They all wore very uncomfortable-looking handcuffs. Not wore them on their wrists, you understand, on their belts, for using on us. It looked like a handy loop to cuff them to a fence if needed, I thought. The person next to us, after queuing for three hours, was suddenly sent to the will-call line and we despaired of her keeping her place in line – but lo, she was issued a ticket and we let her back into the head of the line again. She said, "They gave me two – what should I do with the other one?" Turned out she'd won the ticket in a competition. "Give it to the dudes looking for tickets," one of us said, and she did, ducking under the rope to hand out her ticket and ducking back in again. "I made his day," she said. Yep, that'll come back to her threefold, as they say. It was a sold out show and that was a lucky kid. It took a while for the hum of expectation to come up to normal So Cal volumes but when it did, even STB woke up. (He'd been sleeping on the sidewalk, quite oblivious to things.) By this time my face was muddy with a combination of powder, suntan lotion and sweat and my hands were filthy from scooting around on the concrete trying to keep comfortable. I felt like a festival-goer except in some bizarro world of my own, where festivals are in the desert and not in the mud.
The Mayan is bizarre in itself. Decorated inside and out as a Mayan temple, it looks like something La Raza or the Reconquistas put together to celebrate the Indian/Mexican heritage of So Cal. Actually, it's just a cinema. The decoration just looked more exotic than all those Egyptian Theaters that sprung up in the Twenties, I suppose.Still, inside you can't help wondering where all the blood runs from the sacrifices. Or where the sacred cenote is for drowning the maidens. STB said he'd heard several people remark it must make for an interesting trip. For my part, apart from nasty dehydration, I was nowhere near a trippy frame of mind. Third in line by the time I went in, with the folks who got early entry through The Vault ahead of us, I was 23rd, which meant second row, almost dead center. I couldn't believe it that the person in front of me was the Egyptian Queen I saw at the last Dead Weather show in June at the Roxy. I asked her about the time Alison touched her head.
"She touched me twice!" she said.
"Was she losing her balance on the monitor or did she just want to, like, touch you?"
"The first time I thought she was losing her balance. The second time….[pause]"
"She just wanted to touch you."
Her mother (I think, please don't hit me if you're reading this and you're her sister) said, "I told her Alison had anointed her into rock and roll." (The Egyptian Queen is a guitarist, I think.) "She has to go and use that talent now."
I told her it looked so cool live, with her beautiful clothes and great makeup, to see Alison tower over here and place her hand on the top of her head - and it had looked just as good on the videos. She smiled, regally.
STB had gone off to buy me a skull bride poster, and couldn't make it back to the front through the crowd. Oh wells. Now I was on my own.
The first band on was the horrendous Tyvek. I'm told if you can't say anything nice don't say anything, but I've got to say something. They sounded like someone had got all the second tier British punk bands of 1977, starting from say Eater on down, put them in a really loud metal box (not PIL's Metal Box, a sucky metal box) and pushed them down an endless flight of amplified stairs. They'd introduce a song and it would go RAH RAH RAH RAH and then another which went BANG BANG BANG BANG and then another one that went SMASH SMASH SMASH SMASH, all pegging the meters at the top end, everything turned up to 11. It was so loud (with so little point) that the earplugs I had weren't adequate and like many people I tried putting my fingers in my ears and then when that didn't work, covering my head with my arms and hoping it stopped before I died of it. Couldn't leave, of course, or I'd never get my place back at the front. Cute 14 year old girl (it looked like) on huge bass, good with it, a Ph.D in Magnetohydrodynamics-lookalike on feedback, effects and shouting, and a man in pastel pajamas on drums, standing up to play them and hitting them so hard they started to disintegrate under the assault. Eventually they went away and I threw out a few layers of earplugs.
Efficient hat-wearing roadies brought out The Dead Weather's instruments as Tyvek dealt with their own equipment. As usual, the band came on to the sound of Captain Beefheart's Sure Nuff 'n Yes I Do. They filed on looking mean and angry, Jack White carrying a bottle of champagne and occasionally drinking from it. This is a good trick – me being used to real rock stars, my standard for upending the bottle and drinking from it is of course the classic picture of Jimmy Page emptying a bottle of Jack Daniels down his gullet.
The new slant on the old angle is the champagne, which is in a different class of rock and roll from JD, and also, when you think about it, much harder to drink from an upended bottle due to the fizz factor. This suggests long familiarity with the technique. (Although, when he came to the front to sing I couldn't tell if he was 'emoting' like a silent film star or about to throw up – if the latter, then I guess familiarity with the technique was insufficient to overcome the inherent issues with rock'n'roll champagne drinking.) As he walked on he appeared very, very drunk, though I suspect "appeared" is all it was. The band silently got their instruments and led off into - whatever the first song was. By this time I was beyond taking notes and the crowd was rowdy and eager for their direct injection dose of dirty music.
What can I say about the actual performance? There's no point in writing about it. If words did it, people would always write and rarely play, because it's surely easier to write. The communion at a show is something that happens between you and the band and to a lesser extent the people around you. It doesn't last and can't be preserved or brought back. Thoughts of hurting feet disappeared, my gratefulness at The Egyptian Queen and companion being only about five feet tall became eternal. I had an unobstructed view, about ten feet from the stage and it was as though the band were playing for me alone. The crowd went wild – wilder than any LA audience I've ever seen. I haven't heard screams like that since my own teenybopper days. The band played their album tracks and two new ones – the poppy and very lovely Jawbreaker, and New One Number Two – this one –
Alison prowled the monitors like a creature formed from pure amplification, a waveform manifested as a woman. She held the mike cord tight against her crotch and it seemed right, as though she were the anti-Robert Plant, small, female, all raven hair, waning moonlight and complete lack of interest in remembering such a transient and meaningless thing as laughter. Little Jack thrashed, Dean threw his rock star shapes like Anglo Saxon attitudes and Jack White led from the back. (My June doubts about his ability to lead the band through the time changes were wiped out – he's good, and they've really gelled.) Alison and Jack White doubled down on the badass vibe, fighting over things – at one point she went behind the kit to mess with Jack White and ended up in a shoving match – and trading off visual leadership duties. One suspects Alison's effortless ability to hold the metaphorical spotlight (there were no real spotlights) might be grating on Jack a little and I can only hope the play-fighting stays that way. Both of them look like they could do real damage if genuinely angry, as if two tigers on Vaseline were to unsheathe their claws and really snarl. At one point, Alison was drinking water and fuming over something when she turned and pitched the water bottle so hard at the backdrop I heard it hit, over the band's sound – the whole thing rippled. And that was a deep stage. And it hit on the beat too. Having picked fifty holes in the lower hem of her long t shirt, Alison has turned to a ladylike version of the crotch grab as something to do with her fingers when she's bored (and she gets bored easily). I thought I might be seeing things so I checked this with STB when we finally reunited, and he confirmed it. He also said, "And I saw the microphone disappear a few times, too." She was shoving the microphone in her pocket. At least I can clear *that* misconception up. Occasionally she stopped and picked hair out of her mouth. Occupational hazard.
One major treat: Bone House begins with the sound of a cheesy, cheap rhythm-machine beat – pom-boppi-tik-tik, pom-boppy-tik-tik – and then the keyboard riff comes in like a hurricane. Tonight, it didn't. Not being a licensed repair musician, I couldn't tell you if Dean was unable to set it up, or whether he just changed it for reasons of his own. Either way, he played around with this for half a minute and then Jack White suddenly surged up from behind his kit, grabbed his own guitar and soloed over the rhythm machine. Entirely unexpected and as far as I can tell completely improvised, it was a treat to hear one of the world's greatest rock guitarists come out and play some rock guitar. It was an atonal, screaming mess and was quite wonderful.
This YouTuber has captured the last part of it, as Jack finishes and the band are ready to go into Bone House at last.
Here's my video of it. Warning: Turn the sound right down. Cellphones at ten feet from the stage are not the best at compensating. And I didn't capture the first part, because I didn't know it was going to happen.
Coming to the front to play showed off Jack White's nice form-fitting superhero-style t shirt and really well-fitting jeans. The whole band was a visual treat tonight, in fact. It's interesting how a black uniform can still show individual styles, and all of them looked good enough to eat. Not that I can prove it with a cellphone photo.
The crowd got rowdier and rowdier and after a while I was getting pushed into the people in front of me, who were against the barrier. Getting shoved against a metal rail can't be fun. I braced both hands on the rail, arms around the person in front of me, and even the men in the row behind me started to grab on the rail to try to keep the moshers from knocking us over. The crowd managed to keep this up to the slowest song ever written, Will There Be Enough Water. Astonishing. People were shouting at Jack White during the slow-building solo, apparently expecting rawk. As if Jack would look up and say, "Fuck it, you're right, dudes. Let's play Seven Nation Army instead! One two three four!" He didn't. He continued to play the heartfelt bluesy guitar solo, in the zone and not hearing anyone else. Little Jack took up the drums for the occasion, hair blowing in the breeze from Jack White's drumseat fan like a supermodel's in a music video. (Jack White's curly hair does not blow in the breeze.) STB said Jack White probably docked Little Jack's pay for that bit of showing off. Hee. Little Jack didn't just fill in, but made the drum part his own this time. Very nice.
You might think this amount of cheery drunk screaming and pushing would annoy Jack – it annoyed Alison, who stood on a monitor and stared at them one time as if memorizing their faces for the next batch on her witchy shitlist to be voodooed into an unpleasant doom, but in contrast Jack stood up at one point and gestured to some people in the balcony and said, "Hey, I can see you there RCA Records! LA's not dead - I've proved it!" At which the LA crowd predictably cheered itself loudly. "Yay! Jack White says I'm not dead! Perhaps I'm not! O Happy Day!" I have no idea what throwdown RCA's staff had given Jack but I guess he'd showed them. (I remember Them Crooked Vultures saying something to the effect on stage, "I chose you Chicago [or wherever TF it was] because I'd never choose LA!" and then making wanking motions. It appears we have a rep. Oh well, I'm from Orange County anyway. We surf and have civilized drugs in OC and only call LA home when Jack White's saying how wonderful we are.)
The Dead Weather played a full set of encores after having made us wait for it, which I don't think LA is used to – it seemed to be necessary to encourage the audience to encourage the band to come out again. Jack knocked over everything he could reach on the way to his drum kit apparently close to spitting with anger. More image manipulation? But the encores were superb – they seem to retain boundless bolts of energy for these and brought up the excitement another couple of notches. And then they bowed and were gone.
STB gave me my poster, uncrushed. My feet no longer hurt. What a great day.
Edit: Here's another blogger's take. We Like A Show