18 October 2007

My Life Was Saved by Rock ’n’ Roll?

The Ramones: Gabba Gabba Hey,
They Accept Me, They Accept Me

In my life, I have attended precisely two rock concerts, the first of which doesn’t really count: Gary Numan, making his first U.S. appearance at the Ocean State in Providence. He sang “Cars” (you were expecting maybe “Melancholy Baby”?), and there was some elaborate lighting involved. It wasn’t really rock, and I wasn’t really interested.

A year later, the Ramones made their way to Providence. There is no describing my love for the Ramones. I didn’t merely love their music, I wanted to be one of them. This is typical of rock fans, but for me the experience was singular. Granted, Joey sang better than I do, but in his hiccuppy, slurred, shouting delivery, I heard something of the voice within myself. The Ramones were raw and urgent; they were funny and angry; they were sexy despite the fact that, with the possible exception of DeeDee, depending on how much heroin he’d done on any given day, they were ugly as bat shit. My roommates at the time — the distinguished professors Steven H. Biel and Jeffrey Lesser, and the acclaimed architect Alan Organschi — and I toyed with the idea of forming a band of our own, the Low Moans. I would be lead singer, of course, because I had the least talent. We even wrote a few songs.

Again, I know that other people do this all the time. For me, it was a nonesuch, a hapax phenomenon.

Jeff and Steve worked for the college radio station, WBRU, and it was a simple matter to obtain tickets to the Ramones’ show in Providence. Thus I found myself pogo-ing frantically atop a folding chair that, if it had any sense of self, would have collapsed on the spot, while the Ramones ran through their catalogue: “Teenage Lobotomy,” “Sheena Is a Punk Rocker,” “Rock ’n’ Roll High School,” all the classics, every one of which I knew by heart, played so fast that the entire set was over within minutes of starting, with DeeDee shouting, “One two three FOE,” before each number. And I had an out-of-body experience: I saw myself dancing on that precarious chair, and I thought, “For the first time in your life, Bill Madison, you are the right age for the moment you’re in.”

All my other musical taste was firmly entrenched in the nineteenth century, with occasional exceptions for Bach, Broadway musicals, and the Beatles: I am at best a little old man, at worst a little old dead man. For liking the Beatles is like liking Gershwin or Mozart: it does not connect you to your own time, it connects you merely to eternity. Anybody who pays attention will like this music. Cavemen would have responded favorably to “I Want to Hold Your Hand” or “I Got Plenty of Nothin’” or “Voi che sapete”; so will Martians. Liking the Ramones, in 1981, at the ripe age of 19, was just about right.

I never heard another rock concert. This was due in part to the loudness of the music: my ears rang for days after Johnny set aside his guitar. Though many people protest that opera is loud (“It just goes right through me,” my mother used to protest), it ain’t, unless you’re standing right next to the lady hitting the high C. The only amplifiers my friends use are in their sinuses and chests.

I did attend a performance by Lou Reed, another of my early idols. (He’s enjoyed a brilliant career despite being entirely tone deaf, with only rudimentary guitar skills — now there’s a role model I can love.) But he performed in a studio at PBS in New York in the late 1990s. I was surrounded by other middle-aged yuppies. It really doesn’t count.

Everybody's Got to Love Mika Today

Now, however, I discover that Mika, the Lebanese-born pop singer, is performing in Paris next Wednesday. Granted, the difference between Mika and the Ramones is the difference between a cheese grater and a chainsaw. Mika got his start as a boy soprano with the Royal Opera, not as a glue-sniffing punk in Rockaway Beach. Still, he’s a contemporary popular musician, not a Handel specialist performing with an ensemble on period instruments: there will be no basso continuo or theorbo to accompany him. And I really want to hear him.

All last month, as I was wallowing in the morbid, self-pitying blues (until Joyce DiDonato blew through town to sing Handel, with, yes, a theorbo in attendance), I played Mika’s album, Living in Cartoon Motion. I’d heard a couple of numbers on the radio — the boppy “Big Girl (You Are Beautiful)” and “Love Today” — and figured that this music was the perfect antidote to my melancholy. And the album performs admirably according to that expectation. Until you get to the final track, “Happy Ending,” which is not happy at all but wrist-slashingly sad:

This is the way you left me.
I’m not pretending.
No hope, no love, no glory,
No happy ending.
This is the way that we loved,
Like it’s forever.
Then live the rest of our lives —
But not together.

Just what you want to hear after a bad breakup. And it’s followed up by an unannounced track, “Over My Shoulder,” that adds the welcoming bathtub of warm water you need for those bleeding wrists. That’s the end of the album: the rest is silence.

With a range of five octaves (according to some) or three and a half (his own reckoning) and a classically trained piano technique, he is my kind of guy. Yet I know that I will not be the right age for the moment. Mika is 23, only a fraction older than my godchildren, and younger than my youngest lovers. I’m not sure how I will cope with that. His biggest fans, to judge from Internet chat, are pre-teens: younger than my youngest godchildren. Oy.

Apparently, Mika’s concert, at the Zenith, is sold out: tickets are no longer available at FNAC, and according to the Internet, I will have to contend with Ebay. My previous encounters with that service have been limited exclusively to dire warnings of account violations (I have no account) that invariably turn out to be scams by unscrupulous Russian spammers. But I’m willing to give it a shot. I will keep you posted, as it were.