By Jake Cleland
Give ‘em what they want. I always thought that was the Karen O approach to rock stardom. Give ‘em the performance. Give ‘em the gimmicks. Give ‘em what you’re known for, try to make it seem believable. Swallow the mic. Spit the water. Try to make it seem spontaneous. Whatever you do, don’t belie the rote banality. Hide the formula. Put on a show.
Before the weekend the local music press started frothing at the mouth with speculation that the Yeah Yeah Yeahs could be playing one of their vaunted secret shows within the borders of our fair island. Actually, the speculative angle was played up to the point where I wondered if it was premeditated like that. Put an element of doubt into it, a little mystery. Make it seem like a surprise. Try not to make it seem like a regular old show. Give ‘em what they want.
At the time I wasn’t paying much attention. Big Day Out was coming up, I’d see ‘em then. Cos make no mistake: I dig the Yeah Yeah Yeahs. I own the bootlegs, I’ve heard the demos, I’ve seen Kill Yr Idols and I’ve even read the interviews in obscure international music rags. OK, so the first time I heard one of their songs was in an episode of Skins. ‘Date With The Night’. Those defiant vocals, those riffs like circular saws bouncing down some industrial warehouse staircase. Maybe that doesn’t make me a reeeal fan. I guess I’ll have to live with that. Doesn’t make a lick of difference to the press, apparently. By Thursday night, they’ve knocked down the proverbial door on my inbox, clamouring for the critical voice of Australia’s Favourite Son, editors from all over the country offering me men, women, and riches beyond my comprehension (amounting to about two weeks rent). But there was only one request I’d entertain.
A few hours later I’m on the next train outta Melbourne on Collapse Board’s dime. But first on the agenda: one of the local’s finest cleanskins. It’s not often one gets to wine out on the company credit and the usual sack of goon isn’t fit for the man on a mission. This would be a refined affair. The train pulls into Central as the sun begins to rise. I’m well-rested and my mind is racing, but the wait is interminable. I whittle the hours away in a bar down the road, figuring at the very least I might snatch a glimpse of tonight’s stars scoping out the area. No such luck.
And then, as they say, it’s showtime. I stumble up to the unnamed venue only to see a line reaching around the corner. Typical of these secret gigs in the age of social transparency, the confirmed details were methodically “leaked” to everyone who’d so much as heard a single track of the Yeah Yeah Yeahs impressive catalogue. Well, fuck that. I ain’t waiting in no stinkin’ line because I’m THE PRESS! Sent by Collapse Board and on an imperative assignment, which is as good as a divine mandate, even if the only person willing to recognise it is me.
A quick dial later and I’m in a dank alley about a block away, talking to a hideous mutant by the name of Kevin Marsh. I don’t know what he did in a past life to earn such good karma but it was apparently enough that, despite looking like a troglodyte and having body odour so pungent it made the waste from the Chinese restaurants backing onto the alley smell perfectly aromatic, he was born with an unnatural talent for greasing palms. Maybe it’s just that his palms are so fuckin’ greasy, arharhar. Anyway somehow he’s found his way into the hearts and beds of club promoters up the east coast and tonight that means he’s got me a badge. It’s stamped with the words “all access” in yellow beneath a photo of his own filthy mug, which would be a problem had I not serendipitously grown out a wiry mess of facial hair and also not showered in a few days. I might just pass for his better looking brother. It’ll have to do. “Naywanfurrow,” he belches at me. I snatch the badge and shoo him off.
On principle I despise these sorts of tokens. I hate the presumption and arrogance inherent in giving out these badges, knighting the worthy with the permission to approach the band. Fuck permission. Besides which these badges are technically only bestowed by the publicist, so it’s not bad enough that the band is indifferent to you, but you’re entering a transaction you do NOT want to be a part of. It’s never as good as when the two of you approach each other like – god forbid – human beings anyway. Then again, I’m not here to see human beings. I’m here to see the fucking Yeah Yeah Yeahs.
The first room is a tight corridor, lit with a bloody hue like some hellish rave. I try one of the adjoining rooms. Cleaning closet. I try another. Looks like it leads to the stage. I make a note for later. I abandon the others in favour of the one door in the hall guarded by a keypad. Kev’s cryptic slur suddenly unravels in my head. 9-1-4-0. The tiny LED turns blue. I give it a push.
Behind the door, the room is surprisingly deep. Linoleum floors, a great big wall-spanning mirror, a couple chairs, a bunch of bad posters, some graffiti, oh, and a fucking truckload of gear. Now, I’m no gearhead. Like most critics the extent of my knowledge re: the actual technical practice of playing music extends to barre chords, a few tabs I picked up online but which I’ve certainly forgotten by now, and whatever I’ve learned air-drumming to Foreigner. But there’s one thing I can say with quantifiable certainty: it’s all very, very shiny. At this point I become vaguely aware that someone’s started playing on stage. I can feel the bass vibrating through the lino and I curse myself for not getting the name of the openers. Fuck, what if they’re some nobody local band and this gig puts ‘em on the map? What if this is the one band in Sydney who Nic Warnock hasn’t signed and it’ll be me Crawlspace is interviewing for supporting the backbone of the next wave of mind-bending rock music?! The thought perishes as I find the mountain of booze. And then the mother lode: amid the wreck of clothing, a freshly discarded black, cotton, tour sock.
Suddenly I’m struck by a moment of epiphany. The great egalitarian promise of punk, from which the Yeah Yeah Yeahs descended and now continue in their own tradition, was the demolition of all the barriers between false gods and their worshippers. If the punks favoured nihilism then let’s talk about it in terms of Nietzsche and the bridge between beast and Ubermensch, in which case punk represents a wilful rejection of the latter and an obsession with the former, in a spiritual sense anyway. And yet we find ourselves situated in a dichotomy where whose who embrace that rejection most fully are considered, ironically, as that much more advanced for it. I believe the Yeah Yeah Yeahs acknowledge this and consequently cloak themselves, with pride, in the trappings of that bestial generation – leather jackets and terrifying noise and a stage presence which seems to imply that Karen O wants to either shed her body or tear it to shreds – in order to fully and explicitly communicate the simultaneous godhood and mortality of humanity, and thus the seemingly divine potential of every human being. It’s a simple fact that all music which at one point or another was considered divine was simply created by humans and that is the most encouraging fact of all. Not that I’m suggesting that it’s a deliberate message or even nearly conscious, but it just is, because that’s what you can make of it, as long as you can believe it, or believe in it. Like all of us, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs are mere humans as much as they are mere gods. And here I am holding one of their socks.
I lift the wretched cloth up to my face and take one big whiff, HFFFFFFFFFF-ahhhhh. It’s probably some roadie’s but in my head it’s Nick Zinner’s (not Karen’s, that’d be weird) and by the process of odorous osmosis I’ve just absorbed the same preternatural talent for shredding. I grab the closest axe I can find and give it a flick. Hmmm, not bad. Maybe it takes a while to take effect. Meanwhile I move onto the booze, fixing to get blitzed before the show. “All access,” the badge says. They’re never gonna see me in this town again anyway. By the time I’ve made a recognisable dent in the inventory, I’m hit with a pertinent question, although also one that doesn’t typically occur to the type of upstanding journalist who’s been called “unprofessional” by every editor he’s sorely disappointed: where the fuck is the band? I begin to worry. If I don’t get SOMETHING about the show down on paper, I’ve just wasted a trip, not to mention every reader’s time with the gump I’m gonna have to fill with. It’s gettin’ real hard to see the door from the fridge so I screw on all the lids and try to cover my tracks as best as possible, closing the door behind me with the metallic click of the keypad. What was that about demolishing barriers? Maybe I’ve overestimated.
The door at the end of the corridor opens right next to the stage. The room is bathed in the same red light. Ten thousand people pack the room. Maybe not that much. Who cares? Why bother with the mundane details? I turn to the stage and I can’t believe what I’m seeing. Humans. Gods. I tell ya, dear reader, it was one of the best shows I’ve seen all year.