It's the experience of being a spectator bit that brings me to the keyboard now. The other night I saw John Vanderslice for the third time since becoming infatuated with 2001's Time Travel Is Lonely, and for the second time saw one of the most amazing shows of my life. I have a complex relationship with Vanderslice:
- I have sang with him on stage: in the spring of 2007 I read that he sometimes allows fans to come up and sing his songs during shows. I emailed him my three favorite songs, and come May went up on stage and sang "Radiant With Terror". I didn't forget a single word.
- I recently interviewed him about his recording process for EQ Magazine (sorry, the link's only to the Mag's site and not to the actual interview).
- I'm pretty sure that despite the first two things I've done with him, he has no idea who I am.
- Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, his music is deeply personal and his lyrics are decidedly not. His lyrics are almost exclusively about fictional characters, and I can't think of any contemporary singer-songwriter who's so deeply in touch with himself as an artist who doesn't ever bother to write about himself. That he's so careful with his material, yet so egoless, so concerned with form and the form of his content, is what draws me so closely to his work.
Everyone who's a devoted fan of pretty much anything--music, fashion, good food, sports, etc.--creates a personal relationship with the material that enthralls them. A real fan will learn where those works come from and develop something of a made-up relationship with a real person responsible for those works. Steelers fans talk about Ben Roethlisberger like a busy and successful older brother, congratulating him when he's on and adopting indignation when he forgets his bike helmet. Wilco fans repeatedly criticise or praise Jeff Tweedy to their friends, though Tweedy will never hear the opinions of 99% of them. And I have a complex, meaningful, but one-sided relationship with John Vanderslice, even though he doesn't know my name, and Bjork, and Jeff Magnum, despite his being a recluse, and Freddie Mercury, even though he's dead.
Vanderslice played four shows in four consecutive nights in New York. But I caught a tip from a friend that he was doing a fifth, smaller show the middle of this frenzy, scurrying from a big show at the Bowery Ballroom to nearby Pianos for an after-show show. There was no band, just Vanderslice and a violinist, going through every song from his previous two albums besides the ones he played two hours earlier. Then he moved to the floor, inviting the small crowd to circle around him. In the crowd was members of his band: his drummer had a single tom, his keyboardist a xylophone and accordion. Annie Clark, also called St. Vincent, another singer with whom I have a one-sided but meaningful relationship, was there to sing backup. There was no amplification, so everyone just shut up and listened to the actual instruments and people singing. I was a few feet away from two people who, as cheesy as it sounds, have brought significant richness into my life. It was as intimate a show as I could imagine, and it was downright magical.
"Thank you so much for coming," Vanderslice said. "Now it's time for a dance party!"
This is another thing he likes to do at shows, or at least I've heard: have dance parties. From interviews I gather he's really into both hip-hop and electronica, and he immediately started dancing. He was unselfconsciously there to have a good time, but the same couldn't be said for his fans, or even his bandmates. My roommate Eric, who's been in awe of Vanderslice's latest for the past month, went to talk to him and came back 30 seconds later. "I didn't know what to say."
I, meanwhile, was scoping out St. Vincent. I caught her momentarily alone and sheepishly asked if I could take a picture with her (for this blog, of course, though she didn't know that). I told her my girlfriend and I bonded over her music (not true) so she wouldn't think I was trying to mack her like the guy who talked her ear off before I could get to her. She seemed slightly uncomfortable but agreed to the photo, and when the picture turned out too dark, I couldn't bear asking for a re-shoot.
Our fellow audience members got drinks and stood by the walls, huddled with their friends and glancing at the musicians, or filing out. No one danced. It was like a middle school dance. I'd forgotten what real awkwardness was like. It was like this.
That's why I'm writing this. We can form incredibly intense relationships with even the mildest of celebrities. We don't have to read tabloids to know intimate details about them. We can know some of their deepest thoughts, or their life history, or what their love life is like at the moment. They're both real people and important people figures in our lives. They can share with us incredibly moving and intimate experiences, and they become our experiences and they're no less meaningful for that. But when they break that fourth wall and go where we can briefly interact back with them... it's just kind of awkward, you know? And a little weird.
I don't think any of Vanderslice's videos do justice to his music, so I've included a clip of someone who shares my thoughts on the man's work.