I found myself part of that undesirable group recently, mired in crossing the Brooklyn Bridge. I was returning from a Frank Black concert at the Bowery Ballroom, where I had, for a time, picked up a chick.
It was like a serial killer's wet dream and I was playing the white male part, leaning against the back wall on the top floor, next to the bar, with a Jameson on the rocks in a plastic cup. I was smoking a cigarette through a patchy beard, nervously shuffling back and forth on Tevas, eyeing the patrons with my hands in the pockets of my madras shorts. I was a white guy from the 80s, from the 80s of underground Prozac and painkillers, and I had been stuck there, with this drink in hand, since the 80s, and my eyes, behind wire-rimmed glasses projecting sophistication, said I had picked up chicks at concerts before, and these chicks, who reminded me so much of the 80s, had never been seen again.
A 5-foot-9 blonde walked over and sat down on a stair next to me. Like a moth to the flame. She was alone. I was alone. I sipped my drink and coolly looked around. I went for the inside angle, to test her presence. "
"Were you here last night to see Frank?"
She wasn't. Her name was Mani. From Australia. She had come to town this morning, from the Poconos. She was a nanny. She laughed. I laughed. Mani the nanny.
"I saw it in the newspaper. I missed Woodstock because I couldn't take the time off, but I had to come here," explained the nanny, full of enthusiasm.
She was excited. Frank Black was big, because of the Pixies. They play him on the radio in Australia. He's a big boy.
I suggested we go down to the front and check him out. She led the way. Everything was happening as planned.
Frank Black, nee Charles Thompson, is a rather shortish, hobbit-like fat guy with a shaved head and a mouth and neck like a snapping turtle. He is an odd character in the rock spectrum. His physical proportions are not rock-star friendly and his insistence on playing difficult music has made him an outsider. He is an outsider who makes no attempt to hide his raging misanthropy. He does not like people, and that seems to include his fans.
Frank Black also has a tremendous ego, a deep despair buried in the flesh of his skin, an alien Jesus complex and a love/hate relationship with classic rock. These antisocial traits make Frank Black a love-it-or-hate-it band. You either get his vibe or his music gives you irreparable headaches.
The band opened with "Kicked in the Taco." I can see it clearly: Frank is your older brother by two years. You get in a fight over something really silly and accidentally stub him in the groin. He runs off crying and cursing at you. The next day he is still pouting when you discover all of your matchbox cars smashed to bits, and there is nothing you can do about it.
The next song was dedicated to Reid Paley, the opening act, whom I missed. The girl turned to me and smiled. "This is so great being here!" she beamed. I offered her an illegal substance from a bronze pipe. She beamed at me again, fumbled for the pipe, lost it in her eager hands, smiled and took the pipe to her mouth.
I watched Frank try to shimmy. The band played through two mediocre songs before Frank started screaming what sounded like "I love your pain" over and over again. The song was actually "I Love Your Brain," but all of his songs have an otherness about them, removing the subject from the outward manifestation of the song. In other words, you never really know if Frank Black loves your pain, or someone else's pain, his own pain or the pain of being an alien in a short fat man's costume.
Then the greatest guitar in 10 years brought down the song in a flurry of liquid-fast high notes. Rich Gilbert looks like David Byrne-Bowie on ecstasy, plays like Hendrix on methamphetamines instead of acid and loves to riff frenzied overindulgent guitar licks. Frank keeps tight control over his band, but when he lets this satyr loose it brings down the house.
I pointed him out to the girl. "Watch him," I say, "he's the key to the band." She smiled again. Such a lovely face and so sweetly innocent. Then a slow, tribal beat began to emerge. I recognized the song and confided, "This is 'Wave of Mutilation.'" "Wave of Mutilation" is one of the Pixies' big hits. It was even in the Christian Slater movie Pump Up the Volume. Kids across America still get off to it.
She didn't believe me at first. The drums continued, ever more slowly. She moved closer. Frank strode to the microphone, "Cease to resist, giving my goodbye. Drove my car into the ocean..." The crowd erupted in response and suddenly 100 voices were singing along. This was the slow, stripped-down version from the soundtrack, not the one on the Doolittle album. Maybe Kim Deal sped up the song on Doolittle and Frank was getting her back. Who knows.
I smiled this time, watching the girl groove. Finally it ended and the crowd was silent. Frank Black shows are filled with an uneasy silence between songs. Frank likes to take on the demeanor of a priest leading a congregation. Any disturbances are nullified by the collective consciousness that runs through the crowd, muting even the most yahoo of concertgoers. This is, after all, a near-religious experience, watching Frank Black and the Catholics. As with any good Catholic, there's a fair amount of guilt. You can express your love for the music, but this collective consciousness will eventually sway you into guilt for having less than full respect for the band.
And then, when the song ended and the silence began, the girl loudly proclaimed, "That was one of the highlights of my life!" All eyes went to her, and she was looking at me. It was a surreal moment, this girl declaiming the unspoken amidst a crowd of silence. I was shocked. My cool demeanor and studied appreciation of the band was shattered by this Aussie heathen. But she was a natural. What could I do? I began packing the pipe again. I was going to need more of that.
I knew then that the girl was not for me. You can say that sort of thing after the show, in proper reverence. Now was not the time, enjoying from a distance. I was not going to emote. I was not about to express my love and devotion to the man whose songs I sing at night, whose lyrics I quote in stories, whose pathetic ego I feel I understand. This is the 90s. I don't want to be a wuss, even if I did look like a serial killer.
The next song was a fine Black ditty on a country riff, "Six-Sixty-Six." A very hopping number, and I was thankful to turn my attention back to the groove. The girl, perhaps embarrassed too, indicated that she needed a break. I understood completely and assumed that she would return, ready to dance and enjoy the show again.
"I Switched You" is the greatest Frank Black song ever, and I had never heard it before. It is on his latest album, Pistolero, the one that came out in March. I think he let the bassist write the song. It was heavy, Black Sabbath heavy. Better than Black Sabbath. It was Black Sabbath with punk influences and a 90s sound. It was one of the best songs I have ever heard in concert. I spotted a burly African-American bouncer in the far corner of the room, standing on a crate overlooking the pit. He started to shimmy, then bop his head. This was headbanging music, the kind where you stamp your foot and throw your head up and down, but severe head bopping was impressive enough. And from a bouncer no less.
"I Switched You" was terrifyingly mesmerizing. The beat was inescapable, the detached anger fueled the bass engine, and the beast played out for what seemed like 10 minutes. The crowd felt it. The entire Bowery Ballroom was under a spell. No beam, rafter or Heineken drifter could avoid the power. Unreal.
And that is the crux of a Frank Black sermon. Three or four songs of absolute mind-blowing power filled in between with lectures from the High Priest. "I Switched You" could not be followed by any other song. When it ended I felt like I had smoked a rock. I'm serious. A good rock will give you a 10-minute monster adrenaline high. Everyone had just smoked a rock. The place was smoldering when the song ended.
A mellow groove sprung up from the stage to bring it down. It was the same song, eased down, brought back into human hands. A refrain. A nice, solid, grooving two-minute refrain. Like smoking a cigarette afterward to trigger the visceral memories of the freebase.
Where had that chick gone? It didn't matter. Five songs later I knew I had lost her. The music started to get to me. I needed a break, but I thought the show was going to end and I was hoping she would return to our cozy spot near the front corner of the stage. I decided to make a run upstairs.
She was there! I found her. Did I want her? Did I care? I thought it would be noble to give her a ride back to the hostel where she was staying, maybe even invite her to my place in Brooklyn. But it was kindliness only?I had no interest in her. It seemed a little too...scripted. Like a story on A&E Biography about the Bowery Ballroom killer. I said hi, grabbed an ice water from the cute bartendress and settled in to watch the show from above.
"I had to sit down. I've been on my feet all day," she explained. Of course, and maybe you need a place to lie down too? It was all too easy. I said nothing. After a few minutes I eased up to the front of the balcony to get a view of the band. From above the sounds of Frank Black swirled around in a cacophonous rushing of wind. It seemed like it wasn't possible for such a band to project such an all-encompassing noise. And then the novelty of the song would fade, people would try to avert their eyes, and before you knew it the tune would swell up again into something wonderful. But it was always a cycle of excitement, then disappointment, then annoyance, then reacceptance, then understanding, then head swaying, then back to hoping the song would end. You couldn't just enjoy the show; you had to go through a 12-step process.
She had disappeared. Again. And the show was almost over. I missed my chance. All my posturing, fantasizing?why didn't I mention I had a car and could take her home? Why did I not extend that courtesy? Why did I not try to pick her up? What was holding me back? Am I really just another sap, a loser with too much on my head?
I looked around for her after the show. I even drove the car around to the front to see if she was still hanging around. Who the hell gets a date out of a Frank Black show? The missed chance would have been appreciated by Frank Black. For all his wonder, it is all about Him. I should not have strayed from my adulation of the band. Should not have even thought about this blasphemer. In the end, there I was with a few more Frank Black ditties in my head, stuck with stupid people on the Brooklyn Bridge.
Next time, I am definitely getting that girl.