Dignified and Old
In September 1984, Echo & the Bunnymen left me stupefied with glee. Singer Ian McCulloch donned black and exhorted us with verses about Ben Gunn and European pirates atop the churn and clang of his bandmates. The Bunnymen were touring through California in support of the Ocean Rain LP (1984)—my cassette of choice at the time on drives to first and second dates, in order to steel my malleable nerves. That album, and that night in Berkeley, served as touchstones of comfort through my adolescence, and the show set the standard for subsequent concerts. For over thirty years, I remained content not to beat my allegorical paddles against the currents of aging, in service to a perfect memory.
The Bunnymen’s latest tour included a midweek date in nearby Cleveland, and the prospect of seeing what remained of McCulloch, guitarist Will Sergeant, and co. proved tempting. Still, why would I dare muddle with an enchanted memory? Why tempt fate? I still attend shows, although rarely midweek, when a single cocktail or the slow dissipation of adrenaline might yield a night of fitful sleep (or no sleep at all). On what grounds might middle-aged fans stake claims to the ecstasies of youthful fandom? To properly address the matters of age, memory, and the pleasures of rock ‘n’ roll, I decided to revisit in earnest that night in Berkeley, and to spend one more night with the Bunnymen.
A week before my sixteenth birthday, my friend Brian and I stood in row three stage left, bouncing, smiling, and shouting along to the jubilant tunes of The Fleshtones, the lone opening band noted on the theater marquee. When The Fleshtones’ Peter Zaremba ducked backstage and the house lights brightened, we held our spot near the footlights, wanton with hunger. Twenty minutes passed, and then the house lights dimmed, the crowd roared, and a voice came over the PA: “Special appearance … American debut … Riff Raff … Essex, England … Billy Bragg!” And there he was, alone, center-stage, in a circle of hot white light: one man and his Gibson guitar, charged with the task of finding a fan base amidst our monomaniacal lot. Through no lack of effort, he failed. A few cheers arose after “The Milkman of Human Kindness,” but not enough to stem the waves of rancor rumbling toward the stage. After four songs, Bragg departed, and the house lights clipped back on.
This time, when the house light dimmed, the Bunnymen appeared, and they knew what we wanted: to feel things, to feel things in a way that would liberate us from the angst, the anxiety, and the biochemical cursedness of adolescence. Simply put, we wanted to have our yearning for connectedness fulfilled, if only for a single, sweat-soaked hour.
The Bunnymen opened with the Marquee-Moon-inspired “Going Up,” from their debut LP Crocodiles (1980), and McCulloch affirmed our desire to be noticed in cinematic terms:
Ain’t thou watching my film
Rusty chalk-dust walker
Checking up to see
If we should pull the plugs out
On all history
I knew little then of the theater of adolescence and its wild projections for the imaginary camera in the event that someone, anyone, was paying attention. My friends and I knew equally little about the burden of history, but we certainly knew that things could be otherwise. Aging hippies in California were a tiresome lot, and to the aspersions they cast against us—“We stopped a war. What have you done?”—we responded with eye rolls behind our Ray-Bans. Often I dreamed of pulling the plug on the residue of the sixties, and marking my kill with a giant (generation) X.
Just a few years prior, The Clash were deemed “the only band that matters.” If The Clash mattered because they crafted songs that were effective politically and aesthetically, the Bunnymen mattered because they crafted songs that were effective personally, aesthetically, and politically. They also had the distinctive power and balance of McCulloch’s vocal attack. U2’s Bono, alas, from the opening power chords of Boy to the last synth-washy notes of Unforgettable Fire, sang each song as if might be his last and, as a result, I scarcely believed a single one. (Pearl Jam’s Eddie Vedder was guilty of the same damn thing.) McCulloch, though, was a cheeky lad, capable of delivering declarations of inadequacy with the fervor of fire-and-brimstone. That night, the band moved from the opening medley of “Going Up” and “With a Hip” to the bouncy “Rescue,” in which McCulloch professed:
Maybe I’m losing my touch
I’m jumbled up
Maybe I’m losing my touch
But you know I didn’t have it anyway
The twist here was endearing, and McCulloch snapped through the conjunction with glee. The band then segued to the mid-tempo “My Kingdom” and, ahead of Sargeant’s ecstatic solo in adagio, McCulloch offered only sympathy for the lack of resilience shown by the ranks of the brokenhearted.
You kill when you talk and the enemy weakens
Your words start to walk when you’re not even speaking
If my heart is a war its soldiers are bleeding
If my heart is a war its soldiers are dead
In my adolescence, I spent long afternoons parsing the lyrics of tracks by early R.E.M., Elvis Costello, and The Replacements, eager to construct a life code from rock ‘n’ roll poetry. Tracks by the Bunnymen, though, resisted such scrutiny. With relative ease, I could get most of a chorus and fragments of stanzas. The urgency of the sound itself, though, rendered my most diligent efforts to track song narratives effectively futile. Even Bunnymen promoter Mick Houghton, in his essay for the 2008 boxset Crystal Days, 1979-1999 (Rhino), noted how the band’s lyrics “seemed to mean nothing at all [and] somehow made total sense.”
That night, the Bunnymen blessed us with up-tempo numbers galore: “Heads Will Roll,” “Crocodiles,” “Back of Love,” and my long-standing favorite, “Never Stop.” McCulloch apparently believed it was impossible to over-sing the songs, nearly shouting from chorus to stanza and back again. Amid these peaks, we were awash in our ardor, rolling and pitching with the sway of the crowd.
The gorgeous cacophony of the Bunnymen drew us out of ourselves into something bigger, undefined and undifferentiated—as if each of us had waved the white flag of discrete selfhood to plunge deep into the oceanic feeling:
It is … a sensation of “eternity,” a feeling as of something limitless, unbounded—as it were, “oceanic.” This feeling … is the source of religious energy which is seized upon by the various rock ‘n’ roll combos, from Little Richard to The Beatles and Patti Smith, [and is] directed by them into particular channels …
Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents,
trans. James Strachey (New York: Norton, 1961), p. 11.
(emphasis, and words, added)
Freud, of course, lamented Beatlemania and its indelicate impact upon the ego boundaries of a generation of adolescents. In a state of equilibrium, “the ego seems to maintain clear and sharp lines of demarcation” between itself and the outside world. And yet, via love, and the love of rock fandom, “the feeling of our own ego is subject to disturbances and the boundaries of the ego are not constant” (p. 13). I take delight here in the translation by James Strachey, a British psychoanalyst: his use of the editorial plural produces “our own ego,” adding a possessive missing in the original German, and thereby imagines—contra Freud—that even in a state free of “disturbances,” the ego is not a sovereign object.
Strachey’s reliance on convention marked a radical departure from the same sentence in the book’s 1930 English translation by Joan Riviere: “So the ego’s cognizance of itself is subject to disturbance, and the boundaries between it and the outer world are not immovable” (p. 11). Strachey was certainly familiar with this translation: Riviere thanks him—and Anna Freud—in the translator’s note “for their careful revision of the MS. of this translation and the many improvements they made in it” (p. 5). In this example, if Strachey’s editorial style honors Freud the essayist, it muddles the clarity of Freud the theorist—and his own sentiments on this question. On the matter of the oceanic feeling, Freud was clear: “I cannot discover this oceanic feeling in myself” (Strachey translation, p. 11). Caught between the exigencies of editorial style and scientific accuracy, Strachey inadvertently affirms a key Freudian maxim: the ego is not master in its own house.
My friends and I were well-acquainted with this prospect, and as soon as our parents would let us—or, in some cases, as soon as our parents fell asleep—we got out of the actual house, in order to temper the egos of our metaphorical houses through weekend adventures in risk and affection. Our cassettes provided the soundtracks for such adventures, which often entailed alcohol, and often in moderation. With the right friends, the right song, and a stretch of open road, we could sustain a fleeting bit of presence, a moment unsullied by the cadence and volume of the repetitive, internal monologues that plagued so many hours of my adolescence.
That feeling of oneness with the universe … sounds very like a first attempt at the consolations of religion, like another way taken by the ego of denying the dangers it sees threatening it in the external world.
Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents,
trans. Joan Riviere (London: Hogarth, 1930), p. 21.
I knew quite well the threats of the profane world. In high school, I was often on the receiving end of the epithets “faggot” and “queer”—because I dared to don clothes in secondary or tertiary hues, because I dared to embrace the ambivalent masculinity of McCulloch and Costello, rather than the aggressive androgyny of Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant and Van Halen’s David Lee Roth.
I believed the Bunnymen knew as much, too, and on “Thorn of Crowns,” they infused the night’s theatrics with erotic grace. “Crowns” followed “Angels and Devils” and “Heads Will Roll” and primed the audience for more devotion, even ritual sacrifice. “Thorn of Crowns” opened with a moan from McCulloch and a spare riff from Sargeant’s guitar, setting up one of the finest word salads in the post-punk oeuvre:
You set my teeth on edge
You think you’re a vegetable
Never come out of the fridge, whoa!
C-c-c-cucumber / C-c-c-cabbage / C-c-c-cauliflower
men on Mars, April showers
The proceedings turned serious, though, with McCulloch as medium for the spirit of Jim Morrison, singing of Incas and Cherokees. As the band charged to the bridge, McCulloch commenced to moaning anew, and issued a promise with terms that required us to abandon any remaining vestige of disbelief.
Wait for me on the blue horizon
Blue horizon for everyone
Wait for me on a new horizon
New horizons for everyone
I want to be one times one, with you-ou-ou!
I want to be one times one, with you-ou-ou!
Channeling his finest impression of The Who’s Keith Moon, drummer Pete de Freitas punctuated every syllable of McCulloch’s phrasing, until another heartfelt moan arose, and the band went quiet. McCulloch explained in a whisper how he would don his thorn of crowns and, with a crescendo of “Down, down, down!,” he released the band to chart a transcendent cadence. Again, from Houghton, long after he stood to profit from the band’s reputation: “[The Bunnymen] were God-like, a band completely at one with themselves and the crowd.”
Up next were “Ocean Rain” and “The Killing Moon,” and then “All That Jazz” and “Villiers Terrace.” Throughout it all, bassist Les Pattinson thumped along with joy and determination, and regarded our devotions with contented bemusement. For the encore, the Bunnymen blazed through “Do It Clean,” “No Dark Things,” and “Heaven Up Here.” The coda of “Heaven,” with its sardonic chant of “groovy, groovy people,” reminded us of the importance of having a laugh. For this essay, I looked anew at the penultimate phrase in “Heaven”—“The hammer on my chest was an abominable pain / the anvil on my belly was an abdominal strain”—and marveled at McCulloch’s wicked wit.
In the next few years, I attended amazing shows by The Smiths, Shriekback, Simple Minds, Wall of Voodoo, The Flaming Lips, The Ramones, R.E.M., Hüsker Dü, The Replacements, Violent Femmes, and Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians, to begin. None haunted me like that night in Berkeley.
Nearly two lifetimes after, the temptation to elaborate the experience of my fifteen-year-old self was profound, since humans are narrative beings. This story, the one you’re reading, it stuck with me, and good stories matter. “Good stories deal with … the horror and incomprehensibility of time,” notes Joy Williams, author of State of Grace. For Ben Marcus, Williams’s stories allow the audience to “experience a kind of deep companionship” with the storyteller. Could McCulloch and Sargeant and co.—and a much younger company at that—offer even a tepid sense of companionship? Did the Bunnymen still have songs to learn and sing? With scarcely twenty-four hours to go, I picked up tickets for a fellow Echo aficionado and myself, for what I still believed would be a fool’s errand.
At the House of Blues in Cleveland, just thirty feet from the stage, we stood and waited, and waited. When the lights dimmed, our lot clapped and shouted enthusiastically, but not ecstatically. McCulloch, of course, stood center stage, and Sargeant bent over his guitar at front stage right. To McCulloch’s left were Gordy Goudie (rhythm guitar), Stephen Brannan (bass), and behind him Jez Wing (keyboards) and Nick Kilroe (drums), each of whom sported Portland-esque goatees.
(My appearance tonight entailed a considerable suspension of disbelief, and I expected the Bunnymen—always an epic “hair band”—to play along. Back in the day, de Freitas received the silent treatment from “Mac the Mouth” upon showing up with his head shaved, and then a full beard, on separate occasions. And now McCulloch and Sargeant employ a drummer who could double for Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl, flannel included? Please, gentlemen: shave those goatees, clip those manes, and bust some moussed-up coifs.)
McCulloch’s work as a blues shouter remains impressive. From the opening number through the encores, his instrument sounded rich and solid, defiant of the ravages of a two-hour show. Sargeant, too, demonstrated his virtuosity on an ensemble of guitars, and the band maintained a spirited romp through “Rescue,” “Back of Love,” “Bedbugs and Ballyhoo,” “Holy Moses,” and “Constantinople.” They also mashed up a delightful medley with riffs from Wilson Pickett, The Doors, Donovan, and The Velvet Underground. Audience enthusiasm peaked for the radio hits, but a sizable segment cheered, too, at the opening lick of “Never Stop.” “The Cutter” represented the musical climax, with McCulloch summoning an impressive measure of youthful earnestness for one of his most audacious stanzas:
Come to the free-for-all
With Sellotape and knives
Some of us six feet tall
We will escape our lies
On the recording, I could scarcely parse lines two and three, but the promise rang clear—“We will escape our lies”—even if which lies in particular were still to be determined.
Amidst the oceanic feeling at the Berkeley Community Theater, the escape proved ecstatic, but fleeting. More enduring flights awaited: two years later, I escaped from Stockton. Nine years after that, I left San Francisco for New York City. Escaping the anxiety endemic to adolescence took longer than expected, in part because securing a real job took longer than expected. Becoming a father helped. Turning forty did, too.
Tonight, alas, McCulloch and Sargeant gave little indication that the differences that tore the band asunder in 1988 were truly settled. While McCulloch shuffled left a few times to joke around with Goudie and Brannan, and offered a few nods in Kilroe’s direction, Sargeant stuck to his station, looking neither at us nor at them. He exchanged nary a word onstage with McCulloch, and camaraderie among band members sustains the prospects of the audience to be swept away in the oceanic feeling. (For the audience itself, the arch-enemy of the oceanic feeling is, of course, the cell phone.) The plexiglass sound reflectors that stood between McCulloch and Sargeant and McCulloch and Goudie and Brannan, respectively, were the cause for a bit of laughter among the latter, and McCulloch turned aside the one on his left. He let the other remain in place, though, respectful of the discrete stage space staffed by his longtime co-worker.
For Sargeant and McCulloch, “The story of Echo & the Bunnymen is their story,” Houghton noted, “[and their] best work usually coincides with those periods when Ian and Will are getting on and are working as a team, and sparking off each other.” By implication, then, there were periods when McCulloch and Sargeant were simply getting the job done. The rub is ours to bear, then, and represents the principal divide between adolescent fandom and adult fandom: a divide sustained by adult familiarity with the workplace. The myopia of teenagedom allowed me to regard appearances as effectively real, and I never imagined that the stages of the Fillmore, the Warfield, and Berkeley Community Theater were analogous to the desks in corner cubicles.
At my previous desk job, I rarely daydreamed about strangers standing shoulder-to-shoulder at my desk, cheering wildly when I clicked send on a disruptively innovative email, finished a paradigm-shifting report, or wrapped up a synergizing conference call. (It was rare, but it happened.) More credible is the prospect of McCulloch and Sargeant, after a fitful night of hotel sleep, passing each other in the hallway, opting to check Facebook on their iPhones rather than brave the discomfort of eye contact. Following the evening sound check, McCulloch and Sargeant sustain an awkwardness now normalized, in opposite corners of their dressing room. As they prepare to punch the clock of another workday, they sometimes grapple in solitude with the sense of dread that we reserve for the occasional Monday morning.
In our youth, we stood close to the stage and lifted setlists from monitors for their totemic value: for us, the list stood in for our musical mystics, and carried a trace of their aesthetic virtuosity. Should the middle-aged venture that close to the stage today (bring your earplugs), we are more likely to understand the setlist from the Bunnymen’s perspective: a many-itemed meeting agenda. Onstage, the Bunnymen have business to attend to and—like any administrative body—they need consensus on the order of business.
For their shift at the House of Blues, Echo & the Bunnymen served their clientele amiably, playing well upon our memories of yore, rather than our fantasies of life to come. For our parts, we enjoyed a night out, dancing and bobbing our heads, with our sovereign egos free from the prospects of ecstatic dissolution. With due thanks to Sargeant and McCulloch, I am becoming more comfortable with such age-appropriate behavior.