First appeared in The Weeklings
Just off the train tracks, where the warehouses meet the weeds, I am standing in near-darkness in my sensible down coat. This stretch of debris and dented containers could well be the ugliest spot in Munich, though in this light I can’t be sure. What I do know is none of us would be milling around here under normal circumstances. And none of us would rather be anywhere else.
We are waiting for the members of Kasabian to emerge from the back of the club. The crowd is surprisingly small and quiet, maybe still deaf from the two-hour explosion inside. As I crack jokes with my friends who have gamely accompanied me around back, we watch serious-minded men do heavy lifting. One pair, stationed behind a waiting truck, shoves unwieldy black cases up a scrappy wooden plank. Another pair packs the hold, stopping now and then to admire their work. Everyone else is invisible until there is a thud. A few feet away, a roadie with sad shoulders has lost his grip on a rectangular case more than half his size. I want to know what’s inside – what precious part of the greatness has been compromised – and just as quickly decide I don’t.
Because understanding the mechanics of an experience doesn’t always explain it. There is no good reason, after all, why we are waiting out in the cold. Why we paid money to be deafened, jostled and splattered with beer from soaring plastic cups. Why we raised our hands high when instructed by the band, and even higher when we weren’t. They say the sum is always greater than its parts, but sometimes it’s more than that.
Not even an hour before, a thousand of us were jammed inside a furnace. While the band blasted from one song to the next, the bass line drilled a hole in my boots. The floor heaved, or maybe it was the crowd. I leaned into my friend and muttered, “The drums, wait for the drums,” but the catch in my throat meant I was screaming.
Some compare Kasabian to rock and roll giants. Others say they are just another brash, festival-headlining band that is living the dream longer than even they ever expected to. Either way, I can’t get enough. While I have always been taken with the miracle of live music, the way a few people grab their instruments and nothing becomes everything, this is different – and it doesn’t necessarily make sense.
A professor once told me to pay attention to the art I was drawn to at any given time. The question then isn’t so much why this, but why now?
Once the fumbled crate is rescued and loading resumes, I take a moment to check out the other stragglers in the shadows. There are about fifteen of us, mostly women, it should be noted; and considerably younger than I am, it should also be noted. Apparently, nobody looks rock and roll when it’s cold out.
Just as I’m starting to wonder if the band escaped while I was getting my coat, two silhouettes appear on the path. It takes less than a second to recognize frontman Tom and songwriter-guitarist Serge, but in place of gaggling and swarming there is an awkward pause. Before, we all knew what to do: the band was to perform and the audience was to enjoy it. Now, Tom and Serge are down here with us, on the same strip of pebbles and cigarette butts, just trying to get to their bus.
A new kind of transaction is required, and it is unscripted. No wonder they take a moment. We all want something from each other right then – we just don’t yet know what it is.
The first Kasabian concert last year had been a radical experiment: I had no familiarity with the band when buying tickets and spent no time cramming YouTube before the show. With some 70 live acts behind me, I guess I had grown tired of the clutch of expectation.
When the band pounced on the first crack of drum sticks, I remember being hit with a surge of joy – not watered-down or adult, but the shameless, fist-pumping kind I thought I had outgrown. Yet in its wake came an urgent, nagging thought: this, too, will end. I was wrapped up in the moment but mourning it, lifted up and lost.
Tonight is no different even though I now know the songs. I can anticipate every beat, but the beat that takes me higher is the one that won’t return. Time is passing like the stubborn bodysurfer who rides the crowd. Every time the bouncer sees her coming, his face tightens in disgust but he lifts her gently over the barrier, like a long-suffering parent, and never quite has the heart to show her the door.
Bliss and loss, one means nothing without the other – and here, in the sweaty pit of a club, I am overwhelmed by both.
In a tidy division of labor, Tom and Serge take on the huddle. Tom approaches, a few of us back up and then we all wait for something to happen. In the unforgiving strobe of camera-phones, I think I detect a question in his eyes: Friend or foe or perhaps What can I possibly give you that I haven’t already? I know the answer, but it doesn’t stop me from trying to hold on to the perfection of the past two hours. Or, failing that, settle for a chat.
I hear myself greet him as though we have known each other for years. He surprises me with a hug. If I were young and breezy, I might have enjoyed the moment but am too busy processing it. I am also wondering what it must be like for him to cuddle strangers or assume they want you to because, based on the next ten minutes, they do. I also don’t know where to start. There’s so much to say, or maybe so little.
We end up having a nice chat, or at least its second cousin. We banter, we joke and, in a short-circuited attempt at soulful exchange, I stump him with a few cryptic questions about the next gig. By way of a response, he launches into a fidgety, a cappella version of “Your Mother Should Know” – as logical a response to the situation as any. I join him for a bar or two but wish he had chosen one of the hundred other Beatles’ tunes I know better, as if it mattered. After a few seconds, I thank him, exhausted, and make room for the breezier fans.
About an hour into the show, I was slammed. Not by a mosher or the staggering volume, but silence. Anti-sound. The whistling void before an explosion. Right before the refrain of a song I have never heard live, the music cuts out for no more than a second. It’s shocking and sublime, and it almost knocks me over.
Moving over to Serge, I am struck by the same kind of hush. He’s off to the side, listening to a young woman wax lyrical about a song – his murmured response I can’t catch. Minutes later, another woman professes to being carted off in an ambulance at the last show. This is high drama, I think, as her voice falters. A few of us lean in for the gory details but are duly punished when her English fails her. Serge seems moved anyway.
For a second, I think about coming clean, too. Maybe something about being forty-four and taking trains and planes to see them four times in just over a year will do? And yet. Apart from the quiet concern of family and friends, I’m not sure what this confession can bring me. Better to play it safe and ask for an autograph, even if I have never understood the appeal.
A security guard hovers, miming a few move-along gestures to no one in particular. As Serge poses for snapshots, I edge closer, as if at the supermarket check-out, and wait. A few minutes later, I manage both to get a private audience and be coherent. While Serge agonizes over what to write in my notebook – a detail which still touches me – my college Russian comes in handy. A disgruntled voice to my left says, “What’s he doing?”
I still don’t know what I’m doing but, standing next to the band’s creative core, don’t really care.
With my notebook splayed open, I follow the flashes and wisecracks back to Tom. When he takes it, he smiles either because he remembers me from before or doesn’t. This transaction is simpler, I think, just a fleeting point of contact sealed by a scribble. But the scribble goes on and I realize, with a growing sense of excitement, he is not just signing his name.
In the interminable coat-check line after the show, I ask my friends a rhetorical question. Can this, I intone with a sweeping arm – the music, the experience and whatever else I’ve been chasing – be captured? But the stage is already being dismantled, and whatever ‘this’ had been is being packed into unwieldy black cases like a magic trick, or a crushing joke. The show is over but I’m not done yet. The show is over but maybe there’s still time.
On the way up to the train, we crowd under a street lamp to read Tom’s special message. I’m giddy and I’m lucid. I’m sated and I’ll never be done. Maybe there’s still time for me, and it’s not why this or why now but now what? Because what moves us can’t be wasted even if what moves us is a mystery – which is why it’s fitting, if not poetic, that no matter how bright the light, or which way I turn the page, I cannot read what it says.