luna

This is a tale of disappointment and fatigue.

Phoenix was in Sydney recently and I rather impulsively got a ticket to see them at Luna Park. No one else was able to go on short notice. Amo loves Phoenix but had some work to do that evening. I prefer not to go to shows alone, but I will if need be, if the fascination for a band or performer is strong enough.

I thought Luna Park sounded promising as a venue. It’s a classic amusement park built in 1935 right on the harbour, at the foot of the bridge. Its childlike colors and shapes and midway lights are a wonderful element of the waterfront. The huge, creepy clown’s face that forms the facade of the park’s entrance is somewhat an icon of Sydney.

In fact I hate amusement parks, and have since I was a kid. The rides and other distractions have for some reason never appealed to me. But I thought it would be a great setting for a show. I had visions of the band playing outside, with an amazing harbour vista framing them and a brightly-lit Ferris wheel looming overhead.

Beyond that, I was keen to see Phoenix. I’d been a fan for years without getting a chance to check them out them live. I figured their clever garage-dance-pop would really come across in person. True, they’ve gotten big recently. The ticket was pricey and I was risking bad sound, bad beer, and a big crowd of newbie fans. What’s more, I had to be at work at two the next morning. Yes, two in the morning. Damned if it wasn’t going to be the best show I’d ever seen.

If you’re wondering why I would bother going alone to see what is essentially a pop act made up of hipsters from Paris, on a night when I had to work — at my age, with all the other priorities in my life —

I don’t know what to tell you. I’ve been this way my whole adult life — sometimes manifesting the musical taste of a reasonably sophisticated seventeen-year-old girl. Freaking out over exquisite pop sounds made by young men from England, and other places romantic to the naïve. There are a few friends of mine who can relate. The rest of you may continue to wonder because I won’t be able to convince you. (At least Sofia Coppola would understand.)

Pop or no, Phoenix have stayed consistently edgy to balance the shimmering perfectionism of their sound. Their new album — the one that’s blowing up — is very sharp. They’ve beaten the third album syndrome on the way to ruling the world for a while. It does what the truly great pop albums do: whatever it wants. It gets weird, subverts the formula, breaks off into long instrumentals, tries to rock like Stereolab or Wire or Television — and still sells heaps of records, sounding like something you could play at a house party with your kids and grandma dancing along. I can’t get used to hearing it at the mall or the grocery store — it’s so smart and elegant compared to everything else out there. This is good: there must be a generation of kids who will regard this band the way we do New Order.

The day of the gig saw the kind of summer evening in Sydney that’s like a silly dream. Cool breeze, pink clouds in a pale sapphire sky. White cockatoos squawking obnoxiously while flying in pairs to their obscure nighttime havens; big bats all over the sky in dark silent contrast. I kissed my wife goodbye — she was worried about me of course; worried I’d be exhausted, that I’d drink too much.

Luna Park is just a few train stops from our place — a comforting thought, with how little time I’d have for sleep that night. On the train, I listened to Prince & the Revolution’s Parade, an album that was changing my life before I ever heard of the Cure or REM. I’d been obsessed with it all over again for a couple of days and it seemed a great choice for the occasion. Parade is “set” in Paris, being the soundtrack for the famously bad Under the Cherry Moon. And on that pastel-colored evening there seemed to be a spiritual relationship between Phoenix’ pure power pop and the Revolution’s glorious heyday of romantic synth-rock & soul.

As I got off the train at Milsons Point, the album had reached the weirdly majestic “Mountains,” one of my favorite records of all time, an impossible blend of soaring electro-disco, gritty psychedelic gospel, and jazzy breakdowns. The effect was dreamlike as I drifted down charming side streets, down the slope to the balmy waterfront, down the big, absurdly green lawn under the massive stone anchorage. The bridge towered against the violet dusk, leading away in vast steel curves to the cityscape on the southern shore. There across the water, like an illuminated toy on a shelf right in front of me, was the Opera House. Love will conquer if you just believe. One of those moments when music seems one and the same with all my senses. I should have known, but this would be the night’s atmospheric highlight.

I noticed the lawn was full of kids, probably ticketholders, drinking and hanging out. My judgment was split two ways. I’m pretty leery of all the drinking in public here. But having a drink on a grassy spot on the harbour would obviously be a fine way to spend time on such a night. And it gave the place a festival feel.

Through the gaping maw of the clown, on into Luna Park. I didn’t get much sense of the the park itself since it was closed, and I was moving in a herd with other showgoers. And my dreams of a romantic outdoor venue on the midway were quickly dashed. Not only was the concert hall indoors, it couldn’t even manage to be distinctive. Instead of being 30s art deco, it was 70s institutional blah. Grey concrete and grey carpeting, with splashes of bland color, like a cafeteria, were the primary themes.

The general-admission auditorium was crowded; the opening act (I don’t even recall who they were) was already done. I saw getting a beer would not be so bad, but moving around would be complicated. So I got two beers. Then was not sure what to do with myself at all. There was nowhere to sit, nowhere to be comfortable. Obviously no one to hang out with. I realized I was tired. I’m always tired lately.

About the vibe, what can I say? Being alone at a concert with a couple of thousand mostly younger people sucks. Do adults not go out to big shows in Sydney? Or was it the amusement park factor making it seem that way?

Most of the crowd seemed stuck in an Aussie suburban sameness which was depressing. Their lack of style was matched by shyness about dancing. If any rock band makes dance music, it’s Phoenix. To be fair, there was no lack of vocal enthusiasm, but for movement most could only manage the stand-and-nod thing that is the downfall of indie. It sapped my energy.

And there was an immaturity that somehow surprised me. Maybe I’m used to the kids in New York, who are always trying to be cool and act beyond their age. Or maybe I’ve just gotten older.

One thing I’m sure about is kids in Australia drink more. The drinking age is 18, and public drunkenness among youth is epidemic. In bars, in the street, on trains, kids just pound it. The level of stupid wastedness, especially on weekends, is hard to take even for a New Yorker. You see them in the train stations on Friday and Saturday evenings, all looking the same, the girls roaming in packs in silly cocktail dresses and limping in heels, guys in their cheesy gear and cheap cologne, headed out for the night. Then later, yelling as if possessed and fighting and vomiting, rolling in the gutter barefoot, clutching their heels. On the major streets it feels like a drunken riot taking place, around every corner, all night, every weekend. It frightens my wife, and sickens me. Not morally so much as aesthetically: when I was a kid I prided myself on looking different and being nerdy and sober, and doing my own thing.

Nothing so squalid at this show, but it was not much fun either. I had to strain to hear and see the band with all the kids talking and bullshitting, poking and shoving each other, drinking and hanging out as if cutting class.

I only came close to getting into one fight. A kid was plowing his way though the crowd, two-fisting beers and yelling, “Sorry, doing it! Sorry! But doing it!” as he shoved people aside. I wouldn’t get out of his way, and he crashed right into me and stepped on my foot. I yelled out, and we traded stares, before he turned away with his beers.

I guess this kind of thing happens all the time, and there’s little point in getting upset and reacting the way I do. Sometimes I think there’s something wrong with me.

Anyway. The band certainly lived up to their part of the bargain. Phoenix can be accused of being perfectionistic; a little too cute with getting all the details of their sound just so. And as they came on, sure enough, the versions sounded just like they do on record. But there was a very pleasing intensity to their playing; it had a lot of kick, helped by good sound in the hall. As the set progressed, it got better; the versions became a little looser, the set list got deeper into the catalog, and it was clear they didn’t mean to do anything halfway. More than once they fearlessly played extended moody instrumentals, thus risking boring all the kids. But the main part of the crowd was patient and tuned in to whatever they did. It gave the show a a lot of depth.

The highlight was “Napoleon Says.” The first track from their best album, It’s Never Been Like That, shows how Phoenix craft thumping dance music out of your basic rock & roll four-piece. The fierce tribal/garage drumming, the brittle, monotonous tension of the rhythm guitar, the way the lead guitar and bass create thrust by looping between long pauses and crashing fills. The weird, sexy, but vaguely threatening lyrical come-on. Live, it had all the haunting spareness of the album version with a lot of extra power. For one song I was up and dancing, singing along and not caring what anyone else did. But I noticed many in the crowd were carried away by it too. A good sign — there’s nothing commercial at all about that tune.

I might as well say the show was fantastic, everything I had hoped — I just couldn’t enjoy it much filtered through the peripheral annoyances. Eventually I got tired of trying to find a good space, being crowded aside, or being told by security I had to move. I just didn’t have any energy to fight it, and two o’clock was looming closer. I started drifting to the exit as the band began its encore.

By the time they were finishing with “1901,” I was outside. I could still hear the music very well, resonating through the candy-colored fire exit doors. As I stood there, looking around at the depressing shut amusement park, I regretted ever coming. No consolation prizes.

Then I realized I was missing the best part of the show. The band had added a coda to “1901” and it had become a long, intense, melodic jam. Pretty refreshing for a supposedly commercial band to rework its recent biggest hit for an encore. I was sorry for missing it. But glad to be gone. Glad to be getting in bed for a little while.

The next day, after a long morning at work, I almost fell asleep while driving home, in broad daylight, in city traffic. A first for me. Must be getting old.

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