I'm sitting here reading the bold black letters over and over again: "Your home is at risk if you do not keep up with everyone else." The line is such an amusing non-sequitur and it tickles me more with every read. Is it a note from the bank, the creditors, a nasty surprise in the mailbox? No, don't be alarmed, it's just my brand new official Radiohead anorak (or rain slicker if you like), that I purchased at their concert at HiFi Buys Ampitheatre one week ago. This bright yellow anorak (or windbreaker if you prefer), is the memento I have left to cherish my favorite musical group in the whole wide world and their incredible concert event that is already fading into hazy shades of gray.
For those of you who have not been keeping up with everyone else, Radiohead is an alt-rock quintet hailing from Oxford, England, that have garnered increased popularity over the past 10 years. The band takes it name from a Talking Heads tune of the same title. Their sound ranges from brass ensemble numbers falling into dissonance to heart-bursting, organ-backed weepers. I like to classify them as a band for any intellectually minded or creative individual who still feels the need to "rock." Being a photographer who naturally responds better to visual forms of communication, Radiohead's music always conjures up strong images on the right side of my brain. I wonder how many fans are left-handed like me? I wonder if lead vocalist Thom Yorke is left-handed like me?
My fascination with Radiohead's music is more than just to spark the imagination, I listen to these people because I believe they have something important and unique to say.
I will mention again my handy $25 anorak (or whatever), and the warning that it heeds, because implicit in this example is why I love this band. That bit of advice about the home at risk resonates with Radiohead's tone and sense of humor. The statement also suggests the band's expressions of paranoia and disconnect felt amid the day-to-day living of our modern lives, ever dependent on technology and lack of human interaction. While other bands may sing about similar themes, nobody does it with such sincerity and intensity as Radiohead. In Radiohead's bleak landscape people have either resigned themselves to being broken and disappointed or have lulled themselves into thinking the plastic version of life they have created is real happiness.
While most popular music these days offers its audience only distraction without contemplation Radiohead provide something for the rest of us to sink our teeth into. Some music critics argue that Radiohead's lyrics are intentionally inaccessible. I submit that the lyrics are not vague, but rather intimate stories, beautiful pieces of poetry. Do we not reward poets and authors of prose for the emotional complexity with which they express themselves in our high school English classes? Did 17,000 fans cram into an amphitheater last week to listen to music they could not comprehend or did not get? I assure you no screaming fans, including myself, had any trouble belting out the lyrics to all 23 songs on the set list that night. Never have I felt so much passion to sing along with my fellow concert-goers as on that night.
By the way, for all you young kids reading this, several great fan sites exist on the Internet, such as Greenplastic.com, devoting ample pages to the deciphering and decoding of Radiohead's lyrics (you internet savvy high schoolers probably knew that already, but just in case). Without having researched this I would hazard a guess that no one is trying to figure out the lyrics to a Britney Spears or J. Lo chart topper. But if I'm wrong I'd like to tell those fans they are wasting their time, as these artists probably did not even write those songs. Most likely they were penned by someone with twice the talent but only half the looks.
After illustrating my obsessions with Radiohead, would you believe just little more than 24 hours before they took the stage I had no ticket to the big show? I had procrastinated in getting my ticket, thinking that better seats would be released at the last minute. I came to find out that the show was completely sold out. But serendipity came to the rescue and after several internet searches, phone calls, faxes, and a pick-up at an obscure crosstown bar (which I won't discuss further), I ended up with a coveted ticket to the pit, which is the only thing better than being in the front row. Admittedly, I was nervous approaching the venue, not sure if the ticket I had acquired was real, glancing around nervously in line at other people's tickets. But no worries n I made it in, leaving my other lawn-ticket-holding friends for dead as I headed for the pit.
As the lights went down for this gig and those strange digital blips and scrambled textures emanated from the speakers I totally flipped out. As Thom Yorke started softly singing the first lines from "The Gloaming," I flipped out to the max. Let me make it clear that by flip out, I'm talking Beatles-mania-newsreel-footage-of-screaming-girls-style flip outs. I have no shame in this, the moment had been several years in the making. I've been a silent bystander at several great concerts of which I've done little more than gazed upon the action from afar, my nose steadily bleeding. Being so close to the band, the music, and fans was what made this concert experience far surpass any of my previous. The small pit environment provided such great energy, an intimacy that I'd never received from a live show before. If you will allow me to speak metaphorically: The crowd was a conductor, keeping a steady flow of electricity from the band to my eardrums and on into the right side of the brain for processing. The lyrics came through loud and clear: "When the walls bend with your breathing," Yorke sang as he did his own self-styled little dance around the microphone. Yorke was either speaking of some world leader with too much power or was giving someone a "hint, hint" about their bad breath. Despite popular reports of Thom Yorke's generally gloomy demeanor in the pages of the press, he and the rest of the band seemed to be enjoying themselves on stage. I don't buy into this sullen image that the media presents anyway but perhaps Yorke was extra smiley that night because the day after the show, Oct. 7, was his birthday. I had the distinct privilege to join in a small chorus of fans trying to rally a "Happy Birthday" singalong during a pause in the set.
The most exciting moment of the show came when the band shocked it's most loyal fans by unearthing their first international hit "Creep," a tune thought to be dead and buried years ago with good riddance. Astute fans know that this tune was effectively killed by the band when its popularity was in danger of rendering them another one-hit wonder. Plus lead singer Yorke suffered through many questions as to whether he was the weirdo-creep the first person narrative is about. Despite all this mess it remains one of my favorite Radiohead guilty pleasures, being that it is the closest thing to a power-ballad that the band has in its portfolio.
This bold move by the band proved to me that despite the sometimes depressing subject matter of their songs they are fully capable of lightning up a bit and having fun.
The rest of the show far exceeded my expectations of what their live performance would be like. The band closed with one of my personal favorites, "Everything in its Right Place" from the album "Kid A." Like I said earlier the lyrics are not so difficult to understand: "Yesterday I woke up sucking a lemon." Does that not speak to you of someone having a sour day? This track was even better live because the guitarist and laptop virtuoso Johnny Greenwood started sampling sounds as the band played live, then looping them over and over. One by one the band members dismissed themselves until the stage was bare but the music kept bumping from the speaker box, apparently playing all by itself. This was an appropriately "post-human" conclusion for a band who predominately uses digital mixing equipment and other strange instruments I don't know about to achieve its unsettling and ghostly ambient sounds.
That is all, but there was one last poignant moment after the show that I would like to add. During my ride back on the Marta train I overhead an older lady, must have been nearly 60, engaging a group of teenagers about the concert. To my surprise this granny-dressed senior had attended the concert and was telling these kids that her favorite Radiohead song was "Nice Dream." I'm not really sure why this touched me so much. I guess it was my knowledge of this blissfully sad song combined with the fact that someone over twice my age and from a different generation could find common ground (in a rock group called Radiohead of all things), with people even younger than myself. It made me all warm and fuzzy inside to know that this blue-haired lady, old enough to be my grandmother, was touched in the same way by the lyrics of a Radiohead song that I was. I think for all of us, old and young, or with brown, blonde, or blue hair, Radiohead created a "Nice Dream" for us that night, indeed.
This was my first column so I hoped it was an OK read for you. I will tell you more about myself next week if I'm invited back for a second effort. I've got to go now and get this out to my superiors because the presses are waiting and my first column is at risk if I can't keep up with everyone else.
Zach Porter is a photographer for the News Daily. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.