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Clip: Ratliff on reunions

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  • Carl Z.
    Not Reunions, Reinventions (Back and Better. Really.) By BEN RATLIFF Published: April 22, 2007 WAS
    Message 1 of 1 , Apr 23, 2007

      Not Reunions, Reinventions (Back and Better. Really.)

      Published: April 22, 2007

      WAS that a queasy feeling you had recently, when you authorized
      payment on a $300 ticket for this summer's Police reunion concert?
      What about that weird web of logic that made $249 for a three-day pass
      to the Coachella Festival next weekend seem an allowable expense,
      because you'd be seeing Rage Against the Machine, the radical-leftist
      punk-funk band that wrote timely songs challenging the domination of
      real-life power structures ... until 2000, when it ceased to exist?

      And was that a shadow across your face the other day, when your
      friends were talking about the greatest rock shows ever, and someone
      asked if you'd ever seen the Pixies? "Yes," you said, brightly. But
      you qualified that. "I saw them on their second reunion tour in 2005,"
      you murmured. Then you left the room, looking guilty.

      We are going to have to come to terms with all these feelings, because
      reunion shows will soon become a much more normal concertgoing
      experience than we ever knew. More than that: I think we can meet them
      with an open mind.

      If these reunited bands meant something to you in an earlier time,
      perhaps you're feeling the dirty power of money, or the lameness of
      aging. (Maybe you really can afford that ticket now. Maybe it isn't
      such a drag to drive to the stadium. At least you know there's
      parking.) Perhaps some part of you tells you that you don't deserve
      it; you didn't put in your time in the rooms where that band started
      out, at CBGB, or the Rat, or North London Polytechnic, or wherever.

      Or maybe something about these events feels broadly, even comically,
      illegitimate. Aren't we supposed to form a community of taste around
      living culture, not afterlife culture? Isn't a great band supposed to
      be more than just a band, but an embodiment of a particular age, a
      state of mind, a place? How do you identify, then, with an aging act
      whose members are well past their original states of mind, have mostly
      relocated to sunnier places, and whose prime motivation would appear
      to be making money through entertainment consortiums like AEG Live,
      which controls Goldenvoice, the concert promoter behind the Coachella
      Valley Music and Arts festival in California, and the pathbreaker in
      the marketing of recent-past reunions? And aren't, say, 15 years of
      inactivity required before a reunion can be considered desirable?

      Unless you are a lawyer or a promoter for one of these bands, all you
      have is your ears. Despite all the bien-pensant hand-wringing about
      how reunions smell fishy, a band is a band. It is not more powerful
      than the sound it generates on a certain stage at a certain hour, its
      grooves and tones and tension and release. It is made of musicians who
      are considered young for a while, and then become older. They play in
      a club, then maybe a stadium, and then maybe a club again. They have
      money disputes, or they don't want to look at one another for a while,
      and they stop. Then the market changes in their favor, and they play

      When Rage Against the Machine became popular in the '90s, it seemed
      disconcerting that many of the band's fans wanted to hear the sound of
      a metal chair bashed on a concrete floor rather than be alerted to new
      methods of revolutionary praxis. But it wasn't the fans' fault: They
      were slaves to the whomp of that fuzz and funk, and the rhythm and
      pitch of Zack de la Rocha's hectoring whine. The band's sound eclipsed
      the higher brain functions, at least for a few minutes at a time.

      More and more of my working life, it seems, is predicated on whether I
      can find a band playing a song for the 4,000th time to be in any
      degree convincing. I do, increasingly. I used to feel allergic to
      reunions. For each band I'd seen in its prime, I had an image in my
      mind and thought it worth protecting. Worse yet, I grew skeptical of
      bands as they moved past the 20-year mark.

      But those shows over the last few years by the reunited Pixies and
      Stooges, they were loud and rude and fantastic. And they were
      judicious. Through their set lists, they located the potential
      excitement in the task of explaining what the bands had been all

      It was a fundamentally weird decision for each of those bands to
      re-form earlier this decade. I don't mean that they didn't know a
      dollar when they saw it. Issues of credibility run to the marrow of a
      band like the Pixies. Now that we're into the era of indie-rock
      reunions, we have to realize the bohemian rock culture of the '80s
      nurtured the idea that credibility is more important than money, even
      more so than the bohemian rock culture of the '60s had. But the Pixies
      and the Stooges were examples of reunions that ended up being more
      successful than a band's original iteration. This is the part that
      seems new, and this is the part we will likely see more often, as long
      as a band has the platform of a Coachella or a Bonnaroo — or any of
      the other sophisticated new festivals — to stage its rebirth.

      This summer, Smashing Pumpkins — O.K., two of the four original
      members — will tour for the first time in seven years, one of several
      high-profile bands to do so.

      If you had working knowledge of the Pixies' and Stooges' albums, you
      may have been stunned by how sophisticated live sound has become since
      those bands disappeared the first time, and how they have adapted the
      advances to their own needs. And what about the best of those who
      never formally went away — a band like Slayer, a performer like
      Prince? They carry so much maturity after more than 20 years that even
      if they don't retain perpetual youth, they have something that might
      be more important: complete control over their own sound.

      I realize that this view might seem to decontextualize music, and even
      depoliticize it, which might be problematic with Rage Against the
      Machine. But isn't it more accurate to see music as music, and not as
      philosophy or policy? (Put it another way: If you admired Rage
      specifically for being a forthright radical-left political band, how
      could you ever forgive it for being absent through George W. Bush's
      presidency to this point, only showing up after the Democratic
      landslide of the midterm elections?)

      There's nothing new about an aura around a cultural event growing in
      proportion to the unlikeliness of its happening. Long before the
      Pixies, Pete Seeger, with the reconvened Weavers, sold out Carnegie
      Hall in 1955. Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelli's recordings
      from 1946 can seem to have a bittersweet, lived-in feeling, made after
      the two musicians were geographically separated by war for some years.
      Gilbert and Sullivan's reunion operetta, "Utopia Limited" in 1893,
      benefited at the time from publicity about its circumstances: It
      followed a two-year breakup between Gilbert and Sullivan provoked by a

      But there really is a lot of high-profile reuniting this summer: the
      Police will begin its first tour in 21 years. Genesis will tour for
      the first time in 15; Crowded House, 11; the Jesus and Mary Chain, 9;
      Squeeze, 8; Rage Against the Machine, 7; Smashing Pumpkins — if you
      count two of four members a reunion — 7. The members of the original
      Van Halen nearly made it to the starting gate for the first time in 22
      years, but called their summer tour off in February.

      There are clear reasons for this trend. We're seeing the winnowing of
      the live-music era in America, as well as the end of belief in the
      album. Any crisis of belief leads to sanctification and orthodoxy;
      people want to see the saints work their magic. Ashley Capps, who
      helps produce mid-June's Bonnaroo festival in Manchester, Tenn. —
      which has booked the Police as one of its headliners this year — put
      it in a slightly simpler way. "When I was growing up, the release of
      an album was an event," he said. "We've moved away from the notion
      that the release of a recording is an event. Somebody can release a
      great album and get fantastic reviews and everybody's talking about
      it, but how long does that last? Six weeks? In that sense, live
      performances are becoming the important event."

      Gary Bongiovanni, editor of Pollstar, the concert-industry magazine,
      is so used to old acts propping up the industry that he doesn't
      believe this year's picture is substantially different. "Last year you
      had Bob Seger, this year you have Genesis," he said evenly over the
      phone recently. He is not sure whether new bands — Arcade Fire, say —
      are striking deeply enough into the soul of the culture to necessitate
      their own reunions down the road. I think context will determine it.
      If there are lots of great new bands in the next 10 years, we won't
      feel we need an Arcade Fire reunion. If there aren't, we will.

      It seems now that the audience position for rock is coming closer to
      that of jazz around the mid-1970s. Most of the forefathers are still
      with us; increasingly, they seem to have something important to teach
      us. And we are developing strange hungers for music of the
      not-so-distant past that might be bigger and deeper than the hunger we
      originally had. That feeling people talked about during the Pixies
      shows a few years ago — the word "eerie" was used a great deal — seems
      similar to descriptions of the feeling generated in the Village
      Vanguard when Dexter Gordon played his comeback shows there in 1976,
      after living abroad. Since then, jazz has advanced into a culture of
      incessant re-experience, endless tributes. Actual reunions are barely
      noticed: a huge percentage of the music refers to great moments of the
      past. Yet that doesn't mean that jazz can't still be fantastic, even
      transformative. It is, all the time.

      We have to allow for the possibility that Rage Against the Machine —
      or the Police, or the Jesus and Mary Chain — could be as good as it
      ever was, if perhaps a little more wizened, a little more skeptical.
      (It will depend on their practicing of course.) If you're still
      looking for something sacred, it probably can't be found in their
      values or politics or cult significance. It's in you: It is your own
      reaction to how they sound. Nobody can take that away from you.
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