“You haven’t heard Moya?!” Peter asked me in bewilderment as we stood shoulder to shoulder at the 9:30 Club on Sunday night. I could tell he was crippled in that moment; my fan-hood was now in question. He wasn’t sure whether to sell me on how good the song is or wring my neck for never listening to it. All of a sudden I had changed in front of him from a conduit of excitement and fellow fanatic of Godspeed You! Black Emperor into some philistine who somehow infiltrated this reunion concert, who had no right to experience this God-given gift of a show that sold out in 5 minutes.
“Well,” I said, going for optimism, “maybe this will be a good way for me to hear it for the first time. I mean, imagine if your first experience with Godspeed was them playing their music for you live.”
He nodded. He bought it! I thought as I breathed a sigh of relief, that was a close one. Brandon overheard that I hadn’t heard Moya and was a little more understanding.
“I’ll squeeze your leg when they play Moya,” he told me with a smile.
“What are you going to squeeze, Peter?” I asked. Peter just laughed. I’m still not sure why.
Godspeed had promised to begin playing at 9:15 and I was surprised that an indie post-rock band would be so punctual. At 8:45 a massive amount of bass distortion began to build and fill the 9:30 Club. Something was about to happen. Everyone realized right then just how lucky they were to be there. This was Godspeed’s first tour since 2003, and they haven’t released any music since 2002. I was only there by the grace of God; Brandon’s brother got a job in Oregon.
It seems that every decision Godspeed You! Black Emperor has made in the course of their career has made it impossible for them to achieve stardom. Godspeed You! Black Emperor doesn’t talk. They have never sung a single lyric in any of their songs. Their “songs” are generally around twenty minutes long. My favorite album of theirs, Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven, comes on two discs, each disc consisting of two twenty minute songs. Their band name is an odd assembly of unrelated words that does not roll off the tongue. Even so, it might make sense if there wasn’t an exclamation point that just seems to be misplaced (wikipedia tells us that they took it from a 1970’s black and white Japanese documentary about a Japanese biker gang, which explains the poor translation ring to it). In fact, absolutely nothing about Godspeed rolls off the tongue. When people ask me who are some of my favorite artists, I totally omit Godspeed You! Black Emperor for the sake of the sanity of our conversation. With choices like that, what radio jockey would get a Godspeed You! Black Emperor album in their studio, examine it, and decide to add it to the rotation? Not only that, but what kind of person would sit and listen to minutes and minutes of pure sound, some of it odd and creepy?
And yet, almost despite their efforts, there we were standing with hundreds of people waiting anxiously for any kind of movement, like a group of deer hunters. Despite themselves, Godspeed’s 2011 tour is completely sold out.
9:15 came. Sophie was first. She walked out and began playing her violin and everyone cheered like girls at a Beatles concert. One by one when needed, all eight band members appeared and added to the music. For the next two hours, Godspeed You! Black Emperor played without saying a single word. I have never been to a concert like it. Nothing has sounded so good. All of the times I had listened to them on my computer or in my car or on my headphones were like prophecies that were fulfilled that night. While there were powerful imagines being projected on a screen behind them, often just watching them play felt like a disservice to the music. Usually at a concert the singer is more of a showman or you can watch the lead guitarist as he plays a solo, but not with Godspeed. They just played. Often I would lower my head and close my eyes and just listen. Once, and I kid you not, I teared up. I counted them: two tears. At an indie rock concert!
“I wanted to cry,” Peter said when I told him after the show.
Even though the best parts were when I didn’t, I had plenty of time to think during the show. Why don’t more people like Godspeed? Sure, most people haven’t even heard of them. But even for those who have, why is it so difficult for the average person to sit and listen patiently for twenty minutes to all the many movements of their music?
I think most people don’t have patience, nor the vulnerability for art like this. Godspeed’s music is not conducive to a normal-paced life; I mean, it takes forever. Most of the music that people listen to is meant to fit their lives. There’s a catchy tune to sing to or an upbeat feeling that is like a pat on the back to what we are already doing. We all have great music for mornings, spring drives, doing paperwork, etc. Rarely do we ever bring ourselves to music and let it mold the moment. And even bigger than that, rarely do we bring ourselves to any kind of art and allow it to change us. Most art has become mere entertainment. We only see certain kinds of movies because we don’t want to feel certain ways; we only read certain kinds of books because they are meant for relaxation; and we listen to pop music because it’s fun or explicitly pretty. Bono put it like this (in this vhs recording that’s terribly out of sync) when he talked about the importance of Woody Guthrie, an old folk-singer who wasn’t pretty, and why U2 decided to cover his song, ‘Jesus Christ,’ “It’s (the music on the radio) the same song. It puts people in this big sleep. I think Woody Guthrie’s music was very much awake.” Start watching at 1:11.
I don’t want to be in this sleep, but I rarely put myself in a position to be awakened by anything. At 26 I’m already very set in my ways. My life is constantly gaining steam, but I think I’ve got to stop sometimes and allow myself to see something differently. There are great works of fiction, music, and film out there that I’m not willing to accept because I’m not vulnerable to them. Most of us know within seconds if we like what we’re listening to. I love Godspeed You! Black Emperor because it’s impossible to listen to them that way. You have to stop. You have to listen. And if you do, there’s a huge pay-off. GK Chesterton once said this:
“The traveler sees what he sees. The tourist sees what he came to see.”
And I think we all know how embarrassing it is to be seen with your dad on trips when he’s wearing his fanny pack.
What do you think? Do you even want to be “awakened” by some weird post-rock band? Do you see yourself as a traveler or a tourist? I’d love to hear your thoughts.
After all this talk, here’s Moya. It’s only ten minutes long and it’s incredible, but I am still reluctant to pick it. I want to share how much I love Godspeed and I’m afraid of picking any one song of theirs as an example. Many of their songs or movements (as they call them) can be quite beautiful and inspiring, while others are more dissonant and ominous. I’m convinced that I love the music I do because I feel like I’ve heard it before, not in another song, but throughout my life. I think you’ll find Godspeed’s music to be true because you’ve lived moments that sound like it.
This is when Brandon squeezes your thigh.