I went with my brothers to see Soundgarden at the Queen Elizabeth theatre last Sunday night. For weeks I had been anticipating a great comeback after the excitement of listening to their latest album. We had seen them previously in 1996 at the PNE Forum. Their live set although heavy and hard was disjointed and you could see the band was not much in the mood for rapport with the audience. Hell they even had a hard time looking at each other. Being an excited youth you tend to ignore those things though because as I see it now, it was all about being with your brothers, your friends, your music. For us Soundgarden’s music was the stuff you listened to when you went camping, singing and yelling in the darkness by the firelight, among the tall trees, and beside a flowing river. It was the music you popped into your car deck with your rolling sound system to show how great everything sounded and when those four rock gods forged gems like Jesus Christ Pose, Outshined, Slaves and Bulldozers, Holy Water, Superunknown, Fourth of July, Like Suicide and on and on, it slammed into me and picked me up in its grasp.
So back in 1996 when I saw Ben Shepard spit at the crowd it wasn’t a surprise to me that they broke up shortly thereafter…
Can you really go back? Should you ignore what happened in the past based on the dream you built up in your mind of how it could be…if?
When we got outside the venue we needed one ticket, I canvassed the scalpers and people with extra tickets looking to make a deal. This is the hustle, the real night market. Nobody is serving you bad food, or hawking pirated software. There is a best by date on every ticket. It is all about how comfortable you are with money, and how much you can balance parting with it for the goods you want. My problem is I don’t like ripping people off, however the paradox is if I can get in for less I’m not complaining.
There was a fellow who was being firm on his price. A regular guy. There were the usual suspects buying and selling tickets. People and faces I have become familiar with at the growing number of shows I have attended. My brother pointed out a couple who were looking to sell. On my approach I became aware that these are not people you would ordinarily see selling tickets much less attend a hard rock concert. I said hi. They were middle aged, man and woman, with a heavy eastern european sounding accent. I dismissed this strange combination of time and place and circumstance and asked their price. They named it and looked at me with a forced stoicism. Waiting for the counter-offer. What ran through my mind at that moment was: This is strange. Why are they selling Soundgarden tickets? Are they (tickets) for real? I checked the tickets. Hardcopies. Balcony, Centre, Lower row. Good seats for balcony I thought. I named my price. It wasn’t a low ball offer. They immediately took it without looking at one another. Like I said, strange.
I now had a pair. I wanted a single ticket. I wanted to use the pair as leverage to get that single ticket. I was pacing the grounds nervously. I wanted to get that seat. I was holding the tickets in my hand for all to see, and was immediately approached by a fellow who balked at my asking price which was $40 more than the price of a pair. Immediately, a scalper with a single ticket in his hand chiseled his way between us. “I’ll buy them”, he said. The other fellow who initially balked, began to fret and complain. Thus the lesson: strike while you can. Now I wanted his single ticket, and I was holding the money exchanged between us. I didn’t count the money. I checked the ticket and made a deal, but this time I screwed up. Instead of being content with getting the ticket, I had already started counting the money in my head, and how much ‘I’ would be getting in for. I should have taken a cue from that famous song ‘The Gambler’: You never count your money when you’re sitting at the table, there’ll be time enough for counting, when the dealing’s done”.
By the time we got in the door, I was already counting the cash, running the figures in my head, confusing this that and the other thing. Not enjoying the situation. Not letting it go, just yet. My youngest brother and I lined up for beverages, we collected our beer allotment and waited for our brother who went to the merchandise table. While we were waiting the whole circus came to a head. A face who I recalled waiting outside with his friends encountered me inside and approached. “You sold some fake tickets” he said. I looked him in the eyes and said “I don’t think so”. “Maybe not directly through you”, he continued, “but my friend bought the tickets from a guy who said you sold them”. Now just to let you know, what I was wearing stood out from the regular Greater Vancouver suburbanite winter garb of blue jeans, dark outerwear shells, non-obtrusive shirts, etc… Nondescript or as a person I once worked with in an office referred to derisively as ‘Reasonable Grey’. No, I was wearing a multi-coloured, knitted toque. Full of coloured yarn in light beautiful blues, deep browns and tans, creams amidst ambers, some fleshy pinks. A gift. The knitting work was done so that if you looked at it from farther off it would seem like hair. As well I had on a white wool pullover sweater tight knit dotted with little holes if you looked closely enough. It belonged and was worn by my father-in-law long since passed whom I’ve never met. He wore it when he worked in a fish cannery many years ago. So safe to assume nobody makes them anymore. I’ve yet to see another like it. “My friend is at the box office now trying to get a refund”. He looked a little irritated with me, and then he asked: “Who did you get those tickets from?” If it was any other place the words “From an older couple, an old man and woman”, wouldn’t sound so ridiculous, but as soon as I started to speak, my realization, and the forcefulness of my testimony grew in inverse proportions. The whole situation was turning into a gong show. All I could do at that point in answer to his ‘uh yah’ gaze was to say I was sorry for his friends, but that if it was me it wasn’t intentional.
The p.a. announced the show was to start in 10 mins. The lobby was still full of people purchasing drinks and merchandise. No way this show was going to start on time. Another announcement that the show was about to start and so we decided to drink up and head over to our seats.
There we separated. I went to the balcony and my brothers lower down to the dress circle. The crowd was taking its time to get seated. The age range was varied from a pre-teen I saw to the 40 somethings male and female including myself. The roadies were doing their final checks and photographers were ensconced around the front of the stage taking pictures of the crowd while the house lights were up. There did not seem to be the anxious impatience attendant to a highly anticipated show. It was as if the audience was waiting for a tribute band. And maybe they were because when the house lights finally went down and the band took the stage there was an appreciative roar as Chris Cornell yelled a perfunctory “Vancouver!” and then “Canucks!” (seriously), before launching into ‘Non-State Actor’ the second track from King Animal. I was immediately into it singing along and clapping. A pause before the band proceeded into ‘Get On The Snake’, the dirty raunch of the guitars and the tightness of the drums sounded muddy, and Chris’ vocals were lost, overpowered it seemed. This continued on into ‘Ty Cobb’ a highlight of their oeuvre and one tune any punky speed metal grunge lover could latch onto and rock out with. Next up was ‘Jesus Christ Pose’ and although the band was spot on the sound continued to disappoint. Chris was barely audible over the cacophony bouncing off the theatre walls. By the time ‘Outshined’ rolled around the crowd was looking for a spark. ‘Outshined’ being that spark seemed to be the strongest number of the night. We were rocking out hard up in the balcony. I even exchanged high fives blindly in the darkness with a patron behind me and it seemed the house was going to be right into it.
Now my brother will attest to this: I will remove my shirt(s) as I feel like it and rock out half naked for the rest of the night. This night was no exception. So there I was, this over 40 dude with no shirt waving his arms and bobbing his head while playing air guitar. :0
Hey harmless fun right? But for those who decry Vancouver as ‘No Fun City’, what happened next does not help to remove the label. For tonight’s proof: At the beginning of the concert I went down to the railing separating the dress circle from the balcony to take pictures of the band performing. At this time I had all my clothes on and with nothing more than a passing glance of the flashlight from an usher I took my shots without interruption. Fast forward to ‘Taree’ a relatively mellow song punctuated by dark imagery of drug induced depression. I made my way down to the same spot this time sans shirt. As I stood there taking my shots I could feel the strobe of the flashlight playing over my body making quick deductions. In an instant an usher came up and said: “Excuse me, but I think you need to go back to your seat”. Huh?
When it became apparent the sound deficiencies were not going to be solved on the evening the disinterest of the band increased hand in hand with the audience. Some of the songs were being cut abruptly, and the pace became an agonizingly slow race to get to the end of the set. Even on ‘Bones of Birds’ which was one of the rare occasions Chris would speak to the audience he mumbled “This is a song about stress”. You think? Before the end of the first verse he mixed up parts of the second and then by the middle of the song forgot the words entirely. The band continued to play while Chris leaned heavily on the mic stand, head down looking like a dead flower, his hair covering the mic like a mop head.
By this time people were starting to head for the exits. There would be a few more numbers with ‘Fourth of July’ ordinarily a crowd pleaser but only drawing a weak response as the set ended.
A quick thank you and with that the exit of the band to the signature reverberating feedback of Kim Thayil’s guitar. The band quickly returned to do the now obligatory encore. No untethered full throated roar from a Soundgarden of long ago at that point could have salvaged the evening, so much so that when ‘Rusty Cage’ rolled around it seemed a hollow and sobering reminder of what happened that night in December 1996…
…Can you really go back? No you can’t. King Animal’s album opener states that plainly. As if to say: “Dude you’re barking up the wrong tree if you think we’re the same crew with the same youthful fire you want to us to recapture”. Yes you remember. Fondly sometimes, regretfully at the others. There is no grey area. Yet the band appears to be attempting to create a niche there. Not too much fire to burnout on. Pedal halfway to the metal. Having your cake and eating it too. I had already dressed before the encore, waiting to make for the exit.
The house lights went up quickly as the last song ended. The band had by then disappeared into the ether. As if the tour bus was running outside in the back alley and they were pulling away. The roadie teardown by then was already in full gear.
Thank you. Now gtfo.
Remember how I said the band could hardly look at each other before. Same thing this time around except it looked to be business first. Personal stuff gets checked at the door.
The next day I was left looking for a positive to the evening. It had started out with the search for a ticket. It ended with us going out for a late night bowl of soup. Brothers sitting around a table, eating. There are very precious few things that compare in a simple way. But having brothers to lean on is something special. For a brief moment wandering outside around the plaza I had forgotten what that was about, being interested only in following the money. I felt it later in the look my brother gave me at that dinner table when I was breaking down accounts heedless of who we were that night. The too quick pause and look that questioned my intentions and whether I considered the value of his company and in a greater sense the value that has no price on being family.
photo by Rebecca Blissett [check her website out]
‘…looked better than they sounded last night’-from Georgia Straight Newspaper.
photograph by: Mark van Manen, Vancouver Sun