Not Reunions, Reinventions (Back and Better. Really.)
By BEN RATLIFF
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 again.
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 about.
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.
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 lawsuit.
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.