Happy They Might Be Giants Week! We’re celebrating the release of the 88th volume in the 33 1/3 series: They Might Be Giants’ Flood. On Day 2, co-author Philip Sandifer ruminates on life as a youthful rock fan.
The primal conflict underlying an American highschooler’s life is the fact that you are old enough to be into rock music and too young to actually go to any concerts. Not only is fifteen too young to drive, but even if you got to a show you’d run into the fairly fundamental problem that most of them have age restrictions.
Instead the fifteen year old’s musical life is constrained by odd tendencies. Tracking down individual songs one wants is a months-long production in the pre-Napster days. The most reliable tactic is to call in requests to your local college radio station and to tape songs you want off the air, but this has mixed results at best. An attempt to get a copy of “Son of a Preacher Man” is met with a DJ apologetically being unable to find it and playing Cypress Hill’s “Hits From the Bong” instead. “Stairway to Heaven” is met with the DJ laughing and hanging up on you. Other times you strike unexpected gold – a request for They Might Be Giants comes at the end of a DJ’s set and the next DJ fails to show, resulting in the DJ just putting their promo-only release Live!! New York City 10/14/94 on to play and walking out of the studio. The whole disc is yours, save for a cut in the midst of “The Statue Got Me High” as the tape runs out and you have to flip it.
This is, for some time, your only available access to a TMBG concert. New TMBG is, in general, something of a premium. The long wait between your discovery of the band in the summer of 1995 and the release of Factory Showroom a year later is rough, to say the least. But a live show? That’s the holy grail. It’s not that there aren’t plenty of them – the band plays Connecticut four times in 1996 alone. It’s just that forty-five minutes away might as well be in Detroit at fifteen.
“As with most of being fifteen, the experience is defined by peering across what is on the one hand clearly a small gap between you and adulthood and what is on the other unfathomably large.”
But it’s 1997 when you hit proper pay dirt, somehow convincing your mother to take you to a show an hour away in Poughkeepsie. The ritual of a concert is an oddly foreign thing. Opening acts are a thing you only know about from the then-burgeoning Internet. The show has two. The first, Lincoln, are pleasant, their debt to the headliners extending well beyond their name which, in a fannish myopia, you assume to be a direct reference to They Might Be Giants’ second (and self-evidently best) album. Next are The Bogmen, who, clearly let down by the soundcheck, result in a decade of your mother complaining about the godawful noise.
And then are the Johns. They are, of course, the one band that there are no real problems having your mother take you to a show of. They Might Be Giants are, in the end, your band of choice precisely because they sidestep the obligation to be cool. Decked out in a home-made band t-shirt printed up with iron-on decals and some bitchin’ WordArt (courtesy of Microsoft) under a flannel over shirt comprised of mismatched plaids stitched, quilt-like, together, you have leaned into the inherent uncoolness of this setup so far as to have toppled over. Your bedtime shot to hell, you flit around the venue on pure adrenaline, up to the balcony where your mother sits, occasionally hiding her irritation, back down to the edges of the main floor.
There are things you do not understand. Something called a mosh pit forms in the immediate vicinity of the stage. You have read about this controversy on the Internet – the fact that these pits form at They Might Be Giants shows, much to the
vocal irritation of the band. Their purpose is obscure – they are apparently violent, and more suitable to shows by some band called “Nirvana.” Hindsight reveals the underlying joke, the appropriation of the acts of an overtly cool genre at a self-evidently inappropriate venue. At the time it’s only a strange and cryptic lyric change in “Until My Head Falls Off” about a man’s glasses being smashed, a concept as obscure and slightly alien as the lyrics to that weird Cypress Hill song the radio played when you’d asked for “Son of a Preacher Man.”
As with most of being fifteen, the experience is defined by peering across what is on the one hand clearly a small gap between you and adulthood and what is on the other unfathomably large. They Might Be Giants exist somewhere in that gap, but on the approachable side – a distance one can step across with some comfort. They can be collected and obsessed over within the safe confines of your inherent geekiness. In many ways that’s what the live show is – a checking off of a bit of your teenage bucket list. The music is good, and you go hoarse singing along with it all, but that’s only part of the point. You’re here, staring down off the balcony at a future you don’t quite understand, but want terribly.
It takes three cycles of laundry to wash the stench of cigarettes and cheap beer out of your favorite flannel.
You never see a better concert in your life.
Tune in for more TMBG week tomorrow, and buy the book on Amazon or your local retailer.