Two people I know and the dear friend of another are wrestling with fatal illnesses. Together, they encompass three vastly different generations, the upper and lower age limits of my friends, and it's hard not to think of the two younger ones as having received a premature fate. But in the cosmic sense, does a few decades really make a difference? Couldn't we say all deaths are premature, as easily as we can pronounce all deaths perfectly timed? Isn't it a bigger deal that they, for a week or a half-century, actually existed?
“Music is all I understand, because you don’t need words or experience in order to understand it. It just is,” says a character in Paolo Sorrentino's 2015 film Youth. We all find music that resonates on a fundamental level, and for me the list is large. The Bach keyboard concertos; toccata & fugue in D; Handel's Opus 4 No.6 for harp; Lana Del Rey's voice; the Kenny Drew piano solo on Coltrane's "I'm Old Fashioned;" Sigur Rós' Untitled, especially the second half; Arvo Pärt; any Roger Waters guitar solo; Eno's "Ascent;" and Radiation City.
I first heard Rad City when installing my first major solo art show. Maybe that's where the positive connotation comes from. My friend, who ran the place, had them on. For me, hanging an exhibition is a favorite part of the gallery process. You already have the show; you've executed the work; now you're banging nails into the wall, aligning straightedges in the company of friends, exchanging small talk and silence at your own pace. The first couple times I saw them live it was by happenstance I was alone, but I soon developed a preference for going solo. It's so much more intense of an experience. I want to feel something in this life, and the potency of hearing that music, so special to you, with no intermediary… do you know what I mean? The sheer immediacy of it all, intoxicating.
I don't want to describe their sound too much; better rather to imagine whatever music accomplishes the same for you. I will say they've been described as what happens "after your parents' record collection spends some time on the Event Horizon!" There's a sixties lounge vibe, in concert with ethereal voice work and rich, precise harmonies. Consider the conversation between the bass and drums here, the compellingly opaque writing here (an element I've found in more than one Portland band), or the specificity of atmosphere here. Note also their use of silence. In the way we discuss Thelonius Monk "leaving room between the notes," Rad City doesn't overload the sonic landscape. They leave space for their sound, room to feel. Songs and short films can more ably rely on mood to sustain their effect than a number of other art forms, and their music traffics heavily in that; something deeper here, just beneath the depth you can touch, lyrics and sounds which feel like a memory even as they're happening. Music, the solution we've come up with for articulating the thoughts that exist before language.
I like the stuff, in other words. You know when you come upon a new song you can't get enough of, and you listen to nothing else for a week, and then the moment comes where you move past the beat and finally notice what they're actually singing? In that fateful moment of registering the lyrics, you will either like the song more, or less. Hopefully the former. You can't go back on that comprehension. That magical moment of understanding happened to me with one of their songs while watching it live for the first time. Sublime doesn't even cover it.
After developing an acquaintanceship with the band from going to entirely too many of their shows, they invited me down to Portland for their big headlining concert, their last for a while as I understood it, perhaps because of the holidays, a show on their home turf, where they'd really pull out all the stops and play the stuff that normally never gets played. They did pull out all the stops. The venue was the famed 92 year-old Revolution Hall, and the presentation and execution of the music had a size to it, a heft you could barely take in, it was so beautiful. My friend and I stood in awe.
Partway through the night, singer Lizzy Ellison announced this was their last show.
I've been thinking a lot about endings. One year ago, as most of you know, I survived the Paris terror attacks, and have been reflecting further of late. Three relationships which have figured largely in my life reached their closure in different ways this year. And as mentioned above, a few of my favorite people are not long for this Earth. I stood in the front row, listening as Lizzy explained why, explained how things need to move on. "I hope you can respect that," she said.
The Hall was a room of a few hundred friends and family. The setlist wasn't a string of hits, but designed for people who already loved the music and knew it well. Many in the audience knew the band personally, and the band itself is comprised, Fleetwood Mac-style, of a couple of couples. Love was in the air, love of beauty, truth, human connection and honest feeling. Imagine your favorite artist, their works formative and rejuvenating for you, in the midst of offering their best art ever... and then sharing this would be the last time.
I realized then I needed to do what needs to be done always, in every good second of our lives: be here. Don't document it, analyze it, worry about it, mourn it; all that in good time. For the precious last minutes of the beating now, just be. I took no pictures, no video, recorded no music. Just drink up as much as you can, live in these final hours as deeply as possible, that you might know them to have been real. This night happened once, and you were there for it. Lizzy and Patti on either end of the stage, singing at each other. Cameron deep in the zone, speaking with his guitar.
Cameron later on, waving to the crowd at the end, realizing this is it. The look in his eyes was one I've known myself: the surprise and realization that epochs, no matter how long or storied, can end in seconds. This wave, this clapping audience... this is it, bigger than we are and so fast, the chapter's final sentence, slipping out of our fingers already, elusive.
Really though, could you ask for anything more?
Update: further thoughts on difficult times....