The Weirdest Gig Ever

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Sometime in my junior year of college, either Harvard Business School or Harvard Law School — I forget which one and am too lazy to Google — threw a conference on digital rights management and music with sponsorship from such amazingly long-lived and influential companies as Riffage.com and EMusic.com. They invited musicians Chuck D and They Might Be Giants to be special panelists, and a few of the artists in attendance gave a special concert at the Cambridge House of Blues with entrance limited to conference registrants.

My suitemate Phil somehow scored tickets to this special show and graciously invited me to come along. I had spent years 15 to 17 trading bootleg TMBG Dial-a-Song tapes across the early Internet and yet had never managed to see them perform live. Even though I was far from the throes of TMBG fandom at age 21, I was hardly going to say no.

So Phil and I walked over to the House of Blues and are greeted with an empty room filled with around 150 law dorks. With plans for a late-night show in Brooklyn the very same night, TMBG go on first — at like 6:30 pm — an hour before anyone really thinks about enjoying music. Oddly, only about 40 of these law dorks are the kind of dorks who like They Might Be Giants. I am conflicted about the atmosphere: on one hand I love that I am watching They Might Be Giants play the kind of tiny venue usually rented for funky wedding parties or drunken alumni blasts where ex-young men from semi-secret societies get up on stage and jam, but I also feel bad for They Might Be Giants since this must be the smallest and least gratifying gig they have played since the mid-’80s. John F barks at the soundman the entire time about his monitors, because seriously, what are we all doing here?

After 45 minutes of going through the motions, TMBG file off stage, and the conference folks all head back to the bar to get MC hammered. The next band are some white Southern guys I have never heard of — Spoon. Who’s Spoon, right? I am not sure why they were at this conference in the first place, or in Cambridge, or asked to play with TMBG, but soon they are on stage and start playing away like this is SXSW and we care. Even with the dimmed lights and the bass waves vibrating the air, the entire audience remains at the back of the room near the alcohol. Not a single person returns to the stage nor even bothers to turn around and dignify the band by facing forward. The guys are playing song after song, and literally, not a single person comes within a 2 meter area of the stage. (Hey, I don’t know who these dudes are either.) Britt Daniel starts to get visibly irate and offers an honest plea to the crowd in the way back: Hey, you guys should listen. We are a really good band. No one heeds his orders, and they eventually finish their set. I spent the entire time trying to figure out how they were going to use a phrase sampler sitting on top of an organ, which ended up being used solely on one song and inaudibly at that.

Spoon departs as quietly as they came in, and the crew sets up two turntables: DJ Spooky is in the house. That Subliminal Kid — a man who is aptly and un-ironically labeled “the world’s most pretentious man” by Momus — had been around campus a year before when he gave a “lecture” at the Carpenter Center for our most elite semi-hipsters in the VES department that literally proceeded like: “Using your hands as an instrument… Manipulating the media… Tactile… like… Valentine de Saint-Point… Futurist Manifesto… Here let me show you (Five minutes of scratching) This record is really rare. I am going to pass it around.” I think he was nervous and could not find the mental strength to create any sort of arguments out of his silver-tipped bullet points, but the whole thing involved more pointless name dropping and lightweight obliqueness than a Bible thrown off a cliff.

So Paul Miller comes on, and the law school guys are pumped. They have spent the last two hours ignoring Spoon and getting their drunk on and they are ready to party. Everyone collects around the stage, and within minutes, Paul Miller drops on “Pump Up the Volume” by M/A/R/R/S to huge applause and high anticipation. But in signature DJ Spooky style, he decides to do all sorts of illbient dubby echo shit to the track, making it totally and completely undanceable. The conference attendees, however, are either complete Philistines who don’t understand why this is like Valentine de Saint-Point or just too ethanol’d out to care, and they just start getting DOWN to Pump Up the Volume..ume..ume..ume..ume..ume…….emu… emu… EMU.. ume… wicca-wicca. Like drink in one hand, bad white guy frat party, knees-forward, butt-out jammy dance to ridiculously over-theoretical music noise.

After about 10 minutes of this, I had to go home.

Marxy wrote a lot of essays back on his old site Néomarxisme. This is one of them.

14 Responses

  1. ls Says:

    I almost booked him once to an event at my college where he was to perform “Rebirth of a Nation,” his remix of the film of a similar name … almost. In interviews he said something to the effect of “people freaked out when I started putting KKK videos on the screen while I was DJing at clubs, so I thought I’d make a whole show out if it.”

  2. Dj Spooky Says:

    yawn. folks – the material for the lectures and events is solidly researched and is based on collage. If you don’t get it, fuck off.

  3. ls Says:

    Spooky SMACKDOWN!

  4. marxy Says:

    “If you don’t get it, fuck off.”

    I don’t know, anonymous-commenter-posing-as-DJ-Spooky. I caught the references and I was waiting for him to do something with them. I’m not saying he doesn’t know what he’s talking about, but he didn’t do a good job expressing it.

  5. Jrim Says:

    No idea why you decided to write about that concert now, but this made me snort with giggles at least twice while I was reading it. Thanks.

  6. marxy Says:

    Yeah, I don’t know. I have been wanting to write about it for years now and realized that I have a venue. I have been happy to see Spoon become famous because it increases the value of the story.

  7. neogeisha Says:

    this post was a total non-sequitur. you now owe us an astute commentary on premium japanese denim.

  8. Ryan Cousineau Says:

    Neogeisha: you’re missing the point. Like the Canadian Hostess posting, this is a fable for our entertainment. Nothing in this post actually happened (well, not to Marxy, or anyone he knows…well, maybe it happened to Momus…).

    Also, DJ Spooky is a social construct. That’s why he’s so mad that Marxy dissed him.

    (Why yes, I am still smarting about not getting the Canadian Hostess post!)

  9. neogeisha Says:

    ryan, as an actual living-flesh north american hostess, i sniffed out the “narrative” quality, to put it euphemestically, of that post from the first graph. however, i’m not so sure this spooky thing didn’t actually happen. don’t forget: harvard is a surreal playground for the overprivileged, where princess masako fucks jocks; taliban leaders live on scholarships and wonder bread; money managers teach creative writing workshops; persian expat heiresses lose their virginities to incoming freshmen.

  10. marxy Says:

    “princess masako fucks jocks”

    Really? Aren’t you thinking of Natalie Portman?

    Also, the event was called “Signal to Noise?”
    http://cyber.law.harvard.edu/events/netmusic.html

    Some of the true story may conflict with my memories.

  11. DH Says:

    “don’t forget: harvard is…”

    I think you might be conflating various Ivy League schools into one. That description sounds like a great idea for a post-teen TV drama, though. Something to lure in ex-OC watchers, perhaps.

  12. Adamu Says:

    As someone who saw TMBG four times in high school, I highly suggest you invent a time machine and see them when they are surrounded by fans. Singing along to Ana Ng at age 15 was almost as cool as I remember doing it at home when I was 6.

  13. Eric Likness Says:

    TMBG played at the Record Archive on East Ave. in Rochester NY, back around the Summer of 1997.

    It was similarly odd as your experience was. It wasn’t advertised, it was spur of the moment. All the College stations that had been promoting their concert in town ‘knew’ in advance they would setup and play there at around 2pm on that afternoon. So we got to hear some ‘Factory Showroom’. Then right near the end, they said, “Hey give us a song you’d like to hear, we’ll do a cover” But, everyone was yelling out names of their songs. And so one of the Johns corrected everyone, “No, not our songs, we meant OTHER people’s songs” Well that ended that, and they played two more tracks off their then current album and it was over inside of 20 minutes. It was in a word a TMBG moment. I love them to death.

  14. Laotree Says:

    Marxy I hope you don’t mind if I relate a DJ Spooky story of my own. I’m not trying to hijack yr blog, just to offer a counterpoint. When my friends and I saw DJ Spooky at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in ’99 or ’00, (I was a SUNY kid though, make no mistakes) he was about an hour and a half late because of a plane delay(-laylaylaylay) forcing his opening act Emergency Broadcast Network to recycle video footage for at least 45 minutes, but when he got there, it was quite a good show. After he was finished, we struck up a conversation and he invited us to an afterparty the faculty was holding at the apartment of some architecture professor.
    We got directions and then went to Denny’s (the only option for late-night eats in the birthplace of Uncle Sam, Troy, NY.) to kill some time. Then we found the spot and let ourselves into a very strange scene. Mr. Miller, still clad in the Nasa jumpsuit he had performed in, was sitting on the sofa in a room with no music, schmoozing with a couple of female architecture profs in their late 30’s, and sipping red wine. He looked relieved that we showed up, and the rest of the folks in the room looked confused although they were cordial and inundated us with wine. We proceeded to make ourselves comfortable on the couch and drink as much wine as we could squeeze out of these stuffy architecture folks, and the topic of conversation shifted instantly to Spooky’s thoughts on touring with Kool Keith (on his passing out chicken wings to the crowd, “Was it idiocy or the sublime?”),
    his work with various other artists, and some name-dropping which I just barely kept up with. I remember him mentioning that Iannis Xenakis took a grenade in the face during either WWII or the Greek Civil War, not sure which. All of which alienated the turtlenecks at their own party to the extent that, when it was time to go, we had to give the now-soused Pauly a ride back to the Best Western in my friend Mike’s jalopy because as one of the professors put it, “My Jetta only seats 5”. It was a pretty cool night. For all his pretentiousness, it was fun getting trashed with a guy whose music we had admired. Later we found the DJ Spooky setting on a guitar FX pedal and had some laughs. Basically what art school taught me is that to do what you want to do from the motivation that it feels good, or looks or sounds cool, you have to come up with a lot of pretentious reasoning to be able to continue doing it, so in that respect the Subliminal Kid is a hustler prince! No qualms.