April 19, 2012
Jarvis Cocker knows how to do a lot of things. He knows how to work a crowd (along with implying just how he could work them if given half a chance). He knows how to take a rose from an audience member and set it up on a mike stand along with a black bra. He knows just how to use his stick insect limbs to create the most astounding moves. He even knows how to look not only perfectly fashionable but flat out fantastic with a beard even when you'd think that was somehow the most played out look around. To quote a friend on Twitter, "Jarvis Cocker is such an inspiration because society tells us no-one who looks like that should act *that* comfortable in their skin."
Of course Pulp isn't just Jarvis, even as enjoyable as his solo career has been, and there's a reason why the Fox Theater wasn't just packed to the gills but pretty hysterical last night. In the first of his many bemusing digressions and observations between songs, he noted that the two previous times Pulp had played in Los Angeles were in 1994 at the Hollywood Palace and 1996 at the Hollywood Grand -- remembering the latter particularly because he was severely ill but went ahead regardless. Based on the average age of attendees last night there wasn't any way but a small handful of them could have been at those shows and you could feel the sheer 'at long LAST' sense of feeling bouncing off the wall.
Forget critical objectivity here: I'm one of that small handful, and I still remember both shows very vividly. Received history says that nostalgia trips can't but be pale reflections of the past, and it's true that there's a difference between hearing "Common People" as the longed-for closing of a main set and hearing it, as was the case in 1994, as their 'new' song they were months away from releasing, winning over a crowd mostly there to see Blur completely out of the blue. There were certainly surprises last night but they were all contextual -- relative obscurities like "Mile End," "OU" and "His'n'Hers," complete and utter obscurities like "Back in LA," a rough, ridiculous monster stomp dug out after almost thirty years just for the occasion (with Cocker putting fake blame on keyboardist Candida Doyle for pushing for a performance).
Hands down, though -- this wasn't the equal of those past shows, this was better. If this had been the only time I had ever seen them, then I would have been duly amazed, but this wasn't merely worth the sixteen years wait, this actually justified it. The band's been back in a good spot for a while given that the reunion started last year, but it was just astonishing at how flat out on point the full six piece band were -- Cocker did all the talking and singing, the rest of the performers (plus a guest violinist) completely locked in with each other and him. Musically the highlight of the night was probably the one-two of "Babies" and "This is Hardcore," the sprightly, passionate melancholy of the former a near-total contrast to the bleak, overripe orchestral grind and stomp of the latter, Cocker transformed into a twisted ringmaster of sex and power's intersection.
Writers at our sister papers have also been going on about Pulp's various shows these past few weeks -- Maura Johnston's New York review and Alan Schersthul's SF review will give you a taste of it -- and collectively, what might be said to shape it all is a sense of liberation, an opening up, or re-opening up, of space for thoughts and ideas in the form of perfect entertainment. On one level everything last night was about being a version of "The Professional" Pulp once sang about, only strictly musical -- a well chosen set of the crowdpleasers with some curveballs for hyperfans, excellent sound to match the performances, some sharp lighting and staging choices (the lasers for the after-the-rave anthem "Sorted for E's and Wizz" were a great touch), Cocker playing off the audience with his intros and stories. Famous events from past April 19ths were quoted from Wikipedia, "His 'n' Hers" had an extended breakdown so Cocker could tell a story about being surveyed about fears before then jumping down towards the crowd and asking audience members about their fears, Cocker even busted out a falsetto a capella chorus of the all-but-forgotten Tina Turner hit "Steamy Windows." You get a sense he would kill at any karaoke session he was at.
But without ever breaking into a speech or hectoring the audience -- it's kinda impossible to imagine him doing it, not when he's having too much fun checking with the audience to see if they could do some appropriate moves for "Disco 2000" -- Cocker lets his lyrics, all perfectly framed for group singalongs, argue for the benefits of standing out from the crowd regardless, a nervous pleasure, a confidence shot through with fractured energy, a desire to kick against what's been determined as one's fate. Few lyricists in rock really can capture a sense of story, time and place as well as Cocker, much less bring in issues not merely of sex and love but economics and class -- the band's most famous album is called Different Class for good reason, and hearing a distorted electronic voice intone the slogan from that album as the concert intro made perfect sense.
Heady stuff, but he lets it all sink in rather than hit you over the head with it, and soon singing along to the lyrics of "Mis-Shapes" -- introduced by Cocker as a song the band had grown sick of but newly reembraced -- makes perfect sense, a call to arms for educated outcasts as insurgent community, kicking against the pricks. It's not a societal solution, just that kind of sense that you really aren't alone, and in a time where we're all supposedly not talking to each other, walled away via our favorite news sources or political stances or even simply musical preferences, a reminder that there is something more. It's why "Common People" is still that powerful now, a biting, helpless rage at those who can pretend to drop out when they've not only got a home to return to but the money to do whatever they'd like -- think James Murdoch if you like, Harvard trustifarian and Rawkus founder turned oily and well-oiled product of the compromised News International regime. Cocker didn't predict him, there'll always be people like him, but it doesn't mean we have to like it one tiny bit.
But you don't have to dwell on all that when you can just dance and sing along, when it might just get you through. And it was all that last night and more.
Definitely a few folks who could have and hopefully did see them the first time through, plus any numbers of teens and twenties folks who were happily crossing fashion lines however they pleased. Certainly a few crypto-goths in the crowd as well, or at least goths crossed with some burlesque style here and there. Winner of the T-shirt competition: the fellow with the "Bernard Butler-era Suede" one.
Overheard in the Crowd:
"It's like the weirdest high school dance ever!" This from a friend of mine who had been happily freaking out for most of the show, singing along with just about everything (and being scarily accurate at predicting the setlist, right down to the rarities).
Random Notebook Dump:
Among Cocker's many between-song stories: introducing "Sorted for E's and Wizz" with a story of Albert Hoffman inventing LSD and taking the first known trip, saluting the death of Lord Byron by noting his approval of intoxication and then having a drink (though it could have just been water), talking about "Mile End"'s appearance on the Trainspotting soundtrack via an extended impersonation of the swearing Scots characters (probably Begbie)
"Do You Remember the First Time?"
"Live Bed Show"
"Sorted for E's and Wizz"
"His 'n' Hers"
"Like a Friend"
"This is Hardcore"
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"Bad Cover Version"
"Back in LA"