Friday, June 2, 2017

The New Kings


Julia Michelle Sample
CRWT057
Professor Katharine Burns
5/7/17

The New Kings

            “So who are you seeing tonight, again?” my mom asked as we drove back from the grocery store. “Oh, um, Marillion,” I answered dryly, not even looking up from my phone. It was a Saturday, the perfect day to go to a concert. After I left for college in 2015, I was concerned that I would have to abandon my concertgoing habits and hold off on them until the summer or whenever I was on break. Fortunately, I was ultimately still able to find time around school obligations to go to an occasional show. I had driven home from Riverside the night before, thinking more about spending the evening with my dad rather than giving any thought to who exactly we were seeing. Being the hardcore progressive rock fan that I was, I couldn’t help but know the name of this band, but I had paid little to no attention to them. Years earlier, I had seen them on TV during a rerun of the 2010 High Voltage music festival. They played a song called, “Neverland.” I remember looking at the screen for the longest time, confused as to whether the name “Neverland” was the name of the band or the song. I didn’t learn the truth until years later.  I liked the performance, as I was particularly struck by the emotion and passion they seemed to put into the music. Despite this, I only liked it very casually, as I never made the effort to look into that band further. I didn’t really have the time. I was thirteen and just beginning my journey of musical discovery. At the time, I could not have cared less about this band apparently called Marillion. I just wanted to watch the final performance of Emerson, Lake and Palmer, a favorite band of mine.  My dad and I didn’t react to the announcement of Marillion’s 2016 North American tour with much enthusiasm. Instead, we responded with just general interest, as we were open to trying just about any act that came to town. Due to our mutual willingness to try out new bands just for the sake of a fun night out, we did not pass up the opportunity. It gave us an excuse to travel to downtown L.A. and escape from the conservative clutches of our hometown for an evening. We bought our tickets in December 2015, ten months in advance, which I thought was an obnoxiously long time to wait, not that I was anticipating it much. We did not look forward to this show as eagerly as we did to the two David Gilmour shows we saw earlier in 2016. We waited eight months for those shows, but ten seemed a bit excessive to us. I hadn’t heard of any band selling concert tickets that long before the actual show. Nonetheless, we remained pretty neutral about what the results of this show would be. Maybe they would be great. Maybe they would be just alright. Maybe they would be awful. Having gone to over fifty concerts with my dad over the past 6 years, we had seen our fair share of concert miracles as well as concert duds, so we knew there was a possibility that it wouldn’t be that great. We would just have to see. Regardless, we wanted to have fun. This was our favorite thing to do together, after all.
My dad and I headed out from our house at about 5:00pm, in absolutely no hurry to get to the venue. We drove at a leisurely pace, heading to downtown Beverly Hills. We had our dinner at a forgettable place not far from the venue. I think we had pizza. Still, we took our time. There were still two hours before the main act anyway. As we ate, we talked about the night ahead, and established that, regardless of how the show was, we were going to have fun. We were not expecting anything particularly special since we knew next to nothing about this band, but we established that the evening would be fun. As far as we were concerned, we were just having a casual night out, doing our favorite activity together: concertgoing. Before we started attending concerts back in 2010, my dad had all but retired from live music due to family commitments. He just didn’t have the time for it after he married and had my sister and me. It wasn’t until I picked up the guitar in 2008 that he was inspired to rediscover the music that he loved when he was growing up. As a result, going to concerts had grown to be a special ritual for both of us. Nights like these were also an opportunity for us to give attention to acts that we were less familiar with, since the majority of our concert money had been going towards the bigger names like Roger Waters or The Moody Blues. When we finally left the restaurant for the venue, it was well after 8:00pm. Less than an hour until show time.
We arrived at the Saban Theatre on Wilshire Boulevard, a small venue. The marquee clearly read out, in colorful letters: Marillion North America 2016. Our tickets were routinely scanned and we made our way inside. The venue itself was not overly decorated. The architecture was simple, avoiding all the fine details carved into the woodwork on the seats that venues like the Orpheum Theatre in downtown L.A. had. 30 minutes before show time. I was not fazed by the crowd of middle-aged people that overflowed the lobby, for this was a very typical concert crowd for me. Very rarely did I see anyone who was my age at the concerts I went to, although this crowd was not quite as old. The average age was probably about fifty. This time, however, I did manage to catch a few young faces in the swarm of people, a good sign to me. The excited Marillion fans crowded eagerly around the merchandise stand, itching to get their hands on the band’s latest album, called F.E.A.R (short for Fuck Everyone and Run). I rolled my eyes. What a stupid name for an album! They’re joking, right? I had no intention of buying such an album. I had no money anyway, for I had just started my first job earlier that week as a server at one of my university’s dining halls.
We took our seats, located in the front row of the mezzanine, a spot we tend to go for when we are seeing a band for the first time. It offered a perfect view of the stage, as there was no obstruction to worry about, and no one was sitting in front of us. As I looked around the room, I could clearly see that the place wasn’t sold out. Since tickets went on sale ten months earlier, I wondered why it was that they couldn’t sell out this 2,000-person venue in that time. If they couldn’t sell out a place like this, how good could they be? My hopes were not very high for this.
Finally, the lights went down, both in the room and on the stage. We were in pitch black and complete silence for a little bit, until a soundscape started and filled the room. My perfect pitch and musical senses kicked in, as I instantly knew that it was in G minor. Being a guitar player for over eight years, I could determine the key of just about any song almost instantly. The dramatic, intriguing nature of it immediately grabbed the attention of both my dad and myself. To me, it sounded like the start of a movie, a dark, drama to be exact. I could picture it at that moment: a pitch black screen that morphed into the navy blue Warner Brothers logo, like the start of one of my favorite action or drama movies. The Warner Brothers logo faded and was followed by the logos for the other companies that helped make this film a reality. The logos faded, and I was brought back to the stage, and the first four members of the band emerged from the darkness. The audience erupted with excitement as four men, who looked to be about in their mid to late fifties, took their places on the stage. I did not know any of them except for Steve Rothery, the guitarist. I couldn’t get a good look at the drummer since he was buried behind a wall of drums, but everyone else I could see just fine. Except for one. I knew there was a fifth member of this band but I didn’t see him. Finally, he came out of the shadows. I knew that this was Steve Hogarth, called “H” by the band and by fans. I guessed it was to distinguish him from Steve Rothery. H blushed at the audience and took his place in the center of the stage, carrying an acoustic-electric guitar, and the first melodies of the evening left him:

“The world’s gone mad/And I’ve lost touch/I shouldn’t admit it/But I have”

What a dark way to start a show, I thought. My dad and I looked at each other, confused. We were a bit taken aback by this, but at the same time, we couldn’t help but be instantly intrigued.
I studied the front man carefully, taking in all of his features as best I could. He was clearly not that much taller than me, and his casual stage attire of jeans and a T-shirt told me that he didn’t stress too much about looks. However, it wasn’t the appearance of his body that fascinated me. Rather, it was the movement of his body that struck me. When I watched H move across the stage, I was reminded of a graciously animated Disney princess. I thought of Belle walking through the castle in Beauty and the Beast, or Snow White running through the forest with her animal friends. He possessed the same amount of elegance and enchantment. There was a real rhythm to how he moved, unlike any other human being I had ever seen. Side to side, frame-by-frame, H’s moves were carefully animated into existence. I could see the breaks in the animation as the frames changed. Even from where I was sitting, I could spot all the fine details the animator placed into creating this character, from the shine of his white skin to the glare from the stage lights that made his hair glow. Yes, even his shoulder-length black hair moved in perfect syncopation with the rest of his body. Nothing seemed out of place. I watched him tease his band mates playfully, poking their arms and leaning on their shoulders. He gazed at them as though he were a schoolgirl staring longingly at her crush, not that I thought he was in love with them. Rather, it was a look of deep affection and admiration, a look one would give another after years of friendship. How cute! The band didn’t seem to mind this, though. He also played with the people lucky enough to be in the front row. I noticed that no one in that row was sitting at that point. They huddled in front of H like he was that beloved family member with all the fascinating life stories.
I was also struck by the quality of his voice. Almost immediately, it occurred to me that his voice was one that was meant for stadiums rather than a tiny venue like the one we were in. It had so much drive, so much power. It also had quite an impressive range, spanning from a whisper to practically a scream. H’s voice had the strength and bite that I was used to hearing in much younger singers like Adele or Nate Ruess. It sounded mature but, at the same time, a little youthful. It was a voice that clearly had been looked after over the years and cared for.
It didn’t take long for me to realize that this show was going to be different from almost every other show that I’ve seen. Most of the bands I had seen for the first time at past concerts did not completely blow me away, so I didn’t expect this band to be any different. I studied the rest of the band, and I saw a passion for music displayed in a way that I had never seen before. Every note and beat was chosen carefully and played with sincerity. As I listened to Steve Rothery’s guitar skills, I couldn’t help but liken his style to David Gilmour of Pink Floyd, Steve Hackett of Genesis, and at times, even Alex Lifeson of Rush. It seemed like a perfect blend of those three styles. I wondered how he managed to get his PRS guitar to have that perfect, fat sound with just the right amount of sustain. Even as a guitar player for eight years, I could never get my guitar to sound that good.
“We made a protest album called Fuck Everyone and Run. We don’t share your Californian optimism. We’re English, you know,” H told the audience in his posh English accent. “We’ll play the lighter songs now and then descend into darkness later,” he added. No! I want the darkness now! I thought. I had always been a huge fan of dark-themed music. Music about topics such as mental illness, oppression and politics struck me even at a very young age. To me, they offered the most interesting ideas and insight.
The music was dramatic and enchanting, but I couldn’t help but notice the content of the lyrics at one point as well, particularly the way H delivered the line, “Fuck everyone and run.” I likened his delivery of that line to a siren sitting on a rock in the middle of the ocean and calling out to a ship. It was sung in a way that was not angry or bitter, but rather sorrowful, coming from a place of pain. The entire song seemed to be coming from a place of pain: “Remember a time when you thought that you mattered/Believed in the school song, died for your country/A country that cared for you.” All sorts of images and sounds whirled around inside my head. All of a sudden I heard the vague, empty political promises of both presidential candidates, saw the division between liberals and conservatives as depicted on social media, and felt the same sense of dread that everyone else in the country probably experienced. I sat in my seat, speechless, wanting to cry. I couldn’t believe how relevant those words were, especially since we were in the midst of a very bitter and ugly presidential election. I found myself thinking about those words. Has my country ever cared for me? Being only 19 and just starting to venture into world issues and political ideologies, I wasn’t entirely sure, since I was only paying attention to those issues for the very first time. Was there ever a time when I did, in fact, believe in the school song? It got me thinking about all those lonely days spent in high school, when I hated singing the alma mater, since it gave off a message of unity that I didn’t feel between my classmates. While the words didn’t sit well with me, I found them also fascinating to think about. “You poor sods have only yourselves to blame.” Wow, I thought. I didn’t think truer words had ever been sung before. The words stabbed me right in the chest, twisting before pulling out. My dad and I sat forward in our seats, in complete disbelief. For the first time, a song I was hearing live had me gripping the arms of my seat tightly, as though I was holding on for dear life. I didn’t think this band could have picked a better time to release this album. I thought it sounded stupid, but now I understood. We needed this album so badly, especially in this country. “Why is nothing ever true?” I don’t know, H. I really don’t know. I wish I had an answer, I thought desperately.
If there was one thing I realized in that moment, it was that this band was severely and devastatingly underrated. This was what I had been missing all that time. I looked around the room again, and was horrified and offended by the presence of empty seats. Why is this place not sold out? There are how many people in Los Angeles? Surely there are at least 2,000 people willing to see this band. It’s a Saturday night. There’s no excuse for this. My mind was racing, struggling to find the reason for the empty seats. My thoughts were almost as desperate as the music that was overwhelming my senses.
“I can’t tell you how hard it is not to talk about Donald Trump,” H said with a grin. I heard people in the audience groan. I put my face in my hand, bracing myself for a political rant. “But I’ll restrain myself,” he added, and I breathed a sigh of relief. I would have hated to see him get heckled by some poor sods in the audience who couldn’t help themselves. With that, he disappeared suddenly from the stage, only to return shortly in a long-sleeved white top that was clearly too big for him. He must have put that on in a hurry because the cuffs were undone and the buttons were uneven. Despite this, H showed no shame in his improper attire. The band broke into song once more. I immediately recognized the song as “Neverland,” the very first song I ever heard by this band. It took me back to when I was 13, and had no clue. It was also during this song that I saw the entire band at their very best. As the band played, H closed his eyes and spread his arms out like a bird and was carried away by the power of the music. At this point his body really, truly moved like an enchantress. It flowed in a steady rhythm with the music, moving like ocean waves. He fell to the floor, overwhelmed by the depth of his own lyrics: “But when you’re gone/I never land/in Neverland.” The other members on stage also played with their eyes closed. H put his heart and soul into singing those words, even adding his own delay effects to certain words.
I couldn’t believe that it had taken me this long to realize how special this band actually was, and their performance during “Neverland” made that all the more apparent. Never had I seen someone collapse to the floor and sing with such passion. I began to feel terrible for doubting them and paying them no mind. How could I have been so stupid? I asked myself. I spent all that time ignoring them. My dad probably felt even worse, for he had known about them since the 1980s but didn’t give much thought to them. We looked at each other again, somewhat sadly, as we acknowledged our mutual failure to notice this band’s talent up until that night. The song ended, and we immediately stood up and gave Marillion a much-deserved standing ovation, as did the rest of the audience.
The entire band then exited the stage, and the crowd did the usual thing of cheering for the band to come back on for an encore. Eventually, they did emerge once more. They then proceeded to play what I felt was the darkest piece of the evening. From start to finish, it was dark, grim, haunting, and intense. The words have never left my memory:
           
“The gold stops us/The gold always did/The gold took more lives than uranium/ Than plutonium/Pandemonium/The thunder approaches the heavy sighing of the monster.”
“F E A R is everywhere here /Under the patio /Under the hard-earned bought and paid-for home /Cushions, scented candles and the lawn /Mowing to the beat and the rumble of the coming storm”
“But you can't see into my head /You can't see into my head”

I hadn’t heard anything that real or relevant in a long time. I agreed that there definitely was a storm coming, whether we knew it or not. The words had me thinking about the election in particular, wondering about what the fate of this country was going to be, regardless of who won. After months of listening to the same, tired, worn out promises to take back the country presented by both presidential candidates, I felt like this country was going to be in a difficult state for at least the next four years. Neither candidate was well liked or respected by the majority, so I couldn’t picture this election turning out well. They were the same empty promises that I knew other presidents had made in the past, like the promise to bring universal healthcare, or the promise to end poverty in this country. However, the words also offered me a glimmer of hope, as I took comfort in knowing that I wasn’t the only one who felt this way. They seemed to be relevant, but also universal. I could imagine those words still making sense 30 years from that night.
The end of Marillion’s set came faster than I expected. It had been the quickest two and a half hours of my life. I didn’t want it to end, though. Everyone in the band stood up, taking in the crowd’s cheers. “Thank you for coming, Los Angeles. Too-da-loo!” H spoke his last words to the audience and then exited the stage, as did the rest of the band.
My dad and I sat in our seats for a good while after the house lights came up, and people made their way out the doors of the venue. I begged my dad to give me $20, and when he did, I rushed to the merchandise stand before everyone else did and grabbed the first copy of Fuck Everyone and Run that I saw. On the way home, my dad and I sat in mutual silence, contemplating what we had just seen. We usually talked about shows and listened to music on the drive back, but this time was different, for we knew that we had made a new musical discovery together. As I sat, I soon thought of the reason for why concertgoing was so important to us. It was an opportunity to bond over our shared love of music.  I was reminded of the rewarding experience of discovering a new band, especially one as underrated as this one.

           

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