We all have our formidable, life-altering events. There are many—a lot more than we think. Nestled within those myriad moments are a handful that are absolutely pivotal, sublime… extraordinary.
Hearing the psychedelic-era Beatles was one of mine. The closing notes of “A Day in the Life”, heard with 11 year old ears, were effectively the closing notes of my childhood. Sure, I still acted the child well into my 20s, but what of it? The sustained piano of “A Day in the Life” sent me hurdling down a path I could not have known at the time. Then punk rock came along. The energy appealed to me more than the music (exceptions made for The Clash, The Damned and The Misfits). Nirvana, age 10 was a big influence as well. I couldn’t articulate why I liked Kurt Cobain, but I know now that he was a gateway. A subconscious one. To borrow a phrase from Aldous Huxley, one of my doors of perception was being cleansed.
But a gateway or door into what exactly? The Pixies.
I had once heard Cobain state in an interview that he was simply ripping off The Pixies with “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” So when I was 15 years old and bored with punk, I sought out this band that was so good even Kurt Cobain would lift their sound. The attraction was instantaneous. In short order I was dipping into the aural fields of Sonic Youth and Pavement, and discovering filmmakers like David Lynch and Luis Bunuel, which led me straight into Surrealism. From there, my life spun off into the aether of imagination. I was after a particular arrangement of sound, words and visions in my head. Soon after these musical and artistic forces converged (before I could even drive), I was to find the unifying force that brought it all together in a strange, synaesthetic way: My Bloody Valentine.
Yes, I am too young to be of that first wave of MBV fans. But when I did stray into their path—5 years removed from their monolithic album Loveless—I was musically mature enough to understand the gravity of what they’d done with sound. (Kevin Shields’ guitar technique and studio wizardry have been enumerated enough over the years and, indeed, recently that I feel no need to add to that sickening collection of flowery, impressionistic adjectives, metaphors and similes.)
And so, when in 2008, My Bloody Valentine reunited for a series of gigs that were to culminate in a headline spot at Coachella, I bought a ticket to their Santa Monica tour date. Not a one of my friends would join me. Fine, I will go alone, I thought. I had always been alone in my love of MBV. I would share that love with other fans. Damn my friends.
So I drove to Santa Monica Civic Auditorium.
I’d heard that Kevin Shields had selected SMCA precisely because its inner confines would, at the decibel levels MBV played, essentially act as an echo chamber. This was exciting, of course, because MBV is incredibly noisy; but if I’m being honest, I would admit that I was more than a little concerned. Over the years I’d read online that MBV hadn’t been a great live band, especially on the Loveless tour. Well, I would soon find out.
Outside the venue there were earplugs. I grabbed several, just in case the incredibly loud swells of guitar disintegrated the noise-cancelling foam. Inside, the venue was already full. I zig-zagged my way into the middle. After an interminable wait, MBV came out on stage.
Now, to describe the sound of an MBV performance is to grasp at adjectives that don’t really exist. One has to look for analogues. Fresh ones. Except there aren’t any fresh ones. So now you’re thinking of anything that will do.
The sound unleashed by Kevin Shields, Belinda Butcher, Colm Ó Cíosóig and Debbie Googe is high-impact. The sonic field all about you, as a member of the audience, seems to have weight. It’s a bit like being pounded by the ocean’s waves. All established rules of physics seem irrelevant, as if MBV has managed to suspend time and space in a singularity. The sound blasting out of the speakers has the force of wind. Remember the Maxwell commercial with the guy in the chair and his scarf flying in the wind? Yeah, that’s you at an MBV show. I’m perfectly serious.
During the hour-plus performance I consciously fought to keep my mind clear. All extraneous thought was expunged. I had to attain a Zen-like state in order to more fully soak in the experience. And for the most part I was successful. The only thoughts that crept in were ones such as these: ‘I can’t believe I’m here watching MBV’ or ‘Look at how happy people look.’ No grand, journalistic observations. I’d been reduced to a type of blissed-out catatonia, in which my brain could only process the performance—verbal functions had effectively ceased. Every few minutes I would remove my earplugs to enjoy the deafening beauty of the band’s white noise. When MBV closed with “You Made Me Realize” (holocaust section), I snapped out of my trance and attempted to find a means of expressing the sound I was hearing. And, like any true music fan, I could only express it with words to describe an event that I could not possibly experience in my lifetime or any other:
The show, and more particularly the holocaust section of “You Made Me Realize,” was like being strapped to a rocket that was heading straight into the heart of the Sun.
I know, I know… it’s utterly useless metaphor. But in that moment, that singularity where My Bloody Valentine broke down time and space, I could have sworn that I felt the very vibrations at the core of stars.
Read my review of My Bloody Valentine’s new album m b v Death and Taxes.