Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Are You Ready to be Heartbroken?

 This weekend I was traveling between Düsseldorf and Frankfurt for pleasure, stopped in Cologne for business, and decided to reward, or rather console myself with a nice dinner beside the famous Kölner Dom. Far off on a bulletin board, I saw the words LLOYD COLE in big white letters. After my dinner I walked over to take a closer look. Turns out, he was playing not far from there that very evening. It wasn’t like a bolt of excitement had shot through me, but I was suddenly very certain that that’s where I would be going, despite being wrecked from my weekend and knowing that home was only another hour and a half away. I got a large cup of coffee, directions to the venue, and I was on my way.

    The first Lloyd Cole song I’d ever heard was “Perfect Skin.”  My sister put it on a mix tape for me, which I remember listening to on a long drive to San Diego in 1985. That year was my first year of high school. I don’t think any of my classmates at the time had heard of Lloyd Cole and the Commotions except for me. I scribbled a line from that song on my school notebook: 

“...cheekbones like geometry and eyes like sin, sexually enlightened by Cosmopolitan ....”  

    No wonder my popularity began to wane with the popular kids, who were content with “Footloose” and “Uptown Girl”, and wax with the mods, who were still searching for the deeper meaning of “Blue Monday” and “How Soon is Now?”

“... Jane is fine, always fine, we're unhappy most of the time. We don't talk, we don't fight, I'm just tired, she's way past caring. So we drink Spanish wine, we tell lies, we're killing time and we feel fine. Well, what's the crime?...”

    Lloyd Cole’s songs are often melancholy. Glum rock, it’s been called. For his sake, I hope his songs are not autobiographical. Using the first person narrative, his songs often mention people by name, which makes it seem like he could only be drawing from personal experiences. Sometimes he doesn’t say much at all, and other times he’ll go into so much detail, you feel like it’s some inside joke that you’ll never understand.

“... I was a king bee with head full of attitude and ashtray heart on my sleeve, wounded knees. And my one love song was a tattoo upon my palm you wrote upon me when you took my hand...”

    In some ways, listening to Lloyd Cole is like an inside joke, because you feel especially kindred with people you encounter who also know his work. Actually, as a fan, I feel a little guilty. Having faithfully bought the first six albums, somehow skipping over his first solo album (how dare I?), I stopped after Love Story.  Then again, so did he. By the time his next album came around in 2000, I was working as a full-time so-called professional opera singer. I was distracted. 

    Those three words were uttered by Mr. Cole himself at last night’s concert. As I said, I went to the concert on a whim, really, but a very unvagarious whim. 

“... I was looking for a rhyme for the New York Times when I sensed I was not alone. She said, ‘Do you know how to spell audaciously?’ I could tell I was in love...”

    Although I’ve been to Cologne on several occasions, I can’t say that I know my way around. Hoping to be sitting on the right subway myself, the man next to me asked if I knew where the Kulturkirche (Culture Church) was. Of all the people on that subway, two Lloyd Cole fans were sitting right next to each other. Kindred, I tell you, kindred. The two of us helped each other find our way to the venue. It’s a regular old Lutheran church, in a regular old neighborhood, except for the fact that it’s one of the few neo-gothic churches still standing in Cologne after the bombings of World War II, and that it’s used for cultural events (except for Sunday mornings, of course). While waiting for the concert to begin, my brand new friend and I exchanged Lloyd Cole stories, which turned out to be quite interesting, due to the fact that I knew my way around the old stuff, and he was a fan of the newer albums. I was glad to have met a fellow fan, but when it came to finding a seat, I enjoyed my independence. I left him outside waiting for his unpunctual companions, and snagged myself a sweet single seat in the third pew.

    I was quite surprised at my own feelings of anticipation. When the roadie came out to hook up the guitars, my heart skipped a beat, thinking it was going to be Mr. Cole. Then another person came out to put a small bucket of ice cubes next to the two bottles of evian and hand towel (never did figure out what the ice cubes were for). Other than that little table, there were two microphone stands (one for the singer and one for the guitar), a few monitor speakers, and two guitars. That was it. Then the culture church’s pastor came out to announce the event -- oh why do they torment me so?! The suspense was killing me! Finally it was time. 

    There he was. Not the gloomy face with cold eyes peering up from under a furrowed brow like on most of the album covers. Just an unassuming man in the middle of his life in a black short-sleeved button-down shirt, beige pants and a pair of black wallabee’s. He softly muttered, “Thanks for coming out,” and began to play. I don’t even remember what song it was, or if I even knew it. All I know is that this man, whose music accompanied or created my moods for almost 25 years, was standing almost 25 feet in front of me playing it live. Everything I’ve ever thought or felt since then came rushing back to me in the guise of happiness. I was overwhelmed. The voice is a powerful thing, a very powerful thing.

    I found it very courageous of him to stand up there in front of us, all by himself, reading off chapters of his life. I’ve stood on stage numerous times baring my soul to an audience, but I‘ve always been portraying someone else, and singing someone else’s words, even though the emotions may or may not have been mine. It occurred to me at the end of the concert that he didn’t play any songs from his third album Mainstream, although he played several songs from his first two. Was Mainstream a chapter he preferred not to read aloud? Or maybe he just felt silly at age 48 saying,

“Life begins at thirty, so I have been told. I can easily believe it, the way I’m getting on.”

    Although I hate to hear this myself, I found it charming when he made a mistake. If he would’ve ignored the few mistakes he made, we all would have been none the wiser. But you could tell he was a little disappointed, like when he was 10 seconds into “Pay For It,” when he stopped and said, “I’m sorry. I was distracted,” and told us he’d play that one again for us later. Or when he said, “We’ll do the first chorus instead of the second one” in the middle of “Rattlesnakes.” I only wish I will be famous enough one day to have the luxury to stop before a high note, take a sip of evian and say, “That was going to get very ugly had I not stopped to take that drink of water.”

    The acoustic versions of his songs were arranged in varying ways, and he even strung a few songs together at one point, joking, “You know you’re getting old when you can start playing medleys.” I was amazed at his guitaristic dexterity, and how he could pull so many different textures of sound out of six strings; he used open tuning on one of the guitars, giving a droning depth to songs like “Morning is Broken:”

“... It’s very easy to be brave with your good foot in the grave. It’s very easy to be cold when there’s no one in the world you want to know ...”

Over the years I’ve gathered so many pieces of wisdom from Lloyd Cole’s music. Like I said, I don’t know if his songs are autobiographical, or just inspired by books and other things. It just seems that if I had learned anything at all from what he’s said, then I wouldn’t be able to relate to the music so well. We all have to write our own songs, and make our own experiences. Other people’s songs only provide the soundtrack to our life stories, they don’t write them. He closed the evening with three encores, saving the best for last. 2cv:

“... For we were never close if the truth were told. All we ever shared was a taste in clothes. No, we were never close. ... We were simply wasting precious time ...”

    After the show, Mr. Cole offered to stick around and sign autographs, saying he’d sign anything except body parts, and reminding us that CDs were on sale in the lobby. I would have loved to have bought a CD, but I had spent all my money on the ticket. I felt like such an idiot when it was finally my turn. He was a very humble man standing in front of me, almost smiling. Still, through his pale eyes, I could recognize the dark young man who I found very sultry in the early 90’s, and I felt as nervous as I would have, were I standing before him back then. I said, “It’s not exactly a body part, but I do happen to have my diary with me. It’s the only piece of paper in my bag that I’m not going to throw away.” And with a couple more bumbling sentences, I said, “Thanks for making this day very memorable.”  “What day is it?” he asked, not being able to distinguish one day from the other, being on tour. I told him, then he wrote 4/20/09 and scribbled his name on the front cover of my diary.

This wasn’t a lost weekend for me after all. Thanks, Lloyd.

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