Uncertain Smile: The The at The Palladium
It was 1983, and my sophomore year, and the Sony Walkman was as new a friend to the student, as it was an enemy of the teacher. Just before Spanish class, Marcy Norris – arguably the coolest girl in school – was rapt by the music in her headphones.
“What are you listening to?” I asked.
“The The,” she said, passing me the headphones, “Here, listen.”
What I heard before Mr. Cantu demanded attention from the class was brief but everlasting. I’d never heard music like it; never heard a voice like that, and I was turned onto it by a girl I’d been obsessed with (and friends with) since the second grade.
When The The show at the Palladium went on sale months ago, I reached out to Marcy and talked about her coming to the show in L.A., but unfortunately, we couldn’t make it happen.
On the way to the show, my partner Mike and I looked up the setlist. 24 songs at the Ford the night before: an even distribution of Soul Mining, Mind Bomb, and Infected tracks among those from NakedSelf, the gloomier Dusk and not-for-everyone Hanky Panky. It was a nostalgia-musical culmination I could only have dreamt of; a tomorrow I’d been waiting for (all of my life).
Matt Johnson and the band didn’t keep us waiting long, and started in silhouette with the broody Global Eyes, that hardly anyone seemed to know. Behind him was a white screen with a blurry blob darting around it. When we realized it was a fly, that promised some thought-provoking, post-punk art direction. My friend Greg leaned in to ask, “I wonder if that was intentional, or just a fly trapped in the projector.” It’s Matt Johnson. Surely it had been intentional.
After Global Eyes and a warmly welcoming applause from the crowd, the kabuki fly disappeared and Matt took the mic and paced back and forth across the stage like a restless dog behind a fence, offering that they were a traditional band, using traditional instruments, and that in return, they had a request.
“Playing a show, it’s us (indicating the band), and ‘them’ (the audience), and there’s nothing worse than looking out and seeing a sea of phones, recording us.” An odd complaint lodged by an obscure band on a comeback tour that after a decades-long hiatus, would certainly benefit from a boost from social media. It might even build enough excitement to fill the next venue with better than the half-capacity (at best) that had showed up at the Palladium.
I recognize that phones are a scourge that erodes genuine, truly social, interpersonal interaction, and I make it a point to disconnect from it at every possible opportunity. I also know this kind of phone boycott has been trending for a while. Last year I saw Chrissy Hynde shout expletives at a girl who was recording her, not far from stage, and end with the silent “fuck you” of her middle finger. But by the sweet bird of truth, I was going to record something from this show and I wasn’t going to be shamed out of it.
There was Heartland and Sweet Bird of Truth, and the right-headed but not-my-favorite Beat(en) Generation, and even an inventive rendition of I Saw The Light. And then they played some more.
The arrangements were different, sometimes making the songs unrecognizable. There were no sequencers or electronics to provide the atmospheric adrenaline that the band famously generates. A dozen songs in, when they finally got to the iconic but slower-than-usual This Is The Day, Matt quizzed the crowd on the countdown from the beginning of the song, that mysteriously leaves out the seven. In our excitement, we failed, and he professorially cited the error and made us do it again before the band would play - a cute condecension. We did, and they did, and I learned that the opening accordion solo was played on a synthesizer. Ah, the 80s.
A few songs later, after the band had finally energized the crowd with Infected, and the thunderous applause diminished, the buzz was killed by Matt somberly quoting the song and asking the crowd “Will lies become truth in the face of fading youth?” And then he repeated (to a crowd of thirty-to-sixty-somethings), “Fading youth,” and added, “Are you lying to yourselves?” Why so serious, Matt? We’re just trying to have a little fun with you on a Tuesday night.
Void of any discernible pacing, the set list was random and the show lacked the usual stream of exhilarating highs to get you moving, interspersed with gracious lows that afford you the opportunity to catch your breath, relish the moment, get another beer, or pee.
The musicians played on, unidentified, unacknowledged, in spite of the fact that they were touted before the show as each representing an era of The The. Were any of them among the eighteen interesting and talented musicians The The has had over the years? We’d have to turn to the Internet the next day to find out. Johnny Marr and his characteristically jangly guitar weren’t there. Had they been, there would have been some much needed palpable electricity.
And instead of a return of the understatedly kabuki fly, the show ground on against a background of recycled, remixed images of Matt, young and old, with hair and without, excerpted from past videos, drawn by his own hand, or reclining on a couch in a present-day loft, dressed in black and furrowing his brow over the imperiled future of a doomed world.
Characteristically moody? Yes. Disconnected from the music? Yes, and boring after the third time the video had looped. The only light in the fog was a segment of a hand leafing through beautiful pen and ink drawings on page after page of a sketchbook, (which would also have done wonders for the otherwise unimaginative, logo-only merch).
Don’t get me wrong, Matt’s voice is beautiful. I’d listen to him reading a phone book. But one can imagine the disappointment of being walked through this collection of great songs with his voice in the basement, a full octave lower than the searing tenor that once burned into our flesh like acid. The notes were there when he reached for them, and they brought back the burn I craved. He just didn’t reach for them very often. It was as if he was saving his energy for an anti-monarchy rally after the show.
Our friends who had come with us – some of them fans, some of them new to the band – left before the encore. They were not moored to the show by adolescent nostalgia, as Mike and I were. The band played another camouflaged song, and went offstage to refresh for just a few minutes before the encore.
When they came back out, Matt introduced a song borne out of heartbreak, Uncertain Smile, and heartbreakingly, it dragged on lifelessly, derelict in its duty to evoke youthful lovesickness, and so, we left.
I’ve seen the faded flowers of plenty of bands who were obsessions of my youth, rounding out their careers with 80s nights at the Hollywood Bowl, and their aging is something that I accept and embrace as much as my own. But in this case, The The’s flower didn’t seem faded as much as just too lazy and self-reflective to ever really bloom and share all of the notes of its sweet perfume.
The kabuki fly never returned. Back in New Orleans, Marcy slept through the show. I awoke this morning and played The The on Spotify, to restore the dreamy memory of a band by which I will always be happily infected, no matter what.