This past November, I stood in a crowd on the floor of the Roy Wilkins Auditorium in St. Paul, waiting for music to start, gazing around at the gray streaks in all the beards. My oldest friend Aaron had surprised me with this ticket so we could get out together to see a band we both absolutely loved, knew all their albums back and front - LCD Soundsystem. Resurrected and back on tour after claiming to have disbanded in 2011, during the flattering days of widespread independent music genius and Barack Obama's first term, here they were trying to recapture the magic six years later and in a radically altered culture, amidst the fall after the pride. Who were these people now, who crowded in here to get their look at this band? I used to think I knew. The faces were inscrutable. Their online profiles probably said so much more, but we didn't have those here. Everyone's face looks similar under purple stage lights. Everyone's demeanor looks generous with a smile on in public. Who knows what experiences and logic are engineering that smile? We were Sphinxes.
I wondered how I was going to comport myself at this show. It had been years since I'd last seen any of my heroes in concert. I'm a father of a first grader now, with a career I value, and this show was on a weeknight. I had work in the morning, plus school transportation for which I had to be on time. Doing the cold logistics, I knew partying hard was out of the question, though my buddy was so gracious as to buy me a nice, tall pale ale. (I'm not made of stone.) It's funny that many of LCD Soundsystem's lyrics are about being my age, no longer able to bring the energy and enthusiasm of youth. Sometimes there is pride in this, sometimes regret and wistfulness. It's not out of character; it's not hard to fathom that mix of feelings. It really is the era of mixed feelings. Middle age and middle feelings.
Also, the night of the show was drastically cold. It was only early November, but I had worn a full winter parka. My friend and I had walked from the car to the building with the bitter grimaces of February's depths, bursting through the entry doors cursing with pink cheeks. And in that horrible venue there is no coat check. So rather than stand with my coat on the entire show as many had resolved, I dropped my coat in a ball on the floor, secure between my legs like an egg. But now I was committed to standing there bestriding it or risk my coat's utter tarnishment.
I decided I'd do my best with the opportunity my good friend had given me: If I wasn't primed to transcend out-of-body much, I could turn on my observation eyes and relish the rare chance to see a group I admired so much do their work.
I had no friends when I met Aaron. I was new to school in third grade, freshly established in a slick, new single-parent household in a new town. Things were a little more whole-feeling going into that school year; the initial shock of the changes had kind of worn off. I had spent a good part of second grade at the last school hiding in the classroom's coat rack, unable to dedicate a shred of mental bandwidth to routine educational things. But I assure you, I was learning plenty. In my third grade room, there were no coat racks. I sat in the desk I was assigned by alphabetical order. My last name is Quijano. The desk behind me was assigned to a kid whose last name was Roberts.
I got to talking to that Roberts kid a good deal during those first weeks. Aaron Roberts. He was a scrawny blonde kid with big brown-framed glasses. He always seemed to have interesting things to say, with a bit of otherworldly seriousness to him, a kind of intellectual intolerance that led him to blow up your comments if they didn't make sense. And it made me respect him and his honesty. Later on, when I would visit his home, I would giggle openly witnessing his many volcanic tirades as he blew through video game levels with virtuoso skill. And so I kept on turning around to him to trade little points.
There was one moment I knew this guy was going to be my friend. He walked into class one day in full Cub Scout regalia. After he sat down, I turned around and carpet bombed him with questions. He somewhat aloofly held court and explained what his patches meant, and where his scout meetings were held, in the church across the street from school (which was also across the street from his house). It happened to be the Lutheran church my grandparents had gone to for years, now my church as well. It wasn't Aaron's church; he was raised Catholic and went to a cathedral downtown.
Within a few weeks, I was a part of Pack 123, with my own uniform, and our friendship was on its way. Our first scout camp together, in addition to being campers worthy of Moonrise Kingdom, we also connected over our love of video games, then more of a fringe interest, especially the RPG and adventure games we loved (though he never quite got my love of sports games).
Aaron and I became avid outdoorsmen together.
Aaron and I became adept at skiing together, conquering the Black Hills and the Rockies.
His mom and dad let me walk into their house any time, no calling, no knocking. I'd go over after school and just eat a corndog.
Aaron and I would be in a band together.
The other friends he and I made gravitated together into a network that still endures.
When I drove in outright frightened weightlessness to out-of-state college for the first time, I spent the night in Fargo where Aaron was going to school. His apartment was my raggedy Rivendell, the last vestige of the familiar before I ventured out into the wider world. Leaving his company in the morning was truly leaving home.
But in our mid-20s, he found his way to Minneapolis, where I had also taken up. We ended up having a hell of a great second era of friendship. Now, my sons know him, call him by his first name, and indulge in expansive discussions of Star Wars with him. They see the same awesome things in him that I have for 30 years.
I've experienced some serious serendipity in my life. I met my wife while selling cellphones in an electronics store. I met some of my best Minnesotan friends because I was next door to them in a dorm room. But maybe most key to my survival and thriving was the serendipity of having a name next to my friend Aaron's in alphabetical order. That arbitrary condition sat me next to a guy whose mind is of brotherly compatibility to mine.
Like me, he thrives with challenges. Today, leave him with the barest ingredients and he will produce a meal that will shame your everyday mediocrity. It's always been like that. Aaron was someone who loved theoretical physics in junior high; he made sure I read Jurassic Park before the movie came out. We hashed out ideas from that book forever. We still can angrily debate all manner of logistics, to insane, inane degrees. It's not just scientific mechanics that draw him; it's the whole human problem. When I left his apartment on my way for college, I stole a book from his huge bookshelf and have never returned it: Einstein's "Ideas and Opinions," a collection of the great scientist's essays and aphorisms on social and ethical subjects. That book was as important as anything I learned in college that year. Einstein isn't an easy read; he uses an academic parlance and makes no apologies. It's a challenge someone must accept.
Musically, obviously Aaron and I played in a band together for seven years. I don't know how he didn't despise me for the level of perfection I expected. We were teenagers, and I used to savagely curse out our group for any repeated mistakes as we rehearsed; I mean I was a bastard. The only reason he didn't tell me to go screw myself was because, first of all I think he found it kind of humorous that I'd take something so personal as the number of repetitions of a measure, but also because he respected an attitude of exactitude. It was really no different than him coming completely undone at Mega Man.
Musically, he gravitates towards challenges too: Frank Zappa, the Doors, and of our generation, LCD Soundsystem. These groups bait their audiences with challenges.
"You Wanted a Hit" is a song about how the band doesn't like producing "hits." To be a hit, a song has to be short, efficient, and catchy: Easy. There is no time for a slow burn. There is no such thing as momentum. Hits hit the ground running. They are by nature out of context because they can't take the time to set themselves up or properly work things out.
LCD Soundsystem ended up making quite a few little electro-dance hits that kept them going financially. But when you listen to a full LCD Soundsystem album, it's a different experience. The next time you're on a long drive, put on an LCD Soundsystem album, I especially suggest either Sound of Silver or This Is Happening. Surrounding these more focused hit songs are what I like to think of as the real LCD Soundsystem songs, these expansive numbers that are still fun and dance-friendly but take indulgent time working into a groove. If you're slightly distracted while the music is on, you may not even realize the same song has been playing for eight minutes. The best feeling of an LCD Soundsystem album is the moment, five minutes into a song, that you finally notice you're in the middle of a journey, and the band doesn't care where else you have to be. Then there invariably comes a moment where everything is finally clicking, an apex that has taken painstaking patience, not to mention subtle craft, to reach.
"You Wanted a Hit" is absolutely the best example of this type of LCD Soundsystem song. It's nine minutes long, and it uses one (1) chord progression the whole way. Singing does not enter for three minutes. When singing does enter, there are ten separate stanzas of verse lyrics. There are only two choruses.
There is one central, memorable keyboard cue. There are some other neat little synthesizers whistles and squeaks. The guitars hold a compact little downstrum. But for the majority of the song, it's essentially drums and bass.
But that one chord progression is so cool and full of potential for variation. That one keyboard cue is definitive. The singing is a tuneful meditation. Additional parts find their sweet spaces throughout. The drum and bass parts convey us through these wonders like a shuttlecraft. And at about the 7:30 mark, all the sounds start to converge and lead to the kind of glory that rewards everything you've heard up to that point. When I hear it, my soul tells me that this is an elite, upper-echelon song.
But before that concert last November with my old friend, I had only heard it in my car, in my headphones, in my imagination.
I had never spoken with another soul about this song, not even Aaron.
I was completely alone with it.
The concert was proceeding fine. LCD Soundsystem were indeed playing the hits. My coat was safe at my feet.
The band looked almost exactly the way I'd last left them in my mind, playing their final concert at Madison Square Garden in their great 2011 concert film, aptly titled Shut Up and Play the Hits. It was actually surreal. Maybe one guy had gained a little weight. James Murphy was never a physical specimen anyway. With the band in front of me, one thing I noticed was how solitary everyone was. It reminded me of the Peanuts gang playing music on the school stage, everyone moving and grooving in their own spot, their own private, introverted cool space. The only person who roamed anywhere during a song was James Murphy, and even he mostly held to the home base of the mic stand. With each song completed, the band would reconfigure to different instruments then resume their unobtrusiveness.
But I love how their drummer Pat Mahoney is front stage rather than on the traditional riser behind everything. He plays facing the band from stage left, so his left side faces out to the audience. With the drums being so much the secret weapon of LCD Soundsystem, it's great that they put him out where everyone can observe him as the main character he is. And considering how introverted most of the band is, his expressive playing is a useful, human focal point.
It was around halfway through the show that the keyboard cue for "You Wanted a Hit" began. I was flabbergasted to be hearing it. I don't know why, but I somehow knew it would only ever be a personal delight (clearly I don't scout out bands' touring set lists).
My pulse came alive. My face flushed with emotion.
And for the first time that night, a wave of elated applause rippled through the crowd. The room came to life.
For the first time that night, I felt 16 years old.
I looked over at my friend, whom I had luckily found who shared my mind, whom I used to yell at for flubbing his bass parts when we were 16 years old, and smiled a big smile. "Wooooooow, I didn't think they'd play this!"
"Yeah!" Aaron affirmed gruffly, with the sunniness he's learned in his maturity.
The song unfolded and was just one of those sublime moments in a life.
Aaron and I danced and sang. The whole moving room sang, "We won't be your babies anymore." My feet still stayed basically around my coat, somewhere down there.