Friday, July 27, 2007

Neko Case at SummerStage 7/20

Ed. note: A bit late, but I actually wrote this beforehand, but ended up wondering if I should edit the content a bit or not and forgot about posting it. It was a bit personal, but I liked how it read and I haven't written longform like this in a while. I don't know, seeing Neko live again after a couple of months, the weather, the setting must've brought out the memories, emotions, and the whinyass writer in me; after a stressful couple of weeks working long hours I guess I felt like I had to vent. It was also a bit long. However, after having recently confirmed that the posting of this in its original form with post-mortem relationship talk probably won't set off drama bombs (I'm hoping) since all parties involved seem relatively over it, I'm offering it in its entirety. I really did like the original form anyway. It's no Hemingway, but it's I wish I could crank out this much more often.

I had never been to SummerStage. Considering it was free, I figured you had to camp out beforehand to get any chance at decent seating. I work relatively near where SummerStage is and didn't really have an excuse, but the fact that it started at 7 with gates opening 90 minutes beforehand still left me wary with my stuffy office job that ended too dangerously close to 7. However, having missed a chance to see the for free New Pornographers with Kate, and absolutely adoring Neko Case, I decided to brave it out. It was a sea of giant ridiculous sunglasses, awkwardly cut/tailored hip dresses, tight pants and "they must've done it on purpose" bad haircuts to view at to your heart's delight. I arrived before Kate, and glumly sat on one of the ineffective bleachers to sadly text her that "Seats are ass. I think standing might be better if you want to see anything."

Though was it really about seeing Neko? I mean, it'd be great yes, but Neko's voice. That voice! I began to think...

Neko Case was the soundtrack of the months-long death rattle and eventual demise of my previous relationship. Tolstoy famously wrote at the beginning of Anna Karenina, "All happy families are alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." I posit that no matter how unique or perfect you thought your relationship was, all break ups are pretty much the same. Mine had a lot of things going on in it that probably doomed it or something, but the general cause of it was the cliched tumble of long-distance, lack of communication, and "irreconcilable differences."

"In California" had always been a favorite of mine. One of those random songs I can listen to over and over again. However, the lyrics about setting out on your own to an unfamiliar place in hopes of some vague success and leaving someone you care for that didn't seem to understand your situation or reasons for leaving hit a little too close to home the first couple of months that I moved to New York. I had effectively given up a chance to finally be closer to someone I had been involved with for a while if I had just stayed in Chicago, even though until the very last moment I had to make a decision I scrabbled a bit to try and see if there would be any way for me to stay even if I worked at a Borders or something until I found a Chicago job, packed up and moved to a new city and dealt with all the myriad of the usual stressful situations a broke 20-something year old with college debt goes through. Though the lyrics sang of the Black Dahlia and the 405, the line "It's the same old town that bled her try/One more starlet one more time/Bound to make it do or die," seemed to fit with the sentiments I felt about big and bustling New York and the scary new real world job that was actually using my degree.

"I remember your face when I showed you the ticket/Said you were happy for me, your heart wasn't in it/Just a phone call away/Now there's nothing to say/As the days roll by, disconnected," Neko would croon each time the song would pop up on my music player. For example, there'd been the overblown arguments the first couple of months when I started the job, when I'd fall asleep mid-conversation late at night due to not being used to a 9-5 schedule and just simply being exhausted from the stress of being at work. Me explaining that I wasn't doing it on purpose and him frustrated and telling me how thoughtless it was. There'd be my sulky indignation when he'd finally snap and tell me he really didn't feel like hearing about how sad and lonely I was in New York when I'd snap back that I'd had talked him through his own frustrations about the people and situations he was meeting in grad school.

If I had to pinpoint a moment where shit started going down, it was one particular low blow that was the harbinger and the beginning of the end. It was winter when I'd planned to go visit him, but right as I was about to cement things I got a call from my mom calmly informing me that she might be getting a divorce from my dad. He had punched her in the face during an argument the night before and was now in jail. She wasn't sure, but all she was worried about was my brother and how she'd provide for him. While my ongoing parents' storied history physical, verbal and emotional turmoil was nothing new to me, for years I had wanted my mom to get out of her marriage and seeing the chance I was hysterical on the phone telling her that she shouldn't worry and to send my brother to come stay with me while she figured things out or went back to Korea or whatever, but just send him to me. She said she'd consider it and I informed the then boyfriend about this, saying how there's a chance how I couldn't make it this time around, but maybe we could reschedule. Somehow this turned into an argument about how I obviously was not as committed to this relationship if I couldn't visit which just blew my frazzled mind at the time because:

a) my DAD was in JAIL because he PUNCHED my MOM in THE FACE. He knew about problems my parents had had. Maybe not in detail, and I'm sure I didn't tell him everything because I had gotten into the habit of keeping a lot of thing about my parents to myself throughout the years*, but just that it was something not good, and even if he didn't know all the history beforehand...

b) DAD was in JAIL because he PUNCHED my MOM in THE FACE. How can someone not respond to that in shock and understanding that I was trying to get her away from that situation, and if it meant having my brother be with me for a while, then so be it. I wasn't blowing him off to go to Cancun with my friends, I had a real family emergency going on here.

c) And in a mildly related note, in the midst of all my sputtering and teetering between being pretty fucking angry about his response and also capitulating in trying to convince him that "Yes I cared about him and wanted to see him, but just couldn't. How about Spring Break? A weekend? I'll take vacation days off then." and him answering, "No. No. No." to each option because he would be too busy studying, it made me remember how he'd told me how I was being "kind of creepy" a little while back when I was upset he couldn't visit me. I mean come on, how do you get over the fact your own boyfriend called you creepy for missing him? I wasn't setting up a shrine and killing puppies, I had just commented on how I had cried because I was sad and disappointed I couldn't see him and probably won't see him in months.

As you can tell, the last bit with my mom and brother still stings a bit to this day. I can admit to that. While I'm over a lot of things, yes, a small irrational part of me still wishes that someday he'll apologize for that one. I know he won't, but that's just how a feel about it because that was one of the worst points in my life when a lot of bad shit sort of converged at one point and I can put aside my being nice and polite for one moment that unlike all the other situations in the relationship, this one for 100% was an asshattish thing to do without any doubt of who did what. It wasn't just that it was about me. This was different, it was about my family, and when it comes to my mom and my brother I don't suffer bullshit gladly.

In the next month or two, "Set Out Running," started to nag at me more and more. I just simply felt he was not happy with me. I wasn't blaming anyone. This wasn't one of those breakups where someone fucked up immensely. When people would ask me why I broke up with him afterwards, I really couldn't give much of an answer except, "It's complicated, there were a lot of little things." The reason I gave him and the reason I knew myself was that it just seemed the longer we were involved the more and more happy he was to be with me. Not that he'd admit to this. Instead he'd turn around the argument to, "Why can't you believe that I like you? I can't tell you that I like you all the time. God, don't give me that martyr complex." I wasn't trying to do him any favors, in fact I was trying to tell him I have no desire to be with someone that makes me feel like they don't want to be with me regardless if they do or not. It doesn't matter how many times you tell someone you like them when all you do is pick a fight or find something you don't like about them, it feels like you don't want to be with them. You know, the fun type argument no one's going to be winning and it's pointless to figure out who's right in because probably nobody is. I just wanted him to listen and acknowledge that he'd heard what I was saying, but no matter how I couched it to him it was something personal and it just sounded like I was pointing out that he was a big jerk. It started to resemble a bad, 90s, stand-in-front-of-brick-wall, stand up comedy act, "What is up with men and why won't they listen? When a woman says this, a man hears this. Am I right, folks?"

By the end of the relationship I found myself walking on eggshells about a lot things to not spark yet another argument. Early on, he used to get annoyed when I'd mention something about my school. I'd describe something or some such and while he'd be fine sometimes, there'd be the rare times he'd say something that felt like he'd hold a grudge against the school I went to. Something like "Well, I wouldn't know that since I don't go to some kind of private school." I eventually rationed out things I said about my school, but he also seemed to have gotten over it over time so that wasn't a big deal, but just as an example. Then there was music. Before we had started "dating" we'd been friends to some degree and my love of music and live shows was not unknown to him, however I'd notice more and more he'd poke in a comment about how he "just didn't get X" or how he'd "never heard of X."

One fateful evening after I had gone into rapturous descriptions after having seen my favorite band and being fairly impressed with some of the opening acts, he laid down the law that he never wanted to hear about my favorite band ever again even though before this incident he'd started listening to them per my suggestion and knowing I liked them even included them on a mixed CD he'd given me once. So I started not saying much about bands or bands I went to go see unless he asked. I don't know, I'm not real talkative but I talk a lot about things I like, so was I rubbing it in his face? Who knows. Afterwards, I'd try to keep music talk tight and short so I didn't sound like gushing about it, which is hard when you're the type of person to gush over music. I once told a band, "Well, I'm generally in love with music all the time, but I can definitely say that at the moment I'm in lust with the sound of this band."

It wasn't a matter of feelings, it was all there yes, and I believed them, but I guess the best way to describe how I felt about it was that I started feeling like that friend seeing a friend being in a destructive relationship in my own relationship. Like I said, I was his good friend, or at least thought I was, before all this, and I finally went, "Uhoh, this is that same creeping feeling I get when one of my friends makes a douchebag choice and is dating that girl that you really don't understand why he's with because he always complains and shit yet says he's happy to be with her and means it."

I wasn't laying blame on whose fault it was. I wasn't saying it was his fault if he was unhappy with me, and I started to realize it wasn't my fault and it's wasn't necessarily my duty to continue to try and make someone else happy when I couldn't or felt like I was miserably failing most of the time, but how do you explain that? I mean this was a guy who was thoughtful if he wanted to be, but at the same time admitted to me, "Quite honestly, sometimes you make me miserable and I don't feel like talking to you." Yea, no surprise the break up happened about three weeks after that, when at a final blowout he irritably informed me he was not in the mood right now because he had to watch his TV show. It was like my cup had reached its cap and like my portable AC automatically shutting off to fan mode when the water tank is full, the hydraulics in my heart and brain did something and a switch went off in my head and I thought instantly, "You know what? I'm done with this" (Yea, I know, how is that for reaching hyperboles?). Everyone was just damn fucking tired is what it was and I'm sure a part of him was relieved about the whole thing as well.

Pre-breakup, it was the sound and overall package of "Set Out Running" that I fell in love with. The lyrics of, "Swallow that horizon/Hunger beyond hunger/Til the cloudy blue Pacific/Took the air in my lungs" were delightfully macabre and picturesque for me.

During-breakup and post-break up it all rang so true, I'd mournfully howl along to:
"Want to get it all behind me/You know everything reminds me/ I can't be myself wihtout you/Want to crawl down deep inside/The springs inside my mattress/Where I cry my dirty secrets/'Cause I just can't shake this feeling/That I'm nothing in your eyes." The difference being that during the former, I'd be sobbing and hiccuping along, while during the latter it was done with a bit more anger.

However, post-post-breakup, whenever "And if I knew heartbreak was coming/I would've set out running" came up, I'd just give a tired sigh and tell myself, "Tell me about it."

But no matter what the situation is, whenever I hear that song, the jolt of the instruments coming in when Neko sings, "get it all behind me" still makes me almost put my hand to my heart and take a sharp, quick breath as if I'd just been physically hurt. Always has, always will. It's a great song and great arrangement.

I snapped back to the present and wondered if was a good thing or a bad thing that the SummerStage setting was perfect for such feelings. A slight breeze was blowing and it was hard distinguishing whether the shivers came from the music or the seemingly unseasonable cold.

We spotted a girl in a burgundy corduroy sundress. I turned to Kate and asked, "Isn't that some sort of fashion oxymoron? It's like the coolest cut of a dress paired with a really warm fabric."

Kate answered, "Yea, but it's perfect for exactly this weather."

"Yea, like right now and never again," I agreed. Then added, "I bet she carries it in her bag all the time with a thermometer and barometer so she can whip it out and put it on when the weather conditions are just right."

I barely saw Neko's flaming red hair above the sea of people. It really was that bad. She was pretty much obstructed entirely halfway through. Near the end of the evening as people started leaving the performance area, Kate's friend Chris, quickly ran forward saying, "I need to get a good look at her at least once." That's how bad the seating was handled and how full it was.

I still swayed, along with the trees, to her voice. Just being able to hear her is a tremendous thing. It's full, yet feminie without and heart-achingly sexy without being cloying. Yet it's not overpowering. I loathe to say "strong." I think "convincing" is more like it. Her voice is very convincing. I refuse to say she yodels, but I always said it was like she noodles with her voice like you'd noodle on a guitar. Just artfully executed arpeggios.

The trees continued to sway in time to the start and stopping honkytonk of "Set out Running."

When she began to sing "The Tigers Have Spoken," I was a little amused considering we were a short distance away from the Central Park Zoo. A song about a melancholy tiger too used to human hands meeting his demise was just too interesting a juxtaposition to the animals kept in a man-made park along Fifth Avenue.

"Hex" was headily sweet and slow filled with a complex combination of longing and a bit of bitterness that probably would've been just at home on hot sticky summer evening listening to it crackle from a radio on the porch with the song plaintively rolling up and down, "You took my heart/Cast it aside/Laughed when I cried/Like it was just no big deal/And here all alone in the dark/I know just how you feel." Played against the crisp, cool Central Park air, it ended up more like a mint julep with its syrupy sweetness that balances against the bite of the mint and bitter bourbon on a canvass of crushed ice and chilled pewter mug.

The rustling of leaves almost seemed to be part of the song for "Maybe Sparrow."

As usually Neko seemed to be happy to be in front of people. Anyone can tell you that the stage banter between her and Kelly Hogan is also a large part of the performance.

"I could just talk all night," she said addressing simultaneously the audience, Kelly, and no one in particular.

"Whenever someone says, 'Fuckin' play!' It just makes me go, 'You know what? I don't want to anymore,'" she added with a good-natured laugh.

Darkness fell and fireflies began to flicker on and off as the banjo flickered off into oblivion at the end of "Favorite."

When Neko busted out "California," I literally cooed and clapped giddily. At the end of the song I looked to Kate and simply said with a content sigh, "That's one of my favorites."

The evening drew to a close with more favorites and an encore. "John Saw That Number" was excitedly requested for earlier in the evening, and just happened to be on the set list, which Neko noted with amusement. "Are you looking at our setlist?"

It was a group of screaming young women who wanted to hear "John," so when she finally got around to playing it her and Kelly joked that this was for the "hot for gospel girls."

* Aw fuck, well it's not like I care anymore anyway, so here's one of many stories that I don't feel so weird about sharing because I think it's a little funny. In high school I'd borrowed "Memoirs of a Geisha" from my teacher for a book report. I'd almost finished it one weekend when yet again my parents were fighting. I ran out when I heard my mom screaming only to see that my dad had tried to throw hot coffee at her, I called him a few choice names, got into a bit of a tussle with him and shoved him finally throwing the book in my hand at him. I don't know if the book had a week binding or if it was old or what, but once it hit the ground the pages kind of exploded everywhere. I shoved the pages back in best I could and there was a little coffee barely on the ages of some pages. I ended up returning it to the teacher making up some story about a kitchen table accident and offering to pay for it if she wanted a replacement. Where's the funny you ask? Well, people who know me know how I get about books; refusing to dog ear pages for example. So I actually was also a bit mortified that I was returning the book to my teacher in the state that it was because that's not how I treat my books. It's just weird because thinking about it now my thought process was, "Oh hey, so yea I don't want you to know my dad tried to scald my mom, but also, I'm really sorry about the book...really really sorry. Like I'm not this type of person, honestly. I treat books with respect, so please don't find out I tried to throw a book at someone."


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