The National at the Hollywood Bowl, 9/11/11

by on Sep.13, 2011, under music

“Normally, this is the point in the set where we’d leave the stage, go pee, come out and play an encore,” said Matt Berninger, the singer of The National. “But we’re not going to do that tonight.” A smattering of applause. Thank god, I’m not the only one who hates ritualized rock show encores. “We have to get out of here in twenty minutes. There’s even a clock.”

He picked it up and turned it around for us to see, and there it was. A big red LED rectangle, like a bedside alarm clock. Counting down the minutes left in the set.

We all cheered. I think we got it. It was a little tug at the thread, at the lie of rock and roll. The Dionysiac infinities that have to end on schedule, get rolled up and loaded out to accommodate the long-suffering Hollywood Hills neighbors who can never be transported away from the traffic and the noise, no matter how expansive the moment, how much reverb on the guitars.

I looked at the display, running backwards, and I said to my wife, “Someone better defuse that bomb.” It was the tenth anniversary of 9/11, so it was funny.

She said, “What?” She was in it. So was I, in my way.

I listened to the National from the beginning. My friend Alec started their first label, Brassland, with guitarist Bryce Dessner. I would have friendly conversations with Bryce when I ran into him at Alec’s house or saw them play, and I bought everything they put out on Brassland. The first time I saw them play live was in the smallest, shittiest room at the Hollywood Knitting Factory, in an audience that might have numbered 25. I was surprised to see how skinny a body Berninger’s deep, sad voice lived in.

My favorite song up until that point was “Slipping Husband” off of their second album, Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers. At the end of the song, Berninger repeats to the title character, “Dear we’d better get a drink in you before you start to bore us.” (Rivers of booze run through National songs.) Three times through, Berninger half-mutters, half-sings the line in his gloomy baritone. Then he unleashes it one final time in a painful, unsustainable scream. The scream is disproportionately powerful, revising every other measure of the song, claiming a vaster, darker musical space than the daylit rock and alt-country gestures that made up the rest of the corpus.

In concert, Berninger couldn’t wait to get to the scream – he let it loose on almost every song. It lost some of its power through overuse, which I mentioned to Alec. He told me to tell the singer. I chickened out.

The next time I saw them was at Spaceland, with easily ten times the crowd, after they had left Brassland and had released Alligator on Beggars Banquet. It’s still one of the best shows I ever saw in Los Angeles, or ever. Their sound was already way too large for the venue. The Dessner twins had figured out the spacious grandeur of the guitar arrangements, swirling around surprises in the rhythms and delicate orchestrations by Padma Newsome, Bryce’s partner in the indie chamber ensemble Clogs. I asked Alec if they were trying to be U2. “I don’t think that’s it,” he said. I had a limited body of musical references, but there was something in there – the majestic sweep, the inviting seriousness.

Not long after, the National went on another tour, supported by Clap Your Hands Say Yeah. Following a Pitchfork endorsement, buzz-drunk fans filled clubs, only to empty out after Clap Your Hands Say Yeah finished their set and leave the ostensible headliners haplessly playing to thinned-out rooms.

I read about this, with sympathetic dismay, from a beach house in Massachusetts, where my first wife and I had retreated together to get out of Los Angeles and to try and make art. I was writing and recording songs on a laptop and making my first attempt at building a screenplay. She was writing a novel and a long piece of art criticism. The beach house, empty and exposed in October, was our second stop on the sabbatical. The first stop was a commune in southern Colorado, not far from the Great Sand Dunes, where I played Alligator for her for the first time and we mostly managed never to run out of red wine.

We get possessive about bands. When they get too big, when they go from small clubs to big rooms to Saturday Night Live to Staples Center, we get jealous. “I knew them first,” we say, to no one who cares. It’s unseemly that all those new people think they’re having the same pleasure that we had when we first encountered them. It’s ridiculous. We had a personal relationship to occult knowledge; they’re nodding along to the latest hit.

For the most part, this isn’t my problem – I’m happy for my favorite bands’ success, and mostly I don’t catch on until they’re popular anyhow. (They Might Be Giants might qualify as an exception.) I would have been happy to share The National with the world. But I wasn’t entirely ready to share them with my wife.

In Massachusetts, she fell under her writing, became pained and withdrawn. I thought I could help but my emotional arsenal was limited, at the time, to a range of clownish cheer-up routines. She took a final month away from me back in Colorado, and drove back and forth between the commune and town, listening to Alligator on repeat, enduring the CD skips from the rough dirt roads. When she came back to Los Angeles, the album was all hers. My voice is similar in timbre to Matt Berninger’s baritone, but everything I said pushed her a little bit farther away, while his songs invited her deep under the folds of his black veil, into their own dark, lonely bedroom fort.

It was blindingly obvious that her experience of The National was more profound than mine. I could no longer listen to it in the same space as her. Before long, I could do little of anything in the same space as her. She moved out of our apartment. The National came through town, and I asked Alec to hold her a spot at the door when they played the Troubadour. He put me down for a plus one, and I had to explain to him that I wasn’t going.

I have a new wife now, and, happily, as far as I know, my ex has a new partner. I keep a playlist for my wife called “Ruined Songs for Heather Joy” – the tracks that I want her to have, but I can’t really give her, because they’ve been too much a part of my life up until now, too much played on the soundtrack to the last love’s end, too much placed on seducer’s mixes during the brief, manic months before I met her. She, also, is alert to Berninger’s invitation to crawl in under the black veil (and I finally understand that antic cheer is not an invitation to crawl back out). When he sings, “Sorrow found me, sorrow won,” she says that’s as accurate a picture of depression as any she’s ever heard painted. When I took her to see The National perform at The Wiltern, she fell all the way in love. I was happy to introduce her to the band. It had already been taken from me once. I barely even noticed the second time.

On the stage of the Hollywood Bowl, Berninger had left the clock to face the crowd. We all knew the show had to end. But he picked it up once more, and threw it over backwards, and time stopped so they could keep playing. They played “Terrible Love” off of High Violet. Repeating “It takes an ocean not to break,” singing and screaming, perfectly screaming, Berninger wandered out along the outer lip of the Bowl stage and into the crowd, clasping outstretched hands, surfing on the warm sea of his making. He pulled us all down towards him, through the colossal hillside amphitheater, into a room smaller than Spaceland, where we all fit.

We all crawled into the fortress together, where I remembered that the sound contained blackness but wasn’t contained by it. There was light under there. There was profound, ordinary sadness. There was triumph – not U2-sized triumph, but something more human-sized, the kind of thing you could take along with you without having to pretend all the time you were in a movie. There was tenderness, there was communion, and there were all the notes I’d heard there before I let others, lovers, listen for me. At some point, the clock must have reached zero, the bomb must have gone off, and we all got to be there forever.


1 Comment for this entry

  • Joshua Malbin

    the clock must have reached zero, the bomb must have gone off, and we all got to be there forever.

    Like the original ending to Heathers, which shockingly I can’t find a link to anywhere.

    At Grantland, Chris Jones called a live clip of The National performing Mr. November “the greatest moment in YouTube’s short history of live rock’n’roll.”

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