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On March 31, 2005, I went to see Vertical Horizon with opener Emerson Hart at Rick’s Cafe Americain in Starkville for the “national act” installment of the week-long 10th anniversary celebration of both Rick’s and WMSV, Mississippi State's once-awesome radio station. The show was free provided you had either won a ticket from WMSV or attended the previous night’s “local act” show, stuck around until midnight, and actually claimed a VH/EH ticket. Because I was one of Tuesday night’s local acts (with Igor to boot!) and so was at Rick’s until midnight, I got a ticket and went to see the national acts even though my opinion of said acts was extremely low. (In truth, I went because my friend DJ Flonase was counting on me to go and because I simply need to get out more.)
And, well, it sucked. The night itself didn’t suck – hanging out with DJ Flonase and with my brother-in-law Mr. Clean (who just happened to be in town) was a grand time all by itself in that we drank a lot and laughed until we snorted at all the peacock-y people in the club. The music is what sucked, but – and this is the point of my post – I don’t honestly know why.
Before last night, I knew and could recall exactly two songs apiece by Vertical Horizon and Emerson Hart, which were, respectively, “Everything You Want” and “You’re a God” along with “If You Could Only See” and “You Wanted More” (the latter two are songs by the band Tonic, of whom Hart is apparently the leader). And now, after last night, the number of songs apiece I know and can recall by each act is……two. The same two, in fact.
Given my tastes and musical snobbishness, it’s not surprising that I was not magically won over by the music of VH/EH. What is surprising is the magnitude of my not-being-won-over. I cannot recall ever hearing less distinctive, less memorable, less musical music in a live setting, especially from allegedly professional musicians. The best I can say about what I heard is that the sound was fantastic: Emerson Hart’s voice sounded clear and professional and not unattractive, and I believe I’d harm a family member if it meant I could get an acoustic guitar sound like his. From a technical standpoint, the night was golden.
But music? Ho bloody hum. We got there maybe halfway through Hart’s hour-long set, and absolutely nothing that emanated from him in our first 25 minutes there was worth listening for. He may as well have been tuning his guitar in some elaborate way or saying “check one” with unusual panache into the mic. Zero melodies that warmed or hung or turned corners, zero chord progressions that surged your heart forward, zero words that made your ears snatch one sound out of a thousand and go “Oh, cool.” And I tried, really and truly I did, to focus on the songs and find something salvageable. But there was nothing there. And when the inevitable happened – when Hart started playing Tonic’s big ol’ genuine hit, “If You Could Only See,” as the last song of his set, first as a teasing game by only playing parts of the verses, then as a release by hitting a chorus he knew (and clearly expected) lots of people would sing back to him (“If you could only see the way she loves me/Then maybe you would understand”) – I was relieved, because at last I was hearing sounds that had some potential raison d’etre, some glow or odor that let me sense how a songwriter could cobble together the melody in question and decide it was worth keeping. And, although I doubt many of the Rick’s crowd were thinking my same thoughts, they all agreed in some vague way, because the entire room changed when Hart played this song: more people moved toward the stage, the body movements of the folks already near the stage got more expressive, the folks around my crowded area of the bar (near the back) suddenly got more attentive (“WOOOOOOOOOOO!” went the cherry-cheeked boy next to me, whiskey cup thrust over his head), and every young mouth in sight began pantomiming Hart’s words. The groundswell was almost touching. Almost.
So, glitch-free and burnished though his noisemaking was, Emerson Hart failed to find a new fan in me. Ten minutes later, however, I nearly became an EH fan out of cheese-induced desperation. Once Vertical Horizon began their set, in fact, I found myself thinking of EH’s tepid, largely immelodic acoustic set as a kind of salad days of recently heard music. For if EH makes music that simply doesn’t connect with me at all, VH makes the kind of glossy, unchallenging music that literally sucks out all the life-force. You know how people will praise something – music, a film, a physical act, a new love, etc. – with the phrase “it makes me feel alive”? Well, VH’s brand of airwave disturbance makes me feel dead. I don’t require that all music must make me feel alive, but I’d rather it not kill me with sterility and flatness.
VH’s members came out on stage to the strains of a low, melodramatic rumble apparently meant to scare the audience into the rather obvious realization that the headliner was, in fact, coming out on stage. The scary-bald singer, it should go without saying, came out last, and he immediately assumed a Jesus Christ pose but had his arms a bit too low, crucifixionally speaking. Turns out this lowness made it easier for him to raise his arms slowly while doing that come-hither, fingertip-to-heel-of-hand wave as a way of cajoling the crowd into giving his band their duly voluminous rock-god greeting. (Pathetically, it took several of these flapping exhortations to get the volume just right.) Eventually, VH began making sounds with their instruments, and scary-bald singer began making soothing, midrangey sounds with his voice. I guess he was singing, technically.
Here’s where my point (I hope) sharpens a bit. It was during all this creamy blandness that I began to wonder why I didn’t like VH, why I found their music (along with the music of lots of other bands very much like them) so pointless and empty. Particularly problematic were certain traits in VH’s music that are usually attractive to me elsewhere, such as the guitars. I’ve long championed the notion that fat, distorted, hard-rock-sounding guitars can improve nearly anything, and I will here red-facedly admit that even obvious joke bands as bad as or worse than VH – Creed, the Ataris, Good fucking Charlotte – can grab me for a few seconds when those guitars get whipped up into a macho frenzy. So why didn’t I feel anything like this watching VH, who had big, macho guitar sound to burn? Why did I feel nothing? This is the biggest sin of all to me: listening to music and feeling nothing. I prefer to hear something and get angry at how stupid it is (boy bands, divas, certain rap) than listen to something so preposterously palatable it feels like lukewarm water running slowly over room-temperature skin. Every song VH played had this effect on me. The only difference between the spaces in between songs and the songs themselves was volume, as if the songs were just enhanced silence, louder pauses. I felt absolutely no different during a song than I did just before or after. And the style of song mattered none. Everyone-starts-at-once rocker? Ho hum. Jangly intro followed by a motile verse melody followed by an up-and-down, sing-songy chorus, repeat, wanky guitar solo, repeat, slow down, stop? Ho hum. Pause in between songs, possibly garnished by the introduction of a new song via scary-bald’s positively Buscaglian observation that “sometimes it’s better just to say goodbye”? Ho hum. Midtempo ballad, tearjerky and assembly-line manufactured to showcase VH’s “tender” side? Ho hum. Certified Big Hit™ (“You’re a God”) that perked the crowd up exactly like EH’s closing song had done earlier? Ho ho, hum hum.
Mr. Clean, who is actually a great person but who tends to spout all kinds of nonsense and start all kinds of arguments when drunk, knew I was not enjoying these national acts but apparently could not resist saying “This sounds great. I really like these guys” very pointedly about 5 times. I know him well enough to know he does this because he’s looking for validation, a service I’ve never been able to provide when it means lying to him and/or assenting to his drunken nonsense. So after 5 silences from me, he finally put the match to the vodka-soaked rag, as follows:
Mr. Clean: Come on, man. You’d play music like this, wouldn’t you?
Mr. Clean (grimaces, rolls eyes, makes that tongue-to-roof-of-mouth smacking sound signaling irritation): Yes, you would. Yes, you would.
Me (probably madder than I should be): If you knew the answer already, why’d you ask me the fucking question?
Mr. Clean (grins, drinks whiskey, looks at stage)
Elvis Costello once referred to a certain mainstream-radio brand of mid-to-late 80s music as “bland beer music” (he was, if memory serves, speaking specifically of Phil Collins, Steve Winwood, and Eric Clapton, all of whom sported Michelob endorsements at one time or another). I love that description, and now that I think of it, VH/EH fit rather nicely into this category. I didn’t lie to Mr. Clean, and I don’t think I was speaking rashly: I wouldn’t consciously play bland beer music, even if it meant I could do it for a living. (Mr. Clean and I have had versions of this conversation many times over the years, and I’m now certain he thinks me completely out of my mind for my stance on this issue.) But I’m guessing no one ever consciously plays bland beer music because no one truly thinks of his/her music in that way. So he did make me wonder: why wouldn’t I play that? What specifically do I find wrong with such music? What if I actually play that kind of music now in the opinions of some (or many) people but lack the breadth of spirit or cojones to judge my own work as harshly as I do that of others? Just what the hell IS wrong with Emerson Hart and Vertical Horizon? Shouldn’t I be able to listen them, drink Crown and Diet Cokes, and say – at least once – “Yeah, that was a nice tune”? Just what the hell is wrong with ME?
I don’t know, and neither did Mr. Clean or DJ Flonase, who are adept at tolerating my often pointless over-analyses. We left before VH finished and, presumably, before they played “Everything You Want,” which, I found out while doing some background work for this post, “was the most played song on Top 40 radio in the US for the year 2000” (quoted in the "History" section of http://www.verticalhorizon.com/v2/main.html). I went home and baked my wife’s birthday cake while listening exorcistically to Rage Against the Machine’s The Battle of Los Angeles.