The Savior of Rock and Roll
Just as many bands we heard never progressed over time, so did our relationship hover in perpetual juvenilia.
I met Brian at my cocktail party. He was the first person to show up, and the one I dated for over six years. I was drawn to his interest in the arts, his willingness to converse, and his many opinions.
A working-class New Jersey boy with a salesman’s sensitivity to feelings, mostly his own, Brian also suffered. His youthful temper outbursts had earned him the nickname “The Bomber.” He complained about a battery of health issues, including a bad back. Among Brian’s harmless obsessions, he rhapsodized about the indie films he sold for a small distributor, argued liberal politics, and collected DVDs from old-school rock and rollers.
From Tears for Fears to Santana, Brian loved bands that played music that didn’t grow; they were frozen in time. During one of our early dates, Brian and I attended a Steely Dan tribute concert in a small New Jersey restaurant. I found it eerily comforting to listen to familiar versions of Steely Dan’s “Do It Again,” “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number,” and “My Old School.”
I never developed a passion for rock concert-going throughout high school or college; dating Brian in my forties let me do so. His kitchen cupboards were filled with music DVDs and movie cassettes instead of dishes and glasses; he displayed chronological works of popular musicians on the TV stand in his living room.
As our relationship progressed, Brian and I enjoyed concerts at the PNC Bank Arts Center in Holmdale, New Jersey. PNC was an open outdoor amphitheatre where we heard old school rockers like Hall and Oates, Tom Petty and Bob Dylan.
While we punctuated our time together through sharing music outings, I was content that someone who followed hip bands in the 70s and 80s was interested in me. I had transformed myself from an uncool college kid to a rock concert goer. By the fourth year of our relationship, however, I knew that I had bypassed falling in love to feeling grateful I spent time with a rock and roll buddy. I began to wonder if the price for an easy listening companion wasn’t too high.
In light of my parents’ own traditional 50s-style marriage, in which Mom relinquished a modest publishing career to marry and raise us while Dad pursued a corporate real estate lawyer track, I know why I hung onto Brian. I grew up in a house where Dad sported hobbies and interests in opera- and theater-going, sailing, and reading ambitiously in history and literature. Outside of raising her kids, Mom contented herself with one paperback at a time and sometimes playing bridge.
As the daughter of these parents it felt natural to brook Brian’s political and musical obsessions – wacky as some of them were – to focus on making our relationship work. The trouble is, I didn’t enjoy being force-fed old 70s and 80s music. By the time we saw Dylan in 2005, his voice was spent. Instead of being the sage hipster I was entranced by on numerous CDs, he belted out ballads like laryngitic cats screeching. Unlike Santana, Phil Collins, and other aging rockers, Dylan did not use a back-up vocalist. Instead, jamming as fast as they could, his band played at the opposite edge of the stage, terrified of the “Bard.”
“Maybe he has a bad head cold,” I said to Brian.
“No, he’s sounded this way the last three times I’ve heard him. Back in 1972, 1975, and 1980, his voice was bearable,” Brian told me. While impressed with Brian’s faithfulness, I wondered why anyone would buy tickets to see the same artist seven times over 23 years. As a teenager, Brian must have attended concerts in every club, auditorium, and outdoor venue in New Jersey.
If he liked a musician, Brian explained, “I try to relive my experience the first time I was knocked out by them.” He risked disappointment each time the musician sounded different.
I wasn’t troubled that I didn’t share all of Brian’s musical tastes, including his passion for Pat Metheny. I thought our common love of music would help us prevail. By our fifth year together, however, I felt I would never be attracted or committed to Brian in a more serious way. I was unwilling to make a break so we continued to see movies, show up at various family functions, and enjoy rock concerts. While others around us married, had children, moved to new geographic regions, or divorced, Brian and I stayed put like an old married couple. Just as many of the bands we heard never progressed over time, so did our relationship hover in perpetual juvenilia.
Change happened despite us. At some point it was not enough to share feelings I did not have through musical outings. Despite the concerts that I had truly loved – a Neil Young and a U2 performance in Madison Square Garden – it was time to move on.
By the time I knew Brian and I were over, he had become obsessed with a Welsh songwriter, Kurt Wallinger, a former band member of The Waterboys, the Irish band who launched World Party with a debut album in 1986. Wallinger produced a couple of albums in which Rolling Stone marveled, he “displays an ambition as broad as the emotional range of [his] music.” After similar success with a third album, about which Entertainment Weekly claimed Wallinger “put a fresh spin on songs rooted in circa-'67 psychedelia,” he suffered an aneurysm in 2000 and disappeared for several years.
Kurt Wallinger resurfaced in 2006 and was touring in local U.S. venues. In May, we booked into a cheap hotel near the beach in Amagansett, hoping to see Wallinger at Stephen’s Talkhouse. The beach and hotel were relaxing, but a band member took sick and World Party cancelled its performance at the last minute.
Brian was distraught. For a long time after we got back to our hotel room, he only paced back and forth. I noticed a dark shadow where he hadn’t shaved. I finally got him to sit down and talk.
“I’ve seen every band that I care about a million times, and there is nothing left to see,” Brian told me. His whole prior experience with World Party had been listening to them on CDs and now his chance to hear them live was being thwarted. Even though I cared more about the beach than hearing the band, I urged Brian to hang onto his rock and roll fairytale.
“Brian,” I said, “I think it’s great. Do you know how many people go through life without finding something that really matters to them?” I sounded so convincing that I almost persuaded myself that being in a dead-end relationship didn’t matter. After taking medicine for his bad back, Brian fell asleep, and I curled up in the other room.
In the morning, Brian seemed to have forgotten his melt down over World Party, and he was in a good mood. Later on, I realized why. Brian had gone online and discovered the band was scheduled to play in downtown Manhattan at Joe’s Pub that night. He bought himself a ticket and saw them alone as soon as we returned from Amagansett.
A few weekends later, I accompanied Brian to see the band at the Wyckoff Family YMCA in New Jersey. Brian attributed attending the second World Party concert within three weeks to wanting to hear Wallinger with his complete band. “At Joe’s Pub, it was just Wallinger and two acoustics guitar players; it would be awesome to hear him in full swing,” he said.
After all Brian’s raving, I was prepared to hate the group. Wallinger looked so rumbled, he might have worn the same clothes as on the day he’d suffered an aneurysm. After hearing his intelligent lyrics accompanied by a charismatic violinist, I was won over after all. It was “a beautiful mixture of soft music and edgy lyrics,” as critics of Wallinger’s 2006 efforts noted.
Brian waited in line after the concert to shake Wallinger’s hand and give him one of the DVDs he was selling, a political science fiction film about repressive democracies by Peter Watkins. Eyeballing Brian the way one might look at a known lunatic, Wallinger’s publicist accepted the gift and then said, “See here, Kurt, one of our fans has brought you a very interesting present; we’ll have a look later.” He shook Brian’s hand and tossed the DVD into a knapsack.
I still accompanied Brian to concerts -- once to hear Pierre Bensusan, the renowned jazz violinist, and once to hear Robin Ford in a small Manhattan pub on a Monday night. By this time, we had broken the bonds of our co-dependence. For Brian, both of these concerts were repeat performances. For me, they were a bridge to the unknown.