Lontalius at Caroline

I’m ambitious and I’m optimistic
But I’m not pretty and I’m not realistic

Optimistic, Lontalius

I was surprised there was a band.  Pleased.  Surprised he had a guitar, and there was a bass player and a drummer.  The music was far more dramatic than it sounds on my stereo.  A bigger bass in the chest, bigger snare hits, and grander waves of synth.

Doors opened at 9pm.  We arrived at 9.20.  We were the only people there.  Being middle-aged and middle-class I always hope bands will start at a reasonable hour but Cathy assured me that young bands with young crowds probably still started late.  I hadn’t wanted to believe her but it was true.  The support act began at 10.40.

There were a number of very tall, thin young men at the gig.  Their trousers were too short and they had nice hair.  They also all had rectangular bags that slotted neatly under one arm from a strap.  I very much wanted to know what was in the bags.  LPs?  Magazines?  A flat piece of cardboard?

After the support act the audience went back out of the room at the back where the little stage was and into the bar area with tables and chairs at the front.  Caroline is upstairs next to Duke’s Arcade. Some time around 11.30 we went back to hear him: Lontalius.

He was tall and thin.  Non-descript really.  The room where he played had been jammed with about 100 people for the support act.  The crowd seemed to have halved when he played.  There must have only been 50 people there to see him.  Perhaps fewer.  We were at the back where there was a large empty space that I kept expecting to fill with late arrivals but which never did.

On his old songs Lontalius sang confidently – he must have sung them a hundred times and his voice knew where to start almost by muscle memory.  On the new songs he seemed a bit hesitant at first.  He forgot a few lines and then he found his place and the voice was strong.  He sings a lot higher than he speaks.  When he spoke his words were a little mumbled, and hard to catch: the beginnings and endings swallowing each other.  He said something mean about Dunedin that we couldn’t catch.  He apologised.  He seemed to be very much himself: quiet, friendly, doing his thing, his way; but also figuring it all out: himself, music, other people.

His new songs are very good.  They sound big on stage.  Exciting.  Much bigger and more exciting than they sound on record.  The tone of the words though is the same.

Inseparable can mean two things
A way to win and to lose things
I wish that I could make sense of us

I thought while he sang I wanted him to take me home with him, that in the past a man singing about another man would have used the pronoun you and hidden behind it and that I am glad that is not true anymore.

Later he did a cover of Dreams in My Head by Anika Moa.  When he sings it the words match his own so perfectly it is like he wrote them:

I have all these dreams in my head
Of you and I together, waking in each other’s arms
If I only I could tell you how I feel
Then I wouldn’t have to sit here and think about losing you
But it’s just a dream
I have in my head

The arrangement was sparse and slowed, and his voice hovered around the words aware of that special pain between the pleasure of a fantasy and the despair of knowing that dream does not, and will not exist in reality.

It was very intimate at that concert.  It seemed like many of the people there knew each other, and him.  I wondered if, after the concert, he went home and slept in his old room.

After the concert we went to McDonalds.

It was coming up to 1am and it was filled with young people; young drunk people.  The young women over-dressed or under-dressed with their dressed boyfriends. Behind the counter was frantic energy and machines and food while a woman shouted out the order numbers and 50 something customers sat or slouched or stood around the tables and checked their phones or made stilted conversation.  Then an ambulance arrived.  Then another.  Then a fire truck.  After the paramedics and the fire officer had marched though McDonalds to the toilets at the back about five police officers arrived.  Something terrible had clearly happened in the toilets.  They erected a temporary screen blocking the toilets and a gurney was wheeled in.  The crowd seemed to have no interest.  The order numbers kept being shouted out.  When our one was called we got our food and left.

We walked back past the venue of the gig.  Some of the people who were at the concert were standing outside on the street talking loudly and happily.  It had been a good night.  And also a bad night just back 100 metres in the toilets of McDonalds for someone else.

The world may accept who you love, but love itself is rarely easy when you are so raw and vulnerable in it.

 

Missing Prince

And so they released Piano & a Microphone (1983).

Prince more or less alone at a piano some time in 1983.  I think “genius” is a word that is used far, far too freely, but listening to this feels like listening to a genius.  Like – and I say this knowing full well who I am comparing Prince too – listening to Mozart jamming late at night in Vienna, 1785.

Listening to Prince one night in 1983.

17 Days.  The version he plays on the piano on this album seems, at first, only tenuously linked to the final version he released.  All I got is two cigarettes and this broken heart of mine.  But it is the same song.  The same song but sounding a bit sadder.  Or maybe it’s just that the lyrics come through more clearly and the gloss of his mid-80s production is not there to distract.  Let the rain come down… been gone 17 days; 17 long nights – main drag is knowing that you’re holding someone else tight.  The main riff is now handled by the piano’s left hand and not the bass as it is in the final release.  It’s that left hand that is the song’s centre, and the right hand that is playing with the song’s ideas; sometimes opening up to push out the chords into jazz.  He had such a good voice, and here it sits on the edge of sad and soulful.  As he plays on he begins playing with his voice too; enjoying himself but probably seeing if something he likes comes out that he might be able to use.

One of the highlights of seeing him in concert was hearing him reduce U Got The Look to a funk-piano grind that just went on and on.  I suppose it’s something he understood from James Brown: if it’s good you can just ride it on and on and on and it will get better and better and better.  He also understood that a song can go ten different ways and that releasing a song is sort of a lie because it locks something fluid into place.  Prince was a musician.  An excellent one.  The new releases coming out are proving that.  Again.  The new releases are taking one of the most incredible periods of pop in anyone’s career – almost all of Prince’s output in the 80s – and showing that what we got to see was only part of his breadth and depth.

On the deluxe version of the Purple Rain album there are a whole collection of “new” songs and other versions of old songs: it’s simply astonishing.  A ten minute version of I Would Die 4 U or Computer Blue?  Sure.  Or things that he didn’t release: The Dance Electric.  On Piano & a Microphone he does a very loose version of Strange Relationship where the piano jolts right out of the riff, and he slurs in and out of lyrics looking for how far you can pull at something before it disappears into something else.  In this case the something else is International Lover which, in this version, is a lot sadder, and slower than how it ended up on Sign o the Times.  Slowed down the song’s protagonist sounds hesitant rather than smooth and cheesy: tell me, am I qualified?

Mary Don’t You Weep is the blues and he sings the hell out of it.  I gotta a bad bad feelin’; he ain’t coming home.  This was released with a video posthumously which is very risky, even more risky to attach a political meaning to the words, but the idea of the video supercharges the song’s words.

Strange little things like Wednesday float past with lines like contemplated suicide from 12 o’clock to 2.  A great bit of comic funk about cold coffee, cocaine and a black mouse (what rhymes with house?) before Why the Butterflies.

Why the Butterflies is about as simple as you could get on the piano, and the lyrics are slipping into overwrought – Mama! Why the butterflies?  On the other hand Prince could get away with most anything in the 80s and he gets away with this.  Finding intensity and tension in the spaces between the chords that propel the song he begins to make me wonder with increasing existential dread: “why the fricken butterflies?”

***

Listening to Prince and looking out across the current top twenty is sobering.  Technology has a stranglehold on pop music at the moment and the producer and the sound deck have drained everything and everyone of passion.  I’m trying to imagine a hit artist on the top twenty now who could release a I-was-fucking-around-on-the-piano-one-night-and-this-is-what-it-sounded-like album that would sound any good. Almost none of them can play an instrument.  Almost none of them could sit in the pocket with a band and trade eights.  It’s a disgusting lazy ass disgrace.   Good music is built out of LOVING music.  The playing off it.  By yourself and with others.  It is built out of sitting in your bedroom for hours and hours playing riffs, or jamming with your band or your mates for hours trying to make the hooks hang together.  It is joy, rage, love, lust and not a endless string of semi-anaesthetised “artists” warbling across pre-recorded manipulated sounds untouched by the hands of anyone.

Unable to say anything in music or words tapped out celebrity artists take off more clothes, get into more fights, or make “controversial” songs that are not in fact controversial but simply and transparently offensive.  I Love it by Kanye and Lil Pump?  FFS.  A tedious backdrop of sounds that took 10 minutes to put together, a sample that gives cover, and a string of offensive, degrading, misogynistic bullshit.  You think teenage boys are listening to this ironically?

…as he twirls around the room, professing his love for blowjobs and boob jobs, a gold chain bearing the name of his late mother bounces against his blown-up shirt buttons. It’s a valid, albeit clumsy, attempt to show that the morbid details of his life can coincide with the humor.

Billboard

Valid.  How valid would an 18 year old woman feel at a party as a bunch of 18 year old drunk men sang this song?

Give me back Prince.

Please.