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The Calvert Report

The Echo Of Youth: My Bloody Valentine Live
John Calvert , January 30th, 2013 08:22

John Calvert takes his teenage dreams down to the Brixton Electric for a rare intimate gig by My Bloody Valentine.

Photograph thanks to Shot2bits

"People took such awful chances with chemicals and their bodies because they wanted the quality of their lives to improve. They couldn't improve their surroundings, so they did their best to make their insides beautiful instead." Kurt Vonnegut, Breakfast Of Champions

A new My Bloody Valentine album? And their first live show in years? There were supposed to be marching bands.

It was the guitar re-invented. Suddenly it was this now: a strange zephyr, crushed with strawberry and de-materialised beyond the realms of the purely representational. And infinite. It was neither surreal nor psychedelic, but like a thought, or a coincidence, or grace: a saving/destroying nothing that was also everything, to here knows when. It was Sonic Youth's 'daydream,' and what Pixies called 'Fuck', taken to its logical end: a love-less-the-love re-motion which, when encased in heartsore teendom, was able to evoke... not so much youth as time itself. It's a quality of 'soon-ness' which, total and pink in hue, floods the non-consciousness of teenhood's final years - the oblivion before you are born, born into adulthood, where everything is almost happening, all at once, in the time right before the door to that world snaps shut, forever. What you're left with is only the echo of youth. A still spinning, still raging memory of nowness. A bloody valentine: both membranously delicate and swirling with the narcotic ferocity of hormonal emotion. And if youth fades, then the idea of youth, the echo of it, does not. Which is why, tonight, MBV are able to recreate the echo of their teen selves, and it was beautiful. But there were supposed to be marching bands.

There were supposed to be chorus-lines and trumpets, weeping Italian matriarchs and Jesus-freaks, screaming to the heavens "All is not lost/All is not lost!" There were supposed to be harps, blockades, flowers, and the scenes from Time Square, from Rome, or São Paulo - sailors posing with glamourous telepool operators, and overhead: Zeppelins. There were supposed to be Zeppelins, suspended between beams of movie-premiere spotlights, their ticker displays reading "Peace in The Middle East. Perez: 'I Just Wanted to Party'". You're running - no, gliding - through a mile-long glory-trench, leading to the door of Brixton Electric. You're running, a train of petal-shedding majesty, a returning astronaut, high five-ing strangers on both sides of you, who pat you on the back, saying things like "You're almost there" and "Not long now", while your ex-girlfriend screams after you: "I'll never love him like I loved you."

Outside Brixton Electric, a couple of uninterested doormen tend to a quiet queue of 20 and the fart-like sound of a deflating ballon in my mind. Inside, beside a crumpled cardboard box, stands a girl, who as I pass asks me boredly "You need earplugs?" before staring into the middle distance. "Don't they know what's about happen?' I think, melodramatically. Nothing big happens in music anymore.

If my life were a film, and I sometimes pretend it is, at that point i'd have turned to her and, with samurai cool, said something like "Baby, I need a prayer. Any going cheap?" Cue the opening riffs of Cream's 'Sunshine Of Your Love' as I walk cooly up the stairs leading to the door that leads to the scene of my potential rapture. The problem is, my life is not a film, and I'm a bad stair-walker, and there are no marching bands tonight, and my ex-girlfriend is in Belfast, making passionate jungle-love to a guy for whom the phrase '12 inches - soft' isn't just a figure of speech. And if my life were a film, it'd probably be something crap, like Prince Of Tides, starring Barbra Streisand. Because, you see, in the end, My Bloody Valentine are just a band. Which is to say, My Bloody Valentine will not save you. Not from reality, or boredom, or death, or yourself.

Only... maybe they're aren't. And well, maybe they can. It just depends on your definition of salvation, and how desperate you are for some meaning. Desperate like the people who believe in UFOs are desperate. Or like the people walking around with their mind-films directed by Cameron Crowe, believing that a live preamble to the holy grail of third albums should be the world's business. Desperate enough, even, to believe that 25 years ago, what Kevin Shields stumbled on was, at its unknowable core, something other than real.

"Is this actual magic?" Garry Mulholland once wrote of Loveless. He was referring specifically to the birth-less God-note, the radium blur of metaphysical in-between, at the harmonic root of MBV's music. The 'isn't anything'. What he described as "the place where imagination meets the soul". If you wanted to enough, and needed to enough, you could believe that music is evidence of something more than life, and that the very act of believing is salvation in itself. And, were that true, MBV's method of salvation isn't in their ability to change your world, but your world within it. Or in other words - the words of Kurt Vonnegut, to be specific: "Rather than improve their surroundings, they did their best to make their insides beautiful instead." And if you think this is hyperbole, then you're missing the point.

Stranded, much like the God-note, in a state of nothing; as I climb those stairs my head is in neither-zone between hope and doubt, entertaining the possibility that with their ineffable, inevitable drawl of opiated cruelty, MBV are, in a very real way, able to summon divinity. That, or the secular equivalent. Consequently, had I walked through that door and it turned out MBV was actually an old naked guy, making the sound your sisters made when a girl called you on the landline, I still wouldn't have been disappointed. I would accept nothing less than marching bands.

Which may explain why the much-discussed 'crap sound' is something either I don't notice or don't want to, despite even Shield's own protestations, mid-set ("I feel like we're playing at the end of a three mile tunnel"). That, and the fact that i've never seen MBV live before, and as such have no frame of reference. But I have a theory that their sound tonight, which incidentally isn't that loud, not only worked but was perfectly consistent with MBV's aesthetic. Perhaps even enhancing of it.

The crowd is so perfectly, beautifully late-80s, in its integrated tribalism: a congress of life-long goths, pilled-up dance types, tiny Japanese girls, ageing turtleneck'd professor-types, cupid's-bow boy models and Primal Scream's Barrie Cadogen, who's like a man but smaller. In front of them is a decidedly 'late 80s indie' stage feature: a screen receiving Super-8 fuzz from a projector at the back, the colours on it morphing through pastel pink and Picasso blue and sun-yellows, over running dots and cigarette burn blemishes. Between the 80s crowd and the 80s stage set. it's as if we're back in the day, circa '88. Which, at it turns out, is perfect. Because, to me at least, what MBV sound like tonight is their embryonic selves. Or rather, the band in its adolescence.

First there's the band members themselves. What we had here was an endearing case of rusty Bambi-legs, and maybe a smidgen of nerves. Working through an early airing of 'I Only Said' followed by 'When You Sleep', from the front rows Shields seems quietly stressed and Debbie Googe a thing of tense concentration, while Bilinda Butcher and Shields exchange nervous glances as they work to synchronize. Meanwhile, with the only sound a fumbling shuffle as Shields swaps guitars, the long and awkward gaps between tracks are scored by the crowd's respectful silence. But after 30 minutes it begins to feel like patience on our part: like we're at a battle-of-the-bands comp and know to give the wee dotes a little time to do their Oasis cover.

There's the massive fluctuations in balance. And the spastic bursts of guitar, pouncing on Shields from out of nowhere. And there are also the weird bouts of separation, during which each flow of gorgeousness can be heard individually. Whether or not the product of stiff sea-legs, there's an anarchy to MBV's performance tonight. And the effect is to push the sound marginally outside the structures of form, beyond the skeleton of the song, and into a state more free, unquantifiable, absent, imperfect, confused, illogical and infinite. In other words, the set moves like how youth feels. Or, conceivably, how youth once felt to MBV.

If the rhythm is a little off, as it is on 'Soon', it only works to better express the feeling of being out-of-time as a teenager – a reality that runs tangentially to all others: a hermetic illusion at once timeless and time-accelerated. With 'Slow' the timing is again infinitesimally off, Shields' guitar over-running and under-running the rhythm. This time, though, the by-product is a keener evocation of contradiction - an idea Shields already posited in the original, with the guitar's contrapuntal motions. The performance tonight, though, is a truer articulation: that of the illogical nature of beauty. Or rather beauty in the context of youth, which to be whole requires both youth's ugliness and pain and also its purity and grandeur, by Shield's estimations. To him, beauty is volatility and volatility beauty. Elsewhere the newfound disorder alters the nature of their noise tracks, with 'Feed Me With Your Kiss' and finisher 'You Made Me Realise' conjuring the recklessness of teendom; the latter's 747-in-freefall finale is all the more devastating for having suddenly elucidated from a detrital flak-cloud. Likewise, 'Only Shallow''s quivering sugar-fumes give contrast to Shields' elephantine guitar-screams, now the exact sound of tortured xenomorphs. What with the set's high proportion of speedy teen-punk tracks, including a ripping rendition of 'Nothing Much To Lose', together with the increased muscularity of live music, it's a peerless depiction of a powerfully disorientating chapter in everyone's life. Even when she isn't singing, Butcher's voice reappears amid the vortex like a trick of the mind.

There's a watery quality to the sound. Not watery as in weak. Watery as in aquatic. It's as if the band, in their foetal form, are floating in amniotic fluid - melodic flotsam pushed around the sonic orb by a gentle current of reverse-reverb. Take for example the Hüsker Dü-esque 'Honey Power', tonight an out-of-focus wave of fleshy rawk, or 'You Never Should', on record a Dinosaur Jr-style buzz-saw, yet here both softened and indirect. The cutting linearity of the original's guitar is distorted by Shield's erratic playing, which itself wavers like light in the warm shallows of Butcher's low-region hum. Even their new track sounds foetal. Or more specifically, regressed. A baggy, wah-wah-powered facsimile of the music of their youth, for which which the band seemed to have unlearned themselves, perhaps in an effort to recapture the unrepeatable. That being the very essence of innocence - whether their own or that of the era's. It's the kind of straight-forward psych pop that followed in their wake, post-Stone Roses.

Although it's another sticking point for many attendees, when the bass is particularly dominant over the guitars the effect is nonetheless sublime, serving to leave only the paper line of their cocaine-sweet beauty: a ribbon of perfumed love atop a ruinous block of teenage sin. Placing my ear next to the speakers at the front, I hear in the distorted doom only corruption and lust.

While bent towards the speaker, a girl leans over to me and asks "What are you writing about?"

She's disarmingly pretty. So I'm all like "Hey man, cool. I'm actually a JOURNO. Is that your boyfriend?"

What I should have said was: "I don't know. Maybe God."

"Saving a life is like falling in love. The best drug in the world. You wonder if you've become immortal, as if you've saved your own life as well. God has passed through you. Why deny it, that for a moment there...why deny that for a moment there, God was you?" - Joe Connelly, novelist and former New York paramedic.

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