Sunday, November 10, 2002 :::
Let’s Jam the Jukebox Babe the Fuckers Will Shine On
A show review.
So I saw Tsar the night before Hallowe’en, doing a Unicef benefit (?) at Lava Lounge (??) a way-too-small bar-not-performance-space in the strip mall on LaBrea with Mashti Malone’s. (I have a pal who can recite the whole Mashti Malone’s poem. Don’t see him too often.)
For some reason Tsar hardly plays publicly anymore—it has been over three months, I’m pretty sure. (If I missed one, don’t tell me, I’ll get too sad.) I finally consciously recognized a weird habit of theirs—one I approve of in theory and for almost all bands in practice. Despite their ever-growing body of truly great—not just pretty good, not just don’t-mind-hearing-them, but TRULY GREAT—songs, and even with no other band on the bill, Tsar still refuses to play more than about 30 min., 40 tops. Perhaps it is too draining to be a conduit for pure infectious rhythmic punching meaningful joy to keep it up for long. I’m sure I wouldn’t know.
So, you don’t know about Tsar, and you probably never will. Back when I had a professional outlet to write about music in LA, I was always trying to figure out the right angle to pitch a feature on the band, but the only one I could think of was failure. They were very briefly somewhat of a local buzz band, I think, though I didn’t really catch on ‘til after the buzz was over. Got a major label contract pretty quick. First record (on a major label that is a subsidiary of one of the hugest entertainment conglomerates around) out a long time now, sank like a stone, little radio, littler sales, no national press. Why/how does this happen to bands so great, to records so fine? (This is about live Tsar, who are way better than record Tsar. But it’s still a fine record.)
But I couldn’t see fit to write that story. (I doubt the band would see fit to cooperate with such a story either, but I never asked.) Tsar just aren’t about failure. Singer Jeff Whalen made that very clear up front at this show---“S-u-c-c-e-s-s” he spelled, and later on he spelled it again. Such earnest expressions of a brave, undaunted, enthusiastic going-for-the-one, life-is-about-love-and-triumph vibe are not uncommon from Whalen on stage (I only wish I remembered all of them), and pulsate from the music, even if the lyrics are cynical or deeply unhappy (like the great number I think I’ve only heard once about the burning desire to escape from a bummer of a party).
The sound was pretty brutal up there one foot in front of the band—scratchy raw dentist drill hollow force—but I like to be as close to the source of this exhilarating energy as I can and will gladly sacrifice a better sound mix for that. Thusly, my impressions and memories of the lyrics might be off. But I detected for the first the theme of the futility of rock-as-profession somewhere in these insanely hook-laden songs. Something about a thousand rock bands on the road. Something about looking at your hands and lamenting that you coulda been champ.
Whalen seems too smart and sensitive and touched into in a self-conscious but not paralyzing way the whole myth of rock as career and cultural signifier and source of meaning and recklessness and an excuse for inappropriate behavior and exclamations not to have some thoughts about why Tsar hasn’t Made It, whatever the hell It is to Make. But I’m pretty sure it means you don’t do $8 UNICEF benefits to a crowd of around 80 in the Lava Lounge in your own hometown over a year since your major label debut and months since your last public show.
Ah, what can I say? Really, this band makes my face hurt with smiling and wrists hurt with air-drumming and brings tears to my eye—yes, really—practically every time. (I’ve seen ‘em about 15 times now, I think.) This time it was about 30 seconds into “I Don’t Wanna Break Up.” The just-right thumping of the drums. The stylish snap of the double-chorded riff after each vocal exclamation. The mysterious subject matter of brave self-love—by the time Whalen switches “you’re kinda beautiful yeah” to “I’m kinda beautiful yeah” you wanna cheer and pat him hard on the back for the self-affirmation, not kick him for being a vain jerk. It’s just something about the way the chords and the melody and the drum beat lifts us all up together—he’s singing for ALL of us at that moment—man is this all just me?
I never wanted to be one of these '60s-style critics who considered it politico-aesthetically significant that pop was, well, popular—that thought Sgt. Pepper’s was a better or more significant record because all summer long the jukebox was playing Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Nor do I (in theory) love the comfortable cavelike insularity of loving something few other people love, though on a practical level I’m sorta glad that a year and more down the line I can still be sure I can be right up front at any given Tsar show, no problem. Still, there is a certain frisson to be gained from having other human beings share your enthusiasm, if you aren’t a total misanthrope. It would be nice to have some reinforcement from SOMEONE (other then their girlfriends and old chums) that my enthusiasm for this band isn’t delusion and folly.
Earlier the night I saw them I was reading a recent issue of MAGNET over dinner. It was the special “power pop” issue—dedicated to mostly celebrating a lot of bands that had, at best, one or two exceptional songs buried in annoying and dull formalism (the Beat, the Records, the Flaming Groovies, 20/20, Dwight Twilley, yeah yeah yeah). The article didn’t mention Tsar. No surprise. Power pop fandom has calcified into a “movement” it seems—one with a huge presence in LA—and with movements it usually means if you don’t have the right friends you won’t get the due respect. It’s probably hard for the historically minded—and those to whom rock n’ roll has become a historical curiosity or something to be mined for obscure fannish archeology—that there is a band alive right now doing this roughly conceptualized style better, with more great songs, than anyone ever has. That the apotheosis of power pop wasn’t Cheap Trick, or Velvet Crush, but is alive and well in small LA nightclubs. I know I wouldn’t believe it myself if I hadn’t bothered to finally listen to an old bandmate’s admonitions to come see Tsar after the fifth time or so. It fair makes me wonder how many other bands this great I’ll never see. The world is overfull of wonders; we can only hold one cup firmly in both hands; let us just be grateful it is always full no matter how quickly and greedily we quaff down its nourishing and rewarding brew. We can’t afford, after all, to Miss It For The World.
But there it is—Tsar—two guitars bass and drums—a keen sense of dynamics and the knowledge that loading songs with just-one-more melodic, rhythmic, and harmonic tricks is always a good thing—lyrics that if they don’t hit Stirring have Fascinatingly Peculiar and/or clever right in their sights--songs that almost inevitably supply that one moment where you wanna jump up to the ceiling—rooted in a believe that Youth, the Kids, the Radio, the City, Companionship, Sass, Girls as Symbol and Girls as Sex and Girls as Mystery and Rock Itself are more worth thinking and writing about than simple blank anguish. They swagger and chunk and soar and rock and roll. There it is. Glad I found it. Not sure what the use of writing about it is, but there you go.
More concert reviews—about The Centimeters (as good as they’ve ever been, either with sober care on stage or drunk/hostile abandon getting knocked over by the crowd) or Bob Dylan (a craftsman and a genius and after all these years still there to rock the house and coax a tear or a sigh) or the Sun City Girls (filling all those empty spaces between late Coltrane, King Crimson, Tom Waits, crazy hobos, the Grateful Dead, monkey chanters and Balinese cultural ambassadors, and Harry Pussy)—might follow soon. Or a return to the book review salt mines. Or another month-long vacation from the ‘zine. The future is kaliedic and inherently unpredictable.
::: posted by Brian at 6:01 PM