Tim Sommer recalls a show that changed his life
There are certain moments when you see or hear something, and nothing is ever the same.
You are changed. And not just slightly. It is not merely that a new pathway is revealed, but an entire new country. You hear or see an artist, and they don’t just elate you, but hand you a passport and a ticket to a country that you never heard of, but where you will fall in love, and be altered, forever.
What I thought was possible in music changed forever 40 years ago, almost exactly, on the evening of November 21, 1980. That was the night I saw Young Marble Giants perform at Hurrah, a venue just west and north of Columbus Circle in Manhattan. It was the first of their two nights tat Hurrah, and I was fortunate enough to attend both.
I had already fallen for the clicking, chiming, wet/dry grace of their album, Colossal Youth, which seemed to take the diggity-dig-dig and open landscapes of the remarkable new Post Punk and set it within childsong, within a shoebox diorama. But live, the sound and presence of Young Marble Giants exploded, yes, that’s the word. And what was wonderful on record became a miracle on stage. What was fresh to the ear when heard on vinyl became an entire clear, immediate, and crisp art form, revealed. Watching and hearing it, to be wrapped in it, we felt like cavemen seeing the second act of La Boheme, or Nude Descending a Staircase, or the floating, impossible, majestic grid of the George Washington Bridge for the first time. That’s how it felt, yes.
Three absolutely unassuming people stepped on stage that night. Then the room exploded with grace, a furious and confident kind of tranquility, and a maximum minimalism so perfect it makes me think of Avebury Henge in the snow or the first Ramones album. And when they stepped off the stage, the world had changed. Honestly: I had no choice but to recast my world, the musical future-iceberg I had only until then seen the top of, with the tools, skills, and new way of seeing that Young Marble Giants had taught me.
Who did I go to Hurrah with that night? Was it Evan, was it Dorian, was it either of the two Jims? Did I interview them for WNYU, as we interviewed virtually every other new-ish U.K. band that landed in New York City? When I waited for the A Train at Columbus Circle Station to take me back downtown (back then the vast, echoing subway station had the charmless chill and permanently off-smell of a football stadium restroom), was I alone, or was with friends? Did the band play two nights, or was it only one (because I certainly would have gone both)? All this has vanished, you see, because memory is mercury, and when it is not mercury, it is a liar. We may not realize it, but we need not imagine what an alternate universe is like. We already live with one, within one, adjacent to one, every single minute of every day of our lives. This alternate universe is the place of lost memory. It is the land where things have actually happened, but they have vanished from virtually all ability we have to recall these events. These are things that occurred, that existed as surely as anything else in our lives existed, but any trace of memory of them has vanished. This lost memory is truly an alternative universe. I know this, because Leonard Nimoy told it to me in a dream, which was set in two pasts and one present.
But we feel the impact crater of the lost world of memory, this alternate universe, even if we cannot summon the dimensions or the contours of the meteorite. But what I lost of that night to this alternate universe of missing memory is not nearly as important as the great, grand, and grave dimensions of the impact crater.
Until that night at Hurrah, I did not know that Punk Rock, or Post Punk–this simple, electric music full of slants and shocks that had changed my life over the past few years–could also be truly quiet, fierce but hushed. I did not know that it could simmer, whisper, yet also explode. Until then, I had always assumed Punk and Post Punk was coupled to volume, to maximalism; I had assumed it not only colored outside the lines, but filled the whole page. But on that night, I discovered maximum minimalism, the ability of music to occupy a very, very small space in the world of volume, but a giant space in the world of electric imagination, intensity, and heart.
A whole new world was revealed to me. This was a world where hushed, intense, electric, starlit whispers could absolutely knock you on your ass, could scream and shock with meaning and power. Until that moment, I had always assumed that on one hand there was loud music (that which was played with electric guitars and fronted by sneering anti-heroes), and quiet(er) music, which was played by earnest men and women standing behind acoustic guitars. Until that moment, until that night at Hurrah, I had not conceived of the idea that something quiet could be so electric, so massive, and could invade and occupy my brain and cause me to clench my fists and scream the way the Stooges, Buzzcocks, Damned, or Gang of Four could. Young Marble Giants, on record but especially on stage, were vulnerable but solid. The name of the band, and their album Colossal Youth, seemed absolutely perfect, because it felt like we were standing in the shadows of a great, ageless stele, a sweet, gigantic, blue-lit Golem. And this Golem was so deeply electric that it roared, even as it was small (tiny in fact). And to DISCOVER the ability of something that was so contained and so simple to fill a room, fill and inspire your soul, change your world, was something that still creates awe in me today, as it did on that night forty years ago.
In theory it was austere, but it was, in fact gigantic. In their clicks, twangs, chirps, ticks, chimes, and sing-song sigh songs, Young Marble Giants seemed to be doing the very best thing a musician can do: inventing something entirely new out of a fever dream of Shadows and Suicide and Soft Machine and the sound of news bulletins and elevators. It was the amazing, impactful ghost-music of the glowing gray light we saw in the quarter-moment between when the TV commercial ends and the show begins. Most of all, that night we saw three artists (Moxham, Moxham, and Statton) creating music for the best possible reason: Because they were desperate to hear something, couldn’t find it anywhere in their record collection, so they had to make it themselves. Seriously, there is no better reason to create: To invent out of the heart’s need, out of joy, not pretension.
The crowd at Hurrah was stunned, silent. Someone whispering, or clinking a beer bottle, could be easily heard over the music (which truly had the depth and heft of the Who Live at Leeds, even if it had only had the weight of shy but deep words of love spoken in the rain); but I don’t recall any sounds like that. I genuinely don’t think they were any (if I may presume what memory can’t access) because the nearly packed room remained in respectful awe, as we watched this miracle, this silent bomb, explode in front of us.
I know there were others who had tried to work in the arena of quiet bombs, and I would soon discover them. But until I saw Young Marble Giants, it seemed that no one else had found a way to make quiet punk rock. No one else had been able to take the simplicity, the inner city tension, the chugging maxi-minimalism of punk, with all its’ industry and angst, and bring it to the campfire, to the darkened bedroom lit only by the escaped light of the hallway or the city, to the crib-world at dawn with the sound of the highway far away and then near. Until I saw Young Marble Giants, no one had been able to take Punk to the dreamworld of the hush underneath the blankets, where we create dreams in which we invent sounds like this, like this searing, shocking, giant yet almost silent Colossal Youth.
Forty years later, I understand nuances and wit I would not have understood when I was a child (and if you don’t think that age 18 is childhood, you must be 18). The blend of Shadows twang, British television ident music, the nodding, steady rhythm of Krautrock, the melodies with roots deep in the valleys and the mines – back then I only intuited this, but could not label it. Mostly, on that night forty years ago (or was it two nights?) I was just stunned, shocked, stripped and dipped in dawn’s gold and dusk’s pink by this neutron nude bomb, which sounded like little velvet fists crushing coal into diamonds.
Personally, I was never the same. I began to seek out music, new and archival, that echoed that maximum minamalism, that dream noise, that intensity that was simultaneously a whisper and a scream. The Neutron Nude Bomb I experience that night in November of 1980, when I was baptized with a handful of punk rock rose petals, recast my entire taste. And I found it. I found it in (the second and third albums by) PiL, in Pet Sounds and the song “Surf’s Up” by the Beach Boys, in Faith by the Cure, in Charles Ives and Moondog, in the hushed but insane repetition of Neu!, and even in the intensity of the more verdant moments of Murmur, Reckoning, and Fables of the Reconstruction. My entire taste in music was recast by that single night; so much so, in fact, that four years later I went about creating my own quiet bomb of a band, Hugo Largo.
Everything I thought I knew about art and music was altered that night at Hurrah, nearly exactly forty years ago. No moment in my musical life, not even the amazing revelation when I discovered the Beatles, Beach Boys, or Neu!, ever equaled the impact of that moment. At the end of their second night – November 22, 1980 – Alison Statton calmly announced from the stage that this was the band’s final gig. There was a collective moment of inhaled breath – we had no reason to think that the vital, shocking, confident, original, vibrant group in front of us had reached the end of their run – and then the audience reacted with the loudest noise, the most intense roar of applause and approval, I have ever heard in a small space. With all those years – honestly, a lifetime – between then and now, I find myself thankful to have never seen the band again. There is a great purity to the event, to the arc between artist on stage, the reaction in my mind, and how it changed my life. The moment was perfect, complete, it needed no additional layers of occurrence, no matter how wonderful they might be. I had been changed.
VIDEO: Young Marble Giants perform “Final Day” at Hurrah 1980