Looking back on the music career of the award-winning star of House of Gucci
I’m always hesitant when I start to read a story and the writer begins with, “I am not making this up.”
As a reader, it seems like a yellow flag has been raised. Caution: They probably are making it up and just being cagey or disingenuous – you know, like the Coen Brothers did with Fargo – or maybe they’re not exactly making it up, but embellishing upon the truth, like Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood.
But I am not making this up. Really.
The scene must first be set: It’s May 1st, 2011 and I’m at Agganis Arena in Boston, a Boston University venue that hosts sporting events and concerts. This night is rock night and it’s 30 Seconds to Mars, the band fronted by Jared Leto. I am reviewing the show for the Boston Herald.
My basic take going in: Much respect for Leto the actor – who turns 50 Dec. 26 – and less of that for the bombastic rocker-bandleader. And I have what I suppose is a natural suspicion about actors who become rockers and play that part, bringing the swooning, besotted movie star audience with them. (Jared is kinda dreamy, no?)
Now, 30 Seconds to Mars is no Nickelback, but they had been, over the years, something of a critical punching bag. I don’t by any means fall in lockstep with any particular consensus but I’m aware which way the wind is blowing. Looking at The Guardian on 30 Seconds to Mars latest album at the time, This Is War: “Full of schlocky neo-grunge howls; trite, faux-rebellious, lyrics (“from the right to the left, we will fight to the death”); and dull stadium production from Flood and Steve Lillywhite, there’s little artfulness among the frequent references to a vague burgeoning conflict.” Seven years later Q wrote: “Like Leto’s performance in the risible Suicide Squad, the result is unsubtle, self-important and not half as good as it thinks it is.”
The fans, though, are pretty ecstatic – as fans are – on their feet throughout most of the show. Me, I was often sitting down and scribbling away furiously in my notebook (as I too wont to do).
My live review was more positive than I anticipated going into the show. Here’s an excerpt: Jared Leto is one strange but charismatic dude.
He found fame first by acting, but that’s now his second job. He’s primarily known as the singer/songwriter/rhythm guitarist of 30 Seconds to Mars. Three albums deep, the trio he’s led since 1998 keeps climbing higher in the alt-rock world.
Leto and company gave 2,800 folks at Agganis Arena a mind-scrambling show: 80 minutes of the most inter-active arena rock you could imagine. It wasn’t so much about 30 Seconds’ post-grunge art rock. It was about the party. Like Bono, Leto — initially sporting shades and dressed in a trench coat — is both a to-the-rafters singer and an exuberant host, and he relishes both roles.
Leto frequently stopped the flow of a song to exhort the audience to scream or jump. Annoying? Sure. Can’t the music alone motivate us? Still, he galvanized the crowd. Early on, before playing “Search and Destroy” (not Iggy and the Stooges song) he griped about the floor layout, with its front and rear sections cordoned off by metal barriers “like you are in the zoo!” He reeled off some Charlie Sheen-esque curses and said, “Yes, I’m out of my mind and I like it that way.” That, too, brought him closer to the people.
There were heavier moments, like the anger at posturing world leaders in “This Is War,” during which key lyrics — “Leader,” “Pariah,” “Victim,” “Messiah” — flashed behind him and a video ended with images of artillery.
Thirty Seconds To Mars “This Is War”
The band hit a bombastic peak mid-set with “Vox Populi,” then shifted into an overlong acoustic-guitar-dominated segment. “Thank you for letting me beat up on you,” Leto said. You’re welcome, I guess, I thought to myself.
The core trio of Leto, his brother/drummer Shannon Leto, and guitarist Tomo Milicevic was augmented by touring bassist Tim Kelleher and keyboardist Braxton Olita. Sunday, the sound was problematic, with the vocals especially muddy. Leto also said his vocals were off because he’d been sick lately and apologized. If he wasn’t at the top of his game, his energy didn’t flag.
During “The Kill,” Leto took a trek from the stage to the floor, to the loge and back to the floor, balancing on seats and pumping hands along the way.
And here’s where my story took its second surreal twist in:
But I must backtrack to the first: As I mentioned earlier, I was sitting down taking notes when most everyone around me was standing. I was in a lower loge, stage left, about a third of the way from the front. At one moment in particular I was looking into the notebook as I was writing, not looking at Leto and company on stage. Between songs, Leto is telling the audience to pay attention to be in the present, “not like that person who is writing in his notebook. Can you stop writing in your notebook please?”
I’m hearing him, but don’t figure he’s talking to me. Because, well, how could he be? isn’t he looking out, mostly, into a sea of black? There was no spotlight on me, the house lights weren’t on. How could he spy me – or anyone – that far back?
“It would be really nice if I had your attention during the concert,” Leto continues. I kept writing, slowing down, maybe becoming wary, but my wife Roza got it right away and said, “Jim! He’s talking to you! Stop writing!” At that point, it dawned on me. I slowly – yes, grudgingly – rose and put the notepad away. He seemed happy about that. Victory.
Later, maybe two-thirds through the show, Leto left the stage and wove his way through the crowd, singing as he strode, winding his way toward my area in the loge. He couldn’t be … coming for me, right? Well, he came up my aisle and entered our row, got up on the backs of the chairs and carefully picked his way over to where we were seated. (Well, where we stood. Now.) This time there’s a spotlight
And, I’m thinking, “Holy fuck! He remembers I was the guy and even knew right where to go. Could this get, uh, ugly? Is a confrontation brewing?” He gets near me, with fans hands supporting him as he picks his way along the seatbacks. My wife is one of those people.
He gets to where I’m standing, we lock eyes, and puts out his hand and we shake. And smile. Him, confidently. Me, more puzzled, but pleased. This was not going to be an altercation. We were sharing a moment, an unscripted moment. An unusual face to face of performer and critic – and a performer who critics have not always or often treated kindly.
Critics often sit in the same section, where the record company comps are bought or where the promoter puts us. So, perhaps Leto knew that was a target area. But, no, I don’t recall any of my brethren rock scribes being near me that night. I cannot really explain how he found me once from the stage, nor how he precisely walked my way when he did the crowd wander.
Yeah, it’s right up there as one of my strangest on-the-job encounters.
VIDEO: Thirty Seconds to Mars “Closer To The Edge”