Walk on the mild side

Well, as Tom Petty once droned, the waiting is the hardest part. I saw the Strokes last Thursday night, and boy, did that Petty line suddenly become penetrating and profound.

Coming into the show I knew that long periods would pass where the focus would be on the dull leg ache associated with standing too long in one spot for no comprehensible purpose. Though fun was had spotting the beefy gills and date-rape coifs of chick-trawling suburban sportos roaming in packs as they are wont to do at sporting events. Yep, they were there, back at the bar twittering, “You guys fu-ucking rock!” As a rule I avoid dudes like these and sporting events in general. I’ve discovered that when said types are in attendance, yelping on and on, it’s generally not an experience I enjoy.

Anyway, when the five Strokes hit the stage the waiting commenced. We waited in vain for something to give, something to happen. Anything. This was, after all, the Greatest Rock Band on the Planet at the moment. The future-is-so-bright saviors of the anti-postmodernist postmodern racket, as many deluded critics would have you believe. (The very ones who have attached so much weight to their cultural significance that it’s no wonder the band hasn’t collapsed under the burden, or at least checked themselves in for a prolonged repose at some nuthouse.)

Rolling Stone wrote that the Strokes’ Room on Fire, which came out this week, is the most eagerly anticipated rock album since Nirvana’s In Utero a decade ago.

The success of the Strokes — a band whose name might as well have been nicked from a Billy Squier song about manipulation (in a banal sexual metaphor) — is almost a parody of marketing, or marketing tantamount to genius by virtue of its efficacy. The hype justifies the band, not the other way around. We see them as, almost expect them to be, the be-all, end-all. That is what’s implied, even understood.

The well-attended event at the State Theatre wound up being a disappointment of unbelievable proportions. In short, it was a show that met all expectations.

The Strokes singer, the semiprecious, demi-tough Julian Casablancas, may be spinning on the pedestal of celebrity, ushered into the pole position of erudite rock ’n’ roll hero, but who really cares other than the fluttery girls and artfully tousled boys huddled at the bow of the stage; teens consuming what is essentially a sound track to a commercial for an image? At least the kids look good. And Casablancas looks and sounds good too — sinewy and debauched, drunk and hoarse — he’s got that part down.

Well, I expect more out of my rock ’n’ roll heroes. They need more than just cigarette-and-booze-struck splendor. I expect them to dare me to use my imagination, as well as a certain generosity of spirit from a live performance; fortitude and strut buttressed with arrogance, humor, intelligence and a whiff of gratefulness. The Strokes — all unkempt edges and grim-faced glamour —showed bits of arrogance, and humor perhaps, but that was it.

Pick any great band (say the Stones or the Patti Smith Group) and at their absolute worst you’ll find they still had moments of multileveled eagerness. There was a sense of urgency that wasn’t desperation, part of that intangible and untouchable thing that makes you want to know more about the band and its members. The impermeable stance of the Strokes is akin to the privileged prep-schooler at the high school prom, or the condescension and privilege slathered on the faces of sport-jock heroes.

Live, the band sounded on the verge of derailment. It was a fine rock show in that sense. But the visual didn’t back up the loose-knit din. When a band borders its sonic threshold, the live show should be on fire — with things toppling over, a spontaneous train wreck of beating hearts and sexual tension — and it’s that single truth embodied by everyone from the Stones and the Who to Lou Reed and the New York Dolls and so on.

If the Strokes are the new messiahs of rock ’n’ roll spirit, where was the celebration? At the State they came off disconnected and frigid, as if they were testing out rock ’n’ roll as a kind of pop experiment conducted with some lofty and patronizing art school stance.

For excitement, Casablancas tossed a mic stand around. The crowd cooed. Bassist Nikolai Fraiture kept his gaze toward the stage floor, and guitarists Albert Hammond Jr. and Nick Valensi wielded expressions of absolute boredom. Whole songs passed where the band seemed to be doing a mutual freeze-frame. What’s frustrating is that you want the band to dive headlong into the performance, to embrace the task at hand. It never happens live, and rarely on record. I got the feeling we were in attendance for their amusement. And this chilly detachment comes off as haughty in the worst possible way — it’s solipsistic restraint that backfires when no payoff or punch line is delivered. When the band was done, the members simply exited the stage, purposely without an encore. How ironic.

At best, the Strokes’ songs are spare and singsong, as much Wire’s Pink Flag as the Velvet Underground. But the band doesn’t have headlong passion strong enough to lead people to identify themselves with it, contrary to what the pop media suggest. They are purposely regressive and unconventional, yet are struggling to find their legs as rock ’n’ roll stars.

Like the aptly titled debut, Is This It, the band’s follow-up, Room on Fire, would be brilliant had Wire never existed. The record is rigidly disciplined in its arrangements, which are both airy and airtight. There are lots of nods and ironic smirks to traditional rock trimmings; at times the detail-obsessed guitars are processed to give the illusion of cheap analog synths. Stabs at soul (“Under Control”) and reggae (“Automatic Stop”) are brave. Literate turns of phrase (“Is it that secret of the government that’s keeping you down/or is it the other way around?”) match insightful, deceptively simple musings on the condition of being in a rock ’n’ roll band (“We can go and get 40s, fuck going to that party”). Casablancas’ lyrical and tonal melancholy is full of throaty emotional ambivalence but is obliterated in the icy, often purposely emotionless context.

It’s indie lo-fi in a slick pop package; the Strokes are in danger of becoming the next Psychedelic Furs, a band whose Velvet Underground influences hit the statute of limitations on their sophomore release, Talk Talk Talk, and who were left to flounder in schlocky, minor-celebrity status for years.

A good portion of the 11 tracks prove the band worthy of songs that’d fit nicely as single sides off the Cars’ Panorama, which makes sense if you consider that Ric Ocasek was mining the same minimalist Manhattan scene that gave up Television and Suicide in the mid-’70s.

In a way, the Strokes represent New York’s third-wave of avant-garde pop, giving those old enough to remember fondly Max’s Kansas City something to validate their self-defining faith in rock ’n’ roll. But the Disney days of New York have gentrified the gutter-ball nuances of late ’70s Manhattan, and what’s left is territory staked out in support of what we now qualify as rock ’n’ roll, a juxtaposition of art-damaged pomp and pop hooks. Whereas Tom Verlaine, Richard Hell, Suicide and even Blondie appeared as natural as rotting teeth, the Strokes appear as natural as natty kids playing dress-up and trying hard not to brush or floss.

The State show suggested a band attired in the Dickensian garb of spurious rock ’n’ roll self-destruction, living in their Own Private Idaho minus much of the drugs and gay sex. The Strokes tender an arty — or artful — self-righteousness, putting distance between not only themselves and the music, but worse, the audience. The show at the State was at best all icing and no cake — five guys armed with good pop songs crashing a party built on histrionics and hype.

On the other hand, maybe the Strokes are actually the keepers of the flame of contemporary rock ’n’ roll, without whose merciful care white indie rock (and Radiohead) would have bored us all to death. When and if “12:51” comes on the radio, chances are you’ll turn it up. No matter what, it’s still miles better than the new Limp Bizkit garbage. So the Strokes almost single-handedly brought The Rock back for the suburban consumers and sports fans. Ain’t it fun?

Brian Smith is the music editor of Metro Times. [email protected]
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