23 May 2006

Eddie wins!... What, exactly?

Saw Art Brut a couple weeks ago at Southpaw in Park Slope, good times all around. While I consider the band to be part of a rather worrisome larger trend1, I find their music amusing and enjoyable.

Frontman Eddie Argos surprised me with his friendly, inclusive persona. Based on the band's generally arch demeanour, I went in expecting2 an arrogant, confrontational prick and found quite the opposite. He seemed genuinely excited to be there, and reveled in the crowd's appreciative response.

Between songs, he would chat a bit, announce the name of the next one, then just before counting off would turn to his bandmates and enthusiastically ask, "Are you ready, Art Brut?" At one point near the end of the show he ordered everyone in the crowd to go out and form bands ASAP, promising that the next time he came to New York, he would track each and every one of us down, confront us individually, ask whether we're in a band, "...and if you're not..." At this point one would reasonably expect him to say something like "I'll kick your ass3," but no, he instead threatened, "I will be very, very disappointed!" He's not a bully, just your goofy drinking buddy.

During the closing number, he led the crowd in a rousing chant of "Art! Brut! Top of the Pops! Art! Brut! Top of the Pops!" This led to a few shout-outs for the opening acts ("Rogers Sisters! Top of the Pops!") before devolving into a string of cheers for a few decidedly non-sequitur bands ("Biohazard! Top of the Pops!"). While at first it seemed unclear whether Argos' desire to appear on the long-running British Top 40 show is a product of genuine pop-star ambitions or simply a form of Sex-Pistols-y gatecrash-the-mainstream rebellion, upon further reflection I have come to the conclusion that Argos neither sees any difference nor cares to. He's simply a guy in love with the idea4 of being in a band, and he wants us all to share in the fun he's having.

The highlight of the show and, for me, the moment that summed up Art Brut's appeal in a nutshell, came near the end of the show during a spirited performance of "Emily Kane". The song is one of the band's standout numbers, so they probably would have played it eventually, but the timing was determined by audience request (at least that's the way Argos portrayed it; perhaps it happened to be next up on the set list anyway). Argos asked the crowd if they had any requests, and someone quickly yelled out "Emily Kane", to which Argos responded with something along the lines of "Oh OK, sure, we'll do that one." Charming, really, whether it was genuine or not.

The song is a tale of puppy love told in Argos's typically direct syntax and AABB rhyme schemes. Sample couplets:

I was your boyfriend when we were 15
It's the happiest that I've ever been
Even though we didn't understand
How to do much more than just hold hands
He goes on to say that he's never quite gotten over the loss of Emily, and that every girlfriend since has failed to measure up the impossible standard she set so long ago. The song reaches its pathetic nadir when he sings
I don’t even know where she lives
I’ve not seen her in
10 years, 9 months, 3 weeks, 4 days, 6 hours, 13 minutes, 5 seconds
During the performance that night he abruptly stopped the band upon reaching this line. He then explained to the crowd that this was the part of the song when he would normally give an updated count of how long it had been since he'd seen her as of that night's show. The line, however, was no longer relevant. Emily Kane, the real Emily Kane, had heard the song and contacted him. A roar came up from the crowd as we shared in Argos's romantic victory, and it was truly thrilling.

It turned out he had spoken to her more than once, and that the first time she had declined to provide him with her number, apparently fearing that his obviously unhealthy obsession with her could quite easily lead to a stalking habit. But, Argos assured us (and, presumably, her), this was not to be, as, in contacting him, and in transforming his divine memory into mere flesh, she had effectively stepped down from her pedestal. You see, once he was forced to see her as a person, a complex and ultimately imperfect manifestation of his Platonic form of girlfriendhood, Argos realised that he had never really been in love with her in the first place; he had been in love with the idea5 of being in love. And at such an early and impressionable age, who could blame the young hopeless-romantic-in-training?

Does it spoil the song? Not for me, no. Never really getting over your first love is something to which a lot of us can relate, and the fact that he finally did completes the story with a happy ending and makes it that much more poignant. Maybe even triumphant. Now it's a song about learning to leave the past behind, about growing up and getting on with the rest of one's life. Victory; roll credits, as it were.

But here's the part that really gets to me: Argos, who may or may not even realise it, has fulfilled the rock n' roll dream in a way that few if any others6, even among the mightiest of rock's figureheads, ever have. He has resolved the desire behind the aboriginal urge to be in a band, to perform, to get famous, to rock. It's an age-old cliche that the only reason any boy ever picks up a guitar is to get girls7. In many cases, many a boy has picked up a guitar in order to impress a specific girl. If I could just write her a song, he thinks. And then sing it to her, perhaps outside her bedroom window. If only she could see me up onstage, driving the crowd into a frenzy. If I could get famous and get a song about her on the radio, well she'd just fall right into my arms, wouldn't she?

You gotta figure this fails well over 99% of the time. Meet the exception. Argos had his heart broken and it never quite healed. So he grew up, started a band, wrote a song about her and she heard it in some sort of public forum. Either she heard it on the radio, or a friend told her about it, who knows, maybe someone who didn't even realise she knew Argos, thought it was a funny coincidence, or whatever. Point is, he pulled it off, and it worked. She called him! She called him! Game, set and match, Eddie Argos.

And how did this victory, for which generations of boys have futilely yearned, feel? A bit hollow, apparently. A bit of a letdown. He finally got what he wanted, what so many others before him wanted and so many countless more will want for as long as there is music to be made, and he realised it wasn't really what he wanted in the first place. Perhaps it is a sad song after all.

    Tangents & Clarifications:
  1. Said trend being this new wave of British acts who seem to value clever lyrics over all else. Art Brut and the Arctic Monkeys are the most obvious examples. The melodies aren't particularly catchy, the bands are average RnR bashers, and there's little to no love of pure sound guiding the music. This leaves nothing but the singer's charisma to carry the band, a task that Art Brut frontman Argos carries off with aplomb, mind you; but a questionable trend nonetheless. One of the things I've always liked about British bands, particularly the ones from the Britpop era, is their eagerness to decorate their songs with all manner of sonic embellishments, to use the studio as a playground where they can gleefully spend their label's advance on frivolous accoutrements like string quartets, horn sections, vintage organs, etc. And weren't the listeners so much luckier for it? Go listen to Blur's The Great Escape back to back with that triumphantly mediocre Arctic Monkeys record and see if the latter musters the slightest sonic impression in the wake of the former. Even Oasis took the time to record 50 tracks of guitars (all playing the same three chords, but the effort still shows in the results). [Return]
  2. And by no means dreading, mind you; I rather like a good snotty frontman, particularly if he's British. [Return]
  3. (or "arse", as the case may be) [Return]
  4. Note the emphasis, by the way, and keep this concept on the back burner. [Return]
  5. Ta-dah! [Return]
  6. Richie Valens springs immediately to mind, but that's about it. You know, "Oh Donna"? [Return]
  7. Whether or not this is actually true is completely and utterly irrelevant; just go with it. [Return]

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