Caught on Fire

Kyle Smith

Wait dude, how much did you pay for that ticket?”

I looked at the messy-haired kid – who was desperately in need of some facial hair – and gave an honest answer. “Forty bucks from some guy on craigslist.”

Needs-Facial-Hair’s friend, Curly-Hair-Wafting-Out-Of-Hat, laughed. “Twenty-five bucks, at the door, five minutes ago!” he howled. All three of us had been unprepared to see The Arcade Fire, the one-time indie darlings who are now full-fledged everything- that-made-me-a-man; I had been called into check.

Reeling from the attack, I pulled out the wild card – the fact that I know a member of the band, Will Butler, Weinberg ’05. He was in a film class with me last Winter Quarter. I suspect his absence from a February meeting is one of the few times a student has missed class to be on “Late Night with Conan O’Brien.” Minutes prior to my tense encounter with these super-fans, I had engaged in an awkward conversation with Will about this very article. But those guys didn’t need to know it was awkward.

“Yeah, well, you know,” I started. “I just finished talking with a guy in the band, Will Butler.” A long pause. “He’s a good guy, you know-“

My stab at relevance failed. The two turned and returned to their spot – closer to the stage than mine. And I had to wonder: Has it always been like this?

Concert-going is something of a competitive sport these days, and music – especially independent music – is the ultimate intellectual cachet. In an ideal form, indie music appeals to several forces: the ironic, the joyous, the serious, the literate, the real and the fun. A full appreciation indicates good taste and good thinking.

Which is where The Arcade Fire comes in.

As with so many key moments in my life, The Arcade Fire was introduced to me in Chipotle prior to seeing a respectable indie band, Les Savy Fav. “This guy, Will Butler, he’s in a band that’s signed to Merge Records,” my friend cooed. “We had poetry class together. He’s hilarious.”

I fell for The Arcade Fire fast, and I fell for them hard. My passion was embarrassingly well-known, and I was contacted about doing a story on the band and on Will for a student magazine, The Passenger. I met Will in Taco Bell for what was surely one of the most awkward half-hours either of us has ever experienced.

Fame is a strange thing. So is admiration. Much as I always felt inferior when hanging out with the running back on my high school football team, simply because he was so goddamn fast, meeting Will had all the hallmarks of the classic celebrity-fan disconnect. The problem was that Will wasn’t really a celebrity. But I couldn’t stop listening to his music.

A common symptom of the aggressive music-lover is first contact. Who was there first? At what point did you understand their greatness? I got in on The Arcade Fire at the ground floor, prior to their Pitchfork-certified greatness, but I could have met them in the basement. I don’t have the original first EP. I missed their tour with the Unicorns. Now the band is David Bowie’s Katie Holmes; Ziggy can’t stop hopping on couches sounding its virtues.

And it’s not just Bowie who worships the band with a passion befitting a rock band whose legend came with death. At a Sept. 28 show at Chicago’s Riviera Theatre, people squealed at the sight if the band’s monstrous frontman, Win Butler (Will’s older brother). Panties would have been thrown onstage if everybody didn’t already know that Win was married to bandmate Regine Chassagne.

“I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that they have emotion in their music,” says Weinberg senior Kavitha Chekuru. Chekuru writes for Pitchfork Media, the online music magazine that has become the default tastemaker for independent music. “People like bands like Bloc Party, but then you look at a band like Radiohead, for instance, and they are the ones that literally take peoples’ breaths away. Arcade Fire does that as well.”

It seems too often that everybody is concerned about everything but the music. When I was young and fiddling with the skater world, being a poseur was the kiss of death. With music, Web sites like Pitchfork, Tiny Mix Tapes, and cokemachineglow have made being a passive indie fan that much easier.

“Honestly, I’m astounded at the authority Pitchfork seems to have and I don’t think it’s legitimate,” Chekuru says. “I don’t think anyone should have that authority really because in the end, people should go listen to the music themselves and make their own judgment rather than accepting the opinion of one rock critic. As for Pitchfork’s role in creating the halo around these ‘it’ bands of today, I think that a lot of it is the hype that surrounds them. People have given them legitimacy by taking (the critics’) opinions to heart.”

And The Arcade Fire exhibits, in its own strange way, the superhuman power of rock. Their cathartic songs stress themes of renewal without dipping into derivative treacle or self-help lyrics. Much has been made of Funeral’s backstory of death and pain, but I’ve always felt that Funeral is an album about sleep. Sleep is something we can all rally around, and by centering their songs around death with the optimism of waking up, the band wields a powerful metaphor. And in every song the band reverts to magnificent “oohing,” appealing to the inner child that seems to figure into each song on the album. Babies can rock to The Arcade Fire.

Their Chicago show left people shaking their heads and saying, “Whoa,” as we moved toward the door. I overheard one man note, “Their music was just so perfect for the decor of this place,” gesturing at the paint crumbling off the gilded walls and dome ceiling. This is the sort of thing you can expect to hear at a rock concert these days.

During a dynamic performance of Neighborhood #1 (Tunnels), I anticipated the climactic “woo-woo-woo-woo-woo” that I had listened to hundreds of – if not a thousand – times. Do I sing along? The moment came; I hummed, it turned to singing – then I realized I’d messed up. I’d “ooh’ed” when I should of “ah’ed.” To any ultra-aware hipsters nearby, like the budding Mies van der Rohe, it would seem that I was a phony, a poseur; I’d probably seen them on a Google banner ad or gotten tickets ’cause I liked that one song on Six Feet Under.

None of this hit me until after the concert. The Arcade Fire had abolished irony.

Will couldn’t talk after the Chicago show because the band had to get moving to Minneapolis for the next night’s show. I decided the next morning that I would make the same journey, even though the show had been sold out for over a month and no tickets were on eBay or craigslist. I recruited a skeptical friend to join me; I think she tagged along more to see us fail on a colossal level.

It’s about a seven-hour drive to Minneapolis, and we arrived at the venue five minutes before the band’s set was to start. Chicago has an extensive and complex scalping scene that probably has their own phone tree; Minneapolis just has a bunch of nice people outside smoking. None of these nice people had tickets. Failure. My friend, seeing us at the cusp of monumental disappointment, put her plan into action: She walked around cussing under her breath.

“You guys looking for tickets?” asked an exceedingly nice man named Nathan who had materialized out of nowhere and wasn’t smoking a cigarette. “I’ll sell you these two for face value. I’d give them to you for free, but-“

Minutes later we were inside, right as the band began the show with “Tunnels.” I couldn’t have cared less about getting the “ooh” part down. This time around the show wasn’t about how much I liked The Arcade Fire, or how much I’d paid for my ticket, or how many times I’d seen them, or hell, even the fact that I knew that guy in the band that was climbing along the balcony hitting people with his drumsticks. I didn’t care that the two guys behind me were talking about their golf game and their scooters, or that the kid in front of me was a human bobblehead doll. Only a concert event in
troduces us to people like Nathan, those selfless souls who save stupid college students’ lives. The triumph of simply being there made the Minneapolis show’s 70 minutes worth the 15 hours of trouble.

It never occurred to me that driving to Minneapolis to see a band I had seen the night before would be some defiant act of proving myself a worthier fan of The Arcade Fire. Listening to their songs an impossible number of times doesn’t help, either. Neither did standing closer to the stage. Nor did that ultimate trump card – kind of knowing someone in the band – increase my worth.

“The first time I heard Rebellion (Lies), I actually felt helpless,” Chekuru says. “I could do nothing but listen to that song. Which is what I totally did.”

Music makes us do some pretty strange things, especially when we’re white. We move in funny ways, sing along off-key, obsess over iTunes play counts and pay inordinate amounts of money for tickets. We feel a need to justify our love though measurable means, like a one-sided relationship where the insecure one (usually male) is somehow afraid he’ll lose his girl to someone more qualified, like that guy in The Killers.

After the Minneapolis show, I decided to stick around and see if I could meet up with Will. I did. He was clad in black and preoccupied looking for someone else. I simply announced to him that I had, indeed, just driven to Minneapolis.

“Hey, good to see you,” he said. Nothing was said of the show, or of his performance, or of a budding friendship with David Bowie. “It might be a while until I see you again,” I said, which is my way of bidding farewell before the band records their next album and find themselves in the Billboard Top 20. Forget opening for U2; they might one day be U2.

“Good luck with everything,” I said.

“No problem,” he said. “Have a safe trip back.”

And that was it. The only true rock star I’ve ever known continued his search for a friend. Much as The Arcade Fire’s show had now transcended the realm of music, so now had my presence in Minneapolis. It was time to go home.4

Communication senior Kyle Smith is the PLAY film columnist. He can be reached at [email protected]