A Low Christmas Special: Lessons for the Left?


*First Avenue*

First Avenue’s performance space was transformed into a theatrical setting that, at first glance, aspired to the status of a candy-coated holiday spectacle. Plastic spruce trees were scattered decorously about the stage, at once signaling that the night’s show would be nothing less than a bona fide _Christmas special_. A strangely solemn rendition of “Little Drummer Boy,” familiar from its appearance in a Gap commercial some years back, filled the hall. The stage was packed with people, including, at various times, a choir with over a half-dozen singers, the retro-hippie musicians from the Duluth-based oddball bluegrass band Trampled by Turtles (the opening act), a keyboard player, and, in the center of it all, the members of “Low”:http://www.chairkickers.com/, the renowned “slowcore” band, also from Duluth. The married, devout Mormon couple at the heart of Low, singer/guitarist/songwriter Alan Sparhawk and singer/percussionist Mimi Parker, gave a wonderful performance of their atmospheric, rarified music with a new bassist, Matt Livingston, who replaced the band’s longtime bass player, Zak Sally.

In the days leading up to the show, Sparhawk had mentioned that the concert would have a “Kathie Lee Gifford vibe” to it, presumably referring to the (now-defunct) saccharine Christmas specials featuring America’s best-known suburban supermommy, working in tandem with corny musical forces. But the Low concert had little of the middle-class, consumerist-Christian ethos associated with such smarmy showbiz. Continuing a Christmas concert tradition of their own, Low performed songs from their recent album _The Great Destroyer_ (2005, Sub Pop), their older _Christmas_ EP (1999, Kranky), and some newer, as of yet unreleased songs—including the _Destroyer_ outtake “Dragonflies” and two new Christmas songs (possibly titled “When the King Shall Come” and “Santa’s Coming Over”). With the Christmas trees starkly unadorned and the somber, if at times celebratory, music emanating from the dimly lit stage, the show’s serious tone underscored the darkness of the intertwined personal and political contexts in which the band members of Low have unwillingly found themselves.

It is fairly well known that during the past couple of years Sparhawk has been suffering from mental illness—suicidal depression with an accompanying substance addiction—that has at times been debilitating for the group. Known as one of the indie-rock world’s beloved “couple bands”—including Sonic Youth’s Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon, and Yo La Tengo’s Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley—and for bringing their children with them on tour, Low’s Sparhawk and Parker have in the past discussed the difficulty of separating the band dynamics from family tensions. The toll taken by Sparhawk’s depression seems to have been considerable, resulting in a cancelled tour earlier this year and even partly explaining the bassist’s departure from the band. Although Sparhawk appears to be on the mend, the fallout of the family/band’s recent troubles is movingly represented in many of the concert’s songs from _Destroyer_, which seems to have been in part a therapeutic exorcism of the demons of mental illness.

“Pissing,” one of the bleakest songs on _Destroyer_, provided the concert with its affective nadir. The song itself is essentially a single, long crescendo, beginning with a mechanical, pulsating repeated-snare drum hit and an ominous, oscillating two-chord progression (from which the song’s chorus provides only temporary, false relief). The moderately paced music mimics a slow-burning sensation, with the gradual intensification in volume suggesting an increasingly irrepressible anger and frustration. The song begins with two elliptical verses that evoke addiction, guilt, immorality, submission, and blind helplessness (“I can’t see/Sing the darker of/Pissing on my toes/Knowing what I know/I know,” and “I’m waiting/Like a loyal whore/Under every stone”). Then, leading into the second chorus, Sparhawk and Parker intone the possibly confessional lines “lovers sleep alone.” This forthright statement, an admission of the crushing death of desire wrought by depression in love relationships, makes sense of the inchoate, semi-coherent sentiments expressed earlier in the song. “Pissing” thus effectively traces out the narrator’s trajectory from confusion to awareness of desire’s disappearance that can be both the source and product of profound frustration. The unrelenting churning of the song was significantly heightened in the concert performance. Unlike the rendition on _Destroyer_, there seemed to be an unceasing intensification of volume that continued to the very end of the song—a sudden, heart-stopping silence occurring mid-groove.

The success and critical acclaim of _The Great Destroyer_, recorded before Sally left the group, seems to have been one of the few bright spots in the band’s unhappy recent past. Dave Fridmann, known for his lavish production work on recent albums by The Flaming Lips, served as producer on _Destroyer_. As a result, the album has a rich, texturally-saturated sound and a variegated stylistic palette, encompassing power-pop (“Just Stand Back”), folk-rock (“California”), epic, even symphonic rock styles (“Silver Rider”), simple acoustic guitar + voice songs (“Death of a Salesman”), lo-fi, electronicized dream pop (“Cue the Strings”), and much more. In tandem with the Low’s move to Seattle-based mega-indie label “Sub Pop”:http://www.subpop.com/ from the smaller “Kranky”:http://www.kranky.net/ label (in Chicago), _Destroyer_ thus constitutes a major departure for the band.

Among the many things that can be said about it, _Destroyer_ seems to be a meta-album about music—so many of its lyrics are about songs, instruments, sonic experience, and the like. (In one of many examples, “Monkey,” performed during the Christmas show, likens internally heard voices to the “radio.” The imagined solution to this illness is to “turn it way down low.”) One might further argue that _Destroyer_ is a comment on the current state of mainstream indie-rock music, which presently appears to be caught up in the midst of a wave of nostalgia for ostensibly more “authentic” moments in rock’s brief history—in particular, the “long 1960s,” if you will (the 1960s, the 1970s, and even the retro-’60s elements of the early 1980s). But if _Destroyer_, and Low’s recent music generally, parades in this stylistic nostalgia, the band does so with specific musical purposes in mind. One such example of another song performed in the concert is the band’s album single “California.” In the song, a distinctive, “jangling” arpeggiated electric-guitar texture associated with Roger McGuinn’s 12-string Rickenbacker in the music of The Byrds, appears in a slightly slowed-down form. The L.A.-based ’60s folk-rock band now seems synonymous with the bright-eyed utopianism that has become a cliché in our understanding of the California counterculture. Thus in “California,” the jangle-technique simultaneously evokes the U.S. state, and a state of mind associated with it, in the 1960s. The lyrics of the song seem to depict a thwarted homesteader-scheme—possibly hatched during the rise of communal farming experiments in the 1960s and 1970s—and subsequent return to the left coast. (“Though it breaks your heart/We had to sell the farm/Back to California where it’s warm.”) And yet at the same time, the abundance of rock nostalgia on the album is poignant, because it arguably represents the innocence of an earlier era associated with happier times for Low’s central figure.

The Christmas concert, like _Destroyer_, effected a similar intertwining of Sparhawk’s personal history of depression and many Americans’ yearning for a sense of affective and political wholeness associated with the long 1960s. On a personal level, the idea of a sober Christmas show itself immediately brought to mind the oft-cited factoid that the holiday season typically includes the year’s highest rates of depression and suicide—with forced gaiety and images of family togetherness adversely affecting the lonely. Moreover, depression rates in the U.S. increased markedly in the wake of September 11, 2001, and have continued to rise this year, with left and liberal reactions to the 2004 presidential election, ongoing political scandals, and the devastating series of ecological disasters affecting the planet. (Of course, skepticism at claims of increased clinical depression is always warranted, since these claims serve the interests of the pharmaceutical industry.)

On a broader sociopolitical level, the long 1960s reared their many heads on that December night in several ways. The quasi-hippie ethos of the large group performances (as in “Just Like Christmas”) temporarily transformed the venue into a modest imitation of a countercultural event. Also, Matt Livingston’s occasional use of reggae-rhythm basslines and the First Avenue sound engineer’s liberal use of echo effects on the vocals helped Low reinterpret familiar band favorites (like “Blue Christmas” and “Lazy”) through the psychedelic, paranoid sounds of 1970s Jamaican dub music. And finally the show implicitly evoked the genre of the charity rock concert, which originated with George Harrison’s “Concert for Bangladesh” (1972). In particular, Sparhawk announced that the proceeds of the show would go to the “Maasai School Project”:http://www.laleyio.com/, a non-profit project funding adult education for the Maasai, a nomadic East African ethnic group in present-day Kenya and Tanzania. (The project is run by Hans Johnson, an anthropology undergraduate at the University of Minnesota and an acquaintance of Sparhawk. See “www.laleyio.com”:http://www.laleyio.com/ for more details.)

But perhaps the most significant convergence of these different strands of meaning appeared in the band’s rendition of John Lennon’s antiwar Christmas song, “Happy Christmas (War is Over),” the final song of the show’s main set. The performance was radiant, with Sparhawk straining movingly while singing Lennon’s part and Parker effortlessly taking the chorus, in a marked improvement over Yoko Ono’s shrill but lovable warble. In the First Avenue performance, Sparhawk noticeably dropped Lennon’s line “let’s stop all the fight,” apparently overcome by emotion and exhaustion from singing in the upper reaches of his natural vocal register. The audience was visibly touched, with more than one lighter and cell phone raised in commemoration of the event.

The significance of this cover lies beyond its role as public document of Low’s antiwar politics, or even that of a pair of devout Mormons publicly staking out an antiwar position. Instead, the song ultimately served as a tribute to the late Lennon, with the concert taking place one day after the 25th anniversary of his assassination in New York. Lennon’s death on December 8, 1980, one might argue, marked the symbolic endpoint of the long 1960s—with the death-knell of Reagan’s presidential election sounding only one month beforehand. The pointed reference back to that historical period—which, in fact, is very common in the antiwar and global justice movements—suggests the extent of the debt we owe to the left of that era. And certain parallels between Sparhawk and Lennon are apparent, from his musical partnership with his wife, to the appearance of a midlife therapeutic album project (i.e., _Destroyer_ as the equivalent of the primal scream-influenced _John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band_ of 1970).

And yet, it seems all too apparent that the contemporary global left, for all of its ingenuity and effort, cannot avoid referring to the culture of the long 1960s—suggesting that our debt to this period may also be something of a burden. Perhaps the way out of our current conundrum is not to hope for the rise of new equivalents of cultural leaders and media personalities like Lennon. Instead, we might place our hope in, and work together with, the more accessible leaders and members of small communities, both political and musical. Although leftist activists in the wake of the long 1960s have repeatedly cautioned against placing untoward faith in new political messiahs and instead take the burden of action upon ourselves, the message still bears repeating. Implicitly, it resounded in the final song of the concert’s encore, in the lyrics of Sparhawk’s self-characterized _campfire song_, “Don’t Carry it All,” with the disciple John now also referring to the Beatle John: “Don’t carry it all/Wake up like giants, so tall/With open eyes like Judas and Paul/And John.” Is the present left unnecessarily saddled by its predecessors, the Judas-like betrayers of the Old Left? Such a suggestion seems extreme to me, but nonetheless serves as a useful caution. Would that we all awoke as tall, open-eyed giants.

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Posted 12.26.05