At my 17th birthday dinner at a place that played live music, the host sat me and my family behind a wall. We couldn’t see the band; we could barely hear the muffled tones and applause. I was not 18, and in Northern Virginia, this made it difficult to see any interesting music live. I could visit stadiums, arenas and concert halls, and I did. There, the bands were NFL football teams, licensed jerseys and “Number One” hands sold on the sidelines. But I wanted to see bands that were like a gang of teenagers — their big, inevitable dreams sheathed like pocket knives, roaming and ruling the streets just cause they weren’t old enough to drive yet.
There were plenty of venues to fulfill that need in Boston where I went to college: Avalon near Fenway Park, The Paradise Rock Club nearly on campus. I remember in 2004 one enchanting night at The Middle East in Cambridge listening to a band called The Helms. I was deep in the dark and purple-lit basement, its exposed pipes draping down from the encroaching ceiling. The Helms was a tight-knit trio: a guy, his girlfriend, and his brother, named after the girlfriend‘s family name. What bellowed out of the instruments was anything but quaint, though.
I remember a smile sliding over my friend’s face as he turned to me and said, “This is really good!” It was, and it was like nothing I’d heard before. An endlessly monotonous and searing guitar riff that looped over and over, the repetition gently making it a soothing lullaby, albeit decibel levels and distortion that guaranteed pain. I could get into this, I thought. I could really get into this. It had the added magic of something that I was not quite at the level of, like a book I liked with words or concepts I wouldn’t understand until I got older, until I worked on it. It was a sound I could aspire to. It was a sound that allowed me to think, this is it. This is the future of music.
Of course, have you heard of The Helms? It did not end up being the future of music.
Part of the allure of going to see indie rock bands before they’re huge is the potential of them getting huge — or perhaps the potential of the music itself. This pleasure isn’t there with an established band; it may be fun, but it’s just fun in itself. The band has reached a bar. The music has matured and merged with mainstream culture. There’s nothing being applied to it.
In our everyday lives, I’d say most of the time we are seeing an unestablished band. We are listening to new music, and we tend to think ahead of that music. We lose our jobs one day and the future is void of hope or opportunity. We have a long, smiling conversation with someone attractive while the sun is shining and the future is all fulfillment and promise. Sign a lease, and the drive home is an adrenaline rush. Part of the problem with putting these feelings on the future is that most of the time, our bands just don’t make it. Bad music usually makes the money, and the good might not ever catch on. Part of Buddhist practice is being mindful of the present moment, to not be worrying or thinking about the past or the future since these things cannot be altered or predicted. Buddhism is the practice of simply being where you are. And I think this is just the best way to listen to live indie music — the way least likely to cause embarrassment down the line. You’re out of the hype machine; you’re just there for the sound.
I saw a band last week at The Satellite that was so good, I had that same feeling: “This is the future of music.” When I had that flash of déjà vu and remembered The Helms, wondered where they went, thought about how young I must’ve been and how I felt so old now in comparison, I told myself to shut up. I closed my eyes and tried to just listen. I was enjoying the music. Now I was thinking.