13 musical acts we wish we could’ve seen live
Welcome back to AVQ&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. Consider this a prompt to compare notes on your interface with pop culture, to reveal your embarrassing tastes and experiences, and to ponder how our diverse lives all led us to convene here together. Got a question you’d like us and the readers to answer? Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This week’s question comes from A.V. Club copy editor Laura Adamczyk:
What band or artist do you wish you could’ve seen live, but it’s impossible?
If you’re going to blow a trip in a time machine on a concert, you might as well go for one of the all-time great vocalists: the late Freddie Mercury. Just watch Queen’s performance at Live Aid in 1985—a year after my birth, hence my excuse for not being there—as the man oozes ridiculous amounts of charisma and pushes his voice (and the crowd) to the breaking point. There’s a reason the cameras never leave him, despite the power of Brian May’s guitar. When I was a kid, Queen was just the band who did the fun headbanging song from Wayne’s World. With the wisdom of age, I can look back and realize I missed out on getting to bask in the glory of one of the great rock frontmen of all time.
Although I’ve listened to the album ridiculously often and watched the movie only slightly less ridiculously often, I’d love to actually see the Talking Heads live during their Stop Making Sense tour. Excellent music notwithstanding, it’s such a theatric performance. The show begins with an empty, naked stage and slowly adds members to build up a richer, more dramatic sound. And even before David Byrne emerges in his signature giant suit, he demonstrates surprisingly masterful physical comedy. He’s a cartoon character, a vaudeville-era performer who pivots and pratfalls across the stage all while maintaining an unbroken robotically neutral expression. There’s an interlude from the Tom Tom Club, a wide selection of stylish ’80s slate-gray costumes, and a killer version of “Slippery People.” It would be such an exhilarating experience, I think it would even propel my rhythm-deprived body to dance.
I have seen multiple people try to recreate the spirit of Judy Garland’s live performances. So it’s only fitting that I would long to experience what it was actually like being in the same room as the screen legend, who by all accounts was a remarkable presence onstage. I feel like I have a hint of what it must have been like after witnessing Rufus Wainwright’s dedicated, emotional, and athletic interpretation of Garland’s iconic 1961 Carnegie Hall concert. But I still wonder what it would be like to hear that voice—irreplaceable even on recordings—in person.
So pretty much dead, is that what you’re saying? Because it’s pretty hard for anybody to say “never” as long as some members are still alive. That said, I guess I’ll have to say The Smiths, because the likelihood that the original quartet will ever share a stage again seems ridiculously remote. Morrissey spent a good chunk of his Autobiography shit-talking drummer Mike Joyce, who sued Morrissey and Johnny Marr for a bigger share of the Smiths’ money pie back in the ’90s. And apparently Moz doesn’t need the money: During an interview at SXSW in 2006, he told Rolling Stone’s David Fricke that Coachella had offered The Smiths $5 million to reunite there, and he turned it down flat. (The audience, which included me, gasped. Morrissey said something Morrissey-esque, like, “Is that a lot?”) Morrissey is doing mostly fine on his own, and his solo sets are now 30 percent Smiths songs anyway. Let’s not tarnish the legacy of what was, once upon a time, a relentlessly amazing live band.
Thank you, William, for taking my initial response, because I’m pretty sure I was about to get kicked out of the Q&A pool for answering “Queen” too many times. So instead, I’ll choose Freddie’s “Under Pressure” partner: I’m really sad I never got a chance to see David Bowie. I idolized him so much, but he always seemed so otherworldly to me, transcending even an earthly status like “rock star.” I’d heard people talk about going to see him, but it just seemed like a thing that was impossible: “Oh, you saw David Bowie? Did you take a ride in a spaceship afterward?” Seeing him onstage would have humanized him for me a bit, I think, and I’m sure it wouldn’t have been anything less than magnificent. Sadly, that dream died along with him last year, but it was a sobering reminder to see as many of my favorite live acts as I can while they’re still around.
I guess I’ll go with an obvious answer and say how much it pains me that I’ll never see The Velvet Underground—a band I consider to be the greatest to have ever lived, and whose shows would have also doubled as meet-and-greets with some of the most fascinating creatures of ’60s counterculture. (There’s a reason they were billed as “happenings.”) I’m placated somewhat by the fact that seeing The Velvet Underground in its prime was an impossibility years before I was born in ’78, and I’m not especially sad to have missed the smattering of stadium and festival gigs a reunited, Nico-less lineup performed in 1993. No, I’d only settle for seeing the band in its Exploding Plastic Inevitable element, surrounded by silver mylar and bathed in multicolored liquid light projections, among a crowd too doped-up on speed and heroin and its own coolness to realize what an epochal event it was witnessing. But that will never happen, so I guess I’ll just have to keep buying every goddamn grainy new bootleg that keeps getting unearthed.
While trying to think of an answer to this question, I ran down any number of late musical legends that I would have loved to have seen in their prime. But in the end, I landed on a show that would have captured both a lost group of musicians and a lost era of music: The Ramones. Specifically, the Ramones at CBGB in the early days of punk—let’s say late 1974 or early 1975, before their debut album came out—as the movement that would change music forever was coalescing around a group of delinquents from Queens with matching leather jackets and bad attitudes. The energy in the room must have been incredible, if not the acoustics. All four of the original Ramones are dead now, the original CBGB has been replaced by a menswear boutique, and punk—well, opinions vary on when it died, but I wouldn’t be the first person to eulogize it.
I love music that harkens back to the raw, primitive rock ’n’ roll of the ’50s and early ’60s. Garage rock, surf rock, rockabilly, proto-punk—the scuzzier the better. And yet, it’s not some act from way back then that I wish I could’ve seen. (The Stooges and The Sonics are still around in some form, after all.) My answer is a band that took those sounds and amplified them into something new and incredibly badass: The Cramps. The fusion of early punk, twangy rockabilly, and campy monster-movie aesthetics that the late Lux Interior and his band of weirdos were known for is the crossroads of everything I love about this kind of music. Like Sean and Katie, I’d want to be there at the beginning, rubbing shoulders with the freaks and New York elites at the Mudd Club while Lux—in all his sweaty, shirtless, microphone-fellating glory—and the band burned through one of their whacked-out performances.
There aren’t many musicians who can break my heart the way Jason Molina can. He could convey the same poignant, spitting irony as another favorite, Elliott Smith (the title alone on “Such Pretty Eyes For A Snake”) but magnified that feeling with darker guitar tones and a deeper, more penetrating voice. I began to get into him in the mid-2000s, during one of his periods living in Chicago, so I might have been able to see him had I been paying more attention, though by that time, he would have begun to develop the drinking problem that would mar his live performances and eventually kill him. Maybe I partly wish I could have seen him because the first music of his I listened to was Magnolia Electric Co.’s excellent live album Trials & Errors, or merely because we shared the same home city for a time, but what I wouldn’t give to have heard him deliver the Neil Young-esque “Mama, here comes moonlight with the dead moon in its jaw” from “Farewell Transmission” or “Just Be Simple”’s “Why put a new address on the same old loneliness?” My regret feels downright minuscule compared with the heartbreak of lines like that.
My answers to these questions are starting to get repetitive: I was cash-strapped ahead of Prince’s United Center shows in 2012, having just spent a not-insignificant amount to see a couple of other musical heroes, David Byrne and St. Vincent. I considered the three-night stand a “catch him next time” gimme, and was feeling kind of vindicated when several A.V. Clubbers returned from one of the shows grousing about a concert that was heavy on obscurities. Looking at the set lists from those shows, I can’t tell which one was the disappointment: Based on the opening songs alone, those crowds that I was not a part of were greeted with either “D.M.S.R.,” “Let’s Go Crazy,” or “Controversy.” It’s a moot point now, but at least I won’t be feeling this way on the soul-crushing day when Byrne drifts off into the blue. (Shut your mouth: David Byrne is an immortal extraterrestrial who’ll outlast us all—you know, just like Prince and Bowie did.)
Folks, it’s Led Zeppelin. The correct answer to this question is: “I wish I could have been shattered by the ultrasonic banshee force of Led Zeppelin at its coked-out prime, a monstrous assault of quivering hair, machismo, cocaine, and John Bonham’s drums, all of which would conspire to make me instantaneously deaf and possibly blind.” There are a lot of possible ways to measure a band’s quality, of course, as well as the quality of a concert, but sheer titanic force is one of the best things to witness via live performance, and no rock band has ever been more mythically oversized than Led Zeppelin. John Paul Jones, Robert Plant, and Jimmy Page have played together since the band’s breakup, but Bonham, the band’s hard-living, gonzo heart, died in 1980. You’d need industrial machinery to recreate his presence on the drums, and even then, you’d lack his soul.
At the risk of being ridiculed by Clayton for being so obviously wrong, if I’m going to use my time machine to see a show in the past, I’m heading back to 1963 and my hometown of Miami to check out Sam Cooke at The Harlem Square Club. The energy in that room is palpable, even when listening through earbuds more than 50 years later. It would’ve been incredible to watch Cooke, at the top of his game, performing for a crowd of his most devoted gospel fans (at times, it feels like the most amazing church service ever with all the call-and-response). To witness a raucous Cooke, adding a little grit to his normally silky smooth voice, most notably on “Bring It On Home To Me,” which contains a rollicking two-and-a-half minute intro that builds until the song simply has to burst forth with Cooke’s improvisations giving way to his raison d’être: “I want you to listen this song right here for me now / This song’s gonna tell you how I feel.” It’s audible magic, and I’d love nothing more than to make it visual magic. Time machine, please!
Really? No one else is going to say it? Fine, I will: I wish I could’ve seen Nirvana—and since we’re already hopping in the time machine, I’d use it to give the concert ticket to my teenage self. The band members themselves would be the first to admit they could be hit or miss live (especially during that last tour, when great shows would be followed by ones where Cobain was starting to lose the fight against giving a shit about being in the world anymore), but I’m not sure any group meant more to me during the most formative years of my musical education as a kid. To be present during one of the band’s inspired sets, the ones where the raggedy glory of the performance was energized by passion, and the instrument-destroying conclusion felt like a necessity, not a routine, would’ve been a treasured experience. When I was way, way too young to know any better, a kid in my class invited me to go with him to see them in Milwaukee on the In Utero tour. I passed on it because I had too much homework to do that night. That version of me deserved to get shoved into a locker and have his lunch money stolen, the dummy. I’ve got a hell of a lot of live bootlegs of the band, but I’ll always regret the missed opportunity.