“The apparition of these faces in the crowd; Petals on a wet black bough.” – Ezra Pound
Everyone is here, huddled up under the golden glow of the marquee, taking obligatory selfies with the illuminated words SOLD OUT floating like halos above their heads. There’s no typecasting the crowd tonight – aging punks with their patch-worked proclamations safety pinned to faded hoodies, grunge-era Gen Xers rocking their torn up flannels and baggy jeans, and the ubiquitous hipsters decked out in their thrift store pleather and ironic moustaches. We’re all jumbled up and sharing the same giddy excitement while we wait in the long line for hand stamps and the neon pink wristbands that will get us up to the bar, where the punks will take their whiskey straight and the hipsters will fork over $8 a can for the same terrible piss-tasting Pabst Blue Ribbon tallboys we used to steal from our big brothers and drink behind the hockey rink back in high school.
The warm-up acts are solid and do their layman’s work well, playing long just enough to build the anticipation, but not so long to get beer bottles hurled at them. Frank takes the stage at the perfect moment and we roar our approval, pressing forward when he launches into one of the big ones – an anthem like so many of his songs – exhorting us to live these unfettered, openhearted lives. This is what we love about him, that he can make us feel this way, that he can lift us up to a place where we feel like we can do big things and be so much better than we are. He is a master showman, too, breathing new life into tired and well-worn stage antics like: Just yell the name of the city you’re in! Have half the crowd sing one part and the other half sing the other! Talk about the first run down rat hole club you ever played in this city! Somehow he manages to do these things with sincerity and humor. We’re eating it up and singing every word. He has us in the palm of his hand.
We know the set lists and the trajectory by heart. We can feel the cathartic crescendo coming. This is why we came tonight – to hear what comes next.
But the triumphant, crunching power chords and piercing snare drum shots don’t come.
Instead, a droning, dissonant Roland organ fades in like a train approaching from somewhere far away. He closes his eyes and hesitantly begins to sing, his face pained and drawn, his fists clenched and held at his sides. There is no discernable melody or structure, just his groping, uncertain words… as I walked out one morning fair, I found myself drawn thoughtlessly, back to the place we used to live, and you still do, now without me… he is pouring them out like blood from an open wound, like they are the last things he would say with his very last breaths.
But the crowd doesn’t seem to notice.
They don’t recognize this song. It isn’t what they came to hear. They’ve gone back to their loud conversations and moronic hashtags. They’ve bee-lined for the bathrooms and the bar… I have wandered around this city, like a child lost in the London fog… in this moment he is a broken man singing his heart out to an empty room, but no matter how desperately he sings, they can’t seem to hear him… I’ve had time enough to think upon, the question of what kind of songs you would choose to listen to, now that I am gone… there, in front of a thousand other souls, he appears utterly alone.
Yet as I look across the crowd, I can see amidst the oblivious and distracted masses a small handful of others held in rapt attention, serving silent witness to this public confession… so I sat down in sadness beneath your window, and I played sad songs on the minor keys of a broken piano, a sinner amongst saved men… just in front of me a grizzled, pierced, and heavily inked old punk stands with his arms crossed and his jaw set hard, tears just faintly shimmering at the corners of his eyes.
The song slowly winds its way to a close, barely audible over the maddening, murmuring din. Frank’s not done yet. He’s got two just more lines to sing before he’s finished … but as I stroked those broken keys… you did not join in harmony…
As we spill back out onto the sidewalk I wish, more than anything, that I had the power to identify each of those who had been listening. I want to tell them that I was listening, too. I want us to make a pact that we will watch out for each other from now on because the risks, for us, are so much greater in this life. I want us to promise to stick together because we’re so much more vulnerable to feeling completely alone.
And while we’re at it we should probably send a note to Frank to thank him for the song.
So he knows that someone was listening.