Where strange fact and stranger fiction collide
I fell in love with Tanya Donelly’s mind. To be honest her band Belly’s first two mainstream songs Feed the Tree and Slow Dog didn’t do much for me. In her promo pictures she was gorgeous, but it was the early nineties and cute girl next door types in the media where a dime a dozen. It wasn’t until I read an interview she gave in the UCLA newspaper the Daily Bruin that she impacted my radar. Half of the interview was about a book of Alaskan Native folklore and mythology, that she was reading. She had my heart with the words “Raven, the trickster…”
I really liked the songs off their first album that didn’t get much airplay. Dusted, Untogether, and Low Red Moon. The musicianship was amazing, but in a time when Kurt Cobain hobbled together “A mulatto, an albino, a mosquito, my libido.” in the number one song in America, just to prove that no one cared about lyrics anymore, Tanya’s words were poetry set to music. Tanya was also a breath of fresh air, when a reviewer called her “Cute as a button” she started a concert by deliberately burping. When the band appeared on the same Letterman as Rush Limbaugh, she planned to throw up on him (something apparently she could do on command) but was thwarted by security separating the band and the talk show host. How can you not love that?
In 1995, Belly released their second album. King (The last cassette tape I bought), they were on the cover of the Rolling Stones (the last copy of the Rolling Stones I bought). Back when Fox television was not about conservative politics but, edgy cool TV shows like The Simpsons and Married with Children, their video for Now they’ll Sleep debuted in-between the commercials of an X-Files episode. As far as I was concerned King was superior to their really good first record Star. They had been already nominated for two Grammies. They were slated to be the next big thing. But then they weren’t.
They only did two albums. King didn’t sell that well. Despite in my opinion that it was better than their surprise commercial success Star. I think I even called it the perfect album.I blame the sophomore jinx. The band broke up. Tanya became a doula (an assistant midwife) and made folk rock albums, that I loved, with ghostly lyrics influenced by “a horrible war, a horrible administration, a bleak, mean winter.” Over the next few years she collaborated with a who’s who of the East Coast alt-rock scene. Bassist Gail Greenwood went on to the band L-7. And, well I didn’t really care enough about the two guys in the band to know what happened to them.
I was a different person in 1995. Well I guess we all were. I don’t regret who I was then, but there are defiantly things I could have played better. There is no way that I would have guessed that I would end up on my sister’s goat farm in Oregon, divorced, trouble shooting accounting software for a living and writing a blog for fun. In ways I think I never lived up to the potential others thought I had. Kind of the same way I felt about Belly’s career.
I never got over my crush on Tanya, and I’d check the internet on the off chance she come out west and play a concert here in Stump Town. I was shocked when I found out not only would TD be here but she was bring the whole band, with her.
I showed up two hours early because well somethings about me don’t change. I took the time to walk around Portland. PDX is as different form my home town of Oxnard California as I am form the boy who grew up there. Even in high school my nickname was “Mr. Heath.” Because I seemed to carry the world on my shoulders and felt I had to be there for everyone else. I cannot say I wasn’t a kid, I definitely can’t say I wasn’t immature, but in ways I was the more representative of repressed part of an adulthood than I am now. I defiantly wasn’t the type of person who went to concerts back then.
I walked for an hour, I saw the Uber and Lyft cars picking up and dropping people of around the brew pubs. I talked to the Bikini Barista Coffee girl, while she was taking out the trash about a place to eat on this side of town. She was going home and now wore a sweater and denim shorts since she was off duty, but there was no way that the ‘old Dave’ would have talked to a cute girl on the street, even if she had covered up.
I took pictures of Portland’s murals. And looked at the new shiny orange bicycle sharing bikes. Before I went to Revolution Hall, I stopped at the Original Portland Cheese Cake Factory. They are a bakery and I bought a chocolate hazelnut fudge bar. I told the girl I bought it form about the concert I was going to, and she admitted she couldn’t remember Belly, but hoped I enjoyed the concert. I asked them if they had any milk, and the baker went to the back and poured my some from their fridge into a paper coffee cup, they said that they didn’t normally have it on the menu but agreed that it would go amazingly with my fudge bar. I asked her how much I owed for it and she said nothing. I love Portland, the people here will jump at the chance to go the extra mile for you if they can.
Revolution Theater is an old high school. The theater is the old auditorium. The third floor is lined with photos of 1950’s football games and black and white portraits of home coming queens. The venue differently added to the nostalgia factor of the night.
I studied the crowd as we waited for the doors to open, as they drank their IPAs and looked at their smartphones. To a person they were probably ten years either side of my age (48). Their conversations rose and bounced off the acoustic ceiling tiles like some kind of jumbled national prayer. I heard people talking about, seeing Belly back when they released Star, and Radiohead had opened for them, about sick relatives, and how they played King in their car’s tape deck non-stop for a year. I thought about how those in the crowd might have looked two decades ago (myself included). Leaner more hair, in plaid flannel and Greenday concert shirts. I imagined our younger doppelgangers looking back at us. I couldn’t tell if they we content or disgusted at what they saw.
I thought of the things that divided our former selves’ form who we are now, college graduations, marriages, divorces, Kurt Cobain giving into his depression, 9/11. The birth of our children, the tears, the laughs, the arrest of Mai Zapata’s murder, the first kisses, the break ups, two wars that had nothing to do with those who attacked us, bankruptcies, first publications, the internet, the Columbia burning up in re-entry, IPhones, the death of those closest to us, and a politicians that divide us rather than try to unite us. Did we even speak the same language twenty years ago?
The guy at the gate told me that they had sold 600 tickets, not bad for a band that hadn’t toured in 22 years. Though there is good acoustics in Revolution Hall it came apparent that if I wanted to really see the band I would need to be in the open seated space by the stage. If it had been another band I might have called this a mosh pit, but I wasn’t too worried about having to dodge an elbow tonight.
There was no opening act. I think that was for the best. We didn’t want to share this evening with anyone else. When the band took the stage it was apparent that Tanya Donnelly was still that ball of energy that she had always been. She had aged a lot better than I had, and even at 50 she had this beauty that I remembered. She would thank the crowd for their response after a song. In person she has a grace and rhythm that I would call both serpentine and cat-like. She had to turn her back on us, wipe tears from her eyes and regain her composure when she spoke to her dad, who was right up front, and how he had traveled 17 hours in a van with her from Frisco. When she wasn’t singing she was smiling.
Gail Greenwood was her funny raunchy master of ceremony. She looked out over the converted school auditorium and said “Welcome to Westminster High‘s performance of the Crucible.” Then explained that in high school she threw nerds like her bandmates into lockers. The girls next to me gushed in admiration every time she dropped an F-bomb, saying ‘she is so nasty.” After a joke by the drummer about being a registered prostate masseuse, she kept ending her punch lines with “…Prostate everyone has one.” Now I thought only men had prostates, so when the next day when I asked my sister (whose degree is in biology) about that, she explained that the female prostate was related to the G-spot. Now I get the joke. Gail also asked “Are you ready to party like it was 1993?” And “Portland where have you been the last 21 years?” I wasn’t the only one seemed to notice the time-slip.
Original band members Tom (guitar) and Chris Gorman (drums), would throw in jokes, and it was like we were watching best friends or maybe a family, on stage. These people who I had listen to for over twenty years had become humans before my eyes, within minutes of taking the stage. I remembered that the Gorman’s were brothers and felt guilty for not following them after band broke up.
I looked through the non-mosh pit, and saw the heads going up and down, the waists twisting. I realized that the ghost of our younger selves where not looking on disapprovingly, but where buried somewhere deep inside us and I watched as our elder shells began to crack to let our younger selves out, to play at least one more time.
I found myself moving to the flow of the crowd. I admit it that I don’t have much rhythm, but it didn’t seem to matter. It is like that line form the Movie men who stare at goats. “It’s not that you can’t dance, someone told you that you couldn’t dance.” That was true in my case but tonight we were going back to a time before they told me that.
Even new songs like Comet seemed to be a portal that linked the past to now and beyond. Like there was three Tanya’s the pixie cute one form 1995, the mature lovely woman on the stage at that moment, and the darkly shadowed covered future version were singing to three versions of Dave.
When the band returned from break the speaker played the theme song from Welcome Back Cotter. Another blast form the past. But then I got the joke since it was in an old School setting, it seemed like the perfect little zinger slipped in by the band. After the break, Tanya waifishly had to apologize for forgetting the set list. Inside the hall we were traveling back in time. Or maybe we were traveling to another dimension, one where the most mean spirited election wasn’t taking place, one where my life turned out more like my dreams, one where Belly got the recognition they deserved.
I felt flesh brush up against my arm. The girl next to me was probably in her early forties, still attractive, she wore a green sleeveless dress. Though we were packed in the space before the stage, I didn’t see any other strangers touching each other. It was mainly when certain songs were being played that really got the crowd going. Her arms would rub against mine, her pleated skirt brushed against my jeans. I don’t think she meant anything by it. In the setting it could even be seen as chaste and natural.
But to me (and maybe to her) it was sharing a moment with someone in a way you cannot with pictures or stories. It is why we sing hymns in church, why we make love to music, why we sing to our children, sing at campfires, and before baseball games, why we say we want a certain song to be sung at our funeral. Music is a communal connection that affects us in a very primal way. Something that even if we are alone we wish we had someone to share it with. And we shared it in a very tactile way.
After the finale Tonya was almost apologetic that she was leaving. Clasping hands with people at the stage. She finally wandered off with Gail’s arm around her waist. I understood why she wouldn’t want to leave. It was like they had acoustically created a temporal bubble around us. You know when they left the audience looked younger than when they entered. I am not saying the world was better back in 1993, I am not saying I was better in 1993. But last night I realized that sometimes the good things from the past do comeback. Last week I bought a Gitts Vinyl LP to hang up in my office e at work. Maybe I need to find a cassette tape and a copy of the Rolling Stone to put up there with it, maybe I need to look through things with younger eyes connected to an elder brain.
I am to the right at about 0:04 you can see me turn my head and my balding forehead and glasses.
Now they’ll sleep.
Red with a bonus Baby John Stewart.
A new song lets hope it gets some airplay soon.