We all have a handful of events in our lives that stand out in our memories. Of course there's the big stuff like weddings and births and deaths in our families. September 11. I'm not talking about those. I'm talking about littler things. Like the way we remember where we were and what we were doing the fist time we heard a certain record, or a certain band. The first time we laid eyes on a person who would later become our spouse. The person who introduced us to our favorite author and which book it was that they lent us. That kind of thing.
This is about one of those moments. This is about the first time I laid ears on Montréal post-rock band Godspeed You! Black Emperor. October 3, 1999. Although I definitely would have heard about them eventually, this is about how I came upon them on my own, by chance, and how they would eventually become one of my favorite bands. In part II, this is also about a crazy adventure involving an internet date, a huge ice storm, a shady motel and a road trip to see GYBE play. Act one of this story isn't quite as cinematic, though.
Back in the late 1990s, I used to go to a lot of concerts regardless of the night of the week. If there was a band that I was even remotely interested in, I would drive from Greensboro to Chapel Hill to see them, often getting there hours before the doors opened. I'd be there at sound check, then I'd go mull around the town for a few hours before returning to the club to be the first one to secure a spot at the front of the stage.
I made an acquaintance who did the same thing as I did for the same shows. Dozens of shows, we'd both be there in the front row. We'd both be there trying to snag the set list off the monitors after the show. We never really became friends, but eventually, we started to trade stories about bands we'd seen. Somehow, this guy convinced me to do something he'd been doing for years. He told me that he always went to a show on his birthday, and that he often went, on his birthday, to see bands that he'd never heard of. Sometimes it worked out well, but most times, he said, it didn't. Still, it was a tradition that he'd been keeping for several years, and he urged me to try.
It was 1999, and there was a show on my birthday at the Cat's Cradle. It was a band I'd never heard of, but I was willing to give it a shot. Just for something to do. At the time, I knew absolutely nothing about Godspeed You! Black Emperor (GY!BE) (or, as they were known back then, GYBE!) other than that they were not a reggae band. I took a shot in the dark and bought a ticket. Back in those days, you had to buy hard tickets to things, or phone in an order and get on the list. So I picked up a hard ticket one time when I was in Chapel Hill for something else. In those days, we didn't have the kinds of resources available to us that we have now, so it was a little more difficult to check out a band. I didn't even own a computer back then.
Sure, I could have gone to the BBs record store (RIP) and previewed a copy of F♯ A♯ ∞, but I think there was something in me that wanted it to remain a mystery. I wanted, for the thrill of it, to go in there completely blind. It's a high risk-high reward proposition, but I was willing to go for it.
It turned out that my friends Steve and Amy were getting married to each other two days before that show, at the beautiful Grove Park Inn in Asheville NC. Their wedding was on Friday night, and my birthday (and the GYBE show) was on Sunday. It was perfect. The wedding was beautiful, and I got to hang out with a bunch of my friends all together in one place for the first time since we all graduated college five years earlier.
If I'm honest, I don't remember much about Saturday. I remember the lot of us (probably about 15 in all) going to some hippie breakfast place to eat some granola and whole grain pancakes. In those days, it was impossible to find a piece of bacon or sausage links in Asheville,so I'm sure I also "enjoyed" some tofu or some shit like that. I remember that there was some smelly hippie playing folk music on his acoustic guitar. I guess it was "open mic morning" or something. At some point, he asked if there were any requests from the "crowd", and my friend Doug, without missing a beat, uttered "How about the sound of silence?". He wasn't requesting the Simon&Garfunkle song. He wanted actual silence. We all did, since we were a bit hung over. That's what I remember about Saturday. This isn't about Saturday, though. This is about Sunday.
On Sunday morning, we all went our different ways. In a pretty extreme fashion. Most of us just went home. The aforementioned Doug drove our friend Hans to International Falls, Minnesota. This is technically quite a bit north of the actual headwaters of the Mississippi River, but this is the spot that Hans and other folks choose as the launching point for a kayak voyage on the mighty river. Hans wanted to become the next person to kayak the entire length of the Mississippi River solo. For the record, he didn't make it. He switched to a bicycle somewhere near Winona Minnesota and planned to make the rest of the trip on two wheels. For the record, that didn't work, either.
I hopped into my 1989 Honda Accord and drove back home for a few hours. I think I did anyway. I think that I left Asheville in the mid-morning and went home for a few hours before going to Chapel Hill that night. There's some slight possibility that I went straight from Asheville to Chapel Hill, but I'm pretty sure that I made a pit stop at the house first.
As I said, I didn't know the first thing about GYBE, but I made sure to get there early. I don't recall who was the opening act, and it really isn't important. When Godspeed hit the stage with their film projectors and their eight (or so) band members, I was definitely intrigued. It didn't take long for that sense of intrigue to turn into awe. This is one of only a few concerts in my life when I have been absolutely gobsmacked. This is a brilliant turn of speech that we don't use in the United States, but it means, essentially, "blown away".
My memory isn't perfect, and it was my very first exposure to the band, so I can't depend on my memory here. According to setlist.fm, they opened with "Broken Windows, Locks of Love, part III", which is only one part of the first song from the first disc of Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennae to Heaven. That record hadn't been released yet, so almost everyone in the crowd was hearing it for the first time. However, I can safely say that I was absolutely and completely gobsmacked within the first minute, and I knew that I'd made an excellent choice to come see this band. By the end of the nine minute song sequence, I could barely even breathe. There have been maybe three concert experiences that put me into this state of mind and functionality. It was, simply put, amazing.
When the show ended, some 90 minutes (or so) later, I was in a daze. Again, I can only remember two other shows that have left me in a daze. I've been impressed, even amazed by a bunch of live shows, but only a precious few have taken my breath away. I marched over to the merch table and bought a cd of F♯ A♯ ∞, and listened to that on the drive home. And then probably about three times in a row that night. I became a huge fan, immediately. Unlike dozens of bands over the years, this wasn't a "flavour of the moment". They remain, to this day, a favorite band of mine.
I wouldn't learn until much later that the band valued its privacy the way that those hippies in Asheville value their patchouli. It didn't matter to me on this night, but it would come into play the next time I saw them perform, three and a half years later.
Part II of this will detail a crazy road trip to Athens, GA in March of 2003, where I saw Godspeed for the second time. I haven't seen them since, and I can't imagine that I would be able to spin a fictional tale crazier than the one that actually happened. Hopefully, I'll get it up and running on Thursday.