Thursday, October 6, 2022

Bodies and eyes

A passage in In China with Green Day, Aaron Cometbus's engrossing tour-diary/travel-essay about accompanying Green Day on a brief East Asian tour in 2010, gave me pause. I'm an admitted fameist. I haven't seen the light with regard to arena shows, but Cometbus's characteristically smart perspective shed some light on the appeal of tens of thousands congregating under a Jumbotron. 

Green Day was supporting 21st Century Breakdown, and were several years into their surprising second act as a worldwide phenomenon—a band that everyone suddenly had an opinion about. They asked their old friend and gadfly Cometbus along for the two-week ride. Raised on, and partly responsible for, countless indie shows in the Bay Area, Cometbus found the disorienting environment in Hong Kong, and later, Seoul, Korea, strangely familiar, yet in unfamiliar ways. In the 'zine Cometbus offers revealing glimpses of elite backstage life (the band members dialing back the alcohol and catered food consumption because they're playing the Grammy Awards show in two weeks and are watching their collective figure), essays the sometime sharp contrasts between Ordinary Fan and Band, sifts deep memories of Berkeley-based musicians and friends, and describes his own aimless wanderings deep into the strangeness of Asian urban and suburban culture, a rich travelogue that situates the 'zine in the tradition of walking essays. On that level alone, In China with Green Day is well worth reading. Cometbus's eye for narrative detail and his deeply-felt associative thinking are very affecting.

Cometbus was halfway around the world for a reason. Near the end, tired and grouchy, he nails what I so dislike about the rote machinations of arena shows:

Yet in Hong Kong, wedged into the crowd near the front of a massive stage, watching Green Day play a well-rehearsed, iron-clad set complete with complex light cues and pyrotechnics, Cometbus experienced an epiphany of sorts. And, reading along, so did I. "I wondered about the psychological divide between the audience and stage, which punk had been hell bent on destroying" he wrote.
Experiencing it on this tour for the first time, I found that I rather enjoyed it. Green Day's inaccessibility allowed the audience to focus on something outside of themselves; it gave them a chance to step out of their own skins and forget, for a few hours, their own problems.

    In a massive crowd, that was easier to do. Just being part of a huge audience was a moving, almost spiritual experience. I’d never known that before, having almost exclusively attended small, independent shows.

    I was like a kid who’s never been allowed to watch TV or eat sugar cereals. Arena rock was something new and fascinating to me, and I was lapping it up. Once the novelty wore off and I felt sick, I’d go back to the books and whole grains on which I was raised.

"It helped that there were none of the annoying aspects of an American concert here," he continued, "no drunk yahoos or people you saw in the halls at high school."

A big concert was a good way to bypass the isolation that came from being in a foreign country. Everyone was pressed up intimately close, and the ear-splitting volume made conversation impossible. Instead, we used our bodies and our eyes to speak, and our common language: the lyrics of Green Day.

I'll try and remember these words if I'm ever again in an enormous crowd fifty or more yards away from the band I've come to see.


B.O Style said...

Was just thinking...yeah, I don't remember Green Day playing in Shanghai. Hong Kong, especially in 2010, was a world apart. Fine. But not Shanghai…

Joe Bonomo said...

Thanks. I meant Hong Kong. Fixed.