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Fan Note: Confessions Of A Radiohead-Head

I am incapable of listening to music casually. There is no such thing as "background" music to me. This has consequences.

More Head:
  • Thom Yorke: Smudgeless
  • For example, a couple months ago I was riding my Schwinn Cruiser, "Ruby," down a busy suburban road when, suddenly, through the dense trees of someone's backyard, I heard the caramelly sweetness of "Unchained Melody." I smiled at this random opportunity to hear a classic tune, but kept biking, purely for traffic flow and safety reasons (that's right, I roll Ruby helmet-less, tempting death and fate at every turn of suburbia). I felt a tinge of sadness as I rode out of range just when the song was about to climax. This would not do. I whipped my bike around and made it back just in time to hear the Righteous Brothers take it to the hizz-ouse (I-I-I neeheeheed your lu-huv!). I managed to flatten a tire somewhere in the whipping around and the hizz-ouse, but dammit, I got to hear the song. I chuckled to myself as I walked my wounded Ruby home. Something like this would surely happen to me.

    I consider music to be my, uhhh, vehicle of spirituality. By which I mean, some people sit through church sermons or read bibles, whereas I immerse myself in an album and believe my spirit feels just as enriched for the experience.

    Even more specifically, Radiohead is my religion; their albums constitute the books of my Bible. I try not to use that statement lightly, although I am afraid most people do not grasp the seriousness with which I present it. The permanent inkings on my body pay homage to Yorke & Co. in the same way that a devout Christian needles a crucifix on his body to honor the Jeebster.

    radio_head.jpgIt is difficult for me to concisely summarize what it is about Radiohead's music that drives me to this level of fansanity. I am not sitting in a tree outside Thom Yorke's house with binoculars or anything, but that doesn't mean my first son won't be named after him. Radiohead's music is thought-provoking and complex. Their songs seem to have a purpose; they move through phases and grow, sometimes resulting in climactic spine-tingling finishes. And who doesn't like those?

    Their six albums, each fantastically different from the next, showcase the (hopefully) endless shifting creativities of the band. Radiohead is comprised of five musical demigods who work together in composing music incomparably intriguing. The four lesser-known ingredients of Radiohead (Colin Greenwood, Johnny Greenwood, Ed O'Brien, and Phil Selway) provide the most reliable accompaniment out there; Yorke's voice is merely the icing on the greatest cake you've ever tasted.

    I fear now, and always have in regards to this musical topic, the inadequacy of my words. Certain passions drive certain peoples to speechlessness. As a bonafide talker and amateur writer, it is rare for an occasion to render me mute. Or worse than mute - dumbfounded; cycling barbarously through two or three puny statements (eg; "Wow, holy shit. Whew. Shit. Wow . . . wow, man. Shit.").

    I'm telling you this now on the occasion of Thom Yorke's solo album release. I can also report that Radiohead played in Chicago this past June, and I am still in an incoherent stupor. Hundreds of dollars poorer yes, but incalculable amounts of beauty and fulfillment richer.

    * * *

    I first saw Radiohead live in Grant Park (specifically, Hutchinson Field) on August 1, 2001. That night remains ferociously real in my mind. It was the culmination of years of listening to their music and never believing in their actual earthly existence. Simply focusing my eyes upon Radiohead, as they recreated the songs that scored my adolescence and the years to follow, well, it was surreal. Many people these days chronologically reference life in terms of pre- or post-9/11. I reference pre- and post-8/1.

    I next saw Radiohead in 2003, at the far less impressive Alpine Valley. The Grant Park show highlighted the release of back-to-back albums Kid A (2000) and Amnesiac (2001). The Alpine Valley show was built around Hail to the Thief (2003). The Grant Park show was set at the feet of the incandescent backdrop of the most beautiful skyline in the world. The Alpine Valley scene was impersonal, the crowd was lame, and the sound was eaten in the vast, steep openness of the valley. I was disappointed, to say the least.

    So when the rumors began early this year that a new album and a North American tour was brewing, I was a wee bit excited. By spring, there was no chance the new album would be ready, but a small tour was still in sight. The North American dates were released slowly, and Chicago was one of the first and only definite bookings. But where? Noise complaints deterred a return visit to Hutchinson Field. Millennium Park's Pritzker Amphitheater was booked by the orchestra. Please, oh God please, not the First Bank thingamajig in Tinley Park . . .

    And then the gods smiled: The Auditorium Theatre.

    The acoustically-perfect Auditorium Theatre is an ancient beauty of a building; intimate seating, acoustics rich enough to make your ears dance, gold trim and classically painted muraled walls just waiting, no, begging, for Thom Yorke's other-worldly voice to shake them. Holy crap, I had waited my whole life for this tour stop.

    The shows finally came after a particularly long month of May. Sitting in the gallery of the Auditorium the first night was beautiful, yet slightly scary to be flailing at such a great height (even Thom pointed out that we were "way fucking up there").

    The second night was even better. For the small price of my second-born child (my first-born, I am told, was already compromised at a less-than-lucid White Sox game), I was able to get one ticket, third row of the first balcony. Also, the couple next to me gave me the aisle so that I could sufficiently boogie. I appreciated their kindness for appreciating my madness.

    Since the new album is yet to be released, Radiohead decided to use the tour to work out the kinks in their new material. Each concert, we were treated to at least eight new Radiohead songs in their unrefined stages. One of the greatest moments from the second show was when Thom requested we bear with them, as they had just tried tinkering around with the next new song that day in Chicago; they liked it and they hoped we would too. This was the debut of "All I Need," a song so uncooked that Thom spent most of it standing up at the piano to direct traffic with his eyes as his bandmates worked through it. Chills.

    * * *

    Radiohead's new music is brilliant - and I'm not just saying that as a "sycofant." At times, the new music is reminiscent of their earlier days - the driving guitars on lesser-revered albums such as Pablo Honey (1993) and The Bends (1995), and even so far as the stand-out rocker "Electioneering" on OK Computer (1997). Their return to simplistic rock 'n' roll is a long-awaited one for me. But to say it's like "old Radiohead" is too easy; there is still a noticeable difference in this latest change of direction.

    For example, in the punky new tune, "Bangers n Mash," I am reminded of the attitude on Pablo's "How Do You," but the work comes with an extra layer of excitement and fervor. It's almost as though the 13 years of maturation between the writing of these songs can be heard in all the instruments; from Johnny's snake-charming guitar, to Phil's over-worked high-hat, to Thom's best attempt at making his voice ugly and gritty, as he pounds away on a mini-drum kit and screams "I got the poison!" This coming from a man who has for so long accepted that his heavenly voice was ostensibly incapable of such griminess.

    So basically, the new stuff rocks. Even "Nude (Big Ideas)," a newly reworked old B-side that was highlighted in almost every show of their 2006 tour, is now somehow a lovelier version of a song that was already gorgeous.

    Since 1997, waiting for each new album has been an exercise in shaky nerves and giddy anticipation. Assuming, as I did back then, that no musical compilation could ever again touch the glory of OK Computer, I have always feared the disappointment of a just okay Radiohead album. It is a serious worry that plagues my existence, and perhaps that is why I am so joyous every time they come through with another masterpiece.

    I sense now that Thom Yorke is more certain and self-assured than ever before. For a man already known for risky musical endeavors, he is especially risky - and frisky - these days. I am sure the man has always been secure in the grandeur of his voice, but there is something different in his demeanor lately, too. I saw it in his performances this summer, and I've seen it in his recent interviews. He finally seems fully comfortable giving us whatever he wants to give, whether we like it or turn away. He is still experimental as ever; experimental for Thom Yorke and Radiohead is going back to the riff-centric songs of the early days.

    The new songs are patient, well thought-out, and deliberate. And not surprisingly, we freaking love it. Let Johnny play that guitar until his fingers are dizzy and all the snakes have been charmed from their baskets! The Head-heads are here to listen, at your mercy. We got the poison.


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    Posted on September 30, 2006

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    BOOKS - The Unintended Consequences Of Taming Nature.

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