Monday, October 13, 2008

Spiritualized through the years

Spiritualized front man and only consistent member Jason Pierce (aka J Spaceman) has gone through a tremendous amount of ups and downs during his 20+ years as a rock star, a cult icon, a rock revolutionist, and a most tortured soul. Jason, with the help of a few fellow Rugby mates and a crate full of musical influences (from 13th Floor Elevators and Velvet Underground to Alex Chilton to Phil Spector), formed Spacemen 3. The group will live forever in the annals of rock history as the band that reinvented psychedelic rock in the 80’s, pioneering a style that became known as “Space Rock” or “Heroin Rock” and quickly spread like wildfire across the UK, then into Europe and the States.

Spacemen 3 broke up in the early 90’s after a bitter difference of opinions between Pierce and co-founder Sonic Boom. Spiritualized came to be shortly thereafter, picking up where Spacemen 3 had left off. The sound was loud (taking Spector’s “wall of sound” production style and adding his personal fingerprint) and included wailing guitars bent through a signature mixture of pedals and effects, old Farfisa organs (a sound Pierce said he could only find with Farfisa), chimes, horns, harmonica and anything else he could find to fill gaps in his sound.

I first saw Spiritualized on their second trip to Colorado in 1995. It was like nothing I had ever seen before or since. Amazing lights, tighter than tight band, it was not quite rock, not quite blues, and not quite soul, but it was all three together with enough volume to leave your ears ringing for days afterwards. Jason sat in a chair, not even acknowledging the crowd or the other musicians on stage with him. He looked, quite frankly, like death. He was unrealistically skinny, pale, and pretty much motionless for the entire show. I remember walking out thinking, “Man I’m so glad I saw this guy before he died.”

Pierce has had a well-publicized (as well as talked about frequently in his own music) struggle with heroin addiction and alcohol abuse throughout his entire career. There was a Spacemen 3 album half-jokingly titled Taking Drugs to Make Music to Take Drugs to. This ideal applied equally to Spiritualized. How can you make music for fucked up people without being fucked up yourself? Though his songs dealt mainly with 3 subjects: Drugs, God, and Love, none of them were romanticized in either lyrics or delivery. Instead, he sang about them as objects of longing and misery. It was if he was answering the unasked question “What eats you up?”

Since the first show I saw in 1995, I have made absolutely sure to see every show he played in Colorado. Each one was amazing in its own way. One show saw a large horn section on stage, with additional horn players in the balcony behind the crowd. The lightshow just got better and bigger every time. But Jason himself did not. I had the opportunity to meet him a few times backstage and talk a little: about soul music, about touring, about Richard Ashcroft from the Verve dating his ex-girlfriend and ex-band mate. He was polite and quiet, but clearly drained. Exhaustion may not have been the disease, but it was certainly a symptom. I left each of these shows thinking it was the last time I’d see him. And it almost was.

Jason writes in “Walking With Jesus”, a Spacemen 3 song and still a standard in his repertoire, “These wings are gonna fail me” and in June of 2005 they finally did. He was admitted to a London hospital with extreme bilateral pneumonia, a condition that left him unable to breathe by himself and led to a coma-like state, twice having to be rescued from respiratory failure. Friends and family gathered, unsure of whether they were helping him recover or saying their goodbyes. After a month in intensive care Pierce was down to about 100 pounds (at 5’ 10”) and very weak, but he miraculously pulled through the illness and was able to walk out of the hospital on his own.

According to Pierce, this illness had a devastating effect not only on his body, but on his passion for the one thing he loved to do more than all else, making music. He had already written and recorded the vast majority of a new album, inspired by a 1929 Gibson guitar he had picked up at a junk store in Cincinnati, but could not get himself back into the game enough to finish it. He spent his time with his girlfriend and children, as well as helping to care for a close friend who had suffered a stroke around the same time that Jason fell ill. He left the album on the shelf for the better part of two years.

During this time, Jason had a chance encounter with a film maker named Harmony Korine, who Pierce became very fond of very quickly, particularly with his excitement about his art, his ambition to make new original things and to change the way people view said art. This inspiration is the reason Jason picked his guitar back up, dusted off the equipment, and went back to work. He made the first music he’d made since his sickness, some lovingly crafted and creative work released on the soundtrack for Mister Lonely that Korine described as “ethereal and moody .“

After this relationship resparked Pierce’s interest in making music, he began playing in an acoustic “band” (Basically him with a pianist or organ player, string section, and backup gospel style singers.) They took to playing about England and select US shows, with a performance at Harlem’s Apollo Theater being the highlight. This is where the love of music really returned to him. He tells of performing at these shows with tears rolling down his face, overcome by the emotion of his own songs.

Re-energized from these performances, he returned to his shelved 1929 Gibson album and was taken aback by how prophetic the album turned out to be. The songs were about death, sickness, and mortality. So much so that many fans believed the songs were written, or at least re-written after his stay in the ICU. He assures us this is not the case. The album, entitled Songs in A&E was finshed and released in May of 2008. The artwork is almost entirely photos of IV rigs, which look like something between a syringe and a crucifix, and something so simple having so much meaning and importance is the theme of not only the album art, but the album itself.

Songs in A&E has been most often described as a “stripped down” version of classic Spiritualized, but I don’t think that does it justice. What it is to me is a progression from classic Spiritualized, an evolved version. Soul takes over as the primary driving force instead of drone. His voice is clear and flawed instead of distorted and perfect. The songs are still emotional and maybe even more so in this case, with feelings that used to be numbed and trivialized now being felt completely and poured out through these songs.

The tour for this album brought Spiritualized back to Colorado and I was there, full of anticipation about what I was about to see. I had deliberatly stayed away from show reviews or live footage, as I wanted to be totally surprised by what I saw. It had been far too long since they had been here, and so much had happened in his life.

From the second they came on stage, I was blown away by Jason’s appearance. He was lively, energetic, friendly (not only acknowledging the crowd but repeatedly applauding us throughout the night), but most importantly, looked like a man in perfect health. He looked big, strong and happy. He appeared to really be enjoying himself for the first time that I had ever seen. He was watching his bandmates and encouraging them, he was pumping his fist, he was smiling, and he was great.

They had a full rock band up there, guitar, bass, organ, drums, along with two gospel backup singers dressed completely in white and lit to look like angels. They opened with “Amazing Grace,” the traditional hymn, with Jason revving his guitar all along. It was moving and beautiful. Then came what is always my favorite moment at any Spiritualized show, which is the falling apart of a song (in this case “You Lie, You Cheat”) into a chaos of sound, waves of sound inside a wall of sound that intensifies in rhythm, volume and tension as it rages towards an orgasmic peak and then falls instantly into the quiet, sedated intro of “Shine a Light” which is perhaps the most brilliant song in Pierce’s arsenal.

The show was a great mix of old and new, the highlights for me being “Lay Back in the Sun” and “Ladies and Gentlemen We are Floating in Space” with an encore of “Lord Can You Hear Me?” that sent shivers up my spine. The quiet songs were soulful and lovely, the loud songs were really really loud (I think it was the loudest I have ever seen them.) and the segues between the two were masterful. Jason was really at the top of his game and it was so wonderful and refreshing to see.

The most important thing to me this time was that there was no undertone of misery, no wondering if this was the last time. There was only joy and excitement at what could come next.

1 comment:

ben desoto said...

The show seemed so calm to me. J Spaceman always seemed like the sane one in Spaceman 3. His band is so perfect to the point of being almost cold.
Does a band that comes across as such a personal experience need to be seen live? Maybe the best way to experience Spiritualized is at home on the turntable.