The Ballad of The Screaming Girl
i’m offline for the next week, collapsed and recovering from tour.
but i’m transmitting a few blogs that i didn’t have time to write and send while scrambling around oz in the madness of the last few weeks.
(i feel like ira glass.)
it was the first time i’ve ever actually broken down on stage and not been able to stop crying.
the funny thing is, i was in a good mood that day. a great mood, even.
i was probably a little worn out from touring and facing the usual stresses of traveling life, but as far as i can remember, nothing was particularly eating at me that day.
maybe i’d hit the tour wall harder than i thought. maybe it was just too many factors all converging at once and there’s only so much one cane take. i think it was that.
anyway, for those of you who were there and wondering What The Fuck? i thought i’d explain, and i think it’ll be interesting for everyone else (and good for me to write, for myself).
the day started off dandy and soundcheck rolled along ok – although we were clearly in a venue that wasn’t built for rock shows.
we were playing a place in brisbane called The Old Museum, a grand, sweeping church-like space built over a hundred years ago for a world exhibition, then converted to a museum, and more recently converted into a arts center.
the PA had been trucked in from the outside world with accompanying crew, which always means more room for error. i had hired a film crew of 4-5 guys to record the show, audio and video, and the fact that we were in a sketchy space audio-and-tech-wise was putting us on edge. my friends showed up – my old comrades steven mitchell wright & mark hill from the danger ensemble, along with some other tricksters, and tom from the jane austen argument was doing an opening set and mikelangelo and his band, the the tin star, were there to support and back me up (funny, that works literally, especially tonight).
there was some tension in the crew and a mix-up right before i went on stage. eric, who was acting as general tour manager, and nigel, my promotor rep, had a miscommunication about my set length. it threw the entire set list that i’d planned with the film crew. this happened 20 minutes before i hit stage. then, five minutes before i hit stage, someone grabbed me and starting haranguing me about somebody else.
*let me give you a piece of advice that barely seems necessary: never start bitching to a performer – about ANYTHING – when they’re just about to step on stage. it’s like one of the golden rules of show business. it throws everything off, to the extreme sometimes. the damage it does is insidious – your brain gets knocked off track and instead of thinking about the task at hand, your brain starts working on other problems, which it shouldn’t be doing when it’s supposed to be thinking about transmitting something bigger, something else entirely to a room of hundreds of people.
that was number one. i lost my footing.
the first song – a great mikelangelo-on-accordion-and-tin-star version of “missed me” which i sang off-keyboard and roving around the stage and on top of the front row – was brilliant even though the sound was wonky. then i sat down and the keyboard and we blasted into “astronaut” – which sounded fantastic…until my monitors cut out and i could’t hear a thing (for you sound geeks out there: i’ve switched from using in-ear monitors to floor wedges since touring solo, even when i’m playing with a back-up band. it just sounds better). this happens more often than you might think. it’s a piece of electronic equipment. there was a brilliant moment at a show in ghent, belgium when i was on tour with the danger ensemble. the keyboard cut out at the very top of “astronaut” – which was also at the very top of the show – after a huge, dramatic entrance (with the danger ensemble literally carrying my corpse up to the piano).
we stopped the show, laughed about it, fixed the keyboard, informed the audience that we were starting over, and did just that. things like that can actually get the audience on your side; you immediately rip through the illusion of perfection, and create a rapport with them when you completely break the fourth wall and bring them to the inside of your duct-taped process. i’d dare to say that most of the shows i’ve played that had heavy-duty technical problems were some of the best shows i’ve ever played, because you wind up being on a team with your audience in a cosmic game of MAN vs TECHNOLOGY. and those that aren’t the best are the worst: your equipment doesn’t work and it’s like your voice is strangled away from you…your transmission is blown, and you can’t grab the audience, you can’t get your point across loud enough to get them on your side in the game.
this is one of the beautiful things about already having a fanbase, instead of playing shows to strangers that you have to win over.
instead of introducing yourself, it’s more like striking up a conversation with an old friend, and there’s lots of room for forgiveness.
the audience was totally forgiving, encouraging, laughing and cheering with us as we tried to fix the problem. that’s always nice.
but also fucking frustrating. the sound guys were scrambling, confused, and didn’t know whether they could get the keyboard amplified of not, so michael and i bantered with each other and kept flip-flopping about whether to wait or to just move on to a part of the set without the keyboard. the techs told us the sound was fixed, and we blasted into “astronaut” again, but it was a false start. the sound cut out about two minutes in. we stopped again. this time we abandoned the keyboard and started a different song.
by that point, i was slightly frayed. but fine. far worse things have happened to me and i’ve dealt with far nastier problems on stage.
there was something UP with the audience that night, and many people commented on it later. i asked steven and mark about it, the next night over drinks.
i asked them Was It Just Me, or was it totally nuts? people were stupid drunk, braying like animals, pounding during songs during inappropriate times, just acting CRAY-CRAY.
it only takes 10-20 people like that in an audience of 800 to throw the vibe, especially if this 10-20 people are spread around the room, which these guys were. it was unsettling.
the floods were only a few weeks behind us. “was it that?” i asked steven and mark. they mulled.
“probably,” they said. brisbane is bogan, but usually not that bogan.
that was number two. my footing got looser, the rocks were slipping.
then there was The Screaming Girl.
this girl was screaming.
i’m not exaggerating, and the poor folks who were surrounding her in the front row can vouch for me: this was screaming.
blood-curdling, spastic, ear-covering, painful, call-the-cops fucking screaming.
and she wasn’t waiting for songs to stop to merge her screaming with the cheering of the audience.
she was just. screaming. all. the. time.
it was really fucked up.
i couldn’t tell WHAT she was screaming for a while, and i could see the discontent in the folks around her, but my audience usually self-polices.
a person screaming like that usually gets told to shut up enough times by the adjacent crowd that they settle down out of sheer embarrassment.
only rarely do i have to call them out. and even when i do, i try to just use humor to make them shut up.
so i addressed her, and asked if she could please keep it down a little, and yes i loved her too, but maybe we could talk with each other after the show about how much we loved each other or whatever, but she just kept screaming. and she wouldn’t listen to me when i talked to her, she was too far gone.
and it was WHAT she was screaming, that was what killed me.
I FUCKING LOOOOOOVE YOU AMANDA!!!! AAAAAAAAAAGGGGGGGGGHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!!!!
I FUCKING LOVE IT WHEN YOOOOOU SIIIIIIIIING!!!!!!!!!!!
I FUCKING FUCKING LOVE YOU. AGGHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!!
and so on.
let me try to describe how it feels to be screamed at by someone that they “FUCKING LOVE YOU” when this person is a few feet from your face, and they will not listen to you talk to them.
it’s honestly one of the loneliest feelings in the whole world.
imagine this happening to you in an isolated living room. imagine someone shouting in your face at top volume that they fucking love you to death, but never stopping to take a breath and not listening to a word you’re actually trying to say to them (i know people in relationships like this. it’s not pretty). that’s some fucked up shit. the only difference here is that we’re at a rock show.
which makes it easier (rock shows are “crazy”), but harder; the crowd of 800+ people is standing there watching, holding their collective breath, watching this painfully dysfunctional relationship play out before their eyes. you hold the reigns, you’ve got the mic, you’re running the show. nobody is there to help, nobody is there to tell you what the right move is, and your feelings are bruised and confused, and you’ve got to figure out what to do with this girl. after two songs and enough back-and-forth with her that everyone was getting sick of it, i told her, basically, that i loved her but that she was out of line.
she apologized. she was WASTED. i don’t think i’ve ever, in the history of touring, ejected someone from a show. people have been ejected for being violent, drunk, crazy, whatever, but i’ve never done it from stage. maybe i have. i don’t remember.
i was about to start the song “australia” and was chatting about it, giving the basic introduction to the song, about how much i loved the country, about how the song had come to mean more to me than it had when i wrote it, about how much i loved being there…..i can’t even remember what i was rambling about, and i started playing the piano intro.
and she started in again, screaming that she loved me.
and i said, quietly:
“don’t make me want to go home.”
then there was a nasty silence.
and nobody said anything.
and she stopped screaming.
and i kept playing. but the silence killed me, and i started to cry. really crying. kinda sobbing.
i think it was everything. i think my soul had climbed up on a tight-wire over the course of the show and i hadn’t realized it. then i fell off and there was no net. i just felt broken.
and i said “i’m sorry” into the microphone and that just made things worse. i looped the intro, assuming my feelings would quiet down (they always do). and they didn’t.
i must have needed it. who knows. but i broke down. i just wept.
i kept crying through the first verse of the song, kind of half singing and half choking. in the past, when i’ve done this, my ego has caught up with itself and righted the balance, but not this time.
i just kept bawling. inside i was like: this is fucking ridiculous.
then the lyrics of the song made things worse. the whole thing just snowballed into an emotional black hole of doom.
that’s simply never happened before.
i’ve cried on stage plenty of times, but almost always on my own terms. plenty of tears of joy, and plenty of tears from my own personal pain during songs like “half jack,” “dear old house,” “look mummy no hands,” and “hallelujah”. i’ve even cried during “ampersand.” and if i’ve got a couple drinks in me, i’ll cry at ANYTHING. fuck, i cried on a flight recently after two glasses of wine at a FUCKING HARRY POTTER MOVIE. i’m not kidding. TWICE. but this was different, and this i couldn’t control, and this stopped me in my tracks.
but i also think: this wouldn’t have happened had i not been with my own crowd. i think i felt safe enough to break down because i knew i was with my people.
there’s something triumphant about that: about the fact that i felt so safe, so genuinely ok with the people in the room, that i broke and stayed broken.
or maybe i let myself go to drive the point home to The Screaming Girl. you hurt me. you didn’t know how much. ow. look.
maybe. it’s hard to tell.
eventually mikelangelo came out and helped me out. he squeezed his way through the crowd and found Screaming Girl and started to talk to her. he put his arms around her, and told her if she didn’t calm down she’d have to go, and that he would drag her out himself. he stayed with her. and the next time she erupted into a fit of love, he hauled her ass through the crowd and into the street.
that’s a fucking friend.
the audience cheered.
eric, bless him, brought me a glass of wine, unbidden, to calm my nerves.
he asked me if i was ok.
that’s a fucking friend as well.
yeah. i’m fine.
and that was the End Of The Screaming Girl.
the rest of the show was brilliant. i even wound up naked wearing a my-little-pony merkin that steven had made for me, during “map of tasmania.”
it was quite a 180 from The Screaming Girl.
note to the world: if you encounter Screaming Girl (or Boy) at your local rock show, do not be afraid to speak up. your stage performer might be perplexed and/or emotionally paralyzed, your tour manager might be missing, and your club security might be out to lunch or out back having a cigarette. this is not to say you have the right to be that person who shouts “SHUT THE FUCK UP” every other minute during quiet songs. that’s just as obnoxious. but if things are as extreme as the above situation, you might try reasoning with them, and if they’re too far gone to hear you, find someone from club security to handle the situation. and if there’s no club security, maybe form a crowd-union and crowd-surf the offensive party to the door.
and to the performers and stage peoples reading this: believe me, this’ll happen to you someday. don’t be afraid to stop the show and fix shit and make the room what you need it to be, and surround yourself with the right people. if i’d been solo at this show with no friends and no crew, i don’t know what i would’ve done. well, i do know. i would have pressed on, alone. but man it felt good to be taken care of by my friends.
take charge, comrades, hold each other aloft, the night is yours.
also: i am offline but please go ahead and comment, i’ll read all the comments when i get back online next week.
plus, i like when you talk to each other.
p.s. here are some amazing photos from that night:
via evican on flickr
gareth, on bass:
via evican on flickr
via evican on flickr