People are always telling me not to take things personally. “You gotta have a thick skin,” they say. “It’s not about you,” they insist. This usually follows someone saying or doing something particularly hurtful to me, and the advice just pisses me off. But then I find myself saying the same stupid things to others, especially when I write something particularly harsh or vitriolic about a band. And it almost never works. We take things personally because we’re people. When we stop taking things personally, what are we?
Last week, I had the honor of witnessing the Bluebird Theater holiday extravaganza, hosted by Born in the Flood. At the event, Bela Karoli, the Swayback, Andrew Warner of Red Cloud West and Bad Luck City, Doug Spencer and Hayley Helmericks of Monofog, Joe Sampson, the Wheel, Paper Bird, Ian Cooke, Joseph Pope III, Aaron Collins of Machine Gun Blues and many others graced the theater’s stage in various combinations and permutations. The goosebump-inducing night culminated with an impassioned set by Born in the Flood, joined by several of the evening’s performers.
Not surprisingly, the overall feel of the event was somewhere between a variety show and a Pentecostal revival. We’ve all come to expect Denver’s musicians to hug, congratulate and bow down before one another, and there was certainly plenty of that. Likewise, in the audience, the usual suspects – those who’ve left permanent indentations on barstools at the hi-dive and Larimer Lounge and cheered on their friends’ performances – crowded the floor of the theater and spoke in tongues as they pressed adoringly against the stage.
What was surprising, though, was the enthusiastic adulation from the folks for whom many of the performers were strangers. That young girl probably heard the Swayback on the radio. Perhaps that woman read an article in the Post about Born in the Flood. A friend probably told that guy that one of the bands was going to be the next Fray or Fluid.
I spent a lot of my time that night watching the audience. From my perspective, the majority seemed rapt, excited and even attentive to the performance, especially given the unusual nature of the show – with some acts playing only a couple of songs and various artists wandering on and off the stage at odd times. The crowd treated the local lads and lasses like rock stars, throwing up cell phones, cheering loudly and gladly allowing the performers even the most self-indulgent whims.
As I turned my attention back to the stage, I tried to scrape the years and beers away – to forget that I know these people and can anticipate nearly every note – and to enjoy the show through a neophyte’s eyes and ears.
But I couldn’t. I couldn’t help smiling affectionately at Collins’ antics as he adapted his usual whiskey-spitting on-stage persona to better fit the evening’s vibe. And when Joe Pope’s dad threw his arm around my shoulder, gestured to the stage with eyes swimming in tears and exclaimed, “Those are my boys,” his love and pride echoed in my own heart and made the music sound even better.
When we experience art – whether it’s a book, a painting, a film, a photograph, a musical performance, theater or anything else – we bring all of our previous experiences, assumptions, emotions and prejudices like uninvited-but-welcome guests to the party. All of that a priori stuff not only informs how we perceive the art – it actually transforms the art itself.
In literature, critical theorists like Georges Poulet, Louise Rosenblatt and Wolfgang Iser used terms like “reader response” and “interiority” to describe the excogitative discussion that takes place among an author, her work and its reader. That might seem a little heady and academic for rock-and-roll, but it comes down to the fact that the meaning, emotions and impact of a public musical performance are incomplete without an audience. And because of that, the meaning, emotions and impact are highly dependent on the perceptions of the audience. In other words, when I see Ian Cooke perform, I literally see and hear something different from what you see and hear.
I see you’re starting to glaze over, so let me get back to my point: taking it personally.
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The next time you catch a performance by our local luminaries, take it personally Show up completely and demand the same of them. Don’t just look and listen – create. This is where the real power of music – or any art – resides. Distance, detachment and depersonalization have their places, but those places do not include the dive bars, coffee shops and intimate theaters where our minstrels and jesters meet us face-to-face and make shit happen. Allow the experience to move you, arouse you, thrill you, piss you off and change you.
Despite what your mom and your guidance counselor told you, you have to take it personally.
We receive you with free sense at last, and are insatiate henceforward, Not you any more shall be able to foil us, or withhold yourselves from us, We use you, and do not cast you aside – we plant you permanently within us, We fathom you not – we love you – there is perfection in you also, You furnish your parts toward eternity, Great or small, you furnish your parts toward the soul. -- Walt Whitman, “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry”
-- Eryc Eyl