Godspeed You! Black Emperor Break Up, Sort Of, Except Not Really
For a couple of months in 2000, I worked the box office at the Knitting Factory. That was the summer between sophomore and junior years of college for me, and it was the only time I lived in New York until I started doing this blog a couple of years ago. It wasn't much of a job. The club was going through a rough period, and for a while, they bounced all my paychecks; I had to borrow rent money from my mom. At the end of the night, I'd have to count all the money up, but either the new computer system couldn't do the shit right or I couldn't, so I'd always be there hours after the club closed, counting and recounting the money. Every time I'd walk in in the morning, the place would smell like a giant ashtray. Halfway through the summer, someone made an executive decision that underaged staffers couldn't drink for free at the club anymore, so a big part of the reason I was there in the first place just disappeared. But I got some good stories out of it, like the time all the bouncers were all busy and I got to kick out a drunk French guy who'd barfed in the hallway. And I got to see shows for free, which was a new concept. That summer, the one show that everyone at the club talked about for weeks beforehand was Godspeed You Black Emperor!, the shadowy instrumental Canadian collective who were coming to play a couple of benefits for Anthology Film Archives. (God only knows why they didn't actually play those benefits at Anthology, a space much better-suited to them.) On the night of the second show, I'd worked the day shift and I was plenty tired, but I wanted to see what all the fuss was about. The band was playing with no opening act, and so I figured I could just stick around after my shift. This was one of the only shows all summer that'd sold out beforehand, and people were wedged tight into the club by the time the lights went down. But instead of the band, we got a twenty-minute black-and-white experimental film. And then another one. The room was clogging up with cigarette smoke, and there wasn't anywhere to sit; this was not the ideal venue for Canadian experimental film. I went to find the night manager to ask when the band was going on, and she said that one of the drummers hadn't shown up yet so she had no idea. I skipped the rest of the show and went home early, and then I spent the next couple of years kicking myself over it.
I spent years kicking myself because I gradually came to fall in love with Lift Your Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven, the double-album they released later that year. I'm not sure why that record was the one that broke me. The band had already put out and album and an EP, and it wasn't like Lift Yr Skinny Fists was any different from those. The band did one thing: long extended pieces that started out quiet and diffuse, then slowly rose into vast and gorgeous wordless crescendos that seemed to go on cresting forever. For whatever reason, though, the loud bits on Skinny Fists just completely laid me out dead: the surging violins, the keening trumpets, the drums that started out as near-inaudible ticks and grew into crashing rolls. I committed entire twenty-minute-plus pieces to memory. But I thought I'd missed my chance to see them. The band was an anarchist collective, and anyone with even glancing experience with anarchist collectives knows that those guys can barely ever get shit done. They didn't tour much.
But they finally came to Baltimore in early 2003, playing the only show I ever saw at the city's vast Masonic Temple. I wrote about that show a little bit in my piece about the recent Brooklyn Neurosis shows that felt like the negative images of that Godspeed show. That Baltimore show was an event. They drew all the people who went to every indie-rock show at the time, which you'd expect them to do, but I also saw pretty much all of Baltimore's surprisingly large experimental-music mafia there, as well as crust-punk kids I hadn't seen since high school. When the band played, they didn't say a word to the crowd. The stage stayed in near-total darkness. We could only make out a few silhouettes onstage, and I never knew how many people were up there or who was playing what. While they played, stock footage, mostly of tanks and bombers, rolled on the screen behind them. But then, when the last big crescendo welled up, the bombs disappeared and the word Hope, flickering and dancing, stayed up there for the duration of their set. I remember being really weirdly moved by that word. Maybe it wouldn't have the same effect today, but during the run-up to the Iraq War, with all the weird paranoia that was in the air at the time, it was just hugely reassuring to even see that word after this band had spent a couple of hours reminding us about everything that was wrong.
I can't think of any big-tent indie-rock bands today that had that same mystery or urgency, any other band that could move me so completely just by displaying a word on a screen. I was never particularly interested in any of the side-project bands that GYBE splintered into largely because I never forged any connection to the actual people in the band. Instead, they were this shadowy impersonal force. Their music was like Eisenstein movies, where vast historical forces rather than puny individual dramas occupy center stage.
A few days ago, the website Drowned in Sound interviewed GYBE's Efrim Menuck, and he seemed to reveal the band's breakup, not particularly surprising considering they hadn't done shit since that 20003 tour. Said Menuck: "We would talk to people after the shows, or we could make announcements from the stage but so much what Godspeed was, was one-way communication. And I had an existential freak-out about that. That those tactics aren’t valid anymore. People didn’t need a rock band pointing in the direction of [how the world was at that point]. Maybe what they needed is some clumsy words, a presentation that was a little more human." That's sort of a weird point; the band's bigger-than-life qualities were what gave them their power. And how could their show become an avenue for two-way communication? Maybe that screen could show audience text-messages? That one Godspeed show I saw wasn't about information; it was about a sort of vast communal attempt to cope with stuff. Menuck continued: “On a personal level I now find [Godspeed You! Black Emperor] to be inappropriate [to do]." So that's it. They're gone. Or maybe not; he later gave Pitchfork a statement that the Drowned in Sound article had been a misprint but that the band was still on "indefinite hiatus," about as final a euphemism for breakup as any band seems to give anymore. That's too bad. I could really use another show like that one.
Voice review: Sean Carruthers on Godspeed You! Black Emperor's Yanqui U.X.O.
Voice review: Scott Seward on Godspeed You Black Emperor!'s Lift Yr Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven
Voice review: David Shawn Bosler on Godspeed You Black Emperor! at the Knitting Factory