So I was in Death Valley this weekend with my wife and two of my oldest friends (from my high school days in sunny, exotic St. Helens, Oregon) and in basically a day and a half, we made a mad dash through that vast national park (if “vast” describes anything at all, it describes Death Valley) so that I could be back in Los Angeles in time to catch Ted Leo at the Center for the Arts in Eagle Rock.
The evening was billed as “An Evening with Ted Leo” and it featured a ton of stand-up comedy and also a pretty intriguing Q&A session between Leo and original Black Flag singer (also ex-Circle Jerk and current member of Off) Keith Morris, who is perhaps the only white guy over 50 who actually looks okay with dreadlocks. Or maybe he’s the only white guy period who looks okay with dreadlocks.
Leo came out first and tore through a couple of songs before explaining how the evening would go down. As a solo performer, Leo isn’t that different than he is with the Pharmacists – he plugs in his electric guitar, stands tall before his amplifier, and proceeds to tear shit up. The indie kids can be as excited as they want about the Arcade Fire winning a Grammy, but I’ll reserve my elation for the day when Ted Leo graces the cover of Guitar Player magazine and a Pharmacists record upsets the Arcade Fire for a Grammy. Then we’ll know things have truly changed for the better. Leo’s electric solo set did what his live shows always do for me: it made me wanna go home and play my electric guitar really fucking loud. Punk music tends to address (and create) a lot of tension, and that tension is best released through the pure, beautiful catharsis of distorted electric noise. Leo brought it by the bucketful last night and I was excited (and admittedly nervous) to have the opportunity to shake his hand at the end of the night and just thank him for being one of the great unsung rock heroes we have left (indeed, Ted Leo may be our last great punk hero. Discuss).
The comedy was pretty great too. Paul F. Tompkins started off the evening, returning to the stage as Reginald Van Voorst, producer of the failed Ted Leo & the Pharmacists Broadway musical. Van Voorst/Tompkins discussed some of his new projects, the most intriguing of which to me was “Yes Chocolate, No Chocolate”, a high-concept, arty-farty show about two pieces of chocolate, one of which can sing, the other of which can dance, though neither can do anything while the other is doing their thing. That’s bound to be better than fucking Cats. Tompkins then joined Leo for a deliciously shabby rendition of “Anarchy in the U.K..”
Probably my favorite comedian of the night was Jen Kirkman, whose humor I’ve only encountered through Twitter before last night (several comedians I follow have retweeted her quips and I was extremely excited to see her on stage). For one thing, I’m always happy to see women do stand-up. Comedy, like rock ‘n’ roll, has been a bit of a boys’ club for far too long, although I have the feeling (and the hope) that things are starting to change for the better. Anyway, Kirkman was not only one of the funniest people on stage last night, she was one of the most fiercely intelligent (an accolade I would also bestow upon Mr. Leo). My relating her bits in print will not do them justice, but I would like to talk a bit about one thing she did that was both striking and sad. She was talking about the gap she feels between people her age (she’s 36) and the new crop of 21-and-unders she saw at the show. To illustrate her point, she brought a kid up on stage and started talking to him. He started using the internet when he was seven (when I was seven, we had a Commodore computer with a cassette memory. You literally could not do anything useful on it at all) and lost his virginity when he was fifteen (I’m not going to tell you when I lost my virginity; suffice it to say I was a helluva lot older than fifteen). That stuff was all well and good. But when Kirkman asked him if he had any opinions on politics – whether he supported, say, the Tea Party or the Democrats or some other groups on the left or right – he kind of shrugged his shoulders. So she asked if he had any thoughts on what had just happened in Egypt or what’s currently going on in Wisconsin and received the same sort of shrug. Kirkman excused the kid (was his name Rick? If not, why not?) and ended her set by cracking a few more light-hearted jokes but also by admonishing the crowd to learn their history – both political and cultural. It was a pretty blunt set and I fucking loved it.
Look: it’s your choice if you don’t want to know about anything that happened before you were born. But, at the very least, you should know that if you do that, you’re choosing ignorance. And I don’t think everyone who goes to a punk show has to come in and pass out pamphlets or whatever, but I would have thought the audience at a Ted Leo show would be a bit better equipped to rise to Kirkman’s bait. Maybe it’s just an L.A. thing. I hope.
The audience mostly cleared out for the Q&A, which was their loss. Keith Morris can be a bit pretentious and he’s certainly discursive so you can probably deduce from that statement that I like the man very much. He hates genre as much as I do (he refused time and time again to call Ted Leo “punk”, but we’ll discuss that a little later on) and he had some fun stuff to say about his time in Black Flag and his experiences since being diagnosed with diabetes in 1999. This Q&A (and indeed the whole evening) was clearly something Ted Leo wanted to do in order to just try something different. He alluded to that fact toward the end of the Q&A, and I appreciated Leo’s willingness to take a chance by putting on what basically ended up being a punk variety show.
So about Morris’s refusal to define Leo (or himself) a “punk”: as a genre of music, I don’t think “punk” is a very useful word anymore (it hasn’t been since the first time someone tried to describe Blink-182 as “punk”). But as a spirit, punk is a living, useful thing and I think Ted Leo very much embodies that thing. The spirit of punk is one of a deep, honest humanism mixed with a probing social consciousness. Leo’s music runs the gamut from rock ‘n’ roll to hardcore to reggae to pop and back again, but the spirit of what he does is punk in the best possible way, a way that shows others how to be totally awesome punks themselves.