The greatest live show experience I’ve ever had was on July 1st 2012 at the State Theater in Portland Maine. It was in Portland, Maine that I saw B.B. King play guitar like it was an activity he invented. Same town I saw the Flaming Lips drop balloons, bubbles and what I thought was the best live show. The first time I heard I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry it was amidst a three hour acoustic set Beck played in Massachusetts at the height of his vocal range. I’ve seen some impressive moments. I got to watch Etta James sing I’d Rather Be Blind, watch Slick Rick smirk from stage, Kool Keith change the words just to mess with the crowd.
On July 1st 2012 we had all bought tickets to watch Fiona Apple support her best album but I wasn’t sure how many people knew that. Some chatter revolved around “boy I hope she plays __ from Tidal.” This furrowed my brow a bit; that was three or four Fiona’s ago. THE IDLER WHEEL IS WISER THAN THE DRIVER OF THE SCREW AND WHIPPING CORDS WILL SERVE YOU MORE THAN ROPES WILL EVER DO is light years past where Tidal left off. I got it in my head that this was a greatest hits crowd looking for Criminal while the real story was right under their nose (not sure how much of this was super-fan paranoia).
That realization isn’t particularly unique. It’s a part of musical identity and it takes a lot of darn energy to be the kind of fan who constantly stays in the loop on new projects. People have jobs and tragedies and things to do. So I went back to my seat and watched as Fiona put on a very different kind of show than we expected. My wife described the songs as ending in a “jam session” where the players played and Fiona closed her eyes and danced like that unhinged person in your office or Julia Louis-Dreyfus at an office party in Seinfeld.
Before Idler Wheel… the consensus all the Fiona fans I knew had was that When the Pawn Hits the Conflicts He Thinks like a King What He Knows Throws the Blows When He Goes to the Fight and He’ll Win the Whole Thing ‘fore He Enters the Ring There’s No Body to Batter When Your Mind Is Your Might so When You Go Solo, You Hold Your Own Hand and Remember That Depth Is the Greatest of Heights and If You Know Where You Stand, Then You Know Where to Land and If You Fall It Won’t Matter, Cuz You’ll Know That You’re Right was the best thing she’d ever done. I think a large part of the allure that album has for us is not simply the lush Jon Brion production but it ends with the first Fiona Apple song I ever knew to be warm and loving.
Fiona’s most comfortable crafting Seinfeldian break ups into Shakespearean tragedy. She has such a power of language that the kind of hurt we all experience fairly often in our life (a sense of betrayal, heartbreak) can be magnified and made orchestral to the point that it draws the listener back to their version of this event. It forces you to see you as she sees her.
The last song on When The Pawn… is the first time any of us had heard her put that power in reverse and hit the gas. It has lines like “and you can use my skin, to bury secrets in. And I will settle you down.” How many times have you done that? Looked at the person you love and thanked them just with your eyes for being that settling force? Anyway, that song ends in a very important way. More than any song on the album it sounds cry-sung. It’s about her relationship to a famous magician. She waits backstage for him to be done his performance and if it goes too late she croons “It’s ok…you don’t need to say it…” and the song very particularly breaks off into silence as its own conclusion. She knows he will be looking for her backstage and want to say how important she is but she might have left and that’s alright. Those words are there whether they are said or not. We do not get the I Know we were expecting to close the song out. It’s implied, we know like he knows and she knows. That last moment of the song is left to be pregnant with everything wholehearted and loving and unsaid. As she sings the song I imagine our facial expressions took the same shape, that kind of spiritual trance music lures you into. As she gently releases the words “It’s ok…” someone jumps in from the third row, yelling loudly:
“WOOOO!!! WE LOVE YOU FIONA!!!”
Her face instantly breaks from the trance and wears a unique manifestation of hurt and frustration. She went right into a rant, shaming the crowd and they turned. Faces looking into faces grumbling “these diva entertainers…”
I’m sure it ruined the show for a lot of folks. Often I’ve wondered if the live show reviews were hatchet pieces pulling her apart or if someone out there was like me…and felt… validated. I got to see proof that Fiona cares about my favorite song she’s ever written, just as much as I do. The audience missed out on their responsibility. This is the price we pay for what we get. I Know creates a world so real that she tastes how brightly that love burned every time she sings it and she re-experiences that over and over for us. So that we can connect with her. If she breaks down and cries or hurls insults at us it is a part of how much she commits of herself to the art. Some people hate her for that but every person in every seat that night loved her for it, before she expressed it.
She’s probably the biggest single musical influence in my life from this generation. I didn’t grow up as Lou Reed was penning Heroin. For my generation she taught me how to give it all for your creative energy.
This has become a world full of people that love to take the air out of those who care. So the folks with their defenses down take a harder beating. She was always willing to take that beating. I loved her speech at the MTV Awards. I loved her that night in July of 2012 and that song will always stop my life dead in its tracks for four minutes and fifty five seconds.
Maybe fifty six.
That second after…is something else.