In thinking about the summer of 1993 shows I realized I was on the verge of forgetting about an important one I saw during that season, probably around July or so. No ticket at all for it — I guess they weren’t being sold via Ticketmaster, and I have vague ideas of me either adding myself to a list via a phone call or just purchasing it at the door, and perhaps there was never a formal ticket stub at all. It’s been far too long now and I’m not positive either way.
It definitely was one of the most anticipated shows I ever saw, and one of the first times I saw this performer, who had led and would again yet lead a band that I once considered my absolute favorite after My Bloody Valentine. So I am a little surprised that I’d almost forgotten this show — and then again, maybe that just reflects where I’ve gone in the years since.
The Chameleons were a band I’d heard about without having had heard, thanks to Trouser Press and Jack Rabid, who I think turned on most of the band’s American fanbase to them over the years. It wasn’t as if the Chameleons hadn’t had their supporters eager to see them and they did tour America for what at the time was their final studio album Strange Times — they even played San Diego on that tour, I gather, which meant I would have been around, but totally unaware of them. While U2 was breaking out big time, the Chameleons, almost near exact contemporaries and similarly possessed of a bent for serious themes and seriously surging, beautiful guitar riffs and a feeling of the epic, were playing clubs still. Such is life and all.
The full story of the Chameleons would take far too long to tell — lead singer Mark Burgess has done his own version of it via the book A View from a Hill, one perspective out of four in the band alone — and it’s one of losses, regrets, might-have-beens, mixed in with the fact that they still did it regardless — three albums, a slew of singles, radio sessions and more aren’t things to be sniffed at, as any blog trawl these days through the story of bands who could only manage a single or a comp appearance at best. My own story in terms of being a fan was pretty simple — having read about them through Trouser Press as mentioned, I finally stumbled across the original CD release of What Does Anything Mean? Basically in early 1992 and bought it sight unseen. From the sweeping synth instrumental “Silence, Sea and Sky” that opened the album, I was completely, totally sold — oddly enough given that it was in many ways the most un-Chameleons like song of all, not a guitar to be heard. But “Perfumed Garden” changed my impression of the band on that front and I was off to the races.
Hearing about anything any of the bandmembers were doing was next to impossible in 1992 — there didn’t seem to be any fanclub as such and again, pre-widespread Internet things were a little harder to track down in general. I had somehow gathered a near complete discography by the following year, thanks to a sudden rush of reissues and new releases of old or otherwise unheard material. It seemed like every month there’d be a new radio sessions disc or live album or something similar, and pretty soon all I needed was a CD of Strange Times.
Which, conveniently, was being released by Geffen in the summer of 1993, perhaps due to all the implicit prompting. At the same time, reports via Melody Maker indicated that Burgess, having lain a bit low after his immediate post-Chameleons band the Sun and the Moon had broken up, was due to release his first solo album under the name Mark Burgess and the Sons of God, Zima Junction. The album name was a bit prepossessing — I just kept thinking of malt liquor ads — but at least it was something new, and while it’s certainly far more restrained all around than the Chameleons by default, it’s a pleasant little joy to listen to still.
The real kicker, though, was that he was going to play a couple of brief American dates — no band or anything from what we heard, just himself. So a few of us started making some immediate plans — Rich A., who as mentioned was I think the person I went with to see Cranes later on in the summer, mutual friend Misty, at least a couple of other folks. It was a show at the Whisky, an easy and familiar enough location to get to, and not too far down the way on Sunset from the Geffen label headquarters, which I remember Mark saying something a little snarky about during the show.
But that’s jumping ahead a touch in the evening — it was a lovely summer night in LA, almost as per usual, and I remember us parking down on Doheny (where it was free) and walking up the hill to Sunset, most of us charging ahead and Misty following at a nicely regal pace. I don’t have much in the way of clear memories of the rest of the crowd at the show, but I’m sure there were more than a few goths, even though the Chameleons were never a goth band as such – but for whatever reason, they seemed to be the core of the fanbase in America, so go figure. Given my own sympathies I wasn’t exactly surprised (nor out of place).
I’m not positive but I’m pretty sure – reasonably – that one opening band was Super Thirtyone, the almost but not quite answer to shoegaze in the LA area at the time. They weren’t the only one by any means but they were the major one in terms of what they were after and what they wanted to be (not for nothing did they package their debut EP to even look like an import on something like Creation or Dedicated, for instance). There was definitely another set by a fellow Manchester musician friend of Burgess’s who had played on the solo album, singer/songwriter vocal/guitar, all straightforward enough. It was pleasant stuff but more than anything I was just thrilled to finally be able to see any member of the Chameleons do their thing – sure, it had only been a little over a year since I had learned about them but I had fallen and fallen hard for the band, completely and totally. If it wasn’t MBV-level fascination it sure was close.
I don’t remember anything momentous about him coming onto the stage, but I do remember a sense of warmth, of real appreciation. It wasn’t the first time I’d seen such a thing at a show, it would hardly be the last, and my own thoughts were certainly coloring the experience, something that replicates itself in many different contexts and places every day. It was still something to behold, the more so because even though there would be new songs and all, there surely would be plenty of Chameleons numbers, but heard in a way that we hadn’t quite yet before, just one guy and his acoustic guitar. A simple enough thing, it seemed.
I’ve heard a bootleg of the San Francisco show he did either just before or just after this particular performance, the general setlist was about the same from what I can remember, including the one fellow from Manchester joining him on stage for a song from the solo album and maybe one other one. I remember everyone was locked in, not completely hushed in reverence but sometimes barely restraining their silence as the performance continued. Lots of cheers between songs, plenty of comments from Burgess, who I’ve found to be a pleasantly garrulous fellow in the times I’ve briefly spoken with him over the years here and there.
Hearing songs like “Mad Jack,” “Tears,” “Soul in Isolation,” “Paper Tigers,” “Perfumed Garden” and more was just this constant thrill for me, I admit. Why do some bands simply entertain and others completely possess, well, who can say in the end, but if I was swept up in a romantic impulse I was loving it. His version of “Caution” was in many ways the mindblower, building up to the last frenetic howl and stop followed by the audience cheering like they could be heard across the basin. Mesmerizing.
But not as mesmerizing as the real highlight. As he performed “Second Skin” – possibly my favorite Chameleons song of them all in the end – suddenly a long haired fellow jumped on stage from the audience near to where the microphone that the other musician had been using still remained. This was well into the song, nobody moved to get him off stage, Burgess kept playing. As far as I know to this day, he was just a pretty intense fan – I’d say he was Indian in background but beyond that, couldn’t tell you a thing about him.
Except he did the most amazing thing, really. As the song concludes in its studio version, Burgess sings both a beautiful closing verse and a line he repeats almost as a rhythm, “Someone’s banging on my door,” the one overlaid over the other. Obviously he can’t do that live. But whoever his fan was, he just quietly – and not too badly, really – sang that “Someone’s banging on my door” part just at the right spot each time, as Burgess sang the concluding verse. The cheers at the conclusion of this one were even bigger in my memory, Burgess quickly hugged the fan and said a few words to him and said fan got back down off the stage without a care.
It was a kind of perfect moment, a perfect fannish moment perhaps and yet. The whole show didn’t feel like a show so much like this kind of get-together, like we were all at someone’s house somehow. It was radically different to all the other shows I’d attended at the Whiskey up to that point, and I don’t know if I’ve been to one there since that’s quite felt the same way.
As we were all leaving the area Burgess appeared on Sunset in a car being driven somewhere by a friend. Misty shouted out “We love you Mark!” and he waved at us as he passed by. And why not?