Not Just the Ticket — #42, The Sugarcubes, April 24, 1992

The Sugarcubes, Wiltern

Then-current album: Stick Around for Joy

Opening act: Cracker

Back of ticket ad: And once again KLSX. I wonder if their programmers were dimly thinking “Wait, SHOULD we play that new Pearl Jam song?” around this time.

The sign of the times about this ticket hit me only after I took a second look at it — ‘A Non-Smoking Venue.’ Eighteen years really is a long time (and as someone who loved it so very, very much when the smoking ban kicked in at bars and clubs a few years later, I had to have highly appreciated that mention at the time, or at least went, “Oh good,” even though I’d already been there before a few times).

In the meantime, Iceland! Or a few people from there.

Talking about the Sugarcubes or Björk actually requires me going back in time a bit, since I’m pretty sure — maybe even entirely sure, the more I think about it — that the Sugarcubes were the first band I bought an album by strictly due to the power of the press, without hearing a note of their music. Until 1987 or 1988 or so, my exposure to music was strictly through the straightforward means of hearing a band or musician on the radio or seeing them perform on TV or seeing their video. So I already had some sort of incentive or means of judgment at hand — I didn’t buy albums willy-nilly, they were expensive, took up a lot of my allowance, though I did pick up twelve inch singles a little more regularly. All of which is tendentiously obvious to note but, again, consider how far along we’ve all now gone.

1988 was the breakthrough year of getting my first CD player and moving into the second phase of getting into music big time, while I started paying more attention the various magazines and things around. I forget exactly which issue of Rolling Stone it was, but there was a feature later in the year — I think shortly before I went to UCLA — on this band called the Sugarcubes, of which I knew nothing. I didn’t follow the UK press at all, I had never heard of them, I didn’t know anything about the connections to bands like Crass, the sonic similarities others had heard via the Fall and the Cocteau Twins (neither of whom I knew at all either). I just read this article and thought, “Huh, well, they’re featured in here, I guess that must mean they’re good, they sound kinda interesting.”

Simple enough, that process.

I remember scratching my head a lot at Life’s Too Good when I first listened to it — I was happy too, mind you, it had a lot of songs on the disc, something like five bonus tracks. (My blissful ignorance of things like compiling B-sides for reissues or overseas releases was also in full effect.) But it did click after a listen or two, songs like “Birthday,” like “Deus,” “Blue Eyed Pop,” more besides. Björk was a key reason — much more than Einar — but the music was good, strange, slippery, at once familiar and strange. It was, in retrospect, a very important peek into where things were going to go with me, but I didn’t treat or sense it as such, I just thought it was this fun album by a new band that had apparently come out of nowhere.

I never caught them on tour then — not unless you count their SNL live performance, which you shouldn’t, but you should count it as amazing TV — and Here Today Tomorrow Next Week honestly passed me by, I kept meaning to get it but I kept finding other new things I wanted to hear more. Meantime, the band kept cropping up in odd places for me — I took a class on Icelandic sagas at UCLA, taught by a great professor, Jesse Byock, who mentioned his frequent visits to the country for his research. A little curious, I mentioned the Sugarcubes to him at one point as this band I’d heard about and liked — his response: “Oh yeah, I know a few folks in the band, they’re friendly people!” Iceland really is that small.

The Sugarcubes then seemed to disappear for a bit in a welter of side-projects and one-offs — Björk notably turning up on vocals for 808 State, perhaps the clear move forward toward where her solo career would begin — but then in late 1991 interviews started happening and a new album was mentioned and Stick Around for Joy came out in early 1992 and I really like “Hit” a lot as well as “Gold” and “Chihuahua” and other songs and hey! I was all into them again. Not that I ever wasn’t but at the same time, I’d gone from just-on-the-verge-of-going-to-college to a-few-months-from-graduation and instant nostalgia or something like that. (Was it? Not sure.)

So ending up at the Wiltern for this show was something that wasn’t merely a good idea, it was a great idea — the word that this was their last album hadn’t been circulated yet (maybe it hadn’t even been decided on) and I was just up to catching show after show. 24 hours after the Wedding Present and the Poster Children I was up in the loge at the Wiltern about to see just what antics Einar would really get up to onstage, if any.

But first, Cracker. Arguably I could have switched out Camper Van Beethoven in a lot of my story and the question of time having passed and it would work just as well; I had first heard of them around the same time as I’d heard of the Sugarcubes thanks to them ending up on a major label with Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart, though I ended up reasonably appreciating them more than outright loving them during those years. Then they broke up and that seemed to be that but then, thanks to timing and the accident of history or whatever it was, when David Lowery came back with his new band it was Alternative Nation Time! They were still a year plus away from “Low” being all over the radio but “Teenage Angst,” a well-timed choice of title if ever there was one, got plenty of airplay anyway. So they took the stage and…that’s about all I remember, really. They went over well, they played the hit that they had and there were cheers from various folks throughout. Never saw them again but they were there on tour and in the charts, kicking around for a lot of those years, so hey, more power to ya.

The Sugarcubes I remember rather the more clearly. In fact I have a distinct memory of some of the stage lights on the floor lighting up behind some of the musicians, partially because my angle in the loge meant I could see them go off and on pretty easily. Björk was in fine form, Einar was, well, Einar, they kicked it off with “Gold” and they were great. I feel glad to have caught them neither quite in swan song mode nor totally ‘the new thing’ — they were playing the biggest spots they ever would in America (when not opening for U2, admittedly), the crowd was plenty passionate and everything seems celebratory in the mind’s eye, a sense of ‘hey, they’re back and it’s fun! and Einar’s still crazy!’

I don’t recall him completely wigging out or anything, but I have a cryptic memory of some sort of flailing dance or the like while Björk mostly chilled or grooved. This seems appropriate. Besides most of the new album and a slew of the older songs, the one song that I definitely recall was the final one of the encore, something that remains one of my favorite one-off moments on a stage.

I don’t know how he was introduced, but either Björk or Einar said a brief something about him and then lo and behold, the mighty El Vez appeared in all his finery, accompanied by two lovely ladies in equally swank gear. I had never seen the good man perform but I certainly knew who he was and I was amazed — even more so when it came to the song that they did, “Blue Eyed Pop.” Hearing the Sugarcubes do that wonderful, very danceable bit of slithery pop/funk/whatever you want to call it while El Vez did various mariachi vocal yodels felt just superb.

They couldn’t top that, so they didn’t, and that was the end of the show. Never have seen Björk since then all that time back, though I’m an irregular enough follower of her music. It’s a good memory to have, an icon pre-solo icon, having fun on stage with Elvis’s greatest fan and a guy who inspired Michael Myers to create Sprockets. Good times.

Not Just the Ticket — #7, Cocteau Twins, Dec. 6, 1990

Cocteaus, Wiltern

Then-current album: Heaven or Las Vegas

Opening act: Lush

Back of ticket ad: “$.75 off NEW Sirloin Cheesesteak Sandwich.” And yet the prospect of consuming such a thing from Jack in the Box is somehow resolutely untempting.

The tradeoff for switching from the typeset machines to the inkjet/laserprint approach was that while the lettering tends to be clearer, the paper itself browns pretty quickly. Not that I think that Ticketmaster was overly worried about it.

Thinking about the Cocteaus is a bit hard now. More to say about that in a much later post when it came to the second and last time I saw them, but while some music and some bands you can easily get to grips with and think about regardless of the personal problems and screwups and more behind the scenes, in some cases it’s a little too much. Definitely would be the case with the Cocteaus for me, simply because — like so many people — they meant that much, something very special, something seemingly unique and strange that should not have been and that you’re glad was.

With that as a prelude, though, it’s easy to talk about the show and the lead-up to those specific memories. The Cocteaus were one of the first bands that college radio specifically turned me on to, thanks to working at KLA, and I rapidly became an obsessive fan at some point in late 1989 or early 1990. The very first issue of Melody Maker I picked up in what would be an instructive, inspiring and often frustrating four years of regularly reading and thinking about music through their collective lens to a large degree was due to them having a cover story for the release of “Iceblink Luck” as a single and Heaven or Las Vegas as an album. So when the show was announced, no hesitation there.

But, maybe for the first time outside of Depeche, I was a bit worried about getting tickets. The Wiltern was years away from having their current open-floor plan and while I knew from my first Peter Murphy experience that I could see and enjoy the show well enough from the very back of the balcony as needed, I didn’t want to go through that again. Not too sure who I went with this time around, but we plotted away and I figured the thing to do was a classic line-up-in-front-of-the-ticket-window deal at the nearest possible outlet.

This was actually on campus itself, at UCLA’s general ticket box office which also functioned as an outlet for Ticketmaster. God knows what time I got up but I remember getting up VERY early — 3 am, 4? — and leaving my apartment to walk over and camp out in front of the window and wait for it to open and the tickets to go on sale.

Probably because it was the first time I’d done anything quite like that — again, there was the Depeche show but that was almost a force of nature, whereas here I was on my own — I do have some specific memories of watching the daylight brighten around me, of wrapping up warm against the night chill, and of reading a book. In fact I know the exact book I was reading, Roland Huntford’s history of the Scott and Amundsen polar expeditions The Last Place on Earth — I still have it around and dip into it every so often.

For a while there it was just me and I’m sure I thought to myself more than once that I was probably worried over nothing. But as the on-sale hour got nearer an honest to god line started to form, and I was at the start of it. It wasn’t a huge monster around the block and down the street line but it was pretty clear the show was a draw — in fact I think there were two separate shows announced. I could be wrong but I believe the Cocteaus hadn’t played LA for something like six years at that point — doubtless there’s some tour listing somewhere which would disabuse me of that assumption — so that could explain it, but more to the point, it was the Cocteaus, period. You had a sense with them that if you loved them you practically worshipped the records from the Vaughan Oliver cover designs on down. (They probably knew that as well, which probably explains why the later albums used other designers, a way to claim a bit of independence perhaps.)

Tickets bought, all that had to happen was for time to run down to the show, with a further bonus to be had in the opening act. For the second night, I think Mazzy Star did the honors, and a part of me does regret that as I never got around to seeing them otherwise. But I’d only just heard about them and all of what David Roback was up to whereas Lush had already turned into another big favorite of mine — the Scar EP was probably the first 4AD import I ever bought, and the Gala compilation pretty much ended up as my soundtrack to the end of 1990. The fact that Lush clearly had their own Cocteaus jones in place didn’t hurt, but they had their own tart, taut take on things, a dynamic that was actually only similar to the older band in terms of surface sheen rather than arrangements, lyrics and more besides.

So the first thing I can recall about the show is just sitting in the audience in the reasonable enough seats we had and watching Lush play a set which — once again — I’m now lucky enough to have a recording of, and which I’m listening to as I type. The performances aren’t all that far removed from the studio versions, even in the precise levels of the mix, which on the one hand might make it less exciting than it sounds but on the other hand, great performances all. Miki Berenyi’s famously flame-red hair was the most immediate visual hook but I also think back a bit on a slightly wide-eyed look to hear as she performed, on Emma Anderson being a touch more withdrawn in comparison. In a weird way, hearing the recording doesn’t supplement the memories but nor does it entirely complement them — it’s a sense that, yes, this is pretty much how it was for the band then, for me as a listener. It’s a sonic marker more than anything else, outside maybe of remember Chris Acland’s rollicking drum stomps on “Bitter.” But there’s more to say about Lush at a later time.

And then, the Cocteaus. They started with the title track to Blue Bell Knoll and the feeling was momentous, a sense of the curtains literally and figuratively drawn back. I remember a big question I had in my head would be how the band would look, as they were famously drummerless, relying on beatboxes and tapes. So too did Depeche but I’d already had a sense from videos and films how they staged their appearances, so I had no such question in my head when I saw them. The Cocteaus instead were, literally, a line — Liz Fraser might have stood out at the center of the line a bit, but otherwise it was a straight line of guitarists and one bassist, five all told. It was a very unusual but still arresting image, no staggering of locations on the stage, no immediate sense of precedence. I think Robin Guthrie was at the end of the line nearest to where I was but I can’t be sure.

And from there, again, it gets hazy, unusual. The sheer static sense of the presentation meant that I don’t recall anything odd happening after that initial appearance, it just all seemed to continue from there — and I’m sure I was happy as heck. But it’s an aural memory at best otherwise, a feeling of being lost in all the sonic cathedrals of sound and all the other cliches that the band had collected over the years. At most I remember the lighting being appropriately moody, of Liz being lit just so.

But I do remember one moment very clearly, the encore — it was the politest stage rush ever. I can’t recall whether it was after they’d left following the main set or when they came back, but I have this impression of a rustle of black fabric and veils all around me, like all the goths who I knew were there the whole time but who I hadn’t fully noticed somehow appeared from and boiled out of the rows and seats to swoop up to the stage front. Of course, I joined them. (No veils, though.) Seeing everything up close didn’t really change the experience all that much, but I’m pretty sure they saved “Heaven or Las Vegas” itself for the encore, and I sense a piercing, faraway look in Liz’s eyes and Robin’s hands nimbly calling up the arcing guitar parts during the break and end of the song.

It’s all blank after that. Except I likely went home and played the album yet again.

Not Just the Ticket — #3, Peter Murphy, March 9, 1990

Peter Murphy, March 1990

Then-current album: Deep

Opening act: Human Drama

Back of ticket ad: Pirate Radio 100.3 FM, jagged blue lettering on a black background, a font of the sort that is out to convince you that it is edgy and streetwise because it’s seemingly created by a combination of paint swipes and claw marks.

More of the same in terms of look and printing and all that — little wonder I assumed that tickets would always look like this after a time, right down to that pale blue color.

The nearly-a-year separation between New Order and this show covered a lot of personal ground. I went home after my freshman year for one last long extended stay at home that summer, mostly being lazy. (I think I mowed the lawns when it came to any summer money.) Then it was back to UCLA to move into the apartment that would be where I’d live for the rest of my time there, three years straight. Four people in the apartment, two each per bedroom, Rick and I splitting one room — we’d met in the dorms the previous year and hit it off, a friendly, intense fellow — and John and Mark in the other, a typical enough college housing setup. New classes, new friends like Xana, settling more into things, getting to know folks at the radio station all that much more, like Steve M. and Eric J. L., and getting to know the radio station itself more as it goes. I’ve heard the show tapes I made and they’re amusing curios.

Kept missing shows, though — in fact, I missed two shows that summer of 1989 that I kept constantly kicking myself over for years. There was the Love and Rockets show, headlining at the apex of their fluke hit fame that year thanks to “So Alive,” which I think I might have had a ticket for but just couldn’t get to, for reasons unclear to me. Then later they came back and were on another bill — performing with the Pixies, both opening for the Cure at Dodger Stadium. A show to die for, except I was dying by inches because due to whatever plans had been drawn up, I was in San Diego when that show went down. Then a couple of days later I was in Los Angeles and the Cure were in San Diego. I freely admit to being in agonies for a long time after that point, because I was still young and unaware enough to realize that Robert Smith’s claim that this would be the band’s last tour was not so much an immutable statement of fact as it was his standard response every time they were out on tour. Love and Rockets, however, wouldn’t release another album for five years and I thought I would never see them…but that’s another story for another time.

The fact that I was distressed at missing Love and Rockets twice gave an indication where one of my biggest listening discoveries had been that year — I already knew about the band due to “No New Tale to Tell” but 1989 was when I finally put all the pieces together regarding the band’s backstory, not least their membership in Bauhaus backing lead singer Peter Murphy. So when, conveniently enough, Murphy released his own new solo album some months after Love and Rockets’ full breakthrough and himself scored a pop hit with “Cuts You Up,” it almost seemed like a natural progression — of course all the members of Bauhaus would eventually break big, that only seems fair! (Or so it seemed to me in my scaling of the twists of fate according to my then-current aesthetic criteria.)

That said I don’t remember what prompted going to the show, honestly — I’m pretty sure it was due to the friendship I’d formed with a fellow at the SRLF, Beau, yet another music obsessed character at that library. He’d mentioned he was going to the show and either I’d figured out tickets were still available or he’d mentioned it offhand. I may have missed Love and Rockets, I’m sure I thought to myself, but damned if I was going to miss the other guy!

Some venues impress themselves upon you when encountered for the first time with a certain force. The Wiltern Theatre, elegant and self-consciously a ‘theatre’ in the vaudeville/movie palace sense, made me think of bright lights and gilt paint — not quite an accurate portrait of the inside but not too far removed, something reinforced by the full seating on all levels, the sweep of the staircases, and the appearance of a fair amount of the concertgoers. For the first time I was in the midst of a full-on goth audience, however impacted by random outliers like myself, and I just remember one color even more than gold: black.

Beau was down on the floor of the venue, having picked up his ticket right off the bat. When I had purchased my ticket I ended up getting one of the last ones available, and for my pains found myself perched right against the back wall of the mezzanine, the worst row of the seats in the entire theatre. The only way to view the stage when everyone in front of you was on their feet — and they were, most of the time — was not merely to stand yourself, but to stand on the seat. Quite why the hell I wasn’t busted for that I don’t know, maybe everyone else was doing it as well and there wasn’t any easy way security could have chased us all down.

I have another sense of chatting with my neighbors, comparing notes and saying hi and whatever else might be done in such situations. If anything it was a sign that I was starting to really feel more comfortable in different surroundings — besides such concert experiences, I think of lines on campus waiting to see movies or attend special events, like John Cleese picking up the Jack Benny Award, and similar conversations and situations. I can just remember the faces, just, the tones of voice and some of the subjects — the part of me that was always pretty social was starting to really feel like some sort of turning point had at last been reached.

This particular show by Murphy was one of a three night stand at the venue, with different opening acts each night. Thin White Rope opened one night, touring for Sack Full of Silver; in later years I learned how much of a missed opportunity that was, to have not caught them at that time. Exene Cervenka did another night, would have been fun, no question. It was Human Drama that night, though, and it was a powerful show — I think I had picked up their full debut Feel by then and while its utter melodrama, lyrically and in Johnny Indovina’s singing, went well over my limits of taking it fully seriously — nearly everything else’s he’s done since has been much more intriguing and enjoyable, under a number of band names and guises — no question that it was still compelling in its theatricality.

Theatrical is the only word to describe Murphy himself as well, and probably for the first time in a rock concert context I gained a sense of what it was like to see a ‘performance’ in a broad sense of the word. But for me it was compounded by the unusual angle I was looking at the stage from — the rows of heads in front of me on the balcony that were nearby, then a gap more sensed than seen, then Murphy himself, observed from a somewhat high angle. Combined with his all-black outfit and his then-blonde hair, it almost hinted at the expressionistic, not quite Dr. Caligari but perhaps not so far removed. His backing band did a fine job but they’re just shadows in the mind in comparison, unsurprisingly.

Two moments stand out — the first was a break between the songs when Peter acknowledged what were some of the more intense female screams from the crowd. By that time I think I’d heard similar examples from the Bauhaus days on live tracks and read his amusement in an interview from that time at being described as ‘an alien sex god,’ so it wasn’t surprised that he worked with the whole spectacle in his own fashion, at one point offering up a chuckle, quick introductory comment and then an “OHMIGOD, PETER….AAAAAH!” in falsetto. Seeing how someone could both revel in the role and play it up a bit without missing a beat was something instructive.

The second was even funnier — at one point in the encore, he had an acoustic guitar on and started playing what turned out to be very familiar notes — David Bowie’s “Space Oddity.” I remember thinking that this seemed a bit strange given all the constant Bowie comparisons he’d been alternately fighting against and working with throughout what I knew of his career. That made what happened all the more entertaining — the crowd was happily singing along, Murphy got to the “And may God’s love be with you” part…and then stopped, set aside the guitar and said something like “Well, that’s all I know.” Laughter and applause and into one or two more songs, I’m pretty sure.

I remembered thinking it was a pretty good show, and that it would be nice to see him again. As it turned out, this was an understatement.

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