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.