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[whitespace] Underwater Mermaids

At long last, it's cool to grow old at rock shows

By Gina Arnold

SITTING IN THE BALCONY of the Fillmore looking down at the Soft Boys' audience last Saturday night, my cousin made an observation on the age of the crowd below us: "Sheesh! It's like bald is the new black!"

She didn't mean it as a dis, either. Heck, we like baldness. We both have bald boyfriends. But then we--like everyone else at the Fillmore that night--are old. Old, old, old, old, old.

We've been doing this--that is, going to shows at the Fillmore--forever and ever, amen. This is how old we are: I distinctly remember going to see the Replacements with this self-same cousin when she was pregnant with her daughter, who is now in high school.

So you see, to quote T.S. Eliot, the bottoms of our trousers are definitely rolled. Also, we have dared to eat a peach, and we have heard the mermaids singing each to each. The difference is, unlike poor Mr. Prufrock, about whom those lines were written, the mermaids still sing to us on occasion--like last Saturday, when they appeared to us in the unlikely form of the Soft Boys, a.k.a. tall, gray-haired, elegant Robyn Hitchcock; short, gray-haired, overly bouncy Kimberly Rew; drummer Morris Windsor; and bassist/lawyer Matthew Seligman.

The Boys were a cult classic in and around Oxford University circa 1979--one perfect cross between the Velvet Underground and Monty Python with a phat measure of the Byrds and Syd Barrett thrown in for good measure. On LPs like Underwater Moonlight and A Can of Bees, Hitchcock really perfected his John Lennon-meets-John Cleese act.

Unlike most post-punk bands of the time (the Clash, the Jam, the Thompson Twins), the Soft Boys sounded like they'd listened to Captain Beefheart and the Beach Boys, simultaneously. They were considered a pub band at the time, meaning they played to small crowds of bearded men, rather than to large crowds of Mohawked teens. It was not, of course, a road to success, and alas, the band broke up before anyone here had ever even seen them.

Hitchcock went on to a certain measure of solo success, the kind where you never get played on the radio and your audience never grows any larger, even though R.E.M. says how great you are and Jonathan Demme makes a film about you.

Rew, however, is probably a lot richer, having sold his post-Soft Boys hit "Walking on Sunshine" to Claritin. Money notwithstanding, the band has just reformed for a brief tour in order to promote the fact that Underwater Moonlight is being rereleased on Matador Records, and so here they were at the Fillmore, playing to the collected record-store clerks (and former record-store clerks) of the Bay Area.

Now, old though I am, I'm still too young to have seen or even heard the Soft Boys in their prime, but the same can't be said about the rest of the audience, whose average age was about 42. That sounds snotty, but I mean it to sound admiring, because one thing I really appreciate about the modern era is that 42 just isn't as old as it used to be. You can be a mom and still go to clubs, and you can be a bald guy and still rock out without looking ridiculous.

INDEED, IT OFTEN seems like us Bay Area hipsters have all extended our natural youths for about 10 or 12 years beyond where our parents did--and that's a nice thing, not a naughty one. We have different standards of behavior, and they are a lot more humane than the ones of previous eras. I love having been born when I was because when I was in my early 20s, I recall thinking that 35-year-olds at nightclubs were weird and lame, and today's 22-year-olds don't think that, God bless them. If anything, they just think, "Gee, I wish I'd been around to see the Pixies and Nirvana here."

And they're right to think that way. We had a good time together, even if we're outstaying our welcome a tad. I swear though: We'd go away if there was something better to replace us.

That goes for the bands as well as the audience members. Openers the Young Fresh Fellows brought former Flamin' Groovy Roy Loney on stage for a quick rendition of "Teenage Head." The guy is 60, if he's a day.

The Soft Boys' special guest was Thomas Dolby, writer of the hit songs "Video Killed the Radio Star" and "She Blinded Me With Science"--and kudos to everyone who refrained from yelling out a request for either, because I know it was tempting.

Dolby (whom I like to think of as Thomas Dloby, in reference to Spinal Tap) lives in the Bay Area now, but what his connection to the Soft Boys is eludes me entirely. Perhaps he and Hitchcock went to Winchester together, or something English like that. The sight of them together is slightly disconcerting, however: I mean, what next? Gary Numan and David Thomas? Howard Jones and Nick Cave? The mind boggles at the musical incongruities that time manages to meld in a somewhat seamless fashion, but then, as the Koran says, Time is the great leveler, the destroyer of worlds.

Dancing in the Aisles

THOSE WHO may have been intrigued by my review of Nick Cave's show a couple weeks back might be interested to hear that you can Nap it--or at least a similar live show done in Australia with the same band--off Napster. Do it quick, before the service gets shut down. Then go out and buy Nick's new record to show your appreciation.

Obviously, for those like me who've spent years collecting live tapes of the shows we really loved, Napster is an incredibly useful tool. But since some artists don't like the practice, I try to ask each one their personal take on the subject. Then, if I know they hate it, I lay off those files.

I know, for instance, that Bruce Springsteen was not too happy to see "41 Shots" appear on Napster soon after he performed it live. But surprisingly, Jon Bon Jovi, who in many ways emulates Springsteen's career to a T, has a much lower-key take on the subject.

"For me personally," he says, "[Napster] is not a problem at all. I mean, how much is enough? I'm really fortunate that way. I have plenty of money, and besides, I like people to hear my songs and get turned on to my back catalog that way. I'll probably get in trouble for saying this, but I use it. But everything I get I'd gladly pay for. I mean, say I want to cover 'Dancing in the Streets' at some show in Australia, and I can't remember the words. I'd gladly pay a dollar to be able to access it instantly. The only thing is, I haven't ever done that [pay] because I'm just not Internet-savvy enough.

"I love the access," he continues, "but I can also see, if it's going to hinder sales for some struggling artist, or the guy who wrote 'Dancing in the Streets,' well, it could be a problem. I wish the record companies would work it out so it could be, used just like a library. That's what it should be, a big musical library, but they're way too greedy to find a way to do that."

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From the April 19-25, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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