While things between Natalie and I slowly clarified, like iced coffee on a summer porch, Jack had been spending the two weeks after our show in D.C., where he resumed his casual, summer camp inquiry into filmmaking. We kept in voluminous touch over AIM in the pitch black a.m., talking about our respective days in throwaway shorthand and our musical aspirations in long-held breaths.
During one such chat he floated thoughts of going to the second summerly Pitchfork Festival. After all, Girl Talk and his still-recent Night Ripper album meant a lot to us,1 and he was set to headline the global music hegemon’s fast-sprouting party appendage. But Chicago was far, all weekend passes were long gone, and the days away were dwindling. The idea seemed little more than a shallow draught of helium, quick to pitch back down to ground level and diffuse.
Jack surprised me one night the week prior, then, with an instant-messenged gift: he had scalped a couple of Saturday tickets. His father would be in Chicago that weekend on business, and had dibbed us a dual-bed room at a Best Western or Westin. It was exciting stuff, though I did silently reflect on my sudden obligation to buy a last-minute roundtrip to Illinois, some three or four times what my festival pass had cost. High school had been pretty miserly for me, having devoted whatever spare funds I had to my record label, which had just been robbed into bankruptcy some few thousand dollars by criminals abusive of a contract I’d spent the past couple years honoring. Outside of two business trips to Nashville, there had been no room in that ledger for budget airfare, let alone 24-hour concert larks. But that, I fast realized, was exactly right: ours was the friendship of unreason, and this was its first summer. I bought the ticket, feeling good about it.
We took an early flight the morning of, unsaddled our modest backpacks at the hotel, then made it to the Union Park gates not long after their midday cleft. With a single-mindedness (arguably) adorable in retrospect, we sought to optimize our Girl Talk experience at the expense of all else under the sun. Having carved our scarfing way down the food stand crescent of hip/local taco fusion slop, we darted to the near-vacant Balance Stage with missionary insistence. Gregg “Girl Talk” Gillis was due to arrive in eight hours, and a total eclipse of concertgoers could appear, hundreds wide, at any moment.
Still live music novices (and logic-agnostic in general), we staked our claim to the stage’s most proximal pavement without so much as a preemptive bathroom break, sunscreen rubdown, or bottle of water to fortify our convictions. And as dehydrated delirium came on strong and thick, so followed the corollary challenges of summer crowd downtime. Shirtless millabouts made cumulus the air with dense stench and clouded minds; one Brooklyn-looking manchild appeared with stumbling momentum and a large lapel button pinned infectant to his bare chest, vomiting a request for “beer money” in Jack’s dumbfounded direction. I answered his question with a question (both lacking question mark), under whose weight he careened into a nearby fence, vomited actual vomit, then vanished into a porta-potty pall for maybe the weekend, maybe forever.2 Soundtracking these events were the cramping strains of a young and confused Beach House, who in their anonymity were playing the especially unfestive 3:10pm slot of the day. Their vocals, child-size keys, guitar, and analog metronome were frequently out of tune and time with themselves, like a multisensory magnifier held shakily between the sun and what I guessed might be my first sunstroke. I felt at first resentful, but later sympathetic when I dimly registered their girl singer’s grimace at the end of their set; it looked like she knew, and was ready to quit. But she and her boy bandmate talked it over, thought about it, kept on it. Three years from that grimace, they would return to Pitchfork; five years from that grimace, they would return to Pitchfork as two of the biggest stars in its galaxy, which had by then started looking like modern music’s Milky Way. Things take time.
Next were Fujiya & Miyagi, an in fact British trio3 whose DFA-clean grooves projected rhythmic meaning onto the crowd’s peak heat mindmelt. A briefly unanonymous broggae outfit were next, who projected echoes of a junior high Sublime phase unrepented.4 Then came Oxford Collapse, an aggro-boring rock band of midwestern affect. Their bassist at one point tripped over a full Solo cup of brand-sponsored poison and, trying to redeem some intangible loss, kicked the red vessel toward the flatlined front row. Its plastic lip spit some remainder on my green Onitsukas before crumpling to the ground, and in return I treated him to an uninterrupted minute of my most semiotic finger. Our position in the crowd wouldn’t have been much different had we arrived as they were finishing up, but with heads full of UV and dry air, we probably couldn’t register regret even if our mistake had been explained to us.
Dan Deacon brought a mob, though, within which he demanded to perform, as though he were any other kid in the (tiny) mosh pit. I’d wind up seeing him three times in my youth, and with all the day’s mental condensation, this instance I recall the least. But I remember rolling eyes at how he was playing a pretty primetime chunk of a seven-figure festival like it was a basement gig; before a coagulating clot of thousands, he turned his attention to a few dozen teens near the front. What a waste, I thought, before thinking again of water.
Finally, mercifully, came Gregg to close things out. I had been the sole acolyte by the rail to recognize and dap my fist to his when he passed by during Deacon’s set; now came our chance to reap the malarial day’s sunset remedy. We were relieved to see he had changed into proper attire, his commitment to wearing and wrecking a suit every night an underappreciated signature of his act. He’d soon come to accept in plainclothes the futility of traditional menswear in the context of a gig that would typically end with half of the audience grinding up on him (and at least as much of his outfit stripped and torn, anyway), which marked a subtle change in both mindset and music; we didn’t know it yet, but even then could intuit the importance of that suit.
Even if two of them belonged to you, I couldn’t tell you how many discerning ears then revered Girl Talk and his mashups. His name and his “genre’s” have become shit-rancid shorthand for the aesthetic naivety of the mid-aughts,5 but at the time he was critically acclaimed and a popular talking point among the burgeoning Free Culture movement and its politicos.6 Probably some of his biggest, we were still just two among his many fans – some 10,000 of whom were now congregating to watch him ring in the night.
I left that weekend with such a positive memory of what then transpired that I’m hesitant to search for a bootleg of it today. Instead, teenage me is happy to report that Girl Talk killed it. As the sky seared salmon pink, the foremost throng of the crowd was refreshed by the cross-breeze between summer day and night, our collective consciousness waking into sharp multidirection. To further stoke the sensory currents, Gregg even summoned a Grizzly Bear to the stage to live-sing his lines from Girl Talk’s most recent and perhaps still purest statement, the “Knife” remix. It was an interesting move, especially for Jack and me, however timid the results.
My dehydration reaching its lifetime apex, the rising tide of the audience washed over me. Sudden lurches lapped against my slow-fried nerves to breach new neural pathways, the fresh sensation of my outsize frame moving yards without a muscle. My innards arid beneath skin soaked in sweat, most of it not mine, levitating. My last coherent thought of the night was that my new $40 sneakers were very much fucked. Gregg, surrounded by a separate crest of rhythmic flesh altogether, edited his shifting matrix with gestures like checking his email inside the most intimate circle-sanctum of hell. Beyond the fence and across the highway an annex pool of Chicagoan passersby began to synchronize, soon writhing with the rest of us. Dimly monitoring his process, I recognized moments, forgot them, grinned. After a time that felt very long or not at all, I felt the sinews of one such smile contract as I heard “Aneurysm” meet “Pop, Lock & Drop It;” as Kurt Cobain’s tightly wound guitars built in anticipation, so followed my afferents and efferents. But all that red light then congesting behind the stage at last burst into bleeding hives of shiny yellowjackets, whose queen marshall had ordered an interruptive sting on the music, the motion, and the microwave heat beginning to modulate inside my skull. The fire department had arrived.
It didn’t take long to reconvene with Jack, synapses still steaming as we dizzily recollected highlight overlaps and parallel opinions. Pitchfork had cleverly co-opted the museum model in their placement of a giant, record store-shaped gift shop between festival grounds and their primary exit, where we savored a breather as our lungs osmosed generations of sweet vinyl nutrients, before sifting into the uncomplicated cool of Chicago at night. It was there that I presumably bought a water bottle.
We wound up at a nearby diner, where I methodically housed an orphanage of entrées. Present at this point was Jack’s dad, a powerful lawyer who seemed to be leveling up regularly, and who now couldn’t get enough of my appetite. For months subsequent he’d recount my order to powerful friends I’d never meet, always the punchline: “And he finished!”7
Somehow we were yet conscious enough, after famine and feast, to catch a midnight movie. I’m not sure who chose, but it was definitely a tumbleweed showing of Die Hard 4.0: Live Free or Die Hard. Not that I’m sure, either, what happened next (though I recall, by film’s end, most of the characters definitely not living free). Logic dictates a cab ride, a hotel room, and God willing a couple showers were all by that late hour very much necessary – but I remember nothing. That empty multiplex might as well have been the flight home, my foldout chair the tatami platform and futon I’d known in Philly for at least half a decade. But I was still there, near the top of the map, mind sleeping with eyes and all senses open, dreaming the future and smiling plenty.
- A lot of other people, too. [↩]
- four walls and some plastic slats / for his hurl ♫ [↩]
- The bassist was the “&,” explained either “Fujiya” or “Miyagi.” & smiled like he hadn’t heard it before. [↩]
- Kidding! “Santeria” is great. [↩]
- We’ll get there. Maybe. [↩]
- We won’t get into it now, but I will say, in contrast, that a friend of mine had to book Girl Talk against his will for a college gig in 2013, and even the most fraternal factions of a pretty unhip student body could tell they were getting the leftover protein. [↩]
- He had already taken an added shine to me a few weeks prior, for my good humor when, a few days before our show, he backed his fancy sportscar into my shitty Volvo and made Xi’an face salad of its grill. [↩]