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Surrender to Music Beats Giving In to Primal Anger

April 15, 1993|JIM WASHBURN | Jim Washburn is a free-lance writer who regularly contributes to The Times Orange County Edition.

It used to be that rock fans could cite the hardships they endured to see their favorite acts as emblems of how devoted they were.

"Man, I slept on the sidewalk all night in line for Bruce tickets."

"Yeah? Well I slept in the street and let his limo run over me. The Boss waved at me ."

Everyone had his or her long-haired hair shirt: Some fans have significant hearing loss as a lasting souvenir of old Who tours. Iggy fans sometimes found their hero falling on them from the stage, his bare chest smeared with peanut butter and blood (try explaining that to Mom when she does the laundry).

But the ultimate in musical suffering used to be the rock festival, where you could sit in the mud for days, drinking murky apple juice spiked with brown acid, with the possibility of either getting crushed by falling speaker towers or gummed to death by Wavey Gravy.

By now, though, concert promoters have perfected their craft so that all your suffering--at least as far as buying tickets--is done with a credit card. It was a bit of a jolt, then, to be faced this past weekend with a concert in which more than money possibly was on the line.

I like Van Morrison. Chances are you like Van Morrison. The question last Sunday, though, was "do I like Van Morrison enough to go see him in the epicenter of an area that at any moment, with one or two simple words from a jury, might ignite into one of the biggest hell-on-earth riots of all time?"

Well, since you put it that way, sure.

Maybe it wasn't that dramatic of a deal. By the time this runs, I imagine things will or won't have erupted, and I'm inclined to expect the latter, that people had enough smoke and misery the first time around. But when the police, the National Guard, the media and everyone else are poised for the hammer to fall, it's hard not to feel its shadow over you.

Driving up with friends to the Shrine Auditorium on Sunday I had a couple of thoughts. One was of resentment toward our Orange County Performing Arts Center in Costa Mesa, which might have made this trip unnecessary had it even the modicum of vision it takes to recognize Morrison as an artist of stature. Other arts centers book him, but then they don't have the lofty goal of ours, which goes something to the effect of: "It is our eternal charter and mandate to present only the cultural equivalent of white powdered doughnuts, thank you."

The other thought I had, one I'm far from done mulling over, is that there is some connection between what we listeners were seeking inside the Shrine and what rioters found in the streets a year ago.

There hardly can be greater opposites than Morrison's gruffly angelic, spiritually questing music and the feral bloodletting and pillage that typified the L.A. riots. Yet both experiences are rooted in surrender , in letting go.

In the street that meant surrendering into the bosom of the mob, releasing individuality and choice to get swept up in amok ruled by blood and fire. How can hatred flood through you like gasoline? How can you set a fire, not caring who burns? How can anyone get into such a state that he can crack an innocent stranger in the head with a hammer and then do a joyous little jig about it? I don't get it.

"Now I want to lose myself. Now I want to lose myself. Now I want to lose myself." It's a line Morrison is prone to repeat in concert, setting the words on a thickly enunciated, mantra-like roll until he does indeed lose himself. And that's right where I want him.

He's a great songwriter. He has one of the most expressive, emotionally daring voices on earth. As a bandleader, he whips up hot, responsive outfits. But none of that would be enough to bring me to Jefferson and Figueroa on a night when authorities are on riot watch.

The special, more than sufficient thing I find in Morrison and a few other artists is immersion , the experience of being so swept up in the moment that the artist becomes a part of something bigger, and takes the listener along. That's church to me. It's transcendence, epiphany. I may make my living as a rock critic, but I've always told myself I'd walk away from the job if the pen and note pad ever came between that experience and my ability to share in it.

It's not an experience that suffers critical interdiction. You don't assess it, you go with it. There are a million ways to slag a bad show in print; to catch the magic of a great performance in a review is nigh on impossible. And if you're emotionally honest to the music, you sure don't even try translating it when it's happening. If you do, you're only on the dock watching a boat depart instead of being on board. It's about surrender, letting go.

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