You can tell a lot about a town by how its kids react at rock shows. Bigger cities tend to have less demonstrative show-going crowds. At least they do in the Northwest, where hipsters in white belts and flood pants mostly show their appreciation for what’s happening on stage by standing around with their hands stuffed in their pockets. If a band manages to elicit a few involuntary nods or hip-sways, they know they’re really on fire. Not that the band is likely to notice from the stage.
Contrast a place like Olympia, Wash. with a small town in Montana or South Dakota, where touring bands are too few and far between for their shows to be the domain of a select few jaded scene-fleas slouching listlessly while waiting for someone to come up and validate their narcissistic self-opinions. Missoula is about halfway between the two, its rock crowd divided in varying proportions from show to show between the little cliques of dancing girls, the crush of hardies up front throwing the devil horns and good-naturedly heckling the band, and the knee-bobbers three or four ranks deep in the back. Knee-bobbing is what I like to call the total Missoula stance of one hand in pocket, one holding a beer, and pumping one leg on the ball of the foot in time with the music.
But I don’t think I’ve ever seen a Missoula audience react quite like the one that came out to see the all-ages double-header of Pink and Brown and Lightning Bolt at Eating Cake last July. There were no indie-rock jigs danced or knees bobbed. Everyone just pressed into a semicircular throng to gape at a guy in a filthy pink costume going into seizures with a guitar while his bandmate in chocolate-frosting brown drilled out the apocalyptic beats on a smashed-to-shit drum kit.
It took about five minutes of Pink and Brown before someone came up and yelled in my ear: “Man, I haven’t seen a show like this for years!” Translation: It’s been years since I’ve been at a show where it seriously occurred to me that I might lose an eye, or a couple teeth, or get my nose or jaw broken. The divide between spectacle and spectatorship was razor-thin at this show, with the people in back steadily pressing the people in front to within range of unpredictable violence, the people in front forever trying to back just out of reach of a slashing head blow or a possible knocking of heads with epileptic St. Vitus in a pink bunny suit.
My friend was right: It had been ages since I’d been to a show where there was the sharp tang of real menace in the air. Some might point out that wherever people stage-dive or try to get a mosh pit going, there’s always the chance that someone could get hurt. But I haven’t seen anyone stage-dive at a Jay’s show for years, and the old ritual circle-pit from shows of yore has largely devolved into the same couple of doorknobs who run around elbowing people, tugging arms and trying to cajole people into the act. Even during the heyday of real hoodlum rites at punk rock shows, things like moshing (at my advanced age, the whole thing seems so ridiculous) and stage-diving were always more about surrogate violence than the real thing. On some level I guess I miss the physical participation of olde-tyme punk rock shows, but mostly I’m just happy to do the knee-bob and not get my beer spilled.
And I’m certainly not going to argue that implied or surrogate violence is something sorely missing from shows today. Good riddance, more like. It’s kind of funny, though: Dancing injuries sustained during the brief window of swing revivalism a few years back probably accounted for far more emergency room visits than punk ever did. But here’s a sobering thought: I read a few years ago that even a band as concerned as Fugazi with making sure that no one gets hassled at their shows still has to live with about 13 paralyzing neck injuries on their conscience, all from stage-dives that happened before they could stop the song and tell people to quit stage-diving.
The Pink and Brown aren’t out to hurt anybody. They just go completely ape shit when they play, and when they play it sounds like a chimpanzee stampede at a scrap-metal dealer. You get the impression of violence, in any case. If anything, with all his flailing around and running with proverbial scissors (guitars, intact or broken, have plenty of pointy bits you don’t want to fall on), Pink is probably going to do himself in first.