Last week I saw and heard Kim Gordon, formerly of Sonic Youth, at SIR Stage 37 in New York, one of the New Yorker Festival events. She's not much of a talker in public. The only thing I clearly remember her saying is that she no longer shops for clothes in second-hand thrift stores because she doesn't want to look like a crazy old lady. Kim is sixty but her legs don't look it. Maybe she runs. After forty or so minutes of a kind of desultory hanging out -- the inept interviewer was the New Yorker writer Alex Halberstadt whose profile of Kim appeared in the magazine this past summer -- there was a brief Q & A notable for the appearance of a young Korean boy who stood frozen for a spell, then stammered out his adoration for Kim and hurriedly retook his seat. At least I think he was a boy. The rest was chopped liver.
The music that followed was something else. Gordon now works with Bill Nace in a guitar duo called Body/Head. They played for about twenty minutes in front of a large projection of a typically uninteresting Richard Kern film in which two fully clothed people -- a man and a girl -- appear to be making porn. The music was loud, relatively unstructured, unmelodic, employing a good deal of feedback and distortion. It was the kind of audible cruelty which ought to have been annoying after a minute or two -- some of the sounds the two produced were unpleasant, at times hurtful, banal as poured concrete, and hardly as improvisatory as Gordon had said they would be. Occasionally she sang some notes, some of them attached to incomprehensible lyrics, layered amid the guitar noise. I thought to myself, it was no longer a pose, her hip anger. It was something approaching despair and in someone sixty years old, playing like this was quite mad, and brave unto foolhardiness. I liked it a lot. Somebody's bad thought ran through my head -- "it spoke to the human condition" -- before I found myself applauding.
New York City itself was part of the human condition. A place to binge-and-purge on culture. Gordon and Nace had tried to break the cycle and for a couple of minutes they almost did.
The next day I rode up to Bethel Woods, about a hundred miles northwest of the city, site of the Woodstock Festival back in 1969, to listen to Jeremy Denk play Bach's Goldberg Variations. A few weeks ago, it was announced that the pianist had been one of this year's recipients of the Macarthur 'Genius' Awards. I expected a good crowd despite the thick rainclouds and stiff wind. In fact, only a third of the seats were filled when he began playing at ten minutes after three. It didn't matter.
The Goldberg Variations existed before Glenn Gould, but no one who knows his recordings can put them entirely out of mind when listening to the piece anew. Although I like Simone Dinnerstein's recording very much and I've seen Andreas Schiff perform the Variations with distinction, something about Gould's maddening genius and overwhelming ego continues to haunt me. He uses the Variations as a kind of Rorschach test into which he reads his perceptions of his place in the world. The procedure is both profoundly sad and rapturous. Denk's interpretation is, by comparison, extremely extroverted, obviously a performance, perhaps one fit for dancing to, the uptempo variations almost jaunty. His playing had an air of insouciance about it, which, of course, was an illusion. Virtuosity of his caliber is anything but insouciant. And yet it seemed so: at one point during the third variation he looked directly at the audience, the way a magician does when he's about to perform a particularly devilish trick. The triplets came and the dance was underway.
Listening to his muscular, unironic Variations less than twenty-four hours after hearing Body/Head shred their guitars made me unaccountably happy. Denk's Bach was nearly companionable, as mysterious as a friend one has not seen in a long, long time. You have no idea how that time was spent and yet the friend is recognizable in an instant, in the first embrace.
Before the show began I walked through the museum gift shop with its crappy knick-knacks intended to memorialize the Festival -- shot glasses, key chains, coasters, cheap jewelry, place mats, and the like. Sad. Amid the junk was a small display set up to honor the late Richie Havens whose ashes had been scattered over the site in August. We are stardust. We are golden. And we've got to get ourselves back to the garden. I remember listening to his lovely rendition of "Just Like a Woman" as a callow fifteen-year-old and coming near to tears imagining that he was referring to one of my unattainable sea-bright girlfriends out on the Island. The singer was dead but he hadn't taken his songs with him. They could be heard -- insistently, dully -- over the ceiling speakers in the gift shop. Maybe there really is no such thing as freedom.
I got out of there in a hurry. Across the way, in the lobby of the main building, a woman was selling Denk's CD recording of the Bach. I knew I wasn't going to buy one then, maybe never. Music needs to be live. I thought to myself, this friendship is priceless and it won't last, no matter how hard we try to hang on to it. The lights flickered and I went into the hall to find my seat.