From July 12, 2008: A night at the Crystal Castles concert

On the John presents…

A night at the Crystal Castles concert

Completed on July 12, 2008

The Crystal Castles
The Crystal Castles

When I got there Wednesday evening, the line was already stretched far down the alley ‘neath the Blue Line L tracks of Wicker Park, what seemed like miles away from the Double Door entrance we were all waiting to pass through. This, it seemed to me, was an excessively enormous gathering of people for a band I’d never really heard of. Indeed, if it hadn’t been for my brother and our friends Mok (rhymes with smoke) and Train insisting that I listen to their songs on the Myspace page, I may never have known that a band called Crystal Castles existed. I certainly would not have noticed the flyer announcing their free concert. I definitely would not have called MJ and Mok to tell them about the free concert. And I most certainly-definitely would not have found myself willingly standing in that line.

“I could get down with being this famous,” I say to Mok once they show. “This isn’t that famous, but it’s more famous than you or I.”

“It’s a free concert.”

“But this many people won’t go to anything free. You couldn’t get them all to attend free ‘watch-that-man-poop.’”

“That’s true.”

I am not like this crowd. We are different. But we are still compatible. Ultimately, that will bring us together. For now though, I can’t help but notice back-of-the-neck piercings and girls that look ready to deck me and guys with pink hair and form-fitting blue jeans (which, when you square it up, makes just as much sense as mondo-baggy jeans).

So yes, the crowd defies my expectations of “normal.” But so does the music. Crystal Castles is made up of two members, one chick who I know is named Alice, one feller who I know wears a hood. I can best describe their music as “electro punk,” this from the tunes that MJ and Mok have played at me. Much of their music is sampled…I can identify what appears to be early Nintendo sounds…there are some drums, a keyboard…and then that female vocal, Alice’s voice, twisted and punching and sounding strangely human underneath whatever kinds of electronic adjustments they’ve put on it.

There's always somethin' happ'nin' at the Double Door.
There's always somethin' happ'nin' at the Double Door.

The line moves, barely. “What do they play?” I ask Mok.

“Ethan, the guy with the hood, he plays a keyboard,” he pauses, “kind of. They’ll have a live drummer, drumming over the pre-recorded stuff.”

“And the girl?”

Mok laughs. “She plays the strobe light.”

“I’m sorry?”

“She sometimes straps a strobe light to her head and rocks out with that. And she sings.” He takes a breath. Is he blushing? “Alice is awesome. I’d have her kids.”

Once the line begins to move, we speed right to the door. We get in around 8, with the opening act set to pop at 9, and the word coming back that Crystal Castles won’t be up until midnight. That gives us four hours of wait time, which is certainly what it will be, because the joint confirms what the line suggested: this is not my scene. The house isn’t playing my music, the drinks seem too expensive, and the fans in attendance seem to have little use for me. Indeed, I find nearly every element of this night entirely mysterious. This is a “band” that seems to be primarily electronic; what, then, does a live stage show entail? And who are these musicians that have so captivated my brother and our friends? And what on Earth does it look like when a girl plays a strobe light?

Most of all though, I want to soak in just how modern this situation is. It’s rare that we reflect on that. You watch Blade Runner or 5th Element or Back to the Future Part II or 2001 and all you see is advancement. They show us flying cars and billboards the size of buildings and people in funky space clothes. It’s the future, baby! And then the picture ends and we return to our unfuturistic lives, not considering for a moment that we are already there, that if our world were the setting for a Future Movie produced in 1968, the filmmakers would shoot shot upon detailed shot of computers that we carry in our back packs and 60 inch flat screen televisions and portable telephones that can send messages of text while doubling as cameras and tripling as personal organizers and quadrupling as internet providers, and…whoa, whoa, wait a second…what the hell is the internet?

As Marty McFly can tell you, the future can be a pretty confusing place.
As Marty McFly can tell you, the future can be a pretty confusing place.

To hell with 1968! Let’s bring someone in from 1988 and show this stargazing newcomer what we’re working with here in the digital age, how the morning newspaper is now old news, how we gather our own weather reports and driving directions and movie showtimes, how MJ and Mok can become fans of a rock band without even having an album to hold in their hands, and how that rock band can make their music with computers and then promote their music with computers, and how because of computers you can have a two-person rock “band,” and now here we all are at the Double Door united as Crystal Castles fans all because of Myspace and YouTube and an Atari keyboard chip. Who needs HAL or hover boards when you’ve got a Mac with wi-fi?

******

As expected, there is a lot to see. A thin yet shapely gal with bleached blonde spiky hair and black Converse is dancing with a very, very thin man in tight black jeans. They are doing something that seems the half way point between booty dancing and jitterbugging, a wave of activity moving inward and outward, and every time they sway back in they kiss, small, soft, sweet kisses at first that quickly move into tongue-centered gulpings and then back again, all within the rhythm of the dance. I’ve always enjoyed watching other people kiss; it’s a private moment to which we are rarely invited, but more than that it’s one of the few physical activities capable of keeping our attention so squarely that we rarely stop to wonder what it is we look like. Your jump shot or tennis serve may be video taped so you can analyze it for motion inconsistencies, and maybe you do your workouts in front of a mirror, and you know pretty much what you look like when you ride a bike, but with your eyes closed and your mind in the moment, how many people know what they look like when kissing?

There is another couple kissing steadily, a guy and what turns out to be another guy, leaning against each other on the stoop of a small staircase. Again I am drawn to them. They are kissing even more intently than was the first couple, with little pause for sweetness, and what hooks me is a double catch of…

She looks so sweet and innocent, doesn't she?
She looks so sweet and innocent, doesn't she?
  1. …two uninhibited public smoochers, and…
  2. …two uninhibited public gay men.

Like most of the evening’s sights that seem out of the norm, there is no judgment here. Just a side note to myself: “I see. So we’re there now.” I have no close male friends or family who are gay (as far as I know), and on the rare occasions that I have witnessed two men making out, it has come on television or randomly on the street. But this is a confined space in public, and seeing it brings me to the firm realization that I’ve fallen behind, that I am now one toe closer to the totally oblivious inappropriate racial comment of which grandparents are so often guilty.

******

The evening drags. MJ, Mok and I enjoy drinks and a chat with some friends we bumped into in line, and while the house music blares, poor Train is stuck outside, having arrived after the “one in-one out” policy took effect. Mok and I set the odds at about 6 to 1 that he actually waits it out, but MJ has faith, and soon after Train is inside enjoying a brew with the rest of us. No one pays much mind to the warm up acts, but as midnight creeps closer our group begins shouldering our way towards the stage, MJ, Mok, and Train moving into prime pit position. This looks a bit risky to me, partially because of the physical doings sure to transpire within that pit, and also because it seems too much a move for a non-fan to make while deep within an observation gig, and so I find a shady spot standing on the foot platform just next to the bar.

I can no longer see them. They are somewhere in the pit, everyone breathing and pulsing and waiting for Alice and co. to strap on that strobe light and rock the shit out of everyone…but how?, I keep wondering. What can this performance possibly look like? Something intense and engaging to be sure, if this crowd’s enthusiasm is any indication.

Alice prepares to vocally disembowel her crowd. (photo not from July '08 Double Door show.)
Alice prepares to vocally disembowel her crowd. (photo not from July '08 Double Door show.)

Finally, at 12:14 a.m., Crystal Castles takes the stage. As Mok said, there is a drummer, and Ethan is wearing his hood as he steps to the keyboard, but the crowd’s focus is on Alice, a short, thin little girl with bouncy black hair that cups around her head, a girl who seems to embody some kind of nightmarish pluck, as if she’d prance over to you, smile, and then shoot lava out of her eyes and straight into your soul. She picks up her microphone, and with that the show has started, an odd mixture of bang-out rock drumming mixed with computer sounds mixed with some semblance of a keyboard mixed with Alice, screaming and vibrating and pouring herself into that little microphone. The strobe begins, not attached to her head as I’d been promised but flashing nonetheless, and from the depths of the crowd I occasionally see MJ or Mok or Train leaping and banging with the rest of the crowd. Alice’s body kicks and squats as she sings, or screeches, or whatever it is that she is doing with her voice, and she leans towards the crowd, threatening to fall, and they swell forward, promising to make her one of their own.

With all this going on, I fail to realize the normal-looking girl standing next to me. She has natural brown hair. She is wearing regular blue jeans and a gray turtleneck, a small, silver locket hanging from a necklace. It looks like something her grandmother might have given her. She is attractive and pretty though not “stand-out hot,” but she looks like the kind of girl who grows hotter and sexier the more you know her, until one day you are standing at the alter wondering how nobody else ever noticed the most beautiful girl in the room. Like me, she is drinking a water, and I get the feeling that she too has made a firm decision to stay out of the crowd.

I lean sideways towards her, my eyes fixed on the scene. “So what do you think?”

“Not really sure yet,” she says to me. “It’s something.

“I’ll say.” I point to the pit. “Your friends in there?”

“Somewhere.” She laughs. “Yours too?”

“They fucking love Alice.”

“Guys?”

“Yeah.”

“Yeah, she does it to mine too.”

Alice is now swaying right at the edge of the stage, and now she leans forward and heads face-first into the crowd. She surfs less than a foot out and then disappears…

Who knows what will happen at a Crystal Castles show?
Who knows what will happen at a Crystal Castles show?

“Did they drop her?”
I ask.

My normal-looking companion squints, neither of us sure. “Did they?”

…but they didn’t, and Alice pops back up on stage, a fury of lyrics spewing out of her, and the crowd leaps and fist pumps and head bangs to her every move.

A body emerges. It drips with sweat, t-shirt stuck to the chest, hair dirty. He too has natural dark hair, and he looks like he has just been in eight fights. His knees shake as he ambles towards us, like a two-year-old just learning to walk. A goofy, drunken grin sits on his face. This man is having fun.

“Hey!” he says to my normal-looking companion. He tries to speak quietly, but it is loud and his hearing has been affected, which leaves him shouting, but his voice is shot so it all comes out in half-muted bursts, like a dog trying to bark without realizing that his voice box has been artificially dimmed. “Are you having fun?”

She smiles, a sweet and loving smile, and returns his question back to him, to which he screams out “Fucking Alice, huh!” If she is not yet in love with him, she is on her way, and she takes this sweaty mess of a man into her arms and kisses his forehead. He gives her a kiss, a sweet-affirmation kiss, and I smile, because ain’t it great to see two people this happy? Just a pair of regular folk who have found each other. It’s great to see…

…but the kissing continues, and now it morphs into pure sexuality, kisses with tongues and teeth, and I sit up. Whoa…off they go. But it doesn’t slow down. He grabs her by her short, cute, natural brown hair, yanking her backward, and she screams in delight as he gives her neck the Dracula treatment, her hands now wrapped around his face as Alice screams and Ethan jams and the drummer bangs away, the crowd moving faster and faster, and suddenly my normal little couple has exposed themselves in public, taking their bedroom act to a barstool with hundreds of people around. He reaches up and takes hold of her by her breasts, and with great enthusiasm begins to shake her from left to right, by her breasts, and she moans and grins and nobody cares.

And then it happens: my cute, innocent, normal-looking girl with short, natural brown hair and a smile to sway a snake begins moaning and teething, leaning back with her arms spread so that she is nearly sprawled on the empty bar like Jesus, her tongue slashing around her face in excitement, and she lets out some kind of yelp, and as the strobe light strobes and plucky Alice screams and the crowd welcomes it all, I begin to hear a smacking sound that my ear picks up as a fist on denim. I look down, and right in the midst of it all I see what is making my normal-looking female companion erupt in such orgasmic joy: her feller is punching her square in the cooch. Not a Holyfield knockout, but more of a controlled jab in an uppercut form, so that his fist fits snug between her legs, and as I am processing this, trying to see if I am indeed watching what I think I am watching, they carry on, my normal-looking female companion howling with charismatic fever as she takes punch upon punch in the most private of places.

For Mok, Train, MJ, and anyone else who has spent time in a Crystal Castles pit...
For Mok, Train, MJ, and anyone else who has spent time in a Crystal Castles pit...

He stops and looks at me. He is giddy with excitement like a kid on Christmas, and I get the feeling that he is about to say something absurdly inappropriate. Of this I am sure. “I just punched her right in the pussy!” he yells at me in that obvious way that kids do when they are excited beyond belief and want to be sure that every adult in the room knows that “I just ate seven Oreos in a row!” She leans in and bites his ear, and they exchange a look that suggests their evening has only just started.

Ours, however, is over. It is 12:50 a.m., and Alice has just screamed her last scream, and the crowd is now shaking with a happy nervousness. My friends and I had the same look on our faces last December when we hobbled out of Soldier Field following the Bears’ 35-7 thumping of Green Bay in 16 degree weather, a steady snow and wind whipping around the park. We were gleeful from the win and the show we had watched, and then our senses returned and we could no longer verify the existence of our toes. That’s what this Crystal Castles crowd looked like: as if they hadn’t simply seen a rock show but had been released into the wild of Alice’s imagination, left to fend.

When it was over, Alice, Ethan, and the drummer stood silent for a moment, admiring their destruction. Suddenly from the stage came a blinding glare of light! We looked, and in our amazements watched as the bodies of Alice and Ethan began to glow, quickly becoming painful to the eyes, and when our eyes recovered and we blinked into focus, the ones we called Alice and Ethan were gone, leaving behind only a small puff of hot, purple smoke. The drummer, looking a bit befuddled and disappointed, threw on a pair of sunglasses and hustled off the stage. A man with a “Double Door STAFF” shirt began to sweep. Someone removed a chair.

My normal-looking companion pulled herself from the bar and gave a shake that Slinkey’d through her entire body until she was left free and clear and normal again. “Nice to have met you,” she said to me, and then off she walked with her guy. The house lights returned. From the crowd came MJ, Mok, and Train, limping and grinning just as the crotch-punching feller had done.

“How was it?” I asked.

“I touched Alice,” Mok said through his lips. “It was awesome.”

“I did too,” Train said. “She was smooth.”

“Just as I thought she would be.”

And out we went with the rest of the crowd, shot out of a cannon into the night to intermingle with the people of Wicker Park, a hundred-some humans just touched by the future.

Copyright 2008, jm silverstein
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