If you’re anything like me, you probably sit and wonder where the happening people in the world are while you’re sitting at home watching that rerun of Gilligan’s Island where the castaways put on their musical interpretation of Hamlet to get Ginger out of her “I’m no longer a movie star” funk. After all, somewhere out there the next Kurt Cobain is pouring his heart and soul out to 40 people who will never forget how lucky they were to be in the right place at the right time. Miles Davis dropped out of Julliard because watching Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie jam all night seemed on the whole a much better use of his time. What I’d give to be able to say that I’d seen John Lennon put a toilet seat around his neck and belt out a few tunes with his mates on the Reeperbahn during their raucous days in Hamburg. The closest I’ve ever come is seeing Jon Brion perform every Friday night at Largo.
To get to Jon Brion, I had to first go through Aimee Mann. My first true love abandoned me in February of 1994. I would never say that I handled that ugly despondent period well because I was a mess. In fact, the only remotely productive thing I did for most of that year was to pick up an amazing pop record called Whatever by Aimee Mann. I stumbled upon it almost accidentally after seeing her video for “I Should Have Known” on MTV. It had to have been like a gift from God or something because since then I’ve never seen that video played again anywhere. Whatever was just a revelation to me at the time. It’s not just a perfect pop masterpiece, it could easily have been called “Angry Prayers From A Jilted Lover.” I must have listened to that album like 500 times that year. Eventually, I even put together my own Tape of Depression filled with just the saddest songs of lost love I could find. Ray Charles singing “Crying Time”, Otis Redding sounding like he was close to emotional death belting out “These Arms of Mine”, Frank Sinatra almost breaking out in tears on “Wee Small Hours in the Morning”. The tape was so pathetic and sad that upon hearing it just about every one of my friends was immediately concerned for my mental health. There were at least five songs from Whatever on that tape and they fit in perfectly. Eventually, I let go of the feelings for my girlfriend and instead fell deeply in love with Aimee Mann.
The first time I saw the name Largo was on Aimee’s web site. The very idea that she played the same small club every Tuesday night just completely blew my mind. Around 1999 or so the ugly combination of fading opportunities in the stock market and the Internet boom’s perilous effect on rent prices made it unlikely that I could continue to afford life in San Francisco. Faced with nowhere else to go, I figured “Why not go to Los Angeles?” I had no real job prospects there, but I figured that I’d at least be able to see Aimee Mann in an intimate setting every week.
As it turned out, I soon discovered that Mann had become part of this small group of great artists that seemed to congregate around the club. She was married to Michael Penn. They both regularly contributed music to the films of Paul Thomas Anderson, the director of Boogie Nights and Magnolia, who I heard was dating Fiona Apple. Amazingly enough, I soon found out that the most talented guy of them all turned out to be the guy that held court there every Friday night, Jon Brion.
Brion is just simply the greatest pure musician I have ever seen. He plays both Guitar and Piano as well as someone who has spent their entire life devoted to just one instrument. He plays bass, drums, and just about every instrument ever used on a pop album in the 20th Century. I once saw him do an entire Wings medley on the Ukulele. Brion is perhaps more in touch with the magical joy of the perfect pop song than anyone in Los Angeles since Brian Wilson disappeared into his living room sandbox and is well worth seeing just for his own wistful compositions, best represented on his barely released Meaningless, but the real fun comes when he starts asking for requests from his encyclopedic bear trap knowledge of seemingly every pop song put to wax since Thomas Edison first recorded “Mary Had A Little Lamb”. I can’t even imagine memorizing just the lyrics of the songs that he routinely tosses out off the top of his head much less having the ability to play them on any instrument, in any style, at a moments notice. On a typical night you’re sure to hear impassioned versions of perennial favorites like Ray Davies’ “Waterloo Sunset”, John Lennon’s “Dear Prudence” or nearly anything from Wilson’s Pet Sounds, but oftentimes things get weird. Ever heard Nirvana’s Lithium as a Count Basie Jazz workout? AC/DC’s Back in Black on the ukulele? Ziggy Stardust as a multi-tracked Les Paul instrumental? The Beatle’s Birthday as sung by Devo? Cum On Feel the Noize as played by Scott Joplin? Attempts to trip him up with something outside of his usual mid ‘60s comfort zone are more than likely to produce an unexpected surprise. A recent request for Prince’s Little Red Corvette yielded an electrifying medley that also included Controversy, Kiss, When Doves Cry, and 1999. Just don’t request Styx’ Mr. Roboto unless you really want to hear it, because Brion is almost never stumped and if you request it he will play it.
On one Friday, I jokingly called out for an Asia song just to see what he would do, and without pause despite the incredulous groans from the crowd he was well on his way into a masterful version of that 1982 classic “Heat of the Moment.” On another odd occasion he even reveled in the fact that Britney Spears’ “… Baby One More Time” and “Oops … I Did it Again” were both the exact same song.
Once, he even fulfilled a request that his opening act couldn’t fulfill. Perhaps trying to match Brion, that night’s comedian Mary Lynn Rajskub had asked the crowd for requests only to spurn them when it became apparent that a really loud patron desperately wanted to hear some Sam Kinison. Having been brushed off by the comedian this man decided to continue to mouth his desires for Kinison during Brion’s set.
“You realize that that is going to get less and less funny as the night goes on” Brion calmly answered before launching into an improvised musical summary of Kinison’s classic Ethiopia routine, which climaxed with a near perfect imitation of that famous Kinison wail as he screamed out a chorus of “Give that kid a F-ing sandwich!”
On this Friday night, I wasn’t exactly sure that I was going to wake myself up and make it down there, but after about thirty minutes of the movie Castaway I found myself throwing things at the TV and crying out “Dude, it’s just a volleyball. Let it go.” Disappointed with Helen Hunt’s choice, I got myself dressed and decided to head out and see what the night at Largo held for me.
Brion’s shows are always sold out, but I’ve found that if I head over at around midnight enough people will have left to let me catch Brion’s second set. Tonight wasn’t one of those occasions. You see it drives the regulars crazy that it gets out but oftentimes during Brion’s gigs celebrities happen. It seems like Brion knows nearly as many talented musicians and comedians as he does pop songs. Over the last couple of years I’ve seen Elliot Smith, E from the Eels, Rhett Miller, Badly Drawn Boy, Whiskey Town, Peter Buck from REM, Heartbreaker Benmont Tench and even Jack Black, who reprised his High Fidelity version of Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On” punctuated with a mid chorus detour into the Who’s Pinball Wizard. I’ve never seen Beck play there but I did get to stand next to him and marvel at how utterly small and unremarkable he seemed in person. Occasionally, Fiona Apple can even be coaxed out of the back corner for her killer rendition of Julie London’s “Cry Me a River.” Unfortunately, when celebrities are on hand it’s almost impossible to get in for Brion’s second set. After all, who’s going to leave when Tom Petty is in the audience?
Just about any night is a difficult night with Largo’s doorman, but tonight is especially ugly. There is a sign on the door that says “We are sold out so please don’t come through the door like you haven’t seen this sign.” Well, this didn’t stop me. After all I’ve regularly seen this guy turn people away with a stern “We’re not letting anyone else in tonight” and then almost randomly decide to let a few lucky souls in three minutes later. Tonight, seems very different. Usually I can get into the opening hallway, but tonight he meets me at the door and basically tells me “We’re packed there is no way you’re getting in tonight.” Undeterred, I decided to hang out for a while outside the club and see if word leaks out as to why I can’t get in.
After awhile a Largo regular came out for a smoke, and informed me that Mott the Hoople’s Ian Hunter and Crowded House’s Neil Finn were inside. Ouch. Every time I get into Largo I like to have a good request picked out. Coming up with a clever request and having it played is this wonderful validation from an artist of Brion’s caliber. I usually try to come up with something striking to make my request stand out from the crowd. One of my better choices was Madness’ “One Step Beyond” since after all the only words in the song happen to be a shout of “One Step Beyond.” On this night I have my heart set on hearing the Split Enz classic “I Got You”. It’s been going through my head all week and I’d love to hear what Brion would do with it. Unfortunately, I now find myself unable to get in the door because the Neil Finn, the man who wrote the song I want to request, is inside.
Faced with certain defeat I was about thirty seconds away from getting back into my car and giving up when who should happen to pop outside for a smoke but Ian Hunter himself. Ian Hunter as it turns out is a wonderful guy. I offered him a light and we chatted for a bit. “You know I’m from Cleveland and every Friday night the top radio station in the city plays the Easybeats ‘Friday On My Mind’, Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run, and your ‘Cleveland Rocks’, Cleveland worships you! How in the world did you wind up writing a song about Cleveland?”
“There was this period where everyone from Johnny Carson on down was really making fun of Cleveland. Well, we always got a great reaction there and I figured that it needed someone to take its side to take the piss out of everybody.”
What a perfect Rock and Roll answer. We then discussed the merits of the angelic Alan Freed vs. the satanic Dick Clark. Not only did he love Drew Carey’s musical tribute to Cleveland Rocks, he jokingly let on how pleased he was with the pile of money Carey was responsible for sending his way.
Hunter told me a great story about meeting some older folks in Cleveland wearing Cleveland Rocks T-Shirts, who were not only surprised when he informed them that he had written the song, but were equally taken aback to find out that there was a song at all.
“Well, thanks for the fag,” Hunter said. “Are you going back in?”
“No” I answered smiling “I can’t get in and it’s probably because you’re here.”
“Well do you want to follow me in like your with me?,” he offered.
“What a great guy,” I thought. I told him that I really appreciated the gesture but that I didn’t want to further upset the doorman. Who knows if I really irk the guy he may never let me in again. To my great delight Ian said something to somebody because thirty seconds later I finally was granted entrance into Mecca.
Amazing. Before I could even order a Rolling Rock I heard Jon say “You know there is a guy here tonight by the name of Neil Finn, who I’d sure like to hear sing a couple of songs.” Having been outed, Finn climbed upon the stage to join Brion for a wonderfully strident version of The Beatles “Tomorrow Never Knows.”
Finn must be a huge Lennon fan too because he followed that up with another, The White Album’s “I’m So Tired,” complete with an improvised third verse apologizing to Brion and the audience for his inability to remember the song’s actual third verse.
“Don’t worry about it,” Brion helpfully commented after the song ended. “There is no third verse.”
By the time Finn was halfway through Goffin/King’s “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow,” I was in pop heaven, but things didn’t end there as Finn was followed by reticent and shy former John Mellencamp violinist Lisa Germano, actor John C. Reilly who did a credible Phil to Brion’s Don on the Everly Brother’s “Walk Right Back,” and my new best friend Ian Hunter. The wool hat garbed owner of the club, Mark Flanagan, even popped up onstage and did a song.
“This has been a great night so let’s try to find something special to end it with,” Brion announced. Seizing upon the chance to garner some validation, I called out for something I knew Brion couldn’t refuse. “Do some Les Paul.”
After filling the audience in on the man who invented the solid body guitar and multi-tracking, John thrilled Hunter with a tape loop assisted four part, straight out of 1952 virtuoso rendition of his biggest hit “All the Young Dudes.”
Sure, nothing is ever going to be The Beatles in Hamburg, but this is definitely the closest I’ll ever come to it. Just don’t tell anyone or I’ll never make it past the doorman again. After all, Ian Hunter’s not there every week.