May 31, 2022, Seattle, Paramount Theater
My favorite band is on the road and I’m putting on a mask and going with them. I’ve been a little beaten up by the world the last couple years — maybe the same amount as anyone, but that’s plenty. I need to get out. Like the saddest, oldest groupie in the world, I’m following the Scottish indie band Belle and Sebastian down the west coast of America.
I’m starting out in Seattle, where I live. My grown children come along and this feels just right, for the band’s presence in my life maps directly onto my motherhood. I discovered them when my first child was a baby. The voice of the lead singer, Stuart Murdoch, accompanied me over the next two decades, ringing out as I drove the school run in my VW van (little kids), then my Prius (medium-size kids), then a sensible Mazda (teenagers).
Or should I say “lisping out.” If you know anything about Belle and Sebastian, you know they are twee and also, sometimes, the singer lisps. That’s what’ll be on their grave: TWEE LISPERS. As a person who grew up suckling at the bitter teat of punk rock, I didn’t see myself ending up here. But Belle and Sebastian has been the great musical love of my adulthood, and as the years slip by, it’s my belief that I am lucky to love anything at all. I don’t exactly understand why I love them, but I do.
I’ve seen them so many times that I know exactly where to stand: at the rail, stage right, because that’s the direction Stuart faces when he plays piano.
At the Paramount, the kids and I line up, stage right, and the band files out. There are so many of them: seven in the band, plus the few local musicians they add at each stop. They sound fantastic, but there are off-kilter notes: Sarah Martin, the violinist, is out with Covid. And they don’t do their traditional rave-up dance party to “The Boy With the Arab Strap,” when the audience jumps onstage with them. They’re all here, my secret friends, my superheroes, but I feel slightly cut off from the experience. My eyes dart around the crowded theater, looking for maskless folks who might be exposing me and my kids to the virus.
I’m focused on my own fear, my own story. I am here, but not quite here.
June 1, 2022, Portland, Roseland Theater
Barreling down I-5 the next morning, I have some time to reflect, not necessarily a welcome state of affairs. Reflection is a young woman’s game — it tends to go better when you don’t have quite so much to reflect about. And I have plenty: In the last two years, my very long marriage has ended (amicably, but still), I’ve sold the family home, I’ve nursed my beloved father to his death in the midst of a Covid-riddled hospital. These are the things I think about, or try not to think about, as I drive the familiar freeway.
In Portland, I’m meeting up with my boyfriend — such a strange word for me, a person who was married for 20-plus years. He’s a music writer who has occasionally mocked me about my B & S love. He’s game to go to some shows, but I’m a little worried he might not get it, whatever it is. That indefinable thing that makes me love this band.
Roseland is hot and crammed with all kinds of people — young queer couples, middle-aged former punks, families with little kids. My boyfriend angles us to a spot stage left, and I’m too embarrassed by my trainspotter-ish tendencies to insist that we move to the other side. I fall into conversation with a bunch of fellow enthusiasts, the kind of middle-aged white men who show their band love by accruing details about set lists and venues.
Sarah is back! The venue is tiny. Stuart is right there. I start to feel the miracle of seeing a band you love — they have flown out of your car speaker or your earbuds and are now made flesh before your eyes. Stuart sits on the edge of the stage and slings one leg over the other. He looks like a very relaxed, debonair lamb. He extemporizes verses to “Piazza, New York Catcher.” A bald man leans his bulk on me. Two wild-haired young people in front of us twine their arms around each other’s necks. We all hold our breath and can’t believe our luck.
When we walk out into the hot night, my boyfriend pulls his mask down and says, “I loved that” with great force.
June 3, 2022, Oakland, Fox Theater
The drive to Oakland passes in a dream of sunshine and grubby rest areas and Starbucks. This is the road trip that has been eluding me since the pandemic started. It turns out I only need a single day of being, as Gram Parsons sang, out with the truckers and the kickers, and I am starting to feel more human. My boyfriend, with the fervor of the newly converted and the completist tendencies unique to music writers, Spotifies his way through the Belle and Sebastian catalog as we drive.
At the Fox, in downtown Oakland, I take my spot at the rail. The band fills the stage and the evening unfurls its magic. There’s a mysterious exchange between band and audience at their best shows; their very multitudinousness makes you feel somehow like you’re part of their project. All these other people are in the band, why not you? I forget my fears, I forget to be annoyed by the other audience members, or afraid of them. I lose myself in the sea of fans.
When we walk outside, people line the sidewalks, dancing and singing. I had forgotten what it was like to be “out among ‘em,” as my granny used to say. It feels like the world has erupted with joy.
The next day we go to the de Young to see a show of Alice Neel paintings. Neel burst into creative flower in midlife. In the 1970s her work became vibrant, celebratory, wicked, funny, communal. Her paintings are crowded with unexpected people wearing violet scarves and robin egg blue eye makeup. I walk around and around the galleries, taking in the spectacle of unending difference. “People Come First,” the show is called.
And then I see it, the why of my love: Belle and Sebastian people my world. Their songs are filled with louche, ungovernable characters: the lazy painter Jane, who gets a dose of thrush from licking railings; Judy, who fantasizes about horses; Sukie, who likes to hang out in the graveyard; Hillary and Anthony, who kill themselves because they are bored and misunderstood; Chelsea and Lisa, who find solace in each other’s arms.
My own world, over the last few years, has grown smaller and harder. Between divorce and death and quarantine, my soul has shrunk like a wool sweater in a washing machine. Even as I’ve walked alone through my difficulties, trying to solve every problem through sheer force of my solitary will, Belle and Sebastian have kept me company — with the characters they’ve invented, and with the performance of collaboration that defines the band. “We’re four boys in our corduroys,” one of their oldest tunes goes, “we’re not terrific, but we’re competent.” Their bleak cheerfulness has made them my boon companions, even when I was trying my hardest to do everything myself, when I was beginning to see other people as the enemy. They remind me that people come first.
We have tickets to shows in Southern California but we’ll abandon the tour and stop here in San Francisco for a while. We’ve gotten what we came for. And we’re awfully old to be driving that far.