The idiom, “phone it in,” is purported to have originated in the 1930s according to Grammarist.com, who writes that it was, “a popular joke among theater actors alluded to having a role that was so small it was possible to call on the phone, rather than appear on the stage in person.” It means to do something with little enthusiasm or verve, like just showing up but not giving a care.
This was brought to mind as I watched the Violent Femmes performance at the McMenamins Crystal Ballroom in Portland, Oregon on June 1, 2022, particularly, Gordon Gano. It was hard to tell if he was happy to be performing and touring again or if he was tired of the old Gordon that had written those songs. As if putting on that persona, unlike an old pair of jeans, was no longer comfortable or fitting.
We all have many facets to our development over the years. The skin we wear as an eighteen-year-old changes, literally and metaphorically, as we become thirty-eight and fifty-eight years old. Probably there are many ways to put on those old glory days of our youth but I can think of two at the moment. We can put on the old skin with boredom, antipathy, even a touch of self-hate and contempt. “That was then, and it was a long time ago. I’m not that person now and I kinda hate myself and you for even wanting to drudge it out of the closet.” Alternatively, we can pull that old skin out, try it on and realize that who we are now is not exactly that person any longer but is made up of the experiences that person had. We can accept with joy and gratitude the extreme passions of youth, the short-sighted ability to see in black and white, the things that drove us so hard in our chosen direction, even if we didn’t realize at the time we were choosing it.
I went to the concert, in part, to see how it compared with a Violent Femmes concert from my youth. But, to be honest, I don’t really remember the concert back then. A high level of alcohol intake undoubtedly blurred my experience and my memory. All I really remember is how it felt. I was near the stage until the slamming started, then I moved to the back, but the feeling that someone else understood my sense of irony, futility, hope and hopelessness, all mixed with a willingness to get up everyday and keep trying; that is what I remember from that concert. I wasn’t alone in my experience of having an outsider’s heart, of not quite fitting in, of seeing a bigger picture and thinking that it was all kind of silly to take it so seriously and yet still taking it seriously. The songs, the band, the crowd all played to my feelings of not being alone in my experience, even if I was drunk at the time.
We all need to belong to someone and something. We just do.
So, fast forward (and yes, it does seem fast on this end of the timeline) more than thirty years to this concert. It had some similarities. The songs are still fantastic and waken that aspect that says, “it’s silly to take this all so seriously because this only points to that which is truly serious.” The drummer, John Sparrow, had an intensity that dripped into the audience and I was impressed he could summon that high level for the entire night. He wasn’t the drummer back when I saw them before yet nothing was lacking in his performance. The bassist, Brian Ritchie, seemed to wear the old skin well. He brought a level of awe to the audience in the beginning while he played that monstrously big bass and played the conch shell simultaneously. He summoned the old feelings of frustration and powerlessness in his simple yet stunning rendition of “Dance, Motherfucker, Dance!” His voice carried the fury in a wave as deep and rumbling as the warning shocks prior to a volcanic eruption. Around me, people were slamming but where I was, I only got the fringes of the action. It was perfect. I’m no longer furious, powerless, disaffected. I can see both sides now (thank you to Joni Mitchell for putting such deep experience into such few words). I can empathize with them without being engulfed by the feelings. I can find the place between tumult and resignation and observe, enjoy, revel, and feel grateful for it all.
It no doubt helped that I was completely sober.
I could feel the lostness of the people around me who were, and there is no way to put this gently, shitfaced. I could feel the excitement of the people who were seeing the Femmes for the first time, and the pride of the parents who brought their kids to the show to share the experience across generations. I could feel my old skin, my younger person, still there inside me, part of who I am now, rising and gyrating to the sounds, to the energy of the crowd. I could enjoy the parts of that crowd energy and still draw a boundary to the parts that I did not want. “You will not elbow me,” I said to one very drunk participant. Without anger, without negativity, just a fact. “You will not elbow me,” quietly, for a concert anyway, and amazingly the person left to find a place more fitting for the negative energy. And I stayed, front row against the gate separating audience from stage, dancing and watching the crowd, the band, the staff, enjoying the moment and seeing how it played with the many, many moments that have come before it.
Definitely, I did not phone it in. And definitely, I like American Music, irony and all.