I was supposed to be in the mood to benefit H.E.A.R., but if anyone asked they would have heard the truth: I was on a mission to discover exactly the right words to describe what goes on at a Mermen show, now more than ever, in tactile sound. My new Doc's Pro Plugs are in my ear canals and my teeth are vibrating in my head. There is a perpetual buzz in my sternum. It may be overstimulation, presenting the Mermen in this way. I think about joining the audience lying down on the floor. I think again.
I've heard Mermen in the studio. I've heard Mermen on the playa. I've heard Mermen at the Fillmore when they barely had a chance to get started before they had to stop. I've heard Mermen at the Warfield shake a reality stick at David Byrne. He didn't get it. I've heard Mermen flung out by DJs-in-training. I've seen Mermen glow green against a black display. I've fallen asleep to Mermen. This is music for living on the West Coast of Northern California: a soundtrack for every sloping blonde hill, a theme for every triumph and indignation of Bay Area life. There is a Mermen song for spurting free from the toll plaza at long last, there is a Mermen song for perfect coffee every single time, there is a Mermen song for fog, there is a Mermen song for interminable delays, there is a Mermen song for BART rides in which you are very very alone, there is a Mermen song for grabbing your best friend by the front of the shirt and hanging on until it passes, there is a Mermen song for your shoes or for the sky, neither of which you've looked at closely in quite some time.
And then, after all the leap and crash of the go-first bands, the Mermen send a wave through the air and under the floor. I'm hopeful. If I get the sound from the soles of my feet it will be easier to name. If I stand here with the front people I'll be able to figure it out. People relax and close their eyes. They sway gently, as if everyone suddenly became a really good dancer, but is, by choice, refraining from dancing. This is what listening looks like: Stillness and connection, every note caught from the stage and accepted. The band verbs and reverbs through now classic material, hitting highlights early on in the 1:20 set, including a playa-dusted "With No Definite Future..." I was happy I didn't have to wait too long to hear. I know this material but for one or two, and was a little chagrined that Jim's effects pedals never drifted too far from their moorings. But the sound, people, the sound was massive, bone threading sound, better than boom, good vibration, puffing up auras all around me.
Why do Mermen audiences feel permitted to be alone with the sound? I would never dream of disturbing any one of them. No elbow thrash, no fists, no centrifugal force, even through the music can be calling you to just that. Small movements, private, turning on an axis slightly, then turning back again. It hits me: this is what a person looks like when they take that hot shower they absolutely deserve. The one after you get the flywheel back in. The one after unfreezing the water main. The one the day after Labor Day.
First one, then a few, then as the night wears on, several people sink to the floor and curl around the sound there: the anthemic ballads, the howls and growls, the mighty pomo surf sound swelling up and crashing over us, as we wade out, accoustumed now and fearless, wanting to drown.
And then lights up and show over. I turn around to a house of 30 where 300 used to be. We spill out, strangely able to hear one another after a Mermen show, a first. I wonder if I'm right about this. I wonder if everyone heard what I heard.
© 1997 MediaCast