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"you ain't shit until you play madison square garden"
Madison Square Garden, New York, NY
10 September 1998


My own personal history as a rock and roll fan is so incredibly tied up in the MSG shows that it is impossible for me to separate it out. Growing up in the NYC area, attending college in the city, these are my stomping grounds. This, to me, was the gig of the tour, it was the show I planned my travel around - if I didn't live in Seattle, those shows wouldn't have been high on my list, while this one was the first and foremost. Personally, historically. And, say what you like, but there is no other venue to match the historical weight of MSG for any band. United Center, fine, LA Forum, oh, gimme a break. Madison Square Garden is the stage that bands dream about playing on.

With all this as context, I had the most advanced case of the PJ jitters that I have ever had in my life starting at 3pm. I was at the venue by 5, and just stood out there, gazing up, thinking, I cannot believe I am here. I cannot believe this is really happening. The vibes, the memories. Tonight is one for the history books. As if to prove my point, the before-show tape was basically a roster of legendary MSG (and NYC) performers: T.Rex, Bowie, the fucking New York Dolls, and of course, our beloved Velvet Underground. These boys know their rock history, as if we didn't know that.

After Tuesday's show, someone had asked me how I thought they would do tonight. I said, well, they could be so nervous that it could very well suck, or, or, they could totally rise to the occasion and really pull things off. As much as I love this band, and as much as this show meant to me, I have to say that in my opinion (and there are already dissenting and totally valid ones out there, and you'll be reading some of them on 5h over the next week), PJ let the room get the better of them tonight. It was absolutely not their fault; I have not seen them experience so many technical problems onstage, ever. On the other hand, they did not soundcheck the first night, either.

When they walked out and launched into those first wonderful chords of "Long Road," it was just - magic. If you didn't have tears in your eyes, I don't know what was wrong with you. The music, the energy, the entire Garden standing on their feet (well, except for the too-cool-for-you dorks in the industry seats, anyway). All I can think is, this is my fucking band on *that* stage, the same stage I'd seen Springsteen and the Who and the Stones and Neil Young and Bob Dylan on.

"All right," Eddie murmurs gently. Stone is bouncing up and down. "Right about now, you're not thinking how much you had to pay or who you had to pay to get your ticket, you don't care, we don't care - backstage before, someone was saying, it don't matter if you've sold 30 million records worldwide, you ain't shit until you play Madison Square Garden, so let's get on with it," and they do so with the perfect number, that classic arena tune "Corduroy," sounding like it was written to be played exactly for this very night. Exactly. "Brain of J," and if there's the Gossard Jumping Barometer, well, my friends, there is also the McCready Falling Over Barometer, and when Mike is so on fire and so entranced that he is running around in circles and falling over himself, by the SECOND SONG - oh dear. =)

"Last Exit" next, and it is at this moment I am thinking, this is nothing short of monumental. It is the perfect mix of music and passion and precision and emotion. This is exactly what I would have dreamed for this show. And then, our first equipment problems of the night, switching amps out (or at least fiddling with them), Mike and Ed are having a little private convo while Mikey switches guitars. "We'll pretend this place doesn't have a roof," Eddie offers, while Jeff helps Mike tune up. And it's GTF, a little rough, the potential was there, but fuck, Mike had to change guitars THREE TIMES during this song - Stoney totally had to carry the thing, and with all due love and respect, this is a two-guitar song and it is a McCready song. Okay, guys, so what, you pulled that off, you can keep going. C'mon.

Yet another guitar change, and "Animal" next, sounding a little odd (and it turns out that Stone was playing an octave higher than the rest of the band, oopsie), but Mike rallies well and totally saves the song. Without a doubt, McCready wins the MVP award for this evening; as things went on, I totally got the same feeling I did from the first Oakland show (11/14/97); nerves everywhere except for Mike, who spent the show running around, playing to everyone, trying to get the energy and the confidence flowing. That's exactly what happened tonight, except that this was without a doubt the best I have ever, ever seen him play.

Hello, it's our old friend the "Dissident"/"Jeremy" stretch, and of course it does nothing but slow things down. "Dissident" had wonderful guitar-intermesh moments, but "Jeremy" was just - there, except for the matching Stone and Mike bounces (both of them on their sides of the stage, facing each other, jumping in unison). "Daughter" next, I'm thinking, what is up with all these radio hits, guys, c'mon, and god, has the energy level just choked as a result of the equipment problems (which continued). But we gain a bit of it back when we're in the tag zone, the band takes this space to re-synch and refocus, Eddie especially. The tag is "Mother" by John Lennon; it's absolutely chilling (well, the original is, of course) and it serves (by way of inspiration perhaps?) to regain some of the missing power.

The beat-up brown Strat Mike uses on "Evenflow" has become my favorite guitar of his (second to the sparkly "Faithfull" guitar); not just because when I see it, I know it's time for that PJ groove moment, but because he gets such wonderful sounds out of it. "Mikey, Mikey, Mikey" my notes say; he is up there channeling the spirits of every guitarist who has ever been on that stage, there is no other word for it, channeling and mixing it and making it unmistakably McCready. Once again, listening to and watching him tonight, I am finding myself thinking, gee, I do have that guitar at home, sitting in the corner, maybe I need to start trying to play again. He is that inspiring, and I can only imagine how many budding guitarists he is doing that (and them some!) for this tour. A friend calls him "the only credible guitar hero these days," and while I've always agreed, tonight I concur emphatically.

Those beautiful, welcoming chords, and "In Hiding" greets us like a long-lost friend, and the energy shifts yet again. We're done with the hits, now we're playing to the fans, and while Eddie's delivery is somewhat tentative, as though he's scared to try to reclaim the groove (in case they lose it again), by the end of the song he is assured and as compelling as always, the crowd just loving it, arms in the air during the chorus. I breathe a sigh of relief, as well as get my first goosebump-moment of the night.

"I Got Shit," introduced as "a song written with Neil - Neil Young... actually, Michael and I have been on this stage before, a few years back, for the Bob Dylan tribute (applause)...Mike didn't remember, he was drinking pretty heavy then (Mike does this fake drunk-wobble)... but he'll remember tonight." And again, it's once again powerful and compelling, soaring up into the rafters.

"Waiting, watching the clock..." "Betterman" follows, and suddenly Smitty's on the stage, hurriedly fixing Matt's bass drum mic - Stone is making the "hurry up, dude" gesture with his hands, I mean, the bass drum has to kick in in a very few seconds. Evolution Dance Hour is next, and they're just throwing everything they can into this one, seemingly trying to make up for all that's gone wrong so far. Mikey is just out there the whole song, running out in front of the monitors on the edge of the stage, Eddie taking his mic stand and smashing it so badly it bends by the end. Stone makes some comment about the hour of power, and Eddie holds the mic stand up, bends it COMPLETELY IN HALF, and then holds it so it makes a cross with his body, someone (I think Stoney) yelling, "HAIL SATAN!" while this is happening, and then Ed hands the mic stand to a lucky person down front (who claims he's going to make a lamp out of it, or something =)).

I'm distracted by following all of the above and writing it down (and obviously not doing a great job of it, sorry, I was just laughing too hard), and then I am shocked into total attention when I hear the opening chords to "All Those Yesterdays"!!!! I am jumping up and down and up and down in the aisle, the people around me are really giving me weird looks (especially the "Eddie!"-yelling stockbrokers behind us), and it is just great, it's not rough at all, Eddie's singing a verse to the back, and that three part harmony is absolutely delicious to my ears. The guitar solo at the end is going swimmingly, until the very end, when Stoney completely fucks it up, laughing his ass off. He mumbles something into the mic, and Eddie follows up with a lovingly sarcastic, "That's great... coming to Madison Square Garden and fucking a song up, John Lennon would be proud."

House lights, on your feet, it's time for everyone's favorite anthem (hey! it's not GTF, i can use that adjective!), and everyone who might have been sitting down is now on their feet for "Alive". Mike has his jacket off and it's here for the first time I notice he's been wearing a Van Halen shirt. =) And McCready is where your focus was if you were smart, because the man WAS this song tonight, he is everywhere, he is throwing himself all over the stage, down front, knocking Jeff's mic stand over - he is BLISTERING, there is no other word for it. I have never, ever seen him play this well. Towards the end, Eddie plays a little game with tossing his mic over the vocal monitor rig (that's that little lighting rig that's right above where he stands onstage), gets the mic over, and sings the last verse with the mic hanging at mouth-level. (Poor Smitty had the task of trying to get the fucking thing down during the break.)

We're getting the signs ready, you can start to see them flutter out on the floor, when these guys dressed as security guards (or maybe they were MSG security, I dunno) walk out onstage in formation, led by Pete, carrying white cardboard file archive boxes, stacking them up neatly. I've got this puzzled look on my face until one of my friends says, "Kenneth Starr..?" He hasn't been getting history-lessons-by-Ed the way the rest of us have been, but as soon as he says it, I know he's right, and sure enough he was. The band come back out and Eddie explains that Kenneth Starr wanted some backstage passes, so he said he'd trade him for a copy of "the report". "18 boxes worth of paper...maybe we should read some of this? Box number three has something about cigars and masturbation, should we start here?...We have no business knowing! I don't give a fuck!!! [wild applause] To me, this is just a different version of flag burning, what about the issues?!...I'll shut up now, I just wanted to see if you felt the same way."

Now that we're done with the political moment, the signs are held back up and Ed comments, "I haven't seen this much organization since New Jersey," but we know we're not going to get it tonight and instead it's "I wish I was the president..," "Wishlist," with a little acapella last verse: "I wish I was the messenger, and all the news was good...I'd change things if I could."

They charge into RVM next and the place rockets off into orbit. I was in the first level up from the floor, one section back from the stage, and it was great because no one else around me really gave a fuck and I could just bop around and really get into this one. Eddie grabs the ebow and graces us with this weird screechy solo, sounding everything like "Black Angel's Death Song" by the Velvet Underground (okay, maybe not that, but it was DEFINITELY VU-inspired). "Hail Hail" follows, and then "Black," Matt Cameron the distinguishing member of the team on this one, until McCready steps to the front, rips out his earplugs, and grace us with a fabulous solo.

"Elderly Woman" again, and while this song has never been a particular favorite or standout for me, seeing it live takes it to a whole other dimension. It's a big crowd favorite, but not as cliched as "Daughter" has become (and don't get me wrong, I love "Daughter," but the crowd's reaction to it always surprises me). When Eddie gets to the "I recognize your breath" line, people on the floor hold up their signs again and he smiles and nods. It's this private little joke for everyone who was at the Tuesday show.

Stone says something next (I could understand Eddie fine, but god was Stoney either not mic'ed right or mumbling), and Matt starts hitting those drums and it's time for "Fuckin' Up," always a live favorite of mine but nothing tonight to particular distinguish it. They leave the stage, and I'm positive this is it - they started at 9pm sharp, and it's already 11 - the MSG union overtime rules mean that it costs a lot of fucking money to continue playing after the 11pm curfew - but my colleague points out that Ted, Matt's tech, is *tightening* his cymbals, not the opposite, and before I know it, they're back again.

"This next song is about how we feel," and then Mikey starts the fucking YL riff and I'm going, augh, no, enough already, please please please, and then there's a commotion onstage, and Mike steps up to the mic and says, "Sorry - I fucked up" and Ed proceeds to explain that this is an old song by Arthur Alexander (NOT the Beatles!) and it's an affectionate, delightful "Soldier of Love". I pull out the cellphone so Jean can hear this one, and it was well worth it, Eddie's voice is warm and rich and this is a great song for them to do and I am so happy to get to hear this new cover.

And that's it, night one, MSG. A great show, but not quite all that PJ are capable of. Then again, there's always tomorrow. =)

copyright © 1998 Caryn Rose