A month and a half ago I paid $2,000 for two tickets to see the XX play for 45 people at New York’s Park Avenue Armory. They’re not one of my favorite bands or anything. And I’m not rich. But, to me, it was worth it. That either means that it was an utter revelation or I have no idea of the value of money.
Let me back up and tell you a little bit about how this all happened.
When I first heard the XX, I was on tour with Thursday in the UK. Before he played it for me, our guitarist Tom Keeley prefaced the song “VCR” with “This is going to be the new band that all the kids lose their virginity to.” The song was simple, minimal, even. It was sexy, but lacked the haunted quality that made Portishead so seductive. The interplay between male and female vocals wasn’t cute like She & Him. It was complex. Desire was tempered by restraint. Sadness was cured by sex.
I bought their 2009 self-titled album when I got home and realized Tom was right. The record was a simple Sunday night sex record. In other words, it’ll get you going, but the neighbors won’t be complaining.
A couple of years later, my girlfriend and I streamed the follow-up, Coexist, on an NPR advance-listen stream. It was different. The bouncing beats and light British soul were all but gone. The music was painfully naked. The opener, “Angels,” was stripped down and tear-streaked. This record was much sadder, much lonelier and way sexier. So when my girlfriend and I had a devastating break-up a week later, I found the record unlistenable. In bars and at parties, I would find myself frozen in place if it came on. The lyrics, as lovelorn as they are, can’t compare to the ice-cold guitar lines slicing through the dull thunder of the drums. The recording itself was the most brilliant piece of loneliness: the few basic tracks were magnified and separated. It set my nerves on edge.
Seven months went by. Liza and I started dating again. She confided in me that the song “Fiction” was her companion for all the lonely nights that she spent thinking of me. (“Fiction when we’re not together/Mistaken for a vision/something of my own creation/Come real love/ why do I refuse you?”) I listened to it anew.
The record became “our record.” It had a deep sadness. Our regrets were amplified in it. I could hear her heart breaking on “Fiction.” She could hear my devotion on “Angels.” Coexist is tender. It’s full of love songs for realists. So it became the soundtrack to a different kind of intimacy. Something more dangerous, less innocent.
So when the XX announced a series of 25 intimate shows (with a limit of 45 people per show) at the Park Avenue Armory, I knew I needed to get us tickets. I’m a patron of the arts, a member of the Armory, so I called as soon as the tickets went on sale. But they were all gone. Completely sold out. At Liza’s request, I broke down and went on StubHub to buy some scalped tickets. But they were already up to $350 each. (The original price was $55.) I couldn’t pay that kind of money, so I figured that I would wait and see.
Time went by and I got a beautiful Pro-Ject record player when I moved into Liza’s apartment. Coexist became our favorite LP to play at home. The 25-show run at the Armory began, and I started to see previews of it. It looked stunning: part high art, part balletic performance, part architectural exploration of intimacy. I was intrigued.
I came home one day to see Liza watching a preview of the Armory shows and decided to just go for it and knock her off her feet. I went on StubHub and bought two tickets for $1,000 each and called my chef buddy to get us a table at the ultra-high-end Manhattan restaurant Per Se. Liza has an amazing culinary television show called Food Curated but she has never eaten at Per Se. I figured I might as well blow all our vacation money in one night.
The meal was great. She’s having a great time. My heart melts. Fast forward…
We get to the Armory and enter through an entrance marked with an iron X. The crowd is led through a tunnel into a small room with a sunken floor where the band is silently (vacantly?) waiting. The 45 of us make a perimeter around them, and they start playing “Angels” incredibly quietly. The crowd stretches forward to hear the band.
As the set progresses, the room changes. The night turns magic. The lights drop and “Fiction” starts playing. Now the beat is booming somewhere behind us. It’s becoming increasingly clear that this small room is a facade and we’re in a massive space. The walls turn into screens that are being projected on from outside. The ceiling starts rising above us, first one story, then two, then three. Liza grabs my hand as the soundtrack to her loneliness throbs in the air around us.
The walls blow off the room and lights come streaming through the air from great distances. The band is slinking through one number after the other. Music has never been sexier or more vivid. It felt like being inside the record sleeve. The sound roaring in the void around us, the lights echoing the artwork — this is the closest I’ve ever been to the realization of a musical vision.
The ushers directed us to leave as the band stayed behind. In the lobby, we met Molly Hawkins, the creative director at the XX’s label Young Turks, and one of the directors of the Armory show. She was horrified at the price of the scalped tickets and assured us that:
1. The band was losing money on the whole thing.
2. They’d never perform this piece again.
It’s interesting, though. Presenting pop music as high art isn’t exactly new. Just look at the Velvet Underground. (Like, everything they did.) Wu-Tang Clan has a new record that is literally one-of-a-kind, and they will be touring galleries with it, before selling it for multiple millions of dollars. But this style of presentation does something interesting to the culture surrounding it: It rarefies it. It moves it into a religious space and reminds us that music can be a refuge for the human spirit. In today’s cultural climate, music is largely free, a disposable commodity used for the promotion of lifestyle brands, or at the very best, an advertisement for the band’s live performance. Putting a luxury price tag on music reminds us that the intrinsic value of music is immeasurable.
What would I pay to give the woman I love solace in her sorrow? That’s an impossible question. What wouldn’t I pay? The XX provided that care for her. After all, music provides care for lost souls everywhere, every single day.
So do something to remind yourself that music is truly priceless. Pick an artist. Pick a time. Make a pilgrimage. Sacrifice something. Please. It’ll make me feel better about giving scalpers all that money that I don’t have.