Simple Words w/ Robert L. Been of Black Rebel Motorcycle Club (Archives)

Jones Beach Theater, Wantagh, NY August 6th, 2008

This is a reflection of a point in time;  a not-so-random random event that can be filed under “Rock and Roll Moments” of the cerebral kind:

When you have the pleasure, enjoy it. When you have the opportunity, ask for it. When the spirit moves you, thank it. 
Traveling is hard work; just ask…well, me (no this isn’t a plea for your sympathy but I’d been on the road since 4 AM Tuesday August 5th in my attempt to get my rear end from coast West to coast East for yet another of my random musical adventures). February brought me and a little wind chaffing home to NYC to get my face rocked off by The Foo Fighters at Madison Square Garden (“Oh fuck…I’m snowed in.”). So now what was I up to?

This latest jaunt had a very specific purpose which evolved into a three-point plan: seeing Kings of Leon at the brand spanking new All Points West Music Festival in Jersey City (where?) on August 9th.Kings Of Leon is one of the few bands that lights my fire enough to travel for and here I was traveling again for the rock of the dirty south. The two additional points fell into my lap when Black Rebel Motorcycle Club decided to tag along with Stone Temple Pilots on their greatest hits road show (I mean let’s be honest, if Stone Temple Pilots doesn’t drop an album of fresh new deadlies soon, we can just chalk this tour up to a large scale lounge act on repeat). I do dig me some “Unglued”, “Sex Type Thing” and “Sour Girl” so once again I was going to get a groove on that satisfied that primal part of my brain at Jones Beach Theater, NYBRMC tossing in a headlining show at Irving Plaza in New York City just put the week over the top.

It was late on Tuesday night, slipping into early Wednesday morning and the post-concert veil was lifting somewhat. Stone Temple Pilots and Black Rebel Motorcycle Club had just done their duty at the Jones Beach Theatre in Wantagh, New York which is a fine venue, out in the boonies for sure (now I remember why I was never a regular at Jones Beach while growing up in Brooklyn), but it was a good show for opening band and headliner, alike. Scott Weiland’s megaphone love is still intact.

Now I’m writing not so much as a fan but more an observer; as a mind, an eye and an ear turned towards a subject: an understated subject who is seemingly as pleased with the shadows as he is with the light. I had a minute that remarkably turned into an hour…and I had the pleasure of watching him shuffle his feet in a deserted parking lot. Deserted save for the merry travel mates and their transitive home; have tour bus, will travel, and travel, they do, across this country making a distinct noise somewhat aged for the young men who make it and yet a generation of new souls is eating it alive.

After initially leaving the island of Jones Beach where the venue is located, I told my cab driver to turn around and take me back. I wanted to talk to them and damned if there was no time like the present! It was approaching 1 AM when my cab pulled up alongside their tour bus and I wander into their calm. Alongside Robert’s current mobile home was a circular seated cast of characters, the road crew, his dad Michael (Papa Been) relaxing, enjoying their quiet and some *ahem* post-show libations. Does it get more casual than this? If it does, it’s probably not by much. I introduced myself; this group was a friendly lot of faces that I’d seen at shows several times before and, for goodness sake, did one of those guys say that he recognized me from MySpace? I’m not sure if that’s a good sign and it might have “stalker” written all over it, but then I have to remember that I do kind of stand out in a crowd…even an online crowd. After being told that I was “lovely” (and don’t think that I don’t know when the Jack Daniels is talking), I asked a question: could I possibly borrow one of the guys for a few minutes; the “guys” being BRMC’s Peter Hayes and Robert Levon Been. Fortunately neither Michael, Micah, Eric nor anyone else asked what I’d like to “borrow” them for as that was a pretty loaded question, it was after one in the morning and I was hardly the sharpest tool as it had been an exceedingly long day. Plus my self-editing switch was broken; it had been since I came home. One of the merry mates headed inside the tour bus with my request.

*In a perfect world time spent with “you” would be just that: time spent. Not wasted or meandered, not tolerated or killed but spent with care because our thoughts and feelings are precious jewels to share. At their worst they can be weapons and poisonous but at their best, diamond lights even in the middle of the night at Jones Beach*

Robert Levon Been literally slinked out of his road quarters; long legs not taking long strides yet before I expected it, there he was before me looking no different than the musical creature on stage who had been physically, almost violently, wrestling chocolate tones from his guitar some four hours ago. Hi. I’m me, you’re you; thanks for coming.

So it began, this impromptu meeting; less an interview, more a conversation where he entertained me for an hour with a steady stream of intrinsic ramblings that, if you listened carefully, really did follow a path. Although not necessarily a linear one, he was clear and thoughtful in his musing. Even though soft-spoken, the man had a lot to say and was 75% chattier than I expected as a word or question tended to extract some thought or memory that segued into an opinion or story. Who knows if that’s his norm or if he was just in a giving mood; either way, pleasant. I hardly know how his mind works but it appears to shift along with his body when he speaks. Crossed arms, crossed legs in thought; then, the mind uncoils with an illuminating statement and the body follows suit. Hand to face, downward glances, reserved yet open smiles that could easily be a guy’s best friend in key moments or a most effective deflection. At this point I’m not even sure if he’s comfortable in his clothes because the shifting body acts like it wants out of them.

The Mad Hatter: If you’ve noticed the trio’s primary bass man rocking a fierce pimptastic look, well you have some random fan from the London Roundhouse to thank for his fashion-forwardness (a round of applause for that fan, please). During a show there, said hat found its way onto the stage. Now Robert, being self-professed picky about his headgear (Can you blame him? Who’d cover up that hair if they didn’t have to?), fancied the brim and sports it. I suppose that we should all be grateful that it was black. *And no, this is not a call for you fans to now take up habitually assaulting the guy with random bits of your wardrobe or other goodies*

From Russia, With Love: I made an admission to Robert: I think that we in the immediate Southern California area are a little spoiled by their presence and their constantly making themselves musically available to us. But since it’s not all about us, I wondered what some of his favorite places to play were. His answers never would’ve crossed my mind: Japan, South America and Russia. Russia, you say? His emotional logic was clarifying as his words gave me a mental picture of the scene. To play for a crowd who may not have the freedoms or the luxury of self-expression as we do or may not have the bands that they really want to see come to them very often, he said that it feels incredible to give them the gift of live music and watch it release them, save them even. As if that’s what the music does for him. The guy speaks like an “artist”.

King for a Day: Every family or good band should have a designated King of Useless Information for entertainment, if not educational purposes. All hail Robert Levon Been, a guy who hates to use words or phrases that he has no idea what they mean and don’t people do that all the time? See Robert as he regales and enlightens me with the etymology of such gems as “gibberish”, “the whole 9 yards” and “severance pay”. Fortunately I didn’t betray where my mind wandered on that last one as I mentally noted that Mary Queen of Scots probably should have tipped better.

The Invisible Man: Investing yourself in making and performing music, a profession by it’s very nature that reaches out as well as in, hardly seems like a career choice if you wish to attain or maintain a semblance of anonymity. So the oddity is in Robert’s thinking that being a musician would’ve made it easier for him to get lost in a room of people. I could see that happening for you Robert…if you sucked. The problem with your theory is that you’re quite good at what you do, so the expanse of your world is pretty much your own fault. Monochromatic by accident and not design, he leaned towards the concept of being somewhat nameless, faceless characters with the music coming through. I’ve a description for you, Robert: understated musicians whose gritty and textural music does all the talking for them. Nameless, faceless yet relevant.

The Ugly American: Perfectly good songs can get lost on me if they amble on over a certain length and overstay their welcome. Such songs tend to result in me developing a restless index finger towards my iPod or car stereo. It’s a rare sonic thing that catches and holds it’s listener with brooding chords, tight rhythms, shadows and light, and layers of kaleidoscopic sound only to lay it and its listener bare. Earlier this year BRMC played a show at The Wiltern in Los Angeles and it was a fine show except for one thing: the absence of the ridiculously tight, atmospheric, dark and disturbing beauty of the 9-minute long opus that is “American X”. It’s headphone worthy and as much as I appreciated and respected that song, I was more than comfortable not knowing what was going through the mind of who wrote it when he wrote it. There’s a certain comfort in distance from the painful truth. Robert told me anyway.

His apartment was burglarized. His possessions, including notebooks full of his simple words, were stolen. He and his life had been violated.

What started out as a reflection on the undercurrent of perversion in society and the changes in our culture suddenly became a cathartic and poetic exorcism of the hollow that such a breach left inside of him. Give the man a dark room, a patch of floor, a guitar and an agitated mind and the end result was “American X”, a song that never gets old to his ears. I concur. In retrospect, one can say that you never know how, when, why or what will provoke the epiphany or what will arise from the riot inside, but in this case we can thank it.

Now it was time for them to hit the road; the reason that they’d hung around in this empty parking lot was because it was either kill time here or kill time where they were going. Peter, Micah, Ben and Eric hustled around and out came the usual suspects: the rocket fireworks. Looking like men on a mission, this was serious business and Robert and I hung back and watched them handle it. That, indeed, seemed like the safest thing to do. Once the contraband was assembled, four neatly in a row, one by one each fuse was lit. All but one gave up its pretty spark and fire perfectly but the deed was done and, just like their rockets, they were about to trail off into the dark with the night properly sealed. Coolness, but they’re lucky that I didn’t call the cops. I know people.

So as conversations go, it’s safe to say that I’ve had worse. On that note, I can say “thank you” to Robert and his band of mates for a good show, good conversation and some quality time spent in an empty parking lot way past my bedtime. And for the offer of Rice Krispies.