Located on High Street in the heart of Ohio State University, the Newport Music Hall was originally a movie theater, built in 1922 and used in that capacity for nearly fifty years. In 1970 it was refashioned and renamed as the Agora Ballroom, one in a chain of about a dozen rock clubs throughout the country. Ted Nugent played the first ever show here in May of that year, and while it was renamed and expanded in 1984 to its current incarnation, it has remained in continuous use without pause from the moment the Motor City Madman christened it. Much later, while a student at OSU, Kim Deal of Pixies and Breeders fame used to clean the toilets here. U2, their debut US appearance. I once fell asleep in these almost too cozy confines during a Franklin County All-Stars performance, though this is a handful of years removed from my first ever visit. For that one we can thank Primus, and a show held in the fall of ’93. Many others will follow, however, with the unexpected champions Dick Dale (4) and GWAR (2) emerging as the most viewed shows from this particular venue. Here’s a quick recap, with a bunch of other, possibly extraneous information thrown in:
October 22, 1993…….Primus
Why I’m compelled to purchase four tickets in advance, I’m not sure. Suffice to say when you’re of a certain age and the bands are of a certain popularity, you know you’ll have no trouble finding takers. The band, Primus, is after all right in the wheelhouse of the magic realm where a number of years as this underground buzz band is finally intersecting with an album that’s selling well, a major label deal and a handful of hit songs.
In the dark days, all I ever heard was how weird and interesting Primus were. This stretched back to at least 1990, a good three years or more, where all the cool musician types I knew who were into obscure bands were talking about how weird and interesting they were, wearing their t-shirts to school. Shirts featuring strange album art but somehow all of a piece, tied together with that familiar block caps font spelling out their name. Unable to get my hands on any – a typical predicament – I long to hear this music.
The first tiny break occurs with the release of Bill And Ted’s Bogus Journey, and its accompanying soundtrack. It’s a big deal for them but also my first exposure to the group, a cassette my cousins are always bringing over as we find ourselves digging Tommy The Cat more than anything else on there. Tom Waits voicing the title character is a deft coup, of course, and it instantly becomes their most popular cut. “These guys are sickos,” my dad complains, listening along with us one night, though this is precisely the point.
Fast forward a few years to the present. Despite a top ten album and a pair of top ten singles, however, Primus is still relegated to playing this mid-sized music hall circuit. The Newport holds 1700, and I imagine this is about what they are selling everywhere – certainly everywhere in the Midwest. To attract a larger crowd, you need somehow to reach out to a wider demographic, and this isn’t exactly the kind of easy listening experience most adults like to digest, or preteens. The people who most buy records are precisely the crowd Primus attracts, but it takes more than that to sell out, say, a 30,000 seat amphitheater. Nonetheless, I know enough people in the former lot to purchase these four tickets with confidence.
Warning sounds abound that, good as they are, Primus might already be relegated in most people’s minds to novelty band status. Surely My Name Is Mud isn’t going to be the Safety Dance of its time, is it? I’m having trouble rounding up the eager throng I anticipated. I buy these four tickets anyway. But as the day of the show approaches, first Kenny can’t make it and Alan is mysteriously AWOL, and somehow we’re stuck with these two guys, Jake and Tim, from Heather’s high school. At times I feel she is easily impressed by superficial flourishes, and I’m not a huge fan of this Jake character. He is symbolic of this era in all the wrong ways, growing his hair fashionably long as he tries to learn guitar and dabble in pot mainly to present a certain image, as he spouts quasi bohemian quasi sensitive guy stuff over the telephone all day. I’m pretty sure he practices talking deeper than he really does as well. He snickers in referring to me as a “preppie,” although this is the first time we’ve met and I happen to be wearing blue jeans and a tee shirt with an insulated flannel atop it – a cliched grunge look itself, granted, but my observation still holds. Yet there’s the promise that he will soon have the money to pay me for this ticket, and also this much more subdued Tim character, and anyway it’s better than these tickets going to waste, so they are in the car with us on the ride down to Columbus.
We park in a convenience store lot just down the street and make our way up the sidewalk. Once inside, the interior reveals itself as some mixture of gothic ballroom and rock hall, dark and, as far as we can determine, not especially clean. But it has a great feel to it, and there seems to be not a bad spot to stand or sit in the house. Up the ramp past the ticket counter, a foyer with merchandising booths await, and these are flanked by a stairwell on each side, leading up to the second floor, the only true seating here. Directly ahead, a ground level standing area, and beyond it a pit area sunken a few steps in, directly in front of the stage. Since Heather has essentially commandeered my white Primus tee for months now, I buy a black Pork Soda one now, and then the four of us make our way upstairs. Speaking of that white shirt, though, my all-time favorite picture of her features it in a starring role:
School of Fish’s cameo here is an unfortunate one – and I only refrained from cropping them for historical reasons – but otherwise this is a classic. Vintage Heather, with one of the best smirks ever captured on film.
Anyway, as for the show. for an opening act we are treated to the Melvins. I use this term loosely. In Bill And Ted’s Bogus Journey, the titular characters give the Grim Reaper a “melvin,” which is a wedgie in the front, attacking the genitals. This sounds about right for summarizing the glacier-core outfit on evidence here, fronted by the outrageous Eraserhead meets Robert Smith hair of one Buzz Osbourne. I have some friends who rave about this group, but it’s safe to say that I’ve yet to connect with them in any form. To me their gimmick smacks an awful lot of 1960s band Vanilla Fudge, who were known for taking well known pop songs and slowing them down, sludging them up, drawing them ever outward.
So if these guys aren’t really notorious for their songwriting per se, the Melvins’ primary contribution to music history has been to apply this approach to punk music, like sticking a finger in the wheels of a moving cassette tape. The official byline on this is that they kind of helped invent grunge by doing so. If you ask me, however, their greatest gift to the world has to be the occasion whereby Kurt Cobain auditioned to play bass, and they said no thanks. Either that or, well, yes, Buzz Osborne’s hair.
Ol’ Buzzie here is credited with sending Dave Grohl over to Nirvana at some point following Kurt’s botched audition, though, so give him props for that. Otherwise however they’ve been milking the Nirvana connection ever since, up to and including releasing their latest album, and major label debut, Houdini, on the exact same day as In Utero. I have to admit I couldn’t have been bothered less to listen to Houdini before this show. The most familiar song to me is the Kiss cover they’ve thrown on there, Going Blind. But what little I’ve heard of them conforms neatly with exactly what they sound like here, in essence every note dragged out to its most slothful extreme, and on top of that the band has tacked a stage presence that would suggest this is all supposed to be some extremely clever joke. The running joke perpetuated by Jake and Tim is actually far more comical, and it’s not much of a gag at all.
“Melvin!” one of them will shout out at random intervals throughout the set, as the other one snickers uncontrollably.
Every tune seems to drag on forever. There’s one lurching number where Osborne and bass player Mark Deutrom play one chord/note, and let it hang, and then Dale Crover hits this bell, and repeat, and repeat, and I’m fairly certain this will never end. But then again, this is just my impression. In fact the soon to unravel events immediately following this concert stand out far greater in all four of our minds, blotting out a great deal of the music we hear.
Maybe as a reaction to this dreadful opening act, my attention is subconsciously funneled toward monotony. Once mercy is finally bestowed upon us and Primus replace these jokers on stage, I do remember them playing Bob, which is itself an exercise in tedious repetition. But the highlights are very strong, as pretty much any song I’d hoped to hear, they obliged us with. Jake and Tim are especially stoked by Mr. Krinkle, which does come off well here. During the more manic moments in their set, too, Les Claypool is stomping around in his own peculiar manner – then again, there is pretty much nothing typical about this dude whatsoever when it comes to his music – where he almost resembles a deranged flamingo or something, picking up one impossibly lanky leg and slamming it back down in time with the insanely complicated plucking of his bass, as he bobs his head and cavorts around the stage. Behind them a screen shows animated clips that loosely associate with the music – again, there’s an image I have of swinging light bulbs, but I’m fuzzy as to which selection this went with – and drummer Tim “Herb” Alexander and guitarist Larry LaLonde sound sharp. This is the first time I’ve seen them, but if I had to guess, I would say this is an average Primus show. Pretty much what you’d expect, and neither the worst nor the best stop on the itinerary.
It does seem to me, however, that we need a better method for reviewing rock concerts in these modern times. The most obvious grading systems are flawed. They rate on a scale of one to five starts, but they don’t tell you which stars are missing. And the same applies to a grade point average. I wrack my brain for an ingenious solution to this problem, but like everything, the most perfect answer is simple and right under my nose.
Bandanna: intelligence. Is there anything holding their brain in place. By this I mean intelligent songwriting – the band can be comprised of a bunch of dumdums for all I care in every other subject you care to name. Four out of the five original members of GN’R did not graduate high school, but the lyrics are nonetheless well written. And let it be said that all of these stars pertain to the concert itself. If upon earlier, or later, inspection, I determine by some miracle that Houdini is a well written album, that means nothing; what matters is whether I could gather that from watching this particular concert, on this night, with this band.
Boots: does this music stomp, i.e. how excellent was the performance
Jacket: how are they ornamenting, dressing up their hearts and souls, in other words originality.
Trousers: is there a sincerity/integrity to the music, or shall we say, is there anything holding their balls in place. Do they still have their balls, whatever that means for the performer in question.
So therefore, your traditional critic would rate the show as such –
Melvins: 1 Star
Primus: 3 Stars
I’m not satisfied with this, I want a much more specific method. And thus the official verdict which stands:
Primus: boots jacket trousers
We exit the hall fairly pumped about what we’ve seen. Yet as we make it around the corner to the convenience store lot, the ghastly sight of a row of cars which collectively look not a one like mine confronts us. So idiotic, and at the same time a fascinating example of mob mentality: the four of us had looked around and around when I’d parked, and seen nothing, but there is a metal sign nailed to the building directly in front of my car saying parking without permit was prohibited. As if in our excitement, we had collectively turned a blind eye.
I walk into the convenience store and use the payphone to call the number listed. Knowing nothing whatsoever about Columbus, I need the incredibly brusque individual on the other end to spell out for me how we were going to make it over to where my car is. Fortunately for us, it’s a simple route, and while a long, long hike by any stretch of the imagination, it’s not completely undoable.
What this means is about eight blocks south on High Street, then an indeterminable number of ones east – surely as great a distance again, if not more. It’s only about two miles all told, but on a brisk October night, when we’ve left our long sleeves in my car and were not expecting such athletic endeavors, the odyssey heightens exponentially in our minds. The area below campus, too, is somewhat suspect, and then once we turn on 5th Avenue, into an industrial district, our surroundings become sketchier still. After seeing basically not a soul since leaving High Street, encountering this towing yard and some actual humans is a relief beyond the promise of retrieving my car. A handful of well-known fast food establishments lie just beyond it, and the interstate we will take back home, everything is going to be alright.
Except that in my naivete I had just sort of expected that the tow truck operator guy would accept a draft from the checkbook I have locked in my glove box. So did everyone else in my party, we didn’t know any better. But as I’m standing at the counter with this shaggy, squat middle aged jackass, he shakes his head and refuses any notion of collecting his $63 in this manner. He does not care where we are from.
Outside on the sidewalk, we are frantically scratching our heads for solutions here. It’s a school night and we are forty five minutes (the three of them) to an hour plus (myself) away from home. Assuming we had any friends who were just hanging out with sixty some dollars in their pockets, which we don’t, the chances of one of them driving down is incredibly remote to say the least. Except when all seems lost, Jake suddenly has the incredible insight that – and I think it would have been immediately obvious to me, if I were in his shoes, but who am I to complain in a moment like this – his mom is a nurse at a hospital down here in Columbus, midnight shift, and she happens to be working tonight.
After consulting with mister jackass tow truck counter operator guy, he reluctantly agrees to let Jake use the phone. In getting through to his mom, she does in fact have the cash on her, and can make it down during her lunch break. Amazing – we are saved. Cobbling together our spare cash, we hang out in a Church’s Chicken next door, which I’m pretty sure is the only occasion ever where I’ve ever eaten this ghetto mainstay, and rightly so, although tonight it tastes like heaven. And when Jake’s mom shows up, a pretty if somewhat beleaguered looking brunette, we are profuse in our thanks.
And I suppose I should be thankful to him, too. Except he kind of turns out to be a bit of a weasel. He of the consummately studied early 90s shtick, he who evidently can’t stop yukking it up over how uncool I am. Yet it’s hard to imagine anything less cool than my handing him $40 a week or so later – which, as he already owes me about $25 for his and Tim’s concert tickets, means I am paying one hundred percent of the towing bill, in addition to the gas to and fro – and his only passing $20 off to his mom, total, using the rest to buy weed. Is this rock and roll? No, this is horseshit.