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"What's the difference between America and yoghurt? After 200 years yoghurt would have developed a culture."
- Frank Heiss, Tube
"Most of the big shore places were closed now and there were hardly any lights except the shadowy, moving glow of a ferryboat across the Sound. And as the moon rose higher the inessential houses began to melt away until gradually I became aware of the old island here that flowered once for Dutch sailors' eyes - a fresh, green breast of the new world. Its vanished trees, the trees that had made way for Gatsby's house, had once pandered in whispers to the last and greatest of human dreams; for a transitory enchanted moment man must have held his breath in the presence of this continent, compelled into an aesthetic contemplation he neither understood nor desired, face to face for the last time in history with something commensurate to his capacity for wonder."
- F Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby
The Sisters of Mercy
House of Blues, Orlando, Fl.
15 October 1999
In which Fitzgerald, Eldritch and Walt's visions of Utopia merge together in a nightmare collision in Disneyland after Dark.
To the untrained eye, the venue sounds innocent enough. A little on the small side, perhaps; "house" doesn't quite conjure up visions of thousands of plastic seats stretching majestically into the distance, tokens of success that pander in whispers to Eldritch's vision of Sisters' Utopia. The two-letter state acronym after the city tells us that we're in America again. Actually, we don't need reminding of this: The House of Blues is bang in the middle of DisneyWorld. We could hardly be in any other country.
The predominant theme in American rock'n'roll used to be the Springsteenian hero ("highways filled with broken heroes on a last chance power drive"), the restless romantic looking for a home that, post-Vietnam, no longer existed. Kurt Cobain's suicide changed that; grunge became the de facto rock norm for a while, but even grunge's defeatism soon faded leaving a gap in America rock that is yet to be filled. Driving to the House of Blues, Born to Run, comes on the radio but fails to complement the miles upon miles of fast food joints, K-Marts and an excess of shoe shops (just how many Nike warehouses does a city need?). The drive to Downtown Disney is hardly a last-chance power drive, more a Ghost train ride through the graveyard of the American dream, no capacity for wonder required.
I was expecting DisneyWorld itself to be a cartoon monument to Capitalism and family values, with the odd nasty surprise thrown in, and I was pretty much on the money. There is a insidious corporatism to the place. The widely praised Epcot centre is simply a series of big-dollar corporate presentations: Exxon on environmentally safe energy production, Monsanto on GM food. The "World Showcase" is a series of replica villages from randomly selected countries, the theme very much being a celebration of cultural diversity. But with China, Sierra Leone and Indonesia present you have to ask where does celebration stop and disapproval begin. The World Showcase is, literally, a small world and, yes, it smells funny. The IBM internet centre - infuriatingly - doesn't allow one to find out the Premiership football scores: "soccernet is not a Disney approved site". Bastards. One suspects that the families visiting DisneyWorld attempt to draw cultural sustenance from Mickey, Walt et al. Frightening, really.
It's a relief to get out of Disney and inside the House of Blues and find nothing more commercial than the Mad Scot shifting Sisters t-shirts and fanzines by the truck load. The samizdat GPS production values have never been more apposite. The club is pretty near full as support act Tube takes the stage. Tube is one man, Frank Heiss, armed with a battery of electronic gadgets, producing a fairly confrontational drum'n'bass noise. I don't think the indie/dance crossover happened in the US to the same extent that it did in Europe, and Tube has to work hard to breakdown the crowd's traditional resistance to this type of music. He does a damned fine job, and we warmed to Frank, who seemed to have fitted in well with the Sisters.
Little has changed in the Sisters' live show since the Event Horizon tour. This is no bad thing, despite the concerns raised elsewhere in this issue about the lack of progress on the songwriting and recording front. The Sisters live machine has been operating at peak form in the last couple of years, with Mike Varjak's recruitment completing the guitar sound perfectly, and Jurgen Jansen's technical know-how at the mixing desk now ensuring a consistency of sound. The set-list was slightly shorter than the European norm. The epics Comfortably Numb/Some Kind of Stranger and Sister Ray were both absent, and there was no room for the rarer dips into the backwaters of The Sisters' history: neither anything from the Reptile House, nor Alice, nor Blood Money. Furthermore, the glorious newbie War On Drugs was absent, hopefully temporarily (and in my more optimistic moments I think this might be because of the Sisters' tradition of not playing the new single). Instead we get a new cover version, Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen, a lively, danceable version of an Andrews Sisters (oh, very droll) oldie.
Forming the core of the set are the five as yet unreleased songs. Much too much rests with these songs: potentially, the future of The Sisters of Mercy depends on what some cretinous record company suit thinks of them. It's a prospect loaded with fear and loathing. Perhaps the best approach would be to drag the suits along to a gig. For Susanne sounded magnificent in Orlando. No other word for it. And Summer, aided by grandiose lighting, is a perfect three minutes. And so, with a savage reading of Vision Thing, an unofficial National Anthem, ringing in out ears, we wander out of our own unreal Utopia, back into Walt's Utopia and from there out into Fitzgerald's faded Distopia. At a time when The Sisters aren't functioning in the charts, and have a low media profile, it is comforting to know that they're still capable of performing in one of three arenas in which they were formally pre-eminent.
And how does Eldritch's metaphor of the US as "Disneyland after Dark" stand up? Vision Thing, treated to a savage reading in Orlando, gives the game away. As Eldritch steps back into the smoke, and the stage shines in purples and blues, there's a curious sense in which the Sisters live show could be something Walt might have conceived after a particularly warped acid trip. If there's any Disneyland after Dark going on it's up there on stage. The Sisters of Mercy and The United States of America is a very strange mixture indeed.
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