According to legend, when My Bloody Valentine played a London club in 1991, the extreme and prolonged volume of their customary encore "You Made Me Realise" created such a strong physical response in one concert-goer that he crapped his pants.
True, not true, who cares? It's an example of the myth that follows My Bloody Valentine, and a metaphor for the effect this ground-breaking – no, ground-destroying – band has on long-and-happily-suffering fans.
Tuesday night at New York's Hammerstein Ballroom, MBV played the final show of a 2013 tour prompted by the February release of m b v, the band's first album in 22 years. In addition to the usual bludgeoning volume, there was an assaultive light show which flashed high-kilowatt strobes at the audience. Most people wore earplugs – inexpensive foam one were given away free at the entrance to the ballroom – but extremity is at the core of the band's unique live appeal. "Can you turn it up a little bit?" one fan yelled halfway through the set. And before the penultimate song, drummer Colm Ó Cíosóig quipped, "It's very quiet in here." Which it certainly was not.
Any idiot can be loud. (In fact, most idiots are loud.) MBV mastermind Kevin Shields recently explained his use of volume to a British newspaper by saying, "In a world where blandness and OK-ness is a dominant factor, to do anything that's a real experience is a positive thing." Shields has taken one of Jack Kerouac's dictums – "burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars" – and recreated it as a rock band. He's also had hearing damage, in the form of tinnitus, since mixing the band's masterpiece, Loveless, in 1991.
The Loveless songs they played – "I Only Said," "Come in Alone" and "Only Shallow" back to back, "To Here Knows When," and "Soon" – used volume to emphasize the band's commitment to distortion. Everything is tilted: the singing was nearly inaudible (if lyric websites like lyricsmania.com and lyricstranslate.com are taken down as now seems possible, it will be no loss to MBV fans) and the guitars sounded like keyboards or violins. Shields used the tremolo arm of his Fender Jazzmaster guitar to create shimmering, unstable waves of notes in which nothing is normal or natural.
What's easy to miss in all the conversation about loudness and guitar technique is the ecstatic beauty of many My Bloody Valentine songs, especially "Only Shallow" (which was accompanied by distressed video images of barren tree tops, played back at high speed) and m b v highlights like the cooing "Only Tomorrow" and "New You," in which, according to one transcriber, Bilinda Butcher sings, "Something comes and pints queued a sky to come." ("Something comes and pins me to the sky" seems more accurate.)
My Bloody Valentine fans spend most of a show anticipating the finale. When the band recorded "You Made Me Realise" in 1988, it was a fast, punkish 3:46 assault. Onstage, they soon transformed into a sustained crescendo, an epic, drawn-out interlude in which the band collectively hold a single chord for a sustained period. It's a post-punk corollary to the "Drums > Space" segment of Grateful Dead concerts. (Recently, Shields said that in his music, he "attempted to tune into the Earth's frequency, which is about seven hertz." It's oddly similar to some hippie-dippy things Dead drummer Mickey Hart has said.)
When I first heard MBV play "You Made Me Realise" in 1992, no one was prepared for the song's crescendo segment, which is often called the "holocaust" section. I had no earplugs, and at some point during the song, I began to hallucinate. It had nothing to do with drugs or alcohol – the sustained chord created sparks of overtones, mirages of imagined sounds that landed in my inner ear, which is responsible for hearing and also for balance. If the inner ear is disrupted, it causes disequilibrium, a woozy feeling of disorientation.
In the midst of last night's "You Made Me Realise," I removed my Etymotic earplugs, which claim to reduce sound by 20 decibels. I wanted to experience the riot of joy and discomfort. And I realized I was standing directly behind Portlandia star Fred Armisen, who took out his phone to time the length of the "holocaust" section. This is another part of MBV lore and masochistic one-upsmanship: the single-chord onslaught often lasts longer than 10 minutes, and in some accounts, has gone as long as 35 minutes. When Armisen pushed the STOP button on his smartphone's stopwatch app, it read 6:40.
Experienced MBV fans believe the band isn't as loud as they used to be. Shields says they've turned down since a volume peak in 2008, when people left the shows "looking like they'd just witnessed a car accident." And they've curtailed "You Made Me Realise" since then, possibly due to some advice from Colin Newman, who told Shields the 2008 shows were too extreme.
But the day after this shorter, quieter version of MBV madness, my hearing still isn't normal. I'm glad it wasn't any louder. I also wish it had been louder. I've seen the band three times, but I might not ever see them again. "This is our last show for a long time," guitarist/singer Bilinda Butcher announced before "You Made Me Realise." For a band that took 22 years to make their new album, "a long time" could be centuries.