Listening Room

Jeff Albers

I

I’m in the room, in the dark. I came alone but I’m not now.

Onstage, Zach makes a visor of his hand and asks who here’s seen The Hangover Part III. It opened in theaters a few weekends ago so a lot of hands go up, not one emitting a phone’s glow. It’s pure darkness he’s looking at, so he wants the house lights up. As soon as he can see us, he steps offstage, goes rooting deep in his pocket for a wad of twenties. Then he’s up and down the aisle, stripping a bill from the stack to give away, along with an apology, to fans whose demand for a refund is news to them. “You really saw it?” he asks, hardly vetting the first guy before the twenty changes hands. Many more people suddenly remember that they, too, have seen The Hangover Part III. Between sorrys, and with his usual dose of is he serious? deadpan, he stresses that what’s happening shouldn’t leave this room. Should be kept off the internet, so as not to anger those litigious brothers Warner. One of those things best kept “just between us.”

Largo at the Coronet began as Largo, a tiny cabaret-style music and comedy venue on Fairfax in Los Angeles, across the street from the iconic Canter’s Deli, where, if you went for a post-show meal, you’d often find yourself seated at a booth near the people you just watched perform. The original Largo seated 100, meaning most shows sold out, leaving people waiting on the street for standing room in back, at the bar, where Ellen tended. The front row of tables, all two-tops, were so close Zach would sometimes sip from your beer as a bit. (He’d also exit the door at the back of the stage mid-set, his mic cord snaking behind him, to coax pedestrians in to be part of the show.) There was a single-engineer sound booth in the back stickered on every available surface, and a kitchen behind that, past swinging doors that since the early 2000s had been affixed with a MORE TREES | LESS BUSH sticker at eye level. They served dinner before each show and the room was lit by tea light candles in Mason jars at each table. Artie Shaw and His Gramercy Five was typical preshow music. On the wall were framed portraits of owner Mark Flanagan’s favorite performers: John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Elvis Costello, Buster Keaton, Peter Sellers. Its stage seemed almost an afterthought, a platform in the corner that housed the Largo piano, a-turn-of-the-century Starck upright grand, and dampened sound with overlapping rugs, which made it feel more like sitting around a friend’s living room.

A night at Largo always seemed too good to be true—this place that by all accounts couldn’t exist in the 21st century somehow did. There was no website; you couldn’t buy tickets online. You had to call, listen to a recording of Michael listing upcoming shows, and leave a message with your name, number, and desired show info. Then you’d hang up and wait. Hours, sometimes days, until you got a call back. This method held until 2009, after they moved a block over to the Coronet Theater on La Cienega, across from the Beverly Center. They could have easily migrated online much earlier, done what every other venue was by that point doing: add it to your cart. Surcharge. Checkout. Sometimes it frustrated me they hadn’t. Instead, you just had to hope you called in time. Live for a while in the limbo of anticipation. If Michael didn’t call you back to confirm, sorry, sold out.

The Coronet Theater was the venue of choice for West Coast premieres since its inaugural curtain lifted on Bertolt Brecht’s Galileo in 1947. Even what’s now called The Little Room—a smaller, more intimate venue across the courtyard from the lobby, which houses the place’s bar and whose ambience has the feel of the old Largo—was the original site of Doug Weston’s famous Troubadour, meaning guys like Woody Guthrie have graced that very stage. In the ‘90s, a developer bought and refurbished it, and in 2008, Flanagan, as people call him, or better yet, Flanny, managed to talk those same developers out of leveling the landmark, on track to become an Urban Outfitters—a very Los Angeles thought process. Gone are the intimate tables for pre-show meals, melting the butter over the candle-in-a-Mason-jar’s flame—“the bane of my existence” is how Flanny refers to the old Largo’s kitchen—and instead the shows happen the way he always saw it in his head: in a proper theater, everyone facing forward, in the dark, attention undivided. When he talks about the reputation Largo acquired early on that set it apart from other LA venues, he refers to it as “a listening room.”

A Largo show means freedom to experiment, stray, fail, surprise, because the performer can be sure it won’t leave the room—unless they want it to. Tig Notaro’s famous 2012 set, Live—pronounced like the opposite of “die” and which begins: “Hello. Good evening, hello. I have cancer. How are you? Hi. How are you? Is everybody having a good time?”—was a Largo show that Louis CK happened to drop in on and convinced her people everywhere needed to hear. But it only happened the way you hear it because she thought no one outside that room ever would. The same comfort that calms performers used to froth anxiety in me: unless you listen, really listen—or cheat and scribble notes in the dark to be decoded later, the way I used to—you can’t take it with you.

And if you miss it, well, then, you missed it.

The Largo experience is so unlike the typical LA club because Flanny is so unlike the typical LA club owner: he refuses to fawn over celebrity for celebrity’s sake. He’s never done a drug in his life. Also, he’s camera-shy. Originally from Belfast, he moved to America in the ‘80s after studying psychology and medicine at university, spent some time on the East Coast, and moved to Los Angeles in 1991. He says, sincerely, that his time working with autistic children in Boston helps him understand and look out for some of the more fragile performers in the Largo family. He was brought in as a partner—a friend of his owned Café Largo originally—to book performers because he knew music: “And then, of course, you’re in Los Angeles where film, TV, people in music come here not just to do shows but to possibly work on TV, films, and theater, whatever the hell it is, so it’s the epicenter of that—more so than New York. I was in New York for a while and I didn’t feel that—and I desperately felt that there needed to be a community.”

Flanny drove Elliott Smith to Cedars-Sinai when he was stabbed after a drug deal gone awry in MacArthur Park. He was there in the hospital room while Tig underwent treatment for bilateral breast cancer. He doesn’t use ‘community’ lightly. After taking over full ownership of Largo in 1996, he wanted to change its name to The Residency, so that audiences knew: you’ll see regulars here, the Largo family. That, he thought, would capture that “great feeling” that was missing from venues on both coasts. It was exclusive only in the sense that he made it a habit not to book performers—no matter how established—he didn’t get along with or enjoy being around. In 2012, when reps for Justin Bieber called about Bieber and then-girlfriend Selena Gomez attending that night’s Bo Burnham show, he was asked if there were special accommodations Bieber’s handlers needed to be made aware of. Flanny answered, “Yeah, he can buy a ticket and then come in.”

One of his first moves was to ask a friend from Boston, Jon Brion, who’d also recently moved to LA, to headline Friday nights. Jon, whose self-described genre is “unpopular pop,” objected: “That’s gonna be your best night for people drinking, and you making money, and I want this thing to be a success. Put me—I’ll open for people on, like, Mondays and Tuesdays.” But Flanny insisted: he was putting him on Friday night and it was gonna work.

Jon Brion’s live show challenged nearly every belief I held—about my own music and writing, but also about how to move through the world. As a teenager, I was a Beatles obsessive drawn to the simplicity of pop song structure and the immersive potential of innovative production techniques. I would do things like record myself singing into a Pringles can versus a Wilson tennis ball tube to see which one sounded more authentically claustrophobic for a lyric about feeling trapped. I believed Ben Eshbach of LA’s The Sugarplastic—whom I admired as a kindred spirit: shy, rarely played live, obsessed over every sound of every song—when he said, “The art is in the record-making.” He found it absurd that musicians, unlike creators in other media, were expected to stand up on stage and recreate in two-and-a-half-minutes what took them weeks, months to assemble. His position was basically: No one expects Martin Scorsese to stage a matinee of Good Fellas. That became my belief about all art: that it wasn’t time-stamped, that it existed independently of the moment, and that it shouldn’t change or evolve once it was created. A musician wrote a song as prototype, built it on demo after demo until the spirit of its perfect Platonic form emerged, and then committed that ideal to tape as closely as could be transcribed—the definitive version, forever. It was a handy, if lonely, ideology for a painfully shy, well-off suburban kid because it was structured around isolation and an attempt to limit spontaneity so as to eliminate risk.

At twenty-one, I took my first opportunity reviewing live shows for LA Record to preach the Gospel According to Jon:

LA Record Excerpt

This was despite the fact that he’d been doing his Friday night show, sold-out, for going on eleven years and I’d already been a disciple for two. But it was the interaction between Jon and his audience that so fascinated me. They seemed to have an agreement: for better or worse this evening, anything goes.

His take on live shows is partly the product of his hating live shows: “I hypothesized about this in my twenties with some friends in Boston. I was talking about hating going to shows and feeling like I was watching a band go through the motions. I’m just hearing the record and it’s louder but I’ve got people’s elbows in my shoulder. I don’t need to see people recreate their records; I can get that at home. But that was the standard of live music, that’s how you were judged: how close were you to the record?” So he posited to this group of friends a hypothetical performer who made up every song on the spot. His friends said the songs would suck. He countered: what if they didn’t? Wouldn’t you want to go see that every night?

He thinks of himself as a jazz musician, no matter the style of music he’s making: “Even if I’m doing an orchestrated piece I consider that slow improvisation.” He brought this spirit to his Friday night shows by walking on without a set list and focusing not on the presentation of finished pieces but on process, on “finding it, because that’s exciting to me.” The most memorable experiences he had as a showgoer were almost always accidents, moments “when something went wrong and people were forced to creatively come up with an answer. To problem-solve. To improvise.”

Rather than treat his sets as monologues, he approaches them as a prolonged conversation: “The hunt is fun: you have some stuff up your sleeve, so no matter what, something’s gonna happen, you know you’re walking in with enough that you can make it happen if you have to, but you don’t want to, you don’t start by introducing yourself into the environment—let’s see what happens.”

What happens isn’t always gripping, but even the lulls crackle with the room’s collective anticipation for where the night might still go. Sometimes, a few songs in, Jon will acknowledge a show’s slow start and approach the next portion of the set as corrective—but the ambitious medleys and epic classic rock solos come from him reading the room. “It was more to let people know that, ‘hey, your presence here tonight is influencing this.’ What I like about performing and what I like in performers is: ‘Here are all the wires, here’s everything—there is no behind the curtain.’” The ideal version of his Largo show, he says, would be: “Somebody feels like they’re seeing something they couldn’t get anywhere else.”

The reverence of my LA Record review is somebody feeling just that. Here Jon was, divining the hidden. I had spent years making, polishing, dead things.

More recently, I’ve spent years settling for experiences seen alone, through various-sized screens. I worry that the communal listening I learned at Largo now only happens digitally, over livestream, which feels less like listening and more like voyeurism. And I worry David Shields is right when he says, “Our culture is obsessed with real events because we experience hardly any.”

I’ve been making a conscious effort to pay closer attention. To give fewer things more of my time. A particularly formative memory I have: watching my dad, a drummer, lay on the floor of our den each Sunday night, earphones on, chin in hands and elbows propped on a pillow, to spend the next hour losing himself in a vinyl record first song to last, start of Side A to end of Side B. Partly he was studying the drum patterns, but it was more than that: he was creating the conditions for a listening room of one. The image feels quaint, sun-bleached and slightly grainy, because the sheer amount of on-demand entertainment available to me now begins to erode my attention the moment I give it. I lose so much time scanning, skimming, seeking out something else. Or I half-watch TV and movies while scrolling through a Twitter timeline of unfiltered, unrelated thoughts and wonder: why don’t works of art move me as much as they used to?

What I’m trying to do is simple: recreate the conditions of Largo at home. For my first listen of the Beatles’ 2016 remixed and remastered singles compilation, I decided I didn’t want to listen drumming on the steering wheel during my commute, or on a 5K run to distract myself from the fact that I was, unfortunately, exercising, or while doing any other more immediate, more mundane thing. I wanted to give it the chance to be meaningful, memorable, the way I don’t give enough things the chance to be anymore, because it’s easier not to, and because there’s so much else I’ll feel I’m missing.

How had I never listened intently, the way my dad always had?

“Let It Be” was the first song I taught myself on piano—not even piano, my brother’s cheap Casio, because the keys lit up while it played its 8-bit song bank selections, allowing me to stumble along in dumb imitation. For years after, I could sit at a piano and play the song without knowing a single one of its chords, without even knowing its key. I just knew the shape of it, the way my fingers had to look like this here, then like this. I’d listened to the song so many times, but this one was different.

I heard what I’d never heard before: minute 2:59.

There isn’t consensus but, mostly, fans agree: it’s a rare Paul flub, his right hand straying past that expected fingering to a not-quite-A-minor, an A-doppelgänger ringing out that ghostly B. But Paul’s a consummate pro, knows to keep going, finish the take just in case. An exercise in form become content: let it be, let it be.

I like to imagine John equally excited during the session, tape still rolling, an anarchic twinkle in his eye. The song’s Mother Mary reference—also Paul’s own mother’s name—the choir, the whole turn-the-other-cheekness of it all—I imagine the spiritual nature of this one was a bit much for the guy who’d later sing, “God is a concept by which we measure our pain” and whose Religious Instruction primary school teacher had written about his scholastic performance: “Work fair—attitude in class most unsatisfactory.” And so maybe he pushed for the take to be the definitive one, to leave it in, to let it be. Against Paul the perfectionist, who was already splicing in his mind, a clean incision just before to remove the aural cancer. But John won. He was pure pathos, after all, feeling without knowing. It was his heart versus Paul’s head, already busy projecting the listening experience into posterity: shouldn’t we blister our fingers in the name of perfection? Then again, this is supposed to be the no-overdub album, recorded live-to-tape just like the old days. Listening to “Let It Be” is bittersweet: Paul’s desperate attempt to force a reset, to bring about a triumphant return to form, instead produced the primary document of their demise.

II

The musician David Byrne opens his book How Music Works like this:

I had an extremely slow-dawning insight about creation. That insight is that context largely determines what is written, painted, sculpted, sung, or performed. That doesn’t sound like much of an insight, but it’s actually backward from conventional wisdom, which maintains that creation emerges out of some interior emotion, from an upwelling of passion or feeling, and that the creative urge will brook no accommodation, that it simply must find an outlet to be heard, read, or seen. The classical composer gets a strange look in his or her eye and begins scribbling furiously. The rock-and-roll singer is driven by desire and demons, and out bursts this amazing song. This is the romantic notion of how creative work comes to be, but I think the path of creation is almost 180º from this model. I believe that we unconsciously and instinctively make work to fit preexisting formats.

He goes on to argue that the style of music composed in any given era is largely the result of the venue in which it’s performed:

In a sense, we work backward, either consciously or unconsciously, creating work that fits the venue that is available to us. That holds true for the other arts as well: pictures are created that fit and look good on white walls in galleries just as music is written that sounds good either in a dance club or a symphony hall (but probably not in both). In a sense, the space, the platform, and the software “makes” the art, the music, or whatever. After something succeeds, more venues of a similar size and shape are built to accommodate more production of the same. After a while the form of the work that predominates in these spaces is taken for granted—of course we mainly hear symphonies in symphony halls.

Our venues today are largely virtual. Consciously or not, musicians create work that’s fitting for digital distribution—one of the compromises we’ve made since Steve Jobs convinced us to listen to our music through tiny tinny earbuds. iPods, iPhones, MacBook speakers—these devices don’t do well with the full spectrum of sound, but blast out the midrange well. The human voice, male or female, is well contained within the midrange, which means the convenience of podcasts, whose name derives from the iPod, is no such compromise—nothing is lost. So, in response, producers stopped caring so much about the outer edges of a song—the area up there where a shrieking violin might pierce, or down there where a cello bellows—and focused mostly on the middle.

Before it was happening on a song level as dynamic range compression, the concept of lossy—as opposed to lossless—audio range compression had led to the innovation of the .mp3. The “father of the .mp3,” Karlheinz Brandenburg, and his team of engineers drew on studies in psychoacoustics to reduce the size of an audio file almost 12:1. “CD audio used more than 1.4 million bits to store a single second of stereo sound,” Stephen Witt writes in How Music Got Free, but, eventually, Brandenburg et al. were able to reduce it to around 128,000. This is why you could burn a CD with maybe twelve songs in .wav format but over a hundred when converted to .mp3. That conversion assigns fewer bits—those digital 1s and 0s that encode information—to the extreme ends of the spectrum, where human hearing degrades as it moves away from the human voice. Our auditory system also does interesting things like cancel out pitches too close in tone, or cancel out noise following a loud sound, or even, weirdly, just before a loud sound. So these engineers were able to discard what they saw as “irrelevant information” encoded on CDs, bits of a song’s data that the human ear just ignored anyway.

Blast these songs out of laptop speakers or earbuds, though, and they’ll still sound full, loud, important. Because you don’t hear what’s been sacrificed to ensure it can get that loud. And loudness in this context doesn’t just refer to a volume knob but how loud the ear perceives it on a decibel level—the same way manipulating reverb can make our brains “hear” the different spaces Byrne talks about: low or no reverb on a voice recorded in a small room sounds like standing in that small room, but slather that track in reverb and suddenly that same voice sounds as though it’s ricocheting off the walls of a symphony hall or cathedral.

This sleight of hand was always my favorite part of recording, even as the ethics of it nagged at me: when does this kind of manipulation—considered a form of artistic license meant to delight, to entertain—cross over into something more sinister? At what point does an artist devolve into charlatan producing only mendacious propaganda of self?

The peaks and valleys of a modern recording’s wavform have been eliminated and had limiters applied, which are like hyper-compressors. So suddenly there’s a new decibel ceiling, which future producers think they’ll need to surpass to be heard, which creates a new decibel ceiling, which future producers… etc. (Daft Punk’s 2013 record Random Access Memories is one of the few high-profile albums in recent years to resist—to a degree—the compression and limiting style of these so-called “loudness wars.”) No wonder we’re witnessing the diminishing importance of the album as art form in favor of a return to singles. No wonder our most innovative artists are turning to visual albums. This new way we’re making recorded music more quickly fosters listener fatigue. We’ve redesigned recorded sound so it proves extremely pleasurable—but only in bursts. Mastering engineer Bob Katz, who wrote what many audiophiles consider the definitive guide on the subject: “Music isn’t meant to be at a consistent volume and flat frequency. It’s meant to be dynamic, to move, to fall and rise and to take you with it, physically and emotionally. Otherwise, it literally is just background noise.”

In “The Anxious Ease of Apple Music,” the New Yorker music critic Alex Ross argues that the interfaces and cataloguing methods developed by online streaming services give the impression of “declining interest in the particulars of genres, in the personalities of artists, in political messages, in cultural contexts. Differences are flattened out: music really does stream, in an evenly regulated flow.” This flattening in the name of convenience also reduces the distance between experience and its paraphrase. But when has convenience itself ever been memorable, worth committing to memory? When has anyone ever fallen in love with a paraphrase?

My childhood best friend and I once begged his dad to drive us to Tower Records because we’d just heard about The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds and how important and influential and singular a record it was. John Lennon and Paul McCartney had forty years on us with this one; we needed to hear it now. We stood in the racks, in front of the B’s, each holding a shrink-wrapped jewel case, staring at that odd petting zoo cover and Charlie Brown-borrowed font in reverential silence. This was before CD burners were standard in every PC, but we had an external one for the music we made—technically, we needed only one Pet Sounds between us. We bought two. His dad looked at us in dismay, probably sensing for the first time that unless we stumbled into some miraculous good fortune, we would never be financially solvent. No, no, we shook our heads, you don’t understand. We thought he didn’t get it, would never get it: this was a rite of passage; we wanted the full experience. We each needed to sacrifice something—if only our allowance—to own it. At no point did we even conceive of them as ‘copies.’ We each held in our hands, slid into our stereos, the thing itself, Pet Sounds. Each album was, to us, pure unfiltered aura.

This idea of ownership feels pervasive now, even as ownership continues to shift from experiences derived from material objects to those afforded by digital access. David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest projects America into a time when even time itself, via calendar years’ naming rights, has been corrupted by corporate interests:

CHRONOLOGY OF ORGANIZATION OF NORTH AMERICAN NATIONS’ REVENUE-ENHANCING SUBSIDIZED TIME™, BY YEAR

(1) Year of the Whopper

(2) Year of the Tucks Medicated Pad

(3) Year of the Trial-Size Dove Bar

(4) Year of the Perdue Wonderchicken

(5) Year of the Whisper-Quiet Maytag Dishmaster

(6) Year of the Yushityu 2007 Mimetic-Resolution-Cartridge-View-Motherboard-Easy-to-Install-Upgrade For Infernatron/InterLace TP Systems For Home, Office, or Mobile (sic)

(7) Year of Dairy Products from the American Heartland

(8) Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment

(9) Year of Glad

Prophetic in the mid-1990s, Wallace’s premise is now passé. Years? Twitter allows corporations to brand Moments. Instagram lets us overlay sponsored filters on the spontaneous images we take throughout our day that tell our Stories. We can so easily and enjoyably filter snippets of our experiences through the lens of some corporation or product that an entire year devoted to just one feels preposterous.

Sarah Manguso, a writer who once conducted a doomed experiment to document her waking life in entirety, counters: “Time isn’t made up of moments; it contains moments. There is more to it than moments.”

Brian Chesky, cofounder and CEO of Airbnb, envisions a future moving away from material ownership to something more experiential: “When my parents were young, owning things was a privilege, and there was a sense of romance to owning a house, owning a car. Today’s generation sees that ownership as a burden. People still want to show off, but in the future I think what they’re going to want to show off is their Instagram feed, their photos, the places they’ve gone, the experiences they’ve had. That has become the new bling. People will own whatever they want responsibility for. And I think what they’re going to want responsibility for the most is their reputation, their friendships, their relationships, and the experiences they’ve had.”

That future’s already here, but what does this shift in what we choose to value say about us? That an unrecorded experience isn’t worth having. An unrecorded life isn’t worth living.

Isn’t it interesting, the intensity of our desire to own our own experiences? To commodify them? Not just an image to document the moment but one more dreamlike, captured with the camera flipped so our face, too, is included, as digital watermark—looking out while also looked at.

Is this documentarian impulse, which intensifies as technology advances, just a form of self-preservation? Life contains no caesuras, no rests, therefore to combat loss we become ceaseless diarists.

Borges gives us one such chronicler in the character of poor Funes, who, for nineteen years, “had lived like a person in a dream: he looked without seeing, heard without hearing, forgot everything—almost everything.” Then, like some warped version of a superhero origin story, an accident imbues him with preternatural ability: “On falling from the horse, he lost consciousness; when he recovered it, the present was almost intolerable it was so rich and bright; the same was true of the most ancient and most trivial memories.” There was no end to his recall, but, having lost the capacity to parse abstraction, his whole world became torturously specific. He’d inadvertently achieved what eluded Manguso, a truly lossless existence—“nothing but details, almost contiguous details”—and it proved unbearable. Because, of course, as Borges reminds us, “the truth is that we all live by leaving behind.”

III

For a while, I attended Largo with the reverence of religious experience. Before each show, Michael enters the theater, stands at the front, and runs through Largo policy, the sign of peace: If you need to leave this room for any reason the rest of the night, please use the double doors in back. If you need to talk, tweet, text, check stock quotes, you can do so outside. Please no talking, no photography, and no recording of any kind. Please no talking, no photography, and no recording of any kind.

What nights at Largo gave me is a kind of faith in the messiness of life lived live. Permission not to be paralyzed by completism, perfectionism. I never felt the need to take a single picture as proof. I struggled even trying to remember the faces in the black-and-white portraits lining its walls, though I tell myself I know that room so well. Lossless, of course, turns out to be the big lie—good things, to be good things, need always feel finite.

In May 2008, the old Largo shuttered as Flanny prepared to move to the Coronet. The original building remained derelict until it reopened five years later as a hush-hush nameless rock venue, invite-only. No sign out front, no website, no internet presence beyond articles about The Nameless Fairfax Club. There are business cards, blank but for a phone number. It isn’t clear how you acquire one. If you do, and call, there are still no guarantees. The space pays homage to Largo with its old sign hanging in the women’s bathroom and jazz records adorning the walls. But it’s 180º from Flanny’s ethos: showy white couches, a splashy VIP balcony, a farm-to-table food menu and cocktails made from “hard-to-find, hand-picked spirits.” All of it is so peak LA it bums me out.

In Largo’s early days, Flanny and Jon joked it should cost five bucks for a ticket, unless you say you’re in the industry—then it’s ten.

Largo at the Coronet is still intimate, but no longer living-room intimate. The stage is a proper one now, befitting an orchestra. Curtains part and shut. There are designated spaces for staff and performers: a true backstage and a second floor to the courtyard that features green rooms, offices, a rehearsal space and recording studio. Jon takes advantage of the spacious stage by including two giant screens on either side to project and remix atmospheric footage or to improvise in real-time scores for old Felix the Cat shorts. There is, in theory, room for even more of what made the old Largo unique.

But now there’s that qualifier: At The Coronet. It’s no longer just the immediate family of performers—I’ve seen musicians come into town and treat it like just another tour stop. Flanny’s relaxed the strict no-technology policy for promotion and now Lincoln, the in-house photographer/bartender, posts photos and videos on their @largolosangeles social accounts. He’s even begun live-streaming portions of shows, Jon’s included, via Instagram Stories, although they’re still strict about outlawing “unofficial” screens during performances—the glow of your phone gets you a warning that, do it again, you’ll be asked to leave. Podcasts like The Thrilling Adventure Hour or How Did This Get Made? record regular live episodes there, a break from that old Largo ethos. For years, I’d gotten there early for a front-row seat. Eventually, I baffled Michael by always requesting Row Q, against the theater’s back wall, where I could do more than simply see the show—I could also read the room. Now, though, if I missed it, at least I haven’t missed it. In fact, why drive, park, pay when I can experience it for free, alone, at home—pausing, playing, and replaying all at my own discretion?

I streamed nearly all of Jon’s May 2017 show from an apartment 1,500 miles from the theater, transfixed by my new vantage point stage-left, there in the wings by proxy, as though waiting to go on. This new viewing experience sacrificed immersion for convenience, shrunk the night down to fit my phone’s screen. Were it not for the eclectic requests Jon kept encouraging, stringing them together into surprising medleys, there may’ve well been no one else in the room at all.

The actor Ian McKellen explains why he refuses to use microphones in the theater by likening performance to touch: a diaphragm pushes air up from the lungs in a particular way and “this air comes up through the body and at the throat and into the mouth through all those most intimate parts of your body—lovemaking places like tongues and cheeks and lips—and through there it goes, it can be measured as it travels across the air, and it lands on your ear drum, and your ear drum vibrates, and your ear and my diaphragm are connected. Put a microphone in the way? Not the same.”

The closest I’ve come to returning to old Largo was in the summer of 2015, when I went alone to a show billed as “Piano Recital with Jon Brion: An Intimate Evening of Solo Piano.” Typically, he does a two- to three-hour set in the theater and does another hour or two in the Little Room for the first 50 people who line up in the courtyard once the show lets out. On this night, there were 39 of us total. He was especially lively, breathing life into a stale, ironic Taylor Swift request by bridging centuries to perform “Shake It Off” in the style of a Bach partita. But not too long into his set, his between-song-banter caught us all off-guard: “So, last night, for the first time in my life, I got punched in the face.” A woman to my right actually gasped. He’d been walking home after a particularly simpatico night at his neighborhood bar when someone approached and asked for his wallet. The swing took him down, but, he said, “I’m six-two, and even though I may look dainty from far away, like someone’s aunt, I’m still a pretty big guy,” so he got right back to his feet and challenged the assailant, scared him off, and shouted after him, as loud as he possibly could, “Fuck! You!” As he told us all this, I remembered seeing him nearly a decade before at the Fairfax venue, one of my first Largo shows, where he explained that it’d been “one of those weeks,” and I wondered what someone in his position, who’d basically forged a dream career that gave him both stability and artistic freedom, could possibly mean—I was still naive enough to think success in art could provide immunity from the rest of life.

Later that night in the Little Room, after he told us the story of his attempted mugging, he said there’d be an intermission—which there never is—and held up his credit card: “I’m going to give this to Lincoln at the bar, and, for the rest of the night, drinks are on me.” As a thank you, to us, for coming out tonight. To a show he’s been doing to sold-out crowds for nearly two decades. This wasn’t that show; it was something else. We were more than any old audience tonight. He really was happy to see us, to see anybody. And even though it’s not my nature, I decided I would join in rather than stand astride, observing the scene like a journalist on assignment. As I stood up, a man in front of me dismissed the rush to his date: “Everyone just wants to be able to say Jon Brion bought them a drink.” I hesitated, wondering about my own motivation. Was I doing it to take part in the communal moment or to stake some claim on others’ future envy?

The type of community Largo actively cultivates is intimate, visceral, and unabashedly devoid of cynicism, but this man in front of me was still in the role the internet actively cultivates: citizen as pundit, theorizing on how breaking developments might ‘play.’ I used to take solace in an anecdote about David Foster Wallace observing a dance floor then turning to a friend and asking them to imagine how ludicrous the whole scene would seem if you removed the music. Now, though, I see a comment like that for what it is: pure deflection, a defense mechanism, the whimper of a wounded animal. Join in or don’t, but why silence the room’s music?

Mark Leyner, an ironist’s ironist, discusses the Beatles with rare candor: “I have (and have always had) this helpless, completely homoerotic affinity for the voices of John and Paul. It’s the unified quality of that sound that gets to me. Their voices evoke for me this ever-receding paradise, the impossibility of holding on to things you love most, the evanescence of everything, all that—and it’s just heartbreakingly beautiful. I remember how people used to bitch about those crazy tapes of the Beatles at Shea Stadium, about how you couldn’t hear the music, that all you could hear was the screaming, the screaming of all those thousands of girls. But I’ve always loved the din especially—that vast, unrelenting din of screaming girls that almost completely overwhelm the sad, beautiful voices of John and Paul. That’s great. That whole thing for me is the real music.”

After intermission, we all raised our Guinnesses, cheersed, had an annotated sing-along of Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain,” where anyone who knew the second and/or third verses by heart was welcome to take the mic, because, as we discovered together, not many people know the second and/or third verses to “You’re So Vain”: Where’s Mr. Vanity go? Nova Scotia? Sarasota, Florida? He wowed us. We cheered him up. Went late. Went home.

And now I can’t help feeling that I should’ve left this there in that little room. That this is no less a betrayal of the Largo code, my recording here what wasn’t ever meant to be recorded. Please no talking, no photography, and no recording of any kind. Please no talking, no photography, and no recording of any kind. This, so much more than Zach’s Hangover bit, feels like something that really does belong only to those forty people there that July night. I can’t quite reconstruct the room’s burgundy walls under low light, or the timbre of our laughter in concert, or the quiver of sincerity in Jon’s voice speaking to us, a roomful of strangers, with a startling intimacy. But even if I somehow could, and in the highest fidelity, what you’d still be missing from my account is Leyner’s “real music.” Not the songs Jon performed but the humming to himself to keep time; the stray cough two rows to my right after a too-big swig of foamy Guinness; the charge in the room when a familiar but unplaceable piano melody suddenly collectively clicks. All those seemingly unremarkable, extraneous sounds vibrating the air, bridging distances between ears, reminding us what we might otherwise so easily forget: Your presence here tonight is influencing this.

from Issue 30.1


JEFF ALBERS is completing a PhD in Literature & Creative Writing at the University of Houston. His writing appears in Tin House, The Rumpus, The American Bystander, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and elsewhere.