I’m out for a run on a beautiful sunny day in March, a rarity in this famously dreary part of the country, and I’m listening to Bloc Party’s Silent Alarm. I’m listening to Silent Alarm now, ten years after its release, because I am trying to get my thoughts straight about a specific memory so I can write about it later. Since I no longer have nicotine, since I now spend my workdays sitting at a desk in front of a computer, the best way for me to get any real thinking done is to put my body in motion.
The memory is from 2007. My friend Kristin and I were backstage at the Pabst Theater in Milwaukee. I had just used my lighter to pry open two bottles of Corona that I had stolen out of a gleaming ice bucket that sat unattended next to an unopened bottle of Absolut vodka in Bloc Party’s dressing room. We could hear the muffled roar of the show booming through the walls of the historic building. We were drunk, pretending to be music writers. We were giddy with our trespass.
With its needling notes that build to an instant payoff, its studio-processed drum track, and its gloriously cathartic chorus, the record’s opener, “Like Eating Glass,” stands as a stylistic thesis for the entire album. Silent Alarm is a record of tension and release, and its opening track lays out the paradigm. The song builds for two and a half minutes before the first chorus, and when it finally gets there, the payoff is big enough to turn a live audience into a field of pumping fists.
Even with all of its studio tricks, the songs on Silent Alarm play well on stage. With stolen beers in hand, we watched the show from the wings. We stood behind the ornate proscenium arch and looked out at the crowd, squinting into the stage lights. To be honest, the sound wasn’t right; the mix we heard was coming from the guitarist’s stage monitor. But it was thrilling to be behind the scenes. To be in on it.
I wanted desperately to be in on it. There is a Kurt Vonnegut quote that I was quite fond of at that time of my life: “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful what we pretend to be.” The thing is, I only really concerned myself with the first part of the sentence; I never heeded the warning. The confidence and audacity that it took to pretend to be the person I wanted to be was not in my nature, so I had to compensate. I was drunk all the time. I chainsmoked.
On the night of the Bloc Party show, instead of just going through the front door and watching the show like everyone else (we actually had tickets), I insisted that we go around to the alley behind the theater to see if we could get in through the back. I knocked on the big unmarked stage door, and when the sound guy answered, I told him we were journalists who had left our press passes at home. Just like that we were in. He even gave me a pen and a legal pad.
Silent Alarm is full of songs that are what they pretend to be. They unabashedly borrow elements from bands like Gang of Four, Television, and New Order. The song “Banquet” is sort of like dance-punk for beginners. I know this, but I don’t think it necessarily detracts from the music. All art is, to a point, derivative. Sometimes it’s just a matter of having the right influences.
After the show, the band retreated to their dressing room with its free vodka and somewhat lighter supply of Corona. I knocked on the door and a man who seemed to embody every Hollywood stereotype of a rock band’s manager answered. He was short, his hair was greasy and mussed, and he wore a vintage T-shirt that was stretched thin over his bulbous gut. When I asked for an interview, he responded in an English accent, wet with condescension: he highly, highly doubted it, but… maybe. Five minutes later, the band’s bassist walked through the dressing room door, shook our hands, and sat down at a card table to give us an interview.
I live in Bellingham, Washington, now. I recently turned thirty. After ten years of piecing together a living working in bars and restaurants, I now have a full-time professional job working in an office. Quitting smoking and taking up running are two revisions that I’ve recently made to myself to try to be better at life. Out for a run, I look like the sort of person a younger me would have made fun of: My bright blue running shoes happen to match the sports headphones tethered to my smartphone. Every fifteen minutes a running app chimes in over Silent Alarm to tell me my mile pace.
Outside the dressing room, Kristin and I took turns asking the bass player questions that he answered with sincerity and thoughtfulness. I scribbled fake shorthand on the legal pad the sound guy had given me. I don’t know how the interview ended. I can’t remember if the manager came back to tell us our time was up or if we just ran out of dumb questions, but I do remember the bass player telling us he looked forward to reading the story in print. And then we left and Kristin kissed me hard on the lips. But I don’t want to end this there.
Instead, I want to switch back to the present tense and tell you how my run takes me down a steep sidewalk, past million-dollar homes with views of salt water and islands. I want to describe Boulevard Park, a beautiful green belt of walking paths and boardwalks on and along the water. I want to tell you that the sun is bright and low in the sky, that the world has the quality of overexposed film, like a dream sequence in a Michel Gondry film, while on my headphones Bloc Party is playing “Blue Light,” Kele Okereke singing his willfully obscure lyrics with their Rorschach-like ambiguity: “I can feel you, with the taste of cigarettes.”
This is not how it happens, not really, but let’s say it is. Let’s pretend that I hit my stride, that I don’t get a side ache and have to slow to walk before I make it home. Let’s pretend that I’m not terribly suited for my job and ignore the dread of having to face another day that takes over my thoughts and ruins my concentration. Let’s pretend instead that I’ve beaten my demons. Let’s pretend that I still have that borrowed legal pad, that I actually took notes. Let’s pretend that this is the story come to fruition after all those years. Let’s pretend that the person I was pretending to be backstage in that theater—a theater named for a brewery that abandoned Milwaukee decades ago, itself an artifact—is the person I finally am.