How I Hugged a Spaceman by Joseph Blair
Editor Carrie Seitzinger, Music, July 17th, 2014
Spiritualized would pull Ladies and Gentlemen out of retirement...
In 2010, J. Spaceman (Jason Pierce) of Spiritualized announced that after a concert at Radio City Music Hall where he was to play the album Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space in its entirety, he was going to retire those songs live, forever. I had the opportunity of seeing Spiritualized a few times, so naturally, while I wasn’t happy about this, I couldn’t honestly say I was upset either. That’s how these things go. Released in 1997, the album received massive critical acclaim, including beating out Radiohead’s OK Computer amongst countless other records as NME’s album of the year. It was/is a masterpiece, and after years of playing its songs, Spaceman probably needed a break. And that was it for Ladies and Gentlemen; that is, until a few months ago.
The Theater at Ace Hotel’s opening was announced, which, not knowing what I know now, didn’t excite me much. Yet riding shotgun with that news was the good word that Spiritualized would pull Ladies and Gentlemen out of retirement for the venue’s first concert. This immediately drummed up an influx of memories.
I was taken back to 1999, when I was a disenchanted college kid with little to offer the world, taking little from it. I played in bands and listened to underground music, spent my spare time reading and trying to understand relationships. Like most people, I found this to be a time of banalities where I took up smoking just to be cool and have something to talk about with the “punk kids” at our university. One day, my ass finally showed up for a biology lab that a seemingly-hip master’s student with shaggy hair and black rimmed glasses taught. I stayed after to ask if I could make up for classes I missed, but he redirected the discussion to music. Maybe it was my Smiths shirt or the buttons on my messenger bag, but he knew I knew something about good music. By the end of the conversation, he wrote down two albums for me to check out: Captain Beefheart’s Safe as Milk and Spiritualized’s Laser Guided Melodies, both of which I immediately went and purchased.
Sitting in my car listening to those albums opened my mind further into an already ridiculously vast world of unexplored music. I returned to the store and bought more Captain and Spiritualized. Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica took a little more work, but my appreciation eventually cultivated. On the other hand, Spiritualized’s Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space immediately spoke to everything I stood for at that point in my life. With the opening lyrics, “All I want in life’s a little bit of love to take the pain away,” I wanted to give the whispery vocalist a big, warm hug. And I knew this album would never leave me.
Ultimately, I knew I had to go to the unearthing of the classic album, but I needed figure out how to get to California. Then the stars aligned: a convention relating to my day job was happening at the same time in Anaheim. So my wife, Sondra, and I decided to buy tickets and use the opportunity of my company flying me to Southern California to make this event more affordable.
Seamlessly, we dragged our family south, disguising the Spiritualized pilgrimage as a work/family trip. On the day of the show, we met friends for dinner where we learned that The Theater at Ace Hotel was the United Artists Theater. It had been out of commission and generally inaccessible to the public for some time (mostly due to the fact that it was simply shut down, then became a church, and so on). However, with the development of the Ace Hotel, time and effort was put into restoring the Spanish Gothic movie house, styled after the Segovia Cathedral in Spain.
After dinner, several of us made way to the show, and a dear friend of mine, Chris, thought he might tag along with us to see if he could get in. Upon meeting up with Chris earlier, he told us how a panhandler had asked him for change, at which he wasn’t quite sure why, but he snapped. “Money?! You want money?!” he shouted at the man with a crazed look in his eye. At least that’s how he told it. Apparently if you out-crazy the crazy, they’ll leave you alone. Chris can often surprise, but always in a fascinating and often delightful way. Anyhow, as easily as expected, we came across a scalper, and the doubly expensive cost of the ticket was more than his student loan finances could afford, so we all pitched in to make it happen. The cause was worthy.
The theater it was glorious. Every little detail of the venue’s architecture was stunning. As we approached our seats, a voice came through the speakers “Ladies and gentlemen, we are floating in space…” and the experience began. We sat as the thirty piece band, which included eight or nine gospel singers, flawlessly worked through the album. Track by track, Spiritualized wooed the crowd. They wooed me. They wooed Sondra. They wooed. There were moments where the real life distractions were too intrusive, so I would close my eyes and soak in the sonic ambience. The sounds were faultless, carrying a personal affection. It was everything I could have hoped for.
Trapped in the amber of the moment, nostalgia lured me back to the time Sondra and I, living in Hollywood, were refusing to call ourselves “a couple” but were nevertheless deep within the stages of emotionally bonding. A time when this album frequently spun in the background. We were both fairly fresh out of relationships, and due to the album being written after Spaceman and his girlfriend Kate Radley broke up (she surreptitiously married The Verve’s Richard Ashcroft), the songs deal a lot with themes of love, unrequited love, break-ups, spirituality, and a general sense of being alive in a spiraling, confusing world. Since it works just as well for the individual soul as two connecting souls, it became one of our albums. I was able to take the part of me that this album so closely spoke to, and share a deep connection because as fate would have it, it spoke to her the exact same way. And once again, back in Los Angeles, we shared the soundtrack of our young love.
As the concert concluded, Spiritualized closed the encore with their rendition of the gospel tune “Oh Happy Day,” which brought people to their feet. Arms were raised. The United Artists Theater was reminded of the time it was a chapel as hundreds and hundreds of people sang with Spaceman, “…when Jesus washed, He washed my sins away.”
As Sondra and I walked out, renewed and elated, we took a moment to catch our breaths then called to see who of our friends wanted a nightcap. Chris was the only taker, so we found him and walked outside.
While standing near the hotel, I ran into a friend who was on his way up to the rooftop to the “exclusive” Upstairs Bar. I didn’t think much of it. We were going to find a place for a drink with Chris before heading back to my in-laws. Then, as the three of us gathered, I recognized someone else. “Hey Sean,” I said. He didn’t recognize me, but we hardly knew each other so I wasn’t offended. Then Sondra said, “Hi,” and he looked dumbfounded. “It’s Sondra,” she said, and he knew. He had once been in relationship with one of her best friends. So Sean said, “Come with me.” We followed, and he used a badge to get us into the elevator. We arrived on the top floor and when entering the bar, the bouncer said, “You’re only allowed one guest.” Sean shot back, “Yeah, but I’m Sean. I put on this show. This is all me.” And without another word, they let us all in.
As far as drinking went, I paced myself because I was to be driving later, but Sondra and Chris less so. They weren’t drunk or belligerent by any means, but they let their spirits free. We ran back into the friend I met downstairs and we found a table together. Many good conversations were had, but they were cut short when I heard Sondra say, “There’s Jason.”
I looked and J. Spaceman was standing five feet away, orbited by a dozen friends and hangers-on. “I’m gonna get that hug that’s been fifteen years in the making,” I told everyone. And I stood and inched closer… but then… then he retreated. Well, shit. I thought.
The beer had been working its way through me and it was time to hit the head. I made way into the restroom, and a cloud of cigarette smoke briefly blinded me before I realized, there he was chatting with a few folks. Spaceman asked one of the lady hangers-on for a cigarette and proceeded to smoke in the boy’s room. I squeezed past to piss, and coming out of the stall there was a pause in conversation, so I spoke up. “Hey Jason, ever since I first heard your music fifteen years ago, I’ve wanted to hug you.” He simply smiled and said “OK” and reached in. “OK, but I should wash my hands first,” I said. After washing the two of us embraced inside a bothroom on top of a hip LA hotel, and I squeezed some warmth past his smoke-filled lungs into his heart.
As I left the restroom, I assumed I could now hang with the Spaceman. I gravitated around him, but as luck would have it, 2 AM struck and we were getting kicked out. All of us. In the hustle, Sondra quickly claimed her moment to spread love, which he was also grateful for. We made our way downstairs and lingered on the street in front of the Ace for a while. Spaceman transitioned from orbitee to orbiter as he drifted around the crowds to see where the party would go, and he just sort of vanished in what followed.
I ran into another old friend from Burger Records. While we briefly reconnected, Chris decided to connect to his buddy, but with fists. I glanced over and this guy had clocked Chris, and I went into stupid, fatherly protective mode. I hadn’t a clue why the fight broke out, but knowing Chris had been acting unstably before dinner, I wasn’t surprised. My somewhat sober mind thought the best way to break up this fight that had already begun was to hug these guys back to serenity. Love heals all wounds? I embraced Chris, not realizing he was securing his arms so this other guy could get a good clean punch to the face, and blood started leaking. So I went to hug the other guy, and Chris went at him. HOW DO YOU HUG TWO PEOPLE AT THE SAME TIME WHO WANT TO KILL EACH OTHER? The answer apparently is that you don’t. But just as shit was really starting to go down (because my attempts to break off the fight failed), police started rolling in.
After begging Chris to bail before getting arrested, he finally left. But it turns out the fuzz wasn’t for him. Probably a dozen cars showed up and at least twenty police were now in front of the Ace raiding for something or another. I haven’t a clue. But they were blocking the valet where I had to retrieve my rental car. Sondra at this point met the perfect combination of exhaustion and tipsiness, so I found her a seat while we waited. It took about an hour and some dude’s arrest, but I finally got the valet to retrieve my car. We buckled and fled. As I traversed the freeway, all I could think was, I hugged a Spaceman.
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Joseph Blair, a failing writer by night, a reluctant capitalist by day, and a full-time family man until expiry, can often be found wandering Southeast Portland with a mesmerized face of overwhelm. He is all too accessible via twitter as @josephesque.