Seeing Diamanda Galás in Prague

I cannot verify that all of these stories are 100 percent accurate. Most of them are memories of very intense moments when I wasn't taking any notes. But I have been carrying these experiences—embellished by my bad memory or not—around in my skull for years.

The first: I was 19 or 20 years old, studying in the Czech Republic for a term. That year, Prague was an awkward and buzzing city—an ancient place going through a second adolescence, crossing from gray socialism to garish capitalism. The city's infrastructure was still stuck in the past: Stores had scores of empty shelves, stained old walls, and surly checkout ladies with swollen ankles who openly smoked and drank beer and wouldn't help you until they'd finished talking to each other. But the city's culture was popping into the future: concerts, art shows, theater, lively expatriate communities from the United States and Africa.

I went to events I knew nothing about, just for the hell of it: Chekhov plays in languages I didn't understand, whatever random party I could get invited to (or crash), grimly funny Central European vaudeville and clowning shows, crusty Soviet-era traveling circuses, an overnight party in the ruins of an old castle that was part rave and part Roma (Gypsy) folk concert. That crazed spring in Prague is why I have kept going to shows ever since. The best of these events had a visceral, violent, sexual thrill I had never found in watching movies or listening to records. Watching live performance can be like holding onto a live wire. Anything can happen, and the experience can temporarily or permanently reconfigure your brain. And that's why the hand-­wringing old guard, which fears that the internet and the iPod and video games have killed live performance, is being silly. People will keep going to live performances because there's nothing in the world like watching a living human do something astounding in the same room as you. Nothing.

Anyway, I spent that Prague spring walking into all kinds of live events, including concerts by people I'd never even heard of. One of those people was Diamanda Galás.

The concert hall was a converted potato cellar with a high, domed brick ceiling. It felt like a Victorian bunker. On a low stage with bruised-blue lighting sat nothing more than a piano (Galás was on a solo tour at the time). She strode onto the stage—with her vampiric stateliness and long black hair—and sat on the piano bench without acknowledging the audience.

She began by pounding out a few ominous chords—and then she opened her mouth. Out howled a sound unlike anything I'd ever heard: an opera singer with a cyclone of fire in her throat. I hate the cliché of a performer casting a spell over her audience, but in this case, the cliché works—that woman is a witch. She sang blues songs, Shel Silverstein's "25 Minutes to Go," and pieces seemingly written for a chamber orchestra of the damned.

And here's the big moment: During one of the songs, I actually hallucinated that she had doubled in size and a long lizard tongue stretched out of her mouth while she bent over to howl a note into her keyboard. I was terrified for a good minute or so that we were watching her turn into a satanic giantess. Then the vision subsided and we were back on earth. I can't blame drugs—I hadn't taken any. I can only blame the power of Galás.

After the show, I went into the bathroom, locked myself in a stall, sat down, and gave myself a good slap.

Seeing the Clorox Girls, Holy Ghost Revival, and Ta Mère in Paris

I was on tour with a couple of American rock bands in Europe (the Clorox Girls: sunny beach-punk; and Holy Ghost Revival: dark glam rock) during January and February of 2007. I was just the roadie, ledger keeper, and merch guy. (My brother was in Holy Ghost Revival before they broke up.) We stayed in all kinds of places that winter: a German squat where dudes in big 1980s Mohawks snorted meth in the morning, a German hospital from WWII that had been converted into a dank commune/concert hall, the home of a professional French cellist who welcomed us to his elegant loft apartment with bottles of champagne. The tour went from Sweden to Italy to Spain. It was an odd couple of months.

One night, the bands were playing in a baroquely scruffy joint that also felt like a bunker—except on the earth rather than beneath it—and the room was long and gray like the inside of a cinder block. Every surface had been spray-painted, stenciled, tagged, or covered in stickers. That night the bands were playing with a French group called Ta Mère (which is French for "Your Mom" and is one of my favorite band names of all time). The show was bananas. People were drunk and freaking out and climbing all over each other and up the pipes that ran along the walls.

I was tending the merch table (which was outdoors in a narrow alleyway) after the show, and this Parisian asshole, who had been stumbling into my table and nearly knocking it over, picked a fight with some random guy. At this point, I'd just had it with this drunk Parisian bully—and with the tour in general. We had all been stinky, tired, ill, and cold for weeks on end. Also, we were all getting kind of vicious. (As the bassist for Holy Ghost Revival had explained to me, since it was my first time, a band on tour can sometimes become like a wolf pack—lean and mean. "When you're on the road long enough, you get that constant glare in your eye and start to look like a person nobody would want to fuck with," he said.)

The Parisian asshole and whomever he was attacking were locked around each other, and nobody moved to break it up. So I rushed over to the fight, intending to be the peacemaker. But in my fury, I turned into an aggressor.

I inserted myself between the two men, body-checked one aside, and put my hands around the Parisian asshole's throat. His snarl turned from the other guy to me. And then he started to look a little scared as I backed him into a wall or tree or something. (I don't really remember.) Then I started to feel a little scared as I realized my hands were tightening around his neck. Even though my rational brain was screaming Stop! Stop!, I had no real intention of letting go.

I was going to throttle this guy.

The next few seconds are hazy, but people eventually pulled us apart. Somewhere along the tour, the members of the Clorox Girls and Holy Ghost Revival started calling me "Psycho B." I think it may have started that night.

Seeing ¡Tchkung! in Seattle

I was in high school at the time and just starting to go out to see shows: Gas Huffer, the Gits, Built to Spill. Some friend of mine was into ¡Tchkung! and wanted to see them at RCKNDY, a dingy rock club at the foot of Capitol Hill off Denny. At 16 (or however old), I'd never seen anything like it: the singer burning money on the stage, fire breathers, the band playing "industrial" music with violins and didgeridoos and drummers. In the middle of this pounding, eerie scene that seemed half-concert and half–performance art, my friend informed me that ¡Tchkung! shows often ended in riots and police raids.

Suddenly, smoke bombs went off in the room. It was almost impossible to see, and people in gas masks were running around, shouting, and shoving audience members into walls. Were they cops? Were they actors? What the hell was going on?

Then the loading-dock doors at the back of the stage opened to reveal a truck—like an ice-cream wagon truck, not pickup truck—with its headlights on. Now imagine this scene: loud and mysterious music, heavy smoke, fire breathers, a masked mob invading the place, and now this big fucking truck blinding us all with its headlights and then driving onto the stage. Was it going to crash down on us? Were we all going to get arrested? Were we all going to die?

It was all theater, I later found out. The shovers were part of the show, and the truck was just a hollow frame with its headlights hooked up to batteries. There was no engine—people were pushing it from behind.

That show, like my Prague spring, is partly responsible for why I later became a theater critic—and still get so frustrated when theater-­with-a-capital-T can't terrify me as much as the theater in that rock club did. recommended