TVD Live: Titus Andronicus at the
Black Cat, 5/19

Ah, New Jersey. How I loathe it. For giving us the likes of Bon Jovi (that’s not a steel horse you’re riding, amigo, it’s the dildo of mediocrity); Patti Smith (poet-priestess my ass—try the bard of babble and blather); and Bruce Springsteen, who calls himself the Boss and as everybody knows all bosses are assholes, except mine of course. And let’s not forget my first ex-wife’s sphinx of a grandmother, who had the nauseating habit of sucking on her food then spitting the pulp into a napkin, and who never spoke a single word to me (and I’m talking years) until the fateful Thanksgiving dinner she turned to me and croaked, “Do you know how they kill chickens? They slit their throats!!”

In short, I harbored about as much love for The Garden State as I did for accidental penis amputation, that is until Glen Rock’s Titus Andronicus came along. “From Jersey I come,” sings vocalist/songwriter/lyricist Patrick Stickles in the wonderful “In a Big City,” and his defiant pride in hailing from Mall Hell is enough to make me give the “the swamps of Jersey” a second chance. As Stickles sings, “And if I come in on a donkey, let me go out on a gurney/I want to realize too late/I never should have left New Jersey.”

Formed in 2005, Titus Andronicus has released three albums full of big, bombastic indie anthems that are as urgent and rebellious as they are irresistible. Being from Jersey, Titus Andronicus has Bruce Springsteen, who has also been known to write the occasional big, bombastic anthem, in its collective DNA. And Titus Andronicus doesn’t only pay homage to His Bossiness’ operatic Born to Run-era sound; “Joset of Nazareth’s Blues” boasts a harmonica opening that has Nebraska stamped all over it, while “Titus Andronicus” also features an opening the Boss will probably filch and win a Grammy. Nor can Titus Andronicus resist paraphrasing Buhrooooce! in “A More Perfect Union”: “No, I never wanted to change the world/But I’m looking for a new New Jersey/Because tramps like us/Baby, we were born to die.” Or name-checking him in “The Battle of Hampton Roads”: “And I’m destroying everything that wouldn’t make me/More like Bruce Springsteen.” And they’ve been known to cover “Hungry Heart” at their live shows.

But The E Street Band isn’t Titus Andronicus’ only classic rock influence. “I Am the (Electric Man)” sounds exactly like John Mellencamp. What’s up with that? The “Cougar” isn’t even from Jersey, he’s from some mythical America where people love their small towns, live in little pink houses, and suck on chili dogs instead of cock like people do everywhere else. And Stickles, whose knowledge of classic shlock must be inexhaustible, also references John Fogerty’s knuckleheaded “Centerfield” with the lyrics, “Put me out coach, I’m ready to float.” Not to mention Scott McKenzie’s square ode to hippiedom, which if I recall correctly is entitled “San Francisco (Be Sure to Wear an Omelette in Your Hair).” Finally, in “No Future Part Two: The Days After No Future” Stickles shouts, “This isn’t shoegaze, this is suicide!” Which has nothing to do with classic rock, but I laugh every time I hear it.

Titus Andronicus is not, thank Satan, all hopeful like the Boss can be. They’re not “Waitin’ on a Sunny Day”: they’re dyed-in-the-Jersey-wool futilists, as is evident from “Ecco Homo,” where Stickles sings, “Okay I think by now we’ve established/Everything is inherently worthless/And there’s nothing in the universe/With any inherent purpose.” Then there’s “Four Score and Seven” with its blistering lines, “We’re all depraved and disgusting/I spew like a fountain/And debased, defaced, disgraced and destroyed/Most of all disappointed.” “No Future Part One” sums up the band’s unremittingly bleak Weltanschauung with its lines, “This world seems like a nice place to visit/But I don’t want to live in it.”

Which are my sentiments exactly, and the chief reason I love Titus Andronicus, which knows it’s fighting a losing battle against life but fully intends to go down fighting—as the loud “Fuck you!” the whole band delivers to the world in the wonderful “Fear and Loathing in Mahwah, NJ” makes clear. “Don’t tell me I was born free,” snarls Stickles “In a Small Body,” because nobody is: we all wear the shackles of birth, work, and death, we all can’t shoot Fall Out Boy because they’re protected by the Unspeakable Species Act of 1974, and we all know, as Stickles sings, “It’s us against them/And they’re winning.” E.M. Cioran once wrote, “Only one thing matters in life; learning to be the loser.” And Titus Andronicus knows it. As the whole band repeats about a hundred times at the end of “No Future Part Three: Escape From No Future”: “You will always be a loser.”

Titus Andronicus’ songs often start slow, then build to big ecstatic climaxes, or switch rhythmic horses in midstream, or both as in the wonderful “No Future Part Three: Escape From No Future” and the epic “The Battle of Hampton Roads.” And they often end with the entire band repeating some defiant but defeatist phrase, as in “Titus Andronicus” where everybody sings “Your life is over” over and over again. Then there’s the Jesus and Mary Chain-sounding “No Future Part One,” which ends with a chorus singing “Good times/Good times are here again,” which must be ironic because right before that Stickles sings, “And if I could say only one thing/With the whole world listening/It would be leave me the fuck alone/Or welcome to the Terrordome.”

Titus Andronicus–they’re Stickles on vocals, Eric Harm on drums, Julian Veronesi on bass, and Liam Betson and Adam Reich on guitars–played The Black Cat on Sunday, May 19, and I couldn’t wait to hear “Titus Andronicus Forever” and “Richard II or Extraordinary Popular Dimensions and the Madness of Crowds,” if only because I’m a sucker for a windy title. Unfortunately I missed the opening act–suffice it to say the Boss has big ears, and two of his goombahs waylaid me on my way to the Black Cat and said, “I see Bruce Springsteen doesn’t strike you, Mr. Little. Well, he’s about to,” then proceeded to work me over with the surprisingly hefty Born to Run: 30th Anniversary Edition box set–but I managed to limp to 1811 14th Street in time for Titus Andronicus’ set.

And they played a great, semi-deranged show. The crowd was fanatical and knew every word to every song (I’ve never know all the lyrics to a song in my life) and sang along lustily. I sat at the bar, and a guy ran up to ask the bartender if he’d seen his lost shoe. The bartender rolled his eyes and responded, “I think I saw it going that way.” Meanwhile everybody was ordering PBR (“Fuck Heinecken! Pabst Blue Ribbon!”), which shows you that Titus Andronicus is a good working class band and not a bunch of effete dandies like Pig Destroyer, where the audience sniffed at snifters of top-shelf brandy and applauded half-heartedly with two fingers and said things like, “The ennui is simply devastating, old sport.”

Titus Andronicus opened with “A Pot in Which to Piss,” which featured more sudden mood shifts than a person with multiple personality disorder and included the great lines, “I’ve been called out/Cuckolded/Castrated/But I survived/I am covered in urine and excrement/But I’m still alive.” They followed with “Richard II,” which was very fast and drum heavy, and featured a pair of piercing guitar solos. Then up was the great and very catchy “In a Big City,” in which Stickles sings, “And some of my dreams are coming true/And some of the smoke from the other room is seeping through.” “Still Life with Hot Deuce on Silver Platter” was lightning fast and included an irresistable chorus that went, “Here it goes again/I hear you took it to another level/Here it goes/Here it goes again.”

“In a Small Body” was a big pop anthem that changed tempo in mid-song, in effect becoming another song altogether, and included the great lines, “Sludge through the sewage/It’s such a world of shit.” “The Dog,” a new one featuring drummer Eric Harm on vocals, was very short and poppy, with simple lyrics and a chorus that went “You and the dog/And the kids and me.” It sounded very little like Titus Andronicus and more like an eerie echo of Lobo’s 1973 shmaltz hit “Me and You and a Dog Named Boo,” and I hope it doesn’t harken a change in musical direction for the band. Then came “Upon Viewing Bruegel’s ‘Landscape with the Fall of Icarus’,” which switched tempos the way Leo DiCaprio switches girlfriends before ending with a long instrumental interlude that featured some sturm und drang drumming and a great, sloppy guitar solo.

One of my night’s favorites was “Too Old Friends and New,” which featured Stickles singing to the accompaniment of a piano. Stickles’ vocals went from a whisper to a scream as he sang lines like “That it’s alright to kill and alright to steal if you’re willing to hold up your end of the deal.” Then the whole band kicked in and Stickles and the crowd sang, “Then it’s alright the way that you live/It’s alright the way that you live.” Up next was the almost hardcore “Titus Andronicus vs. The Absurd Universe,” which featured a frenetic guitar solo and a set of lyrics that more or less consisted of “I’m going insane” repeated over and over. “My Time Outside the Womb” was also very fast, the drumming was great, and that’s all I have to say about that. I miss the womb, and the mere mention of the word makes me horribly homesick.

“No Future Part Three: Escape From No Future” started slowly with Stickles singing to the accompaniment of a guitar. Then he sang, “So all I want for Christmas/Is no feelings/No feelings now” at which point the whole band kicked in and the song became a big rock anthem ala The Boss. Afterwards Stickles went into a semi-humorous rant directed at a guy leaning against a monitor, whom Stickles accused of ruining the song’s sound. But being a sweet guy he veered quickly from admonition to saying, “I love you to death. You not only sing along with the words, you sing along with the guitar solos.” Then came the very fast and very loud “A More Perfect Union,” which featured big power chords and ended with the whole crowd singing, “Rally around the flag/Rally around the flag/Glory glory Hallelujah/His truth is marching on.”

Titus Andronicus then played the very cool “Titus Andronicus Forever,” a hardcore number whose lyrics consisted of “The enemy is everywhere!” and which featured some serious guitar shredding. They then gave up on the originals and turned into a great cover band, the best cover band from Jersey ever (and I saw quite a few in Asbury Park back in the day), playing Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock’n’Roll” (which I wasn’t crazy about, but then never have been), The Beastie Boys’ “No Sleep Till Brooklyn” which was fantastic (these guys can rap!), the Ramones’ “I Wanna Be Sedated” which was likewise excellent, and a speeded-up take on REM’s “It’s the End of the World as We Know It (And I Feel Fine)” which I loved, before closing the show with a hard-rocking rendition of Billy Bragg’s working-class-with-no-work anthem “To Have and To Have Not” with its great lines, “Just because you’re going forward/Doesn’t mean I’m going backwards.”

What can I say? Titus Andronicus makes me think better of everyone from Joisey. “Wanted Dead or Alive” is, as much as I hate to admit it, actually a pretty cool song, and Bon Jovi seems like a genuinely nice guy. And poetic fraud she may be, but Patti Smith’s Horses is indisputably brilliant. As for the Boss, he’s a great American artist who has given us scads of timeless songs, even if he does dance like a grinning peg-legged spastic in the mouth-dropping hilarious “Dancing in the Dark” video. As for the ex‘s grandmother, I still have nothing good to say about her. But no matter: she’s undoubtedly dead by now, and spending eternity in Heaven. Or as it’s known to Jerseyites, the Short Hills Mall.

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  • The Good German

    I hope Bon Jovi finds you and beats you with his dildo.

  • Michael Little

    That’s hilarious. Best comment ever. Congratulations, Mike

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