The first New Wave / Post Punk song I ever fell in love with was Cars by Gary Numan, which came out when I was in 5th grade. I used to listen to Casey Kasem’s Top 40 Countdown every week with a friend and we’d write the sequence down in a notebook. Then I would take the top 10 tunes and write them in pencil on my desk at school alongside a drawing of a musician performing. The clearest title I remember on those desks was Cars. I had heard not dissimilar combinations of fierce bar chords and pop melodies in records that came out that year by The Cars and The Police, but there was a loneliness and sadness to Cars that beckoned to show me somewhere else, kind of like Rise by PiL did a few years later, as prefigurations of the underground music I would be introduced to for real in high school.
I didn’t really know what to expect when I went to see Gary Numan at Moogfest after getting a free pass to the festival from a friend who was in town to speak on a panel there. I suppose my low expectations are partially a function of the ageism this long-neglected series of posts seeks to challenge. I hadn’t heard any of his records that were recorded after his early 80’s heyday, and hadn’t heard much word on the street about them either.
He played three shows, and I tried and failed to get into the first one at Motorco. But I got there early enough to get great floor seats for the second show, the first of two nights at the Carolina Theater. I have to say that my jaw dropped early and often during the band’s amazing performance. The sound in the venue was amazing, which the sound at Motorco apparently wasn’t, and the set was mostly dedicated to his first three records, so I got to hear all the old hits, including Cars and Are Friends Electric? The singer in our band the Cicadas went all 3 nights and said each night featured different material. Apparently a guy standing next to her walked out of the show I saw because he didn’t play any of the more recent stuff, which is quite the opposite of the reaction you’d expect from fans of a guy whose highest chart position was like what, 35 years ago? I wish I could have made it for the third night, when he played his recent stuff, but I’m also really glad I got to see those songs that hit me so hard in 5th grade live.
Two things struck me about the show: First, how clearly articulated the frequency range of the show was. There was a rock solid bass guitar drums foundation that stuck to mostly the lower strings of the instrument that left a gap in the high mid range that opened up a lot of space in the hall. The synthesizer beds and leads soared out on top of that space in a way that was truly majestic and at times even mournful, because nothing was crowding up against their frequencies. The airiness of the string-like synth patches was clearly out front, and the guitars were almost indistinguishable from the bass and drums, which I liked. The formula seemed so simple that I wondered why more people hadn’t been able to do this kind of sound so well as Numan does. I’m not sure what the answer is. The songs were anthemic but they never sounded coercive in the way that a lot of pop music that has that quality can. Numan had arena-ish body language that froze poses in the lights but somehow that didn’t seem pompous at all, perhaps because of the second thing that struck me about the show: how modest he was and how offhand and sincere and even touching his reaction to the audience was.
No doubt because of the nature of the festival, the audience was extremely enthusiastic and knowledgeable about the material and its historical importance for bringing electronic keyboards to pop music. People were just loving it, and you could feel it coming up to the stage in waves, not like as a hero worship thing but like a celebration of a culture thing. Numan towards the end spoke about how much this connection meant to him and I don’t think I’ve ever really see someone say that to an audience in a theater show and make it come across so personally as opposed to a standard show biz gesture. Wendy was saying after the show that this is probably because he went through so many severe downturns in his career after massive success. Whatever the reason, it was totally sweet and disarming. This impression was also compounded by accounts I heard of people seeing his young daughters and wife around the venues. Apparently they were like, “So these are our dad’s fans?!” as though it was a novel surprise. I had been in touch with Kamran from Moogfest about working to bring Durham Public School students to the festival next year (not enough advance notice for this year) as field trip opportunities and such. We had brunch this morning and he was saying that Numan’s family had a great time in Durham because when he walked around Durham people were very respectful of boundaries but also friendly and enthusiastic, which put his whole family at ease.
I don’t think I understand Numan’s music in the same way he does, and I have different political affiliations, (me socialist he not). He’s a racing car enthusiast so Cars is presumably meant as a straight up ode. I always hear it as a massive tragedy about the isolation of modern consumer culture that taps into its incredible power highs while also conveying a sense of foreboding about the environmental collapse that we’re on the brink of because of it. All the same, I can’t recall feeling a genuine emotional connection from such a pure display of rock prowess in a theater (as opposed to a smaller club) setting as I did from Numan that night. I think it’s because it was so clear how much he loved what he was doing and how appreciative he was of the opportunity to do it in front of people that really understood and cared about it. Pretty great to see someone having that experience 35+ years into their career.