Home > Uncategorized > The National Curse: A History in Three Parts, or Prelude to a Concert Review

The National Curse: A History in Three Parts, or Prelude to a Concert Review

I. Introduction

In order to fully grasp the significance of my attendance at the National’s concert last weekend, you need a little background into my show-going history, and a phenomenon known as “The National Curse.” I had been hearing a lot of praise for this band ever since the release of their second album, Sad Songs for Dirty Lovers. This was, of course, an awesome title, and I really wanted to check out the band, but I just never got around to it. By the time their universally-hyped third album, Alligator, came out, I had sort of lost interest in actively trying to check them out.

Then, as it turned out, they were announced as the opening act for Arcade Fire’s initial U.S. tour in support of Neon Bible. I had tickets for the May 5, 2007 show at the Tower Theater, and was vaguely looking forward to finally hearing the band. Bill was also at this show, although we traveled separately and were not sitting together. When all was said and done, I ended up being really impressed by the band. They already had a headlining show scheduled at Johnny Brenda’s, but that was, of course, already sold out.

I believe it was at the Battles show at the First Unitarian Church that summer that Anthony, who had also just discovered the National, and I were discussing the band’s upcoming dates. At this point, I was in perhaps a small minority by considering Boxer to be an album that thoroughly trounced Alligator on nearly every level – perhaps this was a symptom of the way I discovered them, or perhaps it just has more to do with my unabashed love for musical subtlety. Either way, now that I was more familiar with and appreciative of their material, I was determined to see them again. They had a show scheduled at the TLA, but it was on the first night of the semester and I knew I would not be able to make it. But they were also, I pointed out to Anthony, playing a free show in New York as part of the River to River Festival on a Friday night. This sounded perfect. We decided to go.


II. The Curse Reveals Itself

By the time the day of the show came, it was Anthony, Bill, Bill’s friend Nikki, and me crammed into my car. I don’t deal with driving/parking in the city, and because of the ridiculous price of train fare, we I decided the most effective way to get there would be to drive to Staten Island and take the free ferry to Battery Park, then walk from there to the Seaport where the show was being held. It was a perfect plan, and I had made the drive to the SI ferry so many times that I knew the route perfectly.

The evening started with Anthony and I getting a slightly late start. It wasn’t that big of a deal, though. A couple of wrong turns getting to Bill’s house resulted in a net loss of about 10 minutes. As we backed out of Bill’s driveway and approached the highway, the rain started.

This was almost two years ago, so I don’t remember all the details. What I do recall is some discussion as to whether we should take the Turnpike to exit 10, or take Route 1 up. I believe that I was the only one who was vehemently in favor of Route 1, and since I was driving, that was the route we took. (At this point, it would be beneficial to note that I had not lived in central New Jersey for three years at this point, and had forgotten what Route 1 could look like on a Friday during evening rush hour during the summer on a perfectly clear day, let alone one with apocalyptic weather-related catastrophes.)

Route 1 was a mess, but it was manageable. What wasn’t manageable, however, was the steadily-increasing intensity of the rainfall. By the time we hit South Brunswick, we were driving through sheets of rain. In New Brunswick, near the junction of Route 1 and Route 18 (always a bad traffic area even on the best of days), an entire lake had appeared from nowhere in the middle of the highway.  Seriously. A lake. And so, three lanes were bottlenecked into one, and so an extra half hour or so was tacked on to our travel time.

Deep standing water on the roadway hampered our progress even more in Edison. We were inching our way slowly, inexorably toward the ferry. As we turned onto Route 440, we encountered a wall of traffic such as I had never seen on this road. Clearly, I had made an error of judgment.

Bear in mind, during this entire ordeal, my iPod was playing Boxer on an infinite loop.

Anthony seemed to be taking it in stride, with his typical sardonic humor. Bill seemed annoyed, but was trying to be nonchalant about it. Nikki was just pissy (and for those who know the situation, that should come as no surprise whatsoever). For my part, I was trying to remain optimistic and upbeat about it right up to the bitter end. At Bill’s request (I believe the quote may have been, “For the love of GOD, Thom, can you PLEASE change the album???!?!) we started listening to bands other than the National. We listened to Doolittle and The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. Yes, we were in traffic long enough to finish two albums.

Clearly, I had made a huge mistake.

We finally fought our way to the ferry, engine running hot, brakes smoking, and us not knowing if my car would still be intact when we returned – I think we all expected it to burst into flames as soon as we boarded the boat. Of course, we had just missed a ferry and had to wait over 30 minutes for the next one. There was a convenience store with Big-AZ™ chicken sandwiches. They were as disgusting as they sound. Anthony and I probably knocked at least five years off of our lives.

The ferry finally came. The John F. Kennedy. Seriously. Insert bad jokes repeated ad nauseum. We half expect to sink into the bay unnoticed under the cover of darkness, but to our surprise, we dock safely at Battery Park. After a few minutes I get my bearings and take us in the direction of the pier, optimistically reminding my jaded and shell-shocked co-travelers that there were two opening acts and that they were probably running on musician time, and that even if we missed some of the show it won’t be a complete loss.

They all humored me, but they seemed decidedly unconvinced.

And so, walking up Wall Street, picture my complete lack of surprise as we see a swarm – no, not a swarm, but a stampede, an avalanche – of hipsters coming at us from the opposite direction, all singing “Mr. November.”

The National Curse had reared its head and stricken for the first time, but not for the last.

This night resulted more or less directly in the dissolution of a friendship. When they say it’s only rock ‘n’ roll, don’t believe them.

On the bright side, this night also resulted in our discovery of Venom Live at City Gardens. To each cloud, my friends. Silver lining. It’s there.

When we returned utterly defeated to Staten Island, my car was intact and unscathed. At least something had worked out for us.


III. The Curse Goes Viral

When it was announced in 2008 that the National would be the opening act on the ridiculously good R.E.M./Modest Mouse tour, Anthony and I made immediate plans to attend. Bill, on the other hand, bowed out due to his unfathomable indifference toward R.E.M. – I could understand it more if he actively disliked them, but just being indifferent? I can’t wrap my head around it. Anyway, the show was at the Mann Center in Fairmount Park, a venue I had been to many times in the past. It was an easy venue to drive to, and I felt confident that everything would go without a hitch. Bill, of course, joked that we would never make it specifically because the National was playing.

Jenn, Tanya, Anthony and I piled into my car – a bit later than we had wanted to leave, but still leaving plenty of time – stopped off for something to eat, and hit the road for Philly. We were making great time until we hit 76. Then, traffic just stopped. And stopped. And refused to move.

Things were stop-and-go for a while, but once I reached the exit for the venue, all hell broke loose. It was a complete clusterfuck of cars. We would sit for half an hour without moving. People were putting their vehicles into park and getting out. I had never seen traffic like this for shows at the Mann, not even for shows that were sold out. The crazy thing is that this show wasn’t even sold out. Somehow, the curse had obviously gone viral and infected all of these people. Their sole motivation now was to prevent Anthony and I from seeing the National.

When we finally rolled into the parking lot, I immediately slammed the car into the first spot I could find and booked across the parking lot toward the venue. We got close enough so I could start to hear some of what was going on on stage.

Some banter. Applause from the crowd.

Insistent drumbeat with aggressive bassline. Chiming yet incisive guitar.

Yes, that’s right – we had arrived just in time to hear “Mr. November” as we ran across the parking lot. Do you sense a pattern?

The facts here: Bill and I had managed to see the National open for Arcade Fire in May 2007. Bill, Anthony and I had fallen victim to the curse in the summer of 2007. Anthony successfully saw the National by himself in September 2007. In summer 2008, Anthony and I once again were victims of the curse.

The obvious answer was that it was the combination of Anthony and me that roused the hex.

And so, earlier this year, when tour dates were announced and we saw that the National were due to play the Electric Factory on May 29th, we began to make plans….

To be continued…

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