I enter the listening party expecting to hear this unknown band's new record and instead hear Led Zeppelin's "Dazed and Confused." And it occurs to me that if you were to mix "Dazed..." with Suzanne Vega and DNA's "Tom's Diner" you'd still be a long way from describing Portishead's new LP, Dummy, but it'd be a start. And as starts go, this is an instant classic -- a vigorous mediation on the groove created by Geoff Barrow's ebbing dub beats and Beth Gibbon's willowy, wounded vocals, which glide over the arrangements like a hovercar, and her voice is the first thing I ask about as the Guinness is poured.
This was written 18 years ago, when I met Geoff and Beth as one of the first American writers to cover Portishead -- I made the case for a December cover of the magazine I was freelancing for, and they were on cover in name, perhaps their first such cover in the US.
During a surprisingly intense conversation over Guinness, we covered a lot of ground, discussing -- arguing, actually -- over whether anyone had a shot to make it in life by their own bootstraps (Beth and I said no, Geoff said yes) and whether getting that hair-raising feeling when writing music was druggy or not. Unfortunately, Adrian Utley is not in attendance to tell me his life story, but years later as an editor at URB magazine, I do a candid interview with him and he speaks of his own fascinating life as a muso.
I never spoke with Beth again after '93, and I was surprised to learn that she is press-shy, as the person I got nicely buzzed with and shared an appreciation for Janis Ian with that day had a deadly, flash wit, told me a messed-up joke and spoke honestly about her parents telling her to give up doing Janis Joplin covers and find a husband, in response to my mentioning that Johnny Marr had told me in a interview during The The's Mind Bomb tour that he "decided very early on never to have a job with a boss as such" -- to which Beth responded instantly that while such a statement is easier to make in hindsight, she agreed with it completely because "Sometimes it's only that belief which keeps you going." She also spoke about a mind-numbing day on a video set, expressing an early, telling frustration with the whole music biz machine
And despite their small output and my not loving their second album (though "Western Eyes" remains an all-time favorite, thanks to Beth's alternating between scornful vengeance and beautifully gutbucket emoting) Portishead keep selectively making good music.
Given how frustrating the success they wanted turned out to be during the next phase of their career I can understand Beth's reluctance to deal -- and why should she or any artist, really?
Fast-forward nearly half a lifetime later and I catch up with Geoff in 2010 to film his band Beak's soundcheck and show at Bowery Ballroom.
Since he'd just declared that Portishead would be doing no press for their next record (though they are actually doing interviews now), I speak with him about his life -- instead of asking questions, I just ask him to share his story, which he does herein, going from some honest talk about the class system in England; his parents; being in kid and starting a covers band doing "Eye of The Tiger"; DJing and bustin' moves after discovering Hip-Hop; getting a break from someone who came from his estate who gave him a proper internship in a studio (which he exclaims in a flash of memory, cutting himself off mid-sentence "Oh, oh massive break: local guy offered me a TSY [guv internship] so my bus fare was covered"); the success that came after meeting Beth at a jobs council event which loaned them money to start a business (not unlike the beginning of VICE magazine), the wild ride since then.
By way of a quick summary over the past three years or so, he says he "got divorced to my childhood sweetheart, went to Australia, got drunk a lot, played pool" He also re-discovered the value of simply jamming, is now remarried (new wife) and regularly enjoys camping, which, as I've written in this column, is one of life's greatest pleasures.
I have to get ready for another day of NYFF screenings, so I'll stop here -- and ask that you ignore any and all spelling errors and subject-verb disagreements.
If you don't have a ticket to tonight's sold-out show, these clips are for you.
BEAK performs at Bowery ballroom, special thanks to Souxzie and Jason for sorting out my shoot.