When I saw the reunited Soft Boys for the first time, at South by Southwest in March, I was neither blown away nor disappointed--and then I wondered how that happened. When you're seeing a legend, doesn't it have to be one or the other?
The reunion tour thing has settled pretty firmly into the culture by now, to the point where rock promoters are delving ever deeper into the mists to come up with great lost legends. The track record for good bands who've submitted to the inevitable is not actually horrible: Wire didn't add much to their achievements but didn't humiliate themselves last year, and I'd say the same for Bauhaus in '98. In '92 Television actually came up with new material (which admittedly sounded like a really good Tom Verlaine solo album) and played it very well; so did Chrome six years later. Question Mark & the Mysterians are arguably better now than they ever were in their heyday. And the Sex Pistols tour in '96 was a travesty only if you believed their anticommercialism was ever more than a marketing tool. Really, there are just a few great bands I can think of for which a reunion should be ruled out entirely, and those for obvious reasons: the MC5, Joy Division, the Minutemen, Nirvana. Mojo recently reported that the Doors are contemplating a comeback, with Ian Astbury and Scott Weiland fronting...I only wish I were making that up.
Yet despite rock 'n' roll's seemingly endless capacity for making myths about itself, there aren't too many about this phase in a band's lifespan. Nobody seems to believe in any band as a sleeping King Arthur destined to wake in the time of his people's greatest need, to snatch rock from the jaws of hostile market forces or insipid fads. For the most part, there's still something vaguely embarrassing about a reunion tour, and many fans admit as much even as they're shelling out for tickets.
Of course, to hold at bay the demon nostalgia, it helps if the band wasn't of its time to begin with. Coming up in clubs in England in 1976 with Syd, not Sid, as their guiding light, the Soft Boys were somewhat famously out of touch. Punkish raspberries like "Rock 'n' Roll Toilet" felt more like parody than participation, and even the rage of "I Wanna Destroy You," from their benchmark 1980 album Underwater Moonlight, was closer in spirit to a Dylan rant than to a Rotten one. The story goes that the Soft Boys were psychedelic when speed was the drug of choice; hilariously funny when earnest rage was the fashion; fascinated by sex when punks claimed to be bored by it; surrealist when exaggerated realism was the style; and not above a straight-faced Byrds cover when the mood took them. Their label didn't even bother releasing the album in the U.S.
That alone shouldn't have been enough to condemn them to oblivion, but by the time I discovered them--in the mid-80s, a few albums into front man Robyn Hitchcock's solo career, back when I was sure Peter Buck would never lead me astray--their undeserved obscurity was part of their charm. Like the Velvet Underground, they were beautiful losers whose "failure" was always put in quotes, adored by those who equated "underground" with "underdog." You always want those bands to get a second chance--or at least you think you do.
It's hard to say exactly what a second chance means in the case of a reunion tour, though. Although the reformed Soft Boys are writing new songs--a handful of which they integrated a little awkwardly into their set at Metro last Friday--the major marketing push here is for Matador's reissue of Underwater Moonlight, which includes a whole other album's worth of rarities, oddities, and rehearsals from the same period.
When I last saw Hitchcock perform, a couple years ago, original Soft Boys guitarist Kimberley Rew had recently joined his band, and it was clear then that the second chance--or was it a third?--involved was Rew's. His post-Soft Boys band, Katrina & the Waves, never managed to parlay their megahit "Walking on Sunshine" into a career. And while Hitchcock has never brushed up against the butt end of the Top 40 in his life, he's got a nice deep oeuvre and a respectable cult following. The Soft Boys' current drummer, Morris Windsor, and original bassist, Andy Metcalfe (replaced in time for Underwater Moonlight by Matthew Seligman), have been essential components of Hitchcock's backing band the Egyptians for years. And considering that by Underwater Moonlight their charismatic front man seemed to be running the show, you could make the case that the band morphed more than it actually broke up. I got the feeling Rew was just ecstatic and grateful to be playing again in front of a few hundred cheering people, whether they were there to see him or not.
At the Austin show, Hitchcock cracked, "We used to be the Soft Boys and on a good night we still are," and last Friday's set in Chicago was a good night. It started off a bit slow--the instrumental "You'll Have to Go Sideways" was never a big revelation, and the draggy "Queen of Eyes" was disappointing--but once they got warmed up, they sounded as much like their late-period selves as anyone could want, running through searing and spirited versions of "He's a Reptile" (as condemning of bastard male psychology as any early Liz Phair tune), "I Wanna Destroy You," "Old Pervert" (proving what I've always suspected, that the primal slash and throb of that tune was created with live performance in mind), "Only the Stones Remain" (a truly spunky bit of Stonehenge porn), and even a gorgeous, straight-up rendition of the Pete Seeger-via-the-Byrds classic "The Bells of Rhymney" (which Hitchcock recorded for a 12-inch single in 1984). The band stuck mostly to Underwater Moonlight-period material, with few nods to its wild and dissonant earlier days; the show was clearly a showcase for a specific album and a specific time in the band's life, not the band per se.
Hitchcock noticeably refrained from the stunning, showboating ad-libbed storytelling that marks his shows with his own band (save a version of the usual interlude in the song "Underwater Moonlight"), speaking mostly through his guitar in dialogues with Rew. But though he looked happy to play guitar hero again, he's still most in his element with melody and wordplay, and seemed most sincerely on fire when delivering bits of pure performance poetry like "Insanely Jealous": "The night is black and thick / I wander past your window and I catch a cigarette thrown from a jewel-encrusted hand / It comes on pretty quick / Exactly like a crocodile in search of a mirage across the undulating sand...." And the band as a whole seemed most at ease when giving themselves up to songs they didn't feel responsible for, like their all-pistons-firing take on the Velvets' "Train Round the Bend." Those were the moments where I came closest to being blown away, to feeling something beyond the pleasure of hearing old favorites flawlessly rendered by their creators, or to believing that I was in the presence of an actual living force capable of making the old new again.
The problem with second chances is that so few bands really take advantage of them: the Soft Boys have the potential, and maybe the motivation, but they'll be at their best only if they can once again absorb their most gifted songwriter instead of standing tamely behind him. Perversely, it may be that a form of nostalgia is key for any band on the second go-round: a keen remembrance of the time when they were young, warm-blooded, and flexible, before legend froze them, that we might say of them, as Hitchcock puts it in "Underwater Moonlight," "they climbed off their pedestals / And then they sang this song."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.