Joe Satriani Is The Fucking Coolest (Or: Sometimes I Leave My Apartment)

On Saturday, I saw Joe Satriani perform at Lincoln Theatre, and it was a whole Thing.

satriani-2015tour-header-960

As you can gather from my review/word vomit of Hibike! Euphonium, I’ve been a band geek since 5th grade. And yet, despite being so into playing music, I didn’t really intentionally listen to music until high school. I mean, okay, that’s an oversimplification that makes it sound like I grew up in the town from Footloose, so let’s get into it:

WAMU and WETA (i.e. NPR and classical music) were and still are the only radio stations that my parents would listen to at home or in the car, and in terms of our household CD collection—mostly a mix of classical, Broadway musical soundtracks, ’90s Italian music, and ’60s-’70s rock. And the classic rock was untouchable for a while, because the fact that my mother liked it meant that I was obligated to hate it.

So what ended up getting a lot of play, when I had a choice in the matter? If I recall correctly, mostly a mix of 1776, Fiddler on the Roof, West Side Story, Hanno Ucciso L’Uomo Ragno, and maybe a little later on, the Fritz Reiner/Chicago Symphony Orchestra recording of “Pictures at an Exhibition” and other great Russian shit and assorted Capitol Steps CDs. A relative gifted me with Avril Lavigne’s Let Go when that was a big thing1, and there was a brief and embarrassing period in which I knew all of the words to “Sk8er Boi” and “Complicated,” but that was definitely an anomaly, in terms of young me actually being aware and not immediately dismissive of popular music. Ultimately, the only CDs I can remember actually purchasing for myself before high school are The Heart of Cape Breton: Fiddle Music Recorded Live Along The Ceilidh Trail, Celtic Fiddle Festival’s Rendezvous, and the Original Broadway Cast recording of Cats; the former two, I think, because I heard some Celtic fiddle music on NPR and found it super compelling, and the latter—who the fuck knows.

Anyway, high school. In the summer of 2007, 14-year-old me ends up party to a discussion about music between two upperclassmen who she desperately wants to impress. Unable to contribute at all, she just sits in there in silence while the intimidatingly cool 17-year-olds talk, and resolves to make an effort to start listening to non-classical, non-soundtrack, non-Italian, non-political comedy music.

At around the same time, 14-year-old me is taking computer science in summer school and overhears the most awesome music coming out of the speakers of some computer in the lab that seems to be a blend of orchestral music and rock. But god forbid 14-year-old me actually ask around to identify the culprit; no, instead, she goes home and does some really vague Google searches for, like, “classical music electric guitar.” The original song is never identified, but the Wikipedia pages for symphonic metal/neoclassical metal/progressive rock seem promising.

On August 1, 2007, she decides to make a Pandora account and tests out her research by creating an Yngwie Malmsteen radio station. She has yet to find out that this is absolutely the wrong genre to get into to meet her initial goal—that is, using music as a way of proving her social viability to her peers—but fuck if it isn’t spectacular. Joe Satriani’s Is There Love in Space? and Super Colossal, Marty Friedman’s Loudspeaker, Vinnie Moore’s Collection: The Shrapnel Years, and Yngwie Malmsteen’s Concerto Suite for Electric Guitar and Orchestra are acquired a few weeks later2.

joespace
So fucking cool.

Is There Love in Space? was by far the most significant of these. Not necessarily in the “this music speaks to me on a deep personal and emotional level” sense of significant, but: everything about this album, from the cover art3 to the song titles to, you know, the actual music, just seemed like the fucking coolest to my younger self. When we worked on an audio circuit in Analog Electronics junior year, I tested it out by plugging in my iPod and got the satisfaction of hearing “Gnaahh” blasting loud and clear through the speaker on the other end. “Hands in the Air” was included on my mix CD for the CD exchange my high school friends and I had pre-graduation. I got a lot of obnoxious, self-righteous mileage from the whole “Viva la Vida”/”If I Could Flycontroversy in both high school and college4.  And the love abides, which probably can’t be said for most things I liked at 15; current, 23-year-old self still considers Is There Love in Space? to be an almost perfect distillation of coolness into album form.


So, what is the specific appeal of instrumental rock?

Here’s a fun fact that probably explains a lot about my taste in music over time: I am totally shit at deciphering lyrics for pretty much any genre of music other than maybe show-tunes. There are songs that I’ve listened to over 100 times and probably still could not actually sing along to. In general, I just see the human voice as another instrument; some words sound better than others, but the actual semantic content of the lyrics is kind of whatever for me. So listening to music sung in a foreign language is a non-issue, although with certain subgenres of metal, one does worry that one might unwittingly end up endorsing neo-Naziism. Similar for Problematic™ lyrics in English; they’re not going to take away from my enjoyment of a song if all of the other elements are working. But the more limiting factor of this is that it rap is kind of harder to get into, since it’s much more difficult to separate the content from the medium there. I’m also pretty unlikely to ever listen to something and have that moment where the lyrics Speak To Me or whatever5. With instrumental music, however, this is not a problem—whatever emotions the song is meant to elicit don’t rely on your ability to make out words—and there isn’t any sort of cultural cachet associated with intimate knowledge of lyrics.

So, okay, knowing for sure that you’re not missing out on anything by not parsing the lyrics of a song is definitely part of the appeal, but there’s a lot more to the lack of a vocal element. It can allow these songs to exist as sort of their own entities, rather than being specifically attached to the personality of a particular lead singer—and that’s not inherently better or worse, but it is a completely different musical experience. Joe Satriani’s music in particular often does capture a similar sort of quality with the guitar effects as klezmer clarinetists do, in terms of conveying recognizable emotions without the use of the human voice, so it’s not even that the songs are completely detached from humanity.

There is a transportive quality6 to Satriani’s best songs—I almost want to call it “world-building”—where you just want to live in the world for which this is the soundtrack. It’s certainly related to not having words as a distraction/reminder of the earthly human source of the music, as well as not necessarily following the familiar musical structure of chorus/verse/bridge/etc. that we would associate with rock. It all combines to make Satriani’s music much more than just rock music with no words, and that’s not actually true for every solo guitarist. Some of these other artists’ albums do come across as super self-indulgent and same-y, as if the guitarist is so used to playing in a more traditional rock/metal group and being overshadowed by the lead singer that he decides to release a record that’s just all of his guitar solos extended into whole “songs.”


Right, the actual concert.

For reference, here’s the setlist. 8 of the 22 songs were off his latest album, which I, um, was not even aware of, but “On Peregrine Wings” was so mind-blowingly awesome that the lack of recognition just so did not matter. Holy shit, I would like to live inside this song, but I guess I’ll have to make do with just playing it on loop for the next few days:

He did play “Crystal Planet,” “If I Could Fly,” and “Surfing with the Alien,” and yeah, the sense of deep familiarity there certainly did enhance my enjoyment. I mean, I definitely just had a big fat grin for all of “Crystal Planet” that was, at least until I noticed7, a completely visceral reaction to the fucking greatness of that song.

Apparently, “Crystal Planet” was inspired by a sci-fi story he read to his son or something, which is super dorky and yet. A lot of things about Joe Satriani seem to fall into this category of “super dorky and yet.” There should be something inherently uncool about a 59-year-old playing instrumental rock, especially when the majority of his song titles8 seem to in some way allude to sci-fi or comic books or vaguely mystical shit. I mean, dude has an entire album called Surfing with the Alien that uses a John Byrne illustration of the Silver Surfer as cover art. In fact, when Satriani played the title track as an encore at this concert, the background graphics were a clip of what seemed to be a legit cartoon of Silver Surfer battling Galactus. And in a completely different mode of dorkiness, the background visuals for the song “Friends” were, like, a slideshow of the type of cutesy heartwarming images that middle-aged women share on Facebook, including, I shit you not, a photo of a dog with a mouse sitting on its head. And yet.

He remains the fucking coolest. And maybe the seeming earnestness to his geekiness actually works towards that, because it doesn’t seem like he’s trying to go for a sex, drugs, and rock & roll thing in his image, which inevitably gets kind of sad and gross with age (see: The Rolling Stones). Whether his baldness was a conscious aesthetic choice or nature forced his hand, it’s definitely key to the ageless sense of cool, as dude has remained committed to the bald + sunglasses image for at least the past 18 years, judging by album covers. Had he attempted to maintain long rocker hair at this stage in his life, he certainly would not seem as cool now, and perhaps if he had been associated with hair for a larger portion of his career, he would not seem as cool in retrospect either. But man, the bald + the sunglasses. Dude comes on stage in a silver motorcycle jacket, black tee, black skinny jeans, black sneakers, and a red guitar, and it all adds up to this Norin Radd rock star AU aesthetic that’s just, well, the fucking coolest. (The silver jacket, tragically, gets removed after a few songs, but the sunglasses remain on the entire time he’s on stage.)


I still have no idea what Joe Satriani’s target demographic is. Probably mostly white and male, but no idea what age range. I don’t know, a mix of long-haired metal dudes, preppy bros, more or less respectable-looking middle aged couples—in any case, no overwhelming vibe the way there would be at, say, a Phish concert.

The line for the women’s restroom during intermission was, like, shockingly long, given the genre. But a woman in the line did tell me “Awesome outfit! Perfect backpack! Yasss!” as I passed by, and for a moment, I felt okay about all of the life choices I’ve made since the age of 15.

Awesome outfit; perfect backpack; yass
I mean, girl in bathroom line was not wrong.

Also, man, I am so curious what the deal is with other people who go to Joe Satriani concerts alone, although I suppose if any of us were willing to actually go up to each other and say something, we would not be at the concert alone. I had such people on either side of me, but yeah, no interaction. On my left was a sort of pudgy Asian guy in glasses and basketball shorts who was grooving super hard to “If I Could Fly” (aka the Fuck You, Coldplay song). On my right, a youngish woman—probably about my age?—taking a lot of pictures of the stage with both a camera and phone; could not get a good look at her face without creepily staring, but she vaguely reminded me of Heather from Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and definitely seemed too attractive/stylish to be going to any concert alone, in particular one in this not super hip genre. Which I guess is the impression I would hope to give off too, so who knows.


1. Say what you will about the quality of her music, but Avril Lavigne was for sure a big fucking deal in 2002. This was also a period in which I acquired an item of clothing from the, at the time, detestably mainstream and “girly” Limited Too. So, of course, a year later or so that I completely disowned that period as an out-of-character phase, similar to what I now seem to be doing with my attempts to be remotely normal and likable in freshman year of college. Hmm. ^
2. Thank you, iTunes metadata. If we assume that I imported the music into iTunes immediately after acquiring the physical CDs—and that seems like a safe assumption—then the date added implies that I either convinced my parents to buy them for my 15th birthday or I bought them myself with a collection of Borders gift cards received for said birthday. ^
3. And fuck, I am now wondering how correlated that is with my love of a good purple/teal color combo. ^
4. I know, it’s crazy that I would ever struggle to make friends, right? ^
5. And part of that is going to be my disdain for poetry and part of it is going to be that so many songs in my preferred genres are either about fucking or just, like, nonsense lyrics that sound nice but don’t necessarily mean anything (see: Phish). But as an exception to both the rap thing and the connecting to lyrics thing, there is something in the sentiment conveyed by “Bitch, I’mma pick the world up and I’mma drop it on your fuckin’ head” that speaks to me as a being composed almost entirely of spite. ^
6. A lot of classical music has this quality as well, but if you’re born after, say, 1940, you’re probably more fluent in the musical language—the rhythms, the instrumentation, etc.—of rock, so there’s going to be less of a barrier to immersion there. ^
7. I’ve realized, going to concerts or seeing movies or attending other cultural events, that it has become more and more difficult for me to just experience the event instead of constantly monitoring my reactions in order to better fit my feelings into a particular narrative, probably decided on before the event even starts, or figuring out the exact wording of the specifically witty but still crowd-pleasing thing I will say about it on Facebook afterwards. And you can try to make the “ugh, millennials and social media” argument here, but I don’t think so? I’m sure overly self-conscious Victorians were also like “why can’t I just let myself enjoy this opera instead of trying to come up with the perfect bon mot for my next dinner party?” And probably similar with the ancient Greeks and theatre and symposiums. ^
8. Consider: “Ice 9,” “Borg Sex,” and “The Mystical Potato Head Groove Thing.” ^

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