It's 1:45 a.m. on Sunday. I'm at the Hard Rock Hotel in Chicago, and some guy I've been talking to for all of three minutes asks me if I know where he can get some coke.
His inquiry gives me pause, but not because I know where he can secure cocaine and I have to rifle through a mental drug-dealer Rolodex. His question makes me think about the night, about how a meetup with a new friend who helps represent the up-and-coming band Cage the Elephant led to an awkward encounter with Scott Lucas, who happens to be the lead singer of Local H, which is one of my all-time favorite bands. An encounter that caused me to put Lucas on his heels when I, like a teenage groupie, blurted out, "Oh wow, I love your band."
Fortunately, the rest of our group -- which in addition to Lucas consisted of new friend, new friend's wife and the bassist from Cage the Elephant -- was able to overlook my hero worship and we all piled into a cab bound for the Hard Rock.
Once there, I successfully fended off a strange man who, while we were in the bathroom and after he found out the name of the band I was there for, told me about a story he'd written about an actual elephant in an actual cage. That task accomplished, I followed my group upstairs, where I noticed that my band du jour, Passion Pit, happened to be playing. When they finished, I descended to the hotel's lobby, where Cokey O'Cokerahan -- who had no connection with my acquaintances -- made his request. His plea for narcotic assistance made me think of the best band in the world, a band I had seen about three hours before.
A band called Tool.
As Lollapalooza approached, I forgot to stay excited about Tool. I do a lot of apologizing for my love of Tool's work. Among the crowd with which I spend the bulk of my time, Tool is looked upon as a sophomoric metal band. Those friends of mine are wrong, of course. I'll explain why shortly. But first, a little background on my obsession with Maynard James Keenan & Co.
I was introduced to Tool by a girl I dated in college, which means she has garnered extra retroactive coolness points. She said at the time I needed more aggression in my music collection. She was right. And wrong.
At first blush, Tool sounds aggressive. But beneath the harsh exterior lies a soft underbelly, like the one the dragon in "The Hobbit" protects with hard scales and fiery exhalations. Tool's music is deceptively vulnerable. It can be fast, dark and brooding. But it can also be melodic, thoughtful and sweet. In this way, the band's music is human. Like us, it can have frightening moments, during which it's hard to imagine we can be capable of the transcendence and sensitivity it takes to create great art.
As I've grown to appreciate Tool, I've decided their music is the classical music of our time. It is my decidedly unprofessional opinion that Keenan is more closely related to Mozart than he is to anyone in Pantera. But unlike Mozart, and -- in my angst-ridden, culture-starved mind -- better than Mozart, Tool can rock your socks off.
When I arrived at Tool's stage Saturday evening, having skipped Animal Collective's set so I could get there an hour ahead of time, I realized I wasn't the only Tool fan in attendance. After much polite nudging, I managed to push my way as close as I could get, which was about 70 yards from the stage.
Tool's set was nothing short of spectacular. The band ran through one crowd-pleaser after another. Keenan seemed amused by his crowd's fervor, which is far better than when he's annoyed by it. As the music washed over me, I allowed myself to be swept away. I stopped worrying about what's next in my life, or if I was going to make it to the aftershow, or if the beautiful woman I'd cold-approached earlier in the day -- the one with the male-of-record in attendance, but also the one who had covertly given me her phone number -- was going to return my text.
This is what Tool's music does for me. I can't explain why the band's albums calm my brain. I think it has something to do with the intelligence and inquisitiveness of the band's members and how those members are able to convey their thoughts through music.
But any real effort to explain the effect Tool's music has on me would be folly. Just like any real effort to explain the effect cocaine has on the guy who asked me to help him find some would be folly.
So then, Tool's music is my cocaine?
Well, sort of, but that's not really why I thought of Tool when the subject came up.
I desperately want the world to be a beautiful place. It isn't. This deficiency troubles me. That quandary is, of course, not the only thing that troubles my brain. My mind works constantly, which means I'm almost always thinking about something. The sheer amount of thinking I do -- more than any intelligence I have -- leads to the overanalysis of almost everything in my life. But more importantly, it leads to other thinking. Thinking about questions like: Why are we blessed with these brains of ours if we can't use them correctly? Brains that require dumbing down, whether through cocaine, alcohol or long-winded treatises on the merits of a rock band.
When I listen to Tool's music, it feels like they've had the same thoughts I have. It seems like the members of Tool would have the conversation I wanted to have with the cokehound, but didn't. They would have lamented the fact that any of us ever need to think less. They wouldn't have refused to help, but they might have asked the guy why he needed the drug in the first place.
I don't write that to make Tool sound anti-drug or anti-rock 'n' roll. I have a hunch that the band has done its share of partying. I write the above because our lives are tough, even if only because we make them that way. It's nice to know other people are out there -- whether they're in rock bands like Tool or Local H or they work at the local steel mill -- who think the same way we do.
And that's not all
Thanks for allowing me to nerd out on my favorite band. I should note that other acts were, in fact, allowed to play Saturday. Because I'm writing this at 3:30 in the morning, a whirlwind summary:
I started my day with aches in my knees that were brought on by the 17,738 miles I walked Friday. Fortunately, the first band I saw, Dirty Sweet, made me forget about the abuse I had put my body through. They were loud, sweaty and stinky (or so they looked), and all at 12:30. They reminded me of a proto-Kings of Leon.
Next on my personal schedule was Miike Snow, which is a band, not a person. And which is supposed to have two I's. I knew nothing of Miike Snow before seeing them. I was pleasantly surprised by the band's ability to meld six instruments into late-song frenzies each time they got going.
After a column I wrote that bashed hip-hop as a genre, I received several pleas on behalf of the rap group Atmosphere. Those folks were right: He/they is/are pretty great. Although I should mention that I was distracted by the aforementioned woman, who was, without question, using me to make the guy she was with jealous. But I'll take the self-esteem boosts any way I can get them.
Then the daytime artist I'd been anticipating the most: Santigold. I was worried that my expectations would be too high but, once again, my concerns were misplaced. Santigold was phenomenal. During her set, I decided she's like a female Mick Jagger: all soul, swagger, and personality.
As a warm-up to Tool, I chose Lykke Li, the Swedish electro/songwriting/pop vixen whose album "Youth Novel" helped me through a lonely Christmas Day in Spain this year. It was a questionable decision; TV on the Radio was playing opposite. But I've seen TVOTR three times and don't know how many chances I'll have to get Lykke Li to fall in love with me. My plan was unsuccessful; it's hard to impress a tiny Swede from 300 feet. But I fell hard as soon as I saw her on stage. Her presence was extraordinary, even if her live show fell somewhat flat. When she brought the lead singer of Miike Snow on for a cover of Kings of Leon's "Knocked Up," I couldn't help thinking that Lykke Li has a little of Stevie Nicks' DNA in her body. Unfortunately, her backing band isn't exactly Fleetwood Mac.
It was a great day at the rock festival. I sweated, I danced and I talked to strangers. I saw rappers, rockers and electronic gurus. I stood in line for water, lamented the demise of the $8 tallboy and ate bad food.
And now, if you'll excuse me, I'm going to rest up, so I can do all of the same later today.
Paul Shirley has played for 13 pro basketball teams, including three NBA teams: the Chicago Bulls, Atlanta Hawks and Phoenix Suns. His book "Can I Keep My Jersey?" -- which is available in paperback -- can be found here. He can be found at Twitter (Twitter.com/paulthenshirley) and you can e-mail him here.