By Maria Schurr
I knew that someday I was gonna see Manic Street Preachers perform The Holy Bible, and I knew before I saw it, two things would happen to me. That, number one: I would regret the entire thing. And number two: I would want to see it all over again.
Manic Street Preachers performing The Holy Bible was not just any “long established band performs a classic album” sort of show. Firstly, listening to the songs in your room on your own can be a scarring experience enough; hearing such raw nihilism and JG Ballard stating he’d like to rub the human face in its own vomit in the setting of Webster Hall was an exercise in masochism, in some respects. Also, how can you engage in the concert-going standards of dancing, tapping your toes to the beat, and kicking back with a drink during graphic chronicles of anorexia and songs about the Holocaust? Seeing The Holy Bible live was something of an endurance test, but then again I’m a very sensitive person...
A sensitive person who, upon first hearing The Holy Bible, listened to nothing else for basically a whole year. I don’t know how I lived through that year without emerging as an even more warped and misanthropic person than I already am, but somehow I found some light in this dire edict on humanity’s accountability in every bad thing that’s ever happened. It’s a well worn cliche to say an album changed your life, but The Holy Bible fully did. The album taught me to think outside of the customary life trajectory (get a job, get a family, and settle down in suburbia) and use knowledge as a raft to a more fulfilling life. It’s a bit overdramatic, but if I had never heard The Holy Bible, I would probably never have escaped small town Pennsylvania and my adolescence as a very sad, very lonely person would’ve carried over into adulthood in worse ways (and yeah, it’s very self-centered to interpret the album in this way, but find those traces of light where you can).
I stopped listening to The Holy Bible when I heard The Drift by Scott Walker, an album that -- although not as nihilistic -- is far more terrifying and strange. My life was also in flux -- sometimes very dark, other times something close to what I wanted it to be -- and I didn’t need to be reminded of my Manics devotion in either mood. When the US portion of the Holy Bible tour was announced, I wasn’t even sure if I wanted to go. I had reached a point where I was pretty pleased with my life and sort of embarrassed by my Manics phase. Thanks to one of my editors being a Manics diehard, I entered into the spirit of and even got to interview frontman James Dean Bradfield. I’ve been listening to the album again and, although not nearly as life-alteringly amazing as that first time, I think album opener “Yes” is still an astonishing song that continues to punch me in the heart every time I hear it. In the days leading up to the show, I even relived the giddiness of going to a gig as a teen and seeing your idols in the flesh for the first time (not that the Manics are my idols and most idol-worthy Manic Richey Edwards is presumed dead, but still). This was really happening and it was going to be something else.
Then the evening came and a signal problem on the L train made me miss “Yes” -- the absolute, #1 song I had to hear -- and “Ifwhiteamericatoldthetruthforonedayitsworldwouldfallapart”, which, while not an all out favorite, would have been one of the more “fun”(?) songs to take in. I raced into Webster Hall right before “Of Walking Abortion” and immediately everything was too much for me to take. From the boy in full on sailor regalia I could see from the corner of my eye to a whole room of people shouting “we all are of walking abortions,” it was too surreal, too much like some weird fantasy I never knew I harbored. I stood completely still and cried. A thousand or so people were copping to their worthlessness (knowingly or otherwise) while also quoting a radically feminist diatribe (again knowingly or otherwise). Over a thousand people championing emotions and thoughts that weren’t watered down for easier consumption, knowingly or otherwise. Where did these people come from? It was a beautiful thing to be amid, and for once it felt as though the world had not totally succumbed to idiocracy and heightened self-importance.
After that initial onslaught of feelings, the night coalesced a little, with the only weird sight being people trying to dance to “Archives of Pain,” a song about capital punishment. Then we arrived at “4st 7lbs” and things got really awkward. First of all, this song still seems difficult for the Manics themselves to perform, as witnessing a lifelong friend -- Edwards -- suffering from anorexia probably dredges up zero happy memories. Nicky Wire, who sang along to most of the album as he played the bass and jumped around, definitely was not singing along to that one. It’s a pretty white-knuckled experience to listen to the song in private, so being among people who are trying to move, trying to do something to get through it and out to the other side for, oh, a song about the Holocaust, felt voyeuristic to an uncomfortable degree (and just a cursory listen to this song will probably make you feel that way, anyway). It was exactly harrowing experience I anticipated and it was great.
Up to this point, I had been waiting for someone in the crowd to do something unforgivably inappropriate, and that happened during “Mausoleum.” Just like that Seinfeld episode where Jerry and his girlfriend make out while watching Schindler’s List, I turned my head to the balcony, saw a young couple who were dispassionately observing the Manics slowly turn their attention to one another and do some romantic end-of-a-date-night kissing. This gesture made the rest of the show a lot less intense for me, and I eventually came around to singing along to “Die in the Summertime,” which is one of the best songs on the album for me, due in part to its sheer subversion of the anthemic chorus.
“The Intense Humming of Evil,” which is maybe the least guaranteed for easy listening on the album, felt like the victory of the night. This industrial-tinged meditation on The Holocaust (and, possibly, Holocaust denialism) probably creates the deadliest mood, musically, and having that mood reassembled in a live setting made all the air in the venue turn cold. The moment felt both otherworldly and like the tragedy of reality was meeting us head on. It was an encapsulation of the night up to that point, uncomfortably magnified.
It would have been pretty devastating if the night had ended right there, but of course The Holy Bible ends with the slightly lighter “PCP” and, since the Manics never play here, an addendum of “the hits.” Because so many Manics songs are hit or miss for me nowadays, I felt ambivalent about this portion of the show, even when the band broke out the still golden “Motorcycle Emptiness.”
But then the show ended on “A Design for Life” and for one reason or another I started crying again. It was probably for a silly reason like being mad I had missed the beginning of the show and the disbelief that it was over, but it was pretty emotionally overwhelming to connect the dots from this album inspiring me to acting on that inspiration to experiencing The Holy Bible communally. I’ve known for a long time that I’ll never experience another album in the same way as I’ve experienced The Holy Bible, and now I know I’ll probably never experience a gig in the same way ever again. Somehow, I’m all right with that.