Every June, as the Montreal International Jazz Festival approaches, I find myself thinking about Pat Metheny. I’m not a fan. It has nothing to do with Metheny’s immeasurable talent and skills; I just don’t care very much about his medium: jazz guitar.
Back in 1989 I had not even heard of Pat Metheny until it was announced that he’d be headlining the festival’s big open-air free megashow. Oh, the city lit up and was abuzz with Pat Metheny! Posters everywhere, articles in all the cultural tabloids and so on. Not a beer was raised in any bar before someone said “are you going to see Pat Metheny?” Not for weeks did friends and acquaintances meet on the street without beginning their salutations with “are you going to see Pat Metheny?”
It was infectious. Overnight, half the city became rabid Pat Metheny fans despite the fact that many people had never heard his music. The sad truth was that – hardcore jazz geeks notwithstanding – most people knew nothing about Pat Metheny other than:
- He played guitar.
- He had crazy rock-star hair.
- He looked badass.
Looks badass from here.
Thus began the drinking of Kool-Aid and the parade of bullshit. By “bullshit” I mean more than the conventional lies and stupidity that we endure daily; I mean a fog of groupthink and blind optimism resulting in a city-wide mass hallucination.
The more people talked about the upcoming show, the more the fog spread and the more people believed they were about to experience the most mind-blowing musical experience of all time. This was long before YouTube and Wikipedia, so we had nothing to go by except those badass pictures and the hype. Oh, the hype!
Then it was show time. The venue was Ave. McGill-College, with the stage set up near rue Ste-Catherine. 100,000 people clogged the avenue, all the way up to Sherbrooke street and beyond.
It was still daylight when the show began. Having arrived a bit late, my friends and I found some space at the back and settled in for a listen. And it was a listen, since there was nothing to see. The stage was far away and there were no video screens. If I stood up and squinted, I could see a crazy-haired guy way, way over there on the stage with his back to the audience, pondering his six-string as he plucked out mild ditties that sounded like the theme music for daytime talk shows.
On and on it went. A fuzzy-haired guy plinking dork music two football fields away. This wasn’t growling and moaning blues guitar as many people probably thought it would be; it was pure jazz guitar. It sounded like something you’d listen to in the den of your mid-century modern in 1964, while wearing slippers and smoking a pipe.
Meanwhile, the audience – at least in the back where we were – barely paid attention. People were sitting on the ground, smoking and chatting. Some were reading. At one point I noticed that the band had taken a break and the filler music didn’t sound any different. I left before it was over.
For the next few days people cautiously remarked on how the show was “awesome” and “amazing,” the way you’d describe some foreign folk dance that you didn’t understand. After about a week no one I knew ever mentioned it again.
Coda: this malformed memoir should not be seen as a criticism of Pat Metheny and his music. As I said in the beginning, it’s just not to my taste. Rather, this is a commentary on the nature of megashows, the malleability of groups, and the nature of bullshit as the cement that holds many aspects of our society together. There are a few videos from the show on YouTube (this one is typical, this one gives you a sense of the venue, and this one might even wake you up), and in them you can see that the crowd — at least the ones up front — were clearly enjoying the show. But those are probably the hardcore jazz geeks. It’s my opinion that the 80,000 people behind them had no idea what was going on and were probably wondering when the Muzak was going to stop so the show could begin.