The HMV Forum is, from what I can tell, in absolutely-middle-of-nowhere London. This shabby little concert hall lives in an area called Kentish Town, which our tour manager later assured me it was a very posh neighborhood — to hear him tell it, so was most of London — but I didn't see it. People live there, sure; mostly, though, the area I saw was little more than a sad stretch of cracked pavement, bars and convenience stores that sell alcohol.
A few men stood on the sidewalk near the Tube station, mumbling on about the cheap tickets they had to that night's show — like it was against the law to speak clearly or audibly — and occasionally, a harried businessman weaved through the bar crowds, hefting a messenger bag, rushing to get home.
Otherwise, all the activity in the neighborhood centered on a pub called the Venue. Which was teeming with revelers decked out in vintage tees and skinny jeans — some things are universal. I went in, pushed my way through the crowd and ordered a glass of wine; the bartender poured the contents of a tiny plastic bottle into a glass and slid it across the bar. I counted out pound coins and change; I knew I was paying too much for something that wouldn't taste quite right.
Before I could put my wallet away, another bartender accidentally dipped his pinky into my glass while reaching used glasses on the bar. He looked me in the eye before wandering away to serve someone else.
I drank more than usual while I was away, and ate a lot less. The alcohol I could trust. The food, not so much. Though it was tempting to attempt to survive on Thai sweet chili crisps and Magnum ice cream bars.
Outside the bar, I stood mute on the sidewalk, watching other concertgoers spill onto the sidewalk together with their beer, chatting animatedly. This wasn't like the William Fitzsimmons concert I went to in Paris. There, I didn't mind being alone; I was grateful to sit in silence after several embarrassing attempts at conversation with Francophones. There, I watched with curiosity and felt like the brave American who'd ventured out on my own. Here, I was just another American tourist in London. I could understand what everyone was saying and was simply too afraid to walk up and start talking with them. I don't think the I'm-charmed-by-your-acccent phenomenon works both ways.
So I finished my awful wine, set the glass by the light pole, next to stacks of empty pint glasses, and wandered to the box office. A surly Goth girl rolled her eyes and handed me my ticket after yelling at me for my surname about five times. I just. Didn't. Understand. (Even after getting a lesson from the hotel doorman in Scotland on which name was, in fact, my surname.) Why can't you people just use the same words as the rest of us?!
I made this pilgrimage and forced down that Sauvignon swill because I'd managed to score tickets at the last minute to see Jónsi, Sigur Rós' lead singer, perform.
Sigur Rós' albums and Jónsi's new release, Go, are among the few I own where I can't understand a word of what's being sung; the lyrics, when there are any, are either in Icelandic; "Hopelandic," a made-up phonetic language Jónsi concocted; or garbled, woozy English. And I love them despite that. Possibly because of it. The music is magical, like pure joy and heartbreak translated into black dots and lines on a page.
I missed the opening act while I was drinking my terrible wine, and I saw few empty spaces as my eyes adjusted to the musty darkness of the auditorium. I climbed the steps to the general-admission, standing-room-only area and leaned against a tiny corner of the balcony. The temperature in the room rose with every step I took, with every new person who entered the room. With no iPhone to check, no more drink to sip, I was surrounded by strangers and prickled again with loneliness.
But eventually, the lights went down, plunging us all into darkness and leaving us suddenly alone with the music. Jónsi acknowledged the audience once, in trembling English, halfway through the concert.
No one sang along — no one knew the words.
The crowd swayed silently, wide-eyed, and roared with applause in adoration of the brave, slight man on stage at the end of each song.
How do you explain magic to someone who didn't see it firsthand?
For his encore, Jónsi emerged wearing a bright, feathered headdress. His last song, rambling and wailing, ended in a deafening storm of drums and feedback and beauty and desperation. He dropped the microphone and walked off stage, spent.
We knew the feeling. All together, we were alone with the music, a mass of little black lines and dots in the darkness that had diffused into pure joy and heartbreak.
And that room in middle-of-nowhere Kentish Town was, briefly, the center of the universe.