Hayden at the Knitting Factory
September 13, 2004, New York
“The Internet is dead. It’s over,” a gray-haired writer for New York’s Daily News informed me as we sat on the Knitting Factory floor waiting for Hayden to start playing. “It was great for five years, but then it imploded. Now it’s just spoiled 23-year-olds talking to each other.”
I disagreed. “I think there’s still some good writing on the web. Blogs are an interesting world.”
“Blogs!” he exploded. “A blogger is like the pathetic loner guy at the bus station in 1933.”
Damn, New Yorkers are opinionated. But I liked the bus station line. The guy was a classic old-timer, conversational but crusty. I wondered what he was doing at a Hayden show.
“I interviewed George Pataki on Monday,” he offered by way of contrast. “Most of these Internet people – they wouldn’t have a clue. All the good Internet writers jumped ship and went to print years ago.”
Could you be a little biased? I thought, sipping my wine. I waited for Hayden’s warm, melancholy crooning to start soothing me.
“Are you a Hayden fan?”
“Yeah,” he said, a smile lighting his somber face. “I used to be a rock critic. I got turned on to Hayden with the first record. Now we’ll see what he’s up to.”
I wondered too. Canadian singer-songwriter Hayden shot to fame with 1995’s Everything I Long For, and was soon loaded with attention and expectations for his moody hits like “Girl of My Dreams,” which transcended the melancholy with irresistible hooks. But then he seemed to lose steam. He disappeared into seclusion after his 1998 release, The Closer I Get, reportedly averse to the pressures of fame. He resurfaced in 2003 with the acclaimed Skyscraper National Park. Now he’s touring in support of Elk Lake Serenade, a satisfying collection of simple, irresistible melodies accompanied by wistful, often elegiac lyrics.
A great Hayden song is a mixture of straightforward sincerity, catchy riffs and lyrics that create brief snapshots of characters immersed in resignation and loneliness. He’s not one of indie rock’s great poets, but his simplicity works in his favor. If he’s inclined to themes of loss, he also imbues his music with affirmation and hope. The warm, accepting underpinning, along with his gift for melody, may account for his passionately devoted following.
The crowd at the Knitting Factory is exceptionally quiet and respectful. Hayden himself is so quiet you don’t even realize he’s onstage until the keyboard player (him, it turns out) starts singing the sad, lovely “Wide Eyes” (which has been reducing me to tears around town for a few weeks) from his new album. Hayden sings like he just woke up and is recalling the words from a dream. He probes into the lonely melody with a brooding, dark-brown alto, and the effect is warm and intimate, like a good friend has put his arm around you in a hunting lodge.
Hayden’s gift for catchy riffs is on display all night. Take the irresistible “Home by Saturday” (mp3). “You’re the first thing I’ll be thinkin, when I’m takin off and landin” he sings to its simple, driving melody. His slurry, blurry delivery perfectly matches the song’s mood of wistful celebration.
The show continues at this high pitch. Backed by his openers, the Elk Lake Serenaders, Hayden and band sound tuneful and commanding. But what’s most noticeable is how much Hayden has matured, both as performer and personality. When I saw him at the Knitting Factory two years ago, his fans’ reverential silence and his own bashfulness made for an almost claustrophobically quiet evening. Now he seems at ease with his shyness, using it as a schtick almost. He entertains the crowd with self-deprecating stories between songs, and introduces numbers with deadpan humor, like: “This is probably the most important song that mentions New York City.”
The crowd was in the palm of his hand, and he seemed to appreciate it, exclaiming at one point, “This is the best Monday night ever!” and then laughing at his own goofiness. I looked to see how the Daily News guy was enjoying this new Hayden. He was in the middle of the crowd, his face lit from the stage, grooving away. It made me happy to see him liking something.
I didn’t recognize all the songs, so I tapped the shoulder of a guy in front of me who was nodding in a way that suggested he knew a lot of them. He and his girlfriend asked me who I wrote for and I told them, and the guy said he was a writer for Pitchfork. So here we were, the Internet generation. We shared a moment relating to the semi-coincidence and chatted, a few feet away from someone who hated everything we stood for.
A bit later, Hayden introduced a song by warning us there was nothing happy in it. Reacting to the quiet room plus the idea that an extra-sad Hayden song was going to be trouble, I said “Uh oh!” in a loud voice. The Pitchfork guy glanced at me and huddled protectively around his girlfriend. I perceived we weren’t going to have more of a moment and I wasn’t going to get a chance to drop Johnny Loftus’s name. Cyberspace is a lonely world.
I returned to solitary enjoyment of the show. It was great. Hayden played most of Elk Lake Serenade and a lot of other songs, and he had the genius to finish up the set with the brilliant “Trees Lounge” from the movie of the same name. This song is classic Hayden: atonal overtones introduce a subtle rocking beat, and his mumbly voice sings a plaint of unrequited love: “If I win I get to, take you home and if you, will you go home with me?”
The song’s driving intensity and infectious melody are undercut by the defeated lyrics: “Do things that I fear, I would never do, …feeling worse and worse…” Somehow it manages to be a completely exhilarating ode to dejection. The stoked audience demands encore after encore, and Hayden exuberantly complies. He’s not disappearing this time.
Hayden MP3s available via Badman Records.