by Marcelo Quarantotto
I surprised myself. I arrived at D.C.’s 9:30 Club with a good 45 minutes or so to spare before seeing my first show (ever) at the “hallowed” venue.
I’d been late to so many appointments and events recently. In the days preceding Helado Negro’s May 5, 2022 performance, my date to the event backed out. We’d just decided to disband a nearly six-year domestic and romantic partnership, and in doing so figure out a healthier manner of relating (while under less strenuous circumstances).
Our separation came out of a need to heal unhealthy patterns both within and between us — a path imbued with pain, much like when healing from a physical surgery. They felt there were too many emotional stirrings in the air that could preclude either of us fully enjoying the concert. I thanked them for being honest.
No friends local to me were able to come. One who lives within miles of the venue had said a few days earlier that they would meet me at the show. We texted to confirm.
I messaged them after I found a place the park. They said they would be getting there soon and asked about food options in and around the club.
With the time between each of our arrivals, I walk to-and-from my car to disencumber the engorged pockets of my acid wash jorts of anything unnecessary. Nail polish. Rolling papers. The razor blade I use for work. Paperback book. Sunglasses (x2).
I speak to the door and ticketing staff. Each seems to be in genuinely high spirits, as if excited to be there themselves. The person behind the merchandise table sells me a pair of 9:30-branded Earpeace music earplugs.
I stand from the highest balcony to eat vegan tacos from their short-order kitchen. I meander (masked) through all areas accessible with general admission, scan my eyes along the Hall of Records (a chronological archive of the touring album of every headlining act since the venue opened on May 31, 1980, rows and rows of records enshrine their performances under lock-and-key), poke my head into the basement bar, crack a dad joke to the bartender by asking if they knew if the place ever had live music. ...
Well, I’ve finally done it.
I imagine the staff often witness wild-haired people like me walking into the space for the first time in their mid-to-late 30s (or later): wide-eyed and goofy-grinned, shed of all coy pretensions by passing through the dark corridors emblazoned with the 9:30 logo while knowing that so many iconic moments in recent music history happened under this same banner, if not in this very building.
I’d become like those people at a sports museum, war memorial, Olive Garden, or church that I’ve never quite understood. The folks that just seem so into it, without that shrewd spark that says “yeah ok I know we all know there’s a level of bullshit here.”Instead, they gleam the true believer’s gleam.
I am a public display of unbridled enthusiasm.
It’s the same expression carried by anyone enthusiastically entering a Cracker Barrel — eager to browse the gift shop, banter with the waitress, and play that solitaire game with the golf tees and little, wooden, triangle pegboard.
People who gawk at every artifact with a fastidious relish that doesn’t diminish, stagnate, nor escalate, pouring forth like an all-the-way-open faucet into its gaping sink.
The difference between the aforementioned locations and the 9:30 Club for me, though, is that unlike a static hall of fame and so-called glory where poignant moments are memorialized through artifact and artifice, the 9:30 Club isn’t just “about” the thing, but is the thing itself, where one goes not only to harken back to something that happened but to be part of the experience as it still is happening.
I’ve been told by former strangers that I can come off as aloof or “too cool” to the unfamiliar eye. What’s true(r) for me is a fear of self-expression that roots back to pre- and perinatal wounds, manifesting as a reserved exterior but a soft, open interior that wishes for more time without its shell.
Shells make it harder to dance. The shell acts as both bullshit detector and deflector. If I can’t feel “it," I can’t dance to it.
Sometimes the shell in play is a genuine lack of connection with the song, artist, or my overall environment.
Sometimes I feel so connected to myself that I have no shell and the music doesn’t matter.
Other times, I feel so connected to the music that any perceivable shell doesn’t matter.
For me, Roberto Lange (the man behind the Helado Negro moniker), makes music that melts the shell. I can be experiencing a sweltering shroud of painful thoughts, and he has songs that when played over some dirty dishes can crack through whatever emotional tension is encasing my body, and to help me transpose my awareness into a calmer — if not enthusiastic — more tangible sense of self.
And by that I mean a sense of self that is embodied in the present moment, accepting of what has happened, what is possibly happening, and not really knowing what will happen; still accepting that one isn’t apart from any of those happenings but fundamentally a part of all of them happening; and yet ill-defined by any one part's happening — all the while alongside other selves taking apart their own happening in tandem
It’s hard for me not to dance, feeling that sense of the tangible self — a wave yet also an ocean.
In other situations where I feel less connected (like at a church or museum or facsimile restaurant), I often contract.
I hold my energies and expression against myself, which can be not-so-good as in “holding it against myself” in a denigrating way, or it can be good, like “holding it against myself” in a self-soothing embrace.
But nothing is quite as good as feeling like you’re held in a basin broad and open enough to carry the fullness of your articulation but clear and regulated enough to let it pass through without blockage and subsequent overstimulation.
While I had envisioned the concert being somewhat packed full of others twirling with similarly balanced ratios of abandon and intention, the crowd was fairly still save for some head bobbing and small pockets of dancing. I was content to sing and dance along to my own whim.
The two people on either side of me also flailed their own flails. One of which was the dear friend I knew would be at the show, and the other person I introduced myself to after we (quite literally) rubbed elbows on the dance floor and this electric spark of resonance at once filled me with warmth and temperance.
At the very least, I knew we had similar taste.
What I appreciate most in Roberto Lange's music is how it exists as the very thing it encourages — preserving and sharing one’s “private energy” with authenticity.
“Private energy meant how to deal with all this darkness. And how seeing other people dealing with it in different ways and it’s kind of like configuring yourself without feeling like I have to do this because this is what everyone else is doing. You know it’s really about finding and protecting the thing that you have that can be […] helpful for you and for other people and not just feel like it needs to be this thing to just throw out there. You know it’s gotta be […] not strategic but just thoughtful.
“[… T]hese songs are about identity and protecting your identity and also protecting the goodness that you can put out there — positive things you can try to do to help yourself and help others."
What I knew I could do best for myself in that moment was to not lean into any romantic “what ifs” about the past or future with any one person other than myself, not even with my recently separated partner.
I need to clean and redress my own wounds and the harmful stories I repeat about myself to myself.
I need to take time in noticing and addressing toxic reaction patterns, curiously diving into what happens when I trust my deeper intuitions and develop more loving response reflexes.
I wish to remain open to authentic connection but not to any extent that would jeopardize mine or a friend’s connection to their sense of “self."
I need to take time to rest and revitalize myself before I have enough to give to others while still leaving enough time and space for loving myself. (The last time I was truly single was 2003.)
I want to be more intentional in how I express myself, internally, artistically and interpersonally. Create better habits. Create better in general. Focus the time I have with my kids more acutely on my kids.
This is all flashing through my brain alongside, “Wow, they're really cute,” and the flow of Lange’s lyrics crooning from my own mouth:
“Fading true / I met you / Walk my mind / Terrible / Loving whole / I’m just laughing[.] / Because I feel you / In my mind / All the time / Because I see you / In my hands / Everyday[.] / You got me running / Running (x7) / Just like you[.]"
It can be easy to run away from one’s self and into whatever story we think someone else wants us to be living, an obsession, an addiction, our fears, distractions, relationships but for me seeing a great live show (such as the one Helado Negro put on at the 9:30 Club), witnessing someone truly believe in themselves and the good their efforts can bring to the world, calibrates me back into a better arrangement with my own private energy.
It reminds me of who I am, or who I am am-ing (aiming?) myself to be. Seeing it done gives me an example of it being done, in a way that is unique to the doer.
(There’s a tattoo on my chest that says “peace” in Hebrew, Arabic, and English. How the characters are arranged in blue, green, and red reminds some discerning eyes of the Mountain Dew logo. … Fuck it — I’ll do “the do.”)
My friends and I thanked Roberto for the performance and for being himself, took the obligatory pictures, bought some merch, and split off into our own directions with the intention to meet again, sometime — when we do.