I’m not the first and won’t be the last to say this: it’s different, and usually better, seeing an artist on stage than watching that same person on screen. This week, I was up close and personal with two virtuoso performers, Sufjan Stevens and Salman Rushdie, on back-to-back nights.
Stevens took the stage shrouded in fog and bathed in orange light. Wearing all black, he and his band were nondescript, standing in front of a screen with projected images from his childhood. Pictures and old film of handsome people, babies, the beach, and birthday parties flickered behind the musicians as they played. His most recent album, Carrie & Lowell, is an homage to his mother and step-father, and his new songs provide intensely melancholy anecdotes and meanderings about childhood, family, grief, and loneliness. Moved by the haunting lyrics and unique sound, I sat motionless, watching and listening. When he sang how he “should have known better,” that “nothing can be changed,” and that he “should have wrote a letter,” I had to close my eyes.
The next night, Sir Salman Rushdie took to a very different, brightly-lit university stage wearing a blue blazer and khaki pants. He sat across from Mike Collins, host of a local NPR radio show, and cheerfully answered questions about his life as a writer and his view of the world today. Although he said that our world today is “demented,” he undercut his stated pessimism by referencing the brilliant, humane work of Shakespeare, Dickens, and even Jimmy Fallon. He said that “we are the storytelling animal” and that by telling stories, we create and define ourselves and the world. I loved his message as much as I have loved many of his books.
It was a special thrill to hear Rushdie’s accented voice and to see him — well, so alive. After years of hiding from assassins, he sat calmly with an amused expression on his face and spoke directly to a transfixed audience just as Stevens had sung his heart out to the crowd the night before. Being near these two artists reminded me of the power of moments of intersection with greatness, in person, without anything mediating or filtering that experience.