"i think i saw someone die last night," says thom yorke, patting his cropped hair, still damp from the morning's early shower. "we drove by and saw this guy laying on the sidewalk with blood all over his face and no one doing anything. we stopped the car and called the paramedics... but i don't know what happened to the guy." the singer falls silent for a few moments, as if pondering the fact that it could have easily been him lying on the cold, lonely manhatten concrete. "this city's fuckin' weird," he finally says.
radiohead is in new york city to play the second tibetan freedom concert, and its five members are dead tired. they've been doing press and gigs in europe for the last few weeks, while putting the finishing touches on their new album, ok computer. the guys, all still sufficiently hungover from last night's downtown loft party, flit around the too-cool lobby of the paramount hotel patiently waiting for their van to arrive. it seems like the entire music industry is staying there: marilyn manson cruises by with a female version of himself; beck thuds by in a wide-brimmed cowboy hat and ostric boots, tipping his hat like a true texan before disappearing into the waiting arms of the purple, "star trek"-esque elevator; courtney love whisks by, blonde and amply pale; various other band types, not at first recognizable (most of them probably rhythm sections for sort of popular alternative bands) sit nonchalantly in the palms of brightly decorated chairs blowing european smoke rings and crossing and un-crossing their spindly, leather-clad legs. i wonder what's going through thom's groggy yet mercurial mind as the scene unfolds around him...
"i think it's great that so many bands are playing the festival," thom says. "we've tended to stay away from alot of the political stuff, but i feel the tibet cause is really important, because everyone knows what the chinese are doing, but no one will just stand up and say, 'you must stop.' all the governments have their hands tied by the fuckin' corporations. but musicians..." thom takes a long sip of his water and asks for another bottle, "we can give those corporations a big 'fuck you!'" and then the van arrives, and the entire radiohead entourage slips stealthily out the door.
gliding through the streets of manhatten, and then through the outskirts of harlem, the guys shoot pensive glances among themselves. thom, however, tells me about his stumbling upon buddhism and tibetan culture.
"buddhism was really everything that was missing from my life," he says. "i read the book 'the tibetan book of living and dying' by sogyal rinpoche, and it fuckin' blew my mind. i grew up with a very normal church-going view of spirituality, and this book unlocked a whole new world for me."
"yeah, that book fucked me up, too," i tell him. "though i did get to meet the dalai lama a few days ago."
thom's eyes widen, looking whiter than they have all day. he leans forward.
"what did he say to you?"
"well...he said that enlightenment is not something that you pick off a tree like an apple, but something that is inside you and you have to dive in and get it. then he cracked a few jokes in tibetan."
"fuckin' cool," he declares. "i've begun to meditate - you know, to just empty my mind of all the shit and let it fill up again like a well, a well full of new thoughts and views of the world. that's why i wanted to play the festival, because i feel like the tibetans' view of life can change the world...it's definately affected me."
hearing this, the usually laconic jonny greenwood turns around. "one of the reasons we have shied away from doing alot of these festival things is that..." he says, pausing to take an oscar wilde-esque drag off his cigarette, "...when you do this kind of thing, everybody expects you to know three times as much about it as anyone else. that does my head in."
finally pulling into the stadium's parking lot, the men of radiohead - one of the few bands in line for the coveted "next big thing" title - slink their way through the rust-coloured dust and into the press tent.
for the past year, radiohead has capriciously hauled around a mobile recording studio, plunking down and playing anywhere they damn well please. the city. the country. another country. a portable studio. it makes perfect sense. why not, in this age of run-away technology, make the lab come to you? they would tour and record, take a small holiday, and then tour and record some more. it definately beat the monotony of a conventional studio diet of writing a few songs, watching a little tv, eating some chinese, writing some more songs.
the band's previous album, the bends, which was still slowly climbing the charts as they began recording ok computer, proved to be a surprising but wholly welcomed inspiration. its old-fashioned, langorous ascension, and wide critical acclaim gave the band lots of new-found confidence as they toted their studio around, diving into the proverbial third album blues. but, in radiohead's case, there were no blues, only excitement and anticipation.
"when we started making ok computer," thom says, "we felt such a sense of confidence because all these people were coming up to us in clubs and on the street saying, 'that bends is a great fuckin' album! i just got it and, wow - it's great!' all of a sudden we weren't worried about the consequences of our actions...we were free and it felt great."
the band took that freedom, and the few songs they had worked up on the mobile unit, and retired to canned applause, a charming apple shed studio in a secluded english valley. other sessions took place at the stately st. catherine's court, a manor owned by actress jane seymour, just outside of bath.
"the house was just fuckin' great..." jonny says, before turning away as if he didn't say anything. i patiently wait for him to continue, but he doesn't. thom does, though, telling me that the band, with their new found aplomb, decided to produce the album themselves, with the help of mate nigel goodrich. so they holed themselves up in the old manor, sleeping, eating and recording at their own pace - and in perfect isolation.
"after a few days, i think it was the fourth, actually," thom says, barely above a whisper, "we began to really feel like we had a license this time around. we were getting back to that spontaneous, four track mentality that we had in the beginning. it was funny, we'd say to nigel, 'can we go record in the garden?' and he'd say 'no!' and then i would say 'can i do vocals in the chimney?' and he would look at me and say, 'no!' he was really like a vague parental figure steering us in the right direction."
eventually, though, the songs started to emerge. the spectral, chilling "no surprises" set the tone for the album: spiritual yet modern. then came the leisurely, dreamy melancholy of "the tourist," a song about seeing the world in ten minutes, yet missing everything; and then the groove-driven "subterranean homesick alien." for some songs, the band would play in the ballroom, with nigel recording in the library, and thom doing vocals in the chilly stone entrance way.
"that was eerie," thom wistfully remembers. the song was 'exit music', which we did for the romeo + juliet soundtrack...it's a real personal song."
prophetic words for a man who oozes sensitivity, both in his demeanor and his songs. who could ever forget the first time they heard "creep" - that scream...those simple yet stinging lyrics...simply a great pop song, whether radio tried to kill it or not. and while ok computer may not have such a poignant, deep-felt song on it, it does have its share of blood and guts. below all the loops and sampling and electronic frosting that radiohead is so damn good at, there's a current of dark spirituality, a crossroad littered with conversations with the devil and the man. it's not what you'd call an easy listen, but it is easy to listen to.
"recording in that shed, with all of us there," thom explains, "really brought up alot of stuff, you know, stuff that we'd been through. when you take alot - and pop stars do take alot - you really want to give something back...that whole idea really revealed itself to me. we wanted to make that kind of album."
which takes us back to the concert. as radiohead takes one of the two side-by-side stages, the crowd surges toward it like a wave crashing on a beach. the first notes of "fake plastic trees" trickle through the stadium, and though it's barely lunch time, cigarette lighters begin to flicker through the dust of the field. the song ebbs and flows, its tempo going from delicate to raging with a swipe of the guitar and a visceral scream. the crowd watches silently, connected like an invisible leash to the stage, and even a pair of tibetan monks, perhaps in their early 30's, can't help but sway back and forth in their sandals and red and yellow robes. but yorke stands still, singing his skinny ass off: "but i can't help the feeling/ i could blow through the ceiling/ if i just turn and run/ and it wears me out/ it wears me out..."