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Why 'Marquee Moon' Is the Best Afterparty Song Ever

Get the post-4AM YouTube song selection wrong and you'll become the after-hours Oppenheimer: skeletal reaper, destroyer of vibes.
April 15, 2016, 6:00pm

Afterparties always seem like such a great idea at the time. Everyone milling about on the sidewalk after being unceremoniously ushered out of the bar, traffic in the street growing thinner. To those who are still standing at this time, news of an afterparty is like a death sentence commuted on the walk to the chamber. The next few hours will be heady. Time, in the traditional sense, won't exist. The next morning everyone will pray for death, but now is the time stories that will be told for years are born and bonds that feel unbreakable are made between strangers who will never see one another again. This column is about the things that happen during those special hours.

You're standing in the narrow booze aisle at the bodega: a mass of sweat and grim focus. It's 4:37 AM. Your jaw in electric communion with your optic nerve; your tongue reacquainting itself with the enamel on your molars. You've been standing there, staring at the multicolored jumble of cans and bottles for… how long now? Ten minutes? Five? Half an hour? Fuck alone knows. It's starting to get light outside, but that doesn't matter. It's always fluorescent in here. But the light—artificial or otherwise—isn't your primary concern. You've got a big responsibility to fulfill, don't you, Mr. Benevolent Boozerun?

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You slap a 12 pack down on the counter and decide that you might as well take that liter of tonic, too, just in case there's any gin left. Two packs of Camels, just so they last. But after the ritual double bagging, just before the double beeps of the exit—you act out the same primitive one-act play every week with the guy behind the counter—something makes you turn around, break character, veer off the script.

"It was my birthday, tonight, man," you say. Half a nod back. He isn't the type to be interested in birthdays, but you've stuck your hand somewhere under his face, so he has to shake it. When you finally retire on Sunday night, you'll scream into the pillow remembering that handshake. For now, daylight's breaking, but you know in your bones it's the time of night when the darkness doubles.

Ten minutes and two cigarettes later, you're back at the apartment. Nothing's changed in your absence. There are still 15 walls of conversation competing for ears. The dusting of white is a bit thicker on the DVD case, and you do your bit for the collection.

Minutes melt. Hours. Pockets of sincerity are expanding, swelling, ready to swallow and engulf the fragile elephant-on-cheese-wire social compromises in the room. The "Why's he next to her?"s and "I'd love to punch that fucker in the face"s. There are more monologues, some boastful, a few semi-tragic, most of them routine ego splurges straight out of central casting. Then it's your turn. Yeah, the bar's not ultimately where you want to be, but cash in hand, good for tax reasons, you know. Yeah, hours aren't great, but summer's coming, right?

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Wrong. Where the fuck is the laptop when you need it? Where are the tunes? There's a clumsy round of pass-the-Toshiba, and it comes to nestle on your lap. The thing is with these nights, they need a soundtrack. Without a soundtrack, they're just noise. Just bad, boring, frustrated noise.

So, what do you put on? There is, as your trendy English lit lecturer told you all those years ago, "no right answer." Except there is. The right answer is "Marquee Moon."

Like any other art form, the post-3 AM YouTube song selection has its own rigid etiquette, its unique set of codes and guidelines. Only the veterans, the masters of the form, are permitted to bend or break them. Get it wrong in the pressure cooker of the weird hours, and you'll become the after-hours Oppenheimer: skeletal reaper, destroyer of vibes.

"Marquee Moon" is a—maybe the—masterpiece of the genre. The essential quality here is length. Anything under five minutes, however appropriate and perfect you think it to be, means a revolving carousel at the touchpad. There are few more effective ways to break the spell of chemical earnestness than to enlist a gaggle of wide-eyed fiends, all convinced of their poise and righteousness, to pick the next tune, leaving what seem like vast oceans of silence between each track. We're always at our best when we don't have to choose, have to think. You don't want your choice to immediately melt into an afterthought. It's got to clock in at long enough to make its mark without inching up to staleness. So swerve the hour-long Fela Kuti epics unless you absolutely have to. Think very carefully before you put on "Maggot Brain." Are you 100 percent sure you're that guy?

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Don't, for the love of all things sacred, go down the jokey route. Sticking on "Baby One More Time" or "Mambo No. 5" was fine maybe four hours ago, back when there was still a bit of humor in the room. Look around you now—all the darting eyes, Desperate Dan jaws, and nervous, sweaty hands. The restless asses on faux-leather seats, each under the impression that by squirming and perching they can suppress the powerful urge to lob the coffee table at the wall. This is not the time to joke. This is categorically not a laugh. It's a fucking hostage situation. What do you think the "Cha-Cha Slide" is going to do to this room, full of these freaks, right now?

"Marquee Moon," or at least the studio version you'll find first on YouTube, runs to 10:40. There are more ideas stuffed into those ten minutes than most of us will have in the duration of our adult lives. There's something in the first minute that's enough to put your ears and teeth on a natural edge. Where do those riffs even think they're going? They seem to be running in different directions. As for the bass, it doesn't seem interested in mediating a reconciliation. It just plods, jogging on the spot, occupying the gaps. It's a start couched in confusion—disjointed, ugly, dysfunctional. It's a sonic divorce, the hard-nut uncle you've always suspected might be harboring satin sheets in his post-divorce bachelor pad. There's a reason Patti Smith described Tom Verlaine's guitar sound as "a thousand bluebirds screaming."

Tom Verlaine. Tom Verlaine's voice is, in diplomatic language, "an acquired taste." None of us are diplomats, so I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that Tom Verlaine's voice sounds like the inside of my waking nightmares. It's an insistent, slightly choked twang both powerful and needy, conjured from somewhere between his nose and his larynx. It's a voice for conversions. It's a vision-sufferer's voice. It's the voice of a mad person with a skill for convincing other mad people to do mad things. It's a tough voice to like, but an easy voice to love.

And the things he uses it to say ("sing" isn't quite right, is it?)—all the gnomic stuff about the darkness doubling, the recollection of lightning striking itself, the vision of the titular marquee moon. The cadillac pulling up to the graveyard. Replace Tom Verlaine's voice, replace the grim insistence of those guitars, and you're perilously close to the realms of a sixth-former writing French symbolist rip-offs to unsuccessfully woo a university-aged lover. Put it all together in the greasy nightmare pot that is "Marquee Moon" and a room past dawn full of coked-up strangers, and you get the poem T.S. Eliot might have written if he'd lived to 90 and moved to Hell's Kitchen for a few skaggy twilight years.

There are better songs, whatever that means. There are better songs for feeling better about yourself, your job, your personal crises, financial chasms, tattered "love" life, and life in general. But, let's face it, there are plenty of better people, leading better, more fulfilling lives than you and all the satanic "friends" that you have packed into this living room, in this God-forsaken apartment, in this God-forgotten corner of a city that will never be home.

It should be easy, surrounded by all these people, by all this noise, to escape being lonely, being scared. But all that noise is just that: noise. And noise can only ever be made by other people. So next time, when the light comes fingering its way through the beige-white blinds, there's only one way to cloak it: with a "Marquee Moon."

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