21st June 1997, Dublin, Ireland:
Touring their hit album OK Computer, Radiohead play in front of 33,000 fans at the RDS arena. Terrified at having never played in front of such a big crowd before, lead singer Thom Yorke later has a nightmare in which he imagines himself naked, floating down the River Liffey and being pursued by a tidal wave. This dream inspires the song “How to Disappear Completely,” which appeared on their following album, 2000’s Kid A. The song is a slow, melancholy, beautiful one, and very personal, dealing with the mental breakdown Yorke suffered after the critical and commercial success of Ok Computer. It directly refers to Thom’s dream in the opening verse:
That there, that’s not me
I go where I please
I walk through walls
I float down the Liffey
7th June 2008, Dublin, Ireland:
Touring their latest album In Rainbows, Radiohead perform the second of two concerts at Malahide Castle, north of Dublin City. I’m there with my friends on a pleasant, sunny early-sunny evening. It’s a great concert, though there seem to be quite a few in attendance who aren’t huge fans of the band. Which is fine, man, even if they don’t like, get the guys like the hardcore fans do. Everyone’s in good spirits anyway. During the first encore, the band start playing “How to Disappear Completely.” Knowing the story of the song, and the mention of the River Liffey, as well as more populist bands’ penchant for getting a cheap cheer from the crowd by mentioning the town they’re playing in, I thought to myself: Imagine if some of these young bucks here for a good time in the park in the sun heard their local river mentioned in the song, and cheered in pleasants surprise! Wouldn’t that just be so bizarre and weirdly wrong? To cheer idiotically at the mention of a river in such a personal, heartbreaking song in which the singer lays bare their soul and exorcises the trauma of a very difficult period for them? How inappropriate and insensitive would that be?
Oh god, they’ll do it, they’ll cheer!
And soon enough, they did. And it did feel weird, though I don’t know if the band were annoyed by it. Though I felt they weren’t completely engaged due to the so many of the crowd being casual fans at best (they didn’t even play Creep man!), and maybe that didn’t help.
I still think about that moment sometimes. Yes, it still seems cringeworthy, but I can understand why some people cheered. If they weren’t big fans and didn’t know the song, they were probably genuinely surprised to hear the river mentioned. Maybe they thought Radiohead changed the name of the river in the song to the name of the local river wherever they’re playing (heaven help them if they were playing anywhere on the Mississippi). And they probably couldn’t really help it. Our brains are wired so that we immediately notice something familiar and connected to us when we hear it mentioned. We notice it especially when it’s in a different context, a situation in which we don’t expect to hear someone talk about something close to us. So we feel a pleasurable surprise when we hear it, and are pleased that some big international rock star knows the name of the river near our house and has taken the time to mention it. We feel notice, we feel important.
For others who know the song, the context is of course different, and they’re probably less ready to cheer. And they might look down their nose at those who do cheer, but if they could see things from their point of view, know their context, would they be less likely to do so? So much miscommunication can be caused by not understanding other people’s perspectives. While it’s impossible to always be able to put ourselves in everyone else’s shoes, taking a moment to try to imagine what they’re thinking would go a long way. After all, in language, context really is everything.