Modulation Across the Nation
Once conbsidered merely one-hit wonders, Radiohead have confounded skeptics with "The Bends", an album destined to dominate the airwaves. Will America Tune in to their frequency? Randee Dawn follows their signal on tour, and witnesses a golde age of wireless.
By Randee Dawn

Once considered merely one-hit wonders, Radiohead have confounded skeptics with the Bends,' an album destined to dominate the airwaves. Will America tune in to their frequency? Randee Dawn follows their signal on tour witnesses a golden age of wireless.
They pass, silent and unnoticed, through the vast, echoing train station, gliding to the exit as a unit, carrying with them a sleepy haze to match the humid grayness of the afternoon. Slouching in queue for the taxis, Radiohead wait with the patience of those who are accustomed to the task.
Jonny Greenwood pulls out a thick book and tries to steal a few words. Thom Yorke lags behind everyone else but his choppy, flaring red hair acts like a signal light. Colin Greenwood, dressed nattily in a dark, double-breasted jacket and small, rounded sunglasses, smokes a cigarette between two fingers in the delicate way of Englishmen, and they wait. Finally, someone comments, "You do not look like tourists."
Colin starts a bit and grows defensive. "Well, what do we look like?"
"Well, you look like rock stars."
Colin sighs melodramatically. "Finally. After all these years."

BOSTON

"If I could be who you wanted all the time..." - Fake Plastic Trees

Thom Yorke has always wanted to be a pop star. Back when some of his friends were deciding which office cubicle they would disappear behind after college graduation, back before the rest of his friends envisioned becoming traveling artisan hippies, Thom told everyone he was going to be a pop star. "And that," he says, "is what my father told everyone I wanted to do with myself. Only now that it's come true, he doesn't know what to say."
It's not such a bad thing, being a pop star. You're provided a jumbo-sized tour bus, girls (and boys) eagerly await your emergence from backstage, and hell, look what you're being paid to do. No sir, being a pop star these days could be considered the easy life. And hopefully, someday someone will inform Radiohead of that fact.
Because right now, in the cave-like cool of the Paradise rock club in Boston; being a pop star sucks. It is the first night of Radiohead's tour in America, and everyone is still reeling in a foggy haze of jet lag. There is the low-lying dread of having a perfect stranger on the tour for several days-a music journalist no less-but high above that creeping inevitability is the fact that Thom can't hear.
Striding into the cave out of the glaring afternoon sun, Thom clutches the sides of his head as if the artillery fire of Phil Selway's drumcheck is too much for him, which it is. "I've got fluid in my ears," he explains, resting his book on a cocktail table, "and it makes me hypersensitive. I'm going to have to wear earplugs, I think, for soundcheck and the show."
Rock Star 101 Lecture number one: Why Pop Stars Don't Fly to Every Gig. While there may be other reasons (namely, money), driving from point A to point B is a fact of life for bands, no matter how much cash they get a record company to front them. Traveling is dehydrating, and the changes in pressure, Tom explains, wreak havoc on your system. Sure, nobody notices if they fly once a month or less. But prior to the tour beginning tonight in Boston, Radiohead jetted across the U.S., showing off their latest album, The Bends, with special promotional gigs, including several acoustic dates. Despite glowing British press reviews, at first the reception, abroad was skeptical at best. To many Americans, this was the "Creep" band, the one-hit wonder whose first new single, "Fake Plastic Trees,' a meandering, slow tune, wasn't exactly burning up the charts. In the face of this, Radiohead flew from place to place, day after day, gig after gig, until Thom's ears filled with water, as if he'd been swimming in the deep end of the pool.
He has another reason to be concerned: backstage, pacing up and down, insisting on seeing 'one doctor in each city, if necessary,' Thom mutters that deafness runs in his family, and that this drowning of his hearing could be a first sign of trouble. And to look at him, in his much-pondered-upon pale, childlike frame, it does not seem impossible that one day, Thom Yorke could just wake up one morning, deaf as Beethoven.

Siam Cuisine, Boston

Joan Wasser, the Dambuilders member with the long streak of blonde in her ebony hair, is enjoying her Thai dinner not more than five feet fromRadiohead's restaurant table, and Colin Greenwood is beside himself. Mustering his courage, he walks over to her table, has a moment or two of conversation, and comes back to his own food. "I love the Dambuilders," he says. "Do you own anything of theirs?"
Enter Colin, the lone bassist in a band of guitarists, fervent fan of the Dambuilders and Tricky, avid bookworm. In fact, while nearly every Radiohead is a bookworm, Colin, who graduated Cambridge University with an English Literature degree, is the keenest reader. Were he not eating, Colin would probably be found curled up with his history of Greek occupation during WWII. "When the Italian general surrendered to the Allied Forces in '43, the Germans were still occupying Greece," explains Colin, "and a lot of Italian soldiers were killed on the island waiting for the Allied Forces to come and save them. It turns out Churchill had plans to invade Greece and liberate it but had been advised not to."
Life with Colin is not always this dry, but thus far there is precious little tour to speak of. Thanks to Thom's health problems, a long flight over, and general first-night jitters, The Bends tour (which won't officially begin for another two hours) is not starting very auspiciously. Under the surface, something is brewing within the band, an almost intangible need that no one vocalizes just yet.
On the surface, Colin is not fazed by the tour. It is something he will read, soundcheck, and bass his way through almost a holiday, but not quite. It may be only the first night, but for Colin, everything is already old hat. "I remember meeting Gene in New York a while ago," he says, "and they were really excited about coming to America, and it was weird because I felt like the tired old musician, and we've only done three tours here. Elvis Costello did seventeen tours.
"And you see reflected in their faces something that you had when you turned up the first time. Not the 'We're going to show America where the true rock lies' just... something more eager. And what's weird about that is that everything you do as a band, whatever band you're in, is basically the same. There's not much diversity between what PJ Harvey does or Radiohead does or Gene does, in terms of promotion, bus, soundcheck, bus, Denny's, soundcheck, laundry, bus, gig. But it does beat.working."

Between gigs, it might be said, there is no Radiohead, just five guys from the same hometown of Oxford, England, who went to the same school but never really associated until they started a band called On a Friday in the late 80s. No one's individual identity hinges on being part or a group 24 hours a day; like five straight, infinite lines they are on their own course, and scatter in multiple directions when there a band. But where all lines intersect, where all five guys, five personalities-five wires cross-that juncture is Radiohead.
Boston's show will not be considered a highlight of the tour. Technically, Radiohead's wires cross as they churn out nearly all of The Bends much louder and harder than the John Leckie-produced album would lead anyone to think Radiohead could play.
Nearly in a froth, the crowd responds by stage diving, nearly taking over the performance. Thom, tense and agitated over the earplugs (during the soundcheck he cried "Am I in key?") knocks a mosher off the stage with his guitar, yelling, "Stop all this fucking moshing!" At one point Ed takes charge, removing his guitar to toss a stage diver into the hands of security, drawing his own line in the sand.
"It seems the people who are into moshing are those people from college who you detested, the sports jocks," says Ed later on. "The ones who normally stayed away from so-called alternative shows, and who were seen at a Van Halen or Bon Jovi show, and now think alternative music is their thing. And very much for winning those people over, but don't bring your fucking bullying instincts to one of our blokes out there. It's become an ego thing, so they get to be a hero with their friends. Maybe we should have a cage at stage right like Metallica. We could throw them meat during the show."
Fortunately, the next night in Providence, Rhode Island, goes much better. While the moshers yell right back at the band, Radiohead are warming up to the challenge of touring, and as if to prove composure does not equal confidence, Colin drinks himself stupid, running around after the show, "telling everybody I wanted to have their children, or something like that. There was this sense of relief, that it could be really, really good over here. We weren't sure it could be again."
Three days later, the whole tour nearly implodes.

New Yorke City

"Radiohead singer is Martin Short!" - message posted on the Internet

Life on the road, even when you've only been officially on the road a week, can get weird. "I don't think we really knew what we were letting ourselves in for," says Thom about his horrendous experiences touring acoustically. "By the end of that three-month period I felt like a politician more than a musician.
And then we went on to do this tour...to get on and be a publicity machine again, it was just more than I could stomach. I was telling Tim {Radiohead's tour manager} to book me a flight home the day we arrived in New York. I had a complete breakdown that night."
The strain is well disguised at Tramps, where Radiohead blast their way back into New York like they own the place. Thom, with his Woody Woodpecker hair and skinny tie, rants and stomps about like Johnny Rotten's second cousin twice removed forcibly, and the songs sound tighter and more focused. The music thing they've got sewn up. It's with everything else they're having difficulites.
Meanwhile, it's time to play The Hit again, and despite the obviousness of playing it, "Creep" is one hell of a song to hear live. That furniture-moving riff that Jonny breaks in twain just before the chorus is death-defying to hear live, to watch his braced arm (a result of repetitive stroke syndrome) slice up and down and hear that noise come out makes him the most powerful man in the room. Even after thousands of playings The Hit still devastates.
After the show, Phil hangs around with his family-in-law, and soon departs for a night of calm drinking. Colin never even showed his face downstairs, dashing off to see Tricky play. Ed-well, Ed is around, but he is about to put a lot of hard work in developing a hangover for the next day. Jonny, formerly the most powerful man in the room, is reduced back to himself, tall and gangly with cheekbones, and is chatting with a young woman named Valerie, who has toId him he resembles a friend of hers in England. "You look like my friend Gina," she says. "You could be a member of her family."
"Well," smiles Jonny, "we're all a bit inbred in England. Have you seen the royal family?"
Thom is hiding. The best evidence of his still cranky mood comes when a writer for People magazine sashays out of the dresing room, peeved. "All I said was what a great concert it was," he sniffs. "Some people can't take a compliment."
But in the end, crisis or no, the tour goes on. "What brought me back," Thom says, "was just talking to the others, cause they're my best friends and if there's something wrong they need to know about it. " And there came the breakthrough-what had been niggling under the surface since Boston was a need for some free-form creative time. "We just sat around and tried to work it out with {our manager] Tim so we can get time to play. It's such a simple thing. It's the only thing that keeps us going. I can't write at home because home is home, and when i try to pick up a guitar it's like, 'Oh, he wants to write something,' and suddenly all these ghouls come up and start looking at you saying, 'Oi, go ahead, write something good.' On tour, your whole existence is music anyway... ,'
"I exist," says Thom, "mostly in this. My life outside the band is this big," he pinches a hair's breadth of air, "and the band is my life, like 99.9 percent. That sounds horrible, it sounds really crap, but it is true. What a sad twat I am. I obviously need help."

WASHINGTON

"Where do we go from here?" - The Bends

It is hot in Washington, so hot that it will rain before the night is out, but not before the sky seems to settle on the sidewalks, the air soupy and thick. After a morning ride down the East Coast in a quiet Amtrak car, and an afternoon of further dozing, reading, and phone interviews in their day room at the Savoy, Radiohead are ensconced at the Black Cat, a nightclub in the heart of what is arguably the worst part of town in the murder capital of the world.
Parked outside the club, Radiohead have a bus-a great white behemoth of a bus, splashed with cheesy airbrushed Western scenes, a churning air conditioner on wheels. It sleeps twelve, which, since Radiohead tour in the same vehicles as their roadies, will fit just fine.
Radiohead are very proud of their vehicle, and greet with tight lips jokes about the possibility of it being sold for its parts before the night is over.
"Imagine us," says Ed, delicately playing pool with Jonny and still emerging from the cloud of his hangover. "I'm 27 years old, I'm on a bus with eleven other men, plus a driver, we're living in 45 feet of space. That's fairly strange. When my dad was 27, I was two years old, he'd bought a house and was raising a family. And the stranger thing is, it feels very natural, as well."
In fact, however, Radiohead do not really have a bus. They have an air-conditioned clubhouse on wheels. It is a place where foot odor is not questioned, nor is the daily memo, tacked to a corkboard at the front of the vehicle, drawn to resemble a set of breasts. It sports blinds covering opaque windows, a microwave, two televisions with VCRs, sofas, and beds resembling coffins cut out of the side of the walls. It is a sacred place, and visitors are not looked on kindly.
"Your bus is like your inner sancturn," says Ed, "and people get very nervous with strangers on the bus. It's like the nerve center, like going into someone's bedroom. It's a place where you can just chill out. There are these unseen rules, or etiquette about the bus. We've had good friends before on the bus and it just is not a good idea."
End of Rock Lecture Two: It's time for Radiohead to soundcheck; highly like the bus, a sanctuary where the band can retreat, and be themselves. Hearing a soundcheck is like watching the outtakes of a film, and as Andy Warhol said, the outtakes are the most interesting part. After that, the performance is just gravy.
And then, during one song, Thom leaps from the stage, still playing his unplugged banana-yellow electric guitar. Chasing the soundman across the expanse of tiles, pointing the neck of the guitar like a gun, Thom runs full out, intent and grinning. It is the most spontaneous gesture he has made on the tour, and in that one brief moment of leaping and chasing with his guitar he is free, unthinking, beautiful. Backing up to the stage he scrambles back to his place without ever losing grip on his guitar, and the moment passes.
Soundcheck over, the band retreat to the boiler-room atmosphere of downstairs at the Black Cat. Ed and Phil are chatting with a local woman named Lynda, who has told them that the first time she heard "Creep" on the radio she had to pull over to the side of the road and have a good cry. Phil apologizes.
Somehow, it makes sense that Phil does this sort of thing. While it may be a cliche to call the drummer the anchor-of the band, Phil, the eldest of the group, the only married member, slips with a practiced ease into the role. An enigma to some (the band's newsletter W.A.S.T.E. routinely has a segment called "Who is Phil?"), Selway is the only member to have his own personal fan club.
"It's in Osaka," he says, smiling. "It was strange playing gigs over there last time, going to play a show and then spot someone wearing a 'Phil Is Great!' t-shirt. Only in Japan, I suppose."
Jonny, who will be the most powerful man in the Black Cat in a few hours, is resting on a couch in the homey-yet-windowless dressing room, cornered for a chat. Quiet and almost anonymous, Jonny keeps to himself better than the rest of the band, who merely act as if they are carefully restraining their personalities in front of the journalist constantly in their presence. When Jonny speaks, closed-mouthed, his slight lisp turns his words into a near whisper, and his darkly pooled brown eyes give nothing away. A future student of musical theory, this Jonny loves jazz.
"Jazz is one of the few areas of music where the musicians really lived what they were doing, really purely," he says. "Occasionally that happens with rock and roll bands but it's so wrapped up in image and sensationalism that it's hard to get to. I'm sick of the whole disingenuous 'I only know two chords, but hey man I'm writing beautiful songs,' the whole noble savage cliche. You have to strike a balance between being that noble savage and being Steely Dan and being washed-out and emotionless."
Thom dips his head into the dressing room, gripping his guitar in one hand, and seeing the room full, he darts back out again.
"I approach playing with Radiohead as being the most immediate and physical reaction to what I'm hearing, whatever Thom is singing or playing," Jonny continues. "I don't think about it, or plan it, I'll be looking for new chords in my head while he's singing and just instinctively plug them in there."
In England, a black cat brings good luck. In America, though, the myths reverse themselves.
The problem started small, something to do with Radiohead's onstage monitors conflicting with the external monitors. Then it ballooned-Radiohead couldn't hear themselves right, and the whole mess was wrecking Thom's ear so they had to downshift into slower songs. Though outwardly the show sounds smooth, and if not flawless at least good enough, Radiohead feel crushed.
"We got used to playing theaters," says Ed. "We got used to playing with better sound quality and equipment, and when we couldn't hear ourselves onstage, it ruined it for us." As soon as the show ends, they slink down to the boiler room for a meeting, as grim as businessmen hashing out a failed strategy.
Upstairs, fans await the end of the meeting. Though few people waited in Boston, and not many in Providence or New York, by Washington D.C. the fans have gotten into gear and stand politely poised, pens and posters at the ready. Two of the fans are prepubescent girls, so small and young they literally giggle behind their hands as Jonny returns from below, presenting two guitar picks, one for each. "Oh, thank you, Jonnyyyyy!" they cry, hugging the plastic triangles. Jonny waves at them as he heads out to the bus and they speak in exclamation marks again: "Have a nice trip, Jonnyyyyy!" When Thom emerges, they surround him, and thrust their pens into his hands. He. smiles in a pale, tight way and looks pleased.
As the girls leave ("Goodbye, Thomyyyyy!!!") manager Tim acts bemused. He recognizes them from the last tour, and marvels that their parents allow them to come to a nightclub at their age. "By the time they're 15," says Tim, "they'll either be sick of the whole thing or will have become horrendous tarts."
Says Thom, "We're their second favorite band. Their first favorite band is Nirvana. We don't mind any of that, we don't mind doing things for Smash Hits, which is this teeny magazine in Britain. I don't have a problem with that at all. There's a totally inverted snobbery which I don't agree with-as much as I don't agree with being only that. After all, the cool, hip kids shit on you just as fast as everybody else. In fact, faster."

PHILADELPHIA, PA

"I wish I could be happy I wish I wish I wish that something would happen" - The Bends

It didn't seem like a long cab ride when they left the Embassy Suites about fifteen minutes ago, but somehow, the cabbie propelling three-fifths of Radiohead to the Theater of the Living Arts has decided to take the scenic route. The cab races down blocked-off side streets, past dilapidated, vacant brick buildings, some with people lounging outside drinking from paper bags.
Late already, Ed, Thom, and Phil say no more than two words to each other during the harrowing ride, and when the driver finally pulls in sight of the humanity-jammed, tree-lined South street, they hop out like the car is about to catch on fire. "I really think we should get a discount for that ride," demands Ed, who when not debilitated by a hangover all day goes jogging with Phil, organizes car rides, and takes car of general business.
"This is our job," says Ed, "but it is frustruating at times."
Maneuvering their way past fans who have waited just inside the Theatre of the Living Arts, they head through gray and pink doors, greeted by a welcome blast of air conditioning, and scatter to battle stations. The Theatre, as it turns out, is one of Radiohead's favorite places to play, and why becomes clear early on. Aside from excellent acoustics, the place is laid out for the audience, sloping upwards in the back so no matter how far back you stand, you get a clear shot of the stage, which is enormousi lined by a gold ring around the entrance, as if the band inside are bathed in some heavenly aura. Almost immediately, they crank into soundcheck, and the workday begins.
Afterwards, the rest of the band leave to find some dinner, but Colin, hungry only for a cigarette, is lounging in the pastel-colored dressing room. "The "American press," Colin says, "has a problem with being timely. By the time something comes out-like that Kurt Cobain issue of Rolling Stone-it's what, six months after it's happened!" He seems about to say more when a security guard comes in bearing a scrap of newspaper.
"This woman gave it to me downstairs," says the security guard, "so I thought I ought to show it to you." According to the note, a mother has driven an hour-and-a-half from Allentown, bringing her daughter and friends to see the band, but he show is sold out. "I feel like the worst mother in the world," the note finishes.
"Yeah, let them in," says Colin.
There just is not getting around it. Radiohead are such nice boys.
With such good karma in place, when Radiohead blow the lid off the Theatre that evening, it comes as no surprise. As if all roads have led into Philadelphia, the show is the best they have had all tour, no technical difficulties, no ear ailments, nearly no moshing. During "Bones," Thom dances like a man, with a Joe Cocker twitch that makes him flinch hard when Jonny whacks the big chords, as if the music is assaulting or charging him. During a second encore, they debut a rough, acoustic version of a new song "Subterranean Homesick Alien,"
"Like the Dylan song, but not," says Thom later, grinning like a Cheshire cat.
Final Rock Star Lecture: How to Leave the Building. Should you insist leaving your own gig through the door and before a reasonable period of time (two days is a good estimate), you should expect to find some fans still out there, waiting for you. A lot of waiting occurs on tour, and not all of it is done by the band.
Thom leaves by the front door approximately fifteen minutes after his show is over, slinging his omnipresent navy blue rucksack over his shoulder. Someone cries, "Oh my god!" and in a great flash of camera light the assembled crowd surges toward him. He soars out into them, smiling for photos and bending over for autographs on t-shirts, CDs, human flesh. Overcome, the girl standing closest to him leans over and kisses him on the top of his head. "He smells nice," she tells her boyfriend, who also leans over and kisses Thom on the head.
Out rushes the Capitol Records representative to save Thom from the horde but he shrugs her off and, after some time, begins to make his way down South Street, in search of a bar.
Turning to one glowing fan, wearing a Radiohead rugby shirt, he asks, 'Know any good bars around here?" She points toward the Copacabana, a garishly painted place on a nearby corner. Thom gets carded. Thom has no ID. Thom sputters, "For fuck's sake," and gets in when the journalist who's been following them all this time makes a stink.
Thom orders a Margarita and a Rolling Rock. He is stoked-from the show, yes, but certainly the fan reception plays a large part.
"Sometimes," he says about the fans outside, "I'm in a real state after a show, and I can't talk to them, and I always feel bad afterwards. I remember when I was in that position, getting drunk, talking to Everything But the Girl, and we had a really nice chat when I was 15. And then I've met some other guys who were total assholes. But now I realize that sometimes you're just too tired to deal with it. But when you walk out of a venue like that and say 'No autographs' then it's like 'Fuck you!'"
But the idea of having your body scent critiqued right on the spot, total strangers kissing your head....
"It's nice," he says, surprised anyone would think otherwise. "It's the only fucking kiss I get. It's the only time I get any physical contact with anybody."
No matter how many fans kiss his head, though, what is really getting Thom worked up now is that at the end of that night's drive to Montreal, they will have one whole day to themselves, one whole day to play for themselves in a rented venue, to make up more songs and test them out in front of more total strangers, the following night. Says Thom, "Me here, on the road, that's where I am. Going back on tour...it's like being back to normal. I think that most acutely. Off tour, Colin goes to London and hangs out with his friends there, Phil has his wife, Ed has his girlfriend, Jonny has his girlfriend...but that all feels like limbo while I'm on tour. And I think that whole New York thing was me trying to make a desperate break for normal existence. Get on a plane, i know! I'm gonna find me, I'm gonna be normal! But here I am."
On the cab ride back to the hotel (a straight shot this time), the car stops at a traffic light and a college-aged boy recognizes Thom and peers in the window, staring goggle-eyed. As the car rolls away, Thom says, "That just reminds me of when I was younger and had to serve drinks at my parents' one-and-only dinner party, just standing back behind the bar and needing to use the toilet all the time. Everyone stared then, too, pinched my cheeks, all that."
The cab pulls up at the hotel and deposits Thom on the quiet, late-night streets of Philadelphia. He scurries into the big white air-conditioned clubhouse, safe and secure with twelve other men in 45 feet of space. And north they drive, to Canada, where lying in wait in the miles ahead are infinitely more fans, autographs, cigarettes, and maybe, some more music.