The Art of Soullessness

PJ Harvey Terminal 5 April 20 2011


Last night was the PJ Harvey show at Terminal 5, and it was a fantastic night – with the one small exception of the actual show. That coupled with my little trip to the New Jersey Department of Motor Vehicles1 today has me thinking about people who seem to lack soul, humanity even, and those who seem to have hidden it somewhere, or maybe even lost it.

As has been established here and here Ms. Harvey and I have been carrying on a torrid2 love affair for about 20 years now. Her music is deeply ingrained into my cerebral cortex, to the point where I hear her singing and it sounds like it’s coming from within myself. It’s a cellular bond. Plus, she’s hot. That said, the past two, maybe three albums haven’t really rung my bell, but I still deeply admire her talent and her constant growth and change as an artist.

I went into this show knowing I was going to be disappointed, just because who I really love is the PJ Harvey of Dry, Rid of Me, and Is This Desire: that strong, take no prisoners, angry, rocking PJ. Lately, I guess as she’s matured as a person and musician, the albums have been more reflective, quiet and experimental. Not rocking. Not really all that intimately emotional. Weirdly focused on England, even for an Anglophile like me.

PJ Harvey is known for her ability to command a stage with nothing but her guitar and some red lipstick. Last night she had presence3, but it felt too practiced to me. The friend I was with (visit him here and be dazzled) cleverly observed that she was acting a part along the theme of the album. I’m sure she was – she’s that accomplished and professional of a performer. But shouldn’t I still have been moved? I guess I just love the old PJ too much – the one who ripped out her own heart and held it still beating above her head so we could all find the courage to do the same. This PJ was a little like a crazy old aunt4 who spends too much time alone.

Not to say the band wasn’t tight, and she didn’t sound great, and the songs she sang weren’t good. It was all technically there; it just didn’t reach beyond that into my heart.

A very drunk Scottish guy we befriended hit it squarely on the head – the performance lacked soul. She used to show it off; now it seems she’s hiding it behind full-body armor. That’s her prerogative, and I can only imagine what it’s like to have people stare at and glom onto you for 20+ years. I’m sure I would develop similar protection. But aren’t we all there at the show to transcend our protective layers – rip off our masks? Isn’t she supposed to be helping us do that? I dunno. I could be asking too much.

Speaking of asking too much, I had to go into the DMV today to get license plates for my new car. This is a car I purchased down in Virginia, and my dad co-signed the loan, God bless him5. The dealership was supposed to be taking care of this for me, but after having the paperwork rejected not once but twice by the New Jersey Motor Vehicle Commission (MCV), I realized I needed to do this myself, in person6.

The second rejection letter stated that the co-signer of the loan had to have an NJ driver’s license in order to get the car registered and plated in NJ. Does this make sense to anyone? Of course not. So I called the MVC headquarters in Trenton. After speaking with three equally laconic and completely unhelpful inside-the-box thinkers, I finally am transferred to a fourth person who HAD SENSE. Amazing. She assured me if I went in person to the DMV with my dad’s vitals and Social Security Number, I could get an NJ driver’s license number issued for dear old dad, and then get the license plates.

So, I’m standing in line with all the proper paperwork, working very hard on achieving and then maintaining a Zen state, and finally am called up to the cashier/demon spawn. I explain the whole situation slowly and clearly, exuding waves of peacefulness and willing her to be cooperative and helpful. She looks through the paperwork, stacks it back up and says, “I need proof your dad lives in New Jersey.”

I replied that he did not in fact live in New Jersey, and repeated what I’d told her earlier. She replies, “I can’t do this unless he has a residence in New Jersey.” I again tell her he lives in Virginia and not in New Jersey. We go back and forth like this for quite a while. She gets the cashier next to her involved and they double team me. I remain unmoving and resilient. A supervisor is summoned. She can’t be bothered to get up from her desk, so the battle rages on with her yelling from across the room about proof of NJ residence for a man who lives in Virginia.

Finally, the cashier and the supervisor talk quietly between themselves, and the cashier returns with the paperwork and what appears to be a it’s-all-ok smile. She hands me the paperwork and says, “You can give this to the cashier in Line 3. I’m going on my break.”

To my credit I do not punch her in the face. I move over to Line 3 and wait for that cashier. Then it all starts over. I explain the situation, she slowly looks through the paperwork, then says, “I need proof he lives in New Jersey.” Short, tense debate. Supervisor is summoned. Quiet conversation between the two. Finally, cashier #2 returns and silently starts tapping away on her keyboard. Apparently we’ve reached a truce and the process is moving along! She gets sparkly new license plates from the stack and puts them in front of me, and continues typing and glaring at the monitor. Another snag is hit and quickly overcome, and I’m starting to hope that I will get those license plates without having to grab them and run.

She finishes with the paperwork and then asks for payment for the NJ taxes and other fees. I look down at the check the dealership cut and it is for $11 more than what she is asking. All the blood rushes to my feet. I trepidatiously show her the check, and she says, “I can’t complete this unless the check is for the exact amount.”

Luis is summoned. Luis is a large, slow-moving man, who clearly has never not once in his life gone the extra mile for anything or anyone. He lumbers over, is told about the discrepancy, and then says, “We need a check for the exact amount. Do you have another one for the right amount?” I blink a few times, then say, “No.” He says he can’t help me. I say, with my hands folded as if in prayer, “Please.” He grabs the check, shows it to another supervisor, they have a short, heated debate, he comes back. “Note the difference on the paperwork.” I ask the cashier what that means, and she says it means it’s ok, they’ll take the check. They’ll take the check! I make eye contact with Luis and say “thank you!” – he just looks back blandly and shrugs like he doesn’t really give a shit either way.

When the cashier hands me the license plates and I’m certain it is all over, a deep euphoria washes over me. I’d done battle with the soulless and emerged victorious. I shove the plates under my arm and bolt out of that place like a running back going for the end zone.7 I haven’t put them on my car yet – I’ve kept them within quick eyeshot and affectionately stroke them from time to time. Wish I could feel anywhere near that fond of PJ’s performance last night.


1 May it burn in hell
2 And imaginary. And one-sided.
3 At least her glorious hat/headdress did
4 An insanely talented, hot old aunt
5 God leaves the story from this point on
6 Cue something Teutonic and heavy, maybe Wagner
7 First and last football reference that will ever appear on this blog


  1. Tried to write a comment about how much I like “stories from city, stories from the sea” it felt more like the real PJ, while 90’s PJ struck me as a bit of artifice even though I love it. But nothing since then has clicked for me. Then CAPTCHA ate my comment. unlike DMV, noone to yell at.

    • Sorry for the captcha’s bad manners. It does that from time to time.

      Stories from the city was a great album for sure. She started losing me with White Chalk, and now I fear we’ll never regain what we once had.

  2. Sorry for the soulless experiences. I am very proud you did not punch the DMV woman in the face. I should go ask for a raise today simply because I’m pleasant to work with.

    • That would make you overqualified for the DMV.

  3. Great post & thanks for the site plug Dori! You know I agree with you largely on this one. Felt wonderful to see one of my idols, and completely support her new directions, but wasn’t much moved by this performance lyrically, sonically. I did however find myself captivated by her stage presence. Being able to study up close the drama & tension in one flick of her eyes or turn of her head or slow, strange vogue was almost worth the price alone.


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