My preamble to the whole series was the other day, the first real entry as such will be tomorrow — but even though I don’t have any tickets saved from before that time, I do have some memories.
Untangling the whole idea of where and how I learned about ‘music’ in a broad sense would be the subject for another essay at another time. Learning about the idea of concerts, of going to the show, is no less tangled — I have no sense of it at all, of exactly where the idea of that kind of event and what it might involve first became any sort of concrete vision in my head. Being born in 1971, I had most of the decade to reach a certain point so I suppose I had figured out something by the time I got a third album by my earliest rock god as such — Shaun Cassidy. Having loved (and played to death) a couple of earlier studio albums by him, my nine or ten year old self was utterly thrilled to get the live album he put out, featuring him in a sorta-but-not-really-Frampton-like pose on the cover and with various photographs indicating that he was indeed on a stage and there were lights and he was doing moves and so forth. I had other live albums as such before then, I recall — performances for kids by entertainers, some 50s/60s folk figures or the like — but this was the first dim sense somehow that there was this big production involved, with all sorts of unnecessary characters to my mind (ie, Cassidy’s backing band, duly identified on the sleeve with their own small photos and credits but otherwise rightly anonymous because I didn’t know and care about them — why should I?).
As time passed I saw more evidence of this thanks to clips on TV or variety shows or more, that there was something beyond simply performing on a studio set, that another…world, perhaps, existed. I was pretty adept at creating all sorts of ideas in my head as to what these shows were ‘really’ like, and the concept of live performances based on the recordings I heard and the clips I saw grew further thanks to a series of shows that HBO ran in the early eighties. Keep in mind that MTV came along a little later for me — our family didn’t get it regularly until 1985 — so HBO’s own video jukebox shows and special event programming was actually more of a resource for me beyond the radio. I remember concert specials by Donna Summer, Olivia Newton-John, Men at Work, at least a couple of others. Meanwhile I’d also seen plenty of tour shirts over time as well once I’d hit middle school, thanks mostly to what the high schoolers were wearing on the shared campuses at both Coronado and Saratoga Springs — Cheap Trick and the Rolling Stones were the two big ones I remember.
By the time 1984 rolled around, I was thirteen, classically awkward on any number of fronts, a complete top 40 obsessive going into three years of active chart following and dying to finally ‘see a show.’ I was two years in to the family’s stay in Saratoga in upstate New York, and among the many institutions of the town — a classic resort spot that exploded in population and events in summer and then drowsily made its way through the rest of the year — was SPAC, a combination indoor/outdoor arena venue that hosted big events during said tourist season. It was (perhaps still is) the summer home of the Philadelphia Orchestra and the New York City Ballet, and any number of times my family went out to picnic on the grass area behind the seats, where I could lay out on a blanket under the stars and indulge in my passion for constellation-spotting as various familiar and unfamiliar classical pieces played. I saw a number of meteors during that time thanks to the Perseids, and at least once I saw a satellite — combined with the warm, often humid temperatures, the memories remain gently blissful.
But like I said, I wanted to see a show, and I heard ads all the time for rock concerts and the like being held at SPAC (I still remember a heavily reverbed voice announcing that “YES-ES-ES-ES!” was playing, the band then riding high on its 90125 sales). I already knew my parents had seen acts there — shortly after we arrived in Saratoga in 1982 they’d gone and seen Air Supply, which made me a little jealous as I happened to like them quite a lot (even had their greatest hits album when it came out a couple of years later). A year or two after that they also saw Paul Simon with, I think, David Brenner opening, and there might have been something else in there too, I’m not sure. There was also a bit of a to-do when the Grateful Dead came through, leading to me learning about Deadheads and the like for the first time, though my parents very definitely did NOT go to that show. As for me, though, nothing as yet — but 1984 was the year of change.
I’m not sure about something, though — I’m not sure whether I wanted to see the show I did because I really wanted to see the band, or because I just wanted to see a show. I’m pretty sure it was the former reason, since there were other shows I could have easily picked given the concert calendar, and either through ads or through talk at school or something I knew this band were performing and I had probably heard about who the opening act was as well — and I’d liked what I’d heard by them too. Maybe I asked, maybe I wheedled a bit, maybe I saved up allowance money, I have no idea, but the tickets were bought, the time rolled around and there I was, off to my first ever rock concert, my dad going with me (my mom rather understandably begged off), all pumped up with energy. Off to see, on the coattails of their big album that year Tour de Force, none other than .38 Special. With Night Ranger opening.
I’ve played that first concert story detail for laughs plenty of times over the years, especially since I know so many folks who have first concert experiences I would have killed for — friend Mackro’s first show was a late eighties Skinny Puppy performance, for instance. I still chuckle a bit over it as well. But you know, to heck with that — I was who I was, where I was, in the time I was growing up, and by god I was finally getting to see a rock show and it wasn’t like I didn’t know either of the bands, that was the point. They had hits on the radio — .38 Special’s were “If I’d Been the One” and “Back Where You Belong,” while Night Ranger had to have had “Sister Christian” on the air at that point, though I’m pretty sure I knew them more for “(You Can Still) Rock in America” at that point — and they were therefore pop acts, straight up. I didn’t know about Lynyrd Skynyrd or ‘classic rock’ as such, so any sort of cultural context on that front was lost on me. I just wanted to see the show.
The exact memories of that show are miniscule. I remember some guy running out on the stage and enthusiastically introducing Night Ranger to the crowd — I know the sun hadn’t set yet, still light in the sky even though we were actually in the seated area for once. I remember being impressed by the fact that .38 Special had two drummers, that the lead singer dashed about on stage, that there was a laser-light show that broke out near the end of the concert. I vaguely remember standing up at plenty of points when the ‘big’ songs were played and everyone stood up, including my dad and our two neighbors in the seats next to us, a fellow Navy officer and his wife — I hadn’t realized at all that they would be coming along, and obviously the tickets had been purchased together, but somehow I got it in my head that we had somehow coincidentally ended up all sitting together.
I remember two other things in particular — I kept wondering what in the world it was I was smelling during the course of the show. It was a strange odor, it wasn’t cigarette smoke, but I had no idea what it was or where it was coming from. (Trust me, folks, it wasn’t from my dad, who didn’t smoke anything at all to start with.) I’m sure if we had ended up sitting in the lawn section it would have been perfectly clear — in fact that’s probably why we weren’t sitting there — and I had to have asked my dad at least once what it all was. Time and experience at many similar concerts cleared up that question easily enough but for then it was the great mystery.
I also remember a great parking lot incident — I forget which of the two cars we drove over to the show in, probably the station wagon, but both of them had California plates and had been taken across the country. As we parked and locked the car, some guy in a bunch of teenagers or people in their early twenties looked at us with surprise and admiration and said — quite earnestly, no irony at all — “Wow, did you guys come out from California for this show? That’s dedication!” Again, time would make something like this a little less surprising to me — and after all, after the Grateful Dead visit, who among local showgoers wouldn’t be surprised at people turning up from far afield?
The overall atmosphere, the sense in my head, was the feeling that shows were fun, that big shows were entertaining. I had a great time, for all that barely any of it sticks with me (including nearly all the songs) — the performances went without a hitch, I didn’t have any sense of threat or anything going weird or wrong, I don’t recall dealing with any aggressive characters or anyone obviously drunk or stoned, there wasn’t anyone right behind me yelling along to all the lyrics, there wasn’t someone annoyingly tall right in front of me blocking my view. The going-on-ninth-grade Boy Scout that I literally was enjoyed it all, and it felt right, for lack of a better term. This was what rock and roll was surely all about to my mind, big huge shows by big huge bands, roars from the crowd, everyone having fun. Friends of mine in later years have often mentioned how they never felt comfortable at arena shows — too distant, too alienating, or else otherwise pointless — but they’ve always made sense to me, they’re my baseline for shows, really, and I have nothing but good memories associated with that first ‘real’ example of one.
Well, except for not being able to hear anything the following couple of days, admittedly.
Some months later my dad and I went to another show, only this time it was a case where we both definitely wanted to go. I’d been a fan of Hall and Oates for some years at that point — turned out my dad really enjoyed them as well, and probably both for the same reasons: they were really, really damned good, absolute masters of killer radio singles for a long stretch of years there. I’d locked into them with the run of singles at the start of the decade like “I Can’t Go For That (No Can Do),” “You Make My Dreams Come True,” “Private Eyes” and so forth, and by the time 1984 rolled around they were unknowingly on the verge of wrapping up their absolute commercial domination, having released another pretty massive album courtesy of Big Bam Boom, with Band Aid guest appearances, the hit Paul Young remake of “Everytime You Go Away” and their Live Aid (and live album) appearances with Eddie Ruffin and David Kendricks all forthcoming in the following year. I don’t remember if my dad made the offer to me or I’d asked him or whatever, but sometime in late 1984 off we went to see them, only this time to a hockey arena further north in Great Falls, near the southern tip of Lake Champlain.
The impressions from this one are more haphazard but again essentially positive — having done my first outdoor arena show, now I could do my first indoor one, which probably explained why it was even louder there (though this time around I had earplugs, thoughtfully provided by my dad). I only just remember the opening band Xavion, a bunch of Prince-obsessed types who I had thought I had only imagined until I read the entry on them in Chuck Eddy’s Stairway to Hell some years later — maybe one of these days I’ll track down their one album, but in the meantime here’s “Eat Your Heart Out”, which should rightly qualify somewhere as an undeservedly forgotten song from the time — and about all I recall of Hall and Oates themselves was Hall’s mane of blonde hair and their own version of ‘well we’ve hit the big time so I guess this happens.’ I forget what song but during the guitar solo part — performed by G. E. Smith, finishing up his own lengthy stint with the group before landing the Saturday Night Live spot — a platform rose out of the fog machined depths and there was Smith on top of this huge column, noodling and riffing away. It got a huge cheer, I remember that much, and much like some of the .38 Special show, a lot of what seems ridiculous in retrospect made sense right then and there. Of COURSE there’d be something like that, of COURSE we’d all love it — it wasn’t something to question or look at askance in my experience, it all seemed correct, proper somehow.
Again, to return to baselines a bit — I have no doubt I was surprised by the moment when it happened, it was meant to do that to at least some extent, even as the fact that it existed to start with didn’t. Yet somehow I’d already been primed for this, ready for surprise and still surprised, a weird sort of double impact. It reminds me of what Gary Numan mentions when he says the thing he most remembered about his earliest musical encounter, seeing Cliff Richard and the Shadows on TV, was the sparkle of lights off of Hank Marvin’s guitar — or to draw on my own experience, seeing Star Wars on its first run in 1977 when I was six and being amazed by the razzle-dazzle but simultaneously uncritically accepting it as something that should always happen. This is a movie, movies can do this, therefore movies must do this, to oversimplify. This is an arena rock show, arena rock shows can do this, therefore arena rock shows must do this. It says something that I can remember nothing else about the actual performance but that.
There was one other thing I do remember from that show, though — it’s where I got my first concert T-shirt, which I held on to at least through the rest of high school, I’m pretty sure. As anyone who knows me well can verify, I’m rather fond of my tour shirts, though obviously this was only one shirt among many others I had at this point, from Izods to (when I got back to California) random surf shirts or two. I do remember being jealous of a friend who had seen the .38 Special show who had a shirt from said concert, though, and that probably prompted me asking if I could have one of my own — so if my dad had bought that for me as opposed to me buying it with allowance money, then hey, thanks! From that point forward I was pretty well taken with the idea that one had to have a shirt after seeing a show — another little cultural requirement that was really just an assumption, but again fit with my own experiences of seeing shirts around like that.
But that said, I didn’t see another show for almost four years after that. A few months after the Hall and Oates show we returned to California, and for the rest of high school while my musical tastes continued to twist and turn, I don’t recall — at all — any point where there was a show in San Diego that I just had to see. Not one single memory beyond, vaguely, the impression that Def Leppard must have come through at some point on the Hysteria show — and if they did then I definitely regret missing that, much as I love said band and album still to this day. My mind was full of many other things, other interests, not least of which was the all important task of surviving high school and dealing with a creeping disaffection that was relieved by graduating from it and moving on with life.
By that time, in 1988, I was working through the last part of my year long classic rock phase, buying loads of CDs for the first time, fully discovering Depeche Mode (a little too late to figure out that I really should have gone to the 101 show, alas — and I knew people who went!) and enjoying, among other acts, Sting. A bit like Hall and Oates for me, Sting, thanks to the Police — similar radio omnipresence thanks to a string of killer singles that sounded great up through 1983-84, easily sliding over into his solo career as well. Pretty sure I had not only picked up …Nothing Like the Sun but …Nadie Como El Sol, his Spanish-language EP rerecordings of some songs from that, and had at least one poster around. Then of course there was the sense of vaguely literary pretensions that didn’t hurt the proto-English major I was, of course. “Hey, he named the album after a line from Shakespeare!” (I still wasn’t sure who Nabokov was then.)
At that point he was one of those acts that seemingly everyone liked, at least in my experience. It was certainly the case with everyone down at Perkins’ Book Store in Coronado, an easy ten to fifteen minute walk from my house, where I not only purchased books but records, thanks to the small section in the back dedicated to just that. I got along very well with all the staff clerks — all very friendly and all female, for what it’s worth, given the eternal stereotype of what record store employees are supposedly like — and that spring of 1988 somehow or other a bunch of us decided in a heap to go see his show at the small outdoor stadium at one of the local colleges to the inland of the coast. I remember going over to the apartment where one of them, an Australian woman, lived in town and chatting away before a party of about five or so set out for the show.
There’s even less I could say about this show as a show. It was a warm evening out in the almost desert, I sat up in the stands though it was all general admission and watched the stage in comfort with a couple of other folks from our group while the rest headed down the front in what seemed to me like a pretty big crowd milling around. Steel Pulse opened and so I first learned what bass could really sound like through the right soundsystem (pretty damned overwhelming), and Sting was, well, Sting, delivering both solo and Police songs with the expected jazz-tinged pop-friendly etc. thing that he made his name with.
Again, only moments stick — he did “Fragile” all in Spanish, which got a big reaction from the crowd, which I remember being heavily Latino — not surprising at all given that it was San Diego and right near Tijuana, and especially not given that he and the Police had just as much of a reputation in Mexico and, as I later discovered, throughout the rest of the hemisphere as he had in the US then. Towards the end of the show he did what seemed to me like another typical thing that rock stars were supposed to do — take off his shirt and show off his chest. It got a lot of female cheering and my compatriots from the bookstore weren’t unappreciative.
But once more I’d had what was a gently positive time out — with people I was friends with, in good weather, an upbeat show from an artist I liked, relaxed and able to see it all in comfort. Even the whole aspect of seeing someone at a relative distance, the small figure on the stage, wasn’t too surprising to me at all by now, it just seemed expected, par for the course. It also brings home just how much, by the end of high school, my musical life was defined almost entirely by mediation — via records, tapes, CDs, videos, TV appearances. The sense of wanting to see someone live had obviously had its impact on me, but the fact that I attended so few rock or pop or any sort of shows like that, and the fact that I barely can sense any sort of feeling that I had missed much as a result of that, says a lot about how I perceived music and likely still do, as much a product of that formative time as anything — that the recording still has a certain cachet over the live performance, that ultimately it is what I value the most.
Doubtless in part this is due to its solitary possibilities — you can listen to songs on your own or with others, but at concerts there’s likely going to always be someone else there (there are of course always exceptions, as any number of bands can tell you). The part of me that is happily and utterly content to be curled up with a book, writing away quietly as I am now, cooking in the kitchen — that part of me doesn’t need shows, and certainly didn’t seem to need them then. Looking back of course I can sense the many what-might-have-beens — what shows did I miss? Were there any local acts of interest or touring bands playing college or club circuits in Saratoga and Coronado that I would kick myself now for having missed? (But then again, would I have even been aware of them then? My listening habits and my sporadic means of finding out information while dealing with a lot of other things in life were what they were — so while many years later I deeply, deeply regretted having missed the Chameleons’ San Diego appearance for Strange Times, I also know that there was almost no way I would have even noticed that show being announced, or even who the band was. Sure, I could be annoyed at my past self, but I certainly wasn’t surprised by said self either.)
In any event, there I was, and there I was again a few months later, now off to UCLA as a college freshman, meeting many new people, settling into dorm life, wandering down to record stores in Westwood, talking and learning and observing (‘Gee, did EVERYONE on my floor go to that Depeche Mode show at the Rose Bowl?’). It was fall of 1988, I still wasn’t even eighteen yet, and though I don’t think I consciously had any idea that another show would soon be on the cards, I wasn’t surprised when it did finally happen.