Live music hasn’t really played a big role in my life, to be honest. To this day, I’ve only been to three real concerts. Eh, maybe four, if you’re generous, but I’m not. The only venue remotely close to me was still an hour’s drive away – with another hour spent fighting traffic and a third hour trying to park. Besides, concerts were expensive. Besides that, most of my favorite bands weren’t exactly touring, frequently due to the fact that their members tended to be slightly dead. Still, I always wanted to go to a concert. Based on my fondness for other sorts of live music – band concerts, local high school musicals, and all that sort of thing – I was sure it would be incomparably awesome to hear some real live music from a real band, so to speak. To not just hear a song, but to be in the presence of that song, live and primal: your ear moved by the air that was moved by their instruments that were moved by their hands that were moved by the singular minds that brought that song into being.
One year, when I was perhaps sixteen or seventeen, I finally got my chance.
My dad’s workplace would sometimes sponsor employee outings of various types. Some were specifically for the whole family – trips to the Children’s Museum, or discount tickets to the zoo. But some were directed more at employees and their spouses, as in the case of the occasional concert trip. Everyone would simply meet up at the workplace, hop on the coach bus, and let one poor sod do the driving. They’d get out at the venue, some sort of food was provided, they’d listen to the concert, then everyone had half an hour to get back on the bus – where everyone would probably fall the hell asleep until the coach pulled back in to the workplace parking lot. Less hassle, less stress, and less chance of getting rear-ended by some lunkhead on his 20th $10 beer.
If my dim memory serves, Mom and Dad were originally going to go to a Jimmy Buffett concert, but it was cancelled due to bad weather and rescheduled in some sort of way that wouldn’t let them honor the company’s original arrangement. So the company got tickets for a different classic-rock concert instead: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, with Jackson Browne as the opening act.
My mom didn’t feel like going to that, and so my dad asked if I wanted to go instead, or else he’d sell the ticket to someone else at work who missed the cutoff.
I didn’t really know if I liked Tom Petty or Jackson Browne. I’d have been hard pressed to name more than two songs from either of them. But I knew I didn’t outright hate those songs I had heard, and that was more than enough to settle my mind: I was going to go see my first concert. Yes, I was going to be surrounded by Old People. Yes, including my father. Still: there’s a certain threshold of coolness, even within one’s own mind, that simply cannot be attained until one has been in the presence of live rock and roll.
And so the evening came. Mom dropped me off at Dad’s work, I believe. Then we loaded up on the coach bus, made our way slowly to the venue, and got deposited, shuffling through the huge throng of people to our little company-sponsored pavilion. There was food, and there was beer for the old folks. The atmosphere grew more… convivial, especially once we were out on the lawn. By “convivial,” I also mean “hazy.” I didn’t exactly have any context to know what pot smoke smelled like, but it was still smoke, and still unpleasant. Worse by far were the fat cigars lit up by the people behind us – people who were also unfathomably loud. My father asked if they’d be courteous enough to knock it off or move, but apparently concerts aren’t for watching performances, they’re for smoking and shouting at your friend about inane bullshit. Why we didn’t move, I have no idea. Because you’re not supposed to move once you pick a seat? Maybe it looked more crowded and obnoxious further in? Still, there we were stuck.
There’s a special kind of awkwardness about being sober around intoxicated people. It’s an awkwardness that’s amplified when you’re still half a decade away from ever getting drunk yourself. A sense that you’re more reasonable and grounded at the moment than someone thrice your age – but aware that you can still get in major trouble if you appear to inadequately respect your elders. Still, I could tell that everyone was having a good time, if in a way that I couldn’t exactly match. So my brain filed it away under “Huh, so this is that ‘fun’ I hear so much about,” and I focused on the show itself.
Jackson Browne put on a powerful performance. It came through louder and clearer than I’d ever heard from the radio; even that far afield, it was a force. I recognized very few songs, but liked the ones I knew, I liked the ones I didn’t know, and I found myself almost forgetting there was more to come. The sun began to set – what sun could be seen through the smoke clouds, anyway – and a Midwestern summer evening unfurled.
And then Tom Petty took the stage.
Allow me to take this time to reiterate that I tended to absorb my music piecemeal. Not through concerts, not through albums. Most of what I’d heard, up to that point in time, I’d generally heard on the radio, and gods only knew if or when the DJ would announce the songs or artists. There was no Shazam. There was no YouTube. Google existed, but was still an up-and-comer, overshadowed by MSN and Yahoo!. If I wanted to figure out who performed a song, the best I could do was remember some of the lyrics, do a search, hope to find a lyrics site that wasn’t festooned with malware and pop-ups, and read through the rest of the lyrics’ text in hopes that the rest of it sounded familiar.
This may help explain why I didn’t realize I was a Tom Petty fan until I was midway through a Tom Petty concert.
Song after song, it happened. “Running Down A Dream” – “I didn’t know he did that one!” “I Won’t Back Down” – “THAT’S Tom Petty, too?” “I Need To Know” – “No waaaay!” I think I convinced my dad to let us creep closer to the stage – if just to get away from Smokestack McDouche. Needless to say, the situation had not been improved by the playing of “Mary Jane’s Last Dance.” Still, I was rather delighted. “It’s Good To Be King” was playing. I was grinning and humming along – not singing, though, certain as I was that singing during a concert must be some awful breach of etiquette.
But my dad was checking his watch. He said it was around 10 o’clock, so the concert was probably almost over, so we should probably start heading for the bus. I was dubious. Nobody seemed to be on the move. So I tried to tell him that we didn’t know for sure if the show was nearly over, that we’d have a full half hour after it actually did end, anyway, and that it really wasn’t that likely that the bus would leave without us. Magnanimous, he conceded to one more song.
And so Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers struck up “Learning to Fly.” It was softer, slower, smoother, starting with only Petty and his guitar, solo. Then the crowd began to join the song, word-perfect. Everybody with a lighter – that being, practically everyone – held aloft a flame. The flames shone up, and the stars shone down, and the stage lights shone all around. “And the town lit up, and the world got still.” The Heartbreakers slowly joined in. The song rolled on, and at a silent gesture from Tom, the audience sang the chorus. Soon he joined back in, backing up our own vocals, weaving more lyrics, unheard lyrics, between the ones we knew by heart.
In hindsight, I’m sure this is commonplace. A thing that happens at every show, probably at every show of every band. But I’d never experienced such a thing before – that many people, singing all at once, singing with the very artist who wrote the song, creating something so loud, so unified, and yet so ephemeral – a cover version that would never be heard again, not just like that, no matter how many times it happened in how many other towns. It was a thing of beauty.
And, it seemed, that was a good enough note to go out on. As the song ended, my dad began to make his way toward the exit. I followed, grudgingly. The crowd was dense and disinclined to let us pass, so I got to hear snatches of the next couple songs, looking ever over my shoulder so I could actually watch for as long as I could.
We got to the merch gauntlet that flanked the funnel to the gate. I was allowed to look at things. Dad said they were too expensive – and they certainly were – but he was already walking away before I could even ask about any of the cheaper things. It was obvious we were leaving way too early: nobody else was up to the same beat-the-crowd tactic, nobody was in the bit of parking lot we could see beyond the gate. I just hoped for something tangible to take with me. But all of it was, apparently, imprudent.
The surliness on my face must have been obvious; he asked if I was mad at him or what. Obviously, I wanted to say “Yes, Dad, I’m mad at you, because you’re making me miss the rest of the show for nothing, and you’re acting like it’s a practical decision, but everything about it is so plainly and objectively stupid.” However, parents are programmed to dispense certain levels of anger, after all, no matter how much or how little trouble their kid is compared to any other one. I think they just don’t believe they’re doing their job right unless they put the fear of god into their offspring every once in a while, whether or not it’s proportionate. Kids I knew in school would talk of getting yelled at and punished for starting fights or cheating on tests or lying; I’d get yelled at and punished for accidentally getting my Frisbee stuck on the roof twice in a day. And, since “talking back” was, to my father, defined as “Having any slightest twinge of dissatisfaction or uncertainty in one’s voice, even when acquiescing,” saying anything remotely close to what I wanted to say would probably have resulted in all my personal possessions being either A) put up in the attic or B) outright sent to Goodwill. So, attempting to navigate the minefield of expressing disappointment without acting spoiled or insouciant, I avoided saying anything about any sort of feeling, and just spoke in the sort of formulaic way I’d later use on bug reports: “I had expected that we would get to see the whole concert. Instead, we’re leaving early.” He retorted that he was just trying to beat the crowd, and was that such a problem?
By some miracle of persuasion, I convinced him to turn back – for just one more song. We got just far enough into the crowd again to see a sliver of stage. I knew that was all I’d get, that he’d already given in twice, and would not brook a third. I tried to make the best of it, though it was something from the new album that I don’t even remember anymore, and I was too annoyed and frustrated to enjoy it. My Latin class had recently taught of Pyrrhic victories, and I wasn’t glad of the real-life example.
The song ended, and off my dad went toward the gate, me trudging behind. Still, there wasn’t a single other person trying to beat the rush – nobody was leaving but us. The gate attendant quirked an eyebrow and asked if we realized we wouldn’t be able to get back in. I remember looking up at my dad, wondering if this, and the completely-personless parking lot beyond, might be enough evidence that there was still a lot more show ahead. But he was undaunted.
Unsurprisingly, another song did play as we made our solitary way through the parking lot toward the charter bus. And another song struck up as we got near enough to see that the bus driver wasn’t even there yet. I could see the back of the stage, hear the slightly-muffled music, the quieted crowd, see the aura of the stage lights, but nothing else. Dad moved toward the bus, but I still trudged, and he asked if I wanted to just sit and listen, or what. So I did. I perched on an uncomfortable wooden post at the edge of the parking lot, and I listened to the next song that came on.
And the next.
And the next.
Finally, it sounded like it was over. The crowd was cheering, the lights were flashing, and Dad was impatient.
Then the encore began.
“Free Falling,” one of my favorite songs since I was young, another that I hadn’t even realized was Tom Petty. And then a cover of “Gloria.” And finally, “American Girl.” Only when “American Girl” was partway finished did a small number of people from our group make their way toward us. And then it was over for real, some ten songs after he first wanted us to leave – some ten songs after it had begun.
I continued watching the back of the stage, resolutely not making eye contact with anyone. Finally, Dad said one of the closest things to an apology I’d ever heard from him, before or since: “I didn’t think it was that important,” said in a way that didn’t quite fail to imply that it was my fault, or my problem, for having decided to be invested in it.
And, honestly, it wasn’t even about how important it was to me. It was the transparent ridiculousness of it all. For someone so practical and pragmatic to waste money by watching only half the show, refuse to listen to reason or the evidence of his own eyes, then spend the rest of it standing around in a parking lot, THEN contextualize my frustration as a purely emotional matter…. it was mindblowing. Still, it was one of the rare times that he’d acknowledge what was important to somebody else and act like it had any bearing on him. It’s not like he was rude or mean or anything, per se – just that he knew what he cared about, he had practical reasons for why they were valuable to him, and he didn’t see the practicality – or therefore the value – of anyone else’s interests. It wasn’t explicitly disparaging or undermining – just not exactly encouraging.
So people began to make their way to the bus in a slow but steady stream. The driver finally arrived, we piled in, and I flung myself into the window seat, flouncing as only a frustrated teenager could flounce – but grateful to sit on something more comfortable than a fencepost. Dad took his seat beside me. I still refused any eye contact with anyone, simply resting my head against the window and looking out at the parking lot.
The allotted half hour passed, which Dad had been so afraid to miss, and people still were filtering in. But when the 40 minute mark came, the two seats in front of us were still empty.
People were encouraging the driver to go on without them – they should’ve known better! They had a whole half-hour and then some! The traffic was backing up! The driver said he wouldn’t actually ditch them – not until it had been a whole hour, anyway. So some empathetic souls said that somebody ought to go looking for them. Others took up the cry, buttocks still firmly in seats. Yes, indeed, Somebody should go looking for them.
And so Somebody did indeed go looking for them.
And that Somebody was my dad.
For all his concern about leaving superabundantly early, making sure we got to the bus on time, making sure we didn’t get left behind or hold anybody back, he was the one who risked getting left behind to go look for the drunken, dallying dipsticks. Meanwhile, I stayed where I was – legs far too sore to walk around, anyway – and hoped that they’d get back in time, and further hoped that I would be insurance enough to keep the bus from leaving. It may just be a hyperbolic memory that makes me remember the driver actually starting to pull out from the parking space before people called for him to wait just a few more minutes.
I really don’t know what I’d have done if he’d left, in all honesty: I couldn’t drive, so even when we got back to the workplace parking lot, I’d have been stranded there, unable to drive the car home. Hell, I wouldn’t have been able to unlock the car, because Dad had the keys. And he also had the family cell phone. I’d have either been stuck sitting on the asphalt at midnight in a factory parking lot, or I’d have had to… what, exactly? Find a pay phone to call home? Hope that one of Dad’s coworkers would hang around with me until Dad showed up in a cab – which would have had to fight all the concert traffic both ways? Nobody else from his work lived even remotely near us, either, so it’s not as if I could have hitched a ride. If the bus left, I was, frankly, completely hosed.
Fortunately, probably an hour or so after the concert actually finished – almost two hours after we’d left it – Dad showed up with the yahoos in tow. They seemed… slightly the worse for drink, as loud and boisterous as Dad was stoic. Everyone took their seats, the driver probably said something snide, and we were off.
I know, really, that I’m lucky, all things considered. To have a dad who’d take me anywhere at all, one who errs on the side of caution more often, instead of doing reckless things. For that to have been the most substantive betrayal of my adolescent trust is… honestly coming out very far ahead, compared to many. Still, it burned. It was my first concert, and – so far as I knew – it would be my only concert. It could have been a great way to have a good time together, but it just turned sour, and it never had to, and it wasn’t something that could just get a do-over.
But I do think he felt bad about it. Because, some years later, there was another concert that I wanted to attend, wanted with an overwhelming abundance of want. For, on April Fool’s Day, a different local venue was going to play host to none other than… “Weird Al” Yankovic. I was dead set on going. And my dad paid for my tickets, to try to make amends. It’s probably the last concert he’d have ever wanted to go to, personally – at least short of Jane Fonda singing an operatic arrangement of the Communist Manifesto. But he knew it was something that was important to me, that it would be fun and probably make me happy – and, even if he couldn’t really share in that, this time he helped me get in the gate.
It worked out fantastically, because I got to spend my earmarked ticket money on a CD and t-shirt to tangibly commemorate one of the best evenings of entertainment of my entire life. I had never been so impressed. Not just with the music, either, though you could tell he was truly playing live. There was even more to it all: AL-TV clips played on giant monitors. Perfectly-timed lighting. Costume changes for virtually every song – even the fat suit! It was beyond brilliant. And when the cheering subsided and the chanting began and the tension rose to its height, and Al and the band came back onstage – in full brown-robed Jedi regalia – the crowd exploded. They launched into The Saga Begins, and followed it up with Yoda – which, I’m fairly certain, was the first Weird Al song I ever heard. (If just, most likely, through the oral folklore of the playground.)
Regardless, there was, again, that shining moment: when Al held his mic out to the crowd, encouraging us all to sing the chorus. And lo, the demented congregation did sing out, such that it might shake the very foundations of the shrine. Without compunction, I was belting along with the best and/or worst of them. But as we sang, to my astonishment, Al and company performed something unheard on any album, a beautiful display of brilliantly bonkers bravura. At last, it all came to a wild accordion-wailing apex, and the crowd cheered loud enough to be heard from space. It was a smaller crowd, to be sure, but a happier crowd, a weirder crowd, a crowd that wasn’t shrouded in smoke or doused in drink, that probably didn’t need to be in order to get attuned to that strange communal frequency – and to raise it into a great reverberating peal of joy.
And, this time, I wasn’t being hurried along by anyone, following some disinterested other’s agenda. This time, I wasn’t there by default. This time, I was seeing it through to the very end, though I was practically deafened and though I thought I’d grinned myself into permanent rictus. And so I – so rarely social, so rarely seeming to mesh with people around me – got to share in a brief but vibrant experience, one that left me feeling the utter antithesis of how I felt that night some years before, sitting on the fencepost at the edge of a parking lot, away from everything and everyone. But, in the end, I think it might not have felt quite so amazing to me if I hadn’t had the discomfort and bad-absurdity of that first concert to compare it to.
But that’s the way of weirdness, I suppose: the people who fall most in love with the satirical and the strange in the media are rarely the ones who feel comforted and empowered in life.
As I said at the beginning, I’ve only been to three concerts in my life.
Two have been Weird Al.
And, if I can somehow scrape together the money – impossible though it would be – I’ve all intentions of going for the trifecta later this year.