Prompt 333: Write about the first concert you ever attended as well as how you feel about the musician’s music today.
“Good evening, SAN-TA BAR-BA-RA!” Such was how lead singer of Green Day, Billie Joe Armstrong, kicked things off.
I was 14. A lot of momentous things happened when I was 14. Most importantly: first year of high school. I was a freshman and you couldn’t touch me, because despite the fact that I was the baby of the school and lived in constant fear of some upperclassman administering the ubiquitous high school urban legend known as a “swirlie” (look it up), I was now a high schooler–which meant I didn’t have to wear the dorky junior high school uniform (replete with polos and ill-fitting slacks) anymore. I could wear whatever I wanted. This was a huge deal because this was also the first year I got to go to Hot Topic BY MYSELF. No mom trailing me around the store. Just me and my post-punk sensibilities and a week’s worth of allowance and very intimidating alternative girls behind the counter. (Please note: they were not intimidating because they were alternative. They were intimidating because they were girls.)
The night of the SAN-TA BAR-BA-RA concert, I proudly sported one my recent Hot Topic purchases–a t-shirt emblazoned with The Clash’s London Calling album art. We had come to Santa Barbara for the weekend. It was summer and our family friends from Canada were staying with us. My mom, her friend, my brother, my mom’s friend’s son Spencer (one of my best friends from my Canada days) and I crammed ourselves into my mom’s Ford Taurus and made the two hour journey, with only a handful of alphabet games and our Discman’s to keep us company–the bare necessities! The clothes on our backs (and backpacks also on our backs) and extra double-a batteries JUST IN CASE!
As we walked up to the concert venue, I was struck by how perfect the whole thing was: it was one of those inimitable Southern California evenings, where the dusk sky was hued orange and the cool breeze off the Pacific provided a natural mellow. Barry (my older brother), Spencer, and I had pretty amazing tickets: down in the pit, standing, so close to the stage. For a first time concert-goer, it spoiled me. As we walked past security, a burly older gentleman saw my Clash t-shirt and stopped me.
“Kid, you like The Clash?” his demeanor gruff, but tone pleasant.
“Yeah, I love them.”
“Wow,” he said. “That’s awesome!”
Validation achieved! The aging security guy approved my anachronistic taste in pop music! I was, hands down, the coolest kid in the entire world!
Randomly, I ran into some kids from high school. There was about 4 of them (if memory serves). I was shocked to see them all the way in SAN-TA BAR-BA-RA. They must have moms too! Those moms must own cars! Serendipity!
I knew the boys but I wasn’t close to any of them. I stopped and said hi and then proceeded to completely blank on one boy’s name. Ironically though because I forgot it then, I remember it now: Tim. Tim was friends with James and I want to say Scott and the fourth boy’s identity is lost to the ravages of time. I was a pretty solitary kid throughout my high school life. I had my close friends and we stuck to ourselves. This little self-imposed exile meant that I formed really close bonds with that group, but missed out on the collective experience. Even back then, I remember realizing the power that pop culture allows teens: you think that you’re alone and this band/movie/TV show/book/comic series is something you and you alone enjoy, but really it’s the opposite. You’re part of a community of fans and appreciators and that’s the type of stuff that brings people together.
The opening band was an Australian punk band called The Living End. My brother had Napster’d some of their stuff because God forbid we weren’t aware of a semi-obscure Australian outfit. What if Green Day quizzed us on them? We would be ready! We had the Internet!
I don’t know if The Living End are still around, but I remember their bassist was really impressive: he played an acoustic, stand-up bass and stood atop it, like a pogo stick and leapt around the stage. It was Cirque Du Soleil but set to a lot distortion.
Green Day took the stage and the pit came alive with energy, dopamine surging through our collective consciousness like a rock’n’roll hive mind. This was around the year 2000 so their latest album at the time was Warning–an album that still holds a special place in my heart and, to me, serves as marketed shift in Green Day’s discography (but that’s a different post for a different time).
When the music started, I suddenly realized that I hadn’t the slightest clue what to do. Up until that point, music had never been a shared experience for me. I listened to music in my room, on my headphones so as not to disturb my parents (so punk, I know), rocking out and air guitaring to my heart’s content. I was never a dancer or singer. Did I have to dance at the concert? Other people were singing along. Did I have to sing along? I knew most of the lyrics, especially to my favorite songs, but I thought singing was the job of, y’know, the singer.
Thankfully, this was a rock concert so dancing was limited to something I could handle: jumping. And not even real jumping. You were swarmed by people so basically your job was to thrust your hands as high as you could into the night sky, make the “Rock On” symbol with your fingers (balled fist, index finger and pinky extended, sort of like what Spider-Man does to shoot his webs), and bounce on the balls of your feet to what was hopefully the rhythm of the song. This was dancing I could handle.
Oh and you were supposed to scream. A lot.
The screaming thing, for me, took some getting used to. I was a self-conscious 14-year-old who spent most of his time watching Buffy, The Vampire Slayer on The WB (it will never be the CW, let it be known). Now I was surrounded by people! Screaming, bouncy people! And I was expected to do the same! And some of them…were girls!
The good news about being part of a collective is that you’re part of a giant throng of people and nobody cares how dorky you look. This music starts and your brain goes, “Hey! I know this song!” and all of a sudden the lyrics to “Brain Stew” are spilling out your mouth. It’s one of the glorious things about pop music: it conditions you to respond and then you just do.
Thankfully, Green Day fans were (generally) a group of people just like me: teenagers, little bit angsty, thinking we were all being rebellious by wearing a lot of black and looking sideways at the supposedly jerky jocks. (Side note: funny thing when you graduate high school. You look back and see that jocks? Not actually jerks. Yay, perspective!)
At one point Billie Joe solicited requests from the audience. I was beyond my self-conscious screaming phobia and the words: “PLAY ‘WALKING CONTRADICTION’!” escaped from my mouth like a command from a teenage Zeus. My friend Spencer took my cause and yelled, “‘WALKING CONTRADICTION’!”
Then, suddenly, a voice from behind: “YEAH! HEY! PLAY ‘WALKING CONTRADICTION.’”
I turned around. It was just some kid. Some other kid who really wanted to hear the song “Walking Contradiction”. I was flabbergasted. Somebody else wanted to hear this song? Really? A-W-E-S-O-M-E.
However, our grassroots cause of three “Walking Contradiction” fans was drowned out by a sea of other fans and it wasn’t played. I didn’t care. They ended up playing one of their earlier songs from way back in their “Kerplunk” days, an album that I hadn’t gotten yet, but purchased at a grungy CD store the next day while toiling the streets of SAN-TA BAR-BA-RA.
Finally, one last little tale that I feel is appropriate: A girl approached me. Let me say that again, in all caps, italicized, on its own line, just so you can get how amazingly goddamn monumental this was.
A. GIRL. APPROACHED. ME.
She was shorter than I and clearly judged my tall-for-my-age and stocky shoulders as a good person to whom an ask a favor.
“Hey,” she said, “can you give me a boost?”
I had no idea what she meant. But nonetheless I literally and figuratively swept her off her feet, she sat atop my shoulders for the rest of the night and now we are married.
Except, yeah, no. She asked for a boost and I, even in my complete ignorance as to what a “boost” was, obliged.
Now, if you’re asked to give a girl a boost, here is what she most, likely suspects: you squat down, she gets on your shoulders, and you hope and pray that the seemingly-pointless dead lifts you’ve done in Mr. Cota’s PE class actually had some effect and you stand back up here like a high school Hercules, demigod of lifting pretty punk girls!
This is not what I did. The only “boosts” I had ever given were the type where you lace your fingers together, creating a make-shift foothold of sorts, and then you vault your lightweight friend over whatever wall or fence you’re trying to climb. So, that’s what I did. Like a genius. I lifted her maybe a foot off the ground for maybe 5 seconds before she and I realized that this was incredibly awkward and weird.
“Thanks,” she said, politely and disappeared back into the crowd.
I looked at Spencer. Our teenage-boy brains communicated telepathically. Sure, I bungled the boost but:
A. GIRL. APPROACHED. ME. AND I TALKED TO HER. AND I TOUCHED THE SOLE OF HER SHOE.
Over the next five months, Green Day is set to release their 9th, 10th, and 11th albums. I’m not gonna lie: I’ll buy them. But let’s be real, I won’t go to their shows. I still really like Green Day and think their conceptual “punk operas” have been really good and innovative and I like that the band is growing in interesting artistic ways. But they have to market their music to high schoolers because that’s where the money is. I get it. If I went to show now, I’d be the guy flabbergasted by the kid wearing the Hot Topic Clash t-shirt. And that’s what growing up is all about: perspective. Seeing things in new ways, learning about new experiences and, ultimately, finding ways to connect with other people.
That’s what I took away from my first concert experience: old friends, new people, for 90 minutes all sharing in something that spoke to us for whatever reason.
And I’ll never forget it. Mainly because
A. GIRL. APPROACHED. ME.