I ran breathlessly through the empty concourses under the stands like Dustin Hoffman in The Marathon Man. I hadn’t signed up for this shit. What kind of lunatic brings his pregnant wife – one who is ready to pop at any moment – to a stadium show? I spotted a paramedics station and minutes later we were back. I smirked proudly at the elderly smart-ass, until the paramedic turned to me and said, “We need your help to get her out. Grab one end of the stretcher.” Oh really? Just two emergency personnel for 12,000 people?
I had never gone down a flight of stairs that gingerly in my life. I was on the verge of panic myself: “Don’t let me drop her…please…please…please.” The Rat Pack were holding court out in the middle of the arena - a live orchestra (conducted by Sinatra’s son) was wailing away - and the crowd was screaming as I edged down those endless steps. I needed oxygen when we made it out. The husband gave me a bear-hug (and sent a thank you note later). AC/DC played the following week.
Cock-rock was all the rage on MTV then, but I wasn’t even remotely arsed about Poison, Mötley Crüe, Def Leppard, Bon Jovi or Whitesnake. My tastes and opinions were too hardened (courtesy of those procurers back in India) by the time I arrived in America. Hardened enough to get into violent arguments and bar fights with American friends:
“Yes, Phil Collins is an idiot who has ruined Genesis…just like Ronnie James Dio with Black Sabbath…Eddie Van Halen is a severely over-rated guitarist and Stevie Ray Vaughan can kick his ass in his sleep…The Eagles are just a mediocre band, driven only by Don Henley’s insecurities and need to prove himself…Neil Peart is not human…Metallica have sold out to crass commercialization…Page and Plant are cheap assholes for trying to brazenly rip-off blues artists like Willie Dixon…Duran Duran are just a bunch of wannabe porn-stars…and no, I will not take sides in the Roger Waters vs. David Gilmour debate.”
The only thing that shut me up was when they started discussing and comparing concerts they had been to. The longing and obsession to see live concerts was still intense. The usher’s gig had finally let the monkey into the mango orchard. Then the sudden realization that there was more fruit to be picked – and right outside my university.
The jolt came one early morning with a full page advertisement in the Arizona Republic announcing the local stop on Roger Waters’ American tour. My reaction was speechlessness and a faint feeling of disbelief that this had to be a dream. The nagging anxiety persisted up to the moment when the stadium lights dimmed to the ominous strains of Welcome to the Machine as my eyes misted over, blurring Gerald Scarfe’s animated beast thundering out from the projection screen.
Somebody up above must have attended engineering school too, for Jethro Tull followed right in Waters’ wake. The chill in the air that night reduced a hilariously garrulous Ian Anderson’s voice to a croak, forcing him to blast through the last hour of the show as instrumentals. And you could only thank your good fortune as they ripped into extended versions of Cross-eyed Mary and Locomotive Breath. And I was the proud owner of my first tour shirt that night!
A lot has changed since my Ph.D. days. It seems like it was yesterday that I walked into a Tower Records in Tempe, Arizona and felt like the desperate Viggo Mortensen in The Road stumbling upon a bunker full of food supplies in the middle of a barren landscape; felt like Adrian Brody in The Pianist holding onto a precious tin of fruit when fingering the magical artwork of a vinyl copy of Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti.
My musical tastes began to evolve and undergo radical changes. That which was brewing when boarding a flight to the USA from India grew into an obsession with Chicago and Mississippi Delta blues. At some point I stumbled upon Alan Lomax and a lot changed. New Orleans jazz, funk, Brooklyn punk and more edgier music also took over. Mammoth arena concerts took a backseat to smaller venues, clubs and more intimate shows. I began to feel more at home at Tipitinas and Kingston Mines.
But the expulsion of the pent up desperation of those days made me a slave to the live performance. New releases still bring forth an immediate conjuring of the possibilities of live versions of a song. I’m always searching for the epiphany when things fall into place and the moment is lived in the hands of the creators of the music.
Yes, those days did a number on the mind. And left behind a collage of indelible moments that still tingles the spine:
…Carlos Santana, days after Nelson Mandela’s release from prison, walking up to the microphone: “This one’s for you Mandela,” and proceeding to play a gorgeous twenty minute solo to start the concert.
…Sun Devil stadium in Tempe, shivering with a high fever in the Arizona heat as 80,000 voices sang every line of every song along with Paul McCartney for two hours.
…Peter Gabriel’s excruciatingly beautiful versions of Solsbury Hill and Games Without Frontiers that were so beautiful I can’t bring myself to hear the album versions any more.
...trying to muscle in through mobs and running through pitch darkness into the stadium just as Richard Wright’s keyboard and David Gilmour’s exquisite guitar strains opened up with Shine On You Crazy Diamond (and arguing with my brother, the usher, that I had no intentions of moving and finding my seat till the song was over).
…battling a hangover on the flight back and studying for a final exam after being talked into flying to Detroit for twenty four hours by a mate to see the Rolling Stones at the Pontiac Silverdome.
…Bob Dylan, alone on stage with a spotlight on him, strumming to Blowin’ in the Wind. A night when my room-mate (another deprivation survivor from India) and I drove straight from the show to a record store and bought up the entire Dylan catalog on CD.
Nowadays, it is a world of stifling abundance and Google is the only procurer you need to befriend. But some scars never heal, some itches can never be scratched enough. Even after a zillion shows that familiar panic still sets in when browsing a local rag and happening upon a concert advertisement. Sucks you right in and without thinking you are back in line again, lest you miss out on a once-in-a-lifetime gig.
Roger Waters wants to tear down The Wall and you show up to see it demolished. Steely Dan want to preach the gospel of the Bodhisattva and you turn pious all over again. Rush, your brothers from Toronto, invite you over for the evening. Surely you’re not going to decline that? And you have no choice but to show up for Motörhead, just to yell back in the affirmative when Lemmy asks, “Oi, you alright?”
It had been threatening rain all day in Toronto and it came in sheets as we entered the amphitheater. Being right next to the grey and frothing lake lashed by lightning made the situation more desperate. It was twilight and it wasn’t looking promising.
Just as they took the stage - miraculously - the skies parted. The sun was dipping under the skyline and we stood gawking at a perfect rainbow suspended over the crowd.
Every Radiohead show has reduced my brain to pulp; knocked the stuffing right out. Made me swear to myself that I would not soil its memory by attending another concert ever in my life.
The hypnotic and gorgeous end to their “In Rainbows” show – as Thom and gang disappeared one by one, leaving behind just dazzling tubes of light on stage flashing to the throbbing refrain of “Everything in its Right Place”, reducing us to rapturous agony.
So it continues…
Sci-Fi Author Ursula LeGuin's Stories of Class War, Religious Dissension, Identity Politics and More