PopMatters Associate Music Editor
It’s a curious world we live in, one where a promoter launching a clothing line can charge admission for a birthday party thrown days before the kid’s actual date of birth, with no announced entertainment or solid promise of meeting any celebrities, and the place still sells out. It seems crazy but, apparently, when the “kid” in question is LeBron James, and the party is in honor of his 21st birthday, anything is possible.
At the downtown Cleveland House of Blues, local celebrities, sports figures, urban (not a codeword for “black” in this instance) hipsters, urban (this time, a codeword for “black”) life, and suburban money mingled. There were three levels of admittance; a pecking order to be sure. A thousand of James’ “friends” were separated between three tiers: the $50 General Admission ticket holders, with access to the Music Hall and the promise of a “surprise musical guest”; the $300 VIP ticket holders, who gained access to the cliché-reinforcing Hennessey-sponsored Cambridge Room; and the invitation-only V-VIP pass holders, blessed with all-access roaming, from both levels of the Foundation Room to the Cambridge Room and the Music Hall.
When my buddy, a co-sponsor of the event, asked my wife and me if we wanted to attend to help get the word out about his illuminated cufflinks (i.e., wear the cufflinks and mill about, talk people up and hand out business cards), our allegiance to our friend coupled with our curiosity and the promise of free drinks made the offer too good to pass up. And, we were not disappointed. Of course, the major stars who received invites (Oprah, Jay-Z, Usher, etc.) weren’t really going to show, but at least we got to rub shoulders and chat with players from the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Cleveland Browns.
But more interesting than that, we had a front row seat for a societal freak show. The most fascinating and entertaining aspect of the night was the mix of attendees, their motivation for shelling out their hard-earned money, and the clear lines of demarcation between the various pass holders and their designations.
Situated between the box office, coat check, and doors to the Cambridge Room and the Music Hall, we had an incredible vantage point to both observe and become a part of the early disorder of the event. We watched the line snake down the block while security frisked patrons, and then watched them submit to more delays as they were wanded before gaining access to their respective destinations. (As all-access pass holders, we were waved through every doorway—never stopped or held up in our movement from room to room.) There was a little bit of everything on sartorial display: jeans, t-shirt, and ball cap ensembles, French-cuffed metrosexual hipster garb, and full-on suits of every flavor. The characters inhabiting the costumes ranged from creepy old guys to young women, stunning couples, and thugs. While endlessly amusing, the mix made it nearly impossible to predict which room someone would queue for.
In the VIP Cambridge Room, a DJ worked opposite the open bar, and an oversized fireplace blazed while all manner of people crammed into the space. The two-level Foundation Room provided more breathing room in the private dining space, and was where the high-profile guests hid most of the night. The bar area of the Foundation Room was populated by well-dressed, well-known locals. It was loud enough that it felt like a party but quiet enough to allow conversation.
Rumor has it that the throwers of the party originally wanted to use Quicken Arena (“The Q” as it was foolishly dubbed by the people who renamed the venue in the first place.), but the NBA stepped in and nixed that idea. When we finally made our way into the Music Hall (around midnight), we were knocked over by the contact buzz—I’d say the party relocation was probably the best PR decision the league has made in months.
From the balcony of the Music Hall, we saw the entire stage overflowing, packed with close to 50 people, and exploding in a storm of beats and rhymes. And at the center of the hurricane was “special guest” Lil’ Wayne, with the birthday boy towering beside him. The overhead screens scattered throughout the hall alternated between a James highlights reel and live shots of the evening’s events. And the partiers—the bottom-deck-of-the-Titanic people, the “fifty dollar” denizens—were having the time of their lives. The masses were singing and dancing, and women were screaming. People were lighting up on stage while others milled about. The entire scene was crazy and scary and everyone was gobbling it up.
The party started to break up around two-thirty in the morning. The upper-most level of the Foundation Room was closed; the last call was given in the Foundation Room bar; and the house lights were up in the Cambridge Room. The throng of partygoers spilled out into the icy night and onto Euclid Avenue.
Our biggest mistake (from a convenience standpoint) was our decision to valet the car instead of parking a few blocks away. While out on the sidewalk killing the half-hour-plus wait for our car to be returned, we watched as the established hierarchy from inside the venue quickly dissolved. Suddenly, it didn’t matter if you had a stupid lanyard with a coated “all access” badge. Everyone’s equal when you’re freezing your ass off in the middle of the night in downtown Cleveland.
And it didn’t matter if you rolled in a Hummer, a stretch SUV, or a beater. There were professional football players in arguments with fans, drunken girls skittering amid stop-and-start traffic, weaselly white boys playing the wannabe role, moneyed middle-age couples in their suits and furs—all held hostage by the overwhelmed valets and the traffic-mangling Cleveland Police.
It turns out that money, youth, and celebrity are big enough forces to sustain a happening like this. There were black and white fans, overdressing and under-dressing (and barely dressing), obvious affluence, and blatant phonies. And, other than the handful of invited, every one of them paid for their ticket to be there, to say they attended LeBron James’ 21st birthday party. And while it was a gaudy and messy display of excess and privilege, we couldn’t help but get caught up in the night.