[4 July 2011]
“No Alcohol or Firearms” read a perplexing but ominous sign near the entrance. Then I remembered, we were in Arizona.
The jostling to get through to the turnstiles was rowdy, but the mood still had a tone of booze-soaked cheeriness about it. Surrounded on all sides by what looked like Hell’s Angels with their leather-clad vixens, we waited in the long line as it inched forward. An uncomfortably thorough full body search later, we were in. By this time the looks we were getting were making us uneasy.
Clinging to our plastic cups of beer we gingerly made our way through throngs of sprawled bodies, grinning uncomfortably at the stares from our fellow concert goers. The damned Arizona sun took its own sweet time setting. After what seemed like an eternity the lights went out and it was in the comfort and anonymity of darkness that we finally found our voices.
Lacking a mullet and tattoos had meant bucking the fashion trend that night, but being the only three Indians dressed like nerdy graduate students (which we were) we had stuck out like…like three church ladies at a biker convention. Yes, the darkness was our friend.
At that time Ted Nugent was still a ways off from the right-wing nut job he eventually morphed into. He was yet to take his U.S Army sanctioned celebratory crap in Saddam Hussein’s palace in Baghdad (“I shat in his bidet” he proclaimed), call Obama a “piece of shit” and evangelize the recreational hunting of baby deer with assault rifles. Here he was, fronting an attempt at resurrection by forming the pompously touted super-group Damned Yankees. Alongside him was Tommy Shaw, who had inflicted on us the aural enema of Styx’s Too Much Time on My Hands. Too much time indeed!
And Bad Company. Little did we know then that Paul Rodgers would eventually blaspheme his way into rock and roll hell by fronting a reincarnation of Queen concocted by a delusional Brian May. His over-earnest voice, famous for crooning limp arena anthems, was to end up playing to busloads of Japanese tourists politely nodding their heads to Another One Bites the Dust. Roll over Freddie!
So, that night in Arizona it was a double-bill of two bands well past their expiry date. But desperation born out of deprivation is seldom a bulwark of good taste. It was desperation that had led to our nabbing tickets the day the concert was announced. A desperation born out of growing up in the cooler. In solitary confinement. In complete sensory deprivation.
I grew up in Bangalore, India and Bangalore (or anywhere in India) in the 1980s was not exactly frothing at the edges with concerts of the cream of the world’s best bands. It was a black hole of live music – no one toured India those days.
In fact the black hole ran deeper. Coca-Cola and IBM were the iconic outcasts of India’s perverted economic policies in the 80s. Protectionism ran rampant, with astronomical import duties being heaped on anything and everything manufactured abroad. I hated the taste of Coke and had no use for computers (yet), but the fallout of India’s policy delusion hit closer: music got caught in the crossfire.
It made it virtually impossible to walk into a record store and buy an album of a band you cared about. No major record company had a presence in India and a visit to HMV (our version of Tower Records) would yield nuggets fit only for a retirement home. An entire generation got shafted by the hanky-panky of bigger powers – something I resent even to this day. For it left the nurturing of musical tastes to chance and the musical pedigree of one’s social circle.
But it was also a time when Indians were zealously setting roots in universities across the United States. At any point in time everyone knew someone who was heading off to a Stanford or Notre Dame. It wasn’t just the higher echelon of American academia that got infiltrated, we had brothers available to browse and scrounge around for music even in Butthole, Arkansas. Screw Silicon Valley, we now had access to CCR and Lynyrd Skynyrd.
You just had to know the right people. Or the people who knew the right people. It was an elaborate dance of procurement. You classified your friends into dealers, pushers, hoarders, misers and philanthropists. Sucked up to the dork you would normally sneer at only to get your paws on his Black Sabbath tapes. Tolerated the dude who was obsessed with the Moody Blues just because he knew a guy who had Rush tapes. Rode your motorcycle across town when the phone call came that a new recording of Metallica had just arrived from Texas. Hung out with the idiot who couldn’t get enough of Foreigner, for his brother had good quality Bowie and Cream recordings.
Yes, these “procurers” were your life and proceeded to set your music tastes in stone. In those days it went like this: if you attended engineering school in India, it automatically consigned you to a life of Led Zeppelin, Eric Clapton, Black Sabbath, Dire Straits, Jethro Tull and of course, Pink Floyd. The rest of the kids were classified into: the smart-asses who dug Dylan, The Clash and Lou Reed; the nancy-boys who listened to Duran Duran and George Michael; bottom feeders who moaned over bilge like Journey and REO Speedwagon and the enlightened ones who were into Kraftwerk and Frank Zappa.
I attended engineering school and was surrounded by the rest. And I begged, borrowed, copied, stole from and traded with every one of them. But, I had never met anyone in my life who had attended a concert of any of these bands. It is vicious when you can’t even live vicariously. Occasionally, a tattered copy of Rolling Stone would materialize (airport purchase of a vacationing brother from MIT probably) and we would pore over reviews of concerts in it. Bruce Springsteen’s four hour shows were already legendary in our minds.
The closest I had come to a watershed moment was when Shakti - the fusion band with John McLaughlin and three Indian classical music gods - played a show in Bangalore. It was a brilliant night, but it just heaped more evidence on our heads that there was voodoo and some seriously bad mojo at work. Mahavishnu showed up in Bangalore with his guitar picking hand in a cast, having broken it in Bombay in a freak accident! Soon after I would arrive in Arizona for grad school. Yes, there was the small matter of a PhD to contend with but I had no inkling of what would happen next.
Just months after landing in Tempe, an acquaintance – another Indian graduate student, a nice enough guy who always looked at me with pity (possibly disdain) at what he considered a pagan lifestyle - let drop that he knew a girl who worked as an event coordinator at the ASU Activity Center (now the Wells Fargo Arena), the Arizona State University basketball stadium that doubled as a concert venue! I was on my knees in an instant, begging for an introduction. And to my utter surprise (bless his geeky little heart) he obliged.
The job of an usher at the stadium was as follows: armed with a flashlight, you directed concert goers to their seats. Once the show started, you kept watch on the crowd in your section (ergo, you stood with your back to the stage) looking for lowlife lighting up spliffs surreptitiously. I instinctively knew I was over-qualified for this and proceeded to make an ass of myself, aggressively convincing Susan (the event coordinator chick) about my dexterity with flashlights and commitment to eradicate the use of weed for recreational purposes. Maybe it was pity again, but I had walked out delirious with my first (non-paying, mind you) job in the US of A.
I almost got fired on my very first night on the job. When Robert Plant launched into Black Dog I must have completely lost it. Lost it badly, for Susan was livid at the end of the night. Dereliction of duty was the accusation. But do you know how hard it is to look up at rows of seats stretching into oblivion in darkness and pin-point where the tell-tale flash of a lighter came from? I had dished out the odd “Hide it man, don’t get caught” advice but did she really understand what it meant to stand there in the presence (the freakin’ flesh!) of Led Zeppelin? Did she know of the years spent conjuring up visions of Dazed and Confused and The Immigrant Song lying in bed back home in Bangalore?
Turn my back to the stage and look at the crowd? You gotta be shitting me.
Crosby, Stills and Nash followed a few weeks later but I could muster up only a tepid interest in it; would have been a completely different matter had it been CSNY. Or just the Y. There were a few oddball events. Hank Williams Jr. turned out to be a hoot – I knew squat about country music, but could not believe how insane the crowd was! Yes, the levee was well and truly broken.
Susan read the riot act to us one night: “Those planning to break a leg, come down with chicken pox or attend a funeral next Saturday are warned. Anyone skipping that show is scratched off the list automatically for AC/DC that follows.” Gulp!
I had shown up early for Frank Sinatra, Sammy Davis Jr. and Liza Minnelli and it turned out to be a surreal night. The security was astonishing: Men In Black style dark suited secret-service men with earpieces combed the empty stands. They were everywhere, jogging in front of the arriving limos like Clint Eastwood in In the Line of Fire. Mob hit fears for Ol’ Blue Eyes, I had reminded myself. My dad would have enjoyed the show.
The sellout crowd was in some kind of religious frenzy when someone grabbed my shoulder. I turned my flashlight on a sweating and quivering face in the throes of panic. “You better come with me,” he said, grabbing my arm and dragging me up the steps. We stopped mid-row in the nose-bleeds, and I shone my flashlight on another sweating face - as she leaned back in her seat, almost horizontal, her legs apart. She looked unconscious. “Her water has broken and she seems to be in a lot of pain. Do something!” yelled sweaty face No. 1 in my ear. “Go. Make yourself useful,” trumpeted a smart-ass elderly gentleman behind her.
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…