You never forget your first concert.
That’s the line I had planned to open with as I embark on an examination of the first concert experience but I’m afraid it’s not very accurate. Over the last week, I’ve asked a few dozen friends and acquaintances to recall the first time they saw a major music act perform live. What I’ve learned is that sometimes people do forget their first concert.
Oh, they remember whose name was on the marquee but the specifics of the show itself — what songs were on the set list, what jokes were cracked, what pieces of equipment were destroyed in fits of macho bluster — these things sometimes get lost in a purple haze. What people remember is all the stuff around the concert; begging your mom to let you go, sitting next to intimidating weirdos, rocking your concert T-shirt the next week at school, etc. These are the memories that endure.
The recollections almost always start with parental negotiations. “I begged and begged my parents to let me see Billy Idol but they said no,” my boyfriend John Michael recalls, pushing out his lower lip to illustrate the bummer-ness of it all. “To make up for it, they surprised me with tickets to see Alabama at the Civic Center in Beaumont, Texas. I remember sitting there thinking, ‘This isn’t the same.’”
Parents equal buzzkill
Most of my respondents agree that first concert plus parents in tow equal major buzzkill. “My first concert was Sandi Patti, the gospel singer,” says a still mortified Mike. “My parents sat there the whole time with their fingers in their ears, screaming, ‘It’s too loud!’ You’d have thought it was Megadeth.”
Maybe he should have done what Kathleen did: left her mom the car while she and some gal pals got their Sting on at the Police Synchronicity tour. “My mom dropped us off then sat in the car the whole time,” marvels Kathleen. “Lord knows what she was thinking for two hours out there in the parking lot.”
Erin’s mom didn’t start the show in the parking lot. She just ended up there. “My mom took me and my friend Kathy to see Eddie Murphy Raw when I was 12,” Erin tells me.
Isn’t Eddie a little racy for a 12-year-old? “Yes, but we thought he was just going to do sketches like on ‘Saturday Night Live.’ The Weather Girls, who sang “It’s Raining Men,” opened and no one wanted to hear them and people started booing. Eventually, they got pissed off and left. Then Eddie came on and stamped on the floor and said, ‘You have to check the floor after the Weather Girls are on it,’ which made me laugh but stung a bit because I was a heavy kid. Then he proceeded to do the filthiest concert this 12-year-old had ever heard! My mom just about had a heart attack, stormed out and said, ‘I’ll wait for you outside’!”
Was there hell to pay back at home? “We never spoke of it again,” says Erin.
Jerry remembers his family being similarly scandalized by the campy ventriloquist act Wayland Flowers and Madame who opened for Melissa Manchester at Los Angeles’ Universal Amphitheatre when Jerry was eight. “I’m sure I laughed at things I didn’t understand,” says Jerry, “but the thing I remember most is my mother glaring at my father with a how-dare-you look that burned right through him. I knew my dad was in trouble, but by the end of the night, Melissa’s ‘Come In From The Rain’ washed it all away.”
Getting there was half the fun
I’m happy to report that my parents didn’t insist on crashing my first concert, Pat Benatar in Phoenix, Ariz. in 1982. They did lay down some rules, though. I was going with some high school friends. Phoenix was three hours away from my hometown of Holbrook and none of our parents wanted any of us driving in “the big city” by ourselves so my friend Colleen’s older brother had to drive up from Phoenix and meet us in a town halfway. It was like we were hostages being transferred to Benatar Bay. It was a lot of trouble to go through to hear Pat sing about putting another notch in her lipstick case, but it was well worth it. At least I think it was. I don’t remember anything about the show itself except that I liked it.
Ah yes, light shows. If people remember anything about the shows themselves, it had more to do with spectacle than performance. Amy recalls the colorful sleeves of Barry Manilow’s “Copacabana” shirt. Ossie remembers how the Beastie Boys opened their concert with a live dog show. Seriously, a live dog show. Dave recalls the “very, very yellow pair of Sassoon jeans” Rupert Holmes was wearing when he sang “The Pina Colada Song” at Six Flags in St. Louis.
Maile is still traumatized by the white pants worn commando style by Styx guitarist Tommy Shaw at a show in Germany. “As he jammed and got more and more sweaty, they became semi-transparent,” recalls Maile who was an impressionable 16 at the time. “He also seemed to be getting excited, if you know what I mean. I remember giggling with my girlfriends but it was sort of dirty so we didn’t really talk about it.”
At least he was wearing clothes. Kate remembers seeing the Spice Girls — all of the Spice Girls — in L.A. when she was 13. “They did this number where they were naked behind these chairs,” says Kate. “It embarrassed me.” Well, that’s one way to find out if Ginger really is.
Meanwhile, Norman was at a Kiss concert in Toronto hoping to see something so shocking and was gravely disappointed. “I kept waiting and waiting for Gene Simmons to spit blood,” he carps. “I was so far back that all I remember is the crowd yelling and screaming and I looked up and it was over. You can’t really see some guy in leather spitting out ketchup when you’re that far back. Thank God for all the video screens they have today.” That’s right, Norman. Thanks to the wonders of modern technology, no blood-spitting goes unwitnessed.
Olivia Newton John didn’t spit blood during her “Physical” tour, but she did jump rope, an act of derring-do that many friends remember vividly. (That’s the crowd I roll in, what can I say?) My friend Tom, though, also remembers more how she made her entrance by stepping through a slit in the screen where the show’s intro montage had just been projected. “My 14-year-old hormone-addled brain just completely vapor-locked,” he says, as though he still can’t believe it was humanly possible.
(On a sidenote, I saw that same concert. I bought four tickets thinking that someone I knew would want the extra pair but no one did so I posted a notice on the bulletin board at school. The next time I walked by it I saw that someone had written ‘Slut rock’ on my lovingly designed Olivia flyer. At first I was offended but then I figured, ‘If the headband fits…’ I got no nibbles at all and ended up giving the tickets away to a friend.)
The idiots in the crowd
See, first concert, like life, ain’t always fair. Some people remember more about the jerks around them, than the performers they paid their whole allowance to see. John remembers a woman and her young son playing with fire during one of Elvis’ last hurrahs. “She would hold up her lighter during like, ‘Love Me Tender’ and then the little boy would blow it out,” recalls John, laughing at the memory. “Well, she wasn’t going to have that brat ruining her Elvis buzz so she adjusted the flame to be really high. The next time he tried to blow it out, he nearly singed his eyebrows off.” Cell phones have since replaced lighters as the light-up symbol of crowd devotion, which is kind of a shame because you can’t burn your kid with a cell phone.
My friend Doug went from euphoria to terror in the blink of an eye thanks to the headbangers who were sitting in front of him at an ELO concert in New Jersey in the late ’70s. “I had taken a bunch of great photos with my mother’s Kodak Instamatic,” he says, “but while I was jumping up and down in excitement, my camera flew out of my jacket pocket and hit this mulleted rocker chick in front of us on the head, then smashed on the ground and popped open, exposing the film.” Doug looks like he could cry at the very thought of it. “The girl was crying and really mad at me, like I did it on purpose, and her boyfriend kept turning around to give me the evil eye,” he says. “Here it was, my first concert, my favorite rock group in the world. I had no pictures and two strangers were going to kick my ass as soon as the lights go up. It was devastating.”
Doug fled the arena during the encore in fear, not even stopping to buy a T-shirt, which everyone will tell you is a key ingredient of the first concert experience. “My Go-Gos Vacation Tour T-shirt was like a badge of honor to me,” asserts Darren. “I wore it so much that it eventually just disintegrated.”
The power of the T-shirt
I can relate to that because the most vivid and cherished memory I have of my Benatar outing was indeed T-shirt related. I bought a shirt at the show that said “Crimes of Passion” on the back and proudly wore it to school. There was a bad boy who sat behind me in history class named Dwayne who was always cool to me, even though I was a goody-goody and he was a pot-smoking, sex-having rebel. One day, Dwayne spent one entire class period writing different crimes of passion in the block letters on my back in ink, like in the letter “I” he wrote, “Incest.” Charming, right? Yet, I would be lying if I said it wasn’t an erotic experience. I knew I would have to turn it inside out to get through the rest of the school day without incident, but it was a small price to pay to have the charismatic school bad boy pay that much attention to me.
And while we’re on the subject of rebellion, no discussion of first concert experiences would be complete without mentioning something that came up in more stories than not: the unmistakable smell of pot smoke. No concert arena seemed immune to it, not even the stage where Laura Branigan performed at the World’s Fair in New Orleans in the mid-’80s. “My mom didn’t want me to go because she was afraid I’d smell pot there,” recalls Shane. “And then I did! I felt so debauched. It was like, ‘Yes!’ Now, every time I hear that song ‘Gloria’ I feel a little natural high.”
Occasionally, the shows themselves can deliver that same high — when the distracting external elements fall away and all that remains is the connection between the artist on stage and you. My friend Brett saw Scandal open for Billy Idol in Pittsburgh in the early ’80s. “The place was packed and energy in the room was popping,” he says, eagerly setting the scene. “I remember how funky and edgy all the other fans were compared to nerdy me and my little friend Michelle. So we ended up pretty close the stage and at one point Patty Smyth knelt down while she was singing and reached out to shake hands with people.” At this point, Brett closes his eyes wistfully, and I’ll admit I’m starting to feel a bit jealous. “So I thrust my hand up. I had to really reach, reach, reach, and then I felt her grasp it!” Brett’s eyes snap open. “Then I looked up and she was smiling and singing right at my ninth grade self!” Brett sighs at the memory, then smiles. “I think of that every time I hear ‘The Warrior’!”
Big whoop, I think. It’s not like she wrote the word “Incest” on his back.
Dennis Hensley is the author of the books “Misadventures in the (213)”and “Screening Party” and is a co-host of the radio show, Twist. www.dennishensley.com