The first concert I ever saw was KISS. It was 1979, I was 10 years old, and they were supporting the album Dynasty. My mom was chaperoning me, which had me mortified… Until I got to the Milwaukee Mecca Arena and saw that the whole audience was 10-year-old kids and their mom. I didn’t realize it, but KISS was essentially Justin Bieber for boys.
When the original four members reunited in 1996 for their first makeup-tour since Dynasty, I was excited. This time they were playing the new home of the Milwaukee Bucks, the Bradley Center. As I approached the venue, four, 30-foot tall inflatable figures representing the band stood out front. I was giddy.
When the lights went down and the song ‘Firehouse’ started, I was suddenly 10 years old again, an excited young boy seeing his favorite band. By the time the third song had ended, I was ready to leave. Somewhere along the way I had grown up, and watching the tightly choreographed gestures no longer held the same excitement it once had. The theatrics seemed too planned, and for a live performance the event lacked any energy or spontaneity.
C’est la vie.
My first stadium show was Pink Floyd*, at the now-disappeared Milwaukee County Stadium. The asterisk exists in the fashion of 61*; like the caveat to that home run record, I was too young to realize I was seeing a watered down version of the band, one where Roger Waters was off doing his own thing and the other three were cashing in using the well-known name. It would be like seeing The Police without Sting, or Sublime using whatever singer has supplanted Bradley Nowell these days.
I was lucky enough to end up on the field, and turning around and seeing a stadium of people facing me was exhilarating. The only thing I really remember about the show is: after it was over and the crowd was exiting, I saw a beer bottle jammed seamlessly into the outfield grass. It was upside down, and only half an inch remained exposed. I marveled at the force it must have taken to drive a beer bottle so perfectly into the earth, and what the grounds crew would think the next day would think when trying to right the field for the next baseball game.
I exposed my wife Lydia to her first stadium show; The Police at Wrigley Field on their reunion tour in 2007. Because she is ten years my junior, the full meaning of the concert was lost on her. To Lydia, the concert was “neat.” To me, it was something I waited 28 years for and thought I would never see. The hair stood on my arms and gooseflesh rippled across me when the opening notes to Synchronicity II sounded. Unlike with KISS in 1996, this was not a disappointment to my anticipated self. The Police were never about choreography, they were energy, and musical chops beyond reproach. Even Lydia, a musical neophyte, was impressed with Stewart Copeland’s dexterity behind the drum set.
I’ve seen more shows than I can remember in my life, and missed a few that I attended while drunk. Several friends and I went to the venue known as Alpine Valley to see Van Hagar’s Monsters of Rock tour, but in reality we were only going for Metallica. I don’t remember what I drank that day, but after Metallic finished their meet-Jason-Newsted set, I was done. Neither The Scorpions (amusingly gay) nor Van Hagar (Liberace gay) interested me, so I stumbled out to the parking lotto catch some zzzzz’s. My friends didn’t know this and were worried they had lost me, until after the concert and they returned to the car to find me curled up on the hood, sound asleep.
It would take me several more hazy Heavy Metal outings to discover sober is the preferred way to see shows.
After the Peter Gabriel show at The Rosemont Horizon sold out in 1993, I had to buy from a scalper. I paid with a credit card via phone day of, and hoped I wasn’t getting ripped off; “You’ll meet me in the lobby of the hotel next to the Horizon” he told me. Fortunately, the transaction was solid, and the man and my tickets were waiting for me.
The seats weren’t supposed to be great; they were on the 2nd level and side, meaning I would be looking at profiles. As happens, they had the best view in the house. For his Secret World Live tour, Peter Gabriel incorporated two stages, with a ramp between them. If you were on the floor, you were craning your neck to see what was happening either across from you or far from you. But from my vantage point, suddenly everything was right in line.
I saw Sting perform in 1988 supporting Nothing Like the Sun. He had the late (and great) Kenny Kirkland with him, Omar Hakim on drums, Darryl Jones on bass, Winton Marsalis… when you take the top names from jazz and incorporate them into mainstream music, well, it’s hard to top the jams they came up with during those songs.
On a whim, I drove from Milwaukee to Minneapolis to see U2 on their PopMart outing. I had seen one show already, in Madison’s Camp Randall, but had nothing better to do and decided to make the trek to see them a second time on my own. The neat thing is, 99% of concertgoers go with a group, and that group is usually in an even number. So when I arrived to buy one single ticket 2 hours before showtime, I ended up in the 22nd row, on the floor. Not bad for a stadium show.
Seeing concerts “just because” was easy to do when tickets were $15. A roommate and I in the 1990s decided to go see Green Day one night when sitting around bored, and we realized they were playing in an hour. We drove the 5 minutes downtown, and as we approached the ticket window, a kid saw us and said, “You guys need tickets?” We replied in the affirmative, and he handed us two General Admission seats. We asked “How much?” and were waved off. A gift.
We went into the show and laughed; we were men in our mid-twenties, and the show was full of kids in their teens. Since it was an open floor concert, we made our way to the back of the arena, sat down and watched the concert with several other old folks. No need to try and young-it-up on the floor with the thrashers. Billy Joe mooned the crowd and was immediately arrested at the concert’s end. Male buttocks are the cause for all evil in the world; thankfully the ever-vigilant MPD was on their game that night.
I was lucky enough to catch Living Coloür in 1988 right before they became one hit wonders with the song Cult of Personality. The crowd was so packed in and energetic that I did three stage-dives during one song. I kept riding the audience, and they kept pushing me up front and plopping me down next to Vernon Ried. The first time I landed next to him, he laughed. By the third time, I figured I was wearing out my welcome and would be removed by security should I make my way to the band’s zone of comfort again.
The Living Coloür concert was one of those rare occasions where I made the accidental discovery of an opening band that was able to pull more than their own weight. The Royal Crescent Mob was that band, and they are a study in what makes image important. They had catchy-as-fuck songs, live energy through the roof, and an image problem they were unable to overcome for mainstream success. Bassist “Hap” and drummer Carlton were “band-like” enough, but no one was going to buy the frumpy, four-eyed guitar player, or the scrawny lead singer.
Seeing bands and artists on the way up the charts was easily my favorite way to catch them; I saw Melissa Etheridge in 1992, before she hit big and came out of the closet. I had seen her on Letterman, and, well, the cover of her album Never Enough was an eye-catcher. None of my friends were interested in seeing someone they had never heard of, so I went to The Eagles Ballroom by my lonesome and discovered that just because something is not mainstream knowledge, does not mean the connected world “in the know” is unaware. If my next statement is an exaggeration, it is slim at best: the concert was attended by 2,199 lesbians, and me. I looked around and realized, “One of these things is not like the other, and that thing is yours truly.”
(On her next album, she would be out of the closet and obtain mainstream success. Not that those two things are married, but as Howard Stern taught us: Lesbians = ratings.)
The Eagles Ballroom was my favorite concert venue. I saw both Fishbone and lead singer Angelo Moore’s penis there, as the show opened with the band playing a looping melody while he repeated the refrain “The scrotum is just a sac of skin, that keeps the testes in” as he walked out on stage. He then flashed the audience, and kicked into Bonin’ in the Boneyard.
(If you want to get technical, I saw Fishbone in the section of the building known as The Rave.)
Anthrax played the Ballroom at the peak of their success, touring behind Among the Living, and from the balcony I watched as three separate mosh pits circled within the walls.
I saw the Red Hot Chili Peppers on the second date of their Blood Sugar Sex Magik tour there, with the Smashing Pumpkins supporting them, and a little known band named Pearl Jam opening the entire show. Pearl Jam’s 30-minute set (maybe 45 minutes) was energetic beyond words, and eclipsed the whiny petulance put forth by Billy Corgan.
But above and beyond everything mentioned, the most amusing concert I’ve ever attended was in 1986.
Slayer had just released their defining album Reign in Blood, and a band called W.A.S.P. was about to be given their biggest marketing push to date by the industry.
Somewhere in Record Executive Land, a man in a suit and little understanding of teenagers, music, or movements, that man sat behind a desk and looked at pictures. In his left hand was the band Slayer; black T-Shirts and pentagrams adorned their stage. In his other hand was the band W.A.S.P.; they incorporated fake blood and theatrics that involved skulls and band saw blades taped to their forearms.
To the untrained eye of the record executive, this was a match made in heaven.
“We’ll package these two ‘Satan’ bands and make a ton of money. The kids love this stuff! I’m such a genius,” he probably said to himself, throwing in an Anthony Michael Hall self-serving shoulder chuck a la The Breakfast Club.
While Slayer had just released Reign in Blood, W.A.S.P.’s offering was Inside the Electric Circus. It was a mix of Bon Jovi big hair and G.W.A.R. showmanship. To a mom, it might look evil, but kids can smell phony a mile away, and this was too transparent to be anything but image. To kids, Slayer was real; W.A.S.P. was trying way too hard.
So, back in Record Executive Land, not only was it decided the two bands should tour together, but in an Einstein move to eclipse all the genius moves a record executive could ever make, it was decided Slayer should open for W.A.S.P.
The night of the show, The Eagle’s Ballroom was sold out; 2,200 angsty teenage boys were looking to lash out and release some of their confused anger and energy.
Slayer hit the stage and did what Slayer does: played aggressive, catchy thrash metal. This was the peak of their career; they were cresting, and plain and simple, they dominated.
And when the house lights went up, 2,100 exhausted and enthusiastic people left the venue. They had just seen their “Beatles at Shea Stadium,” their “The Who” in 1975. Once Slayer finished, it was as if no headlining band existed; the place emptied out as if Debbie Gibson herself was next on the bill. In short: no one cared about W.A.S.P. in the slightest.
I stuck around just for the hell of it, and to cater to my inner sociopath; what would W.A.S.P. do when faced with an empty house? They played, but in an embarrassingly sloppy fashion. Blackie Lawless looked tired, desperate. He attempted to incorporate things popularized by other bands into his set, and was throwing the guitar over his shoulder and catching it during every song, a move that was neat the first time Yngwie Malmsteen did it, but at this point was trite.
I would walk to the back of the room to the T-Shirt stand, watch a little, walk all the way to the front row and stage barrier… it was like a private concert for the 100 kids who decided to stick around. No one was all that excited to see W.A.S.P., it was just that none of us wanted to go home quite yet.
I would love to know how many times that scenario played out over the course of that tour, but have yet to find someone who saw it elsewhere in America.
I don’t see many concerts anymore.
Back in the day, tickets were $12.50 and T-Shirts $20. Now shows start around $100 and the basement for T-Shirt prices is $40. While I understand inflation and time, it all becomes a bit absurd. Every few years I’ll drop $100 to see something worthwhile—The Police at Wrigley—but these days I’m more Roger Murtaugh than anything else: “Too old for this shit.”
Maybe I should have burned out, because truth be told, right now I’m fading away.