Sunday, January 21, 2018

I want to see the bright lights tonight

In our house filled with things, my wife came across a cache of concert ticket stubs, some dating back to the middle 1970s. I had actually been looking for this collection of memories for some time. I honestly thought they were long gone, tossed to the trash when we made the move from our newlywed apartment in Northeast Philadelphia to the suburban house that has been our home for over thirty years. 

Wild nights are calling.
Curiously stored in a Barnum's Animal Crackers box, these torn paper testaments were in surprisingly good shape. Time had faded some of the early-computer printed particulars, but the ones that escaped total destruction at the hands of some minimum-wage earning ticket-taker were still legible. The band names were clear enough to read - some consisting of careless, though comical, misspellings. (The opening act for a 1977 Queen show at the Philadelphia Civic Center listed the supporting band as "Thin Lizzie," as though it was an emaciated ballerina.)

A lot of the ticket remnants were from 70s-era Grateful Dead shows, many of which were from shows staged at the Philadelphia Spectrum, the self-proclaimed "America's Showplace," which boasted some of the worst, sound-deadening acoustics this side of the $64,000 Question's isolation booth. Despite being the home base for both the Philadelphia Flyers and the 76ers, the Dead managed to find time to fit in 53 concerts at the venue, more than any other musical act. That allotment of tickets, of course, belonged to my wife — as my first experience with the psychedelic San Francisco troubadours was in April 1982, when I was taken (abducted? dragged?) to a spring concert by the future Mrs. P. I recognized my concert tickets by the decidedly un-Grateful Dead band names that were printed across the colorful Ticketmaster branding. Again, most were from the Spectrum, as it was the biggest and most popular venue in the city, but a smattering were from shows at the smaller Tower Theater, a converted movie palace just outside the western city limits.

My brother, older by four years, was a veteran concert-goer, having seen performances by Rod Stewart, Cat Stevens, The Moody Blues, George Harrison (reporting that the former Beatle was "awful" and the show was stolen by energetic keyboardist Billy Preston) and others of that ilk. He witnessed the now-legendary marathon at the remote Widener University gymnasium by an up-and-comer that he mistakenly identified as "Bruce Springstein.*" Some of my friends at middle school had toyed with the idea of actually seeing some of our favorite singers live when they came to our town. But I broke the proverbial ice when I scraped together a hard-earned six dollars and fifty cents for a single, general admission ticket to see Alice Cooper (and leather-clad guitar slinger Suzi Quatro) on the local stop of his "Welcome to My Nightmare" tour when it touched down in Philadelphia in April 1975, the twenty-second date on its five-month, multi-city trek across North America. That night, after seeing the wiry Mr. Cooper dance with giant spiders, cavort with tuxedoed skeletons and lop the head off a menacing cyclops, I was bitten by the concert bug. I left that show rabid — anxious to see another concert. And fast! It wasn't until a full year later that I was able to attend my second concert. Forking over a steep seven-fifty, I spent an evening at the back of the cavernous Spectrum, watching bland folk-rockers America deliver one boring song after another as they promoted their newest release — a greatest hits compilation culled from their five-album catalog on which every song sounded identical. I can't figure out what exactly I was doing there. I was not a fan of America — not even in the most casual sense. I didn't own any America albums. I suppose I just wanted to go to a concert.

I made better choices (in my opinion) as the years went on. I saw Elton John when he brought tennis star Billie Jean King onstage to join him in a chorus of the terribly shitty, yet hometown beloved, "Philadelphia Freedom." I saw the electrifying Queen several times, including once with pneumonia (me, not them). Freddie Mercury was a showman like no other. I even took my DeadHead future spouse to Queen's final American tour where she questioned the numerous costume changes and lighting effects. After all, the Grateful Dead had not changed their clothes since 1969 and their fans usually visualize their own lighting effects.

I saw Elvis Costello a few times as well, watching as he made the jump from new-wave pioneer to the elder statesman of his bygone "angry young man" genre. The late Warren Zevon, a short-term Philadelphia resident while he was between record deals, gave impromptu recitals at the wonderful, yet now-defunct, Chestnut Cabaret on the campus of the University of Pennsylvania. Mrs. Pincus and I were in the audience for several of those intimate shows and they were a memorable treat. Along the way, I got to see The Boomtown Rats, Tim Curry (yes, that Tim Curry), They Might Be Giants, Fleetwood Mac, Duran Duran, Squeeze, even Barry Manilow.

My son developed an early love for music, based on the constant albums and radio blaring from speakers all over our house. His interest blossomed into a career, as he is now a host/producer on a local Philadelphia radio station. Even before his current employ, we accompanied each other to a boat-load of concerts. We've seen good bands, bad bands, strange bands and just-about-to-hit-it big bands. We've had band members jump off the stage in front of us. (In one case, a singer fell off the stage on us.)  My son even introduced me to bands (A Giant Dog, Low Cut Connie, Kid Congo and The Pink Monkey Birds... yeah, you read that right) in the same way I gave him his first taste of the Beatles and his mom taught him about Jerry Garcia. Thanks to my son and the numerous concert venues that have opened in Philadelphia (named by one music website as the "best concert city" in North America), my concert calendar is usually packed. I never dreamed that, at 56, I'd still be going to shows, let alone bumping elbows in tiny venues with fans half my age. Conversely, it was funny when my wife and I sat in a sold-out Atlantic City showroom for a Tony Bennett show and, looking around, wondered how many other audience members had also seen The Clash.

It's okay, I'm with the band.
The concert experience has changed considerably since I was perched on the second level of the Spectrum, squinting to make out the color of Sir Elton's glasses. Bands were untouchable and unapproachable, sometimes just an out-of-focus dot bathed in a purple spotlight. Now, in the days of social media, a selfie with your favorite singer is no longer a rarity, it is a requirement. Granted, artists that fill stadiums are off-limits, save for those willing to pony up a few hundred (even thousand) dollars for a one-on-one experience. But, the bands that play 1200-seat (or smaller) venues will often appear at unannounced "meet-and-greets" at their "merch table" where the purchase of a t-shirt or album will net you the bonus of a sweaty hug and the opportunity of a cellphone picture to document the encounter.

This story, of course, is far from over. I love live music and it takes a lot to stop me from seeing it. As I write this, I have at least two concerts lined up in the coming months. And there will be more after that. I guarantee it.

*My brother informed me that he thought the singer's name was "Bruce Bringsteen." Actually, that's funnier.

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