As a teenager in the early 1990s, I didn’t go to a lot of shows or concerts.
There are any number of reasons why I missed out on hearing live popular music, but I think the one reason that will cover all the bases here is that every time I came home from a show my mother would notice one or more of the following disturbing changes to my person: a black eye, ripped tights, a missing shoe, temporary tinnitus, and/or the caffeine shakes.
Because I was more clueless than the average teenager, I didn’t always understand why she was reluctant to part with the five-dollar cover charge to allow me to go someplace where I was obviously going to eventually get myself killed.
To her credit, she still did, on occasion, give me the money to go to these deafness-inducing techno and p-funk shows, and showed remarkable restraint when I would come home looking like I’d walked through an automatic car wash set to “extra wax.”
Here’s the successful recipe of any 200 capacity-or-fewer show I went to in my teens and early twenties:
Add the following in a badly air-conditioned club or run-down theater—
- A band that has been on drugs/on the road since 1985. Extra points are awarded if they haven’t bathed from 1986-1993. (This band will have four people in it and more electronic equipment than the International Space Station.)
- Four hundred and fifty bored and angry teenagers/twenty-somethings who have been drinking watered-down coffee at Bob’s since three o’clock this afternoon.
- Twenty-five music fans over the age of 25 who are doing their best to ignore the 150 raucous teenagers waiting for the show to start. These fanboys/girls had actually bought the albums, read the liner notes, and know why the last drummer OD’ed. (They only talk to each other.)
- Twelve creepy guys over the age of 30 looking to pick up teenage girls. (Teenage girls know you are creepy, and avoid you accordingly.) (These creepy guys don’t talk to anyone.)
- Five bored roadies/bouncers whose job it is to keep the teenagers jumping up and off the damn stage. After a one year of this job at a music venue, all five will re-register for college with the intention of becoming therapists, therapists who will teach teenagers impulse control so they will stop jumping up and off the damn stage.
- Two girls whose parents let them leave the house wearing, basically, lingerie. (Those two girls know each other and won’t talk to anyone else but each other the whole night. They are also carrying mace, so beware, creepers.)
- And one Heavy Metal Guy with a flippy-wing haircut he’s been sporting since 1978, a man of varying age, who has been in an angry drunken blackout since that same year he decided to do his hair like Farrah Fawcett-Major. (Remember this guy— he will come up later.)
- Fill club/theater to capacity. Now, deliberately break the air conditioner thirty minutes before the opening band is supposed to go on stage. When the opening band comes on four hours later in a room smoggy with cigarette smoke, sweat-stained synthetic black going-out clothes (this was the early ‘90s), and the anger fumes of 500 impatient music lovers (and one drunk Heavy Metal Guy).
Finally, enjoy your moment.
You have created perfect chaos.
But, when I was in my teens and early 20s, I thought this was the height of sophistication.
So, I didn’t mind when I got kicked in the back at a Gingabread Men show by blind-drunk Heavy Metal Guy, which propelled my body into the line of mike stands of the horn section, which then flung the microphones into the horns of three confused horn players, who then subsequently played these notes, as they got smacked by their own AV equipment: BLEEP!, BLAT!, BLOOORP!
I barely registered my own embarrassment when, on walking down the aisle of the W— Theater for a Thrill Kill Kult show, 16-year old me slipped on a sloped and freshly painted concrete floor (damp from the ubiquitous broken air conditioning), and flashed my underpants at 349 much-cooler-than-me teenagers down below, while trying with increasingly jerky kicks and wheeling of fishnet-covered arms to regain my balance. (My four friends took two steps back the minute I started flailing because they didn’t want to be associated with me. Hey you guys— I understand.)
I maintained my cluelessness at 17 when my friend J— had to pull me out of a mosh pit by the back of my pants on the night he took me to see L7, Beastie Boys, and House of Pain. (In my defense, I had no idea I was standing in the very back of the room— a place not traditionally a mosh pit. The whole place turned into a mosh pit the minute the Beastie Boys played their first chord. And how did I get injured? There was a Heavy Metal Guy in front of me and a Heavy Metal Guy behind me. You do the math.
I did notice something was not right the night when 19 year old me was standing in front of the stage of an empty club with a poet friend when smashed Heavy Metal Guy came out of nowhere, and— I’m not making this up— moshing to the music in his own head, bumped me so hard that I flew three feet and bounced like a superball off the nearest wall. My poet friend only had time to blink as he watched my brain get scrambled.
After the night a drunk stranger said, “can you hold my soda?” right before climbing the stage and accidentally kicking me in my 20-year old face, I started to get the idea that live music venues, at least the ones I chose, were really, really hazardous to my health. By then, I had been in college long enough to have paid for at least five semester credits worth of common sense. In theory.
In spite of a bruised cheekbone, what it took for me to stop this self-abuse for awhile was a gift from my friend and coffeehouse manager R——, who bought me a ticket and arranged for a ride to see NIN/David Bowie in Austin for my 21st birthday— an amazing present. (Thank you, R—!)
The NIN/David Bowie tour was not some small event.
It was my first big outdoor show, and only my second-ever Austin show. Instead of alternative kids, this grassy area with a stage was made up of about two thousand drunken frat boys, their tiny wasted sorority girlfriends, and about fifteen random David Bowie fans dressed as the year 1976.
Now, I know and you know, what is about to happen to 21-year old me. I’m gonna get injured.
What I’m sure you don’t understand, and I’m scratching my ponytail over this now, mind you— is, why didn’t I just avoid standing where the violence happens?
Or, better yet, why didn’t I stop going to places where my night would always end up with my mother, or some other person saying, “What happened? Why are you bleeding out of the side of your face?”
“I DUNNO? I WAS JUST STANDING THERE? IN FRONT OF THE AMP? AM I SPEAKING LOUDLY? MY EARS ARE RINGING. I PAID FIVE DOLLARS FOR THAT SHOW AND I WANTED MY FIVE DOLLARS WORTH.”
“But, you got kicked.”
“THAT SHOW COST FIVE DOLLARS.”
“Good lord, are you limping?”
“IT WAS A GREAT SHOW.”
“I can’t talk to you.”
“THANK YOU. YOU LOOK GREAT, TOO.”
This show was different.
I was standing at the very back of the two thousand capacity crowd with my five friends, including R— who bought my ticket.
And then, what seems inevitable now, happened. I caught a glimpse of a friend that I hadn’t seen in three years two rows ahead of me. After politely nudging my way up through those two rows to say hello just before NIN came on stage, I hugged my long-lost friend and made two seconds worth of small talk.
Trent Reznor walked out.
The whole venue trembled with drunken frat/sorority anticipation.
Reznor was bathed in golden light, like some sort of techno god.
The opening bars of a famous song started.
That’s the last thing that’s going to make sense to either of us, you especially. The rest, I am afraid, is a montage of stupidity perpetuated mostly by me.
Somehow, my friend and I got swept forward into the surging drunken crowd.
Somehow, we managed to stay together while getting pushed through row after row of people who were turning this huge concert venue into a giant, throbbing, shoving, kicking mosh pit.
Three songs into NIN’s set, I had lost a shoe and half the contents of my tiny backpack, and I started grabbing people by the shoulders as I searched for my footwear and makeup and car keys. (I found the shoe and the car keys, not the makeup.)
After a lot more shoving and more weirdly— punching, by four teenency little girls (I’m a strapping 5”2 in shoes)— whom I had to threaten with bodily harm to keep them from Swedish massaging my internal organs from behind, my friend and I found ourselves near the front of the stage, where, and I’m not exaggerating even a little, there was a walled off mosh pit where people were being thrown ten feet into the air.
As suddenly as it started, it stopped.
Why did it stop, you ask? Because Trent Reznor had finished his duet with David Bowie and half the crowd immediately left.
My friend and I looked at each other. My face was smudged with dirt and a little bit of my own blood. Her long hair was now a nest of broken twigs wound around a crushed soda can.
A large man policing the wall looked at the two of us and asked whether we’d like to come over the barricade to the front of the stage. I think I said, “Su—“ as gigantor stage dude picked me up like a load of wet laundry and handed me over to tall stage guyette, who gently set me down. My friend was standing next to me, having experienced the same man-to-woman bodyguard hand-off.
We were now fifteen feet from David Bowie, who played for an hour to the 200 or so people who weren’t interested in punching each other to a ¾ beat. (I’m a huge David Bowie fan, by the way, so R——, if you’re reading: BEST 21st BIRTHDAY PRESENT, EVER.)
Once Bowie finished singing his last song, I found my friends, who had spent the entire show watching from a great spot underneath a tree because they’re smart. I looked as though I had been in a two-hour bar fight, and although I was as sober as a, well, me, I pretty much had been in a two-hour bar fight.
And that, my friends, was that.
I didn’t go to another show for a long, long time. Not until I was at least 26, and I had finally learned a couple of things— like standing so far back from the stage you’re practically in the parking lot. And wearing earplugs.
It was a sign of the changing era that most bands and all venues no longer tolerated mosh pit shenanigans. It was too easy to get sued. And by then, drunk Heavy Metal Guy was persona non grata, probably because he had gone off to sire Heavy Metal Children— and teaching someone that complicated flippy, greasy hair-origami takes decades.
DEAR LOVELY READERS: This story was originally published on November 11, 2011— four days after Bluebird Blvd. went live on November 7th. Did all of these things actually happen to me? Oh my, yes. And much worse. I am amazed I have all of my original teeth, to tell you the truth. Whew! I am so glad I am not a teenager! Aren’t you?