14 January 2019

Precocious Concertgoer

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I was a precocious concertgoer, beginning with Shawn Cassidy at the Greek Theater in Los Angeles in 1978. Like many third graders, I was bowled over by Da Doo Ron Ron from his self-titled debut. Where I diverged, perhaps, is that I also appreciated the follow-up, Born Late, which featured Teen Dream – an original composition – and the Lovin’ Spoonful classic, Do You Believe In Magic? It’s possible that I and my best friend Reese were the only two music aficionados in the audience, the majority of whom were teen-aged girls who admired Shawn’s physical appearance and communicate their feelings by screaming. There was an “older” girl in front of us who turned to her friend and said, “listen to all these childish voices,” before belting out a scream of her own. 

Sometime after that, maybe the next summer, my father took me along with a group of his friends to see John Denver and George Burns at the Universal Amphitheater, when it was still an outdoor venue. Denver and Burns had teamed up for Oh, God! (1978) and Oh, God! Book II (1980) – both of which I saw in theaters – but Burns’s stand-up act didn’t resonate. I was, however, into Country Roads, Leavin’ on a Jet Plane, and Rocky Mountain High; I remember watching the drummer carefully even though I’d already started to embrace guitar as my primary instrument. 

My first real rock concert was The Kinks at the Forum on the Give the People What They Want tour in 1981. As detailed in a previous essay, I discovered The Kinks on a cruise to Alaska and became obsessed with the One for the Road live album, especially Lola and All Day and All of the Night. I’d happened upon the group during their 80s arena rock resurgence, and so had no knowledge of Waterloo Sunset, The Village Green Preservation Society, or any of their classic material beyond a few hits; it wasn’t until the late 90s that I dug back into their 60s/early 70s material and really understood what they were about. Although fairly straightforward, that concert blew my mind and I wore the t-shirt for years.

The Kinks also played day 2 of the first US Festival on Labor Day weekend in 1982, but I didn’t see them there, because I couldn’t get anyone to take me. I did, however, convince my mother to take me to day 3, so she could Fleetwood Mac. Day 3 was easily my third choice – day 1 had The Police, Talking Heads, and The English Beat – but beggars can’t be choosers. On a more positive note, I accidentally saw the Grateful Dead for the first but not even close to the last time, and also saw someone drop acid, which my mom then had to explain. In an unexpected development, we went back the next year for U2 and The Pretenders, which was great until I was dragged out in the middle of David Bowie’s Serious Moonlight set because of SCHOOL.

Like many middle schoolers, I attended The Who’s first farewell tour at the LA Memorial Coliseum on October 29th 1982, where the lineup included The Clash and T-Bone Burnett (I think we missed T-Bone, but The Clash were worth the price of admission). That show was notable for being the first that didn’t involve my parents, who delegated to my second guitar teacher, Peter Berg. After that, I mostly went to concerts with responsible twenty-somethings from my musical orbit, and – with one major exception (see below) – that formula worked until I had friends who could drive. One thing I remember about that day/night is that we went to Regular John’s, the legendary pizzeria on San Vicente Blvd. in Brentwood, after the show. I didn’t know you could hang out after a concert! Regular John’s was teeming with young people who were up to God knows what, and I witnessed a moment where a group of young women tried to get Peter interested in some kind of late-night shenanigans (he declined).

My first guitar teacher, Terry Keller, took me and a friend to see Tom Petty at the now-indoor Universal Amphitheater on the Long After Dark tour. That may seem like an intimate venue for Petty (6K+ capacity), but he was still ascendent and played the Forum 17K+ capacity) a few years later on the Southern Accents tour, which I also saw. Anyway, there was a problem at Universal: they’d installed a mobile sound desk exactly where our seats were supposed to be. We were confused, then slightly panicked, but they relocated us. The walk to our new seats was long, but increasingly satisfying, since they marched us through the orchestra zone and eventually to the second freaking row. 

Around that same time, I managed a full weekend of concerts: the Thompson Twins on Friday night at the Palace and the Blasters on Saturday night at the Universal Amphitheater. In hindsight, those choices reflect competing interests, or perhaps a nascent hipness: the TTs were straight-up 80s new wave/pop hitmakers, but the Blasters were a throwback rockabilly quartet who were connected to the L.A. punk scene and usually played clubs that didn’t admit young people. In preparation for an epic weekend, Kathy Horton shoved a fake diamond stud through my left ear, which would scandalize peers and parents alike (right ear would have scandalized more). 

Twenty years later, when I opened a handful of acoustic shows for Dave Alvin – the guitar player/songwriter from the Blasters – I asked him about that night at the Universal Amphitheater, which might have been the biggest headlining gig of the Blasters’ career. I was hoping he’d note the coolness of the connection, and reflect on that early-career apex. He did seem interested, but not for the reasons I expected. Rather, what he remembered was that the opening act, Rank & File – a popular-ish band at the center of the “cowpunk” scene – exceeded its allotted time aka “went over.”

I mark the end of this era by the “David Bowie scandal.” Everyone had tickets to see him at Anaheim Stadium with The Go-Gos and Madness at the end of the Serious Moonlight tour. I was all set to go with Terry Keller, until we were recorded discussing marijuana on my family’s answering machine. Obviously, I should have realized the machine was on and redirected the conversation, but I was thirteen and acting cool with my cool guitar teacher and etc. What makes limited sense in hindsight is that I was still allowed to go to the concert, just not with Terry. Instead, I went with a friend’s older brother, who was significantly worse if propensity to smoke weed and overall responsibility were the metrics. Be that as it may, nothing bad happened, except we got stuck in excruciating Friday-afternoon traffic on the 405 South and missed both Madness and The Go-Gos. To get there on time, we probably would have had to leave the night before…


Selected Concerts: The Elementary & Middle School Years
(Alphabetical Order)

David Bowie @ The Forum (both nights of the Serious Moonlight tour)
David Bowie/The Go-Gos/Madness @ Anaheim Stadium
Duran Duran @ The Greek (Rio tour)
Fleetwood Mac @ The Forum (Mirage tour)
John Denver/George Burns @ The Universal Amphitheater
Prince @ The Forum (both nights of the Purple Rain tour)
Shawn Cassidy @ The Greek
Spandau Ballet @ The Wiltern
Talking Heads @ The Pantages (Stop Making Sense filming)
The Blasters/Rank & File @ The Universal Amphitheater
The English Beat/The Bangles @ The Hollywood Palladium
The Go-Gos @ The Hollywood Bowl
The Pretenders/Icicle Works @ The Universal Amphitheater
The Thompson Twins @ The Palace
The Untouchables @ The Roxy
The Who/The Clash/T-Bone Burnett @ The LA Memorial Coliseum
Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers @ The Universal Amphitheater
UB40 @ The Hollywood Palladium
US Festival (1982 and 1983)

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