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Back in the Day

Remembering that most formative of life experiences—your first live

Prince once sang, “They say the first time ain’t the greatest/But if I had the chance to do it all again/I wouldn’t change a stroke.” That last line was specifically about sex, but for most people, it could also apply to their first live concert experience. Sure, you might not have the same opinion now about the performer in question as you did then—one writer who chose not to submit an essay claimed the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles as his first foray into the world of arena rock—but you can’t deny the energy you felt the first time you got your ass kicked by a live rock band, even if they didn’t really kick ass.

Of course, you may have been too young to recall such an event—I suspect that a few of the writers who submitted to this experiment may have either completely forgotten theirs, or even intentionally omitted the actual memory in favor of a “cooler” option. (Hell, if I had been at Woodstock, I’d want to tell people about it too.)

But everybody’s got one—and so do I.

My first concert (like fellow Metroland contributor Bill Ketzer’s, coincidentally) was the Charlie Daniels Band at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, fall of 1981. My parents brought me along—I remember sitting with them up in the back of the amphitheatre and . . . that’s really about it. I was probably just interested in hearing opener Juice Newton sing “Queen of Hearts”—because it was a hot song at the time, and because I was 5. For some reason I remember the smell of manure, though I think I’ve created that memory based on later-formed feelings about Charlie Daniels.

My second concert—the first I actually asked, and was allowed, to attend—was also at SPAC, six years later. This time we scored front-row seats! At the time, I am certain I was absolutely stoked, like holy-shit-this-is-gonna-be-the-coolest-thing-ever stoked, about the show. I’m sure I played the bands’ latest cassettes repeatedly in the days before so I would know every note of every song when the time came. And I know that, during the show, the feeling of being yards away from a Big Time Rock & Roll Band was out of this world, because I’ve felt it, albeit in a mutated form, at a lot of concerts since. So my overall memory of the show is positive.

But the fact remains: My second concert was Starship and Cutting Crew.

I’ve told you too much, and now you must die.

—John Brodeur

I was 9 years old, wearing my red patent-leather jacket, the one with all the zippers. JCPenney started selling them in kids’ sizes after Michael Jackson wore something similar in the “Beat It” video, and I got my mom to buy me one the previous Christmas. I wore that silly jacket every day. No matter what. On cold days, I wore it under my winter coat. On sweltering days, I unzipped the detachable sleeves.

I was the coolest kid in the world.

July 8, 1984. Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City. It was my first concert, and according to a New York Times article I just dug up online, I was a lucky, lucky kid. This was the first show of the ridiculously anticipated Victory Tour. Michael Jackson had teamed back up with his brothers for a Jacksons reunion tour. It was the height of Michael’s American success. The press anticipated it would be to the largest-grossing concert up to that point.

And it was.

That didn’t matter to me. I was a kid, probably like millions of other kids, with every song on Thriller memorized and dance moves choreographed for “Billie Jean,” “PYT,” and “Human Nature.”

I can’t remember much of the concert. I remember laser beams and thinking they were just skimming the heads of crowd in the upper bleachers, where we were sitting. I remember the Jackson brothers doing battle with a giant mechanized hand and the creepy, Dark Crystal-like creatures the Times reporter commented on. But I don’t remember the King Arthur bit, and I certainly don’t remember the show’s penultimate encore of “I’ll Be There.”

I wish I did. I wish I was back there, now.

—Chet Hardin

My dad got me into this rock & roll mess, first by strongly suggesting that my 11-year-old self should start learning the guitar (an attempt to relieve my Zeppelin obsession?), then by slaking my desire to learn from the guitar masters firsthand by taking me to see the classic-rock (and a couple of jazz) dinosaurs that visited the Tri-State area. The very first expedition was to see my hero Jimmy Page play with his “supergroup,” the Firm, at Nassau Coliseum, April 3, 1986. It was a bit distressing to see Jimmy with a perm and playing “You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling,” but he also did that awesome violin-bow/ spinning-green-laser-pyramid thing. Next up was Van Hagar on the 5150 tour, Les Paul at Fat Tuesdays (now the Iridium), Kenny Burrell at St. Peter’s Church in Manhattan, and my first truly revelatory concert experience, Stevie Ray Vaughan playing the guitar behind his back, head and ass at a relatively intimate show at CW Post, a college on Long Island’s north shore.

Other formative concerts as a young buck: the Crosby, Stills and Nash SPAC show where my oldest brother Bill took a couple of big tokes off the joint offered by a neighborly blonde (at 13, I was shocked by the depravity of it all); going to the first Lollapalooza with my late friend Darren Gorch (we only wanted to see Living Colour, so we left while Jane’s played, and I wound up ripping the bumper off some car trying to squeeze my LTD Crown Victoria out of the full lot); and getting my nose bloodied by a flailing boot in front of the stage at the mythic Chili Peppers/Smashing Pumpkins/Pearl Jam show at the RPI Field House on Nov. 5, 1991.

—Mike Hotter

The Dave Clark Five at the Cherry Hill Music Theater, in Cherry Hill, N.J., summer of 1965. My sister was 12 and I was 7, and we wanted to hear this huge British Invasion band, which was so hot that year. The Cherry Hill Music Theater was a summer concert-theater venue of the old- fashioned style, known as a “theater in the round.” It was a circular stage covered with a tent. We did not have tickets, but a kindly security guard spotted us and allowed us to peel up the tent flap a little so that we could hear the music better.

As the result of sharing a bedroom with an older sister who followed every twist and turn of the British Invasion, I can still identify several obscure groups from that era if I catch ’em on an oldies station, and could pass a trivia test if the question was, “What did Canned Heat’s drummer die of?” (Answer: pneumonia, which was believed to be coded language, suitable for a teen listening audience on AM radio, for a heroin overdose.)

The Cherry Hill Music Theater had some great acts: Eric Clapton and Cream also played there, and I recall the father of one of my sister’s friends recounting that when he went into the theater to pick his son up after the concert and saw Ginger Baker’s hair, he thought something had escaped the Great Apes exhibit at the Philadelphia Zoo. A very typical parental reaction of the era to psychedelic Brit rock.

—Darryl McGrath

In 1977, the Clash headlined the opening of legendary London punk club the Roxy and Patti Smith slashed her head open after falling from a Florida stage. But I didn’t know anything about that, being 6 years old and living in upstate New York, where we got all of our entertainment from three network-television stations. There was a new music-variety show on ABC that year featuring husband-and-wife duo Captain & Tennille. Just a cut-rate Sonny & Cher to some, but I thought they were the greatest.

Maybe it was the unlikely (for the ’70s) gender reversal that I found so appealing. Toni Tennille had all the talent. Her sidekick husband Daryl Dragon, who never spoke, was clearly the eye candy. With an effusive smile and pageboy haircut, Tennille flirted with John Travolta through duets of “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart” while her dark-eyed, mysterious husband sat silent behind the keyboards in his cute sailor cap.

The couple had a signature song, “Muskrat Love,” that conjured images of adorable little animals cavorting through meadows and streams, wallowing in their delightful animal love (“And they whirled and they twirled and they tangoed/Singin’ and jingin’ the jango). The group’s other hit, “Butterscotch Castle,” presented a similar Utopian vision of honey-bright days and beautiful licorice nights, so I bought their album. It came on gatefold vinyl, with lots of photos of the handsome Captain in his navy turtleneck and sailor hat (I had a secret crush) and shots of the couple’s two beloved bulldogs, Broderick and Elizabeth.

In May of that year, Captain & Tennille went on a national tour, ending up here in the Capital Region, and I went to my first concert in the same month that I lost my first tooth and saw my first movie in the theater (the much less culturally embarrassing Star Wars). And really all I remember about the show is being somewhat upset by the opening act, a comedian who told lots of toilet jokes. Didn’t Captain & Tennille know their 6-year-old “Muskrat Love” fans weren’t quite ready for an adult male comedian telling dirty toilet jokes that weren’t even funny? The Captain & Tennille TV show went off the air a few months later. I was over it.

—Kirsten Ferguson

The Strawberry Alarm Clock, Warner Theatre, Erie, Pa., Dec. 13, 1968. Other than the lavish theater, I recall nothing of this concert. It’s the first entry on a list I’ve been keeping of musical performances I’ve attended these past 40 years. Perhaps it was the nature of the event that kept it from becoming a permanent feature in my memory. This was the annual Erie Times-News show, offering variety for the whole family. The only other name on the bill I recall was Lana Cantrell. I was 14, playing bass guitar in a band and already assembling a sizable record collection. Listening now to a Strawberry Alarm Clock CD, it’s clear what the problem was: beyond “Incense and Peppermints,” there wasn’t much to them. They were cashing in on a style and a scene. (However, I’m certain their name played a part in my waging a successful campaign to change our combo’s moniker from the Nightymes to the more robustly contemporary Scotland Yard Fantasy.)

The cover of the Strawberry Alarm Clock’s first album has them sitting on colorful pillows, dressed in psychedelic finery, and this has superseded any memory I had of them onstage. Maybe they sat on pillows onstage, I don’t remember. These were my pre-stoned years, so my lack of recall is attributable to this not being a memorable experience. The following summer, on a family cross-country trip that brought us to San Francisco, I went, by myself, to the Fillmore. And that second concert on my list really blew my mind!

—David Greenberger

I don’t even remember with whom I went or even whether it was 1966 or 1970, because as far as I was concerned it was only Joan Baez and me when I saw her perform outdoors at the Music Inn in Lenox, Mass. It was a time before incipient cynicism would prevent me from singing along with “Kumbaya,” and when “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” seemed terribly important even though I had no idea why. But chiefly I remember Joan’s long black hair; her sexy, hip-hugging bell-bottoms; and the clear-as-a-bell voice that rang through the damp night air as she sang “Amazing Grace.” And yep, we all lit candles or lighters, and it was as close as I’d ever come to a religious experience until the mothership of all lightshows accompanied those five famous notes in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

—Ralph Hammann

My parents took us to see George Jones and Tammy Wynette in the early ’70s, a concert which, if memory serves me, took place at the Saratoga Flat Track. There was considerable anxiety, as Jones was a typical no-show or late cancellation due to his excessive drinking, so when we made the trek from the Berkshires, we didn’t know if the show would even take place. Now, my mother had seen “George and Tammy” several times, and while neither she nor my father drank nor had much sympathy for alcoholics, they had enormous empathy for “poor George.” (Always first names with the great country stars.) Sure enough, George couldn’t make it on stage, and I can’t even remember if Tammy sang solo. All I remember is being stunned that my parents, having spent considerable money and effort to get there, were so frigging understanding. “Poor George,” they commiserated. “It’s that alcohol. He just can’t seem to quit it.” Of course, the next time my brother came home a little shitfaced, there was no such understanding—but then again, he didn’t sing like George.

—Laura Leon

In the summer of 1969, I was a 17-year-old, guitar-picking, acid-dropping longhair living in suburban New Jersey. The Woodstock Music and Arts Festival in Bethel, with its all-star line-up, promised to suit my budding musical tastes perfectly, and I was just old enough to get away for the weekend. All my hippie friends were going as well as Patty, my beautiful Argentine love—and so, the news reported, were about 30,000 other rock devotees.

Patty and I, along with her two brothers, drove up to the site on Thursday night in an old Chevy loaded with camping gear, food, and an arsenal of drugs. We pitched camp, searched out our comrades, and then caught some sleep.

On Friday afternoon, the grounds started swarming with a multitude of freaky-looking people—we could see it was far more than the media’s projection. About a third of the way up the crowded hill on stage right, 16 of us dropped LSD together—I dosed on the legendary Orange Sunshine, a pure and powerful variety of acid that had flooded America that summer. As Ravi Shankar twanged his sitar, the scene started looking like I was seeing it through a fisheye lens, and I got higher than Mount Everest. No worries, though, with good company, some superb hashish, and if that wasn’t enough, joints and jugs of cheap wine circulating virtually nonstop.

Oh, and the music? Incredible. Carlos Santana amazed the crowd of a half-million with his shimmering, snaky guitar lines, Creedence Clearwater Revival kicked ass with their über-garage-band groove, and the Who were peerlessly polished, pulling off their entire rock opera Tommy without any hitch except a demented Abbie Hoffman trying to commandeer the stage for a political rant. (Pete Townshend whacked him in the head with his guitar, and Hoffman was quickly carted off.) The pinnacle of it all, though, was Jimi Hendrix playing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Nobody was prepared for the majesty and sheer weirdness of that performance.

At Woodstock, I was a jubilant eyewitness to history. That makes being 55 feel just fine.

—Glenn Weiser


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