Going to concerts

From 1976 until about 1988, I attended concerts on a more or less regular basis. Before that, I had no independent source of income; after that, I was too busy, too far from the city, and too unwilling to stand for hours with obnoxious strangers, sucking slipstream smoke from the cigarettes they posed with, listening to taped throbbing noise, and waiting for some group to come on stage and receive our adulation in exchange for imperfect versions of their songs. I still attend concerts occasionally, but I put up with a lot less than I used to. Here are some of the great concerts I have seen.

Devo, Toronto, summer 1979

I didn't like Devo at the time of this concert. Their album seemed repetitive and geeky to me. I didn't like Brian Eno, who had produced the album and the second album by Talking Heads, which I didn't like either. I didn't want to see this concert. But I had a car, and Bradd and Matt wanted to see this concert. They were willing to pay for gas and my ticket. They had just recently started talking to me again and I thought I should be polite, but I went, expecting to hate it.

The concert was at a theatre on the Danforth. It was the first time I had been there. We sat in our assigned seats, in the centre of the balcony, and I folded my arms and gritted my teeth. I don't remember an opening act.

The band came on, dressed geekily, and started to play. One of their odd devolution videos was running on a screen behind them. Four songs into the set, I realized I was enjoying it. I uncrossed my arms, jumped up, ran downstairs, and threw myself into the thrash-dancing crowd. I had a terrific time.

By the time of the second encore I was back in the balcony. The band came out, dressed normally, all in black, and started a slow guitar figure that built in intensity. When the lyrics came in, they weren't about space junk or mongoloids; they were about hatred. It was stunning. "What song was that?" I breathed. Bradd gave me a scornful look and muttered, "It's on the album." It was indeed: it was called "Gut Feeling".

Devo got less geeky and eked out a string of minor hits in the '80's before vanishing. Their subsequent music sounded too mainstream for me, but I have that first album on CD. Their cover of "Satisfaction" remains one of the best covers ever, better than the original.

Bruce Springsteen, Toronto, summer 1979

I worshipped Bruce Springsteen from 1975 to 1980. I had a T-shirt printed that said, "Bruce Springsteen is God". In that time, he put out exactly one album: his fourth, "Darkness on the Edge of Town". This concert was at the tail end of the long tour supporting that album. It took place in Maple Leaf Gardens, or more precisely in half of Maple Leaf Gardens: the band was in the centre, where the ice would be during a hockey game, and the audience was seated on one side.

I don't remember many details of the concert. It was one of Springsteen's trademark three-hours-plus shows, two long sets plus a half-hour or so of encores. I wrote a review for the university paper which contained all the superlatives I could remember without a thesaurus. "I believe," I wrote, "that most of the 10,000 people there that night saw one of the best (if not THE best) concerts that they will ever see." I am no longer such a devoted fan (no longer a fan at all) but I stand by that statement. It was a phenomenal concert, full of energy and feeling.

Springsteen released the double album "The River" in 1980. I didn't like most of it, and I realized that he was no longer speaking to me. The first time I saw him, in 1976, the audience seemed about ten years older than me, and the music was about urban ambiguities. The last time I saw him, only four years later, the audience seemed about five years younger than me. The music was about small-town simplicities; the concert was in the full Gardens, Springsteen was a dot against the far wall, and I was bored.

He is still making albums; I haven't heard one in years. The ones I own are on reel-to-reel tape, and my reel-to-reel tape recorder sits unplugged on a basement shelf. Was the 1979 show the best concert that I would ever see? It currently stands at second, beaten by a surprising dark horse. You'll have to read to the end to find out about that one.

The Clash, Toronto, fall 1979

I was working in Ottawa at the time, for a major telephone monopoly, and had to get permission to miss a day and a half of work so that I could drive down to Toronto for this concert. The venue had been moved at the last minute, improbably enough to the O'Keefe Centre, which normally hosted the opera, and touring versions of big Broadway musicals.

First warmup act was the B-Girls, three charming young women who could neither sing nor play their instruments, doing a classic girl-group schtick with new wave overtones. We sat in our seats and peered around the people dancing in the aisles. Second warmup act was the Undertones, five kids about my age, about whom I knew nothing except the title of one of their songs, "Jimmy Jimmy". We moved ahead one section for them and stood. It was difficult to pogo to their music, and equipment problems plagued their set. After a while the lead singer threw down his microphone and stormed off.

When the Clash came on there was a rush for the front. We clambered up to the first section and staked out territory. It was the only time I saw a concert standing on the armrests, trying to keep the young woman pogoing on the seat in front of me from dashing her brains out on the floor. Behind me an Elvis Costello look-alike paced back and forth, ignoring the band, running his hands nervously through his hair. I could barely see the band through a bouncing curtain of bodies. The Clash dashed through their set, material from the first two albums, ending with "White Riot", at which point everyone swarmed the stage, all the equipment was tossed around, and the band disappeared abruptly as the house lights came on like a bomb.

I wrote about the concert in a prose piece with the idiotic title of "Sten Guns In Knightsbridge" (taken from a lyric on "1977", the B-side of "White Riot") which was published in the Imprint a few months later. The B-Girls never managed more than one single, "Fun at the Beach"; I could still sing you the entire thing. The Clash reached their peak with their next album, "London Calling" (which was not punk at all, except in spirit), then went through an embarrassing slide with "Sandinista" and "Combat Rock". I was to see them once again, at the CNE Grandstand on free tickets, and it was an awful show. Lead singer Joe Strummer appeared in a few ultracool movies by Alex Cox and Jim Jarmusch, then made more music before his death (this page was quoted in the Toronto Star's coverage); guitarist Mick Jones formed Big Audio Dynamite and made forgettable music.

The band that would leave the most lasting impression on me was, improbably enough, the Undertones. Their first album played a major role in a certain lost weekend of mine in 1980. They put out four in total, moving towards melodic pop, before calling it quits. One of the band members went on to make vital and compelling music with the band That Petrol Emotion. Rykodisc has repackaged their work on CD; I bought their greatest hits package at Christmas in 1994 and discovered that, eighteen years after it was recorded, "Teenage Kicks" has lost none of its magic. I wish I could remember their playing it.

The O'Keefe Centre sustained $5000 in damage during the Clash concert, and a change in policy barred rock bands forever. No great loss. The place is a barn. Changing its name to the Hummingbird Centre and then the Sony Centre did nothing for the acoustics.

U2, winter 1981, Toronto

At the time of this concert, U2 had just released their first album, "Boy". The concert was at some place west of downtown called the Maple Leaf Ballroom; it really was a ballroom, mirrored ball and all. I didn't know Toronto at the time, and I have no idea if the venue survives. The warmup act was the Diodes, Toronto's best local punk band at the time. The lead singer kept hitting the mirrored ball until it fell down and hit a member of the audience on the head. There were maybe a couple of hundred people milling about.

U2 were four fresh-faced kids, and they played with an honesty and sincerity that was a complete change from the usual posturing and cynicism we were used to. After the concert, I said to Jason, "That shouldn't have been as good as it was. They're not very good on their instruments, and they have so little material that they had to repeat three songs."

"Fuck you," Jason replied (as he often did to me). "That was a fucking great concert, and you know it." He was right, of course. It was a fucking great concert.

U2, despite an uneven track record (for a while it seemed that only every other album was worth buying), went on to sell zillions of records and play to hundreds of thousands of people at a sitting. They also developed pretentions and egotisms that are legendary. The Diodes broke up shortly after I saw them, and their bass player was, for a while, a manager at the same software house where Jason worked.

U2 were the first band I really liked who were younger than me. It wasn't long until finding a band my age worth listening to became an occurrence rare enough to be worth noting. There are other bands that I had the fortune to see on the way up: R.E.M, the Violent Femmes. Some made it big, some peaked early. I have mixed feelings about success. I want my artists to stay a little bit hungry.

Heatwave festival, Mosport Park, summer 1980

Heatwave was billed as the first New Wave festival. It was an all-day affair, held at a racetrack north of Toronto. Bradd and I came in from Waterloo via Cobourg in our beat-up station wagon; Jason, who was working in Toronto that summer, planned to join us there. I was quite concerned about logistics after reading about the chaos at festivals such as Woodstock, and took elaborate precautions. We had supplies of water and food; we would set up base halfway down the field, to avoid the crush at the front; we would spend the night in the parking lot and leave halfway through the headline act, to avoid traffic jams.

The food and water came in handy, but none of the rest of the preparations were really necessary. It was cramped and chilly in the car and none of us got any rest. We trooped down to the field at first light to find it nearly deserted. Jason showed up shortly after that with friends from school; they had been up all night drinking and were hungover and dazed. We all lay around on the blanket in a semi-stupor for the first few acts, which were mostly forgettable local bands with at best a minor hit to their names.

When the major acts began performing in mid-afternoon, we moved closer to the front, since there was still no crush of people. I had seriously alienated some of my younger sister's friends by playing the B-52's when they were around, but that was before "Rock Lobster" became an AM hit. The band maintained a delightfully silly attitude. I was glad to see, through binoculars, that the lead guitar was missing its middle strings, just like the picture on the inside of the album jacket, and that the toy piano and smoke detector were played at the right moments in the right songs.

The Pretenders had great audience rapport: Chrissie Hynde stretching her arms over her head and swaying during "Brass in Pocket", the drummer repeatedly bouncing drumsticks against his large cymbal into the crowd. There were finally enough people at the front that I could no longer swing my arms around without hitting someone.

I knew what to expect from Talking Heads: four nerdly musicians in drab dress standing there and playing. But they were brightly dressed, and more and more people kept coming onto the stage: another keyboardist, some percussionists, two back-up singers. "We're not what we used to be," David Byrne said elliptically. Furthermore, they were playing unfamiliar tunes in an unfamiliar style, funky, angular. "What is going on?" I asked Bradd. The new music was certainly danceable, though, and the crowd ate it up, packing themselves in tightly and swaying back and forth in time. Shortly after that, the "Remain in Light" album came out, and I learned that those extras were major players in the soul and funk communities.

Elvis Costello and the Attractions were as good as ever, but we had seen them in more intimate circumstances the previous fall, and it was time to try to beat the traffic, so after a few songs we packed up our stuff and headed out. There was no motion in the parking lot and we were out and onto the highway in no time.

At least three of the people I saw on stage that day died shortly after. BB Gabor, one of the early acts, who had a minor hit with "Nyet Nyet Soviet (Soviet Jewelry)", committed suicide in the early '90's. The lead guitarist of the B-52's, he of the missing middle strings, died of AIDS in the mid '80's. The lead guitarist of the Pretenders was the first to die, of a heroin overdose; in response, Chrissie Hynde wrote "Back on the Chain Gang", one of the greatest songs of all time. Even today, when I hear it piped into a supermarket, I pause in the dairy aisle and listen.

Heatwave may have been the first New Wave festival, but it was also the last, as far as I can tell. Talking Heads went on to put out several more successful albums before breaking up in the late '80's; David Byrne continues a moderately successful solo career and puts out great compilations of worldbeat music on the Luaka Bop label. Chrissie Hynde is still fronting a band called the Pretenders and garnering respectable reviews. The B-52's got back together again in the early '90's and had another hit song and album. Elvis Costello is one of the grand old men of English music, respected by all; he reunited with the Attractions for an album and tour in the mid '90's.

Today, Lollapalooza has ensured an al fresco alternative to smoky bars and small clubs, and spawned a host of fringe festivals of varying quality. And Rhino's CD series "Just Can't Get Enough: New Wave Hits of the '80's" is at volume 15 and counting.

David Bowie, Vancouver, summer 1983

This was not a great concert: not even a good concert. I watched Bowie cavort on a large video screen in B.C. Place, a huge covered stadium, with about 50,000 other people. I mention it only as the last time I saw a rock concert in a large venue. I should have quit a long time ago.

I wrote that last paragraph from memory in 1995. But when I mailed an earlier version of this file to Jason for his comments, he dug up a letter that I had written to him within days of the concert. Here's what I said at the time.

"Also saw a monster concert at B.C. Place, the inflated stadium on the waterfront (which I hear Toronto is attempting to mimic) with Tubes, Peter Gabriel and David Bowie. The Tubes were awful, too southern Californian, and their routines couldn't be seen in that place. And the sound was terrible. I joked about three-second echoes in the Kitchener Aud, but this place is almost big enough to have them. And there were 54,000 people there! (I turned down going to see Roxy at the Oakland Colisseum ... with less than half that many -- maybe even a quarter...) Gabriel was a disappointment; I've seen him better. He needs two percussionists, at least, to do his later stuff, and he really needs clear sound. But Biko still had me mesmerized. And surprise ... Bowie was excellent. Highly polished, well staged, sung performed. They had the video screen going, which helped immensely."

"Strange: the songs off the latest album that I liked, I thought weren't done up to scratch, and those I don't like I was impressed by live, specifically China Girl and Cat People. Rebel Rebel should be done these days in a punk style, but wasn't; he did do Jean Genie scat-style. I thought the best song was a rip-out-all-the-stops cover of White Light/White Heat, which I'm sure 99% of the audience didn't recognize. (Talk about young -- I had a couple of 16 year-old screamers next to me, who obviously didn't recognize anything that wasn't a recent single.)"

Which is not what I remember at all. I have no recollection of the Tubes or Peter Gabriel. I remember seeing Gabriel, but it was at the Ottawa Civic Centre in 1980, and my only recollection is of him raising his arms over his head and falling into the crowd, who moved politely aside to let him crash to the floor.

So what is the truth here? My immediate reaction, or my lasting memory? I can't decide.

Talking Heads, Berkeley, summer 1983

A blissful sunny-cool summer day on the concrete terraces of the Greek Theatre just up the hill from the Berkeley campus. I saw this concert with Lorrie, at that time still just a friend, and her friend Lynn. It was the concert immortalized in the Jonathan Demme film "Stop Making Sense", possibly the best concert film ever made (though Neil Young's "Rust Never Sleeps" comes close). The concert started with a completely empty stage: David Byrne came out carrying a boombox and an acoustic guitar. He turned on the boombox, which had a drum-machine beat tape, and started with "Psycho Killer". As the concert progressed, more and more band members came out to join him, as stagehands constructed the set about them. At the end of the first half, the set was complete. Brilliant.

The Minutemen and Husker Du, San Francisco, summer 1984

The SST tour, five bands, the first two of which I have forgotten, because I thought this concert would be like all the others and start several hours late. But when Matt and I arrived at the Stone at what we thought was a reasonable hour, the third band was on, the Meat Puppets. I didn't much care for their noodly, spacy music, delivered with idiot grins.

That was the year Husker Du and the Minutemen came to national attention, with their double albums "Zen Arcade" and "Double Nickels on the Dime" respectively. I heard about them from a single column on popular music in the New York Times, but KALX (the Berkeley student radio station, my soundtrack in those days) also played a lot of both artists.

The Minutemen were next. Their chunky, angular music was instantly energizing. D Boon bounced around the stage like a beach ball with a guitar strapped on. (When I reminisced about that concert with N in the fall of 1992, when she was eight months pregnant, she came back with the memorable line, "I look like a beach ball without a guitar strapped on.") Bassist Mike Watt worked hard enough to sustain cardiovascular benefit, while drummer George Hurley worked almost as hard just keeping his hair out of his eyes. It was a phenomenal set.

I was surprised at how Bob Mould of Husker Du looked, which was like someone's teddy-bear of an older cousin. He used one guitar plugged into one amp and still managed to generate that phenomenal wall of sound. Bassist Greg Norton did stiff-legged pogo jumps, and drummer Grant Hart did vocals on every other song (the ones which he wrote). "Play some hardcore!" someone in the audience kept shouting; I hadn't realized that putting out a double album with songs longer than two minutes and slower than breakneck pace constituted a sell-out to their original fans.

I never saw Husker Du again. They moved to a major label for their next release, and put out two brilliant albums in succession ("Candy Apple Gray" and "Flip Your Wig"). Their next double album, "Warehouse: Songs and Stories", was a mixed bag (not reading the trade papers, I knew nothing of the "creative tensions" within the band). They finally broke up some time around the turn of the decade.

Bob Mould put out two obsessive and introspective albums before returning to form with yet another power trio, Sugar. They released their second album in 1994, and their tour in support of it brought them to the University of Waterloo. I went to that concert, and stood among the quiet, polite, clean-cut collegians who populate my classes, remembering the frenzy of the crowd at the Stone. Mould seemed not to have changed. Someone in the crowd also remembered: they kept saying, "Bob Mould in Waterloo! Can you fuckin' believe it?" and yelling for "Terms of Psychic Warfare" off the "New Day Rising" album.

I saw the Minutemen once more, at Ruthie's Inn in the flatlands of Berkeley, a dive best distinguished for the fact that the Rolling Stones had once played there as a warmup band (for the Isley Brothers). Again, it was a phenomenal concert. They put out a good album, "Three-Way Tie for Last", and the excellent "Mersh" EP, and appeared poised for major success ("Mersh" is short for "commercial").

But D Boon was killed in a car crash in December 1985. It was the last rock death to affect me in any way; as I watched people grieve for Kurt Cobain, I heard a distant echo of those times. Mike Watt went into his house and shut the door, intending to retire, but a 24-year-old trumpeter from Ohio who he had never met convinced him to form Firehose with George Hurley. They put out several albums, but never quite seized the brass ring, calling it quits sometime in 1994. One could probably compile an excellent album-and-a-half from their collected works. Mike Watt has released several solo albums.

Astor Piazzolla, Toronto, spring 1989

For close to half a century Astor Piazzolla was the leading light of serious Argentinian tango music. He called his music "new-wave tango", and emphasized that it was for listening instead of for dancing. Because he was tampering with an art form considered sacred by Argentinians, he was often criticized and even threatened.

I heard his music for the first time on CBC radio while driving through the Maritimes with N. We sat entranced. My only experience of tango at the time was a cliche, an image of two overemoting dancers entwining to the strains of syncopated, cheesy music. This was different. It drew me in and lost me in its complexities. We waited to find out who it was. "That was Astor...," the radio said, and then a burst of static drowned out the rest.

I repeatedly asked in record stores until I finally found someone who knew who "Astor" was. To my relief, the CD I bought ("Tango: Zero Hour") sounded even better than what we had heard on the radio. I now own more discs by Piazzolla than by any other artist.

Astor Piazzolla played a theatre on the Danforth in the spring of 1989, with a sextet backing him up as he played bandoneon. The audience seemed to be mostly South American loyalists. From the opening notes, we were overwhelmed. It was the most perfect blend of the lyrical and classical I have ever heard. Does it seem improbable that the best concert of my life was given by an aged Argentinian playing an overgrown squeezebox? It does, and yet in an odd way it makes perfect sense.

We had tickets for his next tour, but the concert was postponed and then cancelled when he suffered a stroke. He never fully recovered and died a couple of years later.