Early Saturday morning (sometime around 1 a.m.), I was mistaken as a burglar by my brother. The reasons for this mistake are simple. He and his wife thought I was home, in the apartment I have in their basement, and so set the house alarm and went to bed. I came in a few hours later, and the second I cracked the door the siren started wailing and I rushed to turn it off. The only thing was, it was so dark in the small staircase that leads to their level of the house, and I was in such a rush (and was in a very slightly-impaired state, which I’ll explain later), that I couldn’t find the doorknob, which I’m sure made me appear even more nefarious. There I was, pushing against the door, scratching around trying to find the knob in the pitch dark. Meanwhile, my brother was bolting out of his bed telling his wife to call the police. Eventually, my fumbling led to success, I ran to the closet where the alarm is housed and punched in the code to turn it off. Then I heard, “Scott?” from upstairs. I apologized to my brother and he returned to bed and I made my way downstairs.
The next day I learned that he had had few drinks that night and, possibly because of that, when he heard the alarm thought, “Okay, this is the real deal” and sprang into action. (I didn’t ask, because I didn’t have the heart, but I have to wonder, if I had been a burglar, what the next step of his plan would have been.) His wife, who had not had as many drinks, told him, clear-mindedly, “Call the police? It’s got to be Scott.”
As it happens I had also had a few drinks that night, though not enough to mistake an obvious misunderstanding for potential armed-robbery. I had also been told by a homeless man that “It’s not that cold out,” after I walked by him with long-sleeves pulled over my hands. The man, who was black, continued, “Aren’t you from one of those European countries? Aren’t you supposed to be used to this?” That made me laugh, but not quite enough for me to walk the six feet back toward him to give him a dollar, although he certainly would have deserved one.
I’m telling you all this because last Friday, into Saturday morning, might have been the most interesting few hours I’ve had in, well, a long time. I attribute that mostly to the fact that I left the bubble I’ve inhabited lately and went out into the “wild.” What I mean is that I went out where there were actual, real-live, other people. And these other, real-live, actual people happened to be at a rock concert, which is the reason for my encountering them. (I was going to use the word “interacting” in that last sentence, but that’s a little strong—I didn’t really interact with anyone, although I was near people who were interacting with each other, which is about as close as I come these days to sociality.)
This may happen to everyone, but I only know for sure about myself. When I’m tired of feeling too old for my age and too alone for my disposition, I find a concert to go to. Maybe other people go to a sports bar with some guys from work or join a running group that meets on Saturday mornings. But I don’t want the burden of any of that. I prefer the illusion of “having fun” without the responsibility of having to talk to anybody. So, for me, it’s concerts.
By dint of the types of bands I like—I don’t want to give the impression that I go willy-nilly to see some group I’ve never heard of, just because I’m feeling lonely—I usually end up at some rock club in one of the “hip” parts of town. These rock clubs, from what I can tell, are the same everywhere. (I’ve only been to them in seven or eight distinct cities, but there seems to be a trend.) There are usually a few male bartenders with tattooed arms, maybe some unique facial hair, and trendy glasses (or, in this case, all three, plus what the internet has told me is known as a “military hat,” though I know it better as the type worn by the lead singer of Fall Out Boy). There may also be a few female bartenders, one with a man’s army shirt and another with a tank top that shows off the tattoo she has of birds flying across her chest. The bar itself is almost always worn-out wood, either because the club has been rocking so hard for so long, or because the proprietors want everyone to think that way. The Black Cat in D.C., where I was Friday night, has this gaudy black and white tile floor and exposed pipes in the ceiling. I’m not sure the best way to describe the atmosphere, but the word grungy comes to mind.
This grunge is a contrast to the clientele—even in one of the “hippest” places in the city, there are still a fair share of yuppie types, and then hipsters who, we all know, are just yuppies in wolves’ clothing. I used to think that when I went to a live music show, I could count on two things: some sort of positive emotional response, and falling in love with some random girl in the crowd whom I’d never talk to and never hear utter a word. Maybe because of my hypersensitivity to yuppie-types or my growing dissatisfaction with most people in general, these two axioms are less likely to be true nowadays. Which is kind of a bummer in some ways, but it also makes me feel as though I’m maturing, so it’s not all bad.
One thing that I still count on is a supreme clear-headedness in a place like the Black Cat. I almost never used to drink at concerts and now I do a little bit, but it never gets to me. It’s weird because places like this are almost inherently tipsy from the start—what I mean is that everyone in rock clubs seems to operate in a haze, because the music is so loud and disorienting and most people drink much more than I would and often the performers themselves are under the influence of either some controlled substance or just their own eccentricities. Because of all that, because I’m surrounded by it, my mind goes into counteraction-mode and swings to the opposite extreme. There’s no haze to be found between my ears.
When I first got to the Black Cat, it was still about an hour until the first opening band would take the stage. This, I have to say, is the biggest downside of going to a concert like this alone. If you go to a show where you have an assigned seat it’s never quite as isolating. But having to stand in a sparsely-populated, open room with a bar on either side and a sound board in the middle is a terribly lonely feeling. (At least it is for me, but if you believe my mother, I may well have social anxiety disorder, so you can’t trust me completely on this.) So, I pretended to check my phone and made my way to the bar, because what better fix is there for loneliness than a stiff gin and tonic?
As I was sitting at the bar, trying not to race through my drink, I saw two young and, from I could tell, attractive women walk in (a mirror lined the wall behind the bottles of liquor, so I saw their reflections). One of them sidled up next to where I was sitting, leaned in and ordered a Pabst Blue Ribbon, which was, by far, the cheapest drink on the menu (they were selling 16 ounce cans for four dollars). The other girl, when it was her time, told the bartender, “I need a minute.” She engaged her friend in some conversation, trying to figure out whether she liked any of the beers they offered. (It was pretty clear, though, that she probably didn’t drink beer very often and seemed like maybe she was trying to fit in with her laid-back, PBR-drinking friend, who knew exactly the right drink order in a grungy place like the Black Cat. I don’t know for sure, that’s just the vibe I got as they talked over my left shoulder.)
After all this, the poor girl tried to order a ginger beer, which was one of the samples lined up alongside all the bottled-beers they had for sale. (They had ginger beer in stock, mostly, I think, because hipsters like a drink called a “dark and stormy,” which mixes ginger beer with some alcohol, maybe rum. But, unmixed, I can’t really imagine drinking ginger beer—it’s like the soft-drink equivalent of those ginger strips you get with sushi. It’s strong, and maybe only good for cleansing the pallet or fighting nausea.) Bless his heart, the bartender told her, “You know that’s like a soda pop, right? It’s not a regular beer.” And she, flustered but trying to save face, said, “Oh. Well, I guess I’ll just have a Yuengling then.”
About twenty minutes later, one of the yuppie-types, a guy this time, ordered, “A Bass and a Ketel-tonic.” Now, there’s nothing wrong with either of those orders. I personally like Bass on occasion, and while I’ve never had Kettle One vodka, I have had vodka tonics and they’re fine. But, it was something about his tone and the way he ordered the “Ketel-tonic” that really rankled me. It was probably because if I were to order it, I would say, hesitatingly, “Could I have a Bass and then, also, a vodka tonic, with Ketel One vodka?” He, of course, was more direct—commanding the bartender to give him these drinks instead of half-heartedly requesting them—and I’m sure, as a result of the attitude he’s adopted toward someone like that bartender, he has a much easier time navigating through life than I ever will. But in my mind, he paid five dollars more than he needed to and sounded like an asshole doing it, and I kind of hoped that someone would bump into him on his way back to his friends and that he would spill that top-shelf vodka all over his stupid collared shirt. (What this really comes down to is not that the guy was an asshole. He probably was not. It was that he wasn’t a young, attractive woman, and that I was anxious because I had been sitting at a bar by myself for 40 minutes and no bands had yet started. So, I wasn’t in the mood to cut anyone any slack.)
The two openers did eventually play. They aren’t worth many words, so I won’t talk much about them. The first band was horrendous, in that they were the sorts who used their rock band as a means to display some stilted, testosterone-heavy persona, full of yelling and saying things to the crowd like, “Thank you guys so fucking much.” I don’t remember much about their actual music, except that I kept thinking the lead guitarist seemed not to know the difference between playing two notes really quickly and “shredding” a solo. Really, though, I couldn’t pay attention to the music because the lead singer had a ridiculous haircut, shaved everywhere except the eight-inch long tufts at the left-side of his bangs and the right side of the back of his neck. The second band was stilted in a different way. It comprised two girls, one who was tiny (but, admittedly, very pretty) and one who was normal size (though kind of mean looking), and both of whom pretended to have some sort of massive, over-sexualized chip on their shoulder. (They also, as it happened, seemed to be train-wreck-level drunk, as they were passing around a large bottle of whiskey and taking swigs from it before the show and ended up finishing their set early, apparently because of a perceived slight from the crowd.) Their songs, from what I could gather, mostly talked about getting in fights and banging dudes. (You know, real heady, intellectual material—not at all the stuff of bratty, disaffected, teenage girls.)
Neither band seemed to grasp two important traits of successful musicians: 1) That personas and affectations are fine only if you’re preternaturally talented, which none of the band members were, and that the people who always make the best music are those whose words and instrumentation are direct, genuine expressions of who they truly are at their core; and 2) That if you want to sell your music, you need to make it so that it’s not painful to listen to.
Through all of this—the bad bar orders and faux-angst-filled rockers—I was still holding out hope that those two axioms of my response to rock concerts would hold true. I kept wondering when I’d see that girl across the room with whom I could fall in love. The light would hit her just so, and her hair would flip as she turned to a friend, and I’d see the pretty features of her face. I was also still waiting to be moved—that is, waiting for my spirits to be lifted. I really expected those axioms to hold true, even though their veracity has been chipped away at the past few times I’ve seen a live show. I don’t fall in love as often these days and I’m not moved to joy as easily.
Still, the hope lingered as the headlining band, The Lemonheads, started their set. They were there to play, in its entirety, an album of theirs from 1992, called “It’s a Shame About Ray.” The band now is not what it was when it released the album—the only remaining member is Evan Dando, the lead singer and creative force behind the group. I knew some of the songs were great and I was also hoping that later on, they’d play some music from an album they put out in 2006, which I used to enjoy listening to when I drove a van for a community service group at college.
Early on, I could feel the old familiar euphoria coming back. My lips uncontrollably curled into a smile as they played the opening lines of “Rudderless” (“Waiting for something to break, left my heart out to bake”). But then the drummer and bass player left the stage for a few songs. These were quieter songs, a little slower, to be played by Dando alone on his guitar. They weren’t ones I was familiar with, but that made me want to hear them all the more.
I would find out later that Dando has a strange past. He was singled out as a poster boy for alt-rock in the 90s, and The Lemonheads were signed by Atlantic Records, a major label. Much of the reason for this, from what I could gather, had to do with his physical appearance (he’s the son of a fashion model and has, to this day, a lean figure, chiseled jaw and an enviable head of shoulder-length, light-brown hair). He would be the gorgeously melancholy rock star. But to me, it seems like that must have been a strange fit, given his personality, or at least what I could tell of it from watching him perform 20 years later. Even at 44, he seemed uncomfortable in his own skin, and had a habit of looking awkwardly up into the ceiling as he was singing. At some point in the 90s, he started doing crack, which derailed his career for awhile (there’s no indication, I should say, that his drug addictions had anything to do with his feeling miscast or having too much pressure on his shoulders, that’s just speculation on my part). Then he married an English model (they’re now separated), put out a couple of critically-panned solo albums (these were, in one review I read, seen as “rebuilding years”). He reformed The Lemonheads in 2006, and put out the album I listened to in the van, which was received pretty well by critics. (One review had the tagline, “Alt-dude from last century fails to embarrass himself,” which would be damning, but then the record was given a six out of ten. So it seems it’s more a case of rock critics being dicks, as virtually all of them seem to be.) The band was composed of a supporting cast, but honestly, it sounds to me just like anything they put out in the 90s, although it’s maybe a little heavier and Dando sounds a little more world-weary, although he always had the melancholy thing down pat.
Anyway, without knowing any of his back-story, I was trying to make sense of Dando through his performance of these songs at the Black Cat. I started to sense the melancholy that Atlantic Records had tried to exploit, and I noticed his eccentricities, and then something happened that surprised me: I became really sad. There was Dando, 44 years old, someone who has created a musical aesthetic that seems so genuine to who he must be, and he was playing to these people in the second-tier rock club in Washington, D.C. (not exactly the hotbed of music appreciation to begin with). What was worse was that only half the crowd was listening at any one time. I was there on the verge of a breakdown because all of this meant so much to me—music like this, that’s good and honest and a guy like Dando still enjoying and working at his craft after so many years—and I looked to either side and there were guys drinking Miller Lites and yammering on about whatever, and girls in skirts not seeming to understand what they were hearing. And that just pushed me closer to breaking down.
I made it through the concert, and past the homeless guy, and dealt with the house alarm and my brother’s thinking I was a criminal. But at some point in that show, right around the time the drummer and bassist left the stage, I had the sort of crushing realization that made it hard for me to laugh when the guy asked me why I was so cold and when my brother told me the next day how he had been “ready for action.” That realization, of course, is that as much as I like other people and have compassion for them, I don’t feel connected to most of them, and it’s for the simple reason that to most people, talking through a rock show—even one in which they’re seeing someone with real, and genuinely-directed talent, and who they may only see perform once in their lifetimes—is not a huge deal. I’m okay with that—people don’t need to care as much about music as I do, and I can’t expect them to. But if I do care that much about it, and about the musicians who create it, and most other people don’t, what leg do I have to stand on with those other people? What common bond do we share?
So my axioms failed again. I’ll probably keep going to rock shows, even if I have to go by myself. I won’t hope to fall in love or to be moved to bonhomie, but those feelings were always fleeting anyway. It’s a loss, yes, but not one that hasn’t happened to me a million times over as I’ve turned myself further inward these past few years.
As it turns out, however, live music can still move me, just not in the same direction. Late in the show, The Lemonheads did play one song from the 2006 album. It’s called No Backbone, and it’s about a guy who’s unhappy with his love life, which is full of one-night-stands with women he has no real feeling for. It wouldn’t have jumped out as one of my favorites, but it had a surprising effect on me Friday night, and I’ve had trouble getting it out of my head since. The first few lines go: “It’s dawned on me again, I can’t balance in-betweens. It’s no longer familiar to me, it’s become routine.”
As per usual, keep your head down, strive for balance, and walk with one foot in front of another.