With Coachella recently announcing its lineup (and selling out), other festivals bound to follow suit soon—including our own A.V. Fest—major tours being announced, and theaters and smaller venues ready to come out of their winter doldrums, it’s been hard to stop thinking about concerts recently. And hard not to vacillate about whether to show up. Tickets are expensive, especially in this economy. Festivals can be a pain in the ass. That band you like will probably come around again before long, and the club it’s playing sucks anyway. Let me nudge you, though: You should probably go.
I don’t remember all the concerts I’ve been to, but the ones I remember, I remember well. I remember some of the ones I missed even better. Frank Sinatra played a rare date in my hometown of Dayton, Ohio in the early ’90s, no doubt in part because a new concert venue was giving top acts obscene financial incentives to visit a city that’s by no means ever been a concert hot spot. I didn’t go. True, I was in high school at the time, tickets weren’t cheap, and I didn’t know that much about Sinatra. I knew that I probably should see him because he was Sinatra, but I assumed I’d have another chance. Didn’t happen. I heard they shut down I-675 to let Sinatra’s limo pass. Of course they did. It was Sinatra. I also heard it was a terrific show. I’ll never know. I didn’t go.
Since then, I’ve gone. I was spending a year studying abroad when I decided to go to England’s Glastonbury festival in 1994. It was a great lineup that year: Nick Cave, Elvis Costello (a big draw for me), The Pretenders, Pulp (which I somehow missed), Beastie Boys, Björk, Blur (at the height of Parklife madness), um, Spin Doctors. I saw many of those acts, but there was no one I wanted to see more than Johnny Cash, which I did, amid a bunch of black-clad British music fans as dirty and undernourished as I was. This was shortly after the release of Cash’s 1994 comeback album, American Recordings. He’d been playing for smaller, older crowds for a while. When he took the stage he announced, as usual, “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash,” only the slight catch in his voice betraying that years had passed between the recording of Live At Folsom Prison and the concert he was about to perform.
It was his usual, professional way of beginning a show. But the expression on his face, of surprise and pleasure, looked unrehearsed. I’m guessing that the size of the audience startled him. Or maybe it was that a crowd so young and far away from his home would greet him so warmly. The look came back throughout the show, too, as the crowd sang along not just to the hits, but to the deep cuts, songs like “Sunday Morning Coming Down.” “I never expected such a reception,” Cash said to us at one point. “And I really feel good about it.” Everyone did. It was a great show. You can listen to it online if you don’t believe me. But you really should have been there.
I say that not to boast, but to encourage anyone reading this not to drag their feet about catching their heroes while they’re still around. In the 2003 Ramones documentary End Of The Century, one interview subject talks about taking the Ramones for granted because the group toured constantly and put out albums at a regular clip. The band broke up in the mid-’90s, and now there’s just one original Ramone left alive. (Glad I saw them back in 1990.) When I saw James Brown at Chicago’s African Festival Of The Arts back in 2001, I assumed it wouldn’t be the last chance I’d get. Brown had always been around, and besides, he looked and sounded great up on the stage, dancing a little more carefully than in the famous concert footage from the ’60s, but still giving it his all. Five years later, he died on Christmas day.
But it isn’t just the threat of death that should send you to concerts. People retire—glad I caught Bowie in ’04—bands break up, and heydays pass. It’s kind of sweet, in a way, that the members of the Pixies who once seemed unlikely to set foot in the same room, much less share a stage again, have been made inseparable by the powerful incentive of a steady paycheck. And live, they’re still pretty good. But who would have predicted that the group would become the alt-rock equivalent of an oldies act, playing the same songs just as you remember them, night after night? I never caught Pavement in the ’90s, but I greatly enjoyed seeing it at Pitchfork a couple of years ago. If I closed my eyes, it was almost like 1994 all over again.
The longer I follow music, the more ephemeral it all seems. Albums last forever, but the people and the circumstances that create them change almost immediately. A great album is like a photograph of a sand mandala, captured before the wind blows it all away. For every Neil Young or Bob Dylan-like war horse out there plugging away year after year (apart from the occasional health scare), still making music worth hearing (usually) and performing concerts worth seeing (almost always), there’s a Jeff Mangum who puts out an incredible album, does the rounds, then just goes away. (At least until recently.)
As the creator of a bona fide classic, Mangum is an extreme example, but consider this: That singer/band/rapper/DJ you love so much now might go from strength to strength year after year. On the other hand, they might move on. Or the inspiration might fade. This might be the moment to see them before it all goes south. One day you’re putting out Pleased To Meet Me, the next, you’re breaking up on stage at a July 4 concert as roadies step in for your band members as they walk off in disgust. Or maybe you’ll change. Tastes shift as the years go by. See the act you love so much now, and you’ll have that love confirmed. Catch them after the love has faded, and you’ll wonder what you were thinking. One final thing: Life finds ways to keep you home at night after a while, particularly once kids enter the picture.
“Nobody lives forever,” Gene Hackman says in the David Mamet movie Heist, to which Rebecca Pidgeon, playing his wife, replies, “Frank Sinatra gave it a shot.” Sinatra gave his last live performance in 1995. His last song: “The Best Is Yet To Come.” That’s a beautiful sentiment and a lovely biographical detail. It’s just not always true. Like so much of life, music is best appreciated while it’s happening, and without the bittersweet tug of missed chances and things that might have been.