Wednesday, August 22, 2012

The Dispatch From Escalatorville: Emphasis On "Might"

Ahh, the burdens of the average American - I recently spent a boring and customer-less hour during a slow day in the retail universe. My beings only brush with emotive excitement - feeling the flow of heated disdain through my noggin upon hearing the overhead radio's reverberation of the Eagles "Peaceful Easy Feeling"

The boredom broken only by this exact in-coming visitor exchange:

Dad: "Son, don't touch stuff."

Son: "But, I'm only touching things!"

I have been lucky enough to attend hundreds of concerts in my life. I've been fortunate enough to see many of my favorite bands, or members of my favorite bands, doing their thing on-stage in front of a large audience. I think seeing a band in person is an exciting living testament to the power of music.

Of all the great groups I've seen in performance - I believe the one  I've seen more than any other would be those two guys from Brooklyn named John - They Might Be Giants. Over the course of 20 plus years, I have seen them about 7 times. As they say in books and movies, however, you never forget your first:

During my sophomore year of college, I was fortunate enough to find a few folks who, like me, had adopted the quirky and catchy music of TMBG, who'd recently released their biggest LP to date, "a brand new record, for 1990" - it was called 'Flood'.  I didn't take to 'Flood' as much as their first two albums, which I'd memorized by listening to ad nauseum. However, that particular LP broadened their audience throughout high school and college campuses nationwide.

Ross, one of my newest pals in the dorm (who soon become a band mate, roommate, and great friend throughout my remaining college years and beyond), had heard that the musicians would soon be on tour. The closest stop to our adopted St. Augustine? The University of Florida, in Gainesville.

These were the in-between days for concert ticket buying. We didn't have a drugstore or local market with a ticket line to go and stand in overnight - and this was pre-internet, where one has to use their quickest fingers to catch a seat in the 5 or 6 seconds before an auditorium sells out. The purchase of these particular tickets required a borrowed parental credit card, promised cash paybacks from those who wanted a seat, and a long distance phone call to reserve the tickets - which would be picked up at the venue on the day of the show. Ross did a lot of work to corral the half a dozen orders for those in the dorm who really wanted to hear "Birdhouse In Your Soul" in all it's active, in your face glory.

Tickets secured. We anxiously awaited the date of the show.

We were anxious, but less than prepared. Gainesville was (and still is) about 75 miles from St. Augustine. For a group of kids with no car - this would prove a problem. The morning of the show arrived and we had no way to get there (my personal details are fuzzy; did we have a ride that cancelled, or had we just not thought about it?).

We scrambled, running around campus trying to bump into folks we knew that might be able to help us out (yeah, kids - pre-texting and facebook, you actually had to contact people in person). After a hectic little bit of asking, begging, and finagling with our breakfasts nervously semi-digesting betwixt gullet and stomach - we managed to find an acquaintance who would loan out her car for the evening. As I had arranged to be the driver, I made a solemn promise to get the vehicle safely to the concert, and back into it's parking spot by late that evening - also swearing that I would not be drinking or drugging during the journey (not that this was a problem, I wouldn't embrace those vices until my post-grad years).

In order to get to the show by the time we perceived it would start ("Doors Open At 7PM" being one of those wishy-washy phrases that, while indeed true, has no bearing whatsoever on the future timing of event proceedings), we opted to leave around 4:30 in the afternoon. We'd be the first ones to rush our schools dining hall dinner hour before squeezing into the car - hopefully giving us enough time to travel to Gainesville, get our bearings, retrieve the tickets, and wander around a bit before the start of the show.

T'was pretty much a straight shot out to ole U of F - with just a road switch or two along the way - and not much trouble on the territorial roads of central northern Florida. I say 'territorial' because I recall the horror of trying to pass another vehicle on the two lane blacktop - only to have a driver coming in the opposite direction speed up as we approached in his lane. I'm definitely not a lead foot, but having to maneuver a car quickly enough to avoid becoming roadkill for a local who wants to scare the pants off a crew of college punks was a challenge that I accepted with a scream, a curse, and the proverbial "pedal to the metal."

We made it to Gainesville safe and sound, thank you.

After parking the car, we headed to the hall itself, where we planned to get our tickets, in plenty of time - and chill out before seeing the fellows who we were certain would become our new-favorite-band-of-all-time.

Gallantly, we strolled up to the 'Will Call' window - which was shut and locked.

We uttered a collective "Wha???" before minuscule waves of panic set in. The tickets, we knew, had been paid for (Ross' folks credit card statement could verify that tale) - we had managed to wrangle everyone in our group, tested the limits of a borrowed car, and arrived with half an hour to spare before our fun was set to begin. Now, we could not attain the one thing that allowed us entry into the world of sonic wonder that rested beyond the doors of the concert hall.

We knocked. No answer. We knocked again. No answer.  We then ran around inside the building, asking anyone in the vicinity that we could think of (ushers, security, desk clerks, custodians) who we'd have to talk to, or persuade, to open up that damn window and get us our tickets. After what seemed like a long while of frustration after frustration, we strolled outside to get some fresh air.

Releasing ones anger into the wild is apparently a key of some sort.

We re-entered the building to find that the window was now open - a bored college student just like ourselves sat thumbing through a book, looking as if he'd been given the task by Dante himself - Ticket Window Assistant being a job on level three of Hell, apparently.

We approached, gave the name on the tickets, and were handed an envelope that contained those paper passes to the musical land of enchantment.

"Wow," uttered the guy behind the glass - "We've been waiting for y'all to show up."

Flabbergasted but relieved, we raced to the entrance of the hall where, we were sure, They Might Be Giants would take the stage within minutes. We entered a vast room full of sweaty, eager teens and early 20-somethings, crowded elbow to elbow in a very warm 'concert hall' which was simply a converted gym. Staking our claim to whatever parts of the floor our feet could stand in - we waited. Then waited some more. Then waited some more.

Those that could find space on the floor to sit did so. Fans who'd never met were soon introducing themselves to each other, trading stories of their trip to this venue, which albums and bootlegs they owned, how many times they'd seen the band, et cetera. There were even a couple of know-it-all snobs who'd seen the group in Brooklyn during the "early years." Only three albums into what's become a 3-decade long career, and these uber-fans were already reminiscing about the good old days.

After an hour of waiting, the lights dimmed, and we all stood. The whoosh of air that accompanied our rise provided a brief, cooling breeze as we looked to the stage and out walked - the opening act. We hadn't counted on an opening act.

We certainly hadn't counted on this opening act - Carmaig De Forest. A New York folk singer who none of us had heard of. When I say 'none of us' - I don't mean just the gang from St. Augustine. Nobody in the entire crowd had heard of him, and our collective confusion was audible. He then launched into an energetic set which featured quasi-political songs and whimsical numbers such as "Crack Is No Worse Than The Fascist Threat."

Three songs in, he broke a string on his guitar. He then finished the remainder of his set on Ukulele. I kid you not. This was an admirable challenge and he met it royally. Unfortunately, the room full of perspiration drenched kids waiting for a super-groovy hip band wasn't as receptive or appreciative as we probably should have been. [Editor's note: In later years, I came upon a vinyl copy of De Forest's LP 'I Shall Be Released' - which features "Crack..." among many other fine tunes - my turntable has spun it more than a few times...Look him up online, he's got a good rep and a respectable pedigree.]

He finished his set, and wandered off to a smattering of applause. We knew that it would be mere moments before TMBG took the stage and would provide us with the best concert experience we'd ever know.

"Oh intermission, be brief so that we can behold greatness!"

It was not brief. Half an hour passed. 45 minutes passed. We returned, roasted and dripping to the floor. A full hour after De Forest played his last uleklele'd note - the lights again dimmed as an overhead monitor announced the headliner.

They Might Be Giants had finally appeared. We were joyous, and probably a bit delirious from the loss of bodily fluids. I could not hear the entire first song due to the gracious and alleviated cheers from the mass of fandom which rattled the room. The duo performed on various instruments, backed by a reel to reel tape recorder/playback machine (for those of you under the age of 35 - you may need a history lesson). It was fantastic. It was entertaining. It was awesome to see, ten feet from my face - the faces I'd only known through the wacky videos that aired late at night on MTV. They played a bunch of songs from the 'Flood' LP, and a few fun songs from their aforementioned "glory days."

Then, It was over.

We'd been in the sweat box for nearly 4 hours. The band we'd rushed, struggled, and risked our necks to see had played for 60 minutes.

Midnight, in Gainesville. We'd not a lot of cash left, having spent quite a few dollars on band merchandise and gasoline. So, we opted to pile into the borrowed car and head back to the oldest city.

Remember when I wrote that it was a pretty straight shot from St. Augustine to Gainesville? When you are very tired, dehydrated, slightly dejected, and heaped in the darkness of a late-night excursion on poorly lit roads - one wrong turn can turn the world on it's head.

I made a couple wrong turns.

I could have sworn that I'd headed back the exact same way that we'd started out. I remembered landmarks, tunnels, road signs - and yet, somehow misplaced my sense of direction. After two hours of driving - we had ended up on a dirt road, well off the highway, beside a farmers field. Halfway between Gainesville and the Atlantic Ocean, but nearly 40 miles south of where we should have been.

I only know that we were south of where we should have been because of my pal Richard. Frustrated on the side of the road, gravel and dirt intermingling with tall weeds, grass, and whatever creatures lay about in the late, late night - I was lost and livid. Richard, however, had taken up an interest in astronomy as a kid. Luckily, he'd retained a bit of that knowledge, and - based on the stars in the night sky - was able to make suggestions as to what direction we should head.

The fuel gauge needle quickly slanting toward 'E'  - I pointed the car along the roads that were available to us, and eventually we made it back onto the highway. It was 5 AM when I pulled that car into the Flagler College parking lot, running on fumes. The vehicle was as exhausted as the rest of us.

I found a spot and parked. We all exited our TMBG-mobile, returning to our dorm rooms and promising to meet up for breakfast at the dining hall after a few short naps. Some of us met up again, at lunch.

We'd been through an ordeal to get to and from that show. I've never had such a trek to experience a They Might Be Giants concert in the years since. In fact, with the exception of a powerful stomach bug which attacked me in the midst of their Richmond, Virginia gig a year or two later, I've had a wonderful time seeing the band over the years.

I'd even bet that - if you talked to any one of us who'd taken the excursion to Gainesville that night - despite the hindrances we endured, we'd all say:

"Yeah, that was a great show!"

Heh Heh, he said "BackHoe"...
Recently seen between the mud puddles in the Ancient City; a man riding down the street, daughter in his lap with her hands on the wheel - as daddy showed her how to drive... the humongous backhoe loader he was using to assist in road improvement.

The presumptive babies mama stood on a side platform, hanging onto a door railing as they moseyed along their route.

I didn't realize that construction contractors had their own "Take Your Daughter To Work" Day - nor that they began this initiation when the child was less than two years of age.
The Dispatch From Escalatorville
Z.F. Lively,  Proprietor/Unsuccessful Ticket-Scalper for song requests and on-stage shout outs.

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