Over the years I have attended over four hundred concerts. In some circles, this statement produces gasps of disbelief. In other circles, it is met with the aforementioned pissing match response. (“I saw the Dead over five hundred times, and that was just in the seventies, man”). Yes, I am counting the time that Pete Seeger played eight or ten songs in the Cherry Hill Grammar School cafeteria during an ice cream social. And I am also counting the symphony and opera I was required to attend in order to pass Music Appreciation 101 back in community college.
No, I am not counting all the times my friends and I played bars in college for free beer. Nor am I including my sisters’ high school band concerts, even though she was first chair violin and uber talented. I only count legitimate shows for which tickets need to be purchased, admission paid, etcetera, for musicians who were being paid to entertain me. This loose interpretation also includes benefit show, for those of you kind readers who might call me to task for including the M.U.S.E. concerts in New York City, or Farm Aid in Seattle.
I have never knowingly thrown away a ticket stub since 1971. I used to keep them all in a clear plastic box with brass hinges and a leather handle like a briefcase. It eventually got full and I decided to place them in a photo album. When that was full, I started putting them in the plastic case again. When that filled, I got another album. You get the idea. Some pages include souvenirs like guitar picks. Others contain newspaper clippings or other press kit paraphernalia.
So, in a way, I have made a list. A listing of all the concerts I have attended over the course of the last four decades. The list is merely numerical, nothing more. A list can contain countless items, mine stops short of four hundred fifty. Dates. Times. Venues. Those are the items on my list. Simple letters and numbers. I went to this many show at this many different places and saw this many different artists over so many years. If I shared this list, I would be sharing only facts, tangible data without any other purpose than to inform. I got to tell you, there are plenty of facts to go around. About those facts on my list I offer the following sentiment: Who gives a shit?
Each of those shows, to me, represents a set of memories. There’s a story behind every one of those ticket stubs. A tale to be told regarding the journey, the music, the fortune or misfortune that accompanied me into each seat be it reserved, general admission or lawn. Over the course of this occasional column, I would like to take you, gentle reader, along with me to the source of some of these memories. Video aside, you will never dance in the aisles of Giant Stadium to Jerry Garcia’s surreal mandolin playing with the Dead. You can never witness, first hand, Keith Moon destroy a drum kit at the end of Baba O’Riley. You’ll never be awed by the commanding stage presence that was Freddie Mercury. Instead, I will attempt to transport you to those shows via the written word. My own recollections of a misspent youth (and adulthood) in concert halls and county fair grounds, record stores and race tracks. All in search of the next show.
First big show
Led Zeppelin, 09/03/1971.
Madison Square Garden, New York.
It had been a year since Ed had gone to the city to see Zeppelin. He and Dennis and Randy took the train into Manhattan and saw their first big time show. I still remember my brother Ed’s dazed look when he got home that night. He said the show started with WNEW-FM disc jockey, Scott Muni announcing to the crowd, “Melody Maker takes a poll every year around the world. These guys just dethroned the Beatles after eight years. Ladies and gentlemen, LED ZEPPELIN!”
He went on to describe the violin bow on the guitar, the drum solo that was Moby Dick and all the hippies that were there. He said that there was an unbelievable encore that went on forever. I was getting as wild-eyed as he was, and I was stuck at home, in the bedroom we shared growing up in the suburbs. As cool as we thought we were (and for Airmont, N.Y., we pretty much were the definition of cool in 1970) we were far from hippies. This was big.
We had been born in The Bronx and had been suburbanites for about six years. Myself fifteen, and Ed, eons older at seventeen, had been bitten by the rock and roll bug along with countless others when the Beatles hit the Ed Sullivan Show. Our neighbor/babysitter, Mary Burns, actually went to the airport to greet them and fainted on the tarmac. Film of her being carried off was to be on the CBS news that night, though I never saw it. Our Aunt Loretta had given Ed a tape recorder for his birthday that year and he recorded the entire performance. It started something with Ed, as he recorded all the popular acts on Sullivan from then on. He would grab the T.V. section of the Sunday Daily News and check the listings for who was to be on that night. Then he would get the recorder ready, queuing up the end of the last entry so as not to erase last week’s band performance. The Turtles, the Dave Clark Five, whoever came on, he got them on that tape. We listened to that so many times, I think we wore it out.
So, anyway, after hearing Ed’s description of the show, (which is still regarded as one of the finest performances Zeppelin ever put on. It included a medley tribute to Jimi Hendrix, who had recently passed away) I wanted nothing more than to go see a show, now more than ever. I had been forced to stay home that first night due to a coincidence of the calendar. On September 19, 1970, Ed was above that magical, imaginary dot on the time line of sixteen years, whereas I was still eleven months short. I would have to wait till next time. Turns out it was just days after my sixteenth birthday.
September 3, 1971.
We had gotten a ride into the city with Dennis and Jeff’s dad when we bought the tickets, sometime in July I think. That’s another story by itself, the highlights of which were the subway excursions we took to get around Manhattan, Blimpie’s heroes, and countless sightings of that old nose and eyes over the fence sketch, in magic marker, accompanied by the phrase “Uncle Remus Was Here”.
The day of the show, Ed, Jeff, Dennis and I walked up to the local drug store and got cassette tapes and batteries for my new, portable cassette recorder. Portable is a relative word, really. Think small briefcase, maybe six Sony Walkman’s duct taped together with a big, immobile plastic handle at the top. The cassette was state of the art technology as far as I was concerned in 1971. I had the heart of a taper from the start.
The four of us took the train to the city the day of the show. Ate dinner at Blimpie’s and got into our seats with about 15 minutes to spare. I remember the long climb up endless stairways to get to our section and then to our seats. I clutched that ticket stub like it was a lifeline. With this ticket stub, I can not get lost. I can barely see the stage, but I have a seat in the room.
You bet your ass I still have that ticket stub. Green and a bit tattered, Cost $6.50 with no service charges because, hell, they hadn’t been invented yet. Section 343, Row F, Seat 2. About five rows from the top of the second promenade, up in the nosebleeds, just slightly right of as far away as you could get on our level. The blue level was above us. The tile wall a mere four or five steps uphill. I had snuck in the cassette recorder and Ed snuck in an instamatic camera. Jeff and Dennis had the flash cubes in their pockets. We were set.
Let me get this part of it out of the way before I go any farther. The cassette tapes were a bust. Besides all of our prominent background noise, there was a problem with the tapes themselves. The replay sounded like the Chipmunks do Zeppelin. Too bad. It didn’t stop us from listening to it over and over for months after the show. But it didn’t go a long way towards impressing our friends.
Same thing happened with the photos. Turns out, the flash cubes illuminated the backs of the heads for about seven rows. And what could be seen of the stage in the developed picture was the tiniest blur of color just past the shiny scalps of those seated in front of us. Again, too bad, but what are you going to do?
We were joined by Eric, another friend from the neighborhood. He had brought the wine skin full of sangria and some pot. Plus, he was our ride home. He had a V.W. Beetle.
I was in awe. I hadn’t been to the Garden since the circus, probably seven or eight years earlier, this was intense to my sixteen year old senses. Foghat was blaring from the largest banks of speakers I had ever seen. Frisbees and beach balls were flying around through a smoky haze that hung just slightly higher than the level at which we were perched. Twenty thousand other music fans were in the house and the party was at fever pitch. I saw boobs in public for the first time. I drank sangria out of a wine skin for the first time. I smoked joint after joint with total strangers for the first time. When the show started, I was primed and ready.
The house lights went down and Foghat stopped suddenly. Everyone stood and screamed and clapped, so I did too, why not? A spotlight lit a tiny figure on the stage. I remember like it was yesterday.
“I’m Scott Muni, from WNEW-FM. They take a poll over in England every year. For the second time, the greatest rock and roll band in the land, LED ZEPPELIN!”. The crowd went ape shit.
With the stage still pitch black, Robert Plant’s guttural wail silenced just about everybody. “AAH-AAH-AAAAAAAHHH – -AAH”, the primitive, gut wrenching opening notes from the third album’s Immigrant Song. What followed was flat out effing amazing. Heartbreaker, Since I’ve Been Loving You just about put me on my butt. This was a band whose records we had worn thin, memorizing every note. I had played air guitar to all of these solos, but they were different now. More than just a lot louder than I had ever heard before, but it was like Jimmy Page was speaking a different language with that guitar, and I could understand every word. Granted, drugs and alcohol were involved, bit that’s a feeling I still get to this day when I see a performer or band getting into the flow, communicating in that foreign tongue that seems part of me. It’s what happens when you ‘get it’.
They played a new song (Black Dog, though I didn’t know it at the time) and then a forever long version of Dazed And Confused. I remember concentrating on the tiny John Bonham behind the drum kit. Even from that distance, his arms were a blur. When the applause ended, the stage remained dark for a bit longer than normal. When the lights came back on I could see why. Jimmy Page had switched to a huge acoustic guitar. Eric, to my left, pointed out that it was a twelve string. Plant introduced the next song as “Something we’ve been working on from our next album and I hope you like it.”
What followed was the first time I had ever heard Stairway To Heaven (an awful lot of firsts going on here). This song was unbelievable. The intricate fretwork on the introduction, the crash of energy when the full band kicks in, the extended jamming before the big falsetto final verses, culminating with Robert Plant’s breathy finale, it all worked together and literally stunned the crowd, present company included.
When the last echo of the final cymbal crash died into silence, the entire audience resembled slack jawed mutes for a good ten count. Then someone in a seat much closer to the stage than ours began clapping, a lone cadence breaking the trance we all seemed to share. Bit by bit, the rest of us woke from our fog and applauded wildly. Without a doubt, I had heard the finest piece of music I had ever experienced in my short at the time life. Goosebumps doesn’t begin to describe the feeling I got from “Stairway” that night.
Not that “Stairway” was the only highlight of the show that night, not by a long shot. What Is And What Should Never Be, Moby Dick, it was one classic after another. The lights were blindingly bright. The acoustics at the back of the second tier magnified the echo, making the bass line deafeningly loud. I was grinning like the stunned teenager from the suburbs that I was and not giving a crap about anything else in the world.
During the encore’s first song, Thank You, the audience got dangerously close to the stage. As was sort of the custom at the time, Plant and Page actually walked on the hands of those in the front few rows. As they made their way back to the stage, the crowd joined them and the stage collapsed. Plant and Page made their way to the top of the stacks of amps, then crawled down and off stage. The house lights came up and the P.A. announcer asked for calm and for everyone to return to their seats.
Roadies appeared from out of nowhere and began to reassemble the stage. It took about twenty minutes, but soon the house lights dimmed and once again, from the darkness we heard Robert Plant begin the song again, “If the sun refused to shine, I would still be loving you”. The stage lights came up and the crowd again roared their approval. I spied Jimmy Page on top of the stack on the left side, Plant on the right. They were taking no chances, but determined to finish their set.
From his perch high atop the amplifiers, Plant introduced their last song of the night as Been A Long Time, which became Rock And Roll by the time the fourth album came out a couple of months later. Simply amazing interplay between Bonham and Jones highlighted this stomping blues gem. I was floored for the final time that night. When the lights came up, Ed tapped me on the shoulder and pointed to the wall behind us, at the top of the section. There, scrawled in black magic marker, were those words we had seen countless times before, but only during our journeys related to Led Zeppelin:
UNCLE REMUS WAS HERE
The ride home was as uneventful as seven teenagers in a V.W. Beetle coming home from a concert in the city late at night could be. With my first time buzz still rattling my senses, crammed against the window behind the driver with someone’s butt against my elbow I watched the cars whiz by on Route 17. I wouldn’t sleep that night. Too wired.
We went to our jobs as lifeguards the next day, Jeff and I. I imagine Ed and Dennis came down to the lake and partook of the Labor Day Weekend festivities, though on those points, I am clearly not certain. But that previous evening, that late summer Friday night’s trip to the city, set in motion a love of live music that has yet to diminish even slightly.
Rock on Through The Fog,