Why Your First Concert Is The Greatest Moment Of Your Adolescence
On Gen X's and Gen Y's best music memories. An excerpt from Eve Epstein and Leonora Epstein's new book, X vs. Y: A Culture War, a Love Story.
X vs. Y: A Culture War, a Love Story is a pop culture ode to Gen X and Gen Y, written by two sisters 14 years apart in age. In it, funny essays and infographics pay tribute to the best of their respective generations. Here, they share their stories of their very first concerts.
1985: A Gen Xer's First Concert by Eve Epstein
Today at enormous arena rock shows, 90 percent of the attendees are strangely content to view a "live" performance on LED screens posted throughout impossibly large venues.
My first concert was not like that.
It was Wham! — who, though already a huge sensation, were for some reason booked in the Beacon Theatre, a small venue across the street from my home on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.
While not exactly an early adopter of Wham!'s oeuvre (I was not, for instance, familiar with their first album, featuring the intriguingly named "Wham Rap"), I had certainly been thoroughly swept up in the craze surrounding the sunny pop duo, and I was totally enamored of front man George Michael. I remember looking at pictures of his face and thinking to myself that it was the embodiment of perfection, staring at his outrageously white teeth and gravity-eschewing head-soufflé of airily frosted and feathered hair and finding every single thing about him beautiful.
Anyway. It was February 14, 1985, and my best friend, Allegra, had managed to talk her parents into buying us tickets. Even better, all respective guardians had given their permission for us to attend the show sans chaperone — a decision we mistakenly attributed to their amazing trust in us despite our tender age (13); the real reason certainly had more to do with the fact that not one of the four adults in question could be expected voluntarily to subject his or her eardrums to the strains of "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go" and other such (perceived) inanities.
We were in the eighth row — great seats with a pretty unobstructed view of the performers. But even with so much proximity, they felt no closer to me than if I'd been watching them on MTV. Back then, famous people just weren't people to me. They weren't made of flesh. They didn't breathe air or get colds or go to the bathroom or feel things.
But they could sing. The music was great. George Michael's vocal prowess was something even my classical musician parents had to concede; even buried under so much mid-eighties frippery, his croon was hypnotic. The highlight of the evening was "Careless Whisper," the beautiful and heartbreaking ballad that seemed like the emotional counterpart to "Wake Me Up" — the tragic potential consequences of not waking your partner up before you go-go, I assumed. The lights were dimmed, the lighters were lit and held aloft — a gesture that has since become acceptable only as a show of irony — and the crowd became one silent but teeming entity of enchantment, swaying like grasses in the breeze of that plaintive sax solo.
And then, as the song wound down, the screaming resumed.
The audience was almost entirely composed of girls between the ages of 13 and 17, and as a result the noise from the crowd remained at a constant and unnervingly high pitch and decibel level. I remember experiencing, for the first time, that uncomfortable buzzing that is your eardrums' way of telling you that a sonic assault is verging on the unacceptable and threatening to incur permanent damage — not the music, in this case, but the primal and unending sounds issuing from the girls to my left and to my right.
Afterward, we were physically exhausted but so revved — by the crowd, the music, the ringing in our ears, the aftermath of all that expectation, and the first-timeness of it all — that we somehow knew we'd never get to sleep that night. My father, in an act of supreme awesomeness, told us we could play hooky the next day. It was, all in all, a perfect evening.
Sometime later, I read an article detailing some of the goings-on at certain Wham! shows, and one thing stood out to me: Apparently, the boys were known for shoving shuttlecocks down their shorts and then batting them out into the audience (presumably with badminton rackets, though I don't actually remember). At 13, and a young 13 at that, I was appalled and relieved that I hadn't had to contend with such a performance. It struck me as disgusting and unsanitary and vaguely frightening. It did not seem to be in keeping with the image of them I held to — that of animated Ken dolls with frozen smiles and nothing but smooth plastic down the fronts (and backs) of their pants — or for that matter, the image they themselves appeared to promote as adorable but nonsexual confections whose lyrics hinged on the rhyming of "go-go" and "yo-yo." Something about this information broke the fourth wall of my desire. It let in too much of something too real. And while nothing could ever destroy the sanctity of that concert, it did forever alter my feelings about George Michael as a love object. Which, I suspect, he's not too broken up over.
1997: A Gen Yer's First Concert by Leonora Epstein
Anne, Molly, and Lisa had gone to the Crossgates Mall in Albany to see Aqua, and I had not been invited. This was not OK.
The fact that Molly's mom was the type of mom who would willingly drive three hyper teenage girls one hour to go see a Danish-Norwegian dance-pop band whose only known song to most of mankind ("Barbie Girl") would later be named "The Worst Song of the Nineties" by Rolling Stone, was just, like, not fair.
In school on Monday, the trio bounced around the halls shrieking the hiccup-like, ditzerrific lyrics, eliciting the raunchy baritone notes from the seventh-grade boys who lowered their voices as best they could to sing, "Come on, Barbie, let's go party," to which the girls responded with that squeaky and impossibly high-pitched "ah, ah, ah yeah!"
What was going on? These were my best friends. And though I now have to assume that this was their first concert (although I'm not sure how seeing a one-hit Euro-pop band in a mall, in the daytime counts), they had suddenly been put in a class of cooler adolescence — people who went to see live music because their parents let them.
"They touched my hand, they touched my HAND!!!" Anne shrieked repeatedly that day. She really wanted to make sure everyone knew this.
What was I going to do? I needed to lose my concert virginity. Doing this in western Massachusetts with parents who definitely would not drive you an hour to any place — even if you really tried to explain to them how your life depended on it — would be difficult.
But I did have my totally cool older sister who lived in Hollywood, and at 12 years old, I had recently earned the privilege of making what would become regular solo trips out to Los Angeles for vacation visits. These trips would end up saving me during my teenage years and also give me a taste for everything that wasn't in Teen People, YM, or the Crossgates Mall, for that matter.
On this trip out to the West Coast, I wanted to go to a concert, I told Eve. It was very important that this be accomplished, I stressed, so Eve took out a newspaper to look at what was on that week. There weren't many options considering the show had to be all ages, but the Jesus Lizard was playing at the Roxy. I didn't know who these pious reptilians were, but it didn't matter.
Struggling to stay awake the night of, I fished through the piles of Betsey Johnson dresses, ripped jeans, and boyish button-ups on the floor of Eve's studio apartment; almost equally important as attending a rock show was the outfit you wore to it. Finally I found the perfect thing: a white T-shirt with baby blue edging and a shiny, glitter-patterned iron-on reading "KISS." As you can probably guess, I had no clue this was the logo of the heavy metal band. I just thought it was, like, kiss, you know? So cute.
With that, I wore some baggy blue corduroys with platform sneakers and clipped my straightened hair back with colorful clips on both sides.
This was going to be so cool.
When we entered the Roxy, my excitement was quickly replaced by fear. I had to have been the youngest person there and was pretty sure I wasn't supposed to be there and we were going to get kicked out and maybe go to jail. As we waited in the semidarkness for the show to begin, I tried my best to seem chill, but behind us a girl with a cropped top and a belly-button ring was furiously making out with a guy, and I was pretty sure they were just going to have sex right there.
But nothing could prepare me for the moment when a sweaty and shirtless David Yow took the stage and began to act like what I can only describe as a really angry monster vomiting into a microphone. He whipped himself around while a violently loud, growling bass shook through my body, and behind him, Animal the Muppet beat up his drum kit.
The sound was unhinging. But it was mainly the vocals that made me feel like a million horror movies all at once. To give you a better idea, Entertainment Weekly's 1994 review of the group's live album, Show, describes how "Yow alternately squeals like a stuck pig and hollers like a caveman with a throat full of phlegm," and the magazine's later review of Shot in '96 acknowledges the band's lack of restraint: "Yow spat out demented lyrics as the band lurched along in fits and starts like drunks trying to play the Stooges' songbook."
It goes without saying that hearing all this was terrifying.
Once you have experienced the Jesus Lizard, they are hard to forget. If you have never heard of this noise-rock band, all you really need to know is that the Jesus Lizard live is what your parents think a rock show is like, except it is actually what your parents think a rock show is like. It is bad-influence musicians playing loud music you really don't get, in an atmosphere charged with pent-up anger, and a front man who might trample you, disrobe, dismember stuffed animals, or even lick you, as I read Yow was prone to doing. (If this happened, I have blocked it out.)
My sister taking me to see them for my first rock show was either brilliant or the world's worst idea.
Although I'm thinking it's neither, because I'm pretty sure when I got home I told everyone the concert I'd seen was Aqua.
Former DailyCandy editor-in-chief and current director of web programming at Participant Media, Eve Epstein (Team X) has worked as a writer, editor, and branding expert for 15 years. Her articles have appeared in Vanity Fair, Allure, and Glamour. Leonora Epstein (Team Y) is an editor at BuzzFeed.com. She has blogged for Cosmopolitan.com, TheFrisky.com, and Elle.com. They both live in Los Angeles.
X vs. Y: A Culture War, a Love Story is their first book. You can find them on Twitter at EveEpstein2 and leonoraepstein.