Around Mar 30, 1989,I got a call from Arlene asking me if I wanted to go to this Dead Milkmen concert on April 29th. I had been slowly realizing that April was going to be a hellish month. The first week, there was going to be a computer science project due. The Computer Science 60A students would be having a midterm, and so would have lots of questions for their friendly neighborhood lab assistant, for which said labass would have to study if he wanted to be able to answer correctly. And on April 28th, my BIG history paper was due.
I had been thinking of this theory that's been ticking around in my head since I saw Joseph Campbell (Author of "Hero of a Thousand Faces") talk on the TV. He was talking about myths and how their power carries over into our lives today. He spoke of the power of ritual. It got me to thinking that Rites of Passage, Marriages--lots of these rituals deal with transitions, you know? Rite of Passage is sort of a way of taking the gradual transition of child to adult and making it sudden and definite. Nowadays, there's no way to tell when you're grown up. Is it when you can vote? When you can drink? When you can get into R-rated movies? Back when they had those ceremonies there was no question. Weddings give the mind something definite to attach significance to feelings are hard things for the mind to deal with. But by linking it to this event, the mind has something it can recognize instead of an ambient emotion, there's a ceremony it can focus on.
I wanted to celebrate the end of April. Going to the second rock concert of my life sounded like a good idea.
The first rock concert I ever went to was in Wisconsin. It was Tom Petty and Bob Dylan. My parents and I were in Illinois visiting with my Dad's family and my cousin Danny had decided it would be fun for he, his brother Eric, me and all our parents go to this concert. We all wanted a chance to see Bob Dylan live. Even if he had been born again.
We drove up from the Chicago suburbs to where this concert was to be held. We got lost on the way. Finally we found the place. We attained the vicinity of the place just as the concert was scheduled to begin. Unfortunately, also in the vicinity of this ampitheatre were lots of other cars going to the concert. This was backroads Wisconsin. The only way to the theatre was this one-lane-each-way road. It was backed up for 2 miles, and we spent either 2 or 4 hours (I forget which) waiting to get into the field that served as a parking lot. We finally got in. The music was way too loud. Even though it was outside, the smell of burning tobacco and marijuana made me generally nauseous. Dylan was boring on stage. Tom Petty's just not that good. When the concert was done, we couldn't find the car in the dark. We wandered around looking for it. Finally found it, and drove back to Chicago. One of the worst nights of my life. That was at least two years ago.
It had been so terrible I had decided to never go to another rock concert. But one thing I remembered about that night is that it had been drastic. I was looking for something drastic to round out my April.
So Arlene talked a couple of her friends into going to this concert, and I talked my roommate Ken and a couple of friends into going, so it looked like we were going to have quite a crowd. Then Arlene's friends negged her, and my friends begged out except for Ken; by dinner on April 29th, we ended up with Arlene, Ken (my roommate), and I getting up from the dinner table, me waving good-bye to my parents and the three of us heading off to Toy Boat for a pre-concert ice cream fest.
Now Arlene had told me how she had lost a pair of glasses at a concert: when she had been bumped, they had fallen off, and been subsequently trampled. Thus I had decided to bring my spare glasses to the concert, so as not to risk my good pair. Since I couldn't find my spare pair, I decided to go spectacle-less to the spectacle. After all, my distance vision is fine, it's only for reading that I need the glasses. So we show up at Toy Boat, and of course I couldn't read the menu.
So I just listened to other people making their choices, and I heard this one lady get a "Chocaholic's Surprise." I asked what went into one of those. I learned that it consisted of Ultra Chocolate ice cream (A very rich chocolate blend, almost black) topped by fudge, a fudgy brownie bigger than my hand, more hot fudge, and whipped cream. Mmm.
From there we went to the bus stop. The bus was a long time coming, and Arlene told us about the one time she had been waiting at that very same bus stop, and the bus had taken so long to arrive that she and her boyfriend had broken up due to the general environment of frustration. "After all, we had plenty of time to do it in," she said. Ken was able to keep us amused with these bird calls he does by whistling with his hands cupped over his mouth. We watched our fellow waiters while he did this as they tried to edge away from him. Finally, the bus came, and with little further ado, dropped us off at the front door of the Fillmore.
We were frisked before going in, and Ken made sure that the cute girl frisked him. We went up the stairs, and entered the Fillmore. Have you ever been in there? It's really purple. It was purple the way that some buildings are big, the way that that dice click. Just something intrinsic. The three of us sat on the floor and readied our earplugs. Arlene wanted to see mine in my ear, but when she pulled my hair back, the 'plug fell out and landed in a puddle of beer. Luckily I had a spare.
In the meantime, we looked out for interesting hairstyles. There was only one really worthy of note. This one kid had a couple of spikes of hair raised up. I think they were supposed to look like horns, but instead they looked like antennae. Interesting, anyhow.
So the first opening act comes on. It's this guy named something like Alpo Guthrie. Just one guy with an acoustic guitar, and he was really boring. While he was playing, Arlene, worried about what her fate would be if Ken and I didn't enjoy ourselves, noted that she hadn't made any guarantees about the opening acts. Finally she settled down, and we just started to talk. We discussed the ceiling of the hall. Found out that the raised parts between the supports were known as coffers. I hadn't known that. Finally, with an altered version of "Animal Crackers in my Soup", Alpo was gone. The lights came back up. We sat down and laughingly discussed how bad the first act had been. We were confused though.
The next opening band was called MCM and the Monster. Arlene started to get nervous about this band when she noticed that they had a scratcher--sure enough, there was a guy standing by a turntable, fiddling with it in some sort of rap-born warm-up routine. Then the lead singer appeared, and the lights went down. Then with a light shining on him, the singer announced the band "Hey! We're MCM and the Monster! And we like to dance and we like to DRINK BEER!" At this point he held up a can, took a swig from it and launched into the first song.
Well it wasn't exactly a song. More of a rap. Ken, Arlene, and I exchanged horrified glances. By the second song I had resigned myself to another bad act. This one was very loud, though. I watched the audience.
The inevitable comparison of concertgoers to sheep
Mr. Granucci, my high school economics teacher, had liked to tell anecdotes about how dumb animals are. He talked about how so many chickens died each year when they stared at the sun until their brains fried. "Chickens are DUMB," he said by way of an explanation. For years scientists had tried to breed a smarter chicken, or find some way to train chickens not to look at the sun. Always their efforts ended in failure. Recently, the solution was found--breed a chicken with a smaller brain--the chicken would still be dumb, but that way, the chicken could also be bred to have more padding between the eyes and the brain. Thus, the chicken would still look at the sun, "but it's brain don't fry."
Mr. Granucci's other stupid-animals story was about sheep. If you've got a bunch of sheep in a field, occasionally, one of them will jump up into the air. Maybe a bug bites it, maybe it just wants to excersize, but for whatever reason, this sheep will jump. Now sheep are herd animals, and the way a herd works is that you do whatever your neighbor is doing. So if one sheep jumps, the next thing that happens is that all of the sheep around it decide that jumping is the thing to do, and they all jump. More sheep notice this going on and THEY jump. While this jumping is going on, the sheep who originally jumped, call it sheep, notices that all the sheep around it are jumping, and decides to fit in and so it jumps again. Soon the whole field is full of jumping sheep.
This all came back to me as I watched this one bunch of people who were a ways up ahead of me. A bunch of smaller kids, they couldn't have been past sophomore year in high school. Anyhow, one of them jumped. The guy behind him jumped. A couple more of them jumped. Next thing I know they're all jumping. Really neat.
I started to crack up--here I was going to this concert featuring an off-beat band. I was supposed to be mingling with the hippest of the hip--but all these guys were sheep. I restrained an urge to jump.
I looked up on stage, and at the end of that second song was really the only part of MCM and the Monster's performance that I liked. The drummer had finally stopped. The scratcher had stepped back. The lead singer had (hallelujah!) shut up. The only performers still going were the guitarists. They all had long, black hair, and as they played they shook their heads up and down. Really beautiful watching their hair. During the next song, they tossed a couple of inflatable mannequins--well, not exactly mannequins; just the torsos, emphatically female torsos--into the audience to be tossed around. That worked out fine until one of these things got tossed and bumped a chandelier which swayed ominously. Then the security guys quickly grabbed the busts (though they weren't really that part of the statue) in mid flight. Did I mention the security guys up on stage. Every so often, the more intellectual members of the audience would jump up on stage, stagger around for a bit, and then either jump back down into the crowd, or else get tossed back in by these guards. This was ongoing action. Some people jumped into the crowd feet first. Others, more considerate, leaned down, and let people help them down. One guy dove back in, and the last I saw of him was his feet waving up above the crowd for a couple of seconds. It was soon after that guy had dived that I began to fear for my life.
The last time I went to see the Bay to Breakers I had outgrown my tree. You see, up until this point, I would go to the park before the runners arrived, scoot up this one tree by the side of the road, and thus be able to see further and avoid the crowd. But this last time, when I tried to scoot up the tree, the tree made complaining noises, and I decided to show it some mercy. So I stood on the sidewalk next to the road. As the flood of runners got thicker, it got to the point where some runners were running behind me. Soon I and the people I was standing next to were surrounded by runners. Now among the watchers, the people standing upstream from me were the first in a string--beyond them was a gap in the audience. Many runners running in the road decided that they wanted to get out of the rat-race and run behind the watchers where things were bound to get less crowded. And then there were some runners who had been running behind the audience who wanted to get out of the rat-race and run in the road where things were bound to get less crowded. So lots of people, so tired they were staggering, would try to change lanes through this gap. Then the people who were standing upstream of me left. All of the sudden, I was on the edge of the gap. That's when I found out that these lane-changing runners had lousy aim. One of them bumped into me. Then another, bruising my ribs. Another hit me, and I was knocked to the ground. I was hurt, and wandered off to walk around Stow Lake and heal up. I'm reminded of that event for two reasons. For one thing, the Bay to Breakers was today. For another, I'm remembering the concert, and at the concert I had cause to remember that Bay to Breakers.
It was between songs, and the lovable lead singer was talking to the crowd. "Hey, we're a dance band, and you motherfuckers ain't dancing. You guys up in the front here (I was towards the back) are doing fine, but you guys in the back [here he waggled his finger at those of us in the back disapprovingly] aren't dancing! If you don't start dancing by the middle of this song, the people from up front here are going to go back there and FUCK YOU UP!" I swallowed. I looked at Arlene. "I want to go home," I said, but she couldn't hear me over the music. I went back to watching the band and continued to not dance. Suddenly I noticed a shaved head moving towards me through the audience, and I was slammed into by a skinhead who went barreling on, followed by some guy in an orange vest.
Behind them, they left a trail of annoyed looking people like me. Then, I noticed that they were coming back. I tried to edge away this time, but failed, and this time when the skinhead crashed by, he bruised my hip. It hurt. I had been knocked back into the people standing next to me. It was just like the old Bay to Breakers. Only this time things would be different, because, here came that bald head through the crowd again. This time, instead of avoiding its path as I would that of a fin above the surface of the ocean, I stood firm, and as he went barreling past, I stepped out of his way. I had noticed other people had been doing an okay job of avoiding injury by reaching out with their hands and sort of deflecting this guy, guiding him around them. He had bruised my hip, so I tried a slight variant. As I stepped out of his way, I elbowed him in the ribs, hard. I heard him grunt oof as he went past. At the same time, I ducked and squeezed forward in the crowd. I don't think he ever figured out who had done it. That was the last round that he made of the crowd. He stopped barreling through, and instead just stood with his orange-vested friend and watched the show. Every so often they would go around in a circle, but this was a smaller circle, and I was able to avoid it.
The neat thing is, is that when they were done going around in a circle and stood still again, people who didn't know what was going on would notice the empty space and stand in it. Next thing they knew, a few minutes later, they'd be getting run into, and they'd quickly hurry away. No one else came back from the front of the crowd, but I was still nervous, so I was pleasantly surprised when the lead singer told everyone in the crowd to kneel down. This was great. If everyone was kneeling for the next song, I wouldn't have to worry about hoodlums wandering around slamming into people. I not only knelt down, but I even sat down cross-legged. With a big arm wave from the singer, the music started, and everyone jumped up to their feet. As I clambered up to avoid being trampled, I was still trying to figure out the point. The band played for a couple of minutes and then stopped. Once again the singer told everyone to kneel. It took a lot longer this time as several people, including me, stayed standing. After about 1 1/2 minutes of haranguing, I knelt down and in another 30 seconds everyone else had also. Once again, the music started, and everyone rose to their feet. What a waste of time. After about an hour, MCM and the Monster took their leave, and the lights came back up.
Ken, Arlene, and I got back together. When Arlene got a look at my face, she burst out laughing. I turned to Ken to ask him what was going on, he started laughing. Finally, Arlene recovered enough breath to say "You've got this really hunted expression." I made an attempt to rein in my face and calm down a bit. I thought I had succeeded, but a few seconds later Ken & Arlene both looked up at my face and burst out laughing. I sat down on the floor, feeling miserable. I think that I would have gone home right then except that the next act was going to be the Milkmen themselves, and I didn't want to have endured all that just to miss out on the main act.
Finally, the Dead Milkmen came on. The lead singer, Rodney Anonymous, announced their presence: "Hey, we're the Dead Milkmen, and tonight's top news story is that Lucille Ball is STILL DEAD!" Then they went into a fun song of theirs, "When Ringo Buys a Rifle." They were great. Not much went wrong while they were playing. There was the time when the security guy tossed some hoodlum off the stage but got dragged down. A bunch of other security types had to run up and try to pull him back up. The crowd tried to pull him down. Finally the guards got him back up on stage. "The motherfuckers probably six inches taller now," chuckled Rodney.
Ken and Arlene went forwards a ways to where there was some dancing going on, while I stayed and swayed. They watched out for me, though--when the "I hear weasels!" lines started up in "Take Me to the Specialist," as I started to sing along, I noticed them looking at me. Ken was laughing. And the Milkmen did sing "Life is Shit" as a sing-along, just as I had hoped, but even though a goodish portion of the audience sang along, the noise level of the band was too loud to hear the chorus. Pity. That's really a beautiful song.
The band left the stage, and with enough applause, came back for another two songs, but they hadn't practiced those songs, and didn't do that great a job with them. When they left again, I stomped for more, but my heart wasn't in it. I was drained. They didn't come back. I managed to spot Arlene and Ken in the crowd (I'm lucky to have such tall friends), and we left.
We waited a while for a bus, but apparently busses are really full at midnight, because the first bus that came was so packed that it didn't stop. Don't tell our parents, but we ended up walking back to my place. There I helped Ken get a sleeping bag set up and Arlene called up her mom to get a ride home. We sat around for a while, talking and laughing, then Arlene went home. A few minutes later I went up and got a bag of chocolate chips that I had been saving. I took a giant handful, gave another handful to Ken, and we toasted the end of April and downed them.
I know that there was still another day of April left, but I had decided to declare April's demise early. Quite an evening. I've already made plans to go to another concert--the Violent Femmes. Hopefully that crowd will be more punk, and considerably less bulky.
Disclaimer: Most moshers are not that obnoxious.
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