Did you hear the news? John Bonham used a mud shark as a sex toy! Rod the Mod had to have his stomach pumped! Paul is Dead! But when a band gets too famous, literally too big for the room, I resist them, because I’m a fameist.
I saw the Rolling Stones and the Who at Washington D.C.’s Capitol Centre arena in the early 1980s, and both shows were highly memorable but occurred on the cusp of my exploding love for indie and punk, for bands, many of which were local, whose gigs take place in small, sweaty joints—and I was truly baptized as a rock ‘n’ roll fan in those places. Until very recently, I hadn’t seen a stadium-size show, though in retrospect I wish I’d put my bias aside and gone to see Prince, the Kinks, David Lee Roth-era Van Halen, Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen, and a few others. I’m irrational. I know that fans of enormously successful artists and bands happily spend big bucks to see their favorites in arenas or at sprawling festivals; for many of them, the experience is spiritually gratifying, emotionally rich, exciting. Dwarfed by a huge crowd, one of tens of thousands, spending as much time watching a band on a JumboTron as on the stage: to me this feels like the equivalent of a hundred-person banquet dinner, versus an intimate supper for five, of praying with hundreds in a megachurch versus sitting in a back pew with a dozen spiritually hungry folk in a ramshackle wooden church somewhere. I see that I’m getting carried away here. As with any doctrinaire, you can easily poke holes in my argument, call me hipster, pretentious, roll your eyes at my piousness while pointing to the sweatily anointed kid emerging blissful from an arena, pyrotechnics still dancing in her eyes.
Randy Lewis, pop music critic for the Los Angeles Times, wrote recently about a transitional phase in late-1960s when popular bands began moving from performing in revues to playing concerts at larger venues. He holds the development of professional sports responsible for paving the road. “Thanks to back-to-back league expansions by the NBA in 1966 and the NHL the following year,” he writes, “a bumper crop of new sports arenas—most notably the Forum in Inglewood and Madison Square Garden Arena in New York—opened to house multiple new sports franchises: 14 NBA teams and a half dozen for the NHL in a relatively short period.” Between games these new venues were usually dark. Rather than absorb financial losses, the owners thought to capitalize on off-days, tapping new revenue streams by hosting large-scale concerts. An unexpected byproduct was the emergence of arena rock, what Lewis described as “a transformation of the concert business that brought dramatic changes not just to the size of venues regularly hosting pop music’s biggest names, but to its structure, content and finances.”
This transformation allowed musicians literally more space creatively, Lewis observes, a liberty “that carried over into their live shows. Bands quickly began to adapt and expand their presentations to better play to the larger houses. They also were performing for audiences who were maturing with them.” He cites bands such as Journey, Kansas, Foreigner, TOTO, Bon Jovi, and others that “played well to big crowds in vast enclosed spaces,” indulging in larger sound systems, more stunning light shows, over-the-top costumes, trying to “capture and keep the attention of fans, many of whom sat dozens or hundreds of yards away, rather than within spitting distance,” adding that “Playing music live became less like an actor’s subtle use of facial expression that’s possible in the movies, and more like the grand gestures and booming vocal projection of acting in a play in a massive Broadway theater.”
For years, I’d been deeply skeptical that a band could play in front of 40,000 people and that the experience might feel intimate, that a band could topple the figurative wall between vast stage and even vaster crowd. I’d never expected to see Green Day. I’ve loved the band since the mid 1990s, but long rued that I’d missed my chance to see them in a small club or theater. Since around the time of Nimrod, released in 1997, I’ve watched video of Green Day performing at enormous venues, and occasionally stadiums around the world, doubting that such shows could match the informality of a smaller hall. Yet when my pal Dave scored free tickets to a show at Wrigley Field in Chicago and generously asked me along, I couldn’t say no. Our seats were at the far end of the right field foul line, lower deck—during a game we would’ve been within heckling distance of Cubs right fielder Jason Heyward—but the view, it turned out, was pretty terrific. Yes, to be in the pit in front of the stage would’ve been intense, but our seats’ long view gave me the perfect opportunity to see if Green Day could indeed command a stadium.
The show begins with the mock-heroic triumvirate blared over the PA at the start of each gig: Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” and the Ramones’ “Blitzkrieg Bop”—originally recorded five months and a galaxy apart, here united in an unlikely pairing—followed by Ennio Morricone’s The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly theme. Soon after, Billie Joe Armstrong, Tré Cool, and Mike Dirnt leap onto the stage and kick off “Know Your Enemy.” Within a verse, Armstrong shows that he’s regarding his crowd: he yanks up a guy from the pit who takes over for a verse (after a big bear-hug for the singer). When the song’s over, Armstrong counts down and the kid takes off down the ramp, leaps into the pit, and crowd surfs.
For years, I’d been deeply skeptical that a band could play in front of 40,000 people and that the experience might feel intimate, that a band could topple the figurative wall between vast stage and even vaster crowd.
And this was still the first song. Armstrong did this twice more, hauling up a young boy to sing a verse of “Longview” and then sending him into the crowd to surf—he looked like a cork atop a roiling sea—and then another guy to shred some guitar during the cover of Operation Ivy’s “Knowledge,” the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity inspiring the guy to run up and down the drum riser and to ape the end of the song. Twice. (The band happily obliged, before security hustled him off.)
I follow setlist.fm. I know that Green Day has featured such “spontaneity” at nearly every show since the late 1990s, but there was no denying the ecstasies and laughter that those audience-participation stunts generated, a feeling of good will and humor that hummed throughout the park, all the way up into Section 240, where I sat with a dumb grin on my face. I rolled my eyes at the thirtieth “Hey-oh, Hey-oh” call-and-response that Armstrong bellowed from the stage, the one-too-many “HELLO CHICAGO!!” clichés, and the overly elongated songs—but the next morning, an odd thing happened: I awoke and remembered even the most generic gestures with fondness. Armstrong knows that this telegraphed, well-worn, giant-stage theater works, and that when it works, accompanied with the fireworks and the flash pots and the light show, the crowd feels involved and spirited, and when the crowd feels involved and spirited, every song sounds better, every solo sounds inspired, every beer tastes better, all of that fun accumulating as the long night goes on. Armstrong is tireless; his and his bandmates’ stamina are magnificent, and the band’s willingness to play long and hard is tribute to their affection and respect for their fans, and the great experience those fans want, and pay for.
And yet. Ideally, I’d like Green Day to play a two-week residency at, say, the Empty Bottle on the West Side of Chicago (capacity of around four hundred) so that I could watch Armstrong and his band field a smaller venue. Those days of small clubs are long gone for Green Day, and I stupidly lament that fact, though I don’t fault the band their mammoth, sought-for success. (Selena Fragassi, reviewing the Wrigley Field show in the Chicago Sun-Times, shares my sentiment: “Though Green Day is anthems away from playing the small clubs anymore, it still makes one wonder if returning to places like Metro (which hosted a one-day pop-up shop across the street) just might be the most punk rock thing ever for a band that has gotten very used to the big time.”)
Green Day played not just a great stadium show that night, but a great rock ‘n’ roll show, with hooks, stirring choruses, grins, a well-paced roar of songs with the proper ebbs and flows. I knew in advance that “King For A Day” was going to blend into the Isley Brothers’ “Shout”—the band’s been doing that for years—but I was dubious about “Shout” blending into the Rolling Stones’s “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” and then into the Beatles’s “Hey Jude,” ancient warhorses all. Yet at that point in “King For A Day”, three quarters of the way through the show, Armstrong, lying on his back, implored the crowd to fuck politics and fuck Neo Nazis and fuck hate speech and by extension fuck Trump, and as he sang “take a sad song and make it better,” with his eyes shut, he looked a little embarrassed at the song’s shopworn sentimentality but also probably how he looks at home on the floor, alone, singing a song that he digs no matter how overplayed it might be, no matter how many strangers love it for different, corny reasons. It was the most intimate moment of the night—a pretty remarkable occasion considering that he’s lying on the stage in front of thousands of people. It leant warmth and texture to everything that had come and everything that followed. Even in the right field stands I felt, as undoubtedly many in the crowd did, that I was crashing on the stage alongside him. Yet the best view—the only view for most of us—came on the giant video screens. What I was seeing was what was being broadcast, not what has happening.
* * *
On the day of the show, Rolling Stone published an article about Turn It Around: The Story of East Bay Punk, a documentary directed by Corbett Redford focusing on 924 Gilman, the nonprofit San Francisco Bay Area music club which spawned Green Day and many other punk and indie bands in the 1980s and 1990s. (Snippets from the film played on the screens at Wrigley before Green Day took the stage.) Green Day experienced considerable backlash from bands and figures in the small but intense Bay Area scene when they signed to a major label in the mid-1990s, enmity that only increased as the band experienced major success and ultimately a Broadway adaptation of their most popular album. “There was a very vocal few that sort of blew it out of proportion and we felt it,” Armstrong said. “But I think the majority of the people in the scene were wrapped up in their own lives, and doing their own thing, you know? Most people were just like, ‘You’re going your way, and I’m going my way’.”
Still, I couldn’t help but think about the many miles that Green Day’s trekked from playing Berkley back yards and tiny clubs in front of dozens to enormous stages in front of millions around the world. Back then, Armstrong and others on the scene surely loved the Isley Brothers, the Beatles, and the Stones, but would they have admitted it, or played their songs in any way but ironically? At Wrigley Field, Armstrong, a genuine ham but also a genuine rock ‘n’ roll fan who gets it, ran that gauntlet of Sixties classics with love, affection, and an instinct for pleasure. “This is fucking awesome,” he said at one point, surveying the phone-lit crowd and ancient Wrigley. “Let’s just celebrate this.”
A few weeks later, I drove fifty or so miles past farmland on quiet, rural Route 38 through DeKalb and Kane Counties to see the Detroit Cobras at Brauerhouse, a small pub and eatery in suburban Lombard. The Cobras’ patented tipsy strut through obscure, bad ass rock ‘n’ roll songs was warmly received by a decent-sized crowd. It’s well known that you roll the dice when you see the Cobras: other times when I’ve seen the band, lead singer Rachel Nagy, she of the superbly emotive and impossibly timeless voice, had staggered onto and eventually off the stage. At Brauerhouse she was all there: confident if a bit self-conscious in the opening numbers, forgetting some of the words to “Out of this World” (“Because I’m old!” she grinned at the crowd), pausing at one point to indulge herself with a face-bury into the ample cleavage of a besotted fan at the front of the stage. She was fully committed to each bracing song, from the rocking to the “slow skate” ballads, from the silly stuff to the momentous. Whether she’s husky close to the mic or rearing back her head and belting from the back of her throat, Nagy inhabits the songs she sings, renewing each of them out of their obscure past, and the decades-old songs feel as relevant as the contemporary rock ‘n’ roll played over the PA before the set.
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The rest of the band were loose, in good humor throughout the night, clearly enjoying themselves and the proximity of the tiny crowd. (A bucket of iced-down Miller High Life’s always helps.) The intimacy of the club encouraged banter among the band members and with the crowd; we were all eavesdropping. Songs were spread over the band’s several albums, and a new number, the terrific “Feel Good,” rocked the joint. The Cobras play only vintage R&B and soul covers (with the exception of the original “Hot Dog (Watch Me Eat)” from 2004’s Baby; “‘Hot dog’ means ‘slut’ in Detroit,” Nagy helpfully explained to us), and they play eternal chord changes and song structures so lovingly and with such loose, informal pleasure that they give the impression of summoning the crowd to crash on the floor with them as they rifle through their great album and 45s collection. At Brauerhouse that night, such an invitation seemed plausible. The phrase I Know Where You’re Coming From is emblazoned on the band’s drum set. I know exactly where the Cobras come from, too, but on this night they showed that old rock ‘n’ roll songs can sound like they were written yesterday, in the van.
Watching the Detroit Cobras in a small joint weeks after seeing Green Day in front of tens of thousands was less a study in contrasts than in alternate universes. As professionally rousing as Green Day was, exhorting a baseball park to rise, stay risen, and cheer, the Cobras played the room; the band was indivisible from the room. Near the end of the set, Nagy ordered a “fire brigade” to bring her a Grey Goose and soda, a feat accomplished with enthusiastic brio by a line of well-oiled fans; the bar, where before the show I’d been two stools down from Nagy, who was chatting amiably with a couple fans, was maybe a dozen feet from the stage; I saw band members alight from their van out back and duck into and out of a fluorescent-bathed hallway at the end of which was their dressing room and probably also the bar’s stock room. Before the show I practically leaned over Cobra guitarist Mary Ramirez’ shoulder as she tuned her instrument and then taped down the set lists; earlier, I’d peered into the other guitarist’s case, laying open at the foot of the stage. It was intimate, like reading someone’s diary. Nothing can replace the nearness of you, rock ‘n’ roll.
* * *
I’m coming at all of this with some perspective. I played Madison Square Garden with my band J.P. and the Writers on September 3, 1966 in front of a crowd “estimated over 50,000 people.” That figure comes from the back of J.P. and the Writers: Live at Madison Square Garden, an album rush-released on Capitol Records later in the year. Ignore the fact that the Garden holds about 20,000 people for a rock concert. And didn’t open until February 11, 1968.
Confused? Allow me to provide some -equally apocryphal context: “On May 4, 1942, Joseph William Bonomo was born at Columbia Hospital at 1 AM. At 10 lbs. Joe was a strapping infant, with a radiant smile that could light up a room. His parents, Philip and Catherine, were proud of their boy and took him home with them to their house on 612 Kanawha Street in N.W. Washington D.C.. He grew up in a healthy, normal atmosphere with his three brothers and one sister. On November 9, 1945, his parents brought home Paul Anthony Bonomo from the hospital. Joe took instantly to his little brother and the two grew up in love.”
This is the origin story of “Joe Bonomo, Rock Star” as I wrote it when I was eleven or twelve. I can’t recall now how this fantasy began, but sometime when I was ten and my brother seven we concocted a fictional band. We were already besotted with The Beatles, The Monkees, The Partridge Family, Top 40 radio, and the various 45s that our older siblings and their friends brought into the house. Naturally we used The Beatles as our historic model. J.P. and the Writers were alternate-reality American competition to the Fab Four, and our careers spanned roughly the same era: we formed in the early 1960s and broke up in ’70 (though we reformed in ‘73 and played for five or so more years). Paul and I possessed a cheap gold-foil drum set my parents bought us from Sears (or maybe they purchased it second-hand, or it might’ve been a hand-me-down from a neighbor), a guitar (actually a toy ukulele with plastic strings called “Mr. Banjo”), and a desktop tape recorder. We wrote actual songs, dozens of them, and recorded them in our basement, childishly forging verse, bridge, and chorus, faking studio “fade-outs” by slowly walking away from the tape recorder and singing quietly until we stood in the far corner of the room; then we’d rush back to turn off the recorder.
Watching the Detroit Cobras in a small joint weeks after seeing Green Day in front of tens of thousands was less a study in contrasts than in alternate universes.
We begged our parents to buy us large sheets of white poster board and inexpensive, three-pack Certron cassettes from Dart Drug. With kitchen scissors we cut out record covers, and I painstakingly drew the cover art for each album. We eventually upgraded from “Mr. Banjo” to a cheap, child-sized electric guitar with a nothing-watt amp my parents bought me for Christmas (it was bright red and to our ears sounded as loud as if roared through a Marshall stack). We began composing slightly more sophisticated songs on the family piano in the rec room, upstairs from the basement, recording ballads with our lyric sheets and the tape recorder balanced precariously—hoping against hope that our dog Molly wouldn’t sneeze or bark during the precious final few moments of the song. She often did.
We stuffed our lyric sheets into a psychedelic-swirl designed folder, which I still have. As the band’s unofficial archivist I also possess the cassette tapes of our albums, housed in a Dick Tracy lunch box in my basement as they’d resided for years in the basement of our house in Wheaton, Maryland, suburban Washington D.C., the center of the rock ‘n’ roll universe.
* * *
In the rec room, I spent many afternoons laboriously typing out the official J.P. and the Writers bio on the family IBM Selectric II, cribbing from Roy Carr and Tony Tyler’s coffee-table book The Beatles: An Illustrated Record: “When Joe was seventeen and Paul was still a ripe fourteen years of age, they started playing together in local diners and rec centers, gathering up whatever money they could and honing their skills. Featuring a wide assortment of material, the two would play anywhere they could. About this time, Joe found a new interest in drumming. A friend in D.C. had shown him his drum set, and soon Joe was banging away on his own. The boys’ parents marveled at their talent and were quick to urge it on.” By the early 1960s, the duo had a surprisingly large wealth of original material, and “they inched their way up the Washington D.C. club circuit under the name The Spacemen. It was still just the two of them, but the tightly packed and loud crowds loved the way they rocked in their own special way. One club they were particularly popular at was The Riot where they often would play till the wee hours of the morning, much to the chagrin of their parents.” The Spacemen came to the notice of Charley McMilian, a “local businessman who had already signed two groups to contracts on the famous Capitol Records, where he had his job.” (Here, I helpfully added that “The year is 1963, and Capitol had already taken a chance on distributing Beatle records in America.”) On the fateful day—imaginary, I again remind you—of October 4, McMilian ventured into The Riot, and liked what he saw very much: a “spark and energy in the music compounded with a cache of good original material. He met the boys backstage and talked with them for an hour or so. Within a month, Charley McMilian was their manager.”
I have no idea where I’d learned the word “cache” at age eleven. Fast forward: Joe and Paul win a local newspaper poll as Best Local Band, pocket $500 in a Battle of the Bands contest, and audition with Capitol Records in New York City, where they “went through the motions for George Best, head of Capitol, who remained expressionless throughout the twelve-song set. Dismayed by Best’s ambiguity but comforted by McMilian, Joe and Paul returned to a heroes welcome in the Nation’s capitol. The two were beginning to enjoy their success, and at this time Joe began to express the initial stages of the egotistical rampagings that would eventually disintegrate the group. On February 27, 1964 word came from New York: the boys were in. A recording date for their first single was set. The boys hurriedly said goodbye to everyone at home, and headed to the Big Apple.”
On the flight, Joe and Paul discussed the band name. The Spacemen was out; J.B. and the Rioters came next, but received a flat no from Paul, who sensed his older brother’s controlling ways. J.P. and the Rioters? No, they decided, their sound wasn’t that energetic. They finally settled on a name originally suggested by McMilian in order to minimize the fact that the band was a duo, quartets being all things gear in ‘64. The plane touched down in Kennedy Airport, and off walked J.P. and the Writers.
* * *
Yeah, well, that’s how you would’ve imagined it all, too. At least I gave the destructive and rampaging ego to myself and not to my brother.
Most of the cassettes with our songs have survived. A decade or so ago, Paul and I attempted to digitally convert them, but even fortified with drink we got through only four “albums” before we could no longer stand the sound of our precocious singing voices. That, and we were laughing so hard we could barely operate the CD-R unit. I’m afraid the tapes would snap if I tried to play them again, so they sit down in the basement, in the dark. The dozens of songs remain, mostly about girls—a subject neither Paul nor I had any inkling about yet knew was the rightful, the just-about-only subject for rock ‘n’ roll—but also about magic, stars and clouds, numbers, music, and doggies. We rewrote Gordon Lightfoot’s then-popular “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” as our own poor man’s epic ballad, “Fight for the Battle of Sea Time.” We eventually added two imaginary members, a bassist and a drummer, each from England. Concocting a band that was ostensibly a contemporary of the Beatles, we nonetheless suffered hilarious, unintended anachronisms: the band members I drew for our mid-Sixties album covers looked suspiciously mid-Seventies (think Grand Funk, not Herman’s Hermits); we covered Beatles songs, not strange in itself as many 1960s artists covered the Beatles, but we somehow knew how to play the trippy “Blue Jay Way” three years before George Harrison wrote it (J.P. and the Writers’ version having miraculously appeared on their 1964 debut); we invented a patriotic song, “Colonial Days of ‘76,” to celebrate the bicentennial which was occurring the summer we first began composing songs, yet with no indication that we were supposed to have been writing when L.B.J. was President, not Jimmy Carter. Etcetera.
But for a couple of little kids we got a lot of things right ─ the dynamic of fame and success, for starters. During the recording of J.P. and the Writers’ Live at Madison Square Garden, my brother and I faked the deafening roar of the crowd by pointing a Radio Shack walkie-talkie at the tape recorder, and turning the static up and down before and after songs—squint your eyes and it sounds like a real crowd, minus the occasional, annoying frequency interruptions from the WTOP AM radio transmitter located a few blocks from our house. To us, a successful rock band played in front of 50,000 or more people. That was the goal, the pinnacle. At Wheaton Regional, a sprawling park near our house, Paul and I would on occasion stand on the modest band shell and, having made sure no one was looking, pretend J.P. and the Writers were playing for thousands and thousands of fans, the sea of their undulating bodies and waving arms stretching away for miles. In my feverish eleven-year old fantasizing I saw things from the other side: how infinitesimal we looked to the fans, and how immense. Paul and I exhaled the crowd’s roar into our cupped hands, gave shrill whistles of adulation. The immense adoration, the glory. They were tiny. We were stars.
* * *
Remote, celestial, glittering. For centuries we’ve looked up at them, spun myths about them, read our fates by them. Ingenuity and smarts have allowed us to approach them, circle them, never land. They’re too distant, too hot. “Reach for the stars,” we’re urged with earnestness; the dirty secret is that you likely won’t get there. We call someone a star because she’s elevated, or her ascension comes with the title. Her light obscures those closest to her, the steps leading toward her. We call someone a star because he’s out of reach, and the more pure for it. A star is held together by its own luminous gravity, has amassed so much density in its very starness that it needs no one, nothing, only admirers, mythmakers. A star’s distance is what makes it so beautiful. Starlight. Star shine. We need telescopes to see them, yet they remain enigmatic, epic. Other-worldly.
Distance and elevation come at a price. “I have to admit I’ve found myself doing the same things that a lot of other rock stars do or are forced to do,” said Kurt Cobain. “Which is not being able to respond to mail, not being able to keep up on current music, and I’m pretty much locked away a lot. The outside world is pretty foreign to me.”
Patti Smith: “It was always my belief that rock ‘n’ roll belonged in the hands of the people, not rock stars.”
* * *
I never thought I’d see Billie Joe Armstrong in person if he weren’t projected on hundred-foot tall LED screens beneath smoke bombs and strobe lights. I was wrong. Ever restless to make music, in late 2017 and early 2018 Armstrong ducked into an Oakland studio and recorded a batch of new original songs on which he did everything: sang and played guitar, bass, and drums. Early this year he digitally released an EP, an album, and then a clutch of singles, billed the outfit The Longshot, recruited a bass player, drummer, and a second guitarist, and hit the road for a small-club tour. My buddies and I snagged tickets for the show at Black Cat in Washington D.C., and in late May I stood in a packed, sold-out club with roughly seven hundred others, a dozen feet away from a musician who’d long kept his distance from me.
The Longshot put on one of the greater rock ‘n’ roll shows I’ve seen in years. Liberated from having to roam and command an arena, vibing off the proximity of his sweaty bandmates, Armstrong focused on the pit in front of him and delivered a stirring set of tunes, his and others’, obviously pumped that his band’s righteous noise was roaring back at him off of near walls and a low ceiling. Exhorting so many massive crowds for so many years seems habitual to Armstrong now; he still couldn’t resist the hammy “hey-oh, hey-oh”’s and Clapyourhands! commands at Black Cat, but those jumbo-sized gestures were minimal. Instead, Armstrong seemed genuinely inspired by the push and crush and nearness of the crowd. As the show began, I hung back a bit; by the end, turned on and delivered by the melodic, anthemic, eighth-note rush of The Longshot’s hooky power pop and garage-y three-chord riffing, I was right up front of the stage, drenched by beer and sweat, elbowed by giddy fans, many of whom were in their teens and twenties blending raucously with older, 1990s-era and American Idiot Green Day lifers.
In my feverish eleven-year old fantasizing I saw things from the other side: how infinitesimal we looked to the fans, and how immense.
During “Stay the Night,” one of two Green Day songs The Longshot played, the figurative wall between the band and the crowd, blissfully thin already, began to come down, and by the end of the tune and into and during the next, a cover of Bobby Fuller’s “I Fought the Law,” the distinction between the stage and the floor in front of it vanished. One by one, two by two, fans began climbing onto the stage, surrounding Armstrong as he played and sang, eventually filling the stage end to end. On the floor even feet away as I was, jostled and elevated in the scrum, singing along and snapping the odd photo, I lost sight of the band: the crowd had taken over the stage. Armstrong could barely play; he had to leap in the air and swivel mid-jump to see his drummer to figure out how to end the song. As at Wrigley Field, fans took the opportunity to stage dive, and at Black Cat the leaping fans gave the impression of guffawing kids at a public pool springing off of a diving board. By the end of “I Fought the Law,” the crowd of underagers, teenagers, and older fans looked as if it would gladly stay for breakfast onstage if the club would stay open. The vibe was giddy, homey, utterly democratic: fans of all shapes and sizes had taken over the stage, head-banging, selfie-snapping (for many of which Armstrong posed grinning, guitar in hand), smiling, pogo-ing, taking turns singing badly into the mic, gossiping. An undulating organism, collective fist in air. New Orleans R&B and rocker Larry Williams: “Rock ‘n’ Roll has no beginning and no end, for it is the very pulse of life itself.”
At one point in “I Fought the Law,” a moment poised between verse and chorus, a young fan leapt into the crowd at Armstrong’s prompting. It doesn’t matter that such spontaneity happened the night before and the following night, too: this kid will never forget this moment. And if there had to be a point to the mayhem and fun, that was it.
* * *
What does a band owe me? Nothing. I feel churlish in my cute, self-diagnosed fameism, as if I’m begrudging a band or an artist their coveted mass success and subsequent distancing from me. I’m drawn perversely to the cramped room, the tiny stage. At what cost? That a band stay small for me? Childishly, I tug at the bond between me and a favorite band, demanding that they stay close. I remain blissfully unaware of the sacrifices made by the band that never makes it beyond the bar but desperately wants to, by the artist who’s reaching for the stars but is destined to remain bitter sweetly earthbound, where I stay.
In June of 2001, I drove around with the New York garage rock ‘n’ roll band The Fleshtones in a rented van as they swung through five cities in the Northeast and Midwest on a small tour. The band was unofficially celebrating their 25th anniversary, but the crowds, as they have been in the States for decades, were thin. In the van one day, naturally curious (well, I’m a snoop), I reached into the open glove compartment and retrieved a folded sheet of paper.
“Oh, lemme have that,” the guitarist Keith Streng snapped from the back seat.
Oh, sorry. I gave the sheet to him.
He hesitated only a moment before shrugging and handing the sheet back to me. “Whatever. I don’t care.”
The paper was a printout of that night’s club’s financial guarantee for the band. The figure was small. He’d been mildly embarrassed, and then realistic: this is what it is. That night, the band played for a small crowd as if they were playing in front of thousands. I was glad to be part of the phantom many.
This essay first appeared in the 2018 Fall issue of The Normal School. Our thanks to Joe Bonomo and the TNS staff for allowing us to republish it here.