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Wednesday, January 27, 1999
By Paul Ford
A visit to the concert hall.
My famous friend invited me to a Sonic Youth concert.
"I don't really like big guitar rock."
"One of their kids is a fan of the show. They invited me to see them tonight. You should come."
We talked about it for a while, and I agreed to tag along. I took the F to my friend's place in Brooklyn Heights, and went up to his apartment. Car service appeared, with a very nervous man from the Indian subcontinent at the wheel. After an armrest-clutching half-hour we came out of the car at the Hammerstein ballroom, both shaking. The driver had nearly smashed into a Jaguar, a garbage truck, a dog, and a building.
We waited in line, got the comp tickets and red after-party passes, and went to find our seats. We looked at the pool of white faces, men with sideburns and scraggly hair, women in sweaters. These were mixed in with some of the older Sonic Youth fans who sold out for careers in graphic design and marketing, now bearded and wearing button shirts, untucked for the occasion.
"How do we wade through this shit to find our seats?" he said, waving at the throng.
I looked around. "I don't think we're on the floor," I said. "I bet they gave you box seats."
They had, so we ascended 15 feet above the crowd, past three checkpoints, and sat in opera seats, along with seven or eight supercilious people who looked away as we stumbled over them. For a while we peered into the crowd, making eye contact with people looking up.
"This is your view if you're a Roman emperor," I said. A thousand milling faces, a huge mumbling chatter, anticipation. A jazz group was on stage, the only black people in the entire building besides the support staff. They played an avant-garde fifteen minute version of "Memories," honking out the chords.
I was here to see a band I didn't care about, but there was entertainment in the privilege of sitting high. The view is better below, the experience more intense, but for me, the event was to be up here instead of down there. It wasn't much of an event. When you look down, everyone looks like an idiot, screaming and hopping. And when you're at a show and look up and see the people in privilege seats, you think "pretentious ass."
The music was big and strong; at one point three guitars were played at once, backed with drums. Huge dissonant chords, unlistenable lyrics. Sonic Youth is old. They formed in 1980, the reek of the Velvet Underground coming out in their alternative sweat. One guitarist has a salt-and-pepper beard; the other is lanky and pensive. The drummer has a bowl haircut. Kim Gordon is an advertisement for exercise. They've made an institution of themselves, of their outsider status. They stood three in front with the drummer seated behind.
I ached to be with everyone else, all the throbbing people bouncing against each other. At a good concert, bodies come together like the molecules of water condensing, gelling into a fantastic, moving fluid. I could observe, but not participate. From above it looked ridiculous, hearing the shouts and excitement, but I know how wonderful it feel below, that connection. Music, especially non-commercial-but-still-popular music, is a bonding force, a tool for ritual, a way to create a powerful, autonomous community, removed for a few hours from all external pressures, creating a force of its own.
The show ended and we watched the crowd disperse, then waited in line for the after show party. It was boring, and we had to produce our red passes ten times at least, everyone doubting our intentions. We stood in an area, and my friend looked for Aaron, who had invited him and asked him to come back. A pimply roadie in his thirties told us Aaron "has glasses and carried a bag."
The band came out, just animated bodies. They looked older offstage, unlit, regular. A shy, nicely dressed fifteen year old who had won a "Meet Sonic Youth" contest stood with his fifty-year old father, then posed for a picture with the drummer. The drummer said, "thanks for checking us out," and then excused himself. The kid was jittery, trying to stay cool, wanting so badly to make an impression. He was ashamed of his youth, and did not see how we were all sympathetic, how everyone remembered having their own rock gods at 15. It was hard to look at him and not think of Pink Floyd, Galaxie 500, My Life With the Thrill Kill Kult, and Peter Gabriel, my own pantheon of instrumental deities, and how flustered I would have been to meet them.
You lose your rock heroes when you realize that you, yourself, are only flesh and soft flesh at that, and realize that they, too are the same, that the difference between you and they is the human, worldly collection of talent, promotion, labor, luck, savvy, and commitment to risk. A collection of minute differences that add up to them being famous, and you having a good job.
We hung around for about 20 minutes, feeling out of place. No one came up to my friend, which annoyed him; he'd been asked to stick around to meet the band by the promoter. After a few more minutes waffling, we left.
We left by the stage door. Several kids in their teens were waiting, trying to see if we were Sonic Youth. We weren't.
I took my red backstage pass off my vest and stuck it to the exterior wall of the Hammerstein. It seems I had made a treasure out of my indifference, because a few seconds later, I looked back to see someone peeling the sticker off.