say goodnight, gracie

how long to sing this song?

say goodnight, gracie

Patti Smith is playing at Cain’s Ballroom in Tulsa, Oklahoma, for the opening of the Bob Dylan Center. Cain’s Ballroom is sufficiently historical for its country heritage, but with a little extra oomph for me because the Sex Pistols played there on their one and only US tour. The Patti-and-Bob connection is, well, obvious. There are somehow still tickets available; I just need to get myself to Tulsa. The challenge is that I am in New Orleans for Jazz Fest the week prior; I could, theoretically, route myself from NOLA to Tulsa and then Tulsa back home to Detroit. I could even stay an extra day or two in NOLA because I have the good fortune to be bunking with friends, who would certainly be supportive of this rerouting. It’s not crazy expensive to do any of this but it’s not free by any means, and I sat here yesterday doing the thing that I do where I evaluate all of the options and then wait for the best plan forward to present itself. (It is, surprisingly, not that much longer to drive from Detroit to Tulsa than it is to drive from New Orleans to Tulsa.)

Instead I thought “ugh” and closed all my browser tabs, and then wondered what the hell was wrong with me. Was I depressed? I mean, sure, but not unreasonably so considering everything that is going on. It’s not even the money, although going full-time freelance has certainly made things more tenuous. (Are you an editor reading this? HIRE ME TO WRITE SOMETHING PLS.) I thought about the kind of hoops I have jumped through to go see concerts in the past and how by comparison, this was actually fairly straightforward.

I feel like I don’t know how to go to concerts anymore. I panic illogically at envisioning doing something as simple as driving to a venue, parking, and meeting my friends in the queue. Going into the venue for general admission generates way more physical stress symptoms vs. the excitement of getting in and getting my spot and looking forward to the show. What do I need to put in my purse? Where are my earplugs? Can I even get a purse into this venue? Do I need my stupid clear plastic purse? Multiple times now, I have left without things like lip balm or ibuprofen or a fucking pen. I have been doing this for most of my life. I do this effortlessly, there are always pens in my purses and water bottle caps in every bag I own and I have earplugs and backup earplugs and backup backup earplugs.

Concerts were always about joy and feeling the most like myself, truly. Nothing reconnects body and soul for me the way live music does. It was where I went to be with people who were like me, it was a reward, it was participatory. And I think for years now I have been pushing back the reality of the situation, beginning with my “if I don’t care enough about the band to get there early enough to be at the stage, I’m not going because I cannot deal with people talking through the set.”

[There was a ceiling pole at the old Crocodile Cafe in Seattle that I was always aiming for, but also always had competition because it was good to lean on and it buffered you from any crowd movement and it was the exact right distance from the stage, which was high enough that you could see from anywhere.]

I don’t need to be at the stage; it’s not always the greatest place to see what’s going on, and it’s almost always the worst place to actually hear the music. I’d rather be a couple of people back, honestly. But getting there early gets me a place to lean and mostly ensures I’m not surrounded by people who think the people onstage are the background to their evening of drinks and conversation.

My colleague, the journalist Kristi York Wooten, had this to say about my reticence: “The concert paradigm shift has deadened emotions due to lack of connection. The payoff isn’t the same as pre COVID. Going to shows now is like visiting a museum, going back to another century. You’re there with your fave artist, but it feels like history instead of the present.” I don’t disagree and think this is a highly prescient observation which undoubtedly has some impact on my emotions and thought process, but for me, I think the real issue is that concerts are no longer the place you go to hang out with the other weirdos, and post-COVID, it has sharpened the lens about how much of live performance is for most people about consumption of a commodity than about communion.

Fandom has changed. In a previous newsletter I wrote about the days of feeling connected to an artist whether or not you particularly enjoyed their latest album. Nowadays, it feels like you’re either the world’s biggest fan and that fandom is a critical part of your identity, or you’re not a fan at all. Either you love everything the artist does, or you’re not a fan. And then even within that, there is so much that’s performative and trying to get the artist’s attention and approval of your fandom. This is why people attack journalists on Twitter for writing anything more than glowing praise of a concert or a song or a TV appearance. The other fans see you doing this, and join in. The artist might like your tweet or retweet you. We are in a culture where people’s Twitter profiles often contain a listing of famous people who have retweeted or liked their tweets. Think about that for a second. You have a place to tell the world about yourself and you can only see your worth via the smallest action by a famous person’s social media team.

This hit home for me the most when Springsteen commented (or it somehow became public) that he was not going to be touring in 2022 because of the health risks, both for the people who work for him and for his fanbase. There were immediately hundreds of old white men furious that he would refuse to tour. I know some of it is that we are all getting older, and the chance that you might not get to see Bruce Springsteen again -- whether because of your own health or his -- is very real. Which sucks! But it is also not his fault, and the expectation and the entitlement was vividly clear to me in a way it hadn’t previously been, to the point where I wondered not “do I actually understand his music if he’s attracting these kind of people” (which is something a friend said) but whether these are people I want to be surrounded with at a Bruce Springsteen show in a year’s time. These are clearly individuals who do not actually believe in “nobody wins unless everybody wins.” They do not care about anyone except themselves.

This became painfully clear with a newsletter from Damon Krukowski, outlining all of the bands who are out on tour right now and who have gotten COVID. For every jabroni yelling, “Find some balls and tour!!111” there are also the people who are “tired” of wearing a mask or “just want things to be back to normal” or a million other lame excuses for not wearing a mask at a concert right now, even when performers ask them to. People won’t halt their conversation in order to listen to a concert, why did we suddenly think that all of those people would suddenly develop a conscience and care about other people? Damon makes it clear: this isn't about art, it's about consumption. A band can't tour? There will be another band tomorrow. Just like baseball teams would much rather sell the entire ballpark to either corporations buying boxes or rich people buying whole seasons to give the tickets away to clients, the audience does not matter except as bodies from whom income can be earned.

I worry that live music as a scene, as an entity, as a sacrament, as an energetic artform is going to become intolerable. Maybe it would have done that even without the pandemic, because of the cost of touring and the cost of tickets and the service fee box office fee clicking fee buying fee breathing fee listening fee or whatever new fee that whatever gigantic concert promotion conglomerate will devise tomorrow (a fee to let you bring in a bag, perhaps). There are fewer and fewer places where you can just go to the box office and buy a ticket and turn up at the club and if you're there early you can stand in front of the stage and if you don't care that much, show up whenever and stand at the back. You watch the show with your friends, maybe you have a beer or two, then you go to a diner and talk for an hour about how great the show was, and you drive home and do it again the next week. No, we will monetize how you buy a ticket and what you buy a ticket for and if you want to get in early you buy a ticket for that and and and and and. It's like how any time you are good at something, everyone urges you to put it on Etsy! or start a Twitch stream! (I used to be one of those people and was one until the beginning of the pandemic. Now I wholeheartedly urge my friends to do stupid shit just for the joy of it.)

For this reason I am curious about what the experience will be like at the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival Sponsored by Shell. I go to Jazz Fest because it is Jazz Fest, not because I want to stand at the Acura Stage all day waiting for the headliner, and I think I’m not wrong to say that that is the experience of most of the people who go to Jazz Fest. They’re going because it’s New Orleans and because you can experience much of what makes New Orleans great in one place and because you are absolutely surrounded by music. You can bounce from tent to tent and see if you like someone or if you don’t. You can watch a zydeco band play Brian Eno’s “Baby’s On Fire” and then go to the Blues tent to watch Barbara Lynn casually rip off chords that should make Eric Clapton ashamed and then go to the Gospel tent for Irma Thomas -- or my favorite memory is the day in 2018 that I was walking out of the Fest and we were walking around the edge of the large stage the Neville Brothers were on and we were there at the exact moment they paused to pay tribute to Charles, who had just passed, and even at the edge of a dusty racetrack it was a moment that you could tangibly feel energetically and emotionally. I want to think I will still get that in New Orleans, and from the kind of people who prioritize Jazz Fest, but I genuinely do not know.

And now, of course, I have to worry about flying with people who will be gleefully unmasked, and having to deal with advocates of so-called “freedom” who will undoubtedly inform me repeatedly that I should take my mask off. The Venn diagram of those people and the ones who talk at shows and won’t wear a mask even if the performer asks them to is probably a circle. I hate everything right now.

I think concerts have changed forever. I don't think we'll know just how much has changed for a couple of years. I'm grateful for every time I did something dumb to get my ass to a show. I did it because I thought I might get old or the artists I love might die or stop touring. I didn't think it was because society would rip apart everything that was good and true about it.