the big muddy

sooner or later, it all comes down to money

the big muddy
l e m o n

It’s a Tuesday morning and I’m listening to KEXP as I make coffee. It’s the 50th anniversary of KEXP this year and so the station has been commemorating the event with all sorts of special programming. This morning John Richards is telling the story of his troubled teenage years and the Beastie Boys and then he explains what happened the first time he heard “With Or Without You” in 1987, how he sat down where he was and started crying.

I started crying.

It’s not hard to go back there in my memory; I was in my early 20’s, working a series of jobs while I tried to figure out whether I wanted to start my own music magazine or manage bands or do something else I hadn’t thought of yet. But that summer you heard “With Or Without You” everywhere you went, coming out of cars, playing on the radio, and at least once an hour on MTV. It was the moment where this little band you loved became huge international superstars and you lost them, at least for a while.

I wasn’t too worried because I had gone through this with Bruce Springsteen back in 1984 when Born In The USA came out, Suddenly people who had never cared and, in fact, had given me shit for liking him, were calling my parents’ house trying to find me so they could ask me how they could get tickets to see him. (My mom, to her eternal credit, literally told one of the callers to go pound sand because she knew they had been a particularly evil individual to me in high school.) It felt a little bit like this at the end of the 2016 tour, when Bruce was grabbing headlines for breaking his own records for the longest shows. Don’t get me wrong, there were some great shows happening and the accolades were well-earned -- I even wrote some of the accolades, adding shows I hadn’t planned on going to because I hate stadium shows.

A week ago, a friend sent me a link to a story in Billboard about U2’s Las Vegas residency. This has been rumored for a while in U2-super-fan-land (I am not a resident of that locale but I have a tourist visa), to the point where folks of that persuasion were talking about renting a house in Vegas for their crew.

I read the article, and I closed the browser tab. My head ached ever so slightly.

This is not an essay about Springsteen ticket prices and yet it is indeed an essay about that. I am a person who admires U2’s ability to go on tour with giant radio towers and disco-ball lemons. But those outer edges of U2 extending the edges of their U2-ness is not what is going to happen in Las Vegas. U2 doing a residency in Las Vegas is just… content.

There’s a meme on Tik Tok about how ‘everything is content,’ how it’s not enough these days to make jewelry or play in a band or write books, that everything you do needs to be documented and published and promoted for consumption, for the endless scroll, for the algorithm. People consume that stuff because it’s easy to consume, because it’s been made easy to consume.

Concert tickets used to be really hard to get. Like, you had to know that the band was touring and then you had to know that they would be playing near you and then you had to find out when the tickets were going on sale, and then physically be there, either at the outlet or via telephone. I have a vivid memory of making friends with these stoners I sat near in biology class because I happened to mention the thing I did where I called the radio station in New Haven to have them read me the concert calendar, which was a service radio stations used to provide to their listeners.

Please keep in mind that I was, what, a sophomore, and had to ask permission or devise elaborate plans to sneak around that permission to do just about anything, so it’s not like I was going to concerts on a weekly or even monthly basis. I was just pretending that I was someone who lived in a world like that and that person needed to know what concerts were going to be in New Haven, Connecticut.

Anyway, I told these kids that they could do that and they thought I was lying until they tried it and it worked and they found out ZZ Top was coming to town and bought tickets and they had an extra and did I want to go with them? I did not, because I was not a stoner and was not interested in drugs at the time (I was laser-focused on not getting stuck in Stamford, Connecticut, for one second longer than I needed to be). But they were now my friends and said hi to me in the hall and in the cafeteria, and were helpful in telling some people to back off and leave me alone.

Concerts used to be special. You had to choose to do it and care about doing it and it was work. It was important. It was life and death. It mattered. It wasn’t just a thing that you did, it was part of who you were. And you went to concerts and you met people who were like you. You stood on line to buy tickets and you met people who you had things in common with. You went to the record store not just because you wanted a record but because that was a place you could talk to other people who also liked music.

I have always felt bad for my friends in the U2 diehard fan community because they are fighting for tickets alongside groups of housewives from the suburbs who want to see Bono and go to the Garden and buy the plastic cups of champagne that have a glow stick and a strawberry in them (or something like that, it’s not like I am the target market for that shit). I watched a group of these women get walked into the center of the runway during the Elevation tour while I hugged a rail corner on the outside somewhere. I will be the first one to tell you that bands cannot cater to their diehards because their diehard fans make up less than 1 percent of their audience and that is not sustainable. But becoming consumable for the world at large is not rock and roll.

Bob Dylan does what the fuck he wants to do, whether it’s playing state fairs or licensing his songs to Victoria’s Secret for a commercial. People buy tickets to Bob Dylan concerts thinking that he’s going to sing “Blowin’ In The Wind” like it is 1963 and then get angry when he does not and instead of thinking “well it is 2022, what was I thinking” or “oh okay, this is on me, I will not go see Bob Dylan again” they instead pontificate that he shouldn’t tour because he can’t sing the songs like he did when he was 20 or 30, and do not instead focus on the wonder that is an 81 year old man who was instrumental in creating our very American art form still out there doing it the way he wants to do it, without apology or explanation. I gave away my ticket to see Bob the last time he came through (because I’d seen him the time before that, and because I was on a deadline, and because I didn’t want to drive to Cleveland) and I will not do that again, it was dumb.

But I am not at all sure I am going to go to Las Vegas to see U2 in this residency, and my job is literally to write about things like that (although no one pays freelancers to write concert reviews any more, even when they are very very good at writing about live music, but that is another story for another time). I feel like I need to see it to understand what is going on but I also feel like it will break my heart to go there and watch people paying $10k for tickets when they can’t tell you who else is in the band besides Bono or know a song beyond “Beautiful Day.” Even if the band build another giant stage set and create another experience that pushes the boundaries of what we understand big rock and roll shows to be, it will still be Content that is there to be Consumed by Consumers. Like, I think maybe my time has come and gone. Just like I think people who want things from Bob Dylan they aren’t going to get should solve their problem by not going see Bob Dylan, I should just stop participating in this mess.

I am holding tickets to four Bruce Springsteen concerts. I don’t know if I had a plan going into the thing, but any attempt at holding to an approximation of what I might have done in other circumstances has been blown out of the water. I know, I know, I am going to four shows! Most people can’t afford to go to one, or figure out how to even get a ticket, much less a good ticket. I am still processing all of this so I’m not writing about it yet, but I agree 100% with the editorial on Backstreets.

Concerts used to be church. They were the closest thing I had to understanding a communal experience with people I don’t know engaging in some kind of magic. I told friends that it felt like someone had died, because we had no warning that this was coming, and our understanding of the unspoken relationship was literally overturned in a second. I agree that the only person who should make money on Bruce Springsteen tickets is Bruce Springsteen. I disagree with just about everything else, but I’m still going, at least I am now, because I don’t want to not go and then wish I had later. You never regret going, you only regret not having gone. So I am going. But it is already from a standpoint of saying goodbye instead of looking forward, of hedging my bets, of covering my bases, instead of that moment when the lights go down and your heart races and you are poised and waiting for magic to happen.

I was going to write about Joni Mitchell at Newport (no! I was not there) but there’s time for that in a bit.

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