Sunday, March 25, 2012

August 29, 1983: Serious Moonlight

Knowing I’m an alumni and a fan, people at work have been ragging me on the topic of Penn State football since this Sandusky scandal broke last fall. Not nearly as much lately, but one of the guys got into the topic of that perfect season from the early part of Joe Paterno’s career for which they didn’t receive the national championship. I had thought that President Nixon somehow decided who would be national champ that year.

A little research showed that the season was 1969, Nixon had only suggested in a newspaper article that the winners of another bowl showdown should determine the champion, and he was probably right as Penn State didn’t play a single ranked team leading up to their bowl-game win.

In doing that research, I stumbled onto a yearly listing of their records, and one date really stood out for me: August 29, 1983. The night Penn State played in the annual “kickoff classic” at Giants Stadium, as reigning national champions after defeating Georgia 27-23 in the Sugar Bowl on New Years Day. That game was probably the apex of my Penn State fandom and best memory, as they played a great game and shut down Hershel Walker who had been tearing up every team Georgia played up to that point.

But I remember August 29th of that year like it was yesterday. I had just wrapped up my first summer in the factory, had one year of college under my belt and was days away from starting my next. I remember feeling fantastic, had a lot of money for myself at the time, was tanned, in great shape from running all the time, really getting a sense of moving forward in life.

The day doesn’t stand out because of Penn State, but because of a quandary I had to face. Obviously, I was pumped to watch that game on TV, but in the mean time, my group of friends had learned that David Bowie’s Serious Moonlight tour was coming to Hershey, PA that same night, and it seemed like a real opportunity to see him perform, still in his prime. His Let’s Dance album was ruling the charts that summer, thanks to MTV. I wasn’t that crazy about the title track (my opinion has changed over the years), but the lead-off single, “Modern Love,” was one of those typical Bowie hits, a sonic punch that was just a brilliant little pop gem.

I was a huge Bowie fan, starting with the ChangesOneBowie greatest hits eight track brother M bought and wore out in a matter of months. I started buying his other albums, beginning with Ziggy Stardust (this was probably 1976 or so, a few years after the fact), and that was one of those albums I played all the way through a few times in one sitting, for weeks on end. It’s hard to communicate the seismic shift that took place in a kid’s head in the 1970’s when he discovered a recording artist like David Bowie, but there was a before and after, no doubt.

Bowie is one of the most misinterpreted artists of the rock era, often mistaken as a trailblazer and innovator. He innovated nothing. His brilliance was in taking nascent trends (like glitter and synths) that a relatively small audience of hip people knew about, grasping that style of music in an extremely short amount of time, then putting out his own take on the trend … long before the average rock fan had any idea the trend existed. Thus mistaking Bowie as the first glam rock star, or the guy who made synthesizers cool with his Low album. (Marc Bolan was way out in front of Bowie on the glam front, and it’s painfully obvious that Bowie loved German bands like Neu, Can and Kraftwerk, thus his Low album. Which bombed at the time. And which, frankly, is more about recording effects applied to guitars, drums and keyboards than anything else. Listen to “Sound and Vision” from that album; it’s a guitar-based song with one of the nuttiest drum sounds I’ve ever heard.)

For me, it was the actual songs themselves, the guy has always had great pop sense, and his lyrics. Which tend to be nonsensical, but in ways that suggest a certain mood that suits the music. I catch the paper boy, but things don’t really change, I’m standing in the rain, but I never wave bye-bye, but I try. Huh? Sit on your hands on a bus of survivors, blushing at all the afro-sheeners?

There’s always been a surface slickness to his work, but with more than enough talent underneath to suggest this was an artist you should pay attention to, always. That’s the perfect definition of rock star. Most of them don’t go too deep in terms of real emotion or communication, but they get across these larger, sweeping concepts in highly entertaining ways that many of us recognize as someone tapped into a deep reserve of talent. (Of course, that’s all faded now … that kind of rock star … and the massive, unified fan base to suggest some type of large gathering of like-minds. We’re left with fragmented flashes of brilliance and a lot of shit rising to the top.)

And that time in the summer of 1983, Bowie was as popular as he would ever get. MTV had a lot to do with that, taking an artists who always understood the concept of image, and allowing him to create this slick, cultured, suit-wearing guy, with an unloosened tie, tan and dyed-blonde hair, like a male model trying to appear more business-like, or a business man with a highly-evolved sense of style. It suited the music he was making at the time, a much more polished take on the riskier 70s image, more user friendly, meant to register with 80s kids, which it surely did.

We had to go see him. Penn State be damned. Major artists like that would occasionally play the stadium next to Hershey Park, but not always. More often than not, when we went to see concerts, it was in the much smaller Stabler Arena in Bethlehem, where I saw my first concert, J. Geils Band, a few years earlier. Seeing Bowie in Hershey would be my first stadium concert, and we were all excited as hell to see this guy we knew only through eight tracks, album covers and the radio.

So, the day came, late August, we all piled into the old man’s used station wagon and made the hour or so journey south to Hershey, blasting Bowie tapes (at this point, surely cassette tapes) the whole way, getting in the mood. There must have been five of us, recalling brother J and neighbor B, but I seem to recall two or three other people along for the ride. As always, we felt like rubes when we got down there. Even presented with kids who were raised in the slightly more urbanized southern part of the state, we assumed they were in on something we weren’t. I’ve since realized people from around Harrisburg or Bethlehem/Allentown and surrounding cities can still be rubes in the grand scheme of things, despite seeing themselves otherwise. We were always raised thinking Reading was a big, rough-and-tumble/to-be-avoided city, but it’s just a faded small city with a shitload of big city problems.

We got our seats, around the far end of the 20 yard line, with the stage in the other end zone. It was a long ways off! To make matters worse, a lighting crane whirred into action just as we sat down and thus blocked our view of the stage. Luckily for us, they repositioned by a few feet, but that only cause another section of seats to start hooting and hollering.

It felt … impersonal. I’ve always felt that way sitting in a stadium, be it for a sports or music event. I don’t like going to stadiums, period. You can give me the best seat in the house, and I won’t care. Just too many people! Way too much hassle getting in and out. The amount of shit you have to put up with just to see a show is unbelievable. And, especially with rock and roll, you’re constantly made to feel like dogshit on the shoes of the staff and everyone else working in an official capacity. This is pretty much why I don’t go out much anymore to see bands, even in clubs, which can be just as problematic and uncomfortable.

We were crowded in with a fairly typical bunch of 70s rock fans who didn’t give a damn about the 80s or time moving forward. That’s another thing about rock and roll, you get to see where people, the fans of a given artist, stamp their foot down and say, this is where it ends for me. “It” being the desire to hear new music and open yourself to other things … the way we all once did with the given artist in question. They found a home … in most cases, it looked like Diamond Dogs circa 1975, that weird, patchy haircut, the crystal meth and pot, jeans and t-shirt, none of this faggoty disco/punk shit, no sir! And I can’t blame them. Diamond Dogs was a pretty good place to stop. But all I could think was, Diamond Dogs seemed like a pretty good place to start …

So, we’re sitting there, getting high on the pot cloud that hovered over any large-scale rock show in the 70s or 80s, and the opening act comes on: Tenpole Tudor. Had never heard of him at that point. He looked like a tall, skinny guy trying to be one of The Stray Cats, who were enormously popular at the time. I thought he wasn’t bad, a vaguely rockabilly thing going on, very stripped down, rocking out, small drum kit, bassist and guitarist doing their thing in front of a huge, closed curtain on a massive stage.

Of course, they were out of place. And as with nearly every opening act I’ve seen in a large venue, completely ignored by the crowd, who would get in the habit of baying out “Bowie” after about 20 minutes of the act. The worst case of this ever for me was seeing The Replacements open up for Elvis Costello at Madison Square Garden. For me, that was a dream show, my favorite band from the 80s matched with a guy who could do no wrong in my book as a recording artist. And the Costello fans treated The Replacements like non-entities. I couldn’t believe it. Even that small gap between Costello breaking big (late 70s) and The Replacements making a name for themselves (mid-80s) was just enough to create a void with the Costello fans, that thousands upon thousands of them didn’t know or care who The Replacements were. Paul and the gang knocked out a perfunctory set and left … Costello came out, bearded and the size of a house at that point in his career, and played just fine, but I left that night feeling a bit cheated, and extremely let down by a bunch of people who should have been more savvy.

Tenpole Tudor went on around 7:00 at night, so he was clearly going to play about 45 minutes, let the sun go down around 8:00, so Bowie could play in the dark. In that down time before darkness, I snuck away to buy a t-shirt, my mythical Bowie Let’s Dance gray muscle t that cost more than the ticket for the show! As an adult, and for years now, I’ve not been in the habit of wearing t-shirts that advertise anything: bands, magazines, products, free mustache rides. I only wear blank shirts: black, blue or white. But for a long time, I was king of the message t-shirt, and it seemed crucial to buy a shirt at a concert. Of course, it’s always a rip-off, but I also know now, this is where a huge portion of the concert revenue for an artist is generated, fans buying these hideously over-priced shirts as mementos of any given night. I recall the stand beneath the bleachers, the half dozen or so choices, the rays of the sun cutting through the bleachers, me, thinking, shit, man, I’m buying a Bowie concert t-shirt, this is great!

Well, that thing got lost over the course of decades. I suspect Mom, in one of her cleaning fits after I moved out in the late 80s, probably put it in a black trash bag and gave it to the local Goodwill store. About a decade ago, I saw that same shirt being sold on E Bay for $75.00! I think we all had a few concert shirts like that, the kind people would one day pay top dollar for and wear for “retro” cool effect. Frankly, I looked like a dick in that shirt, which is probably why I didn’t wear it that much.

But about quarter after 8:00, lights went down, everyone started carrying on, lo and behold, Bowie and band exploded on the stage in a blaze of light, and I can’t even recall what song he opened with. He had his canary yellow suit on, and the band looked like a bunch of jackasses, the horn section wearing pith helmets and explorer khaki outfits, guitarist Carlos Alomar wearing a fezz and some kind of black, Indian-looking dress, lead guitarist Earl Slick in an 80s headband and the sort of Chess King-looking pants and peasant shirt, the two male background singers decked out in seersucker suits and fedoras that made them looked like southern attorneys at a garden party in Savannah.

It was a mind-fuck of a show. Naturally, we were all impressed with the lighting, the first time we had seen such effects, the laser shows, the multi-colored spots, the fog banks, etc. He put on a rock show, no doubt about it. And we could barely see it. It was like watching a touchdown from the other 20 yard line! This was before video screens, so all we saw was this little flame-hared guy in a yellow suit, about 100 yard away, and his weirdly-attired band. The sound was pretty bad: it was a stadium. Music wasn’t meant to be played like this outdoors. In a natural amphitheater, sure, but not a flattened out field surrounded by a metal casing. The echo was terrible. Nothing wrong with the sound system, but there’s just so much you can do in a place like this.

About the only stand-out for me was his different take on “Heroes.” He started the song slow, mumbling these incoherent lyrics, that, knowing Bowie, really meant something, he was imparting something profound, and those mumblings ended with, “I will be king/And … you … will … be … queen.” And the band exploded into that huge guitar riff on the last word, a great moment. I later found out that Bowie was singing, “Lavender blue, duh-luh-di-doo, Lavender green, duh-luh-di-doo, I will be king, etc.” He was probably giving instructions to the lighting crew on what shade spot light to use! I was let down to learn that he wasn’t adding some profound message to the already-profound message of “Heroes.” The dude wanted to swim like dolphins, man!

I was able to track down that version of the song years later, as part of a bootleg of pre-tour rehearsals that he played in a small Dallas club with originally-planned lead guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughn. Enjoy! I recall that it was a money issue with Stevie Ray, as I’m sure he wanted more than sideman pay, and everything worked out fine, as he then went on to push his solo career over the top at that time. Earl Slick could probably play Bowie’s songs blind-folded as he seemed to ride shotgun on so many of his tours and albums.

Aside from that? Honestly, the show got boring, fast. And I have to be honest, that feeling has overcome me at some point in nearly every live show I’ve ever attended. Sometimes the whole show will be like that. Other times, just a few minutes. But at some point, I look around and think, this is bullshit. It’s too much. I’m uncomfortable as hell. We’re packed in like sardines here. There are a lot of people acting like small children, taking this thing as an opportunity to “cut loose” and essentially be pricks. Same vibe as sporting events. People getting too drunk and high. Taking piss breaks constantly. Baying like idiots in ways that don’t suggest irony but brain damage. I sort of look at myself in an imaginary mirror when I see shit like this going on and think, “Am I part of this?” And the answer is no, but I have to accept the fact that this special thing to me, the profound relationship I feel towards this artist’s music, is shared by people who appear to be complete jackasses!

I ask myself, what’s going on here? What is this thing? We pay a truckload of money to attend this thing, get treated like shit every step of way, are forced into bleachers or crappy plastic seats, then spend the rest of our time dealing with people in the immediate vicinity getting into mild forms of weirdness, be it piss breaks or fist fights or talking/yelling constantly through a set, all the while, trying to take in a show that sounds choppy because it’s been booked into a venue that was never meant to host musical events. At some point, I don’t understand the process. In younger days, I’d just bite my tongue and keep buying the tickets. Now, I just say fuck it! I can see going to small club shows where there is some type of musicianship going on – think celtic music being played live by accomplished musicians, or blues, or jazz, or even some quieter kind of folk or country. But this blowzy, balls-out, rock-and-roll, party-time event … what an over-rated ritual I’ve found these things to be over the years. Music makes sense to me personally in my every-day life, but loses its meaning for me in these staged events.

But, this realization was years down the road that night! We all told ourselves this was fucking wild, man, this was incredible … but it was just a well-staged rock show put on by a consummate professional who looked like a dot on the faraway stage and sounded muddy by the time the music reached us in our bleacher seats.

I’ve since realized that I could very easily bump into Bowie on the streets of New York, as he lives here, walks around with no fanfare, keeps a low profile. It just seems odd to try to make that connection between this ordinary guy on the street, and this shiny star at the center of these traveling events, that went on for years, that influenced millions of kids, that made perfect, beautiful sense to me the first time I slapped Ziggy Stardust on that cheap bedroom stereo. I think that’s where they myth begins. Falling in love with that sound, the word play, the sense of style, knowing this is someone who has something to tell me, even if it makes no sense, it sounds like it makes perfect sense. But then to realize I’m not the only one getting it, that millions of other people do, too. But one day, I could turn a corner on Broadway, and there Bowie will be, looking through the window of a bookstore, in an overcoat, just an average guy I could walk up to, say hello, thank him for making those albums, and he’d probably nod and be gracious, so long as I was cool and brief about it.

It’s obvious why a moment like that would mean more to me than any massive concert. Because that’s how I understand music, on this small, one-to-one level. That’s how you’re reading me now, on your computer, in your room, or wherever. You read along, if you really like what I’m writing, you keep on reading. I understand life at this level. When you times it by a million and attach all these other values to that human connection, that’s when things get weird for me, and I enter this vaguely troubling misunderstanding with how this all works. But that’s rock and roll, and I wouldn’t be “getting it” on any level if it hadn’t been marketed on that large a level, so I guess I have to take the good with the bad.

I’m glad we saw Bowie that night. Not so much for the act of seeing Bowie (which was the only time I saw him). But because when we got out in the parking lot and turned on the radio, we came up on the football game in the last minutes of the fourth quarter, with Nebraska beating Penn State 44-6. They got their asses kicked! I’ve sat through more than a few Penn State games like that in my lifetime, but that one, coming on the heels of a national championship, was surely a bad, bad feeling. Had we stayed home to watch that? We would have sat there grumbling and moaning the whole time, getting deeply upset in the way sports make us feel when our team gets shellacked in an important game. Had we skipped seeing Bowie to sit there at home and watch that happen? Even worse.

So we drove home that night, howling up Route 81 around midnight, still buzzing from the big concert, “TVC15” blasting from the tape deck, but coming back to reality where our football team now officially sucked.