In First Concert, all kinds of folks have discussed their first live music experience and the impact it might have had on their life and for some, their art. As we've talked to dozens of creative people, we've discovered amazing stories of unhinged live performances or forgotten B-sides.
In about 1976 I watched my best friend Kier play guitar at a high school keg party. I was fourteen or fifteen.
What do you remember about the performance?
Somebody’s parents were out of town and my friend’s band played at this raucous, sweaty party in their garage. It was weird because this was Washington D.C. in the mid-70s, and we were on the cusp between two great musical eras. My friend had a cover band, playing Led Zeppelin and the Stones and Hendrix. They had long hair, and the singer whipped his around and ripped his shirt off as he strutted his best Mick Jagger moves. The prettiest girls went crazy.
But there were kids hanging out on the fringes of such parties who would later turn into “Ian MacKaye of Fugazi” and “Henry Rollins of Black Flag.” At the time they were just fellow knuckleheads hanging out, desperate for something to do besides sit in somebody’s car in the 7-Eleven parking lot.
My friends and I were listening to Led Zep’s “Kashmir” or Queen doing “God Save the Queen.” Soon we’d be listening to the Buzzcocks and to the Sex Pistols doing a totally different “God Save the Queen.”
How do you think that experience affected you as an artist?
It showed me that galvanizing an audience was something that was feasible for kids in a garage, not just rock stars in an arena. That was a great inspiration, seeing that art is something you can actually make, not just what famous people produce and you consume. I was so enthralled watching my friend play the riff in the intro to Led Zep’s “Over the Hills and Far Away” that I was moved to buy a guitar, and eventually—after college—I even co-started a band, a trio called Valley of Kings. I was the singer and guitarist. We put out an album, did a couple of tours in a van, and opened for bands like Husker Du, Modern English, The Alarm, The Del Fuegos, and The Smithereens. I was very excited when we signed a contract with Columbia Records. It said our records would arrive in four to six weeks. (Sorry—old joke. Kids today probably won’t know that Columbia Records put discount sales offers in magazines. Actually, they probably won’t know what a “record” is.)
Anyhow, after five years I realized that I didn’t have what it took to make it as a rock star (a good voice, for one thing). I switched to writing books and journalism, where I didn’t feel that sense of built-in limitations. (Though I still have dreams of being about to go on stage.)
I look back on how exciting and freeing and vital music felt to me when I was younger, and I think that watching people—famous or not—play it also showed me that art isn’t just self-expression. Ideally, through the craft of communication, through songwriting and playing, or constructing a novel, you hope to stir other people and move them and provide some kind of essential experience.