For me, the true test of a band is how they sound live. Just about anyone can be made to sound like a talented singer in the studio, thanks to tools like auto tune and the like. Some performers even use pre-recorded music during their live shows. Often the defense for that curious practice is that the artist in question's performance features intricate dance numbers, and the recordings allow them to not sound out of breath while executing those feats of choreography. To that I say either increase the daily cardio workouts until you can both sing and dance at the same time for real, or else can the dancing. I came to hear you sing. I did not buy your album and tickets to your show because you're a badass dancer.
I've seen hundreds of live shows over the years. Some have proven to be unforgettable, while others I'd like to forget, but my love of live music can be traced back to one unforgettable moment in 1983, when I attended my first live show.
I was in seventh grade, and my family had just moved to Charleston from San Diego, California, after my father accepted a new job. Back in those days, the premier rock station in town was 95SX (WSSX), which nowadays plays—well, I'll be honest—music that 12-year-olds like. So while listening to the radio one morning, the deejays (Andrea Vincent and Steve Cochran... wow, can't believe I remember that after 30 years...) announced that they were giving away tickets to the upcoming Joan Jett and The Blackhearts show. I jumped on the phone and started dialing. I'd done this before and had collected such prizes as a giant cookie from the mall and a genuine, authentic "Where's the Beef?" kit from Wendy's—the t-shirt from which I wore proudly for the next several years, long after that iconic ’80s TV ad had stopped airing. More often than not, I got a busy signal. This time, though, the phone rang. "Hello, you're caller (whatever caller they used back then)!" I gave them my info and then hung up. I'd just won tickets to a Joan Jett concert! My first move was to ask if I could go. After all, I was 12, we lived in Mt. Pleasant, and the show was at County Hall (later the King Street Palace, now low cost apartments) on upper King downtown. Miraculously, my parents said yes, provided I took my little sister. Sure, fine, whatever. Keep in mind that this was 1983, back before the dangers of society made it impossible to let your children out of your sight. We used to go trick-or-treating alone, too. Heck, back in San Diego I'd walked to and from school alone in first grade. No way in hell I'd let my kids do any of that today, but like I said, these are different times.
I honestly had no idea what to expect in the two weeks leading up to the big night. No one else in my seventh-grade class had ever been to a rock concert, so I was enjoying a bit of celebrity status once word got around. When the evening of the show came, I decided that since this was a special occasion I would first shower (like any other 12 year old boy, water was my enemy), then get dressed for the show. I figured since it was a cultural event that I should probably dress up. I put on an Oxford button-down shirt and a pair of slacks, but decided to leave out the necktie. After all, this was rock and roll. My father dropped my little sister (who is a year younger than me) and me off at the venue, and after having our tickets ripped, we walked into the hall.
For those of you who never got to experience an event at County Hall, it was your basic auditorium with a small lobby, a wide-open main floor, a large stage at the opposite end of the building, and a second-floor balcony that wrapped around the stage. When my sister and I walked onto the main floor, it was...well, you know how in a movie there will be a scene where there's a crowded party with music playing, and something happens that stops the action, and they insert the sound effect of a phonograph needle being whipped off a record? Yeah, that's pretty much what happened when we walked in. Of course, there wasn't really any record-scratching noise, but I clearly heard it in my head. "Why?" you ask? Well, every other one of the several hundred Joan Jett fans in attendance was dressed like any normal person would dress for a rock concert. I'm talking t-shirts, jeans, miniskirts, leather jackets, fishnet hose, parachute pants (hey, c'mon, it was the ’80s) and the like. A haze of smoke, from either tobacco or some other unknown leaf, hung over the crowd. It was a real, honest-to-goodness crowd of degenerates, and I drank the scene in. The crowd probably didn't look twice at the two little nerdlings that had just walked in, but to me it felt like I was being scrutinized, so I did what any normal person would do. I grabbed my sister's hand and bolted for the balcony.
Once upstairs, my sis and I settled into a couple of the hard wooden folding seats that populated the balcony and waited for the show to start. There was a really ominous-looking guy in front of us who either had a lazy eye or felt that keeping a constant eye on us was far more rewarding than anything that went down onstage that night. His right eyeball, the only one I could see from my viewing angle, stayed on us the entire evening.
Finally, the lights went down, and the crowd started cheering. Awesome! It was time to see Joan Jett! Oh, did I mention that I was a fan of hers, at least as much as I could be from just hearing "I Love Rock n' Roll" on the radio and being too young to know who the Runaways were. The music kicked in, and...wait, that wasn't Jett and her Blackhearts on the stage.
And thus young Devin learned his next lesson in the art of concert going, namely that there exists something called a "opening act." In this case said act was the Red Rockers, a band riding high on the strength of its radio single and related MTV video for the song "China." If you don't remember the tune don't feel too bad. The band's lead singer, John Thomas Griffith, would later find fame as part of the excellent New Orleans party band Cowboy Mouth. That night though, the band was in full ’80s mode with bandanas, white dusters, and the inevitable ’80s hair. Nothing so radical as that Flock of Seagulls guy...
...but ’80s hair nonetheless. Upon meeting Griffith years later after a Cowboy Mouth show, I would involuntarily gush to him that he was the first rock artist I ever saw play live and told him about the show I'm describing here. To my surprise, Griffith actually remembered the show, mostly because he and the rest of the band had signed a major-label contract in their dressing room that night, so it was an understandably surreal evening for him as well.
Anyway, back in 1983, the Red Rockers finished doing their thing and left the stage. The lights came up, and music began to play off the house PA. Ah, an intermission. Yeah, I figured that out all by my 12-year-old self. Having zero cash on me for even a Coke, I stayed put in my balcony seat under the watchful eye of ol' Evil Eye Fleegle. Eventually a song I recognized started playing. It was the WHO's "Won't Get Fooled Again," one of my favorites. I developed my early love of the WHO from my father, who used to listen to Roger Daltrey cassettes in his car when we drove around town. When the song reached its climax, where Daltrey let loose with his now legendary primal scream, all the lights in County Hall went out.
I held my position, and a few moments later the lights came up to a scene I'll remember for the rest of my life. There onstage was Joan Jett and The Blackhearts, and they were finishing that WHO song, live! You know, "meet the new boss, same as the old boss," cue Pete Townshend windmilling wildly, only here it was Jett windmilling. I got heart palpitations and goose bumps on top of goose bumps. Much like a heroin addict chasing the dragon, trying to replicate that first high, I've never quite been able to recapture the feeling I felt while witnessing what is still the coolest entrance to a rock concert I've ever seen.
With barely time to breathe, Jett and her boys kicked into "Bad Reputation," even taking liberty with the lyrics in the second verse to spit "Don't give a s**t 'bout my reputation!" into the microphone, causing my sister and I to stare saucer-eyed at one another. "Wha-...did she just say...?...Yes, yes, I do believe she did! Oh my god, this is the greatest thing ever!!!" screamed my 12-year-old, Catholic-school-attending, Hall-&-Oates-loving brain. Upon finishing that song, Jett paused to greet the crowd, making some joke about the lack of air-conditioning making it wet t-shirt night by default. Over the next 90 minutes or so, Jett ran through her catalog up to that point. "Crimson and Clover," "Do You Wanna Touch Me (Oh Yeah)," a step back to her Runaways days for "Cherry Bomb," and of course, "I Love Rock n' Roll." At one point, during Jett's cover of Gary Glitter's "Do You Wanna Touch Me (Oh Yeah)," my sister and I, along with everyone else on the balcony, were standing on our seats and clapping our hands over our heads in time to the chorus of "Yeah, oh yeah, oh yeah!" Here's a video of Joan from around the same time if you need a reference.
By the end of the show, I was spent. I walked out of the lobby, past the souvenir stand (note to self, bring money for a t-shirt next time), and out into the night, where my father was waiting to pick us up. The following Monday at school my friends quizzed me for details, but all I could do was smile for awhile before finally recounting every moment of the evening.
Years later, I got to see Jett again in the mid-’90s at the building that most recently housed the Buccaneer downtown on Faber Street. It was either Myskyn's or Acme at the time, and I was working for 96 Wave as a weekend deejay. In effect, I had found my way into the rock and roll world, having been hopeless when it came to learning to play an instrument. I tried to meet Jett through my radio station connections but managed only to get my LP copy of "Album" signed.
Several more years later, in 2006, I had yet another chance to see Jett when she played in Ladson as a headliner on the Warped Tour. This time I lucked out and met Jett's manager, Kenny Laguna, who, upon hearing that I was covering the event for the local newspaper, granted me an audience with Jett. It didn't last long, as Jett was preparing for her set and resting her voice, but as I stood on her tour bus and she emerged from the back room, I got the same sort of goose bumps I'd felt that night when I first saw her play. She was as nice as could be, and incredibly, she had barely aged a day in the nearly quarter-century since I had first seen her onstage. "Joan, I'm not going to embarrass either of us by telling you what year it was, but you were the first rock concert I ever saw a few years back," I said to her. "Oh really," grinned Jett, who added, "Well, I'm glad I could be your first." She posed with me for a picture, even though I was drenched in sweat from being outside in the hot Carolina summer, and that was that. I had finally met the reason I'm a rabid live music fan to this day.
Oh, and after graciously meeting me, Jett walked out to check out the other bands play prior to her set. I watched the younger music fans that were there to see bands like Motion City Soundtrack and Silverstein. Most of the kids were gathered in front of one of the two main stages, staking out a spot while they waited for some other band to play. When Jett and her Blackhearts took to the other stage and launched into "Bad Reputation," there was already a sizable crowd waiting for her, but a curious thing happened about a minute into that first song. Just about everyone holding a space over at the empty stage abandoned their place and ran over to see who was laying down the rock law at the adjacent stage. By the end of the song Jett had everyone eating out of her hand. Behold the power of rock and roll.
After seeing Jett live that night in 1983 my life would never be the same. From then on, when I swiped my father's Rolling Stone magazines and read the concert reviews, I could say that I knew the glory of sharing the live music experience with a large group of like-minded individuals. I would also wear jeans and a t-shirt the next time.