Walking through the halls of West Wherever High School was never one of my favorite things. I was big enough to not get bullied, most of the time. I was brash enough for people to be wary of, most of the time. I was solitary enough for people to wonder why.
While most people walked through the halls to meet up with friends and share a two-minute laugh between classes, I raced through them to avoid those encounters. I’d enter a classroom, find my seat early, open my books, appear ready for class, and hope that those efforts would divert my teachers’ attention from the fact that the minute they started talking I usually zoned out completely.
I didn’t really have any new friends. Most of the friends I began high school with were ironically the same friends I started elementary school with. I had some success making new ones in middle school, more out of survival than desire, because they had pulled my circle apart and scattered us across buildings and rooms. But, by high school, all those new friendships had soured and, on rare occasions, I’d look up to find an old friend standing in front of me.
“There’s a concert tonight!” Mike said. “Want to go? We’re heading down to the Video Plus after school to pick up tickets!”
I didn’t really know what to expect. I had never been to a concert before. I listened to music constantly, as Mike knew because it was he who would spend hours copying cassette tapes for me. My parents would say yes, even though we were no longer very close he was my oldest friend, since kindergarten and if his parents were allowing him to go my parents would assume it was fine for me as well.
“Sure,” I said, opening my wallet and handing him a twenty-dollar bill. He took my money with a promise to call later and took his seat across the room. We were indeed victims of seating by alphabetical order.
I was anxious. But, then again, I’m always a little anxious. As the day went on I found my excitement building. I had no idea what was about to happen, no idea what to expect. I’d seen music videos on MTV. An older cousin had told me a story or two of her experiences at concerts, but they were all abstractions.
I didn’t bother changing. I was wearing what everyone wore, jeans and a T-shirt. The familiar car arrived at the house, my mother waved to Mike’s dad from the doorway and shouted “Thank you!” I piled in with the other concertgoers, some old friends, others faces I’d seen but hadn’t met. There were nods of recognition, eager, anxious raises of eyebrows, and toothy grins asking, “What will happen now?”
The Coliseum was big, but I had spent time there in my childhood. Wrestling matches, circuses, ice hockey games, and any number of somethings on ice. This was very different. An army of black T-shirt-clad fans, loud in their enthusiasm, called to everyone across the parking lots so that the echoing voices all seemed to meld together into one massive experience shared by all.
Once inside, we snaked through the crowd. We passed merchandise booths and Mike quickly veered off.
“You need a T-Shirt.” He said. Mike was an old pro. This was his second concert. I didn’t argue.
I bellied up to the counter and looked at the many offerings. I saw it as if a shaft of light from the heavens had descended fully upon it.
Across the front was scrawled the band’s name in colors evoking the rising heat of the desert. Beneath the name was the sand-pitted, dry-boned skeleton of a departed cowboy in a black leather trench with a studded but ragged cowboy hat. The fraying end of the rope from which they hung him still dangled from the noose hanging loosely from his neck. In his hand? A six-shooter. On the back, a wanted poster, weathered and tattered with all the dates and places on the tour. And there was mine! Ours! The Coliseum! April 20th! I gave that man my money and quickly put my arms through the arm holes.
“Woah!” Mike said, “You never wear the shirt of the band you're going to see.”
I didn't think to ask why, I just nodded and tucked the shirt into my front right pocket so that it dangled from my waist as he did. After all, he was wise! I was lucky to have him helping me through this induction because that’s what it felt like. That’s what it was. Thousands of people joined together in their love of this band! I was thankful I had not ruined it and made a fool of myself by putting on that shirt. He was a good friend indeed!
The two opening bands were great, but my senses were overwhelmed. The sound from my tape deck or through the TV speaker was nothing like this! The lights, the stage show, the energy! This was amazing! I looked to the right, a stranger. He looked at me and raised his hand for a high five, which I provided enthusiastically and we thrashed our mulleted heads to the beat, air guitars playing killer riffs, and sang along until their set was done.
My heart sank as the lights came up, as they always did between acts, but I was still learning. The standard rock soundtrack played over the PA. It was a tense half hour where we laughed with everyone around us. They shared stories of shows passed and I was dubbed “Concert Virgin”! It was immediately embarrassing but for some reason, this made everyone else whole-heartedly invested in making sure I had the most amazing time.
The term would have meant social ostracism in any other setting but here it made me a minor celebrity to be shown the greatest of kindnesses. The stranger next to me explained what was happening right now behind those closed curtains. A mysterious army of roadies and techs executing all manner of secret maneuvers, that he was somehow privy to, and would allow the band to “blow the roof off this joint”.
Then the pre-recorded soundtrack went silent, the lights went down, and the electric hum of amplifiers engaged and sizzled through the rafters. The bluesy twang of guitars and the grizzled drawl of the lead singer echoed through the darkness but they were nowhere to be seen. The drums hit and the Coliseum exploded into light. The blues was replaced by hair metal shredding and they came up over the back risers, descending their wall of amplifiers like a staircase and I think I lost my mind. But found something so much more valuable. This feeling! This!
The show was a whirlwind of sound and lights and solos. There were cigarette lighters swaying like stars against the nighttime sky. There were chants and laughter and singing and everything! It was all a blur!
We piled back into Mike’s dad’s car and made the ride home yelling at the tops of our lungs. We couldn’t hear a thing over the ringing in our ears and our energy had not yet fled. We relived the entire show on that twenty-minute ride. As I rolled out of the packed car and onto my front walk Mike shouted, “Make sure you wear your shirt tomorrow!”
I nodded, ran up the walkway, and plunged into the house.
The next morning my mother’s face was grim. She did not approve of the T-shirt. But, there was nothing inherently offensive about it so she found no plausible reason for asking me to change. I made it to school, passing several other T-shirts in the hallway. We nodded in recognition of each other.
“Wait,” I said to myself. “This lasts?”
And it did. Every T-shirt from the night before was associated with a new face and a nod of recognition. We weren’t friends, we didn’t eat together in the cafeteria or sit together in class, but each time we passed each other in the hallways there was recognition that we had experienced something amazing. We were a part of something larger than just our year at West Wherever High School. Regardless of how tenuous, we now had a connection.
I found my desk and flung myself heavily into the chair, still exhausted from the night before. The guy sitting in front of me turned and looked at the shirt.
“You went?” He asked.
“Yeah!” I answered. “It was awesome!”
“I wish I’d been there.” He said regretfully, “What song did they open with?”
“Fallin’ Apart at the Seams.”