“Why should I change? He’s the one who sucks.” Michael Bolton (Office Space)
While many of our comments on and anecdotes about music have to do with music merely as sound, as the score for charged moments in our lives or the cue to dial up vivid memories, music also surrounds us in tactile and physical ways. The Younger J and I have, at different points in our lives, attended many and varied concerts (and too few together). Seeing an artist live and as part of a community of listeners can drastically change the way you engage with music. The live performance returns music to the breathing pulse of the living from the frozen state of recorded sound.
But the living is not always the best place for music. Some performances open your mind; others help it to close. So, the Younger J and I will occasionally write about the performances that have touched our lives in one way or another. Today: The Worst Concert Of All Time. Ever.
Or something like that.
Back before the internet, before DVD players, back when the Younger J was still watching Teenage Mutant Ninja turtles and living on a steady diet of Tony’s pizzas, one of my first jobs was as an usher/extra security at a local outdoor musical venue. Don’t get my razzing of my brother wrong—I was young too; I could barely even work legally.
I got the job because the future Lead Singer’s father was a security manager at the venue. While the acts who came through town were major league, the venue and its operations were seriously minor league. Literally. The park used to be home to a minor league baseball team that fled the state for greener pastures. It sat dormant for most of the year except for a dozen nights during the summer when the bright and the famous would sweep into town.
I have many memories surrounding that location that have little to do with my job there. I saw my first (semi)professional baseball game there before the Younger J was even born. Many years later, I was dropped off to see the Gin Blossoms and Cracker play there by a girl’s mom. After hearing Cracker’s “Low” we left and made out on the beach in the moonlight.
Not too long after that, I went to the H.O.R.D.E festival the day that Jerry Garcia died and failed to stop the Lead Singer from shouting “the fat man’s dead, let’s party.” Even after that, I worked in a gas station/variety store right near the entrance to the venue—on performance nights we had to lock the bathroom door and patrol the long lines of customers for shoplifters.
So, this obsolescent Ballpark is a place that dots the memory of my life with a strange archipelago—at one time hazy and shapeless, at another severe and overburdened with meaning. I wrecked the Blue Ford Tempo right near its gates. I refused to smoke marijuana with a girl during a concert only to be rewarded for my ‘integrity’. I was sunburned there. I was soaked in the rain during a Black Crowes’ concert. I held back the crowd from an ancient (even in 1992) Steven Tyler.
I also endured the worst concert of my life. In 1992, Michael Bolton was somehow an international superstar. His Time, Love and Tenderness tour landed in my home state at the aging Ballpark with an opening act in tow—Celine Dion on her first ever American tour. The show was so hot (sarcasm) that scores of security guards and ushers couldn’t find their way to the stadium that night.
So, the Lead Singer’s father enlisted our help to gather a crowd of high school students. Seriously, how much trouble can you expect from a crowd of Michael Bolton and Celine Dion fans? This was before Celine Dion became the ‘greatest singer in the world’; it was a year before I got to know her as the favorite music of a felonious driver’s ed instructor.
I think that my nervous system, in order to save me from reliving the trauma and enduring the shock over and over again, has ‘deleted’ or, rather, suppressed most of the memory of this night. I do have three key visions, limited vignettes that reveal just enough of that night without unveiling its worst horrors.
Before: We are sitting in the green Windstar Minivan of the Lead Singer’s Family. The Lead Singer, a girl I will call La Miserata and I are in one row. There are others there too, but I have completely forgotten them. We are wearing official “staff” and “security” t-shirts. We are being briefed about appropriate behavior. We have our own flashlights.
During Celine’s Performance: La Miserata and I have been stationed by the far right wall of the performance space to keep people from sneaking in (or, perhaps, stampeding out in horror). She will prove to be a very unhappy girl (manic-depressive) once she leaves for college and moves to NYC, but all I know now is that she is incredibly smart, wears purple Chucks, and is quite cute. It doesn’t hurt that she is (1) older by 3 years and (2) knows all of They Might Be Giants’ first album by heart. She is laughing hysterically at Celine’s performance. No one threatens to sneak in or out of the venue. We sneak small kisses with our flashlights pointed down.
During Michael Bolton’s performance: Advanced reports have warned us that middle-aged underwear missiles are a severe threat during this performance. To increase the drama (and, I suspect, to ‘lubricate’ the crowd and free up the small clothes) M. B. likes to charge in through the audience space toward the stage. A phalanx of security workers and ushers is formed. I am somewhere in the front but nowhere near him. Before I know it I have moved back to the right where I join La Miserata. We have been issued earplugs. I try not to look directly at the stage. Neither of us loses our underwear.
And that is all I remember of the night. Afterward, we went back to the Lead Singer’s house and played some form of Dungeons and Dragons until the sun was out again. The experience itself, however, was not that bad (in retrospect). I witnessed two of the most popular acts from the 1990s in their prime for free. I observed a cultural phenomenon in all of its glory and horror. I was in a place and time that someone, somewhere might find interesting.
But, in thinking back through all the concerts I have ever attended, it was easily the most musically horrifying thing I have ever witnessed. Have two talented vocalists ever trafficked in as much saccharine schmaltz as Bolton and Dion? Have two recording artists forced upon the world more sickly sweet arrangements and unoriginal renditions? Have two performers taught us more about our collective poor taste and cultural failings?
Even when my music tastes were dreadful, when I willfully purchased albums by the New Kids on the Block or Color Me Badd, I knew that Michael Bolton was the King of Cheese Mountain. When Celine Dion made it to the big time I not only found her music similarly cloying but I also found her more than a little creepy. Time has been kind and unkind to both artists in turn. But both of them are still with us.
So, even though I have been to concerts that I have left early, have had my opinions of bands radically changed by seeing them on stage and have vowed never to see a live show again after other concerts, this the worst concert I ever saw in my life. And I say “saw” because, thank god, I barely listened.
Yet, despite all my rancor and my superior dismissal, I am still thinking about that concert almost 20 years later. What does that say about me? Brother? Are you listening?
“I’ll be honest with you, I love his music, I do, I’m a Michael Bolton fan. For my money, I don’t know if it gets any better than when he sings “When a Man Loves a Woman”.” Bob (Office Space)