Slash and Burn

On our way out and about the other day, Mr. Koz and I passed a stylishly scruffy man on the corner wearing a frayed T-shirt, tight black jeans, and a top hat, coming out of the local diner where we occasionally go for breakfast. “Oh look,” I said, feeling peevish. “It’s Slash.” Mr. Koz just shrugged and said matter-of-factly, “Maybe it is. We do live in Hollywood.” I felt kind of deflated then. It very well may have been. But when I was a kid, my friends and I used to play a game called “Spot the Celebrity” which was the opposite of star-hunting. Instead we pointed out to each other ordinary people who bore a passing resemblance to someone famous. It was a silly way to pass time, the way kids used to do before they had texting. The macho dude in the denim jacket and shiny black pompadour may have been deliberately channeling Elvis, but I don’t know about the elderly lady with powdery jowls whose jeweled sunglasses made her a shoo-in for Elton John.

The thing is, if you spend enough time in LA you’re bound to run into a celebrity, sometimes literally (Roseanne once crashed into me in line at a David Bowie concert). If you grow up here, there’s invariably someone’s parent at school, your uncle’s wife’s brother in-law, or the regular at the deli counter, who is big in Hollywood. And unless you live under a rock, you always know someone in The Biz. Come to think of it, under rocks is especially where certain Hollywood types like to hang out.  It’s been years since I have been interested in any of the products that are pumped out of the big Hollywood Star Machine. Even when I used to watch the stuff, I never got attached to the actors, and rarely recognized them out of context. I’d be having breakfast and someone at my table would say “Psst! There’s so-and-so!” and I’d turn around and see some tired looking guy wearing a rumpled T-shirt and 5 o’clock shadow eating scrambled eggs. “That’s Gabriel Byrne!” they would whisper, forcing me to rummage in a dusty, disorganized filing cabinet in the back of my mind. Ah, there, right next to David Byrne. Gabriel Byrne. Actor. Said to be very good looking. Not a morning person.

Actually, that’s a terrible example because in fact I feel quite different about musicians, and that’s whom I idolized when I was growing up. I was a concert junkie. I wasn’t exactly what you would call a “groupie” in that I never tried to get in bed with any of my rock idols, but I used to try and get as close to the stage as possible during the show, and would sometimes hang around afterwards to meet the artist, shake hands, say thank you, and ask for an autograph. But the biggest thrill was crashing invitation-only events and mingling with my heroes. I had a boyfriend back then who was my partner in crime. This was before cell phones were common, making it necessary to plan our timing carefully beforehand in case we got split up, but it was also in the days before 9/11 and terrorist fears, so security was generally on the mellow side, and if we were caught we could just pretend to be a couple of dumb teenagers who were looking for a secret place to neck. We got into this sport completely by accident.

The Who were putting on an all-star production of their rock opera Tommy, with guest appearances including Patti LaBelle, Billy Idol, and Phil Collins. It was unheard of for a rock band to charge so much for a concert – the cheapest seats were going for $175, to benefit autism research. We’d saved up all our money and left the house extra early for tickets. Waiting in line was at one time a big part of the concert ritual. People used to be able to start lining up as early as they liked. For the big shows, a line might begin forming before dawn, or even days in advance for the really huge acts. When I first started going to concerts at about age 15, there was still a whole culture around the ticket line-up. Hard core fans who all knew each other from previous shows camped out against the wall of Tower Records or Music Plus, sharing coffee, cigarettes, and stories, the old timers impressing the youngsters with their memories of seeing the Doors play at Cleveland High (my alma mater!) or tuning in with the Grateful Dead at one of the acid tests at a nearby geodesic dome that had once been a church, later a Hindu temple. The best locations to buy tickets had employees who were themselves fans and knew how to work the system for maximum efficiency, and the regulars knew the drill. Charts would be posted with exact change per number of tickets, and etiquette demanded that you be ready before your turn in line and make your transaction as quick as possible so that no one behind you would be held up while tickets sold out elsewhere.

The scalpers ruined everything. We all recognized right away that these people weren’t fans, and hated what they were doing. The Eggman and his mother were a couple of the first to arrive on the scene. Named for his shape, the Eggman was a large, bald, pasty, sweaty looking guy who wore a toothbrush moustache and coke-bottle glasses. His mother was short, shrewish, and looked like she might have worn a hairnet over her wiglike coiffure. She dressed in a plastic housecoat, thick hose, and tan orthopedic shoes and spoke sourly to her son. They were always first in line. I don’t know how they did it, no matter how early we got there they would be there first, followed by a few tired and grumpy looking fans exchanging incredulous looks and drawing angrily on their cigarettes. More scalpers began to show up around town. The ratty looking guy with the black coat. The tall man in blue sweats. They stood there looking shifty, not mingling with the dedicated rockers. They clogged the system, buying the maximum amount of tickets possible and taking the best seats, which we knew were selling at high prices in the sleazy ticket offices that were popping up all over the place. The ticket sellers, in an attempt to equalize the situation, started handing out randomly numbered wristbands. The fans were even more outraged. Now it didn’t matter how dedicated to the band you were or how early you arrived to line up, you might easily end up last in line. The best thing to do was to bring as many people as possible in hopes of getting a good number, but it was no guarantee, and you probably weren’t going to be anywhere near your friends in line. Once at the show, instead of being surrounded by familiar faces all singing along and dancing together, you’d more than likely end up standing behind some businessmen making a deal instead of watching the show, or else someone shouting into a phone as big as his head, “CAN YOU HEAR THAT? IT’S NEIL YOUNG! NO, I SAID NEIL YOUNG! I’M CALLING YOU ON MY CELL PHONE! CAN YOU HEAR ME? I’M AT A NEIL YOUNG CONCERT!”

Still, we were hopeful and excited as we walked through the early morning chill to the music store. The buses hadn’t started running yet, and no one in my circle had a car. We still hadn’t given up the habit of arriving early and lining up, even if it was only for wristbands. Sure enough the Eggman was there, along with some other, more welcome faces. Not as many people as usual, owing to the high price of the tickets. We drew our wristbands and waited for the starting number to be announced. I was fourth in line! I had my cash ready, perfect change, waiting… What was the holdup? Our favorite ticket clerk wasn’t there. She knew how to zip those babies out of the machine and have them in your hand before the ink was dry. Someone didn’t know how to work the machine. There was some discontented muttering from the back of the line. Finally, it was my turn. I stepped up to the counter only to be told the show had sold out. Sold out? But I was number four! Shaking their heads, the store employees shrugged and shooed us out, locking the doors, leaving all of us standing there feeling stunned and betrayed by the system.

My boyfriend and I resolved to hang on to our money until the day of the show and try to buy tickets from someone there. Hey, after enough Dead shows you can’t help but believe in miracles. We took the bus to Universal Studios, where the back lot, amusement park, and amphitheater stood surrounded by a large empty field and patches of trees, before they built it into a megamall full of chain restaurants and souvenir shops. Outside the venue snaked a long line of balding men with grey ponytails, wearing sport jackets and sporting gold studs in their left earlobes, and women in expensive dresses, pumps and ethnic jewelry. Yuppies. Yes, we could already see we were at the tail end of the greatest era in rock history, but we were determined to be a part of it. So we bought tickets from a guy who was standing outside whispering that he had tickets for sale. We were stupid and we bought those tickets and we were so happy until we got to the door and discovered that they were fakes. Fakes! The tickets for that show didn’t look like regular concert tickets, they were big and blue and had some artwork on them, collectibles. We had seen other people carrying them. Our tickets, it turned out, were a slightly different color. We stood and watched, red-faced and speechless, while the guards compared our tickets to some real ones, finally declaring them bogus and taking them away, telling us to leave. Now we had no money and no tickets.

Dejected, we headed away from the entrance, back toward the bus. I was crying. But my boyfriend had another idea. Beckoning me to follow him, he crept along the wall and slipped in through a service entrance to the back of the building. There was a narrow corridor with a bathroom and a janitor’s closet, and no one in sight. We hid in the closet, laughing at the stupidity of what we were doing. Hearts pounding, we waited as footsteps clicked back and forth, men’s voices, sounds of peeing. Suddenly, my stomach turned to ice as someone started pounding on the closet door. “Hey! Who’s in there! I’m gonna call the police!” Terrified, we opened the door to face a young man, hardly older than ourselves, who surprisingly looked as shocked we felt. “Oh!” he giggled, “I’m sorry! I thought it was my friend in there!” Then a suspicious look came over his face and he asked, “What were you doing in there?” But before we managed to stammer out an answer, he laughed and said, “I know what you two were doing in there!” and with a wink and a knowing smile he showed us back out the way we came in.

Damn. Once again, we were locked out. But as we walked away from the theater for the second time, we came across a tall ladder leaning against a wall. In a heartbeat we were up and over it, jumping down to land in a soft bed of fallen leaves. We were in a thicket, surrounded by a great wall, separated from the theater by a moat. And we weren’t alone. Four or five other crazy fans had managed to find their way in, and now we were all in the same boat. Through the trees we could see the proper ticketholders, looking smug, or so I thought, crossing the bridge to the main entrance of the theater. There were armed guards standing around. What the hell were we going to do next? This was one of the dumbest things I had ever done. But it was also strangely thrilling.

Creeping on our hands and knees, the underbrush gave way to masses of ivy. Night had already fallen, and the murmur of the excited throng was drowned out by the sound of my own heart beating wildly. Suddenly I froze, and watched as a massive skunk trundled by, only a few feet from where I crouched, its stripes glowing in the moonlight. It was peaceful, at home, dignified in exactly the way I was not, huddled there on my belly wondering frantically how on earth I was supposed to join that crowd without attracting notice. The concert started. I would have been happy to just stay there and listen from where I was.  But alas, there was a splash. One of the other guys had grown desperate and jumped into the moat (or perhaps he was escaping the skunk). There was a shout from the bridge and next thing a security guard was standing over me, shining a flashlight into my eyes.

Needless to say, we didn’t get in that night. Over the next few years, we would successfully crash other events, the biggest being the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. But wild as that was, nothing ever beat the thrill of that first, crazy, spontaneous adventure. The best part is that a few weeks later, as fate would have it, we actually won a pair of Who tickets from the radio station, which also provided transportation, a la Magic Bus. They even gave us lunch! We boarded the bus in what used to be an empty lot across from the Jim Henson studios. Laughing and singing on the bus, swaying as one in the concert hall, I felt as solidly at home in my environment as that skunk in the ivy. I got chills when the band broke into the Overture from Tommy. I laughed like a maniac when Billy Idol and Phil Collins came out to join them. It felt as if I had never missed that other concert, or as if this one was being played especially for me. It felt euphoric, like being in love.

Thirteen years later, I had a new love in my life – the future Mr. Koz. We’d been living in our little apartment in Hollywood for two years already when I heard that The Who were coming to the Hollywood Bowl, practically down the street from us. It had been ages since I’d bothered going to a major concert, turned off by bloated prices and increasingly rude audiences, the crass commodification of Rock and Roll. But I felt I had to go. I had this idea that sharing the experience with Mr. Koz would somehow bring me full circle. We bought the tickets online, no romance there, but I was looking forward to the show with an excitement I hadn’t felt in a long time.

Then, terrible news. John “The Ox” Entwistle, possibly the greatest bassist in rock history, died just before the scheduled concert. By all accounts, he went exactly as he would have wished. Nevertheless, I was devastated. I happened to already be working on an illustration project depicting animals in anthropomorphic form; it was natural to paint “The Ox” in a similar vein, and I found it to be a soothing and cathartic activity. Surprisingly, Pete Townshend and Roger Daltrey announced that the show would go on, rescheduling the concert for just a few days later. On a whim, I purchased some blank devotional candles and printed out some copies of my painting to glue on. When I arrived at the venue I asked a guard if I could set up a small shrine at the entrance. I was permitted to arrange my candles with some flowers on a borrowed table. While I was setting up the table, someone from CNN came over with a camera to interview me. I don’t remember what I said and have no idea if it ever aired.

Our seats were terrible. The stage was too far away, the sound was awful, the people next to us wouldn’t shut up, and someone kept fouling the air with dreadful farts. I was feeling tired and a little depressed. Where was the magic? Looking for a reason to move around, I excused myself and headed in the direction of the concession stand, where beers were selling for nine dollars a pop. Descending the stairway, I moved into a low corridor. Suddenly the lighting effects and sentimental slide show disappeared; I was swallowed by darkness and enveloped by sound. I soaked in that familiar thrumming, throbbing sensation until a security guard told me to keep moving.

On the way out after the show, I noticed that all my candles were gone. I wondered who took them and what they would do with them (a few weeks later one would write to me asking for permission to use my image as a tattoo). The sidewalk, as usual after a concert, was full of bootleg T-shirt sellers. One shirt caught my eye, The Who’s iconic logo, in silver glitter. I thought it was funny – I’d recently taken up bellydancing and felt that the shirt expressed different aspects of myself. But I wasn’t prepared for the response it would elicit. Every time I have worn that shirt in public, some old dude has sneered at me, “Do you even know who that is?” I’m not entirely sure what it is about me, or the shirt, that inspires such condescension. Is it my age? My gender? My ambiguously ethnic appearance? Or is it just the glitter?

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6 thoughts on “Slash and Burn

  1. I love your childhood stories – what an adventure that must have been! I also love your description of Hollywood/Rock and roll nowadays… so true, so sad.

  2. Thanks, Q! LH, feel free to look me up if you’re ever in town 🙂 Can’t guarantee any adventures like this one, but I can show you around!

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