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Jay’s Music Exchange: My First Concert

February 3, 2011

In this, the follow-up to last week’s TBTS Discussion question “What was Your First Concert?,” Jay shares his initial, self-chosen live music experience. If you’d like to share your tale, and we hope that you do, please leave it in the comments or post it to the Brown Tweed Society Facebook page. Given the fantastic responses we’ve gotten so far, we’ve extended the deadline until next week. There’s a prize to be awarded to the best anecdote, and we’d be much obliged.

“Give the finger to the folk singer / As he’s dancing upon your paycheck”
–Beck Hanson, “Pay No Mind”

In the summer of 1994, I made the short trek to the Paramount Arts Center in Ashland, KY, to see folk-rocker Don McLean. I wasn’t a superfan or anything, and “American Pie” was already about as worn out as Charlie Sheen’s coke spoon, but several friends were going, and I’d recently developed an appreciation for other McLean songs that were much more infrequently (or never) played on the one classic-rock radio station that reached my small burg.

The friends, one of whom who’d made me a mixtape of various McLean songs that I was actually still capable of liking, neglected to pick me up, as they’d gotten themselves in an altered state that rendered them able only to laugh and lose keys inside running vehicles and forget to pick up dear friends who’ve been promised rides to first concerts.

Excited at the prospect of hearing “And I Love You So” and “Vincent (Starry Starry Night)” and maybe even “Babylon,” (famously sung as a round when played live, and to great effect), and even more excited by the independent act that this represented, I asked for and received permission to drive myself to the venue. I wasn’t waiting around for people to get their shit together.

Being a teenager going to his first show, and given that I was by myself, I did all the things that teenagers do. I drove too fast. I played my music too loud. I pretended that this was a trip with no defined end. I see now that there’s some consistency and truth there.

The Paramount is a restored theatre used to host live music, dance, and other performing arts. It has a pretty interesting history, and it’s a jewel in a tiny but hopeful cultural crown. Like Lexington’s Kentucky Theatre, it’s a great place to catch a singer-songwriter like McLean.

McLean’s solo set was pretty good, professional and practiced, but not great. He seemed weary and a bit jaded (more on that later), but he put on a relatively satisfying show. He played every song you’d expect him to play, but he didn’t play “Babylon.”  I was disappointed, as I’d hoped for the sing-along that I’d heard on that mixtape. when hundreds of people sing together like that, especially to a haunting banjo tune, it makes for a powerful, moving experience. I realized much later that those powerful, communal experiences are what I’m hoping for every time I see a live show.

McLean played well and sang well. He revealed a lack of engagement and cynicism, however, as the evening wore on. When he got to the obligatory “American Pie,” he said something in his introduction that I’ll never forget:

“Here’s the song that guaranteed that I’d never have to work a day again in my life.”

The audience mostly laughed, thinking it a joke, but his tone and his posture indicated otherwise. I thought it to be off-putting…and a bit distressing. I hadn’t seriously entered the workforce yet. Here was a bona fide singer-songwriter star implying that normal working life as I understood it is something to be avoided, that it’s less admirable than doing what he does. I had barely gotten my feet wet and Don McLean was telling me that that stuff on my shoes was shit. Gee, thanks.

Rather than giving me arts-oriented goals to aspire to, the man seemed to be criticizing the kinds of people whose lives his genre–and his own music–usually raises aloft. McLean started his career working alongside Pete Seeger for chrissakes! Plus, he seemed to think that he could rest forever on his laurels for having written “American Pie.” While that gawddammed radio station seemed to validate this, most musicians I know are always striving to create something that surpasses the last high-water mark. From what I know of his catalog, even though it’s not much more than what appeared on that mixtape, he didn’t seem to stop caring after 1971. Tempus fugit, maybe Don lost his ambition somewhere. Maybe he just tired of being asked to play that cloying song. At any rate, seeming contempt for the people who made him, and the song that secured his privileged existence, didn’t sit very well.

Even though that statement left a bad taste that cut his oeuvre’s shelf life with me (if subconsciously), it still had a lasting impact on me by reinforcing what I felt then but couldn’t articulate until later. I still feel like I should be on a stage rather than in an office.

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