Back to Live, Back to Reality
Live music is coming back. The whole messy pageant of being a dumb fan in a crowd full of strangers — it’s so close we can taste it. Just a couple of months ago, the idea of full-capacity shows in 2021 seemed like a pipe dream. But every week, there’s a deluge of new gigs, new tours, new festivals. People are starved for it. We’ve missed it too long. There are ecstasies that can only happen in loud sweaty rooms, with the lunatics who cram ourselves into those rooms for an experience we can’t get anywhere else. If you’re a music fan, you’ve spent the past 18 months dreaming about right now. It’s a pivotal moment, where we all relearn how to be fans again, together. Joy is finally back.
For most of us in post-vaxx life, going back to the world has been a bumpy ride. I was surprised to use an ATM for the first time in a year and hear myself say “Thank you!” In lockdown, I completely forgot I was tall, so now I keep bumping my head on trees and doorways. We’re learning to walk, talk, brush our hair, smile insincerely, make chit-chat, wear pants, wear heels, ask for napkins, order different drinks at the same bars — all the tiny interpersonal rituals where we used to have our routine down cold. These days we’re all David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth, aliens bluffing our way around this strange planet, faking it till we make it.
And that includes music fans. In quarantine, we learned to love the livestreams. But there’s no substitute for being in the room when a crowd becomes part of the noise. There’s nothing like an audience breathing in that shared joy, breathing in the music. It happens in tiny basements, huge arenas, dance floors, karaoke bars, sleazy clubs. There are many other emotions involved, but that joy is the element that makes all the others possible. No show happens without it.
My first post-vaxx live show: the Foo Fighters, reopening Madison Square Garden on June 20th, ringing in a new era for live music. This night wasn’t just about the Garden or NYC — it was a symbolic invitation to start remembering how to celebrate together.
No band could have been a better fit for this job, because nobody lives to rock a live crowd like Dave Grohl. This is the guy who broke a leg onstage in Sweden a few years ago, but then came back out in a cast (carried on a stretcher!) to play the rest of the damn show. It was a night of cathartic, agonizing, euphoric glory, but nobody seemed to crave it more than Grohl. “Did you miss it?” he asked us at the start. “Me too.”
I’ve seen a few great Foo Fighters shows, but this night was on another level, right up to the climactic “Everlong.” Grohl didn’t stop, and we didn’t say when. They played my favorite Foos song, “Walk,” and that was the moment my heart exploded, with 20,000 people singing “learning to walk agaaaain” along with Grohl. My voice was totally shot by the time we were all screaming, “Forever! Whenever! I never wanna die! I never wanna die!”
I grabbed a cheap ticket way up in the nosebleeds, because I wanted to see the crowd as much as I wanted to see the band. It was the absolute last row, at the side of the stage, with a stone wall behind me and an ocean of deliriously happy people in front of me. Respect to the sweet rowdy bastards in Section 221 — an honor rocking with you maniacs, and I can’t wait till the next time we get to spill beer all over one another. Everyone in the building had a great big Pat Ruthensmear grin on our faces. Nobody sat down. I walked home in a T-shirt reeking of other people’s drinks, smoke, and sweat, an aroma I’d nearly forgotten. It really was learning to walk again.
All the things that used to bug me about arena shows just tickled me tonight. (Hey, bathroom lines — I remember you! Gimme a hug, “Free Bird” dude!) Nobody worried about getting sick, because we all had to bring a vaccination form to get in. There were anti-vaxx protesters outside the venue, carrying signs with slogans like “MSG and Foo Fighters Complicit in Crimes Against Humanity” or “Kurt Cobain Is Rock ’N’ Rollin Over.” Disgracefully, not one of these protesters had a sign that said “Hey Wait, I Got a New Complaint” or “Lake of Pfizer” or even “Corporate Vaccines Still Suck.” For shame.
The moment that made the headlines: Dave Chappelle came out to sing Radiohead’s “Creep,” a surprise nobody had on their bingo card. Yet the most touching detail came at the end, after Chappelle dropped the mic. He began to strut off, but then lingered too long on the edge of the stage, gazing at the crowd, as if he hated to leave. Like the rest of us, Chappelle didn’t want it to end.
The past 18 months have been loaded with great new music, but without the live experience, something’s missing. I mean, you’ve heard Taylor Swift sing “Betty,” but have you really heard it until you’ve heard her in a stadium dropping that key change on all your stupid friends? Hearing “Thot Shit” bump out of cars is one thing, but hearing Megan rip it up live? After so much deprivation, audiences are waxed and vaxxed and ready to rock, just like the prepandemic days when “pod” was just a Breeders album and “viral load dynamics” sounded like a Guided By Voices B-side.
For all those months of lockdown, the thirst never quit. I got a brief but sweet taste in December, when the Hold Steady, one of my favorite live bands ever, played a livestream show from a Brooklyn bowling alley. They invited me to host a soundcheck happy-hour chat for the fans — just me, the group, a couple of other helpers. It was surreal to walk into an empty room and see a rock & roll band for the first time in nearly a year. Alone in the dark, with nobody else on the floor, I briefly wondered if it would be uncool to rock out and dance — but when has that ever stopped me? So I was bouncing off the walls of a deserted bowling alley, hollering along with “Killer Parties.” It was both ecstasy and agony, the feeling of “Yes, this is as good as I remembered” and the almost simultaneous “No, it won’t happen again for a long time.”
Up on the livestream screens, I saw fans around the world — some friends, some faces I just see every year at Hold Steady shows. I saw my cousin, tuning in from Ireland. I thought about people I missed. (Looking for friends on the livestream is the new “I’ll try to find you left of the dial.”) The band did it again in March, and the rush was just as intense. Seeing a great band without an audience is bittersweet, but still beats 99.999 percent of the other ways you could ruin your life on a Saturday. As the Hold Steady song goes, damn right we’ll rise again.
My first post-vaxx indoor event was John Mulaney, workshopping new material in an NYC club. Nobody got in without a vaccination form; you also had your phone locked in a magnetic pouch, which all shows really should have. People giggled nervously, just being there. Mulaney could tell we felt strange being out on the tiles. As he said, “You all decided to leave the apartment and go to a live show for the first time since February 2020, just to listen to me talk about the worst goddamn year of my life? You paid money for this?”
Mulaney was raw, candid, going deep into his drug addiction and recovery, joking about how the January 6th insurrection happened while he was in rehab. “I leave you knuckleheads in charge for 60 days and you let this happen? Never happened on my watch!” He’s gone through heavy changes since the last time we saw him, and so have we all. After the gig, my friend and I walked clear across Manhattan, on a muggy summer night, from the Hudson to the East River, raving about this amazing thing we’d just witnessed. Breaking down the show afterwards—I missed those conversations as much as the shows.
Life without karaoke has been rough — for some of us, it’s therapy, self-care, a religious experience. I didn’t think it would happen again until the fall, but a friend in L.A. found a Koreatown place with secret karaoke rooms under speakeasy-like conditions. We couldn’t wait to sing the hits. (Damn, I missed you, “Celebrity Skin”!) I was fiending to try Olivia Rodrigo’s “Brutal,” but of course there weren’t any new tunes in the book. So I just sang it to the track from Elastica’s “Connection” — it fit perfectly. From Wire to Elastica to Olivia: The connection is made.
Just a week later, I got to sing “Brutal” properly when some friends hosted Park-aoke, under the Brooklyn stars on a June night. Just a few co-conspirators, battery-operated speakers, a laptop, and disco lights, raging until the battery wore down or the cops came. Every stranger passing by in the park wanted to join in, so the mic got passed all over — a couple of stoner dudes rapping Cheef Keef, a kid crooning Sinatra, an Iranian tourist belting “Another Brick in the Wall.” When the battery fizzled out, there was a foursome of high school girls waiting for their turn, so they just sang their song a cappella: “Imagine.” Everybody sang. Quite honestly, I thought that was one song I never really needed to hear again, but it’s never gotten me like it got me that night.
Broadway officially reopened this past weekend — and the very first performance was Bruce Springsteen, reprising his intimate solo show. “It’s great to see everybody here tonight,” he said. “Unmasked, sitting next to each other in the room. It’s a long time coming. It’s a big-time thrill.” Nobody could doubt what he meant it. When Bruce closed his Broadway run in 2018, he quipped that he was heading “back to my day job.” But like so many dudes in Springsteen songs, he found his old job wasn’t there any more. When it comes to rocking stadiums, lately there ain’t been much work, on account of the CDC.
Springsteen, the most legendary of crowd-flatteners, put out A Letter to You last fall, a concept album about feeling miserable without any shows to play. It was a poignant revelation of how much he missed us, as if he woke up one day and saw the audience had suddenly ghosted him like Bobby Jean. The new songs are even packed with dramatic singalong moments, just waiting for us to join in. He misses that live rapture as much as we do, so it’s a thrill seeing him get back to work. Maybe Bruce was right — maybe everything that dies someday comes back?
Pandemics don’t have happy endings, or even real endings. We all lost pieces of ourselves in the disaster, pieces we haven’t begun to count or catalog yet — just things we lost in the fire. Many of us lost family, others lost friends. When you see someone, you have no way of knowing what the pandemic stole from them. But it wasn’t nothing. And we all have a long way to go before it’s over.
But just as we counted on music to help us get through the crisis, we’re counting on music to help guide us into the future. Dave Grohl really summed up this feeling at that Foo Fighters show. “For the last year, I had this reoccurring dream,” he told us during “Best of You.” “I would fucking walk onstage, and we would look at each other for the first time. And it would take a couple of minutes, where we just look at each other like, ‘Thank God we got here tonight.’ I fucking walked out onstage tonight. It was just like that fucking dream.”
The show was all about that feeling: We got here tonight. Not where we need to be, but not where we were. Off the couch, into the mix, defrosting pieces of ourselves we’ve had stashed in the freezer. This is a moment worth celebrating, as we begin relearning to take these steps together, reminding ourselves why live music is worth showing up for and always will be. Learning to walk — again. I’ve waited a long time to be able to say these three words, but it’s finally time: See you there.