Skipping the barrier

Text and images: D.B. Miller 

On the dark patch of pavement between the club and a line of shopping carts, my friend and I take a moment to talk strategy. The crowd is thinning, but we’re pretty sure the band has not yet left the building. We’re also pretty sure that if two starry-eyed, rain-soaked brunettes ask a roadie about the band’s plans tonight, it won’t look good.

The stage: blue light

Earlier, about the time I figure Stereophonics are rolling into Zurich, I am one big knot of words. It’s hot, almost too hot to eat, but I’m darting around, tripping over lyrics, discussion prompts, biographical minutiae and the black pug we are dog-sitting. Her snorts compete with my one-two’s as I test the pocket recorder, and her unflinching bug eyes close in like the heat – like the words. I don’t even think about the music.

In her memoir, Patti Smith describes the pull, way back when, “to infuse the written word with the immediacy and frontal attack of rock and roll”. I’m no rock and roll star, but I need the attack as much as she does. For the moment, I’m still on the other side, locked out, and stuck inside the noise of my own head.

*

As the evening nears, I try to be optimistic about my chances of an interview with Stereophonics’ lead singer Kelly Jones for this very publication. The odds are long, but we’ve been hoping the musician-writer-director will want to share his perspective on storytelling in diverse creative formats, or just, you know, talk. After some pleasant yet inconclusive exchanges with the publicist, I don’t know if the band will be in town on their day off tomorrow—if I will still be on-call or can finally get a good night’s sleep.

My friend and I get to the venue early and line up at the gate with the other diehards. While I check e-mail for the hundredth time, my friend stares ahead in tight-jawed concentration. She’s had a hard day but is hell-bent on getting not only the front row, but a very specific spot. When I pull out the sensible bag of fruit we’re calling dinner, she waves it away. The grapes are too tart, but I eat them anyway.

After a few minutes of silence, she leans in to deliver the plan: upon clearing the first checkpoint, she will break away, up the flight of stairs we know so well, and secure the advantage at the main doors. Once through, she will surge forward and hang a sharp left, running if she has to, and capture the front row. I’m to handle the drinks.

I tell her I am grateful both for her initiative and for the chance not to be associated with her during the next 15 minutes.

*

With two flimsy cups in hand, I take my hard-fought place at the front-row barrier. We toast to victory and teamwork, but neither of us can shake off the day. The stage is smack in front of us, but I’m thinking of my backpack and pocket recorder and the stack of index cards stuffed inside. I don’t know what’s expected and whether I’ll be called on as a professional or a fan. Right now I’m worthy of only one role, and it starts to worry me.

To muster some excitement, I take a walk around and scan the gallery for the friends who are treating their ten year old. I notice a very pregnant woman seated by the railing and, while happy she has her priorities straight—as I did at a show two weeks before my due date—I feel as heavy as she must. At the table of branded merchandise, usually a surefire way to remind myself of what’s to come, I silently criticize the shape of a tote bag. It’s almost showtime, and I can’t seem to get out of my own way.

*

Stereophonics mic & gearThe opening act, a lone rocker with guitar, prevails despite the creeping bass-line from the gig next door. I’m courteous (this close to the stage, I have to be) but distracted. In the break, I check messages yet again while roadies jam guitar picks into nooks and crannies and test the mikes, one-two, one-two.

The background music gets louder, and I start to move to the Ramones in spite of myself. I say, “This must be the band’s rally music,” to no one in particular and step back decades to the hiss of the car radio, fingers working the dial to strike gold. When they did, and I found a song that wiped out the roar of the muffler and the din inside my head, nothing else mattered.

“Bad Moon Rising” rips through the speakers. The blue stage light seeps through the grated barrier, and I notice the tiny blue dots cast onto my clothes. The air condenses, a thousand tiny blue dots, and the stage goes black.

*

This is what happens next: the band plays, the crowd cheers and we all go home.

This is what happens next: we’re reborn.

On an index card stuffed inside my backpack is a discussion prompt from writer Hilary Mantel: … unmediated truth often sounds unlikely and unconvincing … the writer has to negotiate with her memories … to caution that this cannot be a true record: this is a version, seen from a single viewpoint.

The band walks on stage so fiercely the screams lag a few moments behind. My friend actually swoons and knocks me into my neighbor. There they are, just beyond the trolling bouncer and photographers. There they are: the five people behind the blast that sears everything in its path. Incredulous, I do the math again: five people  + a bit of wood, metal, electricity and that voice = an experience nobody has ever had before or will ever have again.

*

About half-way through the set, the band converges around the drummer, backs to the audience. As they slip in and out of liquid blue shadows, we’re catching our breath at the same time we’re holding it. I’m drifting away, but a thought jerks me back: this is it, I’m not getting the interview, and this is the closest to the band I will ever get.

And then: this is it, I couldn’t be any closer, and we’ve all skipped the barrier. There is no us, no them—just the music, lights, swelling, soaring, dry ice, black hole and obliteration of everything that isn’t worth holding onto and never was.

A person is a fool to become a writer. His only compensation is absolute freedom. So said Roald Dahl on another card in my backpack. If I’m a fool, I’m a fool two times over because I know this can’t be articulated—only felt. They’re all I have, words, and right now they’re useless.

*

The heat has broken, the rain and wind are picking up, and most of the other concert-goers have either fled or taken shelter in the nearby McDonald’s. My friend hurries to pack away the set list she scored from the stage, the one taped next to Kelly Jones’ foot—20 titles on a rain-pocked page, shorthand for what can’t be described. We’re speaking in shorthand, too, in blips, sighs and half-finished thoughts that are half-lost to ringing ears. And we’re running out of time.

We spot the truck with telltale British plates and dash over. The roadie peers down at us as if he already knows what we’re going to ask. He does. The band has already hit the road, he says, maybe truthfully, and goes back to work.

I could try to correct his assumptions and whip out the index cards, but they can’t help me now. There’s nothing more to say, yet I’m fuller than before—which is exactly, I suppose, how it should be.

*

Sources

Smith, Patti. Just Kids. New York: HarperCollins, 2010.

Mantel, Hilary. Interview. New York Times, 16 May 2013.

“Roald Dahl: In his own words,” The Telegraph, 13 September 2011.

*

D.B. Miller is an American writer living in Switzerland. She writes for artists, companies and non-profit organizations, and her short fiction has received honorable mention in Glimmer Train. Her latest essay about the perils and rewards of doing the rock-and-roll fan thing while thinking about it will be published in The Weeklings this fall.

Author: D.B. Miller

D.B. Miller is an American writer who has been living in Europe since 1995. As well as being a regular contributor to The Woolf, her essays, short stories and offbeat profiles have appeared in The Weeklings and Split Lip Magazine.

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