by D.B. Miller
Rituals (Part II)
We kindly ask you not to arrive at the event intoxicated.
The request from the organizer, e-mailed five days before the meet and greet, is duly shared with friends.
“I never arrive anywhere un-intoxicated,” says one.
“That must be such a disappointment for you,” quips another, a guitarist who, with his firsthand knowledge of the other side, has been advising me on what to expect. This is the first time I’ve shelled out three times the cost of a ticket for a ‘VIP experience’ with a band that seems just as unlikely to take part—Black Rebel Motorcycle Club.
The package includes a lanyard and signed poster, which I am already worried won’t fit into my bag and will need to be held during the show (guitarist: “Roll it round your leg and secure it with a hair band.”). Another perk is the authorized picture with the band, to be taken on my own device by, I imagine, the same person who wrote the e-mail.
In fact, the only draws for me are the closed sound check and novelty of a sanctioned exchange. Instead of skulking around the tour bus, trading hours in the cold for a shot at a soulful chat near a dumpster, I am paying for the comfort of certainty. And dread. I’m thinking the band will receive each party from behind a table, like a celebrated author after a reading. And I will have ten seconds to deliver a blazing, bumbling tribute to that awakening in the car, when I heard ‘Six Barrel Shotgun’ on the radio and almost had to pull over.
Once, at a show a few years ago, a guy squeezed in next to me to gaze up at Peter, the singer-guitarist. He opened his arms, turned to catch my eye and shook out his hands. At first, I figured it was a chummy mime of appreciation (‘Is this guy a legend, or what?’), but the more I nodded, the more urgently he shook out his hands. Only when he looked back to the stage, arms still spread, did I recognize the gesture. It was the international sign for ‘Come to mama’ or the very opposite: ‘Pick me up, hold me close, don’t let go’.
Outside the venue, I wonder who among us could be that guy, or more to the point, who couldn’t. We have lined up near the doors at the prescribed time, of course we have, and an hour too early. To keep warm, I waddle back and forth and peer at the others. Four of us have come alone while the other eight, in pairs, speak quietly. The mood is reflective because, I suspect, everyone who sprang for this ticket nurses a special kind of scar that only flares up when the house lights drop. I’ve spoken to people who have seen the band 30, 51 and 129 times and counting, which, as a friend once pointed out, sounds a bit like going to work. Whether it’s nine time zones crossed, a dozen shows in a fortnight or next month’s rent at risk, the reason usually involves a song, verse or riff.
As if. Ask me about any art that moves me—changes the way I see leaves skid across the street—and I’ll opt for the reductionist route, too. It’s just easier. I’m ‘only’ up to four and counting, but even I know a tidy sound bite rolls better off the tongue than a tangle in the gut. If the experience can’t be tamed by language, it churns. Which must be why, in the fading light, I text a friend to report that I might as well be waiting to have a tooth filled.
A disheveled guy unlocks the doors. While we thaw out inside, he checks our bags, takes a loose roll call and switches from German to English for the most important news: the responsible person will let us into the sound check “just as soon as she comes back from the toilet.” I relax—human beings are in charge. Seconds later, we enter the darkened hall.
It takes a moment to adjust to the absence of bodies and noise. The singer-bassist, Robert, breaks the hush with a soft “Hello, people.” We murmur back and approach the stage, but at the front barrier I have to squint. The band is too close, a blur of shadows in a fuchsia glare. I fumble with my reading glasses, which do nothing, and blame the impairment on the lighting, change in temperature and, eventually, sensory overload.
The band and sound engineer talk amps, levels and settings. We imitate a well-behaved, fidget-free class. I wonder why I ever agonized about buying this ticket and am hit with a wave of gratitude—this, even before the music. When it does kick in, everything comes into focus: the smudges on the guitar, a scuffed boot, and the unruly hair singed by the same red spotlight that the leather reflects.
The band starts to play an unreleased song. On the bridge to the chorus, something shifts in the room. The youngest one of our group leans against the barrier with a trembling arm. Two minutes in, the world locks into place. Nothing matters but the swell of light and sound, until everything matters because of it.
I’m not cool. Never was. But when the band trickles in for the meet and greet, I hang back. We all do. No one screams, squeals, faints, jumps, shows off, one-ups or breaks down. Maybe we’re keeping each other in check.
There is no table or receiving line. The band circulates without ceremony or chaperone. As they sign our posters with markers, we talk, listen and joke. There’s more I want to say but don’t.
A paradox: the best gigs are the easiest to forget. By the end of the meet and greet, I’m pretty sure that the next few hours will go missing. I’ll remember the shower of green light, a taut upstroke, the slump of Leah over the drums after one song’s final, driving beat—but the rest will bypass the brain. The only way to make sense of the experience will be to repeat it, and repeat it again.
With the lights about to dim, I realize that no one took a picture. No hard evidence exists but for the autographed poster, which was still drying when I rolled it into my jacket sleeve at the coat check. As my hands grip the barrier, I wonder if these are my last conscious thoughts before the blackout. Cold rail, no proof, blue light cut to black—I get ready to go under and forget, forget it all.