Music is ubiquitous and confusing. Twice a month, Eric Spitznagel stares into the bottomless chasm of new (and old) songs, albums and musicians that permeate our lives, and tries to pretend he has any idea what it all means.
I used to live in Florida. I still do, actually, although I have a hard time admitting it out loud. "I live in Florida." That's not a sentence that comes easy, unless you've lived in Florida all your life, or you moved there by choice and decided you like it. For me, becoming a Floridian was circumstance. My wife got a job in Florida. We were only supposed to be here for six months, maybe a year. But one year turns into two so easily, and then she got pregnant, and we needed to keep our health insurance. So we stayed longer than we intended -- five years, all told, with the last two in Orlando. Yes, I lived in Orlando, and I wasn't being coerced by Lou Pearlman.
I'm moving next week. Back to Chicago, which feels more like home. When I've told friends, they're eager to bust my balls. "Well thank fucking god," they tell me. "That entire state is a cultural black hole. Are you so happy to get back to civilization and see some real music again?" In some ways, I agree with them. But living in Florida hasn't been completely devoid of unique musical experiences. I don't have tales of rock glory like I did in my 20s and 30s, when I bounced between L.A. and Chicago and New York, and went to as many shows as my immune system could handle. Florida was less eventful, but in a weird way, it was a better education.
Florida is where I learned how to be old.
Here are my three most poignant musical memories from living in Florida.
1. The Hold Steady (May 22, 2010, The Social, Orlando)
After 43 years on this planet, you'd think I'd have a better understanding of rock show math. When the listed time on the ticket is 8pm, that doesn't mean the performance starts at 8pm. It means 8pm is roughly when people are allowed into the theater to purchase beer and t-shirts. That's followed by an hour or two of beer consumption and drainage. And then the opening act comes on, and then there's more alcohol, and then maybe a drunken fistfight, and some clumsy seduction at the bar, and then finally the main act comes on around 11pm-ish.
I have never learned this lesson. I think it's because I come from German stock. My ticket says 8pm, I show up at 8pm. Achtung! And then I stand around awkwardly and drink too much beer and repeatedly give up my awesome spot near the front of the stage because I have to piss and kick myself for being the idiot who thought the time listed on his ticket was anything more than a friendly suggestion.
It wouldn't be so bad if I'd come with friends. There was a time, not so long ago, when I went to rock shows en masse. But that was in my 20s, when most of my friends were childless and still had the energy to go to rock shows that didn't start until 11pm. Now everybody I know is like, "I need to get a babysitter. How long does this thing go? And who are they again? The Hold what? Never heard of them." My wife offered to stay at home with our 18-month-old son so I could enjoy the show without looking at my watch, which seemed like a great deal at the time, until I found myself standing alone in a smoky rock club, three beers in and 90-some minutes to go until Craig Finn took the stage, staring into the middle distance for lack of anything better to do.
I sneered at the sea of bearded, scruffy dudes, all of them wearing obscure band t-shirts and drinking cans of PBR. "These fucking kids," I laughed in my head. "They're such fucking clichés." And then I realized, oh right, I'm a bearded and scruffy dude wearing an obscure band t-shirt and drinking PBR. I'm the pot, and the kettle I'm smugly calling black who didn't spend the afternoon de-graying his beard with Just For Men.
Going to a concert alone is not like going to a movie alone. A movie is designed for solitude. But in the slow, agonizing moments before a rock show begins, being alone is conspicuous. You're drinking and standing and staring at an empty stage, while surrounded by people having loud conversations and laughing and flirting and doing things you used to do before you got old and went to concerts alone. I killed some time with fake-texting, checking in on fictional friends who were supposed to join me but were running late. I even pretended to call one of them. "Where are you?" I muttered into my phone, which wasn't technically turned on. I don't think I fooled anybody.
I had other reasons to be uncomfortable at this show. If I'd wanted, I could've been backstage, hanging out with Craig Finn and the other Hold Steadys. Or at least that's what my wife had led me to believe. "You interviewed him for Vanity Fair," she reminded me. "And that other website. The MTV thing. He knows you now. Call him and tell him you're coming to the show. Why wouldn't he want to see you?"
I had no good argument for her, other than that I'm never been the sort of person who calls a rock singer and says, "Hey, I'm coming to your show tonight. You wanna hang afterwards and get some brews?" I'm the sort of person who doesn't ask for press tickets and doesn't introduce himself to the band and then goes home immediately after the show and listens to all the unreleased demos and bootlegs in his office while drinking a Foster's oil can.
Sometimes I have good reasons for not wanting to meet the artists I love. When the Mountain Goats came to Orlando, I could've met John Darnielle. I could've made some calls and gotten backstage access. But the morning before the show, I took a power walk through the downtown district, blaring Goat songs on my iPod and losing myself in lo-fi caterwauling. As I passed a veggie pita restaurant, I looked in the window and saw Darnielle, sitting at a booth and eating lunch alone with his guitar. I stopped in my tracks and stared at him, wondering if it was really John Darnielle or just another skinny white vegan who kinda looked like John Darnielle. His gaze drifted up and we had a moment of awkward eye contact, and his face went pale as it occurred to him that I just might be his Rupert Pupkin.
So no, I didn't go backstage at the Mountain Goats show. Because I couldn't imagine he'd be able to see my face again and not think, "This guy wants to murder me and wear my skin."
The Hold Steady finally took the stage, after what seemed like an eternity of me pretending to impatiently look at the entrance for my friends who were never coming. I held my ground near the front of the stage and clutched my beer and bobbed my head along with the music, like all the other bearded, scruffy dudes with obscure band t-shirts.
2. Public Enemy (September 16, 2010, Firestone Live, Orlando)
I did not see Public Enemy in Orlando. But I was two blocks away from the venue where they were performing, and I could have been there with a minimal amount of effort. As far as I'm concerned, that's the same thing as being there.
There's something about Florida that's always nurtured my natural instincts towards avoidance. It helps that the city, and the state in general, have an unusually high ratio of drunk douchebags. And I say that as somebody who once lived a short walk from Wrigley Field in Chicago, where public urination is considered a First Amendment right. Downtown Orlando, where most of the concert venues are located (at least the concert venues with live acts I'd have any interest in seeing), is host to a midway of nightclubs, piano bars, and "4-for-1 margarita" liquor huts. The alcohol consumption in Orlando has all the sophisticated charm of a pig trough.
Last October, I had an opportunity to see Mike Doughty perform in downtown Orlando, as part of the Hard Rock Cafe's 40th anniversary celebration. It was free, and just a five minute car ride from my home. But I didn't go. I didn't even pretend to consider it seriously. The show started at 8pm, just around the time when Orlando is at its booziest. That's when the college kids spill out of the bars and give each other high-fives and demonstrate their drunken enthusiasm with ear-piercing monkey screams and make Hulk-like advances ("Me horny. You boobies nice!") on the women who don't jump into cabs fast enough.
In what way would that be fun for me? Did I really want to be the old guy clearing his throat and saying, "Excuse me, sir. I can't hear 'Tremendous Brunettes.' Would you mind vomiting in the other direction?"
Also, given what I'd been reading in the news lately, there was a 50/50 chance that going downtown meant I'd be stabbed by a homeless person. It happened to a pair of meatheads who'd been rude to a homeless guy as they'd walked into a horrible club, and the homeless dude was so upset that he followed them into the club and stabbed them both in their respective faces with a box cutter. Now granted, they probably deserved it. Drunk douchebags in Florida are more jaw-droppingly obnoxious than drunk douchebags in any other city in the world. I'm sure some of you will read this and scoff. "No, no, no," you'll say. "Our city have the worst drunk douchebags!" Of course you think that. But come to Orlando for a weekend and spend a few hours in our drinking establishments and see how long it takes you to mutter, "Wow, if I had a box cutter right now, I would totally stab that guy in the face."
Avoiding the Mike Doughty show was easy, because I was already home. I just had to make the conscious decision not to put on pants. Skipping out on the Public Enemy show was a little more complicated. I was already downtown, having late afternoon cocktails with friends. Sometimes venturing into Orlando's liquor jungle is unavoidable. My wife talked me into it; just a few quick drinks and we'd be gone, she said. But when that second alcoholic beverage hits your belly, rational thought disappears. You're suddenly like, "This is fun. Why don't we come down here more often?" If the booze wasn't numbing your nostrils, you'd be able to breathe in and realize, "Oh yeah, that's right. Because this place smells like tequila and gonorrhea."
My friend Bob, a longtime Orlando resident who shares many of my musical tastes, was the first to mention that Public Enemy was playing at a nearby venue. "It's starting in like five minutes," he said. "We could totally walk there."
We looked at each other, daring the other to make the first move.
"You think there'll be any homeless guys with box cutters there?" I asked.
"I don't know," he said. "Probably."
"And drunk white douchebags?"
"Oh god yeah. It's a rap concert in Orlando. That'll be 90% of the crowd."
I don't know what I was worried about. I'm nothing like those intoxicated buffoons. I've never bought Jäger shots for strangers, or said things like "It's beer-thirty, bitches" or taken off my shirt in public, my sun-burned nipples flapping in the breeze like the wings of a majestic eagle. Surely the box cutter-wielding hobos would give me a pass. But there's something called guilt by association. Being in close proximity to so many drunk douchebags, at their drunkest and doucheiest, would make it impossible for even an observant homeless assassin to identify those least deserving of a stabbing. If you lived in Germany in 1940 and didn't want to be considered a Nazi, you should've gotten the hell out of Germany.
"We'll see Public Enemy next time we're in town," we both agreed, lying through our teeth.
3. Mr. Richard (August 10, 2012, Bright Horizons Daycare Center, Baldwin Park)
It's difficult for me to pick just one Mr. Richard show as my favorite. I've seen so many over the years. Since moving to Florida and having a kid, I've been to no less than two dozen Mr. Richard concerts. That's a record. He's even managed to beat out the Mountain Goats, the former uncontested leader of my musical obsessions. This is very strange to me. Not because Mr. Richard isn't worthy of a Grateful Dead-like following, but because his music is specifically written for people who still shit their pants and are years away from puberty.
The gig at Bright House was memorable for several reasons. First, it's the moment I realized I know all the lyrics to the Mr. Richard song "Kids Gotta Rock." That shouldn't be remarkable, given how many times I've heard it. But I've tried to be proactive about this sort of thing. If you're not careful, kids' music can steamroll over your musical memories. You think it's innocuous and forgettable, but one day you'll catch yourself wondering "How did 'Clampdown' go again?" and you'll try remembering the melody, and you'll come close a few times, but it always gets interrupted by "Don't Bite Your Friends," which keeps popping into your head without invitation. That's happened to me! Many, many times! It's terrifying how quickly Joe Strummer can be replaced in your subconscious by DJ Lance Rock.
Watch Mr. Richard's video for "Pooch Smooch":
I'm determined not to let that happen. Whenever my wife and I play music for our son, I make a conscious effort to tune it out. I'll smile and nod, but my head is filled with white noise. But somehow Mr. Richard slipped through. Not only do I know the lyrics to "Kids Gotta Rock," but during that daycare show, I sang them with enthusiasm. Especially the "dance like a monkey wearing purple socks" part. I belted it out like a teenage girl singing the chorus to "Everlong" at a Foo Fighters show. I was, it should be noted, the only one at the show who knew all the words. The parents were too busy texting. And the kids, although they loved dancing, didn't appear to have studied and memorized the lyrics like I had. They still had a long way to go before they could call themselves true music obsessives.
In the spirit of full disclosure, I should admit that Mr. Richard and I are old friends. I know him by his full name, Richard Peeples, and we've spent many nights in Orlando drinking heavily with our respective wives, talking about the Replacements. Actually, Richard and I are the ones who do most of the talking. Our wives tolerate our Mats nerdom for as long as they can, before eventually slipping away to talk about ... whatever it is people who don't own the entire Replacement discography on vinyl talk about. Richard and I can yammer for hours about our favorite Mats albums, or the most beautifully chaotic Mats shows we were lucky enough to witness, or have bootlegs from, or hear about from fellow Mat completists. Richard usually wins; he saw the band back when Bob Stinson was still a member. He's got stories about sharing a beer with Paul Westerberg in L.A., and watching him vomit from the stage during a show. I can't compete with that. I own The Shit Hits the Fans on cassette, and I saw more Westerberg solo shows than Mat shows, and never with the original lineup. Mr. Richard has stories about sloppy, beer-soaked Replacements gigs that make me feel like a Baby Boomer hearing about the Beatles at the Cavern Club.
It never ceases to amaze me; this is the same guy who sings songs about dog kisses and firetrucks. My son, who's still in diapers, loves him. Lots of kids love him. And he's seen Paul Westerberg throw up over the side of a stage. Every time I watch Mr. Richard perform, it feels like we have a secret.
"Play 'Bastards of Young'" I yelled at him during the daycare set.
He looked at me and smiled. "Wrong crowd," he muttered under his breath.
"Do it," I insisted.
He rewarded me with a few chords. "Dreams unfulfilled," he whisper-sang. "Graduate unskilled. It beats pickin' cotton and waitin' to be forgotten."
I laughed a little too hard. It wasn't THAT funny. But hearing those lyrics in a room filled with confused adolescents and their couldn't-care-less parents, it was like hearing a Ramones riff in church. Mr. Richard and I winked at each other, acknowledging our private joke. And then he went back to singing about garbage men and birthdays and homemade rocket ships, and the kids started dancing again. And it felt okay to me.