There’s no calculator in my head—although as a student, I had a nose for math, despite zero enthusiasm—so it’s difficult to put a number on the amount of rock/folk/pop shows I’ve attended since 1968, when my brother Gary and I saw Van Morrison and the Byrds at Central Park, lawn seating for a buck. Let’s just say—as the now-forgotten Newt Gingrich commented in 1994 when asked if he’d ever smoked pot, “I was alive in the 1960s”—“lots.” Of the big acts, Bob Dylan, the Pogues and Elvis Costello top the list at four: Dylan was awful in 2012 when my two sons and I endured a D.C. show at the Verizon Center (the number of gray ponytails in the audience was even worse), but extraordinary at Madison Square Garden in ’75; Costello’s concerts, from 1978-83 were all great; and the Pogues at Roseland in NYC in 1988 was one of the best, and made up for Shane MacGowan falling off his stool, dead-drunk, at 8X10 in Baltimore in ‘85, unable to continue. And without Shane, it was still fun, but you know how all Irish songs, absent a dynamic singer/songwriter, essentially sound the same. My son Nicky can, at will, sing a shanty with an almost-perfect brogue and made-up lyrics.
Other concerts I’ve attended, in various states of mind, aren’t uncommon to someone my age: the Stones (Stevie Wonder opened) on their Exile on Main St. tour, David Bowie, Randy Newman, Steve Stills, Talking Heads, Willie Dixon, the Ramones, Iggy Pop, Mars Volta, Southside Johnny & the Asbury Jukes (with Ronnie Spector opening; backstage, after interviewing her, she gave me a kiss!), Elton John (in a private box at MSG, full bar; unfortunately I went overboard with the whiskey and yakked in the john), The Smiths, Green Day, The O’Jays, Dan Deacon, The Spinners, Aretha, Joni Mitchell, Pharoah Sanders, Jerry Jeff Walker, David Bromberg, the Delfonics, Roxy Music (Avalon—my favorite record of theirs—period), Stiff Little Fingers, Animal Collective, Billy Swan, the Everly Brothers (a nostalgia show I couldn’t pass up at the Royal Albert Hall in 1987), Graham Parker, Tom Paxton, the Allman Brothers (several months before Duane was killed), Bruce Springsteen, twice in ’75, the Runaways and on and on.
I’ve also seen a lot of local acts, including the late Tom Pomposello, a blues musician who was a protégé and then collaborator with Mississippi Fred McDowell (the picture above—clues below for the year—was from a show at Huntington’s Heckscher Park a long time ago and on that clear, star-filled May night nearly all my closest high school friends were there) and, skipping to this century, some Baltimore concerts, most of which included Nicky on a pretty wicked guitar. And at Johns Hopkins, Ocean Rose, a mesmerizing band with a charismatic lead singer and soaring guitars, that in a more forgiving music industry would’ve signed a major record deal. John Hammond missed out.
I thought about this the other day while listening—six or seven times—to the exceptional song “Mother Mary,” by the Green Day side project The Foxboro Hot Tubs (Stop Drop and Roll!!!, 2008), since the song, and Billy Joe Armstrong’s always-unique adenoidal vocal, spans so many decades. It could’ve been a hit in the late-1950s (maybe Buddy Holly), the mid-1960s (Beach Boys or Hollies), late-1970s (Blondie) or even in a twist, the Cure in the mid-1980s, and maybe Jake Bugg in 2013. Another standout is “Ruby Room."
I didn’t go nuts over Green Day’s early records, and paid little attention until the hit “When I Come Around” played on the radio. I think one member of the band said that the vastly overrated sitcom Seinfeld ruined the song “Good Riddance” by using it in the show’s final episode, but that’s another plaintive vocal from Armstrong, as are “Whatshername,” “Jesus of Suburbia” and “Holiday” from their enormously popular American Idiot in 2004. What I find remarkable about Armstrong is that as he aged (now 51), his voice didn’t change much, a rock ‘n’ roll rarity, putting him in the company of Stevie Winwood and, at least until 1990, Neil Young. Like all performers, I couldn’t care less about Armstrong’s various personal travails—that’s his business—but do wonder why he, and Green Day, aren’t accorded more respect by my contemporaries, who’d rather listen to an old Canned Heat song than give, say, “Minority” a spin.
Clues for the year: Tainted wood alcohol kills 100 at a New Delhi wedding party; IRA bomb kills seven in Aldershot, England; Mark Donohue wins the Indy 500; the first Rainbow Gathering is held in Colorado; George Carlin is arrested in Milwaukee for obscenity; Sly and the Family Stone’s “Family Affair” is just #79 on Billboard’s year-end chart; Curtis Mayfield is King of the World; the Oakland A’s (remember them?) win the World Series; Manny Ramirez is born and Ezra Pound dies; and Heinrich Boll wins Nobel Prize (still somewhat legit) for literature.
—Follow Russ Smith on Twitter: @MUGGER2023