Get It While You Can

Listen up, kiddos, and I’ll tell you a sad, sad story.

The hubby and I have a very short list of performers we will pay top dollar to see. Prince was one of them, so when he announced he would be playing two shows at the Fox here in Atlanta, I battle planned, logged on, and scored two tickets as an amazing early birthday present for myself. I then went to the Fox to pick up those tickets in person on the day of the show. And by the time I got back to my office with the tickets in hand, Prince had cancelled due to illness.

The rescheduled show the following week conflicted with a work trip, so those two tickets went to another lucky couple. No big deal, I told myself. He’ll play another concert here soon.

But he didn’t.

He never played again after that night. Because he died. On my birthday. I can’t make something like that up. (David Bowie died on my husband’s birthday, so 2016 was rather calamitous.)

So I made a vow to myself. If there was a performer or band I wanted to see, I would buy the tickets without hesitation. After all, few of the artists I like are getting any younger. (Truth be told, neither am I.) So along with my husband, Wayne, and a couple of gal pals, I embarked on a year of musical delights.

***

Concert One — Duran Duran
Chastain Park Amphitheater (4/8/17)

For our first concert, we selected a band we’d both liked for a long time, and not just for the 80s stuff either. “Ordinary World,” which I’ve shared here and some of their stuff from the 90s is stellar. And have you listened to Paper Gods yet? Holy Jim Croce, that’s a good album! It was a perfect night weather-wise, and we had an absolute ball. Oh, and we decided that we would need to bring earplugs to future shows, which made us feel old at first. However, I’m glad we decided against vanity because, after nine or ten shows, the ol’ eardrums would have been pretty well used up.

Concert Two — Red Hot Chili Peppers
Phillips Arena (4/14/17)

These were actually the first tickets we bought for the “Year of Concerts” as we came to call it, and the hubby was probably more excited about this one than I was. He was the bigger RHCP fan in high school and college, but I was still really jazzed about seeing them. Plus, Babymetal was the opening act! My friend Ed is a huge fan of theirs, and he introduced me to their stuff years ago. It was amazing to hear those ladies live and in person.

They’re not 20-somethings anymore, but dang if the Red Hot Chili Peppers don’t put on a high-octane performance. I chose a slower track from them to share with you, “Under the Bridge,” but they brought it all night long. We got a great show for our money, which had yet to run out. That part comes later….

Concert Three — Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers
Phillips Arena (4/27/17)

I knew the minute the show was over that this one was going to be my favorite. Every man and woman on that stage was on fire that night. (I was especially blown away by the Webb Sisters who sang backup.) Everything sounded great, and the audience was locked in. Some shows I took in this year were much less enjoyable than they could have been because people weren’t there for the music. They were there to socialize and take pictures for social media. But not this show. Everyone there was listening, singing, cheering, and having fun. It was a great great night, and having Joe Walsh as the opening act? Top notch!

And then Tom Petty became the reason I was glad I started this whole concert-going madness. When he died on October 2, 2017, Wayne and I both knew that we’d been lucky to see him and the entire band together. We now have some wonderful memories from the 40th anniversary tour, something later generations will miss out on. Of all the folks who have died this year, Tom Petty has hit me hardest, both because I love his music and because I know from first-hand experience what a great talent we lost.

Concert Four — Billy Joel
SunTrust Park (4/28/17)

Yes, you read that right. The night after Wayne and I saw Tom Petty, I went to the first-ever concert at SunTrust Park, the new Braves Stadium, with a couple of girlfriends. The sound was way outta whack to say the least, but Billy managed to shine through it and put on a super fun show. (I wish I could say the same for his opening act who was so awful that I’ve forgotten his name out of sheer spite.)

The best thing about the night was the fact that Billy improvised quite a bit, brought in a lot of other folks’ music, and told a lot of great jokes and stories. He’s probably best in a smaller venue just for that fact alone. He also let us vote when it came down between two equally popular songs, so some of the tracks I never expected to hear like “Vienna” and “Zanzibar” were performed. Two of my favorites —“Leningrad” and “Allentown”— didn’t make the cut, but with a catalogue as big as Billy Joel’s, it’s a wonder we got past the greatest hits. (And for the record, this was the concert where a bunch of chumps two rows ahead of us talked and snapped pictures the entire time. What a waste.)

Concert Five — Tears for Fears 
Daily’s Place (6/10/17)

These tickets are the quintessential definition of an impulse buy. We were on our way down to Jacksonville for vacation and heard a commercial for this concert on a local radio station. Before we had reached my parents’ house, I’d already bought the tickets on the Ticketmaster app. And, with ready-made babysitters eager to take the kids, the next night, Wayne and I were once again awash in 80s/90s bliss. We also got to see the new Daily’s Place concert venue, which is part of the EverBank Field complex (where the Jaguars play). It’s not a bad little joint to take in a show, and they have a solid set of concerts coming up in the future!

Concert Six — U2 
Raymond James Stadium (6/14/17)

Of all the shows we saw, this one was the most logistically complicated. In fact, we planned our entire vacation around it! (I even became a one-year member of the U2 fan club to get early access to tickets because I knew they were going to sell out.) They did a lot of their early stuff from War and Rattle and Hum as well as a few tracks from Achtung Baby, but the big draw was the fact this tour was put on to celebrate the 30th anniversary of The Joshua Tree. And they played the entire album…in order. My favorite song from that wonderful record (which was one of the first I ever bought) is “Red Hill Mining Town,” and I never actually thought I’d get the chance to hear it live. Totally worth all the hassle and travel to see them in Tampa.

After this one, Wayne thought I’d be about done, but oh no….there was more music to be had. So the credit card came out for three more shows!

Concert Seven — Chicago and The Doobie Brothers 
Verizon Wireless Amphitheater (6/23/17)

This was our second time seeing The Doobie Brothers (in the same venue no less). We got the chance to see them and Don Felder in 2016, and they were great both times. It’s amazing that they still have the range and can create those amazing Doobie harmonies that I grew up loving. This time around, I got to hear “Eyes of Silver” and “Dark Eyed Cajun Woman,” which was pretty satisfying.

This was the first concert we got rained on, which put a damper on things for Wayne, but I just jammed on through it. After all, part of the reason we started all this concert nonsense was to remember that just because we’re working full time jobs and raising two kids, we’re not too old to have fun (even if we were soaked.)

And then, holy crap, came Chicago. Robert Lamm, Lee Loughnane, James Pankow, and Walter Parazaider (four of the seven founding members) are still in the band. And let me tell you kids, they haven’t lost a step. Those chops held up for more than two solid hours of playing time, and they sounded absolutely fantastic. The licks were hot, the rhythms tight. It was a super impressive show no matter which way you cut it. Wayne is on the record as saying this one was his favorite.

Concert Eight — Blondie and Garbage 
Chastain Park Amphitheater (8/6/17)

This is the only concert we bought more for the opening act than for the headliner. I have long been a fan of Garbage. In fact, back in the day when every other girl wanted to be Gwen Stefani or Courtney Love, I wanted nothing more than to be the sexy Scottish songstress, Shirley Manson. This was the second show where weather got in the way, and Garbage had to stop in the middle of their set, but “I’m Only Happy When It Rains” did eventually get played, and Wayne finally after so many concerts finally decided to dance for the first time thanks to “Push It.”

A funky little duo called Deap Vally kicked off the night’s fun, and I was really impressed with them. It’s nice to see that a new generation of female rockers is alive and well.

Blondie was also stellar and sang all the songs you’d expect. But the most amazing thing about it didn’t hit me until we were leaving….Debbie Harry is 72 years old. Seriously! And she still rocked the house and performed “Rapture” in its entirety. The great ones really do go the distance.

Concert Nine — Eagles
Phillips Arena (10/21/17)

Glen Frey was the other great one we lost this year, so I jumped at the chance to see the Eagles with Vince Gill and Deacon Frey playing in his stead. I saw the Eagles back on the Hell Freezes Over tour in Cleveland in the 90s, and it was just as wonderful the second time around. Gill was superb as lead on some of the older, country-leaning tunes, and Deacon held up rather well for a young fella. Joe Walsh (who we were seeing for the second time in one year) stole the show on more than one occasion. He. too, is a rock god that refuses to act his age. What made this one great was the fact I got to see it with Wayne, my friend Amy, my aunt and uncle, and my parents (who introduced me to the Eagles when I was knee high to a grasshopper).

Oh, and if you want to know what love is, my friend Julie let me use her AMEX to buy the tickets early. The first show sold out, and AMEX cardholders got early access to the second. I wasn’t about to miss out, so I called in a favor. But letting someone charge $800 to your card? That’s trust on a biblical scale.

Bonus Show — James Armstrong
Blind Willie’s (11/17/17)

I also love shows in dives, bars, and dingy clubs, so I jumped at the chance to see James Armstrong live this month. I’ve just recently discovered this cat, and I think he’s rather dishy. He just put out a new album in October that’s doing really well, and he puts on a great live show. Blind Willie’s is a great place for live music in Atlanta, and I’ll definitely be back in there soon.

***

So there you have it. One year. Ten shows. Twelve different bands and performers I’ve always wanted to see. We’re a little poorer (okay, a lot poorer) for it, but I honestly say that I’ve never had more fun than I have in the last twelve months. Going to these concerts, experiencing all these unforgettable performances, helped me remember that I don’t have to settle for a humdrum life. It’s so easy to do!

I don’t want my nights to evaporate in a haze of Netflix binges and bottles of chardonnay. Like Billy Joel says, “But you know that when the truth is told, that you can get what you want or you can just get old.” I’ve chosen to get what I want, which to live, to make memories, and to use up every minute of my life (and dime in my pocket if that’s what it takes) in a way that makes them precious. To that end, we’ll continue the concerts in 2018 and beyond….just on a slightly smaller scale. What’s next? The Foo Fighters on April 28th at the Georgia State Stadium. Another concert for another birthday, and I can’t think of a better way to celebrate turning 40.

ROCK ON!

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The Man in Black’s a Razorback

There’s not much to be proud of when you’re from Arkansas, but we do have Johnny Cash. He would have been 81 years old today.

A record on the wall at Sun Studios.
A record on the wall at Sun Studios.

Born on February 26, 1932 in Kingsland, Arkansas, a little hole-in-the-wall town about four hours away from Paragould, a similar hole-in-the-wall town I once called home. He grew up during the Depression, worked in the fields with his family, and was raised with a Bible in one hand and a hymnal in the other. All of these things were essential to making him into the man he was, and they were an integral part of his music over a nearly fifty-year career. He might have varied the delivery and style, but everything he sang was uniquely his.

I could wax philosophic about Johnny Cash for hours, but I think it’s best to keep it short for the purposes of this blog. If you are interested in his life story, I highly suggest The Man Called Cash: The Life, Love, and Faith of an American Legend by Steve Turner and Cash: The Autobiography by the man himself.

People who know me don’t understand why I dislike country music as a genre but adore one of its legends. I think it’s a combination of nostalgia and synonymity.

His music was the soundtrack for many of my happy childhood days. My grandfather owned a flooring store where both he and my father worked, and I spent untold hours running around and climbing over rolls of carpet and scaling piles of tile samples. Often, my grandmother worked a shift, and she always listened to a country and gospel station that played a hefty dose of Mr. Cash. Whenever I hear certain songs of his, it takes me back to a day when I had a permanent case of rug burn on my knees and the biggest problem I had was getting a B in math.

A photo taken of me during a tour of Sun Studios in Memphis. You should go. It's a piece of history!
A photo taken of me during a tour of Sun Studios in Memphis. You should go. It’s a piece of history!

I also admired him for more than just his music. It was the way he approached life, how his feelings permeated every word and chord of his music. He was a man of strong (if sometimes misguided) opinions and principles, and once he sunk his teeth into something, you would have a heck of a time wrestling it back from him. He lived passionately and loved fiercely—two traits that I admire. I think, like many people, I see a little of myself in Johnny Cash.

But I’d like to try to explain it using something more specific—five reasons and five songs.

1. “Get Rhythm”

This was the B-side on his first hit record, “I Walk the Line.” I think I love his optimism the most. The shoeshine boy he describes has been dealt a pretty tough hand, but he makes the best of it—a lot like Mr. Cash himself. I also enjoy this song because it demonstrates his ability to bend the rules. The Grand Ole Opry didn’t allow drums or horns to be played on stage, but Cash needed the percussive sound for his music to work. His trick? A dollar bill folded and wedged under his strings to mute the sound and create the “chicka, chicka, chicka” sound you hear in both recordings.

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A table I saw outside a bar last time I was in Memphis…and a hand that I think belongs to my father.

2. “Jackson”

This is one of those songs he and June sang together often, and it never fails to entertain me. It’s obvious they’re crazy about one another, and he was always willing to show how vulnerable he truly was when the love of his life was around. She brought out a side of him you didn’t see otherwise–something lighter and more whimsical. He could make fun of himself and drop some of the “outlaw image” when he shared a stage with her. (I also remember watching him perform this one with Miss Piggy on The Muppet Show.)

3. “Folsom Prison Blues”

Though he never spent any time in prison himself (beyond a few nights in jail for drug-related offenses and for trespassing to pick flowers…no kidding), Cash could write music that perfectly captured what it felt like to be incarcerated. There was something in him that identified and empathized with the downtrodden, the maligned, and the marginalized.  He knew what it meant to live without hope, like you were scratching at the walls of a very deep hole you might never crawl out of. He understood the darkness and desperation that could claim a man’s soul, and he used it. He wrote songs about that place in the human heart, and both prisoners and free people could identify with it. That’s a tough thing to do once, but he did it in several songs ranging from this one to tracks like “San Quentin” and “I Hung My Head.”

4. “I Shall Not Be Moved”

This recording is from My Mother’s Hymn Book, which Cash said was his favorite album of the dozens he recorded over his career. He was a man of faith, though he walked away from God more than once, and his love for Christ and of gospel music permeated everything he did. This song is so simple, which is what makes it great. He uses it to make a bold statement about himself and the strong faith he gained over a lifetime of struggles and long walks through spiritual darkness. His gospel songs are all wonderful, but there’s something plain and proud about this version I admire. Like all believers, I want to sing this song and mean it….just like he did.

5. “Hurt”

Bono said, “Trent Reznor was born to write that song, but Johnny Cash was born to sing it, and Mark Romanek was born to film it.” I couldn’t agree with him more. This song, and the video that went with it, was the one that introduced Cash to younger music lovers who might never have heard of him. This single song created a passion for his music in another generation. But instead of the quiet, raging whisper of Trent Reznor, Cash sings it with a melancholy and bittersweet longing that makes it impossible to turn away from. This is a man who knows the end of his life is near and that everything he fought and bled for was worthless in the end. He sits at a feast table alone, surrounded by the hollow wreckage of fame, and tells us point blank, “You can have it all, my empire of dirt.” In his late 70s and with a voice fading and cracked with age, he still sings with an intensity that is inescapable. That’s the beauty of Johnny Cash; he got better with age. What made people love him in the 1950s still had the power to captivate; he was the real deal.

In everything from “Dirty Old Egg Sucking Dog” to “Ain’t No Grave,” Johnny Cash revealed a little piece of himself—whether it was the rebel, the lover, the champion of lost causes, the penitent, or the lost soul. He was a man who, though he wasn’t Native American himself, fought for the rights of that unique people group and who wore black, as he put it, “on behalf of the poor and hungry, on behalf of ‘the prisoner who has long paid for his crime’, and on behalf of those who have been betrayed by age or drugs.”

He once said, “With the Vietnam war as painful in my mind as it was in most other Americans’, I wore it ‘in mournin’ for the lives that could have been.’… Apart from the Vietnam War being over, I don’t see much reason to change my position… The old are still neglected, the poor are still poor, the young are still dying before their time, and we’re not making many moves to make things right. There’s still plenty of darkness to carry off.”

Like an Old Testament prophet, this modern-day Elijah still speaks of faith, of fumbling around in the dark searching for the truth, and of freedom. And he’s the reason why I’m proud to be an Arkansian.

Happy birthday, sir. Rest in peace.