When I was seventeen, I dreamed of travel. I loved listening to what I thought of as San Francisco music – 1960s Jefferson Airplane, Jimi Hendrix, and the like – as well as some of the L.A. singer-songwriters of the time like Jackson Browne, Fleetwood Mac, and Joni Mitchell. I’d never been west of the Rockies, but for some reason California was where my daydreams drifted. (For that matter, I’d never seen the ocean, landlocked Midwestern girl that I was, and I was fascinated by the idea of that as well. Heart’s “Dreamboat Annie” album, with its ocean sounds, was a big favorite of mine.)
I’d taken guitar lessons for a couple of years, so of course that qualified me to daydream of being a rock star as well. I enjoyed writing songs, sensitive-singer-songwritery things as well as songs I played alone on my acoustic but on which I imagined screaming electric guitars and thunderous drums. I dreamed of riding around the country in my fancy tour bus, performing for appreciative crowds of thousands, and wearing really cool boots.
I won’t say that I didn’t have musical talent. I probably had enough. I’ve always had a good ear, and if I’d spent the time and effort and practiced a lot and worked really hard, I probably would have been a pretty good guitarist and a decent songwriter. Probably never would have been a great singer, but even without taking studio trickery into consideration, there are plenty of singers making a living out there with fairly ordinary voices. But I was shy, and didn’t always play well with others, and I never started a band. And I never had the onstage charisma or the pure chutzpah to put myself out there as a solo performer. Again, something that could likely have been remedied with some coaching and a lot of hard work – having grown up with a father who put himself through grad school and supported his family as a working musician, I have never had any illusions that being a musician was anything other than really hard work – so in the end the fact that I didn’t pursue this daydream is on me, completely, and my decision not to put in the work that would have been required.
When I went off to college in 1979 I sold my electric guitar (a little Gibson Melody Maker, and yes, I still regret this but at the time I needed the money more than I needed the guitar) and took the nylon-string and the Ovation roundback with me. I continued playing for fun but drifted away from practicing with any seriousness. But I still daydreamed of travel. I had a little road trip in mind that would involve driving south to New Orleans, then westward through the desert, on up the California coast to the Pacific Northwest, then home. I used to look at maps. I used to add up miles.
But I was an English major, so when I graduated I was pretty broke. By the time I was making enough money to even think about a six-week road trip I had a job, and cats, and … well, it never happened. I realized too, eventually, that I am not really a road-trip kind of person. I like comfort, and I like planning and having things go according to those plans. I’m not sure I would have done well as a touring musician, to be honest! In retrospect I would have done well to develop some technical skills and do some kind of studio work; I would’ve been a decent audio engineer, I suspect, or maybe even a producer. Water under the bridge, water under the bridge.
Those daydreams never completely go away, though. So that is why I occasionally do crazy things like drive 465 miles each way to Kansas City to see a Bruce Springsteen show (something I’ll be doing in November). It wasn’t until I was in my mid-forties that I had both the courage and the wherewithal to just jump in a car and hit the road for a rock & roll road trip; in 2008 I traveled to Nashville, St. Louis, and Kansas City for three shows in four nights, and that is still one of my favorite things I have ever done. I love driving hundreds of miles – with the right music and good weather it feels effortless as flight – and I especially love when I have a General Admission ticket and make a full day out of it, getting my wristband and lining up and hoping for a decent spot and waiting and waiting some more. I love the ritual of it: being let into the arena finally, finding my place, watching the tech crew make their final adjustments. The guitar tech rings out a few chords just to make certain. The lighting crew climbs up the flimsy monkey ladders into the rafters. Somebody comes out and tapes a setlist down. You can set your watch by all of this. The reserved seats begin to fill with people and the arena begins to fill with voices. Backstage, you know the band is performing whatever pre-show rituals they like to perform. And when the lights go down and the band strides out to claim the stage, which is one of my favorite moments in the world, it’s all the more joyous because of the hundreds of miles and the hours and the waiting and the ritual that led up to it.
There is nothing better – nothing – than that moment when the lights go down. It’s like all at once the arena becomes as big as the heavens and as small as the pinpoint of a spotlight. The first arena shows I went to, when I was in high school, were in the basketball arena at Notre Dame University – at the time called the ACC (Athletic & Convocation Center) – which was a dome, and so it felt just a little like being inside a spaceship. When the lights went down and the roar from the crowd went up (along with no small amount of, er, herbivorous aroma – hey, it WAS the seventies), for just a moment it felt like you were launching into space. Then the spotlights hit, and you realize you are actually in the same room (albeit a very very large room) with someone whose voice has spent a lot of time in your ears, whose face you’ve looked at on album covers (and nowadays, on YouTube) – no matter how many times I see a performer it seems like there is always at least a momentary flash of “oh my gosh, it’s really him (or her)!”
Heady, and addictive, feelings all around. And feelings you cannot replicate with concert DVDs, with YouTube videos even if they pop up five minutes after the concert ends, with all the bootlegs and clippings in the world. I love recorded music, but man, nothing replaces the feeling of being in the room. NOTHING. And I love the road trips that I make for this. I still don’t think that I could travel for a living – I’m just too much of a middle-aged homebody now. But for a few days, there is something about making the effort, something about spending hours on the road and hours in line all for that unearthly moment of liftoff and the few short hours that follow it. I understand the concept of pilgrimage, now. So when you say I’m crazy to drive over 450 miles each way for a three-and-a-half hour show, yeah, maybe I am. But it’s a kind of crazy I’m in love with.