It’s true: I go to a lot of concerts. I go to shows, small and large, in my own town; I drive up to Indianapolis (50-60 miles or so each way, depending on which side of the city) several times a year; I’ll happily hit the road for a greater distance if the timing is riight and the show is promising. I’ve driven to Chicago, Louisville, Cincinnati, St. Louis, Nashville, even Kansas City (480 miles each way) on multiple occasions. I’ve gotten on planes just to see a Springsteen show. I’ve imposed on family and friends and spent money on hotels when a rational person would have saved it for retirement or a rainy day. Some shows have been better than others, but I don’t regret a single dollar or a single mile. (3,420 of those miles in 2014, according to my calculations. I try not to add up the dollars.)
If you’re not this kind of crazy, you probably wonder: what’s the deal? Some friends accuse me, good-naturedly, of having too much fun. And it is fun, of course it is; I love the highway driving, I love meeting up with far-flung friends in the GA line, I love the music itself and most of the musicians. But this thing goes a whole lot deeper than “fun.”
Buddha told a parable in sutra:
A man traveling across a field encountered a tiger. He fled, the tiger after him. Coming to a precipice, he caught hold of the root of a wild vine and swung himself down over the edge. The tiger sniffed at him from above. Trembling, the man looked down to where, far below, another tiger was waiting to eat him. Only the vine sustained him.
Two mice, one white and one black, little by little started to gnaw away the vine. The man saw a luscious strawberry near him. Grasping the vine with one hand, he plucked the strawberry with the other. How sweet it tasted! (http://deoxy.org/koan/18)
We are all, every day, being chased by tigers. My own are no more ferocious than anyone else’s; they are middle-aged tigers, fur glistening with typical middle-aged fears. Money, loved ones’ health, my own health, work, love, mortality. Like anyone in her mid-fifties, I’ve noticed that a few of these have reared up lately and bared their fangs at me. A few months ago I experienced a minor eye problem which is not in itself sight-threatening, but it left me with a good-sized floater that sometimes makes me think a speck of a small flying thing is hovering near my face – could be a gnat, could be a tiny angel, in which case I hope I don’t slap it by mistake – and it reminded me of how some of my older friends say they no longer like to drive at night. I’ve noticed that myself; driving at night isn’t really a problem for me, but it takes a little more conscious alertness than it used to. It’s altogether possible that, some years down the road, I won’t be physically able to strap myself into a husk of silver metal and send myself hurtling down the highway at 65mph in search of music.
Those tigers will eventually – at least that one named Mortality – get me. I’ll be ripped to bits. There’s no way out of that.
Music is made of time. It has a great beat and you can dance to it. The right music throbs you to your bones and blood. Once I sat down at a rock show where everyone was standing, just so I could feel the bass line rumbling through more of my actual skin: my seat was literally shaking with it. Music also takes place in time. One moment the lights are up, the audience is talking and laughing and drinking; the next moment darkness falls and the band slips onto the stage and the tiny lights of amps and transmitters glow across the darkness like nighttime tigers, and the stage lights rise and the audience rises and the great roar rises and whatever room I’m in, a tiny club or a big arena, becomes limitless in space – but still firmly grasped, suspended, held by time. Music has a time signature. Time has signed its contract, time owns it, and me.
When I’m at a concert, I am made of time. I am also living completely in the moment. Music immerses me like nothing else. It captures my senses, my muscles, the beating of my heart. It’s really hard for me to hold still when the music is great. At the very least, I nod my head or sway a bit. At a rock show I’m liable to be the one standing, bobbing, dancing like a giddy maniac. I am listening to music with bone and breath and muscle. If it’s good, I am immersed. I have learned that even singing along can be a kind of listening.
Most days, I worry a lot. And I plan a lot. I love planning for a music-related road trip – charting the route, choosing the hotel, making lists of what to take! But as mindfulness experts and Zen masters point out all the time, living in the present is important. When I’m immersed in music, nothing exists but the moment. Sometimes, it takes that level of immersion to help me let go of the everpresent shadows of my personal tigers. It’s like a long hot shower for the soul. I come out clean.
That strawberry is not just the idea of sweetness. The physicality of music is important. It is muscular, embodied. When you panic, what do you do first? You suck in your breath and then you hold it there, tight as you can. But if I am singing, I am breathing. If I am dancing, even if my actual muscles are relatively still because it is a quiet seated show, my heart is beating. Music involves me intellectually (how does the Edge make his guitar do that??), emotionally (cue up any sad song), and unlike many of my other pursuits (hello poetry), physically. It gets me the hell out of my own head better than anything else I know.
And yes, a lot of my concert-going travels, near and far, are done alone. I have nothing against going to concerts with other people – I do that sometimes too. I enjoy sharing great music with people who appreciate it. It’s fun to hang out in line beforehand, lovely to have someone to save my spot if I duck out for a pre-show pit stop, great to swap opinions over a beer or two afterward. But sometimes, in the middle of a show, I’ll be vaguely aware that someone is leaning over to say something to me, only to find that I’m … not really there. I mean, I’m there, in or near my seat. And I’m there, in my body, in the moment of the music. But I’m not paying attention to my companion. I’m so focused on the music itself, immersed in it, unable/unwilling to surface. I’ve never felt lonely in the middle of a show, even if I’m in an arena with 20,000 strangers. Because I am there with the music. It’s like the actual music is my date. That’s so weird when you put it into words like that, but that is how I feel, when it’s good.
Like a good date, a good concert leaves me little love notes. Sometimes for years afterwards. When I think about my first Bruce Springsteen show, back in September of 1978, all I have to do is remember standing atop a couple of folding chairs on the floor, dancing and singing while the band rocked “Twist & Shout,” and my face breaks into a silly grin no matter what. I remember sitting close to the stage when Joshua Bell was performing, noticing how the violin’s tone sounded ever so slightly different depending on whether the face of the instrument was tipped slightly towards or away from me, and it changed how I understood mathematics, how I perceived the measurement of space and time.
I remember waking up in a hotel room in Chicago one morning and finding out that my mother had been diagnosed with cancer. In the pocket of the jeans I’d worn the night before was a guitar pick handed to me by Little Steven at the end of that night’s show. I carried that guitar pick with me, a tiny reminder that joy continues to exist in the world and that it is always waiting for me on an arena floor or in a seat somewhere. (My mother is fine, by the way. But the reminder persists, and persists in being necessary.) I even love the painful little love notes, like the purple toenail I still have two months after two great U2 concerts because I kept stubbing my toe on the tiny step up into the bathroom of my hotel room. Even that reminds me how much I loved those nights, how much I was willing to put up with in order to find what I was looking for.
Not every show is that life-saving, of course. Most of them are good, now and then I hit a dud, a few of them are truly great. I’m always chasing those moments, barreling down highways in search of them, city to city, chasing those flighty little angels.
I don’t just sit there at a show, consuming it. I let it consume me. (If they are angels, let them be ablaze with falling and with glory.) That’s why I like to be close to the stage when I can – I love not just to be immersed but to be an actual part of it. A good concert leaves me tired, maybe even bruised. I don’t just pay my money and passively take something that I’m given. I let the music give to me but I give back to it as well. There’s a definite exchange of energy: love put out there, love returned.
The vine I’m clinging to is fraying, and it’s burning my hands. Those two mice are gnawing busily away. I can smell the tigers’ breath, pungent with blood. But that strawberry: that single, perfect strawberry is so very, very sweet.