The colossal singularity of thousands of sweaty, jostling bodies, a nearly tangible energy bursting through the air, and enough strobing stage lights to make even the fiercest epileptic wary – these are the things I remember from the concerts of my youth. None of these things were present when I recently went to see a band I had loved when I was younger, one who had sparked an interest in music that had lasted for years. The venue, small and intimate, filled in an orderly fashion as polite concert-goers took their seats. As I watched them file in, I noticed a predominance of grey hair and wrinkles. I wondered for a moment why so many people had brought their parents, then realized they were just my peers – other people who had been the right age in the early 1980s to appreciate the band’s music as much as I had.
The band sounded great, but their age had become painfully apparent. From where I sat, I could see the drummer’s once taut stomach jiggle up and down with the rhythm of each song. The lead singer looked like he’d eaten his former self, and the guitarist, in his 60s, looked like a mix of Skeletor and Ichabod Crane, with long white hair and boney fingers. I hoped the arena had paramedics standing by, as I imagined someone would probably have to put him on a saline drip directly after the show. Nevertheless, I could suddenly feel the steel strings of a guitar I no longer owned sliding across the calluses that had once protected my fingertips so many years ago.
In the spring of 1983, after my last day of elementary school, my mother drove me over to K-Mart to run some errands. When the doors swished open and we crossed the threshold, I caught the familiar whiff of motor oil and disinfectant which seemed to signify both cheapness and disappointment to most adults I knew. But to me, that smell, combined with the overwhelming sound of buzzing fluorescents and the way my sneakers stuck to the dirty white floor tiles meant an opportunity to roam the isles and lose myself in an array of merchandise.
My mother surprised me when she said, “Why don’t you go pick out an album for yourself?”
I blinked, not quite understanding. “You mean I get to pick it out?” I asked. Outside of listening to the radio, the only modern music I’d encountered at this point came from my older sisters who would sometimes let me – though only under the strictest supervision – flip though their record collections. My mother nodded.
I nearly sprinted to the record department and skidded to a stop when I reached cases that overflowed with thousands of records, organized alphabetically down long rows that practically glowed with potential. Led Zeppelin, Cheap Trick, and Boston were the bands my sisters listened to. I was determined to find something that would become mine.
I made my way over to the A’s and flipped through the collection, examining each cover as if it were a valuable artifact. I eventually became mesmerized by one that depicted a beautiful utopian scene: a bird stretched its colorful wings over the verdant foliage of a jungle stream with a pyramid towering grandly in the background. I ran my fingers over the shrink-wrap and felt the perfect edges of the record cover. When my mother showed up wanting to leave, I still had it in my hands, so I tucked it under my arm with a smile and headed with her to the checkout. In this way, they became my favorite band by default, not because I liked them the best, but because they were the first I got to choose as my own.
Once I realized I could determine what music I listened to, I became obsessed with listening to as much of it as I could. I spent many afternoons jumping around my bedroom, singing into a hairbrush and honing my air guitar skills as the stereo blared out the window into our suburban neighborhood. It didn’t take long for me to arrive at the obvious conclusion that music was my calling. I wanted to be a rock star. I could be the next Joan Jett. I would amaze the world with my unique musical virtuosity.
When I started junior high, I saw a boy I didn’t know wearing a Quiet Riot button pinned to his t-shirt. Their video was new to MTV but I didn’t know anyone else yet who dug them like I did.
“They’re awesome!” I said, pointing at his button. Then, jokingly, I said, “I think you should give me that.”
Not missing a beat, he said, “Sure,” then took the button off then and there and handed it to me.
His name was Jason, and he became my new best friend. He had a ridiculous knowledge of music for a 12-year-old, an appreciation for everything from Bob Dylan to Frankie Goes to Hollywood, wore John Lennon style glasses, and had a never ending supply of Rush shirts that always seemed a size too small. We had the same aspirations of stardom, and together we formed our first band. The fact that neither of us had instruments nor the requisite talent to play them seemed inconsequential. We enlisted other like-minded individuals and spent our lunch hours engrossed in coming up with band names and drawing up album covers for debut and subsequent releases.
Jason came up with the first name and presented a mocked up logo to us in the cafeteria over cheese zombies, tomato soup, and milk boxes. The name was Sound System, and the incredibly complex logo involved one large S on the left that served as the starting letter for both words stacked on top of each other.
“That…is…awesome!” I said. I didn’t think I’d seen anything so cool before in my life. Our drummer Paul agreed. Like most drummers, he didn’t talk much, but he made a happy grunting sound, smiled, and tapped out a rhythm on his duct taped Pee-Chee with his drum sticks.
Unfortunately, Jason showed up to school the next day with bad news.
“I showed it to my dad,” he said, “and his response was ‘ound ystem? I don’t get it.’”
I looked at the logo again and suddenly understood exactly what his father meant. If you didn’t realize the giant S was part of the name and not just an ornate curve, the words did seem a bit odd.
“Also,” continued Jason, “my brother says it sounds like the title of a K-Tel album.” And that was the end of Sound System.
Next, we were Night Angel, but we decided it sounded too much like Night Ranger. The name Alias didn’t last long, either, after we heard there might be another band with the same name, and we didn’t want to have to worry about a copyright infringement suit. After what seemed like fifty more swings and misses, we settled, at least temporarily, on “Seven to Midnight,” a name I’d come up with after hearing a local radio disc jockey announce the hours he’d be on air one night. Whenever someone asked if I’d meant to use “Ten to Midnight” the title of a Charles Bronson movie I’d never seen, I just plugged my ears, sang “lalalalala” loudly, and walked in the opposite direction.
Before long, the politics of the music business wove its way into our lives. After all, this band wasn’t going to make itself. Lyrics had to be written, discussions must be had about our stage presence, photos needed to be taken for future album sleeves. We had long discussions about staying true to our music and never selling out.
Obtaining actual instruments and learning how to play them became of paramount importance, and in the afternoons, we thumbed our way through glossy mail order catalogs from JC Penney and Sears, ear-marking pages that displayed shiny new electric guitars. I bombarded my parents with incessant, whiny demands for months until they finally relented and bought me one for Christmas. It was a starburst finished Harmony with “humbucking” pickups (whatever that meant) that came with a plastic three-watt amplifier. I discovered if I played with the amp on full blast, the plastic would vibrate enough to mimic the sound of distortion. I immediately began to spend hours on end trying to pick out chord progressions I recognized. I would angrily strum out what were clearly the precise opening chords to “Bang Your Head” (anger being the requisite emotion for all rock guitarists). Unfortunately, to outsiders my playing probably sounded more like the cacophony of a wildly out of tune guitar, or perhaps a dying animal.
I learned from other guitar players and took some lessons. My fingertips became rough and calloused from the constant pressure and friction against those steel strings, which could bite the fingers of a novice and make them bleed. I slung my guitar low on my hip, not because it was easier to play there, but because I thought it looked so damn cool. I felt so connected to that guitar that it became like an extra appendage, an extension of myself inseparable from the everyday me. I also dressed the part. My hair stuck straight up and defied gravity. I wrapped a bandana around my ankle, and a belt went down and around my thigh. In short, I was a pleather canvas of red, black, and cliché.
While my teachers rambled on about Shakespeare and Geometry proofs, I sketched band logos in my notebook and wondered how long it would take to make the cover of Rolling Stone. I turned into a sort of Walter Mitty, imagining all the adventures I would have when I finally, by god, made it!
On MTV, I’d saunter onto the set where video DJ Alan Hunter would smile at me admiringly.
“We’re here today with Tiffany Hauck, lead guitarist for Seven To Midnight.” I’d sit there, cool and unassuming, used to this attention, as he’d turn to me. “So, Tiffany, how do you deal with your unprecedented success?”
“Well, Alan,” I’d say, “I try to remember all the little people. When I’m up there on stage in front of 30,000 people, I think, thank God I’m not one of them.”
He’d nod his head solemnly and stroke his chin at my wise words, then ask, “Is there something you’d like to say to your fans?” To which I’d answer, looking straight into the camera with an enviable sense of humility, “Without you, there really is no us.”
During the rest of junior high, I actually learned to play, although my deep dark secret was that I could neither improvise nor play a complete bar chord. It proved difficult to find other musicians at school who actually had instruments and could play them, but a friend introduced us to some guys from a neighboring school and we formed a garage band. I stuck with guitar and Jason, who had a great voice, became our lead singer. We pieced together cover songs to fill out our repertoire in the hopes that we might actually play a gig someday. I’d like to say we played punk rock, but we were too young, middle-class, and suburban to have ever been influenced by The Sex Pistols, The Ramones, or The Clash. Instead, we played a mix of pop and rock we heard on the radio, from Bruce Springsteen to Howard Jones. We fleshed out our playlist with a bunch of 50s and 60s rock and roll standards by Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly and The Beatles , which could all be played with the same three chords.
Our keyboardist, a Filipino piano prodigy named Ed who had braces, coke-bottle glasses, and no social skills, somehow got us an actual paying gig at a local community center. All the things I’d imagined about performing ran through my head in the days that lead up to that show. From all the concerts I’d watched on MTV, I knew the audience would be a throbbing throng of humanity, swaying back and forth in time to the beat of the music, Bic lighters raised in admiration. I could practically hear the deafening screams of our fans, who would continue to chant our name when we’d retire back stage for a break before the encore.
When we arrived at the Center on the night of the dance, these lofty expectations shattered to pieces on the dirty, threadbare floor. The room, rectangular and brown, lacked both a soundboard and a stage. Fluorescent lights flickered erratically, illuminating ragged, outdated wall posters that preached abstinence and safe sex. The room seemed somehow both far too bright and far too dismal to fulfill the dreams I had of performing. Since we had yet to assemble our own entourage, we had to carry in our own equipment and set it up. We were still in the middle of sound check when kids began to meagerly trickle in through the doors.
Those of us in the band huddled for a moment, trying to come up with a game plan for which songs we would play and in what order.
“By the way,” added Ed, “we’re playing for four hours.”
My eyes popped. For a moment, I could do nothing but stare at his skinny keyboard tie. I had to force myself to think. We knew roughly 40 songs that averaged about 3 minutes each. I did the math in my head and concluded we were essentially screwed.
“I guess we’ll just do some stuff twice then,” said Jason, trying to stifle his own alarm.
One of his friends grabbed the mic and gave us a hearty, upbeat introduction that was met with a deafening wall of silence. When the guy went to hand the mic to Jason, he walked too close to an amplifier, setting off a near paralyzing squeal of feedback. In the ensuing panic to stop the sound, Jason accidentally turned the amp up instead of down, sending the feedback up a notch, making me feel as if my cavities might vibrate right out of my mouth. When the sound finally ceased, the room sounded even quieter than before. The silence felt so absolute that, for a moment, I wondered if the feedback had left me temporarily deaf. It didn’t take long before the sound of the world came back up, that sound being snickering and whispers that reeked of schadenfreude.
My parents and my two high school-aged sisters stood off in a corner. I was too young to drive, and since they had to take me anyway, they decided to stay. My eyes sought them out hoping for a reassuring look, but even my mother, who always seemed blissfully happy about everything, looked worried. One of my sisters was trying not to laugh while the other punched her in the arm then gave me an awkward thumbs up.
We started with our best stuff, but the crowd just stood there, slack jawed and mute. Instead of dancing, the kids lined up along the walls and watched as if we were a circus act. The anxiety this caused made us play faster than we meant to, which only compounded the issue of our short playlist. When we got to “Wipeout,” our drummer hit the solos so fast that the rest of us lost sight of the downbeat, which resulted in a momentary chaos.
After we finished our first set, we decided to turn off the main lights to dim the room, thinking people would feel more comfortable dancing in darker lighting. Unfortunately, because we had no stage lights, we couldn’t see anything at all while we were playing, and I tripped more than once on power cables that snaked around my feet. Though I could no longer see beyond the neck of my guitar, I could feel the spectators out there, circling like wolves around the edge of a campfire. Eventually, all the darkness did was give the teenagers the confidence to begin heckling us.
We had just started to play the opening to “Sunglasses At Night” when a few frat boy types began to yell out the words to the song, not in a “This song is awesome!” way, but more in a “You suck” way. That’s when someone threw a drink at the stage. It hit Jason in the chest, sending an explosion of sticky pop everywhere.
“Hey, asshole!” he yelled, suddenly forgetting the words to the song. Even in the dark, I could see the pop glistening off his glasses.
A stampede of people suddenly swept across the front of the stage, slammed through the exit door, and exploded into the parking lot. Jason and I looked at each other for only a moment before I threw down my guitar and he dropped his microphone. We ran out to see what was going on, leaving the rest of the band confused. I got there just in time to see my older sister, face to face with one of the frat boys, poking him violently in the chest and yelling, “I swear to god, I will kick your ass!” as the circling crowd chanted, “Fight! Fight! Fight!” Nothing says rock and roll like having your big sister fight your battles for you.
One of the adults broke up the fracas and we went back inside where our keyboardist had tried to cover by breaking into David Foster’s “Love Theme” from St. Elmo’s Fire. The last three hours passed at a tortuously slow pace.
It seems like we kept that band together forever, but when I look back at my old journals, I see that we collapsed after only six months. I continued to play music half-heartedly for a few years, but one day, not long after I graduated from high school, I found myself hocking both my guitars to pay the rent. Some years later, I bought another one to have around for the times I felt like strumming something, but playing it never made me feel like I did when I was 12. Life, work, and reality had set in, and I reluctantly shrugged into the new uniform of a responsible adult.
Not long after I attended that concert with my gray-haired peers, I found myself idling alone in my house. I wanted to get the old guitar out, so I went upstairs to the closet where I had put it when we moved in more than a year ago. The tough black canvas of my gig bag had stuck to the paint of the closet wall and pulled away with a ripping sound. The strings, incredibly out of tune, sounded sad when I ran my fingers lightly across them.
When I tried to strum out the opening chords of that song, the old favorite they’d played at the concert, which had triggered this nostalgia, my fingers, used to years of bending over a computer keyboard, felt cramped on the guitar neck. My mind remembered where my fingers needed to be, but my stiff hand and painfully soft fingers refused to comply. The guitar, which had once seemed so attached to me, felt alien in my hands.
I strummed away for a while, trying one song after another without success. I sat there for a moment, the resonance of my poor playing ringing in the air. Finally, I put the guitar back in the bag and zipped it shut again. I walked back to the closet and leaned the case against the wall where it had previously been stuck, turned off the light, and shut the door behind me.
Tiffany Hauck is a native of the Pacific Northwest, was raised in Vancouver, Washington, and has spent much of her life explaining to others that she is not, in fact, Canadian. She moved to Los Angeles in 1994, where she spent a good deal of time working in film and television editing. After leaving the entertainment industry, she returned to college and completed her Bachelor of Arts degree in English at the University of Texas Arlington. Tiffany is a writer and graduate student at the Pacific University MFA program in writing where she is currently working on a creative thesis in nonfiction about growing up in the 1980s. She resides in Dallas, Texas with her husband, Charles, and their three dogs: Wally, Gracie, and Kraut.
Loved this. Coming of age at that first paying gig. And having a big sister defend you, that was a great moment.
I, too, got my first album at Kmart, a 45 of “Karma Khameleon” that I had to share with my sister.:) Nice story!
I love this piece – so clever, so bittersweet. The picture you paint of the interminable gig from hell is just perfect, and I remember smiling the first time I read “Nothing says rock and roll like having your big sister fight your battles for you.”
I also really admire you for ending the piece on a minor chord. Very nicely done indeed.