Wanting Contact

"These abstract, wordless movements, they start off cells that haven't been touched before. These cells are virgins waking up slowly. My headphones, they saved my life." ~Björk

I recall telling people that my first concert was Debbie Gibson. I'm not even sure why I chose her, but it was probably because she was huge in 1987, which is when I used to tell people I started going to concerts. It was either her or George Michael, and I highly doubted people would believe that 1) I had enough money to see a George Michael show or 2) that I was cool enough to like someone like George Michael. Of course, looking back on it, I realize that either one was as good as the other in the early 2000s when I was telling people about my first show -- equally poor choices. So I made up a Debbie Gibson show that had all kinds of pomp and circumstance, rhinestones, a carpeted stage, and the teen pop princess herself. In fact, I told the story so many times that I began to believe I had actually been there, that she had looked my direction at least once, and that I had hung out behind the arena to see her after the show.

Never mind that I was just eight years old at the time. Forget that I had an early bedtime. Don't pay attention to my parents, who would have never in a million years let me see a secular music artist. Focus instead on the fire in my eyes when I talked about my date with destiny, about how for one night I became one with the Electric Youth everywhere, and you would have believed me too. Add to that the cachet from having something so "yesterday trendy" on my resume that I just never told the truth about it... until now. No, Debbie Gibson wasn't my first concert. Far from it. My first show was a contemporary Christian group whose name I don't even remember now. I only went because I won tickets from the local Christian music station, and the concert was in a school gym, but it was music, and it was live, so I soaked in every single second of the experience. I was hooked.

There is nothing quite like live music, whether it's Debbie Gibson, some contemporary Christian band, Metallica, or a little local group playing at a dive bar. The most recent concert I saw was a group called the Taryn Jessen Band at a little cafe here in Utica. I would describe them as folksy but with so many other influences it's hard to truly categorize them. The lead singer has a gentle voice with a flair for the dramatic, but it's authentic, and I felt like I was right there with her the entire time the band was on stage. There's just something about making that connection, about being in the same place at the same time, that moves me beyond words. When Taryn came off stage after the show I stopped her and told her how incredible it was to be a part of the experience, closing the circle started when they came out in the first place. That's how beautiful the experience is, simply indescribable. Yet I often try to describe it using my best tool, utilizing my words, but it's never enough.

The best I can do is to get that show on tape, or on CD, or in digital version these days, to plug in my old school headphones, and relive the night, the show, the atmosphere, with my eyes closed, shutting out the mundane and letting in the majesty. No, I don't think it's a religious experience. I think it's something so much more than that, a perfect melding of artist and listener, a conduit to a magical world where to listen is to experience. And as much as I know each and every one of the shows I have collected almost by heart, there are still so many nuances I find when I listen to them for the tenth time, for the fifteenth time, even for the twentieth time.

I've been slow to recognize the digital medium, but I embrace it as well now, especially when I put my iPod on shuffle and a live song I haven't heard in months comes on and makes me take notice. That happened just today, as a matter of fact, as I was driving back to upstate New York from Philadelphia, when Peter Gabriel's "Red Rain" from his Secret World Live record showed up out of nowhere, sandwiched between "Meeet Me on the Equinox" by Death Cab For Cutie, and Coldplay's "Viva La Vida." It had been a dog's age since I heard that song, much less that version, and I turned up the volume, trying to hold on to each note, to every scream from the crowd, as the song twisted and turned in ways that it never does on the record. Because that's the monumental difference, or at least it should be, between live music and studio recordings -- the improvisation that unleashes sheer genius.

I still haven't seen Debbie Gibson live, by the way, and my window to check her out in person is fast closing, but it's okay if I never get to see her. As long as I have someone out there who is producing live music I will be just fine. No matter who it is.

Sam McManus, Music Blogger