How to Not Drink at a Show

Forget the night you think you’re supposed to have, and skip the opening act.

Image: Tammy Lo

In 1987, I was seventeen and killing time in the lobby of a club before a Love & Rockets show. My friend Fritz had smuggled in some whiskey from his dad’s stash and I’d had enough to dull my pre-show boredom. I was scoping the crowd for a boy I might want to make out with more than I wanted to make out with Fritz when the opening act began and these sounds started coming from the other room. Sounds like a bunch of diseased, homicidal cats trying and failing to walk in a straight line. Only sexy.

Fritz and I listened for a minute and then stood up in unison and marched into the half-empty theater and stared at the stage, where a skinny guy with dreadlocks and his band were yowling and bucking around. “What the hell?” Fritz said. I pulled my ticket stub out of my bag.

“Jane’s Addiction?” I read out loud.

“Cool name,” Fritz said and then we stood silently with our mouths hanging open for the rest of the set. The first Jane’s Addiction LP came out a few months later, and a few months after that, they were everywhere.

In my ensuing thirty years of show-going, nothing like that has ever happened again. What I’m saying is you can skip the opening act. I know, I know. Opening acts deserve your support, or at least your polite attention. I tend to take on responsibility for their emotions and watch them play with a rapt stage-mom smile on my face, lest they feel unloved.

But if you’re worried about drinking at this show? Then fuck those guys and their feelings. Buy their CD at the merch table if you need to atone. But avoid that purgatory between opening act and headliner where roadies mosey onstage one at a time — why is it always one at a time? — to place duct tape on cords while you stand around yelling conversation at your friends and watching tall people maneuver in front of you and thinking about how you have a meeting in nine hours. Because that hour (or more!) of purgatory can easily lead to you asking yourself grim questions about how you are spending your time on earth. The kind of questions that might make grabbing a drink from one of the venue’s seventeen bars seem like a good idea. Which it is not. Not for you.

So take back your time and show up only for what you really want to see. But what if I miss musical history in the making? Well, you probably won’t. But if you do…look, don’t you think all of us have more near-misses with history than we even know? Let it go for now. You’re building a better future history for yourself. The other key to sober concert-going is simply to give up all expectations of being transported, moved, or even entertained. Oh, that’s all it takes? Yes. I will explain.

The day of my first sober show — Neil Finn, whom I’d seen many times in my drinking days — I was gripped by the same dread I once felt before major surgery. I knew I wouldn’t drink, but at the same time I literally could not envision myself there sober any more than I could envision myself sliced open in an operating room. Fortunately, I had just enough presence of mind to realize that this was kind of weird. What’s up? I asked myself. Why are you so freaked out by the prospect of this nice New Zealander playing some songs? The answer came immediately: Because I want it to be amazing.

Of course. I wanted everything to be amazing, and I’d used alcohol to dust an extra layer of shimmer onto concerts and meals and vacations and anything else that might not otherwise meet my arbitrary bar for specialness. And now I’d stopped and things just had to be what they were and it was not only intolerable but extremely unfair.

So I made a deal with myself that day that I would simply go through the physical motions of attending Neil Finn’s stupid, useless concert as practice. I would place my body in the club and stand there while live music was played and leave when it ended, if not before. And that would be the extent of my obligation to do or feel anything. If I wanted to, I could even have a terrible time. It worked. I might not have known how to be sober at a show, but I knew how to walk and stand and have ears sober. (And it was, after all that, pretty amazing. I cried, I sang, I stood ten feet from Eddie Vedder. You guys, he’s cute.)

I don’t know you, but odds are you also walk and have ears. Bring it down to that level. Forget the night you think you’re supposed to have. Forget the night you want. Observe the strange rituals of performance. Buy a t-shirt while everyone else is in line at the bar. Hear the first notes of a song you love and love it however you love things now, right now, tonight.