The Art of Listening: A Hagiography

My dad’s fifty years of going to live shows in New York City

Image: Troy Tolley via Flickr

In 1978, my dad, a soft-spoken medical intern, walked into one of the flimsily partitioned exam areas of the St. Vincent’s Hospital emergency room and saw John Cale in pain, his black leather pants and jacket covered on one side with the damp white paint he’d slipped and fallen in. He listened to Cale’s complaint and ordered an x-ray (“pretty much the only thing I knew how to do at the time”). After delivering the order, he returned to the exam room to tell the patient he knew and admired his music, and had seen him perform a week prior at CBGB. Cale, having listened politely to this green doctor, and still waiting in pain in his paint-covered clothing, looked at my dad and said, “You look like a respectable guy. What’s a respectable guy doing in that shithole?”

At this point in the story, my dad interrupted himself to make sure I knew who John Cale was; of course I did. “He was only with them on the first two records,” he explained. “He’s a very influential guy and had a rich career subsequent to the Velvet Underground. He played the viola, and he brought chaos, a very chaotic and discordant sound, and their later records, they don’t have it.”

My dad is a rock music fan, a fanatic, a pilgrim, a supplicant who has been taking in live music at shitholes, “civilized” venues (City Winery, The Bitter End), and everything in between, three or four times a week for the last fifty years. He slowed down his pace in after I was born in the eighties, and is making up for it now in his semi-retirement by adding a handful of multi-day festivals (Governor’s Ball, Primavera Sound, Panorama, Northside, Solid Sound, Way Out West) each year.

It is not uncommon, of course, to love music, and plenty of people are obsessive fans. Even so, my dad’s devotion is extreme, both in the vigor of his appetite and in the extent to which live music is the central enterprise around which the rest of his life is ordered. He has been to thousands, maybe tens of thousands of shows in New York City. He is an institution of music history with a crack memory; just as his mother could remember every meal she’d been served at every Italian wedding she’d been to in her life, my dad can remember every band, every show, every song. But he isn’t stuck in time. His feet are bad now and his hearing half-shot from the noise, and there are a million easier ways to listen to music that don’t require leaving the house, yet out he goes, night after night, maneuvering his way through the scrum, getting close enough to the stage to see the sweat drip down a performer’s hairline and feel the bass vibrate in his sternum.

My dad’s first concert was a Byrds cover band at the Fordham gym in 1966. A friend’s older brother got them the tickets, and my dad and his friends returned to the Bronx twice more that year to see The Supremes and The Mamas and The Papas. The next year, as high school seniors, they voyaged with some frequency along the West End Line (now the D train) from the elevated 79th Street station in Bensonhurst to the bowels of the West 4th Street Station to see shows and order soft drinks at folk venues in the Village. They saw Bob Dylan, Buffy St. Marie, and The Byrds (the real band, this time). They saw, at the slightly shabby by then but still extravagant old Brooklyn theaters like The Fox and The Paramount, variety shows put on by DJ Murray the K, in which musically and racially diverse acts — Cream, Smokey Robinson, Mitch Ryder and The Detroit Wheels, The Who, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas — played two or three songs apiece.

Rock music was young and so were the crowds. Kids listened to songs on the pizza parlor jukebox after school and carried their transistor radios around on class trips. None of the adults in my dad’s Italian neighborhood listened to rock or motown, much less talked about it, but his recurring summer job at the Parks Department brought him into Manhattan and past newsstands displaying Rolling Stone and Crawdaddy and The Village Voice, little scraps from another dimension. In his senior year of Catholic high school, one of the brothers mentioned in class that his favorite album was Pet Sounds, and used words like “symphonic,” suggesting an alternate reality where adults listened to popular music as seriously “as if it were high art.” He felt validated.

My dad went to Woodstock, of course, driving himself and his friend George in his mother’s Ford Galaxie. “We were there for the music,” George told me, “not the drugs or the sex.” In his college town, upstate, my dad saw Simon & Garfunkel, the Grateful Dead, and the Temptations. He drove back to the city on weekends to see Led Zeppelin, The Kinks, and The Who. The Fillmore East opened and brought in psychedelic west coast acts like Jefferson Airplane. He went to nearly all the shows in the Schaffer Summer Series at Wollman Rink in Central Park coordinated by the city. Tickets were one or two dollars a pop, and he got to see Miles Davis perform.

The Fillmore East shuttered in 1971, and in its wake came venues like Irving Plaza and the Ritz and the Academy of Music on 14th St, a small venue where my dad saw the Rolling Stones after scraping together fifty dollars — an obscene amount of money — to buy a ticket off a guy on the street. The biggest acts — the Kinks, Joni Mitchell, David Bowie on his Ziggy Stardust tour — drew crowds that allowed them to “invade” Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center. Downtown, at smaller and less “respectable” places like CBGB and Max’s Kansas City, he saw early performances by Debbie Harry, Patti Smith, and Iggy Pop (“An amazing show. He was sliding around on the ground and cut his skin on some glass and was bleeding. Incredible performance.”)

He saw Bob Marley & The Wailers from the fifth row at the Apollo (like many white people in the seventies, my dad was inspired by the movie The Harder They Come to pay closer attention to reggae). He dabbled in the parallel world of folk venues for the proto-“City Winery crowd” — The Bottom Line, The Bitter End, Folk City — just enough to see Linda Ronstadt, Jackson Browne, and Randy Newman. Madison Square Garden booked the very biggest acts — Pink Floyd, David Bowie on his Station to Station tour — of which my dad saw “not as much as I should have, in retrospect.” He paused, and sighed deeply, becoming philosophical. “I suppose I need to focus on what I have seen and not on what I haven’t.”

He left the city for a few years for medical school in D.C., but did his best to keep up his pace, sometimes driving to Baltimore for shows. He dragged George, who was visiting, to a high school gymnasium in the suburbs to hear a new guy, Bruce Springsteen, play. It was always possible, according to my dad, to get great seats for even the most popular shows, though he did offhandedly mention lining up to buy tickets at 4 a.m. (“it was just what you did”). Even with the advent of Ticketmaster in 1976 — I can remember him and my mom tying up both phone lines in our apartment for hours when tickets went on sale — he often walked to the ticket windows to buy in person, on the belief that that way you could get better seats. But like recreational drug usage and all-nighters, my dad’s music avocation, which put him in good company in his teens and twenties, became a quirk and then an eccentricity in his thirties. I told him about a study I read claiming that most people stop listening to new music by age thirty-three, and that musical taste ossifies even younger. “I find that so depressing,” he said, sounding stricken. “That’s really horrible.”

In the eighties, which he calls his “black period,” he got out much less. He met my mother and early in their courtship took her to her first concert, a Hall & Oates show, which my dad thought sufficiently benign but my mother “acted was the loudest thing she’d ever heard.” She came around, even attended a Talking Heads concert while nine months pregnant with me. “We were lucky to have your two grandmothers around, so I did get out to some concerts” he assured me. The summer series had by then moved from Wollman Rink to Pier 84 near the Intrepid then back to Central Park, where he saw Paul Simon, Neil Young, Van Morrison. When said he regretted that he “kind of missed out” on some good bands from that time — The Smiths, The Cure, New Order — as a result of long work hours and a young child, I reminded him that I heard him play their records in our apartment when I was a kid. “Missing out,” to my dad, means never having seen The Smiths live. He has since seen Morrissey perform, by his estimate, five or six times.

He got to see Lucinda Williams, as well as a few other notable shows (Willie Nelson, Roy Orbison), at the Lone Star Café — famous to me for its giant iguana statue on the roof, and famous to my dad for “a crowd with lots of people only marginally interested in the music.” I’ve seen him shush people and toe back the blanket of ostentatious festival spreaders. I don’t want to give the impression that he’s picky — he’s not — but he prefers concerts where the crowd’s reverence towards the music and the musicians approaches his own. “Radiohead, Belle & Sebastian, Nick Cave, PJ Harvey, they draw really good crowds [and] that makes a big difference to me. If you are getting a lot of interference, that’s a detraction. I like the crowd to be quiet — not somber — just intense and excited. But not drunk excited. Sigur Ros has the best audiences; they’re so quiet, but energized.”

He came late to the Pixies and Nirvana, and was grateful for MTV’s “120 Minutes,” which he watched and also taped so he could watch again. These tapes proved a boon to my own social cred, as watching them on Sunday morning allowed me to give the impression to my middle-school peers that I’d stayed up till 1am watching MTV instead of having fallen asleep re-reading one of the Chronicles of Narnia. He liked not just the videos and performances but the snippets of backstory and interconnection among bands: Marc Olson and Victoria Williams and Lou Reed and Vic Chestnutt and R.E.M.

By the time I turned ten in 1993, he experienced a full-fledged renaissance. “You kind of had a life and friends of your own,” he told me, “so I went out more, and also I started dragging you to concerts, sometimes against your will.” He frequented the Mercury Lounge, the Knitting Factory, and the Bowery Ballroom — his personal Valhalla — where “the sound was very, very good, and it seemed to be everybody’s favorite place to play.” At the Bowery, he saw Luna, The Lemonheads, Belly, and Wilco when Yankee Hotel Foxtrot had just come out. He told my mother he wants to be buried there, just in case there is an afterlife. He took me to see Liz Phair at the Hammerstein Ballroom and again at Town Hall; I was twelve and it took me some time to realize that “Fuck and Run” is not a song about a girl giving the middle finger. In 1995, he took me to see Sleater-Kinney play at Tramps, where he also took me to see Pulp, though, tragically, I have no memory of that concert. He tried taking me and a friend to a Yo La Tengo and Magnetic Fields show at NYU, but had to hustle us back to the apartment between sets because we’d fallen asleep.

Going alone — not always, but more often than not — is his M.O. My mother, as she got older, found the shows too noisy and claustrophobic (“I worried about how I would get out if there was a fire”), and she didn’t like how my father always had to be in the front. She was less interested in the music that he and I liked, and she started to see a compulsive aspect to his concert-going, too. She was approaching fifty when she got aggressively and oddly hit on at a Moby concert by a bunch of young people rolling on Ecstasy who couldn’t stop touching her. She put her foot down and stopped going to concerts with him when she’d rather be reading a Maeve Binchy novel in a quiet bath.

I, regrettably, found it awkward running into kids from my high school while I was seeing Radiohead with my dad. When I left for college, my dad reconnected with George, who had also been busy raising a child, and introduced George to all the music he had missed out on over the last two decades, burning him a prodigious amount of CDs. He also, a few years later, befriended a man, thirty or so years his junior, who he had sold a Magnetic Fields ticket and then kept running into at concerts. Well-matched in their laser focus, they sometimes meet up at shows and have developed a friendship. At a My Morning Jacket concert in Philadelphia, my dad told George, “Jim James has a really great scream!” George admires my dad’s obsessiveness and memory for music and appreciates their “music mentor/ prodigy” relationship, but George can’t keep up. “He still goes to more concerts in a week than I do in a few months,” says George.

Since everything in New York comes full circle if you stick around long enough, my dad now treks out to his native borough for shows, to Williamsburg Music Hall and Prospect Park. “Do you listen to the Fleet Foxes?” he asked me recently for the dozenth time. He has no cap on how many times he will see old favorites. “It’s maybe not as much of a thrill when I get tickets, just because I have done it so many times before,” he said of Wilco, which he’s seen upwards of a dozen times. “But even when I’m not that thrilled to go, I get there and hear them play and I walk away so happy.” He plans trips to the Bay Area, where I live with my husband and two children, to line up with Outside Lands and Hardly Strictly Bluegrass. I guess this is in order to maximize his enjoyment: play with grandkids till 11am, BART to music festival, return after midnight for ice cream with daughter.

My dad can’t account for his concert-going in any way that seems adequate to its magnitude. “I started going out a lot when my stereo system broke and I never really got around to set up a good listening space,” he said, then broke off. This is patently absurd. He tried again: “I’ve always loved seeing live music. It just sounds better than a recording. You could have really good equipment and a listening room that sounds great, but you miss the spontaneity of it, the way bands rework songs in ways that sometimes aren’t so good, but sometimes you actually like better and think, I wish they would have recorded it that way. And you hear things you didn’t notice before. You hear all the little mistakes but you also hear good stuff, too.” This seems right yet could just as easily account for the predilections of someone who went out to, say, a dozen concerts in a year.

I asked Jeff Trevino, a composer and Assistant Professor of Music and Technology at California State University — Monterey Bay, about what draws people to music and what we get from listening to it. Songs, he suggested, can offer completeness and resolution in ways life can’t. They can offer an opportunity to express and console, to fantasize and inhabit roles, to take comfort in being a part of something big, both the sound and the crowd. I assume these truths apply to some degree to my dad, though I can’t picture him ever expressing his interest in these terms. Words like these are part of my language, not his, and I’ve often felt that what he couldn’t convey to me in words he expressed in the piles of CDs he would buy me or burn for me and leave in piles in my bedroom when I was at school, not just things he liked or that I already listened to but things he knew I would like when I heard it, and in the tickets for nearby concerts that he still occasionally sends me.

Long ago, he and my mom were in his teenage bedroom in his mother’s house, looking through his old albums, when my mother heard him say, more to himself than to her, “I used to be afraid I would spend my life in a rock and roll fantasy.” But his life, outside of music, is pretty buttoned up: he’s been the dutiful son, patient doctor, faithful husband, exasperated (and loving) dad. To see my dad’s face light up and his body relax at a concert is to know that that is where he feels free, where he can experience the kind of heady joy and pathos and wonder that gets dimmer and more constrained in most of us as we age. His rock and roll fantasy is, in that sense, the realest part of his life.

Maybe there isn’t a rational way to account for my dad’s concert-going practice, which is what I think it is, a habit and an effort. It is as much of an expression of will to inhabit a world of beauty and meaning as an oil painting or a prayer. These days, his favorite bands to see live are the Mekons and the Feelies and other “smaller bands that have been doing it for forty years, never really breaking out as stars, just doing good work putting out record after record of good music, even though a lot of them have other things they do for money. You hope that if you go their shows, they can keep on going.” He likes it, too, when musicians tell little stories about their experiences, the way Steve Earle tells him “about jail and his problems and his views on gun rights,” the way Jon Langford and Sally Timms joke and banter with one another. He knows there’s persona, yet “you feel like you know them, like you know their lives. Like they are people you would just really enjoy spending a few hours with.” Which, in his way, he has.