And other lessons from a lifetime of rock concerts with my dad.
By Daniel Blas | The last night of Labor Day weekend was considered perfect by weathermen and barbeque masters alike. The air smelled of the bittersweet end of summer, mixed with hints of the impending school year. Some might have called it pleasant; others, foreboding. It was the type of night just chilly enough to make you pause at your doorstep, debating whether to grab a sweatshirt.
I spent my waning summer hours in the nosebleeds at Citizens Bank Park, surrounded by “Jersey Girls” 35 years my senior who gave every impression of being ready to divorce their husbands for a chance to touch Bruce Springsteen. For three hours they held onto what critics would later call a “magical” performance. “Perfect.” “The Best.”
Not for me. As the Boss hit his 30th song of the night, a sense of depression settled in.
It wasn’t the usual nostalgia that attends the waning moments of any performance by the E Street Band. It was something deeper. I felt alone. I looked around the stadium. My friend Moshe was closing his eyes. I’d made his day, calling him late in the afternoon wondering if he wanted to take a ticket off my hands. He was lost in the music. I was just lost.
I’d been staring at my phone for most of the night, and one text had almost brought me, unexpectedly, to tears: Have fun. Love you. It was from my dad.
The two of us have gone to concerts together for as long as I can remember. Love you, he wrote; Love when it’s just us, I read.
We started rocking out to the legends of yesteryear when I was barely eight years old. From him, I learned everything there is to know about concerts: the outfits (“always wear tie dye”), the dancing (“there’s always someone crazier than you”), and the bathroom lines (“pee during set break, even if you don’t need to”).
I remember the first time distinctly.
“You smell that?” my father leaned down, resting his chin on the back of my shoulder. Attempting subtlety over the roar of Peter Gabriel’s band, he shouted, “That smell is drugs.” His words were just another series of sounds reverberating through my flimsy frame, my small heart thumping at 90 beats per minute in G-major.
I stood there, absorbing the bass, confused as to why anyone would voluntarily subject himself to all that cigarette smoke for the reward of a pounding headache. Yet as I walked out of my first concert, I felt proud. It might have been because my father said that I had “brought down the average age”—no doubt something to boast about the next day to my third-grade class. Or maybe it was because I knew I’d done a good job standing for two-and-a-half hours amidst the tattooed arms and shoulder-length beards with only one “sitting break.” My dad kept thanking me for coming with him, for “sticking it out” through the encore “until the house lights come on—that’s how you know it’s really over.” It was almost like I had done him a favor by staying up late.
A decade later, I still hadn’t gotten used to the idea of “college” meaning “going to shows apart.”
It had always been just us. He never invited my mom to come, or my three sisters. As far as he was concerned, I was the only one who got it—the descendants of the Grateful Dead, the pervasive smell of marijuana smoke—and so my presence somehow became crucial to his enjoyment.
His presence on my enjoyment—well, that was sometimes another story.
I remember a particularly sappy set during a Joe Jackson concert. The standing-room-only crowd was just a minor obstacle in his quest for prime real estate ten bodies back from the piano.
Excuse me. Push. Pardon. Squeeze. My son can’t see.
I’d always considered myself part of a wait-your-turn family. We were the suckers who passively allowed others to cut us in line, not the ones who did the cutting. But now, my dad was elbowing everyone else out of the way. I tried not to be mortified, especially after a comment he dropped during the set break.
“I went with my dad once,” he told me. “To see Barry Manilow. 1978. Merriweather Post Pavilion. I was so embarrassed.”
I took his anecdote as a plea to never let our concert-going relationship devolve into Manilow-induced embarrassment.
His warning failed at a small club in downtown Manhattan.
That night, we saw a performance by the Wailers—as in “Bob Marley and.” Standing room only, the tickets said; dancing room only was more like it. The crowd swayed to the reggae rhythm. A high school freshman, I was not interested in swaying, much less full-blown dancing.
“Is this love? Is this love? Is this love that I’m feeling?” sang the Wailers. I knew the answer: My dad was dancing, and I couldn’t take it. Dancing, fine. But dancing with a fanny-pack? Unbearable. I turned my face away, pretending to stare intently at a dreadlocked figure consumed by the beats. Whenever I caught my dad’s glance out of the corner of my eye, I rotated my body further. Finally, he was obscured by a cloud of marijuana smoke. Could it ever have been thick enough?
In those days of high school awkwardness, the highlights of our evenings together were the purchase of T-shirts with tour dates emblazoned across the back—my rewards for enduring two sets of my father’s shoulder gyrations and hip thrusting.
Concerts weren’t the only part of my music education. In fact, it started long before I began pretending not to know the dancing guy next to me in the tie-dye.
One of my earliest memories—lessons, as we’d later call them—was of my father snatching our home phone (a relic long since replaced by a complete line of Apple products) off of its receiver. He only acted with such urgency when free tickets were up for grabs, courtesy of his favorite music radio station.
Dial, listen for the busy signal, redial. That was protocol for any experienced contest entrant—and experienced we were. Caller number one hundred frequently had a last name of “Blas,” a distinction that we ruthlessly defend to this day.
On-the-road music education, specifically Driver’s Ed, was a key component to any serious music-lover’s success. Learning to parallel park was just one skill to be mastered on the way to more critical achievements, like naming a song playing on the radio within the opening bar, or switching lanes while adjusting the volume. “You may have passed the New York State exam,” my father told me, “but you haven’t passed mine.”
I earned my license in the twelfth grade, on the same day that I ran out of room on the inside door of my closet. My ticket collection wallpapered the space floor to ceiling, a timeline of my relationship with my father.
Not long ago Sam, my best friend from high school, told me he was thinking about going to see Mark Knopfler, of Dire Straits, with his father. Sam was hesitant about mixing live music with father-son bonding. “That’s ridiculous,” I told him. “I always go with my dad!” He reminded me that that’s “not exactly normal.” “Most people aren’t like you,” he said.
And he’s right. Most people aren’t like me, and I should be proud of that—not embarrassed. Beaches and all-you-can-eat buffets aren’t what excite me about family vacations; rental cars do. I get excited about the prospect of a ride featuring XM Radio, an opportunity to listen to the 24/7 Grateful Dead station, crossing my fingers for a version of “Box of Rain”—a song about father-son love.
Standing in the 50,000-seat stadium surrounded by half of menopausal South Jersey in late summer, I knew where that sense of loneliness was coming from. My right-hand man was missing. Or maybe I was the right-hand man, and I was missing.
Walking out of a show, it’s always dark out. Your ears ring, you talk too loudly. It’s like how your feet glide on the ground an hour after you’ve removed your ice skates. It always takes me a minute or so to recognize which way is North, which subway leads home. My dad, though, transitions easily back into the real world, quickly orienting himself in relation to the endless stream of taxis that flow past the music venue entrance.
It’s in those moments that I look at my dad and think how alone I’d be without him. I’d be lost in the flood of drunk fans, aimless in a foreign culture. I realize then that he never went to concerts to take him back to another time period. And that he always brought me along so that he could grow with me, and to teach me how to walk like a man. Together, we would expel any inklings of awkwardness, planting the seeds for the day when I, too, can bring my child—a son, certainly—to a show and tell him, “Don’t leave just yet; the arena is still dark.” And when the house lights come on, I’ll take his hand and walk outside. Because that’s when I’ll know it’s really over.