The Show I'll Never Forget

50 Writers Relive Their Most Memorable Concertgoing Experience


By Sean Manning

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In The Show I’ll Never Forget, writer Sean Manning has gathered an amazing array of unforgettable concert memories from a veritable A-list of acclaimed novelists, poets, biographers, cultural critics, and songwriters. Their candid, first-person recollections reveal as much about the writers’ lives at the time as they do about the venues where the shows occurred or the artists onstage. Ishmael Reed on Miles Davis Luc Sante on Public Image Ltd. Heidi Julavits on Rush Daniel Handler and Andrew Sean Greer on Metric Diana Ossana on Led Zeppelin Maggie Estep on Einsturzende Neubauten Dani Shapiro on Bruce Springsteen Gary Giddins on Titans of the Tenor!

Nick Flynn on Mink DeVille Susan Straight on The Funk Festival Rick Moody on the The Lounge Lizards Jennifer Egan on Patti Smith Harvey Pekar on Joe Maneri Thurston Moore on Glen Branca, Rudolph Grey, and Wharton Tiers Chuck Klosterman on Prince Sigrid Nunez on Woodstock Jerry Stahl on David Bowie Charles R. Cross on Nirvana Marc Nesbitt on The Beastie Boys And many more . . . No matter where your musical taste falls, these often funny, occasionally sad, always thought-provoking essays-all written especially for The Show I’ll Never Forget-are sure to connect with anyone who loves, or has ever loved, live music.


Madison Square Garden
New York City
November 4, 2004
ON SEPTEMBER 9, 1956, sixty million Americans—a then record-setting 82 percent of television viewers—tuned in to watch Elvis Presley's first performance on The Ed Sullivan Show. Ask a hundred baby boomers what, exactly, they saw that Sunday night and you'll understand by the identicalness of their answers why it's impossible for a televised concert to approximate being in the crowd. Nevertheless, due in large part to the DVD boom, the proliferation of DIRECTV, and the advent of webcasting, North American live music attendance continues to decline—roughly 3 percent annually1 since 2004—without question, one of the most disastrous years in industry history.
That January, the Bottom Line, the Greenwich Village club famous for helping catapult the career of Bruce Springsteen, shut its doors after nearly thirty years. In June, the traditionally thirty–odd stop Lollapalooza festival was cancelled due to poor sales. While Prince bucked the trend with his top-grossing Musicology tour, in a sign of the times, opening night at Los Angeles's Staples Center was simulcast in eighty-five Regal Theaters nationwide to an audience of roughly twenty-five thousand—or five thousand more than the Staples Center 's sell-out crowd.
Technology wasn't entirely at fault—a complication, as it were, not the disease. After a three-year recession, in 2004 the economy was finally showing signs of life. But rather than restrain ticket prices to stimulate growth, promoters raced to recoup their losses by charging an average seven dollars more per head. And for what? Concerts felt so inordinately premeditated, even those moments that at first seemed otherwise, such as Janet Jackson's well-orchestrated "costume malfunction" during Super Bowl XXXVIII's halftime show. About the only thing that passed for improvisation was a lip-synching snafu. Take Ashlee Simpson's October 2004 mishap on Saturday Night Live—a far cry from Elvis Costello's unscheduled performance of "Radio, Radio" thirty years prior. And yet, these examples only further illustrate the degree to which visual media was altering even my once-stalwart notion of what expressly constituted the concertgoing experience.
All the same, unvarying set lists, obligatory encores, seats so remote you wound up watching the action on a big screen anyhow . . . Might as well stay at home, order it on Pay-Per-View, save the money, and spare the aggravation. Such was the apparent consensus among concertgoers, myself included. Until, that is, something happened to check my cynicism and restore my faith in the life-affirming, life-altering power of live music.
In early November of 2004, I took an unpaid fashion internship with a pop culture glossy. Two years out of a master's program that had sunk me forty thousand dollars in debt, paying seven hundred dollars a month in rent, and working sans benefits as a waiter for a lower Manhattan catering company, I couldn't afford to forfeit three shifts a week. But I'd come to New York to write, not pass hors d'oeuvres. I didn't know Gucci from Pucci, yet figured if I could just get my foot in the door....
My third morning at the cramped Soho office and it was obvious that the sum of my duties would be alphabetizing lookbooks and walking my boss's polyuric golden retriever. That afternoon, K—asked me to run over to a friend's place and pick up her tickets for that night's R.E.M. concert at Madison Square Garden. Sure, I'd pick up the tickets. No problem. Then I'd leave them on her desk with a note counseling in no uncertain terms the method and location most advantageous for their safekeeping.
Five o'clock and already the Empire State Building glowed red, white, and blue. I walked crosstown in the rain, dodging both the spray of passing cabs and obnoxiously oversized golf umbrellas. By the time I arrived at the luxury high rise on West Street, I was soaked through. The scrap of paper I'd jotted the friend's name and apartment number on had bled to illegibility, so that it took some explaining, as well as a thorough inspection of my driver's license, to convince the doorman I wasn't simply looking to wait out the storm.
I was so busy wishing the day would end and feeling sorry for myself that, as I entered the elevator, I hardly noticed the diminutive, bald man exiting. I would've neglected him altogether if not for the road bike he was pushing. I nodded gravely in acknowledgement of the unspoken bond uniting tens of thousands of cater waiters and couriers and freight elevator operators and bathroom attendants—the shared understanding, however scant the consolation, that it's we who keep the city whirring along. He smiled, which confirmed he wasn't a messenger. Still, there was something familiar about him. I'd seen him somewhere; I was positive. Before I could get a better look, the elevator doors closed.
It's trite, but true: there's no more reliable indication that one's a naturalized New Yorker than when upon entering a strange apartment, he or she begins estimating square footage. Without surveying the bedrooms and baths, I guessed K—'s friend's place for a thousand, easy. Big to be sure, with cathedral ceilings and an unobstructed view of the Hudson, presently obscured by darkness and rain. But nothing I wasn't used to catering. Not so quotidian were the bundles of concert tickets strewn across the carpet and coffee table and couch. K—'s friend apologized for the mess, then offered me some tea. I declined.
"Well then, how about a ticket? You deserve something for walking all the way over here in that mess."
I'd prefer a byline, I thought as she slipped an extra ticket into K—'s envelope. So that, while only passingly familiar with R.E.M.—of whose thirteen albums I owned none—for the opportunity to ingratiate myself with K—, I was nonetheless grateful.
Of course, in explaining to her what had happened, I acted nothing but apologetic.
"Are you kidding?" K—asked, sounding not at all put upon. "I'd only consider it an imposition if you didn't go."
Getting off the escalator after only one flight, I knew the seats were better than the upper-tier nosebleeds I'd suffered for Prince four months earlier. Just how much better I never imagined.
I turned out of the narrow concourse and walked onto what had, the night before, been varnished hardwood. I gazed up at the retired numbers of Monroe and Frazier, and marveled at the eight-sided, multiton scoreboard's suspension. Near what would've been the jump ball circle, a gray-haired, tuxedoed usher examined my ticket. Then he examined me. My clothes were still sopping, my smile uncouthly wide, my eyes bulging in disbelief while darting feverishly between the surrounding glitterati, among them chef Mario Batali, tossing popcorn into the air and catching it in his mouth. With a look only slightly less dismissive than the doorman's, impervious to my stare of solidarity, the usher led me down the center aisle, flanked by lettered rows of folding chairs dwindling toward the beginning of the alphabet.
K—arrived just as the guitar techs were finishing their tune-ups. She wore a spangled, backless, black halter and her tight, black curls relieved of the ponytail favored around the office. She'd brought along a girlfriend and her girlfriend's boyfriend.
"And, of course, you know my fiancée, D—."
I knew of him, primarily as the one person never to disturb with a phone call and whose way interns were collectively admonished to stay out of. But this was the first time I'd actually shaken hands with the founder and creative director of the magazine. In the narrow workplace, its walls lined with computers and fax machines and postage meters whose purchase he had if not outright authorized then at least petitioned for, D—cut an imposing figure, thanks furthermore to the dark-hued sportcoats ostensibly custom-tailored to his power-forward frame. Unaided by the home-court advantage of Prince Street, however, he seemed affable enough. He asked where I was from. I told him Ohio. He grinned and shook his head.
"What were they thinking?"
Had the question not been rhetorical, I might've given D—an abridged history of the economic and cultural polarization that's epitomized the state since the Civil War—or less pompously offered that although Canton's Pro Football Hall of Fame wasn't quite as propitious a terrorist target as, say, Grand Central Station, Ohioans' lives were no less valuable than New Yorkers'; their fear, albeit unsubstantiated, no less real. They were responsible for the election's ramifications, but no more than the rest of us, Democrats and Republicans alike, for allowing ourselves to be so brazenly and shamelessly pitted against one another. D—'s condescension was a prime example.
Suddenly the arena went dark. There followed a cadence-setting snare drum, then a burst of whirling primary colors from the spotlights above the stage. At its edge, dressed in a white suit with a purple blindfold painted around his glistening head, was the man I'd seen in the elevator—though, again, I didn't recognize him at first. He radiated such assuredness, such awe-inducing authority, it was as if he'd grown three feet in as many hours.
That's great, it starts with an earthquake,
birds and snakes, an aeroplane and
Lenny Bruce is not afraid.
The crowd's roar was deafening, its excitement contagious. I jumped up from my seat, beer in hand. Earlier, at the concession stand, I'd remarked to the supremely disinterested cashier about the absurd cost of such a small cup—domestic at that. "Shit, it's not even commemorative!" Now, with half the pricey suds careening up and out, its shallowness was all the more lamentable—especially for D—'s expensive shoes. Fortunately, he was too riveted by the opening number to notice.
It's the end of the world as we know it . . .
It was the first time R.E.M. ever opened a concert with that song, I'd overhear more than once on my way out of the Garden. No doubt, the gesture was intended as momento mori. For me, though, the tune was more hopeful than defeatist. It was the end of a figurative world—a world in which pride too often overtook me; a world in which most of the time pride wasn't pride but rather masquerading fear; a world I'd long thought owed me something.
Monday morning, I went into the office and took the golden retriever for its first walk of the day. A month or so later, I got to write a seventy-five-word album review.
Though generally synonymous—as in my case with R.E.M.—your most memorable concertgoing experience doesn't have to be the best concert you ever saw. In fact, as the following stories contend, when determining the show you'll never forget, what happened offstage is just as important as the performance itself. How old you were, where you were living, what your job was, whom you'd just started dating, whom you'd just broken up with, and invariably what and how much you had to drink or smoke or alternately ingest before, during, and/or after—these are the prevailing criteria.
As for what standards led to the ensuing assemblage of writers, I had only one: I chose those whose work I admire.
Richard Burgin, in his essay, relates how, as a boy, he'd cold call jazz musicians he esteemed, just to tell them so. While I'll be twenty-seven by the time you read this, my regard for the contributors is not so dissimilar—though, because of my age, I'm not nearly as bold and certainly not as guileless. This project gave me a reason other than mere adulation to keep Harvey Pekar on the phone for forty-five minutes and trade three-in-the-morning e-mails with David Gates. And it gave them and the rest a reason to divulge the biographical marginalia I've long sought to learn of my idols.
The ploy worked to equal effect on my biggest hero of all: my father. For years I've been after him to set down the story of his life (as opposed to "memoir" or "autobiography," which connote an intent to sell and, now more than ever, self-aggrandize). The story isn't wholly unfamiliar—particularly these days with regard to employment history—yet it's this very universality that commends it to the telling: as a teenager, went to work in the rubber factory to pay his way through college and shortly thereafter support his recently widowed mother; wed his childhood friend's sister; rose up from the company ranks to become an executive; tended to my mother after she was diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease, and when she got better and decided she didn't want to be a secretary for the rest of her life, encouraged her decision to cash in her retirement savings and put it towards a nursing diploma; equally in spite and because of a propensity for paralytic guilt courtesy of pre–Vatican II parochial school, dissolved their twenty-one-year marriage; in an egregious demonstration of dickless corporate cost-cutting, laid off at age fifty-four, after thirty-four years of loyal, meritorious service; following a series of middling, mid-level advertising jobs, found work as a part-time mailman for the county school system—a gig that pays half the little I earn as a waiter, yet one which, I remind him constantly, leaves plenty of time for writing.
Still, he's reluctant. Odds are he'd just as soon spend the time in the garden or on the golf course. Or maybe it's too painful for him to recall all those wonderful and horrible things that did or did not happen so long ago. In other words, he'd rather not be reminded he's getting older. Hell, I'd rather not be reminded he's getting older. But that doesn't change the fact that he is. Should I have kids, I want there to be something to help impress upon them—in the event they don't get to discover it firsthand—what an incredible man their grandfather was, something that will leave an image more indelible than the died-too-young, fishing enthusiast his father is to me.
Figuring the daunting prospect of chronicling some threescore years had not a little to do with his reticence, I asked if he'd consider a more modest assignment. It took him four months, but he finally finished.
Elvis was the most memorable concert I ever saw. But why was it I couldn't remember when I saw him, what he sang, or what he wore? Did I see him before my son was born or after? Was I still a copywriter or had I taken the marketing position? Were we still in the apartment or had we bought our first house? Why was I having so much trouble remembering? Was it because I'm sixty-one and showing signs of forgetfulness? Heck, I can remember events from fifty years ago like they were yesterday. How about Lynn Fisher, my first-grade crush? She taught me how to color. I played dumb, pretending crayons were candy, just to be with her. Or what about the three times I flunked my driver 's test because I couldn't park the'56 Chevy? No, I can remember back, way back.
At a loss, I thought I'd ask someone who might have went with me—my ex-wife. She assured me we did, in fact, go together. Feeling better, I asked her if we had fun.
"Yes," she said. "Don't you remember? We went with Ted and Karen."
"Ted and Karen?"
"For God's sake—Ted was your best man at our wedding!"
"Oh, that Ted and Karen," I replied.
Before long, I started to remember details of the concert, including the fact I was not too keen on going.
Never a great fan of Elvis, I preferred Motown. Smokey and Marvin owned me with their soulful sound. I was thirty at the time, and Elvis was forty, almost over the hill in my mind. Ted, a good friend from Memphis who looked and sounded like the King, was the one who suggested we go. Reluctantly, I agreed. Our wives needed little convincing.
On a hot summer night, July 11, 1975, the four of us left Akron and drove to the Richfield Coliseum. About ten miles from the arena, traffic slowed to a dead stop. When we finally got to our seats, I looked around the sea of faces, mostly women, with a few men sprinkled here and there. The smell of perfume, not pot, permeated the air.
At first, the event seemed more like a circus than a concert. Barkers were hawking the Elvis profile on every item known to man, from toothbrushes to leather jackets. Finally, the lights went down, the music came up, and the women went wild as Elvis walked slowly on stage. Peering through binoculars, I could see him in his famous white-sequined jumpsuit. He couldn't disguise his weight gain or his blue-black hair, but no one seemed to care. Elvis began to speak and the crowd went silent, not to miss a word. His down-home voice welcomed us and promised us a good time. And then he let it rip.
Rock, blues, ballads, gospel—he nailed them all while wiping sweat from his brow with scarves and tossing them to a pool of frenzied females in the front rows. The place was going crazy. During one pause, Elvis asked for the houselights to go up so he could see his fans. He read aloud one sign held by a very attractive admirer: ONE KISS OR I'LL DIE. Elvis snarled as only he could and said, "I can't let you die. Come on down and get your kiss." She raced down the aisle, jumped on stage, and they kissed.
But what I remember most about that evening was the way it ended.
"Ladies and gentlemen, Elvis has left the building."
The words vibrated in my ears as twenty-two thousand adoring fans screamed, "Elvis, Elvis, Elvis." With each "Elvis" the decibel count jumped until again interrupted by the announcer 's booming voice: "Elvis's bus has just left the parking lot. Have a good evening, and drive safely."
More than thirty years have passed since then. There have been many changes in my life and in the world. Somehow, I grew older, but Elvis stayed the same.
And now, thanks to your story, so will you, Dad.

Miles Davis
The Casablanca
Buffalo, New York
September 21, 1955
A TRIP TO PARIS and a Miles Davis concert were events that would determine the course of my life. It all started innocently enough. In 1954, I was chosen by the African American Michigan Avenue YMCA to be part of a delegation that would attend a Bible study convention. The money had been raised by the older members of the Y, merchants, professionals, and clergymen who were the informal government of black Buffalo, and who negotiated with the white government that wielded power in the community. I was very active in high school clubs and had used the Y as a second home where I would go and swim and try to set down some chord changes on the piano. There were many eccentric characters who would come to the Y. One was a guy who called himself Lord Johnny. He taught me some blues chord changes that I later learned were the ones that Charlie Parker used. Parker changes.
I hadn't traveled to many places before that. Maybe to Chattanooga, where my mother and stepfather were born. Sometimes to Cleveland, where my stepfather's mother lived. Once to New York, where the highlight of the trip was a glimpse of the boxer Sugar Ray Robinson standing in front of his bar. I was a shy person and was embarrassed by all of the attention paid to those of us who were going on the trip. We lived in the lower-middle-class neighborhood on Riley Street, having moved from East Utica where my parents had rented. We lived in the projects before that.
There was a woman who lived across the street. She looked like a young Etta James. It was difficult to avoid looking into her bedroom from where I slept on the sun porch. She wasn't modest. I had some serious fantasies about her. My interest in women was beginning, but the ones to whom I was attracted were older than me. In Paris, I attended parties attended by the students who lived at the Cité Universitaire. I would be the youngest person there and would survey the French co-eds as they danced with their partners. Walter Dukes, the basketball star at Seton Hall, was studying international law at the time. Just as I was about to hit on one of these French girls, he'd send me to my room. For some reason, he had appointed himself my chaperone.
But he couldn't always be on my case. I'd go to the jazz clubs, sometimes alone, sometimes with some white kids from Long Island with whom I'd begun hanging out. You'd be walking down a narrow street and you'd hear maybe Clifford Brown's "Parisian Thoroughfare" coming from one of the clubs. We once went to a club in Pigalle, and watched nude dancers until we fell asleep over champagne. When we awoke, the club had emptied out and it was dawn. I remember our riding on the Metro and seeing one of the chorus girls who'd performed the night before. She pointed at us. When I got back to my room, my roommate, an older white man from Texas, said, "Some people are out all night." It was my first time of staying out all night.
I have a memory from the proceedings that shows how things were before the drive for civil rights. Kids from all over the world elected me the head of one of the conference's committees. Some of the white kids who were members of the Southern delegation got angry.
When I returned to Buffalo, I was a different person. High school bored me, and so, out of the blue, I told a teacher, who wanted me to be part of a delegation to go to Hyde Park to meet Eleanor Roosevelt, "I won't be here." I dropped out of high school and went to work at a library.
I bought a trombone and began to play with a group of young musicians. I had studied the trombone in high school and had played the violin in elementary school. I took up the violin, again, in high school and formed a string quartet there. We had a band that would play Stan Kenton arrangements. One of those on saxophone was Don Menza, who went on to play with Maynard Ferguson.
The star among the young black musicians was an alto player named Claude Walker. He was a prodigy. Sometimes, he would disappear and we'd discover that he'd been in Rochester performing with the Eastman Symphony. But he liked jazz and was playing hard bop before there was a name for it. Claude later died in a fire. Before that he had a shoot-out with the police. His was a talent snuffed out as a result of being unable to graduate to a larger stage.
One of his friends was jazz pianist Wade Legge, who used to fascinate us with his stories about jazz musicians in New York. He was discovered by Milt Jackson while playing in a jam session at the musicians' local. Wade died in his twenties. He said that he got fired from the Mingus band because he'd show up late for rehearsals. I still listen to Wade on the only solo album he made from Blue Note. He deserves more recognition.
If our group had a god, it was Miles Davis. People tell you what they were doing when Kennedy was shot or when the Twin Towers fell. I remember being in the house alone listening to a Buffalo jazz show, which was moderated by Joe Rico, for whom Illinois Jacquet wrote "Port of Rico." He played a Miles Davis tune. I'd never heard a sound like that. The sound epitomized where I was and what I wanted to be. I played Birth of the Cool until it was all worn out. And so when we heard that Miles was going to perform in Buffalo, we were excited. The night came. September 21, 1955.
We were all standing on the corner when this cab drove up and Miles got out. The black men we were used to were really square. They were working-class types and professionals who were a part of an emerging middle class. Buffalo was, at that time, a backward, dull town where there was little to do. When Jazz at the Philharmonic came to town, there was a scandal at Kleinhans Music Hall because the boppers began to dance in the aisles. Ben Webster was busted for possession of a few joints. It was a conservative town, where people went around assassinating abortion doctors, the Catholic Church being very powerful there. This was before Leslie Fiedler, John Barth, and others came to town. Fiedler also got busted for pot.
Miles was performing with Sonny Lockjaw Davis. Miles played these up-tempo numbers, and Lockjaw seemed to fumble around his keys in an attempt to keep up with him. I don't think he did it out of any kind of malice toward Lockjaw. He wasn't mean like Diz when he did a duet with Satch and tried to show the old man up. I think that he did "Blue and Boogie." He also did some ballads like "Yesterday." We'd heard that Miles was mean and would KO people with whom he had disputes. My friends were scared to approach him. But I had been to Paris. I was fearless and worldly. And so I asked Miles for his autograph as my friends looked on in terror. He obliged. I told him that he was well known in Paris. I wanted him to know that I had been to Paris.
Another incident tested Miles's degree of affability. A man knocked over his trumpet that was perched atop a piano. This guy is going to get it, we thought. But Miles was cool. He inspected the trumpet for damage, and seeing none he continued the break. Rocky Marciano and Archie Moore— who made his reputation fighting old black men who were in their forties, yet gave Marciano all that he could handle—were fighting that night. Miles paused during his concert to listen to the fight.
When I ordered a drink, à la grenadine, which I had begun drinking in Paris, the waitress who served me was the woman from across the street for whom I had eyes. I was flabbergasted. It was like when I was dining at the Hayes Street Bar in San Francisco, and an associate of the San Francisco Opera told me she wanted to introduce me to Kathy. I didn't know whom she was talking about. Suddenly, standing before me was Kathleen Battle, the Diva.
Miles at this club on William Street in Buffalo. I think the name was the Casablanca. (About a mile away was the Zanzibar, where, as a teenager, I caught Kai Winding and Della Reese.) This was the most memorable concert for me, even though I don't remember all of the numbers played. But Miles, in his sharp suit and dark glasses and cool sounds, convinced me that I wanted to be where all of that was taking place. That my hometown could not hold me. That I wanted the world.

Jimmy Reed
Dallas, Texas
April 1958


  • Paste, 11/13/09
    “A simple, genius idea: Get an army of extraordinary writers to dash off remembrances of extraordinary concerts.”

On Sale
Feb 23, 2009
Page Count
320 pages
Da Capo Press

Sean Manning

About the Author

Ray Bradbury, who died in 2012 at the age of 91, inspired generations of readers to dream, think, and create. A prolific author of hundreds of short stories and close to fifty books, as well as numerous poems, essays, operas, plays, teleplays, and screenplays, Bradbury was one of the most celebrated writers of our time. His groundbreaking works include Fahrenheit 451, The Martian Chronicles, The Illustrated Man, Dandelion Wine, and Something Wicked This Way Comes.

Sean Manning is the author of The Things That Need Doing: A Memoir and editor of the nonfiction anthologies Top of the Order, The Show I’ll Never Forget, and Rock and Roll Cage Match. He lives in New York.

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