It's always encouraging to read a piece of old writing and think, "Hey, this isn't so bad after all. This is still important to me and I can edit this into something better." That's essentially what I did here. This isn't a review so much as it is a travelogue, detailing my first visit to one of my favorite venues.
Finishing Jessica Hopper’s collection of music writing and reading this piece made me realize how crucial the observations and experiences of a writer actually are when drafting a review. This is kind of a breakthrough for me. It seems like there’s a healthy balance between talking about the music, the experience, the crowd and how it plays into a greater culture. I want to push myself to write past the surface of what the music sounds like, focusing more on how it affects an audience, and remembering that that audience includes me too, and that it’s okay to be vulnerable as a journalist. This piece is more focused on how this show and its audience affected me in all of my naïve 18-year-old glory.
All of the fans at this show were also musicians, and throughout the night they insisted on plugging their projects and bodies to me. By the end of it all, I concluded that all of these boys were reared to rock and I was deeply jealous. I guess no one really supports an innocent little girl’s wish to march across the stage at a bar and shred before the eyes of a swarm of men, singing, “Look at me.”
I guess most parents don't want to watch their children become sexualized half-adults, and unfortunately that's what happens when you put a girl on stage at a bar no matter the performance and I don't know how it got to be that way. So come high school, you learn your position- stand on the side of the stage with the black Xs on your hands and your dad in the back of the room, watch the boys on stage, and wonder who gave them the permission to play with such confidence. You lean in and wonder where it’s hidden. By freshman year of college, I still didn’t know.
I was planning to go to a concert by myself my first semester, but it was Halloween weekend and the show didn’t start until late that night and I didn't know the area of the venue very well. I wished I wasn't so apprehensive about going out by myself at night in the city—it gets tiring trying to convince people to pay to see bands they don't care about. Thankfully, my roommate agreed to be dragged along that night.
We got off the blue line and the venue was right around the block. The building was a black box with a small white sign over top of it. A staircase led down into the basement, with a decently sized stage, standing room and bar perched at the back of the room. Another flight of steps wound up to a balcony with wooden railings so you could see the stage from every angle. Above the stage hung two statues with no faces swinging their fists at each other. Below them the room was packed tight with dudes.
You could tell how happy the band was to be playing in Chicago by the way their eyes watered as they thanked the crowd for being there between each song. It made me sad. I don’t think I’ll ever be half as talented of a musician as anyone I saw that night, and if I were, people would only pay 12 bucks to see me. At least being a musician would be an excuse to travel, and in this band's case, from the United Kingdom all the way to America.
At one point the bassist put a microphone center stage. “Well, we have an extra mic,” he said, “I guess I’ll just put this here and see what happens.”
“Hey, I dare you to go up there.”
I told him I didn't know all the words and he stood behind me harmonizing into my ear.
“You should have gone up there!” I told him once they were done playing. He shrugged and started gushing about the headliner I didn't know.
“You are in for a treat,” he said, “they came all this way from Ireland and they are good shit.”
We pressed through a throng of beanied boys and bought t-shirts before pushing our way to the balcony to watch the headliner. The pit became a Chicago crosswind of bodies pushing to the sound of layered guitars. The band writhed and wriggled on stage thriving off of the crowd's violence.
I counted six crowd surfers and two near-concussions. One guy almost slammed his face on a speaker and we gasped from the balcony. Another was dropped on his head. I watched as he popped right back up and pushed his way back to the front of the pit with his fist raised.
I watched two kids half grinding, half bumping themselves together. She was the only girl I saw in the pit, her boy pinning her against the speaker. They scrunched their faces as if they were preforming some sacred ritual together. He placed his hands awkwardly around her head as they continued to dance. It might have been to protect her from flying forward into a receiver, but it was the most ugly dancing I've seen at a show to date.
My roommate asked me to watch her coat and purse while she looked for a bathroom. I nodded, still watching the kids, and she left.
A guy with a Strokes t-shirt turned to me and started talking music. I could tell by the creases around his eyes that he was pushing 30. He asked me out for a drink.
“I have a boyfriend,” I told him. "And besides, I'm underage.
He nodded, slouched his shoulders and looked away from me, down and over the railing.
He was quiet for a couple minutes then said, “I’m sorry, you’re just really cute.”
Cute. I cringe a little bit. I wondered if he would have called me cute if I hadn't told him my age.
When my roommate got back, she stood in between us. I could feel his blue t-shirt facing me and she leaned in to my ear.
"Guy's looking at you," she said.
I watched him watch me.
Someone on my left wanted to talk about his music too and I listened. He asked me if I sung at all and I wondered if I looked like a girl who could be a singer. No one ever guesses that I’m a bassist. I told him I played an instrument and he thought I played piano.
He ended up following me out of the venue, talking about how he graduated from a technical school for audio arts and acoustics, bragging about his job at some big music-publishing house. If you give a girl your number instead of asking for it, it's harder to find the words to refuse. He told us he could get us further into the scene, grabbed my phone and punched his number in.
I had an idealized idea of Chicago punk houses, growing up in Columbus, Ohio with nothing but pop and metal bands. The underground punk revival I’d heard about with kids dressed in sweaters and leather, opposed to black and neon, now conveniently circled my campus in the basements of townhouse across the shittiest neighborhoods in the city. It seemed like Chicago was unfolding.
"He was so into you," my friend said as we walked down Damen towards the blue line.
My face grew hot and I wanted to cry because I wanted to be a band member, not a girlfriend. I knew then that I'd never text him.
I went back to my dorm that night and played a little bass, trying to imagine what venue would house my imaginary band’s Chicago debut. I didn't think about being a girl. I didn't think about my age. I just played and wrote and imagined I was being watched because of that and nothing else.