I went to my first concert with the girl that I loved. And her boyfriend.
She was a junior and I was one of a handful of sophomores who weren’t bright enough for Accelerated Math, but just a little too smart for regular sophomore Geometry. So, they stuck us with the students in ordinary junior-level Math. As a result, I got to spend 50 minutes a day with her as we struggled to master obtuse angles together.
The great thing was that she and I were actually friends. We’d go get pizza during free periods and hang out after school sometimes. We got along fine despite the fact that I had a tremendous crush on her. I suspect she knew this but had the kindheartedness not to let it affect our friendship.
I never tried anything because I was afraid our relationship would never be the same. That’s what I told myself at any rate. The truth is that I was chickenshit. And she was always trying to pawn me off on her girlfriends anyway. So, I was pleasantly surprised when one warm day in the spring of 1985 she asked if I wanted to go with her to see Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers at the Worcester Centrum. It didn’t matter that we’d be going with her boyfriend at the time, some forgettable member of the senior class, and another random guy. It was my first rock concert. And it was her.
The car that pulled up to our house at 6:15 p.m. the day of the concert was unremarkable except for the fact that it was a convertible. And the top was down. The guy in the backseat with me didn’t say much on the breezy ride out I-90 West to Worcester. The girl that I loved and her boyfriend chatted away in the front seat, but the two of us in the back stayed mum unless she spoke directly to us. It wasn’t as if the guy was being openly unfriendly to me, more like pretending I wasn’t there. I guess he was feeling like the third wheel on his buddy’s date along with the added humiliation that his friend’s girl had brought along what amounted to her kid brother. He’d probably hoped that she would bring one of her cute friends, but instead he got me. I took perverse pleasure in knowing that I wasn’t the biggest tool in the car.
As we walked into the Centrum, she left us and went ahead to the Ladies’ Room. While we were waiting, the boyfriend turned to me.
“Hey, CJ. I heard this is your first concert.”
“Well, I’ve seen a couple of gigs before,” I answered carefully, “but those were just club shows.” (I had no idea what a club show was or where you could actually see one. I had picked up the phrase from a Circus Magazine article.)
“Yeah,” he smiled knowingly. “Listen, whatever you do, don’t forget to lick the corner of your ticket before the show starts.”
“Right. Of course.” (What the fuck was he talking about?)
“It’ll take the show to a whole different level for you, dude.”
“Heh-heh,” I laughed nervously. “Cool. Thanks for reminding me—dude.”
As we got to our seats, the crowd started screaming and chanting “Petty! Petty! Petty!” in anticipation. I still didn’t know what this ticket-licking thing was all about, but I didn’t want to be left out. So, I used the advantage of the nearly complete darkness to take my ticket out of my pocket and put it to my lips. Just then the lights came up, the curtain went down and there were Tom and the boys right before our eyes. With the ticket still in my mouth, I turned my head to see the boyfriend and his buddy nearly doubled over laughing. The girl I so desperately wanted to impress was looking at me like I had lost my mind.
“Hungry, CJ?” she asked with raised eyebrows.
“No, I…he…they said…” I stammered, knowing I’d been had. “Never mind.”
The first strains of “American Girl” emanated from Mike Campbell’s guitar and pretty soon I was too into the concert to be angry. I was seeing a live rock ‘n’ roll show and the guys who I’d seen on album covers and in Rolling Stone and on MTV were right in front of me. They were playing a song that I liked, a song I could sing all the words to, a song that would remind me of this moment every time I heard it for the rest of my life.
A couple of things stand out in my memory from the 90-minute set Tom and his Heartbreakers played that night. First, the guy had an incredible songbook even then. I had just started listening to Petty in the last year or two and I was surprised by how many songs I knew. Remember, this was before all that great solo material from Full Moon Fever and Wildflowers. Petty already had rock ‘n’ roll standards like “You Got Lucky,” “Breakdown,” “The Waiting,” and “Refugee.” Not to mention several more songs that he didn’t play to make room for the new material.
The other thing that struck me was that several of the songs he played spoke directly to my immediate situation. Listen to “Even The Losers,” “Don’t Do Me Like That,” “Listen To Her Heart” and especially “A Woman In Love” and imagine how they would have absolutely crushed a lovesick 15-year-old boy like myself. Whenever somebody asks me why I care so much about rock ‘n’ roll, I think of standing in that dark concert hall listening to Tom Petty articulate my feelings better than I ever could.
On the way back to the car, I found out what the ticket-licking joke was all about. The boyfriend, probably hoping to impress his date with his magnanimity toward underclassmen (which in turn might lead to some form of sex), confessed to me that bands like the Grateful Dead were rumored to lace their tickets with LSD so that their audience could trip during the show. Licking your ticket was how you got the LSD into your system. Of course, everyone knew this was bullshit. But, it was fun to think it might be true. And I suppose it was even more fun to get people like me to fall for it. Still, other than the ticket thing, I felt like I’d acquitted myself pretty well at my first show. The ¾-sleeve concert shirt that I’d bought was even deemed “cool” by the group. Even if I was no closer to requiting my unrequited love, I was now a concert veteran.
When we got into the car, we turned on the local rock station because they were going to play Tom Petty songs in the order he played them at the concert. It would be good to listen to on the way home.
The DJ came on and said, “Okay, for all you people coming out of the Petty show, it’s time for our concert recreation.”
Not understanding the difference between a concert recreation and a live concert recording, I posed what I thought was a good question.
“How did they get the tape of the concert back to the station so fast?” I wondered aloud.
I realized my mistake the instant the words came out of my mouth. But, the moment was lost.
“Are you kidding?” the boyfriend asked in a tone managed to be both rhetorical and derisive at the same time. Then he just flat out laughed at me. Even his mute friend in the back seat started laughing.
Shit! I was the biggest tool in the car.