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Dorian Gray Redux
By Chris Colcord
Fort Wayne Reader
I had a chance to see U2 at Soldier Field last month, which presented me with a curious ethical dilemma — I've always hated the band, yet I was kind of interested in seeing the techo light-and-sound gizmos that a big deal rock and roll tour unleashes. The ticket was free, too; a friend owed me a favor and was willing to clean the slate with a choice, high end, $250 seat he scored through his company. To most people, this was a no-brainer, but I really had to stew over it. I've been impatient with Bono's mythical saintliness since Rattle and Hum, when he started with that "three chords and the truth" nonsense, and I once claimed that Hanson's song "Where's the Love?" was better than the entirety of U2's musical output. Going to the show would be violating some twisted principle that I've always held, and I was loath to turn against my own sense of personal integrity (though, to be fair, I do that sort of thing all the time.)
In the end, I decided against attending the concert, though my rationale for doing so was a little more complex than just my fear of Bono infecting me with his eternal Goodness. Though the ticket was free, though my friend got it through his company as a perk, I simply couldn't justify sitting in a seat that cost that much money. High end rock and roll tours have gotten so outrageously expensive that attending a popular show feels like a crime of elitism. And while I no longer claim any youthful idealism about the purifying force of rock and roll, it still galls me that usurious ticket gouging has become such an accepted condition for people wanting to see live music.
I recognize this as a sign of the times — with the internet and file-sharing, album and CD sales have plummeted, and artists now rely on the tour's gate for their profitability. The old maxim of touring to support the album has been turned on its ear; artists now release new music to help goose ticket sales on the road. Knowing this, however, doesn't make me sympathize with the artists any better. The Police's phenomenally successful 2007 Reunion Tour, with tickets in the $200 range, sold out across America and Europe, and at some point you have to ask, Does Sting really need another tennis court that badly? Even the cheap seats for these shows — at $40 and $50 — are out of the price range of many rock and roll fans. Getting a ticket for one of these shows is becoming a status thing, proof that you've made it, and most of the people I know who've been to one of the big tours can't help but brag about the desirability of their seats. Then they talk about the music.
It's worth contrasting the mega-tours with local music in Fort Wayne--for the same $250 cost of the U2 ticket, I could have seen every great show by every great local band in 2009, with money left over for a couple of drinks per show. I probably could have seen all the national acts brought here as well, the lesser-known artists who've been playing the Brass Rail and Mid-City for a fraction of the cost of the bigger artists. It's become less of a secret that Fort Wayne is now a great city for local music, and that it's establishing itself as a major draw for critically-known, national acts as well. This city is one break-out CD away from getting a profile in Rolling Stone as the up-and-coming rock and roll place in the country. Interesting, talented artists like Thunderhawk, Wooden Satellites, Lee Miles, Left Lane Cruiser, Sankofa and probably a dozen others I haven't mentioned have been performing great shows and releasing exciting music for a few years now, and national acts are discovering that it's not difficult to find a warm-up act when they come to town. And the prices are dirt cheap, often under $5.
This should be good news for a committed musicophile like me, but the fact is, I feel even more estranged from the music that I love. I call it the "Bow Flex Effect," and maybe you've seen the commercial I'm referring to — a creepy, bald-headed guy in his late 40's, bragging about his flat stomach and terrific physique. He talks about being in the best shape of his life, and that he even plays in a rock and roll band. There is a still photograph of the guy, shirtless, playing bass for a weekend party band.
As soon as I saw the commercial I made an iron vow to gain a hundred pounds and to wear tight-fitting clothers that accentuated my ungainly body in the most unflattering way imaginable. If there's one thing the world doesn't need, it's a middle-aged man playing bass with his shirt off in a rock and roll club. Despite the plethora of aging acts who refuse to retire (got your REO tickets yet?), rock and roll is still a young man's game, and I can't help noticing that when I go to a show I'm usually the oldest guy in the room. Though I love live music, it's embarrassing for me to be there--gone are the days of unrestricted drinking, of crashing on somebody's couch, of greeting the morning's hangover with a cigarette and a head-clearing blast of too-strong coffee. I try to act my age, but where does that leave me? The thought of going to an age-appropriate concert (the Eagles, Eric Clapton, Jimmy Buffett) fills me with horror, but going to a live show featuring a band of young'uns makes me feel like a creepy chickenhawk, like that guy in Death in Venice, the guy who immerses himself in youth to keep from looking older. And since I hate golf and don't own mutual funds I feel like a man adrift, a man without a country.
It's a tricky thing for me, to love an art form that is almost exclusively the domain of twenty year olds. Think of all the great artists — Elvis, the Beatles, the Stones, Nirvana, Dylan, the Clash, Springsteen, the Replacements — all of them made their mark before they turned 30. There are a few exceptions, but rock and roll is still the only art form where an artist's maturation usually means he's less interesting. And so I'm trapped, listening to the music that's too young for me, still loving it, still afraid to be seen in public humming along to the Distillers or Band of Horses. I'm relegated to my car and the CD player, punching up the songs that will always mean the world to me.