Monday, May 3, 2010

Deep Purple Country Boy

The "My First Concert" story. We've probably all heard them, and most of us have one of our own. Led Zeppelin. Ted Nugent. Three Dog Night. The Stones. KISS. It's usually a story that features some really cool band, from the Old Days, when rock music was real rock music and rock bands were real rock bands. Or, it could go way back. The Four Tops. The Temptations. Elvis. Back when rock music was a brand-new threat to the American way of life. Some first concerts don't quite have that glamor or romance. The Smothers Brothers. The Carpenters. Pat Boone.

I like to think that the first concert I ever witnessed was a straight-ahead rock n' roll show with Ian Hunter and Styx, in 1979. It was at the Capital Centre, and my mother took me (Hey – I was twelve). That was a very cool show, but that was not my first concert.

No, my first concert was a couple of years earlier. John Denver. Yes, John Denver, with the Starland Vocal Band opening, in a special performance "in the round." My father took me to this one, also at the Cap Centre. No, not quite as cool as seeing KISS or Zeppelin or Jefferson Airplane, but I can't help that now. It's just as well, though. A serious rock concert would have been wasted on me at that age. I actually rather liked John Denver's music, at the time. And today, it's hard for me to find fault with it. It's not at all what I prefer to listen to, given the choice, but I recognize its quality. It is simple and earnest, melodic and sing-able, and the guy had his heart and his priorities in the right place. When I was little I just thought it was neat, so there I was – at a sold-out, purple smoke-filled arena, waiting for John Denver.

This was exciting stuff, for a little kid. If nothing else, I certainly had never seen 16,000 people in one place before. I can't say I'd ever seen that bluish smoke before, either. Once I learned that "in the round" meant that the stage was in the center of the arena, surrounded by the audience, I immediately began obsessing over where the performers would come from and how they'd get to and from the stage. I supposed that maybe there was a tunnel beneath the arena floor, and a trap door right under the stage. My father patiently explained that the lights would be turned off and the performers would probably be led by flashlight-equipped stagehands up one of the aisles to the stage.

So, my father's assessment of how John Denver and his band would reach the stage satisfied me, although I was still a little concerned, since those aisles seemed awfully full of people milling about. Sure enough, out went the lights. I was shocked at how loud the crowd's response to darkness was. I strained my eyes, trying to discern which aisle would carry the musicians. I saw several possible flashlights, but none seemed to be getting any closer to the center of the room. This really bugged me. The stage just lit up, with the band already in position. I was even more surprised at how loud the music was. I'm sure they were nowhere near KISS level, but I found my ears rattling and distorting the sounds of the Starland Vocal Band. I couldn't hear words at all, just my own eardrums, making a high-pitched screeching wail in my head. Halfway through the misery of the first song, I gave up and covered my ears with my hands. Much better. It sounded like music now, and I think I even started to make out some individual words here and there. I only knew one song, their top-40 hit, "Afternoon Delight," and I recall waiting with pointed disinterest through the rest of their set until they played it. I had no idea at the time that this song was about having a "nooner" – I just liked the rocket sound that followed each refrain of "skyyyrockets in flight!" I was so easily amused sometimes. This made me very susceptible to songs with good "hooks."

Later, when darkness again descended on the Capital Centre at the end of intermission, I was a little less concerned with the decibel level. I had overheard the guys in front of us, talking about the revolving center stage John Denver would be using. Now THAT would be cool! Spinning the man round and round, so that he wouldn't face only one section of the audience. When Denver finally took the stage, I was surprised to find that I could see him well enough to know that he looked just like he had on TV. I was also a little surprised at how clearly I could hear every word, and each note, and at how funny his little anecdotes were. Suddenly, I was the biggest 11-year-old John Denver fan on Earth, hanging on his every sound. I was hungry, though, and found myself distracted by the smell of popcorn and hot pretzels, wafting in from the concourse.
After a rousing rendition of "Grandma's Feather Bed" and his description of his Aunt Lu, which I thought had to be just about the most side-splittingly hilarious thing I'd ever heard, Johnny-D introduced his special guest musician. "Ladies and Gentlemen, please welcome the best Goddamn guitarist on Earth. You might be familiar with his kick-ass, balls-to-the-wall axe-work with Deep Purple and Blackmore's Night – let's hear it for Ritchie Blackmore!!" What's this? I hadn't a clue who Richie Blackmore was, but he must have been SOMEbody, because the place went bananas. I asked my father who he was, but this time there was just a shrug, in place of the patient explanation. The concert suddenly took on a much darker, heavier feel. The previously brightly-lit stage was now bathed primarily in purple and green light, and Denver's shiny wood-tone 12-string was exchanged for a black one, with a lit cigarette held in the strings near the top of the neck. As I recall, he also doffed his crisp white collared shirt, revealing a sleeveless black t-shirt with "Hell's Angels," a skull and crossbones and a Confederate flag on the back. I also noticed that his trademark round-lensed glasses had been replaced with black sunglasses. From the darkness, a couple of six-packs of red-white-and-blue cans were placed on the edge of the stage, prodding the audience to an even more fervent ovation. I giggled a little, for no particular reason, and felt another hunger pang rumble through my gut. I was a little dizzy.

The rest of that show was the wildest, loudest thing I'd ever witnessed, or would ever witness, at least until I eventually got to see KISS, two decades later. The two men grabbed two beers each, held them high and poured most of the contents into their mouths and, in a spectacular gold splash, crushed two of the cans together in a huge "high-five." I remember how thirsty that made me. I was just dying for a Coke. I didn't recognize any other songs, although I thought I could just make out my favorite, "The Eagle and the Hawk," through the thunderous distortion, rendered only as a screaming solo on Blackmore's electric guitar. "That one's a bitch to sing," Denver explained afterward, before pounding another beer. "I hate singin' that high shit." More fevered howls of approval from the crowd. I was stunned, but wildly amused. This was clearly NOT the John Denver I'd just seen on The Muppet Show, but I loved every minute of it.

He was cursing, smoking, swilling Budweiser, belching, spitting on the stage, saying nasty stuff I wouldn't understand until years later and loudly butchering his own songs, assisted vigorously in all of the above by this dark, swaggering rock star. The crowd near the stage was going crazy. I saw keys, underwear and odd little cigarettes thrown at the men's feet – they only picked up the little cigarettes. There were fistfights and no small amount of debris being thrown around. There were women lifting their shirts, and occasionally one of them would leap onto the stage and fling herself at Blackmore or Denver, only to immediately be hauled off, under one of the huge arms of the half-dozen massive men in yellow t-shirts with "EVENT SECURITY" stenciled front and back. I found these giants utterly hilarious. All that cheering was making my mouth feel strangely dry. I was really dizzy, too.

Everyone stood through most of the set, so I stood on my seat, bracing myself by keeping a hand on my father's shoulder. During a momentary bit of brighter lighting I looked across the arena from my high perch and noticed that the blue cloud was much thicker than it had been earlier. They had just finished a nearly unrecognizable rendition of "Rocky Mountain High," which sounded more like a sort of heavy metal reggae than its original pop-country. The only way I had of knowing what song had just been played was Denver's slurred, profanity-laced diatribe that followed. "That Goddamn song was a big mother- -- goddamn hit for me. You wanna know why? Hey, stage-roadie-guy – gimme another goddamn beer. This one's warm. You wanna know why that sonofabitch was so huge? It's because of you guys, the 'merican people, the f-f-f-fans – you wanna tell the govement to shove it – if you wanna smoke some shit, you're gonna smoke some shit, and they can jus—" He fell over, face-down, on his beer-soaked guitar. The crowd just about came unglued. They just stood in place – well, some of the people nearest the stage jumped up and down in place, and cheered and screamed and whistled and held up cigarette lighters while stagehands tended to their fallen hero. By now my head felt as though it was floating high above the crowd and I was totally starving.

After at least fifteen minutes of this ovation, ten of which came after the stage had been cleared, the green and purple spotlights returned and Denver – again in a clean white shirt – reclaimed his wobbly spot at center stage. He was joined there by Blackmore and the entire Starland Vocal Band, and they all proceeded to play a thrashing, violently fast version of "Thank God I'm a Country Boy," complete with short but unthinkably hard guitar and drum solos. I was almost as dizzy as I was hungry, but it was the most amazingly cool thing I'd ever heard and I hated to see it end.

NOTE: The preceding is a work of fiction. All of the characters, organizations and events portrayed in this account are either products of the author's imagination, or are used fictitiously. Don't sue me!

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