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Life Without Live

Staying inside keeps us safe. It also costs us the greatest communal experience a music fan has access to — packing into a sweaty club or stadium for a concert

A crowd at a King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard show in Central Park last August

Sacha Lecca for Rolling Stone

Every night I dream about going out to hear music. The bands in my sleep are terrible, but I’m always sorry when I wake up and it’s over. The other night I dreamed I stood in a Brooklyn basement watching a god-awful punk band called “Bestie.” The singer pogo’d on the floor and read the words off her phone. Actual lyric: “Fetchin Bones sang Cabin Flounder/Wish I lost her but I found her/Now I want a quarter pounder.” How humiliating to think that this is the best my unconscious brain can conjure up. But I still missed that music when the morning came.

When you’re a passionate music fan in a pandemic, you look for consolation in the songs you love. As always, music is the shelter from the storm. But music is also the storm. The songs you love might promise you a safe refuge, a little peace of mind. But you already know the songs are going to mess you up, ravage your heart, remind you of faces you miss and loud times you’re not having and weird places you’d rather be. Living with music these days can be total agony. Living without it? Merely impossible.

I’m the kind of fan who lives for music. I wake up in the morning and press “play” on the boombox on my way to the coffeepot. My 2020 was all about the live shows coming up, the next new favorite artist I was going to fall in love with, the old favorite who was going to sneak back into my life. My shelves are full of the ticket stubs and wristbands I use for bookmarks. There’s nothing I love more than standing in the dark with a room full of strangers, sharing that communal rapture. My goth wife still has our tickets for this year’s Bauhaus reunion tour — even though the odds of this show happening are about even with Bela Lugosi showing up.

This is the longest I’ve gone between live shows since . . . the Replacements broke up? I go see bands every chance I get, and I live in New York City, where there’s plenty of chances. Live music is how I measure out the next week, month, year of my life. But on a bigger scale, the shows are how we measure history. When you picture the past or the future, you imagine what musicians are doing in a room and who shows up to hear it. You can define any point in the arc of human history by who was in Fleetwood Mac at the time. (And whose hotel bed they were sharing.) So what does music fandom mean at a time when we can’t gather together to celebrate, discover, experiment?

These days I listen to fantastic new albums by Waxahatchee, Adult Mom, Moses Sumney, DaBaby, Protomartyr, and try to imagine how great these songs will sound live, with a crowd. Back in December, I saw Harry Styles in L.A. the night Fine Line came out, the most life-affirming and utopian of mega-pop celebrations. At the airport the next day, boarding my plane home, I was still finding silver confetti in my hair. Now I keep pieces of that confetti on my desk, glittering at me, as if they have magic powers.

Like all fans of music, sports, movies, any kind of public ritual that involves a crowd, I keep thinking about the Last Time. For me, that was seeing the Philly punk trio Control Top on March 5th, at Union Pool in Brooklyn. The singer jumped into the crowd and tackled one of her friends. (The friend was the singer from Yohuna, whom I had tickets to see a few weeks later at Trans-Pecos.) They rolled on the floor, screaming into the mic together. I grabbed a snack at the taco truck between bands, wrote in my notebook for a while, hung out late to see friends and argue with the guitarist about the Hüsker Dü discography. I asked the singer about my favorite song, the one where I always think she’s screaming about strange chickens. (It’s really “Straight Jackets.”) It was a glorious Thursday night. But now it feels like a different planet.

I go through my phone scrounging for karaoke photos I meant to delete, though now I’m glad I didn’t—proof I have friends who don’t run in terror when I’m on my sixth “Shallow” of the night. Was it just a couple months ago in late February when I got up to karaoke “People Who Died”? And everyone danced and nobody felt a single pang of fear? Did this all really happen? I chew on these memories like a crust of prison bread. They nourish me. They also torment me. I think of all the crappiest bands I’ve seen live, and picture myself crawling through broken glass to hear them tune up. I think of the lamest bands I’ve walked out on, even worse than the ones I hear in my sleep.

Even more than the great shows, I find myself missing the mediocre ones. The nights when you drop by on a whim, run into friends, enjoy the music in the most transitory way, then walk home, stop for a slice on the way, maybe forget the band the next day. What a luxury.

There’s a scene I keep re-watching from the Seventies sci-fi zombie trash classic, The Omega Man. Charlton Heston is the last human left alive in L.A. after the plague. He drives out to the empty theater that’s still showing the “Woodstock” documentary. He sits alone in the dark, a ritual he’s done many times before, watching the hippie tribes onscreen boogie to Country Joe and the Fish. “This is really beautiful, man,” a dazed flower child tells the camera. Heston recites every word along with him. “The fact is if we can’t all live together and be happy, if you have to be afraid to walk out in the street, if you have to be afraid to smile at somebody, right—what kind of a way is that to go through this life?”

Charlton Heston gives a sardonic smirk. “Yup—they sure don’t make pictures like that anymore.”

They sure don’t. We can devour the livestreams and Zoom reunions. Or Neil Young’s amazing weekly Fireside Sessions, where he plays his tunes on the cabin piano or strums his guitar in the yard as the snow falls. On some level, this isn’t quite what we ordered. It’s the music equivalent of Ray Liotta at the end of Goodfellas, ordering his spaghetti with marinara and getting egg noodles with ketchup, because these days we’re all schnooks in the Witness Protection Program. But we’re damn grateful to get it.

Ministry called one of their live albums In Case You Didn’t Feel Like Showing Up — I always love the bitchy tone of that. Showing up is what the live show is all about: We go to be part of that crowd. I started by going to all-ages hardcore matinees on weekend afternoons — that’s where I began learning to handle the chaotic presence of strangers, before I was mature enough to learn any other way. All the people I used to hate at shows, I miss them now. Yes, even you, the douchebag who can’t turn off your goddamn phone because you need to video every moment. Here I am now, scrounging for YouTube scraps and cursing you for not getting better footage. (Seriously, nobody got any video of Stephen Malkmus doing the Cars’ “Good Times Roll” on the 2001 Jicks tour? You people, honestly.)

I keep listening to live albums these days, just because it’s therapeutic to hear a crowd making noise. I’m getting to know the Grateful Dead’s spring ’77 tour all too well. Like the Dead, Taylor Swift had summer stadium shows I was already looking forward to. I revisit shaky fan-cam video of Taylor and relive the night I first saw the Red tour, in 2013. When Taylor busted out the drum solo in “Holy Ground,” the little kid behind me yelled, “She’s rocking out, Mom! She’s rocking ooouuut!” I will think about that moment once a week for the rest of my life.

Music keeps me feeling alive, keeps nudging me into the world. I listen to mixtapes from old friends and playlists from newer ones. I spent an entire week listening to nothing except a banged-up Maxell C-90 of Nikki Sudden rarities a friend made me in 1987. (It turns out I’ve been underrating “Wedding Hotel” all these years.) I listen to my scratchy old Fairport Convention vinyl and savor their Celtic doom-drone, as Richard Thompson and Sandy Denny sing “Meet on the Ledge.” (Plague, famine, pestilence — the ambient hum of the Irish psyche.) But when I listen to old music, new music, bad music, I’m dreaming of crowds. Tiny crowds in sleazy bars. Gigantic stadiums in the sun. DIY caves. Glittery dance floors. Karaoke rooms. Wherever there’s a cluster of music fans who couldn’t talk themselves out of showing up.

I get a weird taste of that communal magic every night in Brooklyn, when everyone citywide applauds for the emergency workers. My wife and I plan our days around that moment at 7 p.m. We listen to our unseen neighbors make noise. We clap. We cheer. Somebody on our block seems to have a cowbell. We wave our hands in the air like we just don’t care. It’s a poignant sound. Music these days can feel too painful to hear — but that’s all the more reason to keep listening. The songs keep us hanging on. The songs remind us to keep moving out of our isolation bubbles and into the future. The songs give us life. The songs also tear us apart. That’s what songs do.