About five years ago, when I was buying some items at a grocer's counter, I noticed the tattoos on the arms of the guy packing the bag. They were all KISS characters — not exactly my cup of tea, but there was no denying the artistry. “That's some really fine shading,” I said. “Where'd you get those done?”
He grinned. “Right here in town. The man who did 'em is retired, though.” He pushed up his sleeves to reveal as much of his arms as he could. KISS tattoos, right to the armpits and onto his back. “KISS ARMY” on his neck, just below the hairline. I gave this guy a closer look. He was maybe a year or two older than I, and still very proud of these tattoos he'd had for over 20 years.
A friend of mine gave me the double CD of KISS ALIVE after I admitted envying him his youthful experience of seeing them play the Maple Leaf Gardens. The booklet inside has pictures of arena audiences awaiting the act. Smiling girls with flippy hair holding onto homemade “KISS ARMY” banners, surly dudes slouching in their folding chairs. A few minutes after those photographs were taken, the lights went out and everyone went crazy.
I wasn't even remotely tuned into the band at the time. There was a scrawny Ukrainian-Catholic kid in my grade seven class who covered every spare inch of paper in his possession with KISS photos or, failing access to such, Bic-pen KISS graffiti. I couldn't name a single one of their songs, but if he'd said, “Rock & Roll All Nite” or “I Was Made For Lovin You” I'd have lit up. The local roller-rink played those songs.
In 1977 there were two types of kids: those who were KISS ARMY, and those who thought the whole thing was just a little strange. I belonged to the latter, much larger group, eschewing the bold technicolor rock & roll pastiche in favor of repeated reads of the Star Wars novelization. A year later at a school across town, a grade ten kid walked into his shop class with a canvas gunny-sack, pulled out his father's shotgun and blew away a classmate. He later claimed he was operating under explicit instructions from KISS. Devotion to a single rock & roll band, I concluded, was probably not a healthy pastime.
I know of people who follow a certain performer from venue to venue, Deadhead style. For these people, every performance is its own revelation, its own unique access into the music. The best account I've read of just such an exercise is Alex Ross's turn as a Dylan tour-junkie. I can appreciate that sort of devotion, and was probably capable of it when I was a younger man. At this point in my life, it is rare for me to enter into a musically-induced meditative state. Some sort of portal in my brain has been closed, and the key to opening it is proving elusive.
The same friend who gave me KISS ALIVE has followed the Canadian power-trio Rush pretty much from the day of their conception. The people around him know of his devotion, and I think for the last few years he's had his concert-tickets paid for by those of us who appreciate the depth of his love. When the lights go down and Rush walks on stage, while everyone else is cheering and whistling, he weeps.
I'm not sure why I hesitate to give account of my experiences as a concert goer. It's partially from a realization of just how limited that experience has been. I haven't seen that many “big” names, and the ones I have seen didn't leave much of an impression on me. But I do understand my friend's emotional response.
Roughly around the time I encountered those tattoos, my wife and I attended a concert. She had seen the performer before, but I had not. We had his CDs, though, and I loved them. I thought the music on them was so fresh, with such surprising, life-affirming insight, I was anxious to see if this guy actually existed. When he slouched on stage with his acoustic guitar, there I was: choked up, dabbing at tears.
Over the last few years he and I have had a few exchanges, so he remains anonymous in this post. I once overheard someone else confess a similar response to his stage presence. I was a little taken aback to see the performer wince. He wasn't putting on self-effacing airs, either; he was genuinely chagrined. In fact, I wondered if his response didn't border on distaste. I later said, “You've gotta realize: your songs are incredibly beautiful to some of us.”
“Aaaaaagh.” He squirmed. “Honestly, I'm just a guy who sleeps til noon, pours himself a bowl of Shreddies, then sits down to watch Bonanza.” He rubbed his temples, took a deep breath, sighed and recovered a bit. “But thanks.” We quickly changed the topic.
Part of me wonders if this guy couldn't afford to be a little more generous to his own soul. Another part of me thinks if he took his vocation as seriously as some of his listeners do, he'd never get anything done. So long as he's serving the music, who cares?
I do believe that in the main we are all poor stewards of The Music: “broken vessels” is the biblical metaphor, and it fits. What we sing, or dance to, is infinitely larger than what we are as people. It's a wonder more of us don't get carried away by the beauty and the intensity of it all. And perhaps that's the caution I hold to whenever I play or witness a new act — or try to write about the experience.