One of my first rock and roll concerts was Billy Idol in 1987. He performed at the Ohio Center, which has since been housed in the Greater Columbus Convention Center. I snuck out of school to buy tickets for a handful of friends and my younger sister on the day they went on sale and got some great seats. Before the show, we all donned black eyeliner, dressed in our best British New Wave outfit, and drove to Columbus from Granville. The Cult played a good opening set before Idol started with “Dancing with Myself”. It was quite a spectacle.
Billy Idol has not been successful for 30 years and is considered a somewhat cartoonish relic of the MTV era. But last summer I stumbled across a list of upcoming local concerts and was surprised to see that he would be making a comeback in Ohio. At the table, I spoke casually to my wife, quietly hoping that she would express her interest in going. She didn’t, but my teenage son Riley briefly looked up from his smartphone. “Billy Idol— ‘Dance with myself,’” he said, as if answering a trivial question. “Can we go?”
The show took place in early August at the Rose Music Center in Huber Heights, an hour’s drive along I-70 west of downtown. The crowd was, well, rude. No one had put on their finest British New Wave outfit. Some of them had clearly been out of the house for the first time since the start of the pandemic; others seemed locked up since that show at the Ohio Center in 1987. But what they lacked in decorum and sobriety, they made up for with enthusiasm, hailing Billy as a conquering hero when he took the stage.
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Billy absorbed it all without the slightest hint of irony or self-awareness. He snarled, raised his fist in the air and threw his shirt into the crowd like he was a young man in his professional heyday. At first I was a little embarrassed for my drunk Gen X comrades, for Billy, and for myself. My own child saw us all for who we really are. How would he take me seriously the next time I tell him to unload the dishwasher? Finally, I allowed myself to just enjoy the music. These aren’t the best songs ever written, but they’re the ones I grew up with. As for Riley, he didn’t seem to think less of me after the gig. “It was a lot better than that Bob Dylan show you got me into,” he said.
In mid-October I was chatting with another dad at our kids’ soccer game. He was talking about going to Newport later in the week to see Lucy Dacus, a 26-year-old singer I had never heard of. “I refuse to see geezer shows,” he told me. “Rock and roll is a game for young people. “
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It used to be. But what about now, when so many rock and rollers are old? When Mick Jagger was 31 he said, “I’d rather be dead than sing ‘Satisfaction’ at 45.” Now he and the Stones are on tour again, singing her at age 78.
Not everyone approves. “There’s nothing more pathetic than these old guys going on tour,” another friend told me over the summer. “Imagine how sad it would be if, say, Robert Smith put on his hair dye and lipstick and took the Cure back on tour. Nobody wants to see this. But I do and I would. For me, the opportunity to see a failed rocker has gone from a simple curiosity to a quest. I wondered how early Elvis Presley fans could bear to watch him deteriorate in the 1970s. Now I get it. If their king was going to keep roaming around, even with a puffy face and a faltering voice, who were they to turn his back on him?
In 2013, I went to see Adam Ant on Express Live. Ant was not Elvis. He wasn’t even Billy Idol. But when I was 14, my older brother had one of his records, which he never let me borrow. I snuck into his room to find him, but he went to great lengths to hide it under a pile of clothes or above his bookcase. Now, all these years later, Ant had left the British Isles to visit my hometown. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity.
A particularly handsome man in his day, Ant looked different than what I remembered from the photo on my brother’s record cover. He was now paunchy, wearing a thin mustache and a huge feathered hat. He played all the songs I remembered from my childhood, but rearranged them so that they were largely unrecognizable. But it was Adam Ant. I took a photo and triumphantly sent it to my brother.
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Since then, I’ve spent my hard-earned cash on tickets to Echo & the Bunnymen, Joe Jackson, the Pixies, Jane’s Addiction, Hall & Oates and U2, all long in the tooth and decades after their prime. Some of these shows were better than others, but none were a complete disappointment. Except, of course, for the 2015 replacement reunion which was heart-wrenching canceled when the singer fell ill two days before the gig. He was a guy who took to the stage regularly in the 1980s, completely poisoned by drugs and alcohol; how sick could he have been?
I also saw contemporary artists, and these were much more mixed. For example, when I saw St. Vincent on Express Live, it was just the singer playing her guitar over her pre-recorded songs. This seems to be a growing and disturbing trend that I have noticed among young artists who may have realized that it is cheaper to travel with a partial group, or in some cases, without any instruments. For example, when Kanye West came to the Schottenstein Center a few years ago, there was just a hooded figure on a dark stage, barely bothering to rap to his music. The younger fans loved it, but I felt cheated. As we walked out of the arena, my friend remarked, “As far as we know, it was Shia LaBeouf”.
These experiences made me suspicious, perhaps unreasonable, of modern live music. I love Billie Eilish, but would she be good live? Would she have a real group? Or would it just be her weird brother standing in front of a keyboard?
But if I’m being honest, there’s another reason I’m not sure I want to shell out for tickets to Billie Eilish. I felt old at Kanye’s show, and I was in my mid-forties by then. As I settle into my 50s, I risk making the unfortunate transition from young at heart to a little scary. This is not a problem with my “geezer shows”, as my friend daddy footballer calls them. I might not have been the youngest person at Rose Music Center in August, but I know I was younger than the one on stage.
Riley joined me again in September for the Guns N ‘Roses concert at the Schottenstein Center. He only knew three of the band’s songs, but concluded that the opportunity to hear those three songs was well worth the obscene price of the ticket, especially since he wasn’t the one paying for it. The years haven’t been kind to Axl Rose, who now looks a lot like late comedian Sam Kinison. That high-pitched throaty cry that Axl could pull off better than anyone in the late 1980s now sounds like a raped barnyard animal. Slash, on the other hand, has not aged a bit.
Guns N ‘Roses played for almost three and a half hours, which is impressive for men in their late 50s, but way too long for a band with only one great album in their lineup. Especially on a school night. There were too many classic rock covers, extended guitar solos, and throwaway songs. But somewhere in the middle of the marathon, they hit their stride and put on about an hour of a big concert. When Slash played the opening chords of “Sweet Child O ‘Mine,” with my smiling son next to me, it was perfection.
We stayed until the end, a decision we lamented as we trudged, exhausted, to the car for the ride home. If we had left an hour earlier after they had played “Patience,” Riley and I agreed we wouldn’t have missed much. “Daddy,” Riley told me through a yawn, “I think I’ve been in concert for a while.” Not me. I have tickets to see Dinosaur Jr., another band from the 80s, at the Columbus Athenaeum. He was supposed to be back in September, but they postponed him when there was a spike in COVID cases. By the time they finally take the stage in Columbus, the three members of the group will together be 169 years old. It’s gonna be a hell of a show.
This story is from the December 2021 issue of Columbus monthly.