Friday, December 11, 2009

Best. Concert. Ever.

When I was around 16, my friends introduced me to heavy metal music. This was the mid 1980s, and metal was gaining popularity in a big way. Knowing my fascination with military history, my buddy Bill played Iron Maiden’s “Alexander the Great” for me. I was instantly hooked, and ran out to buy their brand new album, “Somewhere in Time.” I devoured it – listening to each track over and over and over again, then going out and getting all their older albums, from “Powerslave to their debut “Iron Maiden” (which I never really liked all that much).

Within a few months, I was a devoted metalhead, thrilling to bands like Metallica, Dio, Black Sabbath, Ozzy, Queensrÿche, Judas Priest, Mötley Crüe, Anthrax, and Megadeth. It was a great time to be a metalhead – there was a ton of music to listen to, and it all varied widely from the intensive guitars and drums of Metallica to the blues riffs of Great White.

One album I especially enjoyed was Queensrÿche’s unique and cerebral concept album Operation: Mindcrime. I was fascinated by the music, the thought-provoking lyrics and the album’s ability to tell an engaging story through both the words and the tonal qualities of the music. My friends and I memorized every word, every riff, and every line of dialogue.

Throughout the late 1980s, I listened to heavy metal in my car, in my walkman, at home, at school, while cutting the grass, and pretty much anywhere else except when I was at work. And when I was at work, I sang heavy metal, much to the consternation of my (usually much older and way less hip) co-workers at the Wegmans Deli. I watched the Headbanger’s Ball on MTV (back when the M in MTV actually stood for Music) and even bought a very stylish Headbanger’s Ball T-Shirt, all black with the show’s logo in gold gothic lettering. It was to become one of my many, many, many black heavy-metal T-shirts, which constituted my entire wardrobe by the time I was 19.

The culmination of my infatuation with heavy metal occurred when Metallica’s “Damaged Justice” tour hit the United States in support of their album “And Justice for All.” Their opening act was none other than Queensrÿche. My friend and I were in heaven. I had joined the crew of guys I hung out with just slightly too late to attend an Ozzy Osbourne concert a few years earlier where they’d seen Metallica opening for Ozzy during their “Master of Puppets” tour – this was to be my first and last time seeing Metallica in concert.

My buddies and I were determined that we absolutely had to be in the front row for this concert. The tickets were to go on sale early on a Saturday morning at the War Memorial box office, so somebody was going to have to get in line early. Very early. Very, very early. Like, eleven o’clock at night early. In January.

So one Friday night, Jake Sensenich and I threw a bunch of snacks and sodas and blankets into my parents’ Dodge Aries and drove downtown. We dressed warmly – I even had a black and red ski mask. And we took a large box of heavy metal cassettes to help keep us fired up in the cold dark night. And cold and dark it was. We damn near froze our asses off down there.

It was a long, strange night in downtown Syracuse. A Dodge Aries isn’t very big, so we spent a fair amount of time out wandering around, with frequent trips back to the car to fire up the heater. There were a dozen or so other Metallica die-hards hanging out down there in the wee hours like us, but it wasn’t until the next morning that the line started to swell. And Jake and I were right near the front. Between the two of us we bought around fifteen tickets as I remember – all for the front-row, center-stage (or darn close to center, anyway). At the tender age of 18, it had been my most important, most rewarding mission to date, and I’d accomplished it masterfully. I’d even been the mission commander – it was my first foray into management.

Then all that was left was the waiting and the anticipation. On March 18th, 1989, my buddies and I all headed down to the War Memorial once again – Jake and me, of course, plus Bill, Brian, and Pat. Oh, and Mick Spillane, the guy we knew from Tape World who was supposed to come with us, but sent some barely-dressed bimbo instead. Whatever – his loss. There must have been some other guys there, but I’ll be darned if I can remember who they were. I probably didn’t care – all I wanted was to see Queensrÿche and Metallica live in concert.

The funny thing about Metallica fans is that they’re loyal to the band to the point of being really obnoxious and condescending about it. At some point in the band’s history, the fans had decided that opening acts were crap, and were somehow actively getting in the way of their pure Metallica enjoyment. So it was common practice at Metallica concerts for their more rabid fans – all wearing denim jackets with a Metallica patch emblazoned on the back – to face away from the stage and raise their middle fingers to the opening act. This was fine with me.

You see, my friends and I were just as excited to see Queensrÿche as we were to see Metallica. And we were in the front row. And we knew every lyric to every song by heart. And, as it turns out, we were pretty much the only ones there who gave a damn. When the concert started, we raced the ten feet to the stage and literally threw ourselves into the music, fists pumping, screaming, and absolutely ecstatic with the wonder of the experience.

Our enthusiasm was not lost on the band. Since nobody else there really seemed to want to watch them perform, and whereas we clearly adored them, Queensrÿche shifted their focus from the overall auditorium to the bunch of guys going nuts in the front row. It might as well have been a private concert just for us. It was glorious! And it was literally only the beginning!

Queensrÿche gave an outstanding performance of Operation: Mindcrime, complete with various sound effects and recorded voiceovers to match the grandeur of the album. They did some older stuff, too – the best tunes off their previous couple of albums. I don’t think I’d ever been as happy as I was just then.

It ended, as all things must, and during the intermission my friends and I returned to our front-row seats and raved about how utterly fantastic the show had been thus far. Somebody nearby reported that Queensrÿche was hanging out in some sort of break-room off in the bowels of the War Memorial, but we were all to chicken to go looking for them, as cool as that would have been. We just waited in rapt anticipation for the next show to begin.

Again, we were hardly disappointed. The lights dimmed, and up came the music – the haunting sound of Ennio Morricone’s “Ecstasy of Gold,” the song with which Metallica opened all their concerts. I don’t know why, as they weren’t actually playing it or anything, I guess it was just their thing. Whatever, it was damn cool and we were screaming too loud to hear it, our fists pumping again as we hung over the metal fencing, the crush of thousands more fans pressing at our backs. We could very nearly reach the stage.

The stage onto which Metallica was suddenly revealed with bright lights and flashpots and a gigantic statue of liberty unveiled behind them. Or maybe the statue of liberty came later – I really can’t recall. But what followed was some ninety minutes of ecstasy, not of gold but of two raging guitars, a thrumming bass and a giant drumset banging away in the back. They played virtually all of …And Justice for All, plus a wide array of prior hits including For Whom the Bell Tolls, Sanitarium, Master of Puppets, Am I Evil? and Creeping Death. We knew every chord, every beat, every word backwards and frontwards, and throughout each song we’d unleash a fury of excitement, burning ever last ounce of energy until we were spent. Then, with the opening bars of the next tune, we’d be reinvigorated and start in all over again, cheering and singing and feeling the music reverberate through our skin and bones and to the tip of every last nerve. It was a thrill unlike anything I’d ever felt up to that point in my young life. I came away with a T-shirt that I bought at the merchandise stand, plus a neon-green logo’d guitar pick that I’d caught out of mid-air when James Hetfield tossed it out at me. I also had my hands on one of his sweaty wristbands at one point, but I didn’t want it as badly as the guy who was trying to wrench it away from me and, though it’s not the most manly sentiment I’ve ever expressed… ewww. It was really, really sweaty. I’m a fan, but I’ve got to draw the line somewhere. I was more than satisfied with my pick. I still have it, to this day. Or, rather, my wife has it tucked away, but I’m sure she’d let me see it if I asked. But it’s just a pick, after all. A memento. But mementos are reminders – they serve to help us remember. I don’t need a memento for this – I remember. It was the best concert ever.

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