Old Man Lying by the Side of the Stage

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Outside the 9:30 Club it’s almost 9:45 and I’m still more than 20 Phishheads from the doors–and more than 30 years too late. The only thing adolescent about me now is that I feel excruciatingly exposed standing in the long line of college students waiting in a freezing drizzle in a dreary D.C. neighborhood to see what I had assumed was an obscure jazz band called Karl Denson’s Tiny Universe. Apparently I’m not the only one unprepared for the cold and the crowd; the guy behind me, who seems to be working on a here’s-what-Bob-Marley-would-look-like-if-he-were-a-young-middle-class-white-kid-from-Fairfax-Virginia look, seems to be losing his groove.

“What is the friggin’ hang-up, man? I mean, shit, how long could it take to grab someone’s money and stamp someone’s friggin’ hand?”

I’m wondering the same thing along with wondering what my teenage line mates must think of me, a guy clearly old enough to be their father, even if I feel like I’m doing a fairly convincing version of here’s-what-Cat-Stevens-might-look-like-if-he-had-not-turned-into-Yusuf-Islam-but-instead-were-a-Jewish-guy-in-his-early-50s-who-had-gained-some-weight-and-lost-some-hair. The way some of these kids are staring at me makes me worry that they think I’m a narc, which is odd, since I’m feeling more like an addict in search of a fix. How else to explain why I’m shivering on this street corner, rocking back and forth, checking my watch, rather than enjoying the thermostat-controlled heat of my hotel room where I could have ordered room service, taken a bath, and then watched TV before going to sleep at a reasonable hour so that I’d be ready for my 9 a.m. breakfast meeting?

Fifteen minutes later, we find out what’s been taking so long: In between the ticket-taking and hand-stamping, the bouncer is doing some serious ID-studying. And, I now realize, with good reason: The show is 21 and over and, even if we take my 50-plus years into account, the average age is still decidedly 20 and under. Just as I finally get to the front of the line, a bouncer comes out of the club, walks a few steps past me, cups his hands around his mouth and yells, “This show is sold out!” The little white suburban Bob Marley groans and starts to flip out: “Sold out? What the . . . !” The bouncer turns to the ticket seller, holds up four fingers, and says: “Just let in four more and that’s it.”

Given that I appear to be one of the only people in line without a fake ID, I expect to be waved right in. But out of some sense of fairness or protocol, the ticket seller asks to see my license. As he scans it, I squirm from the awkwardness of being carded by a guy who is probably not much older than my daughters. When I look up, I can see from his frown that I’ve pushed him to a new territory or at least into New Math, and I’m certain I can read his thoughts: “2009 minus 1953. Damn, this guy is old!

Each time the Rolling Stones or the Who head out on another last tour, we drag out the usual jokes about aging rock stars with prostate problems and apparently insufficient pension plans, about what Mick Jagger said about his future (“I’d rather be dead than singing ‘Satisfaction’ when I’m 45”), about what Roger Daltrey must be thinking when he sings “I hope I die before I get old.”

In spite of the jokes, I have a grudging respect for the perseverance of aging rock stars, backed up by the argument that musicians of other genres–classical, folk, blues, jazz–have always played into their old age and, anyway, a guy’s got to make a living.

But while that may explain what a middle-aged rock musician is doing at, say, midnight in a loud, crowded, smoky club with a bunch of 21-year-olds, it does not explain what a middle-aged rock fan is doing there. And I really do mean a middle-aged rock fan (as in one, singular, weird). I can no longer count the number of times I’ve looked around at the crowd in some jam-band, reggae, or funk show and realized that I’m the only one there over 25, let alone the only one there long past 25 times two. As long as the band is playing, as long as I’m caught up in the beat and can be just another limb in the amoebic-moving crowd, I’m fine. But in between songs and sets, there’s always the danger that I feel my all-too-active head separate from my all-too-middle-aged body and suddenly see myself the way I fear others see me: as Aqualung, the old man in the Jethro Tull song, or as Willy Loman in the scene from Death of a Salesman when his sons ditch him in a nightclub and, wandering out of the bathroom, he has no idea how he got there.

For most of my 20s and 30s, I was convinced that I was suffering from a series of heart-related problems, even though I had trouble getting my doctors to take any of my symptoms seriously. During that time, I talked my way into three stress tests, more than a dozen different blood workups, and an angiogram. Through it all, the doctors couldn’t find a single thing that would explain why I had all those twinges and stabs of pain or pressure in my chest, the episodes of shortness of breath, the tingling and numbness in my left hand, and the occasional burning in my throat.

“You just need to relax,” my doctor told me. “Do you have any hobbies?”

I had by then quit buying records, quit making lists of my favorite musicians, bands, and albums, and quit going to concerts, clubs, and festivals, and I drew a blank. I wondered if therapy counted.

“Do you have a bunch?” the cardiologist asked.

“A what?”

“A bunch. A group of friends you can get together with to play bridge or take a cruise.”

I decided it best not to confess to him that if I had any kind of bunch, our main activity would probably be to make fun of the activities of people who apparently were members of his kind of bunch.

“Well, that’s what I would suggest–start looking for a good bunch. And you’ll be fine.”

My path to pop music was pretty predictable for people in my bunch: At 6, I was doing Elvis impersonations in my living room; at 11, I was taking my music recommendations from Ed Sullivan, a brooding, middle-aged variety-show host, and so I dutifully moved from the Beatles to the Rolling Stones to the Dave Clark Five to Gerry and the Pacemakers to Gary Lewis and the Playboys before realizing I should have just stuck with the Beatles and the Stones; by the time I started high school, I was deeply immersed in a play-that-funky-music-white-boy period with James Brown, the Temptations, the Supremes, Stevie Wonder, Jimi Hendrix, and Sly and the Family Stone, which segued into a play-that-funky-music-white-boy period with Janis Joplin, Cream, Traffic, the Kinks, and the Who, until, having completely overloaded on volume, rhythm, and rage, I voluntarily entered an extended sad sack, singer-songwriter period in which I wallowed miserably but sublimely in Donovan, Simon & Garfunkel, Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, and Cat Stevens.

By the time I left home for college, I imagined that my passion for rock music, illustrated by the hundreds of records I’d collected and the dozens of concerts I’d attended, said something important and impressive about me.

In spite of the power of those experiences, I suppose it was also pretty predictable that my concert- and club-going days would not last forever. Once you start a job that matters to you, commit to a relationship with someone you love, immerse yourself in raising kids, you just have less and less time, energy, and urge to go out to a smoky, crowded club to hear music. It’s not that my wife and I ever gave up on pleasure, but there was an extended period of time when our idea of fun turned into watching our kids have fun. And there was a period, after our kids got old enough to insist that we get off their backs and find our own social lives, when I developed this misguided notion: Since there had to be more to life than fun and games, there was no longer any reason to seek out fun and games.

Given this curmudgeonly approach, I was well prepared to scoff every time my psychiatrist would suggest I make an effort to start having fun: “Why don’t you take in a ball game? Why don’t you and your wife take a Club Med vacation? How about treating yourself to an extravagant purchase?” Though I’ve always managed to devote most of my pity to myself, I really did feel sorry for this poor guy thinking that it could all be that easy.

I might still be pitying his naïveté if not for an impulsive moment in New Orleans when, bored out of my head at a conference I was attending for work, I decided to skip out and spend a day at the Jazz and Heritage Festival. From the moment I walked into the festival and the fairgrounds, it seems like it really could be that easy. Dashing from the blues stage to the zydeco stage to the jazz tent to the gospel tent, I could barely take it in fast enough: With each new band I saw–John Mooney and Bluesiana, the Rebirth Brass Band, Royal Fingerbowl, Galactic, the Iguanas, the Subdudes, the Meters, the Radiators–I felt like I was hearing something that was both totally new and uncannily familiar. Like Proust’s Swann biting into that memory-drenched madeleine, I felt it all flooding back: Suddenly there was no gulf of time or space between the first exhilarating rock concert I ever attended–Neil Young and Crazy Horse at the Auditorium Theater in Chicago when I was 16–and this moment of middle-age euphoria in New Orleans.

As soon as I stepped on the shuttle bus to take me from the parking lot to the campground where I’d be attending Berkfest, a three-day camp-out festival of rock, acid jazz, and jam-band music, I felt a level of embarrassment that I’m not sure I’ve ever experienced before. It wasn’t embarrassing just because I quickly saw that I may have been the only one on the bus old enough to be the driver (besides, of course, the driver), but because I suddenly realized that I had brought too much stuff. Way too much stuff.

Here, for the record, are the things I was carrying: a backpack full of clothes, towels, beach blanket, and foam pillow; a cooler full of ice, two bags of whole shelled almonds, dried fruit, and a two-liter box of California cabernet (all part of my self-designed, cholesterol-lowering diet); a tent; a sleeping bag; a beach chair; a beach umbrella; reading materials; writing materials; flashlight; first-aid supplies; an iPod full of desert-island CDs; and a half-filled bottle of Percodan, a powerful pain­killer that I had been prescribed a few months earlier after minor surgery and that I enjoyed so much I was now considering using it recreationally at some strategic point in the weekend. The backpack, fresh off the rack, was the sort and size you’d need if you planned to hike the Appalachian Trail; the cooler, which I was holding in my right hand, was as big and almost as heavy as an air conditioner; the beach chair and umbrella, soon to be known as the goddamn beach chair and umbrella, were in my left hand.

When the brochure for Berkfest said that there would be shuttle buses from the parking lot to the festival grounds, it failed to mention that it would be pouring rain when I arrived, that there would be no shuttle buses from the muddy meadow where I parked to the place half a mile away where the bus picked us up, and that by shuttle bus they meant an old school bus that had no luggage racks or overhead compartments.

And so by the time I stumbled onto that shuttle, tilting from the weight and bulk of my unwieldy load, rain and sweat flowing down my face, I didn’t need to see my fellow festival-goers’ pained expressions to know what I looked like–and what they were thinking: “What is this old guy doing here? And why the hell would someone bring this much stuff to a rock festival?” To push the degree of difficulty right off the charts, the only seat on the bus was near the back, and no one seemed the least bit inclined to help me with my gear or even to move their feet out of the aisles. Starting toward the back, I felt the sting of sweat in my eyes and heard and felt the cooler knock hard against something on my right, which I could only assume was the head of an 18-year-old hippie. “Sorry, sorry,” I stammered, bending my elbow and pivoting my body to the right so I could apologize to my victim and could begin to carry the cooler in front of me. As I took another step, I jabbed a kid on my left with the beach umbrella.

Unfortunately for me and my fellow passengers, I still had to get through about 20 rows of Deadheads from Marblehead, Rastafarians from Scarsdale, jam-band kids from Jersey, all of whom I now realized from their expressions had at least two things in common: First, they were all going to this festival to get away from people my age, and, second, they must have all been big fans of the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, which would explain how they were suddenly able to do a pitch-perfect imitation of those kids on the bus staring at the pitiful principal, Mr. Rooney, who after failing to catch Ferris in the act of ditching school and having been chased by a vicious dog through mud puddles and thorn bushes, flags down a school bus and staggers onboard in front of 50 shocked schoolchildren.

The thing about turning 50 is that you finally realize there is no turning back. No matter how often you imagine yourself younger, with time and space still stretched out wide enough to allow for procrastination, daydreaming, and bad decisions, you now know deep down, if not in your soul, then in your sore lower back, that there is no longer time or room for false starts. Or, for that matter, for false modesty, self-consciousness, squeamishness, or any of the other self-protective strategies that rational but naive adults devise to try to stave off embarrassment, discomfort, and pain.

No one sets out to live so cautiously and defensively. The problem is that middle age–and the bourgeois habits that too often accompany it–can sneak up on you. One minute you’re a teenager promising yourself that you’ll be nothing like your parents, that you’ll never settle or settle down, that as soon as you’re old enough you’ll head out on the road like Kerouac or Kesey, and the next minute you’re Prufrock, the old man in the Eliot poem who has missed out on passion because he thought it was daring to roll up his trousers or to eat a peach. Suffering as much from his past timidity as from his approaching mortality, Prufrock now finally realizes music: “I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each. / I do not think that they will sing to me.”

He’s right, of course: Those girl groups aren’t about to start writing love songs about anyone in the J. Alfred Prufrock generation–and it would be pretty creepy if they did. But the lesson for us at midlife, I’ve now come to realize, is not to pack it in but to open it up, not to put away childish things but to realize that we’re finally free once again to embrace them.

Go ahead, we ought to be telling ourselves each time we hesitate, take a bite, it’s just a fucking peach.

Lad Tobin teaches in the English department at Boston College. Excerpted from New Orleans Review (Vol. 36, No. 2), a journal of contemporary literature and culture published by Loyola University. http://neworleansreview.org

This article first appeared in the May-June 2011 issue of Utne Reader.

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