On a Brief but Memorable Meeting with My Former Self at a Rock Concert Performed by the Pixies in Cork, Ireland, June 30, 2014
By the time I located my seat that night, the band had already begun to play. The venue was a massive tent erected on an old fairground, and, having purchased my ticket at the last possible minute, I found myself on a bleacher in the back. Onstage a fat, bald, middle-aged man was growling the same five words over and over while most of the five thousand concertgoers chanted with him: “This monkey’s gone to heaven. This monkey’s gone to heaven. This monkey’s gone to heaven.” As the assembled masses sang along, I began to imagine someone I knew was in the crowd. Up near the stage, where all those silhouetted figures were thronging together and leaping around and yelping and hooting and drinking and generally acting like idiots, I pictured my younger self.
To the best of my memory (which, now that I’m on the far side of fifty, is not quite what it used to be), the last concert of this size I had attended was a Tom Waits show in 1999 — not coincidentally the year after the first of my two children was born. Even back then my younger self was starting to seem like a distant memory: the me who stayed out until 3 AM sipping warm beer from plastic cups and listening to bands; who happily stood amid swarms of sweaty, inebriated strangers and stared at a stage half a football field away; who patiently waited in long lines to use brimming porta-potties; who lent his off-key voice to group singalongs, certain that words like this monkey’s gone to heaven not only meant something but were of pressing importance to his own life. In the ensuing fifteen years, that Younger Miles and I had only drifted farther apart. Though I was often surprised to find my face, not his, looking back at me in the mirror, I did not miss his fear of intimacy, his neurotic need to be liked, his weakness for anyone (no matter how dysfunctional or reprehensible) who made him laugh, his lack of discipline, and especially his penchant for wasting countless hours in places like this.
Maybe he and I would have continued to keep our distance, each of us inhabiting his own comfortable corner of time, if I hadn’t ended up spending the summer away from my wife and kids, teaching at a study-abroad program in Ireland. For years my spare hours had been consumed by taking care of my elderly mother and editing a book. With the book now done and my mother deceased, I finally had time to think. Too much time, perhaps. Walking the winding streets of Cork, I had begun to hear another set of footsteps on the sidewalk, almost but not quite in sync with my own. My younger self always seemed to be scurrying ahead of me or sneaking along behind, just out of sight, like those little fairy creatures that had inspired the name of the band I had come to see.
The Pixies — whose members looked minuscule on stage, even through my new prescription glasses — were a pioneering alternative-rock outfit from the late 1980s and early 1990s. My younger self had adored them. Much to his dissatisfaction, he never got the chance to see the band play live before they broke up in 1993. Now they were on a reunion tour — and so, it seemed, were my former self and I. Younger Miles might have been willing to wait in line all night to get his hands on tickets for a show like this, but I had come on a last-minute whim, knowing that the concert was already sold out, not quite sure whether I actually wanted to get in. Yet when the man at the ticket window had told me that one seat was still available, I’d felt the same rush of anticipation my younger self used to feel as he raced through the gates with hundreds of other fans, past the beer vendors and the guys hawking overpriced T-shirts, and on toward the hidden city and its staggering skyline of sound, a city of which I had once been a native but from which I was now an exile.
And as the band ripped through a series of Younger Miles’s favorite songs — “Wave of Mutilation” and “Hey” and “Bone Machine” — I thought of him up there by the stage, with his overpriced tour shirt and his thirty-two-inch waist and his head full of unthin, ungray hair, and I knew that he was loving this. For him, each song was a door through which he could disappear and be transformed. For him, flopping around with all those other sweaty people was an ecstatic experience. For him, the Pixies’ breakneck shifts in volume and tempo, their obscure lyrics (“Got me a movie / Ha ha ha ho / Slicing up eyeballs / Ha ha ha ho”), their primal grunts and pants and howls, their ability to pack so many surprises into a single three-minute song — all of it only heightened his sense that anything might be possible in this life.
But for me . . . well, my mind kept wandering. It was not that I had outgrown the music. In fact, just a few weeks earlier, I had plopped my iPad down on the kitchen table and treated my wife to a compilation of the Pixies’ greatest hits while she’d nodded politely and cast suggestive glances at the pile of dishes I had promised to wash an hour earlier. Now, however, with those same songs blaring through that concert tent like cannon blasts, I was unable to concentrate. I kept thinking about the creative-writing class I had to teach early in the morning and about how late I would have to stay up to prepare for it. And that made me think about how emotionally exhausted I’d been feeling since the death of my mother and how worn out I was with teaching. And that made me wonder why I taught at all. And that made me think about how much I still loved diving deep into stories with my students, how I never seemed to tire of the raw beauty of words. And that made me think about the melodically sibilant way that Irish people pronounced the name of this band: Pix-siss. And that made me think again about the minute, magical creatures the band was named after. And that made me think about how the musicians on stage were so tiny from my perspective that they looked like actual pixies. And that made me ponder the bald heads of the band’s three remaining original members: singer Black Francis, guitarist Joey Santiago, and drummer David Lovering. And that made me think about how old they had looked in recent photographs, especially the drummer, who used to be the closest thing the Pixies had to a male sex symbol but now, with his tired eyes and shaggy gray beard, resembled an aging English professor. And that made me think about the creative-writing class I had to teach early in the morning and how late I would now have to stay up to prepare for it.
I also found myself distracted by the light show. It struck me that rock-and-roll lighting had changed little from the days when my younger self had frequented concerts, and for some reason this bothered me. In the fifteen years since I’d last attended a show of this size, humanity had invented thumb drives, smartphones, tablets, high-speed Internet, Wi-Fi, Twitter, YouTube, and Google. We had mapped the entire human genome and used 3-D printers to manufacture prosthetic ears. But despite all this progress, rock light shows had apparently not advanced. The effects that had once seemed so exciting now bored me. Was this all that was left for me — a few predictable flashes of color and a perfunctory puff or two from the fog machine before the house lights came up and the show was over? Would there be no pyrotechnics? Would I never again be dazzled? I tried to remember the last time I had danced, the last time I had laughed so hard I’d fallen out of my chair, the last time I had leaned out the window of a speeding car and screamed into the night.
A few rows in front of me stood the man who ran the light board. He was bald and middle-aged, stooping over his controls and computer screens with the air of someone who had done the same job for years. Was he happy? Did he have regrets? Did he ever wish he could find the same thrill in his work as he had when he was young?
Onstage the Pixies were blasting through “Crackity Jones,” the shortest and fastest song on their 1989 album, Doolittle. Hearing that frantic tune made me think of a road trip my younger self had taken in 1992 with a beautiful woman I had not seen in many years. She and I drove through East Texas, the skies swarming with what locals called “love bugs” — black insects that mate in flight. While a cassette tape of Doolittle played, our car smashed through that endless, swarming orgy, killing thousands of bugs at their exact moment of coital bliss. In retrospect it seems like an obvious metaphor for that doomed relationship, but my younger self was only starting to connect the dots. “Emotional paralysis” — that’s how he characterizes his state of mind in a diary he kept that year, committing to paper the tragicomic ramblings of a tortured soul, aware that his long adolescence was over but unsure how to embrace adulthood. In a January 1 entry he describes a conversation with an ex-girlfriend, who told him his New Year’s resolution should be to “get a life.” On March 12 he recounts how he had just spent six months housesitting an empty building in Chicago that was owned by a shady acquaintance — a place without a single piece of furniture other than his own futon: “The whole point of my stay seemed to be — in my own mind, at least — to make it seem as if no one lived there. And I think I came disturbingly close to achieving that.” On May 16 he whines about “a terrible case of writer’s block, resulting, I suppose, from not writing for months and then feeling like there’s too much to say.” On October 25 he laments his usual propensity to “take action without having a purpose.” On December 4 he writes: “A wife? I barely allow myself enough time to masturbate.”
Ah, my hapless younger self! How often I had cursed him for all the time he’d wasted, all the books he’d failed to read, all the words he’d never bothered to put on the page. But now, as I imagined him up near the front, stomping his Doc Martens in approximate time to the music, it occurred to me that he was not quite the complete screw-up I sometimes made him out to be. Unlike some of his friends, he did not become addicted to alcohol or drugs. He stayed away from cigarettes, too, especially after his father died of lung cancer. He almost always used condoms and, as a result, never got anyone pregnant out of wedlock — or, at least, no one who called to let him know. He had a gift for friendship, and many of the friends he made are still dear to me decades later. He had a huge curiosity about almost everyone and everything and a sense of wonder that rarely waned. And every now and then, especially in places like this, my younger self was capable of real euphoria.
The Pixies rocked on, Black Francis spitting out one song after another without stopping for small talk with the audience. Yes, they were old and ugly, but their playing was still fierce, their passion still raw, their songs still full of strange twists. The light man bent over his board, his hands sliding across the controls with precision. Blues and greens swirled and pulsed and drilled down on the musicians. Blinding beams of white shot out from behind them. And even though I’d seen and heard it all before, I began to find those lights strangely hypnotic, began to feel myself drawn farther into each tune until suddenly I was overcome by a desire to run toward the stage, push into the crowd, and find my younger self. I wanted to hug him, to dance with him, using some of those spasmodic moves he knew so well. Or maybe I wanted to be him again, just for a minute, to forget everything else and lose myself in the music.
And then, before I had a chance to dismiss the thought as foolish, Younger Miles was there next to me on the bleachers. He showed up with the first chord of “Here Comes Your Man,” one of his favorite tunes and still one of mine, its sugary guitar hook wrapping itself around Black Francis’s angry snarl like a milk-chocolate confection filled with live wasps. The lyrics make no sense — something about a boxcar and an earthquake — but my younger self never bothered much with the words. What he loved was the feeling he always got right before the song’s chorus, when Black Francis sang about a wait “so long, so long,” because my younger self had been waiting, too. He’d been waiting to find love that lasted. He’d been waiting to have a family. He’d been waiting to discover his voice as a writer. He’d been waiting, as he makes clear in the final lines of that diary, to meet the person he would one day become: “Ending this journal feels as though I have just finished a long, difficult, rambling letter to my future self and am now putting it in the mail. I look forward to its arrival.” And now that moment had arrived and now here came the chorus and now the whole crowd was singing and now he was singing, too, and now I stood up and sang with him: “Here comes your man. Here comes your man. Here comes your man.”
Then the song was over, and my younger self was gone. And after a few more numbers the concert came to an end. The Pixies did not play an encore. They simply bowed and left the stage. No fireworks, no laser-light extravaganzas.
My route out of the tent took me past the light man, who was starting to shut down his equipment. I leaned over a railing and tapped his shoulder.
“How long have you been doing this?” I asked.
“Since 1986,” he replied. “Believe it or not, I’ve been with this band from the start.”
“I know this is weird, but I’ve got to ask you something,” I said. “Do you ever get sick of it?”
“Oh, man,” he said with a sigh. “All the time.” And he grinned. “But you know what? I’m having more fun now than I used to. I’m just confident in what I do, and I don’t second-guess myself anymore.”
As I filed out with the rest of the crowd, I pictured my younger self somewhere in that mass of people, drifting away. Perhaps he’d made some new friends and was heading off to a local pub. As for me, I wound up walking home that night, a distance of perhaps five miles. The whole way I could still hear the music ringing in my ears.