ONLY NOISE: A Certain Age

It was difficult enough for my dad to watch his daughter trade in lime green skorts and butterfly baseball tees for army fatigues and combat boots. Stranger were the glue-fixed hairdos and safety pins that were to come. But nothing could prepare either of us for the discomfort he and I (but mostly I) found in the late summer of 2002, at Seattle’s Experience Music Project.

The exact date is too deeply buried in Internet archives, but I’m almost positive that this particular outing to EMP fell on a Sunday in September, just days before I started the seventh grade. It had been an important summer. Elementary school had ended. I was playing the bass guitar regularly and more seriously than I ever would. My unfortunate pompadour had been shaved on the sides and bleached, leaving my skull striped with a Mohawk.

In three months I had willfully shape-shifted from tribe-less loner to card-carrying member of a subculture. Before the first day of middle school it seemed paramount that I cloak myself in some fully-realized identity. A label was as good as a shield. I was a “punk,” and with that easy-to-utter role I was assigned a wardrobe, a musical preference, and a narrowly fashioned worldview that my small town experiences fit snugly into.

That summer it also seemed paramount to attend as many shows as my parents would allow (or were willing to drive me to). Racking up a store of song references and concert memories felt as necessary as procuring two spiral-bound, college ruled notebooks, a three-ring binder, and sharp pencils. Unfortunately, this Sunday excursion to EMP would never be woven into a grimy tale of punk rock glory. Other gigs would leave me with badges of honor: bruise-tattooed arms and bloody noses; smoke-caked clothes; signed CDs. But not this gig.

The headlining act was John Doe, who had traded in his trademark electric guitar for an acoustic one years prior. I’d heard of the legendary X frontman the same way I’d heard of every punk band between 6th and 7th grade: Marc Spitz and Brendan Mullen’s oral history of LA punk, We Got the Neutron Bomb. I knew Doe wouldn’t be blasting out the iconic punk numbers he’d co-written with X’s Exene Cervenka, but that was ok. His venture into country and folk was accepted even by my stubborn criteria at the time. Social Distortion’s Mike Ness had already released a few country-plated records, therefore de-stigmatizing the genre for me.

What I didn’t know, despite the afternoon set time, the lack of a stage, and the instructions to sit on the floor upon arrival, was that this would be the least punk rock “concert” I would ever attend. When the children arrived, that began to sink in. There were swarms of them. They sprawled on the ground, squirmed in their parents’ laps, and encircled me, sitting “crisscross applesauce” as my schoolteachers once put it. Soon, John Doe appeared, sat on a folding chair, and began a merciless hour-long set of children’s music, complete with animal sounds and sing-alongs. Imagine my discomfort – a twelve year old towering over the rest of the audience, clearly retired from the 0-8 age range suggested in the fine print I finally read on the drive home. In the past I’d been thrilled to be the youngest person at the punk show. But now that the sensation was inverted, I was one of the old-timers and not yet 13. I did not like it. It was decidedly un-punk. And did I mention the children’s music?

Sixteen years later, I was ready for a redo. Scrolling through show listings on Monday, I saw an opportunity to get this right. John Doe was coming to New York… and playing at a wine bar. After almost two decades I could come full circle and be the youngest person at the John Doe concert, the way it should have been all along.

I know it’s petty. It’s also a cheap shot, labeling an inevitable event as a goal, like when I write “Wake up!” on my next-day To Do list (so far I’ve crossed it off every time). But it seemed too perfect to pass up on. Besides, John Doe is getting up there, and if I could avoid my only memory of him being scored by “Old McDonald” I was going to. New York makes it so easy to see your heroes in the flesh that we often pass it up like they’re subway buskers. I’ve been trying to remedy that attitude in myself lately, lest I regret it in the long run.

I’m aware that there wasn’t a damn cool thing about seeing John Doe at City Vineyard (located at Hudson River Park’s Pier 26, sister venue to City Winery). Being the lone diner perched next to baby boomer couples in fleece vests, and shelling out too much dough for seared ahi and a chocolate pot au crème didn’t scream “hip.” The man pumping his fist in the front row to Doe’s all-acoustic set wasn’t helping either, and in truth, he may have singed me with more embarrassment than being goaded to sing “And a quack-quack there” years ago.

Between songs, Doe kept referring to the crowd as one “of a certain age” and this made me drink faster. Being under 40 in this crowd didn’t transform the experience, just like seeing the co-founder of X perform didn’t transform anyone’s Patagonia into a leather jacket. Doe however, did enough transforming for all of us, one minute nipping us with deadpan one-liners (“I asked for a smaller stage. They agreed.”) and then bringing down the house with renditions of “A Case of You” and “Golden State.” He was in top form, with the cowboy shirt and silver jewelry to prove it.

It seems that while people age, move on, fall in and out of sync with the passing decades, a select few are truly timeless. These few are often artists; artists like John Doe, who will always be the coolest person at his shows, anyway.

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