ONLY NOISE: I Can’t Remember All the Shows I’ve Seen. Does It Matter?

A collection of ticket stubs are often more reliable than memories. Photo courtesty of Liz Ohanesian.

ONLY NOISE explores music fandom with poignant personal essays that examine the ways we’re shaped by our chosen soundtrack. This week, Liz Ohanesian wonders what it means when her musical memories start to blur together.

My first concert was Morrissey in 1991, a week or so before I finished eighth grade, at an amphitheater in a Southern California suburb at least an hour away from the one where I grew up. I went with my mom, aunt and sister. Getting there was an ordeal that began the moment tickets went on sale – and managed to sell out in minutes – but we made it. The venue seemed enormous and it was packed with kids dressed in black, carrying lunch boxes covered with band stickers and wearing Doc Martens over their striped tights. I screamed during the whole show; maybe everyone did. When we got home, I taped up the ticket stub in my bedroom. I still have a t-shirt bought that night. A sticker I picked up from the local, alternative radio station at the concert is still fixed to my dresser.

The most recent show I saw was the night before I finished writing this essay. I went with my husband to an art space across the street from a strip club in a part of downtown L.A. that gentrification has yet to meet. It was a night of underground electronic music and video installations and we went mostly to support the another local DJ’s new band. I bought the tickets – two QR codes that popped up via text message – online earlier that day. The closest thing we had to a hassle was finding a parking spot, but even that was a breeze by L.A. standards. The venue was tiny and crowded with kids dressed in black. I danced a little, as best as I could in a tight crowd. My mementos are video clips and pics, some shared later on Instagram.

In the 20-whatever years between those two events, I’ve seen hundreds of shows. That’s not an exaggeration. There were the hot ticket events, where we would line-up outside malls and record stores at horribly early Saturday morning hours, and free, local band nights. There were shows in beautiful outdoor venues with picnic areas and grimy downtown warehouses. There were the ones my friends played and the ones where I was the DJ. I’ve taken road trips across Southern California and flown out of state to see certain bands. And then there are the festivals, the house shows and everything in between. At this point, I can’t remember every show I’ve attended, let alone every band I’ve seen live, and I’m not sure that it matters.

I know I’m not alone living in this haze of music and memory. My husband and I have talked about it often enough. We met at college in the late ’90s and have been to countless shows together. Neither one of us remembers what was the first one we saw as a date. It’s come up in conversations with friends. Did we see this band together? How about that one? Was that the same show or two separate ones? On Facebook, I recently asked friends how well they remember the shows they’ve seen. Some say they have a pretty good recollection. Others are a lot like me.

There are pieces of a paper trail packed deep in boxes, the few ticket stubs I saved, some photos snapped on a disposable camera, sporadic diary entries and some articles I wrote that never made it on to the web. I haven’t attempted to organize them into a proper archive. Just thinking about that is exhausting. At least for now, those pieces of personal history, much like my brain, will remain a cluttered mess.

I’ve tried to make myself remember. While writing this essay, I began jotting down bands I’ve seen more than once, but grew frustrated quickly. In a way, I feel guilty, as if I’ve taken music for granted. Should I be able to recall set lists from a decade ago or what someone was wearing on stage last month? If I can’t, does it mean that I don’t appreciate the work enough? I think the answer to both questions is no.

By the time I hit college, music was my life. I got involved with the college radio station pretty quickly, which led to DJing at clubs and both of those gigs led to writing for zines. And then I just kept following the beat to wherever it took me. On some level, shows have been a part of my work for a very long time, but they’re also how I choose to spend my free time. Music, to me, is like food. I crave its nourishment. And I can’t remember every meal I’ve eaten either.

For some people, music is a non-essential. Maybe they’re fine with whatever song is playing in the background. Maybe they have distinctive taste, but consider concerts a splurge reserved for when superstars play stadiums or when festivals give them an excuse to travel. I prefer the smaller shows, the ones where tickets are $20 or less and much of the crowd doesn’t arrive until right before the headliner hits the stage. I also like getting there on the early side, having the chance to check out the bands I haven’t heard before. All that adds up to a lot of music.

There will be times when those memories come back. I’ll stand in a venue I know all too well and flash back to a scene on stage that happened years earlier. I’ll hear a song in passing and remember what it sounded like live. Even if I can’t give you a detailed recount of what happened that night, I can remember the sensations. I might remember the bass rumbling down my spine, the smell of lingering sweat and spilled cocktails or the voice of the person who sang every lyric of every song from the crowd that night. Maybe that’s more important than remembering all the details.