June 24, 2012

Rock’n’Roll History!


It took a lot of coaxing, pleading, begging, negotiating and plain old insufferable whining on my part before my parents finally agreed to let me go to my first rock concert. They’d heard stories about those things — hippies getting all hopped-up on drugs and killing people, boxes of kittens being stomped to death by crazed audiences, orgies, riots. I’d probably be kidnapped and sold into white slavery by some Satanic rock and roll cult. I was eleven years old — anything could happen.

            The first concert I really, really wanted to see was Alice Cooper’s “Welcome to My Nightmare” tour a couple of years earlier. But then wouldn’t it figure, my parents saw some clips from the show on the news and that was that. I think it was Cooper wrestling with a giant Cyclops that did it, there was to be no more discussion of Alice Cooper or his nightmares at the dinner table. I was eight, he was evil, I would die, and that was that.

            The thing that finally cut the deal this time around was the fact that I’d be going with my friend Mark and his dad. As it happened, Mark’s dad was in the Air Force, too, and worked in the same downtown office as my dad. He’d keep everything in line.

            The 1976 KISS tour in support of their “Destroyer” album would soon come to be known as a classic of live rock spectacle. On a stage ringed with flashpots in the Brown County Veterans Memorial Arena (usually home to local hockey games and pro wrestling matches) Gene Simmons spit fire and vomited blood; Ace Frehley’s guitar burst into flames before flying away from him and high over the heads of the audience; and Peter Criss’s drum kit rose twenty feet above the stage on a pillar of smoke and flame.

            They played a few songs, too, I think (I’m not absolutely certain), but that’s irrelevant.

            It was in retrospect the worst possible concert to see first. I left the arena totally dazzled and awed (I’m sure all the pot smoke in the air didn’t hurt). I was so scarred that no other concert I saw for the rest of my life would ever compare. It was an awkward realization for an eleven year-old, and one that may have unjustly clouded the next few years.

Why I was at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco in January of 1977 is a long and boring story. What matters is that I can say I was at the last Sex Pistols show. Can’t say I saw it, as I was still eleven and had to wait in the lobby, but I was there all right. It was hardly the life-changing epiphany most people reported after seeing the Pistols for the first time. I thought it was a bunch of godawful noise. Hated it. I thought the people in the crowd were interesting, though.

            In July of that same year, I went back to the Brown County arena with another friend and his mom, this time to see Elvis. She worshipped Elvis, which I didn’t understand at all, but she’d bought a bunch of six dollar tickets so I went

            We sat up near the rafters and I strained throughout the entire thirty-minute show to keep my eyes on the fat white jumpsuit on stage (there were no jumbotrons back then). He vamped some, handed out a lot of scarves, and sang a long medley of his hits before we were told that he had left the arena. If I’d known he would be dead in a month, I might have had a better time.

            When I was thirteen my luck began to improve. My parents knew I loved Roy Orbison more than Elvis, so when it was announced he’d be playing at a local supper club, they picked up tickets and we all went. Even though my dad insisted Orbison was an android designed by the Disney people, they approved of the music and were much less concerned about drug-crazed fans or Satanic white slavers.

            Orbison’s fifteen-year career skid was well underway at this point, so he was basically playing to an oldies crowd. I didn’t care — I stood at the foot of the stage staring up at him the whole two hours, trying desperately to ignore my dad’s heckling from the back of the room (“You’re an android!”). Gene Simmons spitting fire and blood had nothing on Roy Orbison.

            After that came a long hiatus for me in terms of live music. It wasn’t until punk rock that I started going to shows regularly again. The 1980s were a frenzy of blistering noise and mayhem during which I saw Iggy Pop, The Ramones, Black Flag, the Dead Kennedys, Killdozer countless times, The Cramps, Butthole Surfers, Hüsker Dü, (including their very last show), well the list goes on.

            My band opened for The Mentors and I was part of a notorious G. G. Allin show in Minneapolis during which he carved up one audience member with a broken bottle and caved in a woman’s skull with his mic stand.

            In and amongst all that I also saw the Clancy Brothers twice, and The Who for some reason.

            Although we didn’t know it until eight years later, Morgan and I met at a famed Pogues concert at the old Ritz in New York during which singer Shane McGowan, being too drunk to perform, was replaced mid-show with The Clash’s Joe Strummer.

            At that same club I also saw Public Image, Limited perform behind a screen. The story was their instruments hadn’t arrived and so they were forced to mime the whole show to a recording.

            I saw a cranky and tired Sinatra at Radio City, and was obligated to attend the first two Amnesty International concerts — which meant I had to sit through fucking Bruce Springsteen and Sting twice. Damn near killed me.

            There were of course all those unforgettable Residents shows, and a few years back Morgan and I were lucky enough to see Pere Ubu perform a live soundtrack to Roger Corman’s X: The Man With X-Ray Eyes. Saw Snakefinger play a little club in Madison on what would turn out to be his final tour.

            There was Tom Waits in Minneapolis and god, so many more. But these days I mostly stay home and listen to records. I can't see anything after all, can’t stand the crowds, and it’s too damn hard to get a drink.

            All of this came to mind a few days ago when someone sent me a videotape of, yes, Alice Cooper’s Welcome to My Nightmare show. Seeing it now was so much more than I could have ever imagined at the time. There was a Cyclops, yes, and a giant spider, and zombies, but there were also forties-style dance routines, a live Punch & Judy show, and music that was great and memorable.

            I got over my initial reaction to the KISS show pretty quickly, now that I think about it. But had my parents relented when I was eight and let me see Welcome to My Nightmare, I’m pretty sure they would’ve been proven right, and that I would have died. There would’ve been nothing else to look forward to.


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