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Sense-Memory: The Search for a Meaningful Milieu at the Concerts of Godsmack, Thirty Odd Foot Of Grunts and Bob Dylan

Abstract: This article is a lighthearted, reported essay on the surroundings and attributes of three very different musical milieus that convened during the summer of 2001: 1) the predominantly male crowd that bought tickets to see the heavy-metal group Godsmack in Orange County, CA, 2) the predominantly female “movie star” contingent that turned out for Oscar-winner Russell Crowe’s band TOFOG in Austin, TX, and 3) the family-oriented, county-fair audience that attended a Bob Dylan concert outside Los Angeles at the Antelope Valley Fair & Alfalfa Festival. In the same way that each artist brought something unique to the stage, so, too, did the crowds and their surroundings, adding to the total experience—mundane and otherwise—of each event.

Once upon a time, it was the summer before September 11th. It wasn’t that I was a juvenile then, but I sure wasn’t this old. I am reminded of this each time I clamp on my cushiony clamshell headphones, assume a position of repose, and lose myself in the pipeline of music that flows my way.

This was how I lived in the days before September 11th — nodding off in a fuzzy cocoon of sound, fed by a continuous audio drip in which even slumber took on the texture of a gentle tutorial. Although I had no memory of what, exactly, occurred in sleep class, the wake-up bell always had the same familiar ring of the Weezer, Waterboys or Barry White riff that played in my head the night before.

Which left me wondering: Could my nightly diet of alphabetical Rock Blocks/slow-jammin’ hits/gooey power ballads/discourses on the recorded output of Bad Company actually be having some effect on my waking life?

Because, to a disconcertingly tolerant degree, I now found that I liked almost everything I heard. Even more alarming was that, where once I could envision myself as a member of a recognizable musical tribe–a fan of bluegrass, an aficionado of Old School, a devotee of speed metal–I found I could no longer make such distinctions. Everything in Clamshell Land, it seemed, had some appeal, if only to stimulate a fevered interest in whom else might be riding the Clamshell Line at 2 a.m.

Was it a person I might admire? Or just another jerk bent on making my car insurance skyrocket? Mightn’t we share some other common ground? Perhaps a premium cable service? Or the whoosh of mechanically ionized bedroom air?

What, exactly, did this person wear?

What did he or she eat?

More importantly, were my unseen clamshell counterparts now finding themselves in such a state of sonic indolence that, like me, they would just as happily submit to four hours of the denture-clacking deejay as, say, an evening of electronically masticated tone poems on NPR? Or the incomparable Love Line?

In search of answers, I recalled a time when it was self- awareness that dictated my personal playlist, not the absence of static. I called to mind an era when it didn’t matter if anyone was in the room with you when you dipped into your treasure trove of albums (and not necessarily because, chained up in orthopedic headgear, you couldn’t hear their nasty remarks about ELO or Wang Chung). No, I returned to a place where I could frolic for hours, clutching a logo-encrusted cup holder in my beer-sticky fist.

I retraced my steps to the concert venue, looking for my people.

July 18, 2001: Godsmack
Verizon Wireless Ampitheatre, Irvine, CA

I’ve always harbored a soft spot for mullet and muscle shirt, and so it was with buoyant anticipation that I whizzed along a California highway to witness first-hand the growling harmonics of neo-metalists Godsmack.

It is still daylight as I thread my way into the parking lot behind a bumper sticker with the words “Proud To Be A Union Carpenter” on it. There are many work vehicles in my immediate group, a signal that perhaps Godsmack is a “guy thing.” Sure enough, a phalanx of young men sporting shaved heads and spidery type on their tattooed necks roams the blacktop. They stop to emit a shrill war whoop as a lone hatchback discharges its load of females, each decked out in the same long, crinkly hairdo.

The overriding choice of attire for both sexes is the black T-shirt–either plain or emblazoned with the tour dates of Slayer, Disturbed, Tool or, of course, Godsmack. (In some cases, the shiny new Godsmack T has simply been added to a pre-existing outfit, one that perhaps already included a Disturbed T, or an Ozzy Osbourne T, and is worn with knee-length swim trunks, extra-large sweats, skin-tight calypso pants or jeans belted at the perineum.)

Judging from the scatter of broken glass, this is not a night for strappy sandals. Rather, the savvy Godsmack fan opts for the venerable Doc Marten oxford, the steel-toed jackboot or the three-inch platform mule.

It is an outgoing group, with one passerby even running to his car (or maybe a stranger’s car?) for a video camera, which he uses to record the plight of one fan, whose trip to see Godsmack has been cut short by the Orange County police and what looks to be a backpack filled with controlled substances.

In the line to get in, I find myself mulling the state of my diet as I overhear a barrel-chested young woman (black leather pants, “wife-beater” singlet, zebra-patterned hat) earnestly extolling the virtues of the Whopper malt ball. The woman is explaining that she had planned to send her companion a jumbo-sized bag of the treats, but, crikey, she’d gone and eaten the whole passel before she could box it up and buy stamps. Although I am tempted to warn her of the possible inclusion of waxy food additives in Whoppers, my overture is cut short by the flinty-eyed security gal whose job it is to pat me down for any concealed weaponry I might be carrying toward the Godsmack stage.

Once inside the concert grounds, I reconnoiter my food choices, stopping at the Pringles “Pop Quiz” station to watch contestants rally around the central idea of rock trivia and the synchronized “popping” of potato snacks. I winnow my selections down to the freshly poached Garlic Fries, the pre-packaged Kettle Korn and the intriguing Funnel Cake (which, as the chef in the Funnel Cake tent points out, comes with a variety of toppings, including jam). At the last minute, however, I opt for the free Mudslide, an alcoholic drink that is dispensed, like polio vaccine of yore, in a miniature cup. As I savor each tiny sip, the air around me crackles with the animated chatter of the metal milieu: Who went to OzzFest? Who has to get up early? Who wants another Mudslide?

And then it is show time. While I am wholly entertained by opening act Puddle Of Mudd, from my vantage point in row QQQ (the last row before the cheaper, bring-a-blanket lawn area), I am under the impression that it is an entirely different band, owing to the distant celebratory banner on which the D’s in MUDD have been reversed. Luckily, I am saved the embarrassment of having publicly lauded the musical prowess of Puddle Of Mugg by the fact that the closest person–a heavyset man in a Harley T-shirt scissored off at the waist and armpits–is 16 feet away from me and throwing all his attention into a precision dance that resembles stair stepping.

On the overhead video screen, a Godsmack cartoon plays. It’s subterfuge, of course, artful distraction to allow the crew time to change out the single Puddle Of Mudd drum kit to the elaborate Godsmack stage set, which features stone-like columns that spit real fire. There’s a torch-lit, Egyptian feel to the whole thing, and, as firecrackers explode, the band steps out from billows of smoke. In response to this primitive motif, a bonfire immediately erupts in the bring-a-blanket lawn area. (Since no one, technically, was permitted to cart an actual log into the venue, the conflagration is fueled almost entirely by paper products–napkins, pizza cartons, rolls of toilet paper, plates from the Funnel Cake tent–and their glowing, tissue-y forms waft pleasingly skyward.) As shirtless revelers dance around the fire, their shadows play spookily on the faces of the yellow-jacketed security folk charged with overseeing the merriment. Soon, a fight breaks out, and everyone’s shadows dance all over each other.

“Get up off your fuckin’ asses!” yells Sully Erna, the lead vocalist for Godsmack. Erna, a diminutive, hirsute man, will come back to this theme throughout the night, just as he will continue to compliment our crowd as the “best fuckin’ ever” on the band’s “entire fuckin’ tour.” Somewhere, in the back of my mind, a voice is calling out, “It’s the Florida cheese!” and “It’s the fuckin’ North Dakota cheese!” and it occurs to me that such thoughts not only call into question the veracity of the “California Cheese” campaign, but Mr. Erna’s statements and the trusting nature of my shared milieu. I push those ideas away, however, and concentrate on enjoying the elaborate doodles my fellow Godsmack fans are making with their laser pens all over Mr. Erna’s face as he exhorts us, in a close-up on the video screen, to send him all our “fuckin’ energy for this next fuckin’ song.”

Right about then, the first of what will be many flaming rolls of toilet paper comes shooting out of the bring-a-blanket lawn area, flying across the sky like medieval cannon fodder and slamming into the crowd below. I expect a shriek, maybe a few groans, but there is only a single, silent beat before the burning wad is neatly barehanded back, landing squarely in the bring-a-blanket lawn area.

I know, at that moment, that I am among kindred souls.

August 18, 2001: Thirty Odd Foot of Grunts
Stubb’s BBQ, Austin, TX

I was sitting at my computer when an email from the Thirty Odd Foot Of Grunts fan site arrived at my electronic door. I sensed the wave of a new musical milieu forming, lapping like primordial stew at the rim of my clamshell crock pot.

The e-mail’s purpose: to invite me to a dinner party heralding the performance of Australian band Thirty Odd Foot Of Grunts, a.k.a. TOFOG.

I quickly realized that such a prospect would not come without its commitments. There were issues to deal with, such as ordering food. However, it appeared that this (and many other details of substance) had already been carefully worked out by the letter’s originator, one JJTOFOGSWORLD.

“For people that do not eat red meat (like yours truly), I will probably go with a chicken dish,” JJTOFOGSWORLD advised, “and for those that are strictly vegetarian/vegan…” I pictured an impossibly adorable robot whirring up our dinner aisle, a tray of bow-tie pasta balanced in its forklift arms. As I continued reading, however, I discerned that JJTOFOGSWORLD not only intended to order a “special cake” for the occasion but also planned to wear a “nice blouse” to it. From this diary of information (which also included notes on air conditioning and tips on socializing), I deduced not only that JJTOFOGSWORLD was female, but that the followers of Thirty Odd Foot Of Grunts–not unlike the denizens of the Godsmack bring-a-blanket lawn area–were hell-bent on living up to an aesthetic they deemed worthy of their musical heroes.

Utterly charmed by the prospect of a sheet cake with a cartoon dingo etched in its frosting, I seriously began to entertain the idea that this TOFOG thing might offer the musical camaraderie I hungered for.

First of all, there was a kind of symmetry here, starting with the way Godsmack’s cantankerously madcap Erna–a self-professed witch in his off hours–underscored his music with elements both primal and present-day. It seemed to me that TOFOG offered those same qualities in its own front man, the well-known actor and bovine enthusiast Russell Crowe. Here, after all, was an individual who not only knew his way around an overhead video screen but the pasture of the ruminant farm creature, too. This compelling blend of techno-savvy and animal husbandry made me think there was something on the TOFOG menu I could actually chew on.

And so it was with heady exuberance that I chucked my invitation from JJTOFOGSWORLD, drew upon my store of free air miles and reserved a ticket at Stubb’s B-B-Q in Austin to see TOFOG. My rationale was simple: If Laurence Harvey had fronted a rockin’ little combo back in the 60’s, would I have donned a rib bib to listen in? Hell, yes!

Though I have been warned in advance that the Texas weather can be a tad enervating in August, I place my fate in the fiery context of barbecue and forge ahead. I spend my first night bellying up to the bar at the Continental Club, twirling in the arms of strangers at the Broken Spoke dancehall and sucking on the air-conditioning vent in my rented car. As the saying goes, “It’s all good.”

On concert night, the temperature hovers at 100 degrees as the first wave of glistening, sweat-toweled TOFOG fans is herded into the backyard of Stubb’s. (In keeping with the rustic ambience of the eatery, the venue is carpeted in dirt.) Here, the audience–some of whom have waited on the sidewalk for an entire day–will remain corralled for the evening’s festivities. Since my place is at the end of the thousand or so people in line, I entertain myself by observing this slow march of the glassy-eyed devoted.

In contrast to Godsmack, the TOFOG contingent is chiefly female, over 30 and, based on the number of handmade placards it carries, big on written communication. Also, compared to the strict dress code of the average Godsmack follower, this group clearly likes to have fun in the wardrobe and sewing room. Interspersed among clusters of tank tops bearing Shiner Book Beer and Intel logos, I spy a safari hat, several colorful leis, a blue lamé pantsuit, black knee socks with matching tennies, a headdress of stuffed fabric antlers and a woman in a bra. (Later, an Australian aboriginal dancer will inspire the ultimate fashion envy, bringing his message of peace to the TOFOG stage wearing only a diaper and a liberal dusting of talc.)

Then, it is time for Thirty Odd Foot Of Grunts and I am glad to be outdoors, where the spike in collective body heat and its attendant vapors can only travel heavenward. As the band takes the stage, I immediately notice that lead guitarist Dean Cochran bears a striking resemblance to Laurence Harvey, circa Summer And Smoke (1962). Although Mr. Crowe will affectionately refer to Mr. Cochran throughout the evening as the “right, reverend Billy Dean,” I see no evidence of ministerial collar and cannot recall, offhand, a role in which Harvey ever played a clergyman, save for his turn as a phony fundamentalist preacher in WUSA (1970). (Fashion note: Mr. Cochran has chosen for this performance a sleeveless top in a bold, floral print–possibly Cacharel?)

There is a gargantuan squeal of appreciation for Mr. Crowe, who, dressed in his signature TOFOG garb–a clever knock-off of a gas-station attendant’s work shirt stitched with the band’s emblem where the word Exxon would be–resembles nothing less than an astutely buff version of the Jiffy Lube man. In this new exalted form, Mr. Crowe approaches the microphone. Gone are the gelatinous thighs of The Insider, the burlap skirt of Gladiator, the shoe-polished nose of Proof Of Life. Instead, Mr. Crowe leans toward us, strums his guitar and, brown bangs lifting off his meaty brow, turns to the side and demonstrates a completely serviceable headbanger chin snap–fore and aft, fore and aft–just like one of the guys in Poison, or Alien Ant Farm.

“I feel like I’m in the shoe department at Nordstrom,” the man next to me complains to his wife. “I dare you to find anyone here with an IQ over one-oh-six.”

Funny, I’ve always thought of Nordstrom as a Southern California retail chain, not a Texas outlet. Could his remark have something to do with waiting while women try on shoes? And, while I’ve only been tested for my IQ once (on a date), I was assured that it ranked above average. I return my attention to Mr. Crowe, who is polling the audience on which version of “The Legend Of Barry Kable,” a kind of heartrending drinking song, it wants to hear.

“Sad Barry or Happy Barry?” Mr. Crowe queries. “Let’s see a show of hands.” The crowd overwhelmingly thrusts its arms into the air for Happy Barry, to which Mr. Crowe responds, “Okay, it’s Sad Barry.” To our cries of disappointment he rejoins, “Well, what did you expect? This is America. Don’t you know your vote doesn’t count?” A-ha! –a shared memory of the Florida presidential vote! We all nod to each other. A millisecond later, Mr. Crowe seems to remember that Governor Rick Perry, a Republican (and 1972 graduate of Texas A&M University, where he was yell leader and an animal science major), is ensconced in the balcony with his daughter and a bunch of her friends. The crowd quickly gets its version of Happy Barry and everyone seems happy, too. All except for the morose-looking man who again appears next to me. “This guy has thirty-two fans,” he snorts loudly, “they all just bring their friends.”

As I inch away from the party-pooper, the carpet of women before me raises its hands in unison for a spirited round of over-the-head clapping. I see wristwatches, wedding rings, French nail tips and band-aids. Looking out over this sea of knobby wrists and slim index fingers, I think of Elvis, The Beatles, Debbie Gibson and Peter Frampton, and I consider the prescience of females throughout the history of Rock & Roll to pick out its luminaries way ahead of the curve.

At this moment, Mr. Crowe–abandoning his guitar for a hand-held microphone–has beguilingly hitched up one pant leg ever so slightly, in the manner of a great French lady stepping over a muddy wheel rut. As his fingers pick and worry at the fold in his jeans, I think of art school, where, on paper at least, a gnarled hand could turn into a gnarled tree and back into a gnarled hand again without a whole lot of nagging hypercriticism.

Tonight, I tell myself, I will be that hand, and when I get back to Los Angeles, I will try on every shoe at Nordstrom–just because I can.

August 25, 2001: Bob Dylan
Antelope Valley Fair & Alfalfa Festival, Lancaster, CA

Like so many pledged to uphold the tenets of our shared musical past, I have to admit that, on learning that Bob Dylan plucked his stage name not from a volume of Dylan Thomas but from Gunsmoke’s Marshal Matt Dillon–the 1950s-TV lawman–I felt a little woozy.

It wasn’t so much that I had to rearrange my sensibilities around Romantic poets into a construct that now included Doc Adams, the town physician, who spent many hours chugging beers at the Long Branch Saloon, which was owned and operated by the shapely Kitty Russell. No, it was that this new piece of information seemed to fit a striking pattern in Mr. Dylan’s choice of concert stage. Once again, he was playing the state fairs, and not in Vermont or Hawaii but in Arizona, Nevada, Oklahoma and Colorado–all citadels of our TV-western history.

In bringing his music to California, it would not be to the citified shores of Menlo Park or San Diego, either, but to the scorching high desert of Lancaster–home to the Canyon Coyotes 4-H Club and the Aerotech Job Fair. Here, where the space shuttle nestles against a blanket of cactus and tumbleweed, Mr. Dylan would headline–sandwiched between Wynnona on Friday and Glen Campbell’s “Tribute to Seniors and Other Special People” on Tuesday–the 63rd Annual Antelope Valley Fair & Alfalfa Festival.

I had to wonder: Given that the handle for this year’s gathering was “Space Suits & Cowboy Boots” (the follow-up to last year’s thirst-themed “H2O, Best Of Show”), could it be the Minnesota native planned to return to his Dillonesque roots for this particular engagement?

Fueling my fantasy were the prophetic words of fair manager Dan Jacobs: “If you enjoyed last year’s fair, mark your calendars right now. We are very serious about fun.”

So, too, I hoped, might be Mr. Dylan.

Would he, I wondered, stick around for the Rural Olympics, in which contestants steal hay, haul gravel and spear potatoes from speeding classic cars? I could picture Marshal Dillon himself officiating the rules for the Antique Car Potato Race: “Now, Festus, you know your car has to be stock with all the original running gear. And Chester, listen up: Potatoes are to be picked up and put into the car after each stab by the passenger–that’s you, Chester–with this here regulation spear, which is painted black twenty-four inches above the spike. Make no mistake: If’n I catch you with your hand on the spike, you will be penalized. Now, each of the potatoes will be placed fifty feet apart. Miss Kitty, I’m gonna pace it off for you. Remember, all five tubers have to be in the car…”

Perhaps it was just this singsong of authority that appealed to the young Dylan so long ago (at a time when, apparently, he also considered the moniker Elston Gunn–an evocative hybrid that grafted the concept of Elvis Presley onto the head of Craig Stevens, star of the TV-detective series Peter Gunn.) Since almost any combination of sonorous tones and informative text has the ring of authority to me, the communal keening of Dillon/Dylan/Dan Jacobs was just too seductive to resist. Here among the livestock juries and potato spearers was where I might belong.

I arrive early, just in time for the Goat Show, where, amid animal pens and a bank of baby strollers, the characteristics of meat, dairy and show goats are patiently explained to me by a darling lad with a meat goat on a leash. Soon, I will make my way to the auction arena to witness the high drama of an actual meat-goat contest, in which animals are judged, among other attributes, by the steepness of their rumps.

After that, it’s off to the swine pavilion (or pig barn), where an invisible wall of smell bars my repeated attempts at entry. Instead, I mosey over to the exhibition space that houses, in the straightforward language of 4-H, “Beef.” Here, huge Black Angus calves are urged into docility by their teenaged mentors, restlessly tapping at their charges’ bellies with pointer-like sticks.

While the thrum of cow-belly tapping is mesmerizing, it is not the reason I have come to Antelope Valley. And so, as the crowd begins to thin out near the Write Your Name On A Grain Of Rice booth, I guess that it is close to concert time. I head past a squadron of frenzied, square-dancing couples in bolo ties and petticoats, propelled in a dozen different directions by the amplified cries of “Ping Pong!” “Recycle!” and “U-Turn!” My destination is the raceway, site of savage Monster Truck Pulls and tonight’s venue for Mr. Dylan’s music. On the way, I stop to feast on a basket of sizzled vegetables–baby-sized chunks of onion, potato and squash–which I observe, through their nursery window, being slathered in mayonnaise, patted in breadcrumbs and rolled in hot canola oil. (Sadly, the cherry Sno-Kone I choose for dessert is a disappointment, redolent of a certain children’s cough medicine and barely gnawable after I suck out the juice.)

As a cacophony of screams from an adjacent thrill ride permeates the air, I notice from my seat in the bleachers that all around me it is a celebration of hair. Corkscrewed ponytails, newly mown goatees, grizzled sideburns and rope lengths of braids peek out from under Stetsons, trail down tie-dyed sleeves, dangle beside buckskin fringe. It is a pastiche of age, too: Right behind the 80-year-couple wobbling in on canes and dressed in matching promotional clothing are three college-aged longboarders and a 50-ish man with two little girls in party dresses.

At exactly 15 minutes after the appointed time, Mr. Dylan and his band take the stage. There is no opening act, no “Halloo, Antelope Valley,” just the announcer’s booming caveat that “There Will Be No Big Screen Tonight.”

Even without towering projected images the show has the feel of a motion picture–albeit one that might benefit from sub-titles, since Mr. Dylan (who will refrain from actually speaking to the audience tonight), has elected to perform his set of time-honored originals in what sounds like a syncopated form of pig Latin amid a wash of Nigerian guitar licks. “Was that ‘Tangled Up In Blue’?” a woman behind me querulously asks. As Mr. Dylan continues down this bouncy artistic road, the evening’s repertoire takes on a kind of World-Music bravado. “Hey, it’s ‘The Times, They Are A ‘Changin’!” a man shouts in the voice of discovery, though he’s hard pressed to sing along with “Um-kay ather-gay ound-ray eeple-pay enever-whay oo-yay oam-ray and-ay mit-aday at-thay otters-way round-ay oo-yay ave-hay oan-gray.” This is not to say we are not captivated by Mr. Dylan’s performance (or what may well be his insight into the secret language of twins). Mantis-like, in pale suit and matching boots, he casts an imposing silhouette, even if he does look like a gauzy speck.

Identifying the songs, then, becomes a kind of game, as my benchmates and I attempt to parse the lyrics of a jangly “Desolation Row.” Soon, people are going out to the concession stand for beers.

Furthering the cinematic mood, the stage dims to black between each song, leaving us to wonder what exactly is going on down there. The long-boarders take matters into their own hands by leaping the low wall that separates the grandstand from the floor seats. I follow, threading my way through a labyrinth of plumbing pipe.

Closer to the stage there is not only better sound and picture, but more beer–much of which is coursing the gullets of the couple in front of me (he of the fuzzy-fonted SPEED LIMIT 325 insignia, she of the aforementioned Whopper malt ball). The two stand swaying, garrulously toasting Mr. Dylan and braying the perceived lyrics of each song as they slop the contents of their beer cups onto the heads of testy concertgoers still in their seats. The dramatic tension is resolved when the woman’s knees neatly buckle and she topples backward onto me, emptying the remainder of her refreshment into my shoes.

It is magical moment, worthy of a page in my clamshell memory book. For, in a flash, the woman is back on her rubbery legs, her part of the film having only temporarily jammed in its sprocket. Then, just as Mr. Dylan launches into the full-tilt boogie of “Blowin’ In The Wind,” a cloud of marijuana smoke drifts onto the raceway and, mingling with the perfume of the pig barn, it all comes blowing our way.

I know, right then, that I am home.

But oh, that I were so young again, too.

Author: Linda Forman is a free-lance writer living in Los Angeles who has spent 20 years in the music business, most of them in the service of creative departments at major labels. In the course of her 13-year career as an ad writer at Warner Bros. Records, she was frequently struck by how much one could glean about an artist’s audience just by cruising the parking lot of a concert venue. Not infrequently, that experience was as interesting as the concert itself.

Published inIssue 3.2Issues
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