Wednesday, March 10, 2010

You Can't Go Home Again, People

Back in March, I went to see Hothouse Flowers, one of my favorite bands, play at Wolftrap. I bought the tickets before Christmas and was a smidge disappointed that I only got 4th row seats while my friend Krista was lucky enough to buy front row seats. My husband's musical tastes (and I use that term loosely when it comes to him) run more along the lines of Motley Crue, so I brought my younger sister, Erin.

The anticipation I felt for this show can not be overstated: I had seen them several times in my early 20's (a scant two decades ago) and have always claimed they put on the best, most energetic shows I've ever seen. Unbelievably high energy from the first note to the last. I got my first fake i.d. just so I could go see Hothouse Flowers at the (now defunct) Bayou in D.C. I gave Liam a rose while he was on stage and the man sang me a ballad: If we had used the word "fierce" in 1989, that would describe how I felt at that moment. When I saw them at the Olympia Theater in Dublin the next year, Bono and the Edge were there in the audience. I thought I had been raptured.

Naturally, I relived and retold these moments ad nauseum as the concert date approached. I regaled Erin with my tales, searched my attic for my old Hothouse Flowers t-shirts (alas, long gone. Actually, this was a good thing since at best they would probably fit me as a wrist band now), and wore my iPod out making sure I remembered all the words to all their songs.

When we arrived at Wolftrap after a harrowing drive through sleeting rain, I was excited by the intimate size of the theater. Fourth row was sounding pretty good now. I was also a little bit surprised by how old some of the crowd looked. I don't mean that they looked middle aged (which I obviously am but refuse to believe that I look); I mean they were old. As in white-haired. Stooped. Cranky. I joked to Erin that I couldn't wait to see how these old timers responded when Liam came flying in from the wings of the stage and starting hammering on that piano like his life depended on it. We drank our over-priced beers in the bar while others enjoyed a bite to eat.

When the lights started flashing in the bar to let us know it was time to go into the theater, some of these diners were apparently in no hurry to take their seats. An usher came in and announced that food was permitted in the theater. A woman at the next table was pleased to hear this, and started to head in.

With a bowl of soup.

I laughed and whispered snidely to Erin, "Good luck dancing with your bread bowl of chowder!" Still, I saw this as a reflection of her own lameness. No doubt I would have kept my smug attitude in check had I recognized this killjoy and her stupid soup as the harbinger of doom they really were. I didn't, of course, and so I shrugged the incident off and made my way to my seat, feeling cute in my bejeweled Indian-style tunic and fantasizing that Liam would sing to me again.

The couple in the seats to my left were old enough to be my parents. This didn't worry me. My own parents are pretty hip when it comes to music. They love Radiohead, Bowie, Bjork and once took the whole family to a U2 concert. Plus, three of their five children are musicians (including Erin) and they are always at each of their shows, no matter how late they start or how far or smoky the venue.

Then I noticed that the woman was knitting while she waited for the show to start. My mother doesn't knit. My grandmother knitted. Don Ho's "Tiny Bubbles" was her theme song. I turned, wide-eyed, to Erin, jerked my head towards the offending shrew and started hedging my bets: "Um, I hope this isn't a sign..."

It was. In fairness, the band did sound great, but the first song was slow. As was the second and third and so on. Convincing myself that at any minute they were going to burst into a raucous version of "I'm Sorry," I kept my eyes trained straight ahead, refusing to look over at Erin. I am ten years older than my sister and growing up as the oldest of the five of us, I bore the unfortunate nickname of Lieutenant Mother. I not-so-secretly long to be seen by my three youngest siblings as a peer--young, cool, with it. As I sat there sweating bullets, I realized that I needed Erin to like this. I felt the gap in our ages stretching wider and wider with every ballad, like a river in flood stage. I thought about how her first pair of skates were roller blades. Mine were white leather roller skates, the kind with four metal wheels.

Liam was crooning in Gaelic now. Enough of this! Where was the energy? Where were the anthems of my youth? I bet Erin didn't even believe the stories I told her about how my friends and I had danced non-stop to this band for hours on end in a sweaty club. Listening to this, she probably thinks we waltzed.

The bass player was wearing a jangly charm bracelet that he kept shaking into a microphone. I made a mental list of excuses for him: Maybe that is some Irish version of the tambourine. Pretty convenient, really: No potentially bruising slaps to the thigh. Sort of a one-man band kind of thing.

Just when I thought it couldn't get any worse, this bass player yawned. Mid-song. He didn't even try to stifle it. He looked straight out at the audience and presented us with a gaping maw of utterly unapologetic ennui.

Erin and I turned to each other and started laughing hysterically. My brother, who is an awesome musician in his own right and very demanding of himself and others as performers, had almost come with us to this show. "Thank GOD Josh didn't come to this!" I sputtered to Erin. She couldn't have agreed more and we doubled over onto our laps in laughter, imagining Josh exploding with disapproval.

But then I remembered about how much I had groaned about The Who's Superbowl performance: "Seriously? Magic Bus again? Haven't you guys written anything else in the last forty years?" Yet, here I was, furious that Hothouse Flowers wasn't performing everything off their early albums--especially People (1988) and Home (1990). In truth, I had only ever bought these two and their third, Songs from the Rain (1993). I wanted them to be what they were when I was 20. More than that, I realized I wanted to be the me I was when I was 20. And it wasn't happening.

On the day of that show at the Olympia Theater in Dublin back in 1990, I saw Liam beforehand, eating some dinner in a pretty deserted kabob shop. I made eye contact with him through the window as I walked past, cursing my insecurities that prevented me from going in and saying "Hey, remember me? You sang to me at the Bayou last year in Washington, D.C." (I pause here to pay homage to the insecurities that prevented me from making such a massive fool of myself). Still, I've always kicked myself for not going in and saying something.

After the Wolftrap show, Erin and I went to the Amphora diner to grab something to eat. It was midnight on a Tuesday and the place was deserted as we picked at our gyro platters. Paying the check at the counter, I looked over to the other side of the restaurant we couldn't see while we were eating. There was Liam. He was sitting with someone, but there was no one else in the whole place. I elbowed Erin. She has heard that Dublin kabob shop story (a million times) and said "Go over there and say something!"

Like what? Thanks for reminding me that I really am a middle-aged mom watching in horror as her youth fades from the shaking Etch-a-Sketch of her life? Obviously not. But I also couldn't make myself praise a show that had so bitterly disappointed me, even if it was my own unrealistic expectations that set me up for that disappointment.

No, the time for talking to Liam had passed years ago. I wrapped a protective arm around my little sister's shoulders and headed out through the cold rain to the car.

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