I suppose everyone eventually cleans out their desk. Mine was filled with old bills, ex-girlfriend telephone numbers and pens without ink. While cleaning this mess, I ran across a three-inch stack of old concert tickets. Wrapped with a rubber band, these paper stubs amazingly dated back to 1977.
It was 26 years ago when I saw my first concert, and I will never forget that incredible night. I saw a man smoking a joint for the first time. That was cool. And I saw Kiss, touring to promote their Love Gun album. I also saw this unknown band in the warm-up act slot. They were named Styx, whose only hit at the time was “Lady.”
For me it was history. After that rare night of freedom, I obsessively tried to go to every concert traveling through town. This peculiar obsession was materially noted as I kept every ticket stub from shows good or bad (did I really have to see Pat Benatar?!) with religious fervor.
I’m not sure if the concert experience is the same as it was 20 or even 10 years ago. I think MTV has a lot to do with that. I think the popular cable channel has damaged the mystery of great bands, essentially dispelling the excitement of seeing new acts up close.
I inspected the preserved stubs, and it was like thumbing through old stacks of childhood photographs. They were faded, some stained by water from rain and a few marked by mud or beer. These ticket stubs were indeed photographs from the past. Oddly, I could remember every concert almost as if they happened yesterday.
What follows, indulgent I’ll admit, is a list of the 10 greatest concerts I’ve ever seen.
10. Elton John – Oct. 10, 1980, Reunion Arena, Dallas, TX
It’s easy to dismiss Sir Elton these days, he of the chubby facade and hair extensions. I cannot recall if he was touring for a new album or not, hell, he has so many. But this night, he was not quite so middle aged. This night, he was adorned in white leather suit, red elevator shoes and sunglasses, and a white leather beret. This night, he and his extraordinary band opened with “Funeral for a Friend.” The stage was bathed in darkness during the moody number, and then suddenly exploded in light as they ripped into “Love Lies Bleeding.” Sir Elton, sitting (and often standing) at a grand piano, never let up, playing “Saturday Night’s Alright For Fighting,” “Pinball Wizard,” “Bennie and the Jets” and “Tiny Dancer.” It was not a typical concert. But Sir Elton was never your typical rock star.
9. The Cars – Oct. 12, 1981, Reunion Arena, Dallas, TX
Maybe The Cars were in it for the money. Maybe they scored enough hits to retire in luxury. But on this tour to promote their third album Panorama, they played with memorable passion. The two-hour set included one hit after another, their fusion of New Wave, rock and pop undeniably cool. The Cars introduced suburban Dallas kids to New Wave fashion for the first time. They opened with “Shoo Be Doo,” each member coming on stage individually to great applause. But the loudest ovation was saved for Ric Ocasek, the wiry, extremely odd creative force behind this Boston band. He was the last to appear, the music abruptly halting for a few strategic seconds. Then, as one, The Cars ripped into “Let’s Go,” one of the great cruising tunes of the 1980s. The Cars may not make the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but on this night they gave a Hall of Fame concert.
8. Nick Cave – Oct. 5, 1990, The Wiltern Theatre, Los Angeles, CA
How does one define Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds? Part goth, part lounge singer, part David Bowie, part Leonard Cohen. Nick Cave broods with the best of them. He converted me on this night, playing before a jaded alternative LA crowd, he eventually insisted, “Get out of your seats man, you’re making me nervous.” He came back for three splendid encores, including his peculiar classic, “The Weeping Song,” from the brilliant The Good Son album. He and his band, adorned in gray retro suits and bolo ties, looked like a gang from a Tarantino film. And they never cracked a smile. An Australian import, Nick Cave rarely tours the States. If memory serves, he has only been through Texas once. But I caught him on the coast, and I’ll never forget it.
7. The Gun Club – Sept. 10, 1985, The Continental Club, Austin, TX
Jeffrey Lee Pierce, we miss you my friend. Born most likely in a forgotten trailer park, he sprang seemingly out of the swamps of Louisiana with his band The Gun Club. They released one of the greatest albums of all time Fire of Love. Punk rage, blues despair and smoked psychobilly, Pierce lived life like a voodoo shaman, and left this world at the young age of 37. I was lucky enough to experience him at one of Austin’s oldest venues, The Continental Club. It was packed, sweaty and smoky. I remember seeing Pierce before the show, hanging with friends in the restroom, dabbling in illegal substances. But on stage, in wrinkled black suit, tangled blond hair, cigarette dangling from smirking lips, he blazed through “Sex Beat,” “She’s Like Heroin To Me” and “Ghost on the Highway” with amazing reckless abandon. He lived life to the fullest. And on stage, it was a life like no other.
6. The Rolling Stones – Oct. 31, 1981, The Cotton Bowl, Dallas, TX
Believe it or not, there was a time when The Rolling Stones were actually cool. This tour in 1981, promoting their last great album Tattoo You, was in many ways the end of an era. They were still young enough to write good songs like “Start Me Up,” but just old enough to be respected and awed. This was one of the great concerts in Dallas history (The Fabulous Thunderbirds and ZZ Top opened the show), played before a sold out crowd of 90,000. The masses got their money’s worth, as The Stones opened with “Under My Thumb” and closed with “Satisfaction.” In between, all present were drenched by a huge thunderstorm, but the band kept on playing. Mick Jagger, at one point, clothes soaked, hair matted, said into the cordless microphone, “I believe we are going to have to build a fucking ark.”
5. Tears For Fears – Nov. 10, 1985, Dallas Convention Center, Dallas, TX
Tears for Fears came and went so quickly in the 1980s, that’s it hard to remember they even existed. Roland Orzabal and Curt Smith had not yet begun their squabbling when they performed this sold out concert in 1985. At the time, their mega album Songs From the Big Chair was No. 1 on the charts. This concert was also broadcast live over national radio. The talented European New Wave/Pop band played all of their hits in one of the tightest concerts I’ve ever seen. But the crowd reaction, which stunned even the band members, was incredible. This is the only concert I have ever seen where the screaming from the audience was so loud that it actually hurt my ears. It gave me an idea what it must have been like to have seen The Beatles.
4. Youth Brigade – Sept. 20, 1983, Club Foot, Austin, TX
Attending college outside of Austin, I saw quite a few hardcore bands from the early 80s including The Misfits, Minor Threat, TSOL, The Big Boys and The Butthole Surfers. But none matched the energy and talent of this Los Angeles trio, performing during the last days of the storied punk venue Club Foot. Known for their fist-pumping, pure hardcore songs including “Sink in California,” “Fight to Unite” and “Men in Blue,” Shawn, Mark and Adam Stern redefined American punk by being a band that actually had something to say. Ironically, they were more popular in Europe than in the States. A short-lived career, Youth Brigade proved on this night in a fantastic no-frills, hard-edged show, they were the greatest American punk band of this era.
3. X – Nov. 13, 1982, The Hot Klub, Dallas, TX
To call X the purest rock band of all time would not be an exaggeration. Touring on the heals of their third album Under the Big Black Sun, which followed the incredible classics Los Angeles and Wild Gift, this punk/rock/country/rockabilly foursome set the stage on fire with a furious set in a seedy building seemingly without air conditioning. Enormously talented during their prime, John Doe, Exene, Billy Zoom and DJ Bonebrake hammered through their classics including “The World’s A Mess It’s In My Kiss,” “Beyond and Back” and “Johny Hit and Run Paulene.” I never really understood what rock music was about until I saw X on this unforgettable, furious night.
2. Cheap Trick – June 21, 1980, The Cotton Bowl, Dallas, TX
What it was about this concert on this sticky summer night, I am still not entirely sure. Cheap Trick was just one of many bands performing in the annual Texxas Jam, a huge Woodstock-like affair with 6-7 bands playing back-to-back. On this boiling day, Cheap Trick shared the stage with April Wine, Foreigner, Sammy Hagar and The Eagles. Amazingly, Cheap Trick stole the show. Playing at sunset, this rock/pop band performed an incredibly tight concert, opening with “Gonna Raise Hell,” and continuing with “Surrender.” It’s the only concert I can recall where a band never rested between songs. They furiously went into each song without stopping, keeping up a furious pace in 100-degree weather, confident, cocky, in love with performing before 100,000 sunburned, beer-soaked fans. The time, the place, and how they so effectively rendered the rest of the lineup irrelevant was an amazing moment to witness.
1. The Clash – June 6, 1982, Bronco Bowl, Dallas, TX
One of the greatest bands of all time, The Clash were Gods to me in the midst of their final tour during the summer of 1982, promoting their Combat Rock album. I remember being amazed by Joe Strummer’s energy. Adorned in combat fatigues and Mohawk, Strummer ran out onto the stage and ripped into “London Calling” and “Know Your Rights.” On the floor, very close to the stage, I watched Strummer, Mick Jones and Paul Simonon angrily play one punk classic after another, their sweat spraying the audience, intense, pissed and alive. They closed the frenzied show with “I Fought the Law” and “Go Straight to Hell.” I knew then, as I know now, I was witnessing rock history. The Clash never toured again, and now that Strummer is gone, they sadly never will. Whenever someone asks me about the greatest concert I’ve ever seen, without hesitation I always say The Clash. This was THE band. They were alternative greatness, raw, unique, talented, powerful. To this day, like Woodstock survivors waxing nostalgic over Jimi Hendrix’s dawn performance of the “Star Spangled Banner,” I am proud to say, “I fucking saw The Clash.”