When writing is done particularly well, one of the main things it should be able to do is transport the reader to the unique place or time that the writer is attempting to capture through their words. In this book, 50 writers are basically turned loose to do exactly that.
The writers — who range from legit (and semi-legit) rock scribes like Charles Cross and Chuck Klosterman, to musicians like Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore — offer up their most memorable concertgoing experiences. These range from obvious choices like the Beatles, Stones, and Springsteen to more obscure, but no less memorable performances from the likes of the Lounge Lizards and Einsturzende Neubauten.
What makes these stories so interesting and compelling is the broad canvas that a term like "most memorable" allows these writers to draw from. The stories here — and there are several great ones — are not always memorable for a particularly remarkable performance so much as they are for the circumstances surrounding the remembered event. The result is a great little collection of stories that are often as much humorous or even bittersweet little remembrances, as they are about the musical performances that serve as this book's common, binding thread.
Editor Sean Manning's story of an R.E.M. concert kicks the book off with a tale typical of many that follow. It begins with Manning scurrying across town on a gopher sort of errand for what is perceived to be an ungrateful boss, and ends with him joining said boss at choice seats to an R.E.M. concert. Not long after, Manning gets his first writing assignment.
In one of the book's more bittersweet stories, Dani Shapiro recalls spending her high school years in Jersey striving to be one of the "Jersey Girls" romanticized in the songs of Bruce Springsteen. She finally sees her hero at Madison Square Garden, but recalls the experience as one of "numbness," where "life was going on all around me but I just couldn't join in." A few years later, with Springsteen all but forgotten, Shapiro is asked to audition for the Brian DePalma video for Springsteen's "Dancing In The Dark," and the memories come flooding back. Shapiro gets her "Jersey Girl" dreams dashed once again, losing the part of the "dancing girl" to future Friends star Courteney Cox.
In another interesting story, Charles Cross remembers the Halloween 1991 Seattle homecoming of Nirvana — a show that I also attended — during the height of grunge-mania. My own memories of that show were of the incredible energy and pride in the air as Seattle's hometown heroes cemented their place as standard bearers for the new rock and roll. Cross however, was able to get closer to the source than I was (even though I wrote for his paper The Rocket at the time). Cross reveals here that Kurt Cobain felt that the show did not live up to his own lofty expectations, and that he was actually most concerned with the reception the opening act (which featured a former girlfriend), Bikini Kill had received.
Marc Nesbitt recalls the frustration he felt at a Beastie Boys show in Washington DC, where opening acts like DC's own pioneers of Go-Go Music The Junkyard Band, and future greatest rap group of all time Public Enemy, were dismissed by a crowd hellbent on seeing the Beasties "throw beer at each other and make assholes of themselves" onstage. Gene Santoro likewise tries to remember the details of a legendary meeting between Buddy Guy and Jimi Hendrix at Steve Paul's New York nightclub The Scene, that may or may not have actually occurred.
Jennifer Egan's memories of a 1978 Patti Smith show in San Francisco revolve around her friendship as a teenager with a free-spirited hippie girl (who may have later robbed her house), with Patti Smith's songs serving as more of a backdrop for her own coming of age experience. Diana Ossana recalls attending a Led Zeppelin concert to come out of the depression of losing her husband to the after-effects of his tour of duty in Vietnam. Tracy Chevalier talks about getting a bottle of champagne to the backstage door for Queen — and seeing Freddie Mercury hoist the bottle onstage — only to later realize hers was probably one of hundreds of bottles the band got that night.
There are so many great stories like this here, it is simply impossible to recount them all. Needless to say, this is not just any book of concert reviews, or even another one of those recounting the so-called "greatest shows of all time." Rather, this is a book chock full of what are often very personal stories that are most often written as much from the heart, as they are from a bloated sort of critic's perspective.
As concert reviews go, most of these are actually nothing of the sort at all. Which makes The Show I'll Never Forget a fascinating, funny, and as far as I am concerned quite essential read.