The Empty Seat

I’ve been having a bit of an existential crisis as of late, taking tally on my life and thinking deeply about my shortcomings and how my self-destructive streak has negatively affected friends and family. It’s been a very down week inside of my head.

But what also came this week was a surprise, one I had forgotten about entirely. The Durham Performing Arts Center – known locally as DPAC (pronounced DEE-pack) – reminded me that I had purchased a ticket awhile back to attend a performance by Elvis Costello & the Imposters.

The show, originally intended for 22 September 2011, was postponed due to an undisclosed health issue. This week’s email came to remind me that Mr. Costello and colleagues were to fulfill their responsibilities to Durham this evening, 29 April. Fantastic stroke of luck – this was like finding a $20 bill in your dry cleaning.

Well, $93.90 to be exact – a $79.50 ticket plus a $10.75 “convenience charge” from Ticketmaster – to provide me with the convenience of purchasing a $79.50 ticket – plus a $3.65 “order processing charge.”

I had purchased a single ticket primarily because I generally buy a pair and end up either going alone or selling them. But this time, the attraction in buying a single ticket was that I scored a terrific spot in the second row, one seat in from the aisle.

1981 English Mugs tour. Elvis Costello & the Attractions with Martin Belmont and Squeeze with Paul Carrack (of 'Tempted' fame).

Elvis Costello holds great meaning for me since I first saw him 31 years ago, at the legendary Capitol Theatre in Passaic, NJ, on 7 February 1981. Costello and the Attractions were appearing with another of my boyhood loves, Squeeze. As the concert was sold out and I hadn’t started driving yet, my Mom offered to go to a ticket agency at our local mall to see what she could do for me. I’m happy to say that I gave her the money to buy the tickets – from my prep cook employment at Jumbo’s Pizza in Wallington – and she came back with two, seventh-row tickets for the then-outrageous price of $25.00 per ticket. (The face price was $12.50).

Original program artwork by James D. Moyssiadis. Click image to go to his site.

The beginning of 1981 witnessed the most progressive jump in my coming of age. I was playing bass in my first band with my wishful high school sweetheart, Sue B. (as she will always be known) fronting us on vocals.  A growth spurt brought me from being a scrawny target in gym class to a more confident six feet tall. My interest in writing and playing music also led to a level of acceptance by self and others.

It didn’t hurt to also have a life-defining learning experience with Sue B. in the back of a Pontiac Bonneville while the The Clash’s “London Calling” album set the soundtrack (I’ve since had an unhealthy interest in the Spanish Civil War and Montgomery Clift). Sue will say that she fell for me because of my willingness to help her with chemistry lab reports, marking the first time that being adept in science earned me something positive. As we approached high school graduation, appearing to be on the road to “going places” was reinforced further by the protection from ignorant bullies by a dear friend who later died in the World Trade Center attacks.

For reasons I can’t recall, Sue B. couldn’t go with me to the Elvis & Squeeze concert that cold February night. So I was stuck with a $25 ticket and a longing heart. I wanted so badly to share with someone this experience of my two favorite bands at the time. I most certainly did not want to be sharing my night with an empty seat.

While lamenting my conundrum as I cut a 75-pound blob of pizza dough into 20-ounce balls, one of the counter girls at Jumbo’s Pizza came back to place an order. This was another Sue, my spiky-haired punk rock chick friend who I didn’t even think of fancying because her 20-something-ness rendered her unachievable. Elvis and Squeeze might not be edgy enough for her, I thought at first, but I asked her if she wanted to go with me anyway. I even had the chutzpah to ask her to buy the ticket since this wouldn’t actually a date. To my giddy surprise, Sue accepted.

If you’re an Elvis fan, just take a look at this set list from the show. Holy. Dear. God. Sue and I had an amazing time – dancing and laughing at the good fortune of being so close to some truly remarkable musicians. At some point during the night, she grabbed hold of my hand then, realizing what she had done, bashfully let go and looked away. When she dropped me off at home that night, I don’t recall if she kissed me good night. That I don’t remember tells me that it was at most the kind of peck that a 22-year-old woman should be giving to a 16-year-old boy.

"I only know it isn't mine." - The Shirt.

I wore my concert T-shirt into the ground. The English Mugs tour. Elvis Costello & The Attractions with their “old chinas,” Squeeze. It took me a few more years to learn what old chinas were (East London Cockney for “mate” – the rhyme being “plate” as in china plate) – the friend who taught me, a British postdoc while I was at Florida, is someone I always greet at AACR meetings as, “me old china!”

Elvis also played prominently in my first and only writing gig for our high school newspaper. “Trust” was the album upon which this tour was based but it didn’t come out until right around the time of the concert. Bruce Springsteen’s double-album, “The River,” came out at the same time but I remember starting my review of Trust with a piss-and-vinegar admonition for anyone giving me grief about not reviewing Springsteen’s new work. I don’t have the column but I remember saying that Springsteen was so popular then that he could release a double-set of blank vinyl and it would still sell over a million copies, thereby relieving me of the need to say anything about his record.

I continued to love Elvis through college and grad school, especially his work on “Spike” with Paul McCartney and “Blood and Chocolate” with his then-wife, Cait O’Riordan of The Pogues. (Elvis said the album was named for Cait’s chocolate cravings concomitant with her menstrual periods.)

But tonight. I have an empty seat next to me in the pit in Section 1, Row 2.

Who will be in seat 101?

Someone like the Sues? Nah.

Perhaps a 16-year-old kid with a chip on his shoulder.

I’m hoping the latter – I’d like to share with him some advice on what awaits him, how to behave, how to appreciate others, and not fuck up – too badly.

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