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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13 Responses to The Empty Seat

  1. Jill says:

    Nice story! I’ve gone to Elvis shows by myself…those were the days before I had the internet to find others that would also go by themselves…now we go together! I hope you get chosen to go up on stage and that your aisle seat is filled…or that you take that aisle and get chosen to go up…as the case may turn out to be!

  2. Cindy Salo says:

    David,

    Thanks for the delightful story! It made my day (admittedly, today has consisted almost exclusively of driving I-80 across Wyoming. East to west, into the wind–the low gas mileage version of the trip).

    Please report back on Seat 101; we’re on tenterhooks!

    Cindy

  3. Rose says:

    I read everything about Elvis, so I read this.

    Pretty sophomoric writing for a middle-aged man. Even more so for an educated one? Perplexing that you would engage in reminiscent nostalgia of your adolescent years?

    I was there last night too. And I’m really hoping some poor kid didn’t have to listen to you. Really, you should spare him and keep it to yourself.

  4. David Kroll says:

    Hi, Jill – thanks so much for commenting. I ended up having a fabulous time and while I didn’t get invited to go up, the man himself bumped me as he walked a lucky participant up to the stage. Turns out that I learned after the fact that I had quite a few friends at the concert, including two who wrote about it:

    David Menconi – News & Observer – Elvis Costello spins through Durham

    Lisa Sorg – Independent Weekly – Live: In Durham, Elvis Costello becomes his own king

    As both of these writers note, it was a remarkable show – even by Elvis standards. Three hours. Unbelievable. And here’s the 39-song set list as posted by pophead2k on the EC Fan Forum:

    I Hope You’re Happy Now
    Heart of the City
    Mystery Dance
    Radio Radio
    Spin 1: No Particular Place to Go
    Spin 2: Happy Jackpot-
    I Can’t Stand Up for Falling Down
    High Fidelity
    Possession (!)
    Temptation
    Spin 3: Veronica
    Bedlam
    Country Darkness
    Payday
    Cry Cry Cry
    Spin 4: Oliver’s Army
    Watching the Detectives
    Hammer of Songs: My Funny Valentine (!)
    Alison
    Everyday I Write the Book
    Slow Drag With Josephine
    Jimmy Standing in the Rain
    Meanest Gal in Town
    Indoor Fireworks
    New Lace Sleeves
    Spin 5: Time Jackpot
    Crying Time
    Strict Time
    Night Time
    Out of Time
    Spin 6: Girl Jackpot
    Girls Talk
    This Year’s Girl
    Beyond Belief
    National Ransom
    Clubland
    Peace Love and Understanding
    Pump It Up
    Please Please Me

  5. David Kroll says:

    Hi, Cindy! So great to hear from you!! Ah yes, I remember those lovely high-wind days in the West during Spring.

    The show was absolutely stunning (as you can see from the review links I posted upthread). And as I sat down prior to the show, the gentleman on the other side of me asked if I was David – turns out that someone had posted a link to my “neat preview/memoir piece” on the EC Fan Forum.

    “Tenterhooks,” eh? Obviously a fan of “Pump It Up.”

    Seat 101 was occupied by a lovely, shy young lady who emailed me overnight after the show. We didn’t talk much during the show so I felt odd imposing on her that I wrote the post in such that folks like you would be interested in the identity of my seat mate. I was tickled enough to just know that she read the post when she got home and send me a delightful message.

    Hope you’re doing well, Cindy – keep me posted on your own writing and photos as the West goes into bloom!

  6. Cindy Salo says:

    Google revealed to me that Elvis Costello used the phrase “on tenterhooks” in a song. I had no idea; I just tend to use the phrase.

    It’s fun to read about your fellow concert-goers.

    Things are great with me; still hope to make it to NC this summer! I’ll keep you posted.

  7. David Kroll says:

    Hi, Rose – thanks so much for reading long enough to have such a reaction and taking the time to comment. I’m sorry you feel that way and that my middle-aged male writing isn’t up to snuff for you. You’re certainly entitled to such opinions.

    But if you are a long-time fan of Elvis, you’ll know that his subject matter in the late 70s and early 80s would resonate with young adults growing up at the same time, with sentiments and experiences that I wanted to draw into the empty seat metaphor. A good snapshot in time is represented by these two Robert Palmer articles – preview and review – of EC’s Palladium show in NYC the week before I saw him in Passaic. (In fact, I recommend that all readers search the NYT archives for the late Mr. Palmer’s writings about any band they love – he was a legendary music writer). In the preview, Palmer wrote:

    If there’s a single image or theme that ties his work together, it’s his vision of individual sexual relationships as fascist societies in miniature.

    And if you’ll recall Mr. Costello saying last evening, “We’re going to play songs about love, sex, death and dancing.” If you consider the tragic loss of my classmate in the WTC terrorist attacks, I’d submit that my post was prescient in aligning well with his intentions.

    Thank you for taking the time to comment!

  8. PalMD says:

    Hmm…a bit of odd hostility.

    As someone who grew up in the 70s and 80s, and a Blood and Chocolate fan, thanks. And as an adult with a working mouse and keyboard, had I not liked it, I would have simply stopped reading.

  9. Tara Malow says:

    What a wistfully lovely post.

  10. David Kroll says:

    @PalMD and @Tara: Love to you both!

  11. Namnezia says:

    When I was growing up in Mexico City, big rock concerts were actually illegal. So I grew up envying folks in other countries who could actually go listen to their favorite bands. At some point in the mid 80′s the ban was lifted and gradually various tours started showing up. The first “real” rock concert that I was able to attend was Santana, in the old olympic cycling stadium. I was 16 and I have to say that that experience was so formative and impressed me so much. Your story reminded me a bit about that time.

  12. Pingback: Frail memories of Rock and Roll | Take it to the Bridge

  13. Gaythia says:

    A bit late arriving here at this post. Now sitting with the gentle mists of Bellingham WA just out the window, (they call this the city of subdued excitement – Really!) . So I was ready to be launched on a nostalgic trip back to early Elvis Costello recollections. And then, in the comments, Cindy Salo had me even missing being blasted by the winds as semis wavered in the lane beside me while rounding Elk Mountain Wyoming!

    Thanks for the break. Now back to work.