by Erin Campbell
Drummers are short and lead singers are tall. This is a rule I have learned, though I can’t claim it’s actually true. The drummer of any band sits at the back of the stage, usually mic-less and unnoticed except for the token solo if he’s good enough. But lead singers…they seem so large to the audience that stands on the floor of a concert hall or bar and looks up at them. A man stands, statuesque, center stage – his silhouette large and overwhelming as vibrant waves of booming music combine with blinding stage lighting to define it. He is a ‘rock star’ – not because he’s sold one million albums or been on MTV, but because of the grandness, the coolness, that emanates from him both onstage and off. When I was younger, this perspective took on a twinge of…I don’t want to say worship…worship.
I have some friends who are in an up and coming band. As they teeter on the edge of their own rockstardom, I’ve gotten some great chances to sway deeper and deeper into the backstage world along with them. Most of us are in our early twenties - I’m going to statistics class, they’re going on tour – but it’s an effective, if vicarious thrill tagging along with them further into that special sub-culture that is rock music among the youth of any generation. I’ve gotten to meet a band or two, and not long ago I found out I’d get to meet one of my favorites, a band I’ll call “Beat Michigan.” Their lead singer happened to be the long time largest of my heighty obsessions. I rode to Cleveland with my friends in their big black windowless van and we sat waiting at Mama Mia’s, the pizza joint attached to the bar where the bands would play. Beat Michigan is a little bigger than my friends’ band, which I’ll call “After Crash,” but they are both traveling the intermediate circuit that spans much of the rock world today – small bars with sometimes no more than one hundred in the audience, sometimes even less. There are so many bands out there that it’s difficult to get a big and loyal following. Many of these bands play together, tour together, and party together. I happened to be partying with these two on that day, and I could not hide my excitement as I arranged and rearranged myself in the torn vinyl booth, glancing towards the front door every fifteen seconds as I waited for my singer to arrive. My friends snickered at me and I was too distracted to hide my embarrassment.
You see, he was not the first. Lead singers have this amazing ability to entangle us emotional young adults (especially screaming girls) within their web of masculinity, power, presence, height, etc. Not only are they physically powerful, but they have other tools to grab us by our weak spot and ensnare us – lyrics being one of the most catching of those barbs. Lyrics are a very tricky thing. A listener can take most any lyrics being sung and stretch them as far as necessary in order to fit his needs. We become completely enamored with the vocalist who seems to reach out with his words and snatch us by the heart, when in actuality the words mean nothing close to our interpretations and, actually, the vocalist may not have even written them anyway. The first song I ever claimed for my favorite, at sixteen, is called “For Evangeline” and is played by The Juliana Theory. The lyrics say: “In one night you made me your own, in one hour you gave me away to the angels / Now their wings fan the heat from the face you’ll never touch, the hair you’ll never smell, the little hands you’ll never hold.” I approached their singer, Brett, one day after they played a show at a tiny bar in Toledo called Frankie’s. They had played the song in their set, so I didn’t feel the need to add extra context – I simply looked up at him and said: “I believe that you may have written the most meaningful song concerning abortion that I’ve heard.” I smiled my most appreciative smile. He looked at me blankly and half nodded before murmuring the name of a different song that I had never heard. He obviously didn’t know what song I was referring to, and it was slightly awkward until he turned to his bass player to mention some error in the bassline during the encore. I made my friends listen to that song all the way home to Lima from Toledo to the challenge that not one of them could prove to me that it is not about abortion.
So as I sat in Mama Mia’s I was more mature, more advanced, and less susceptible. Or so I thought. I had learned the lesson about tricky singers and their lyrics but still I wrestled with the stigma. Still, it was difficult to disentangle myself from preconceived notions of each member of this band I felt I knew so well. I felt I knew the words we all would speak before any of us had even arrived at the show. We had arrived quite some time before when the drummer sitting across from me got the call that the other band had arrived. My anticipation, overwhelming already, increased exponentially. I sat (or should I say vibrated) there, waiting for them to walk in and repeating the mantra: musical impression and face to face reality are sometimes separated by a large margin. Then the emotional rest of it would crowd into my mind – this singer’s lyrics had helped me get through a nasty break up, a lot of doubt, and eight long months of two-a-day two-hour traffic jam commutes in lonely Orlando. “And you lay your head onto my shoulder,” he would say, “pour like water over me / So if I just exist for the next ten minutes of this drive that would be fine / And all the trees that line this curb would be rejoicing and alive. / Soon all the joy that pours from everything makes fountains of your eyes / Because you finally understand the movement of a hand waving goodbye.” And I would cry. Sometimes I would feel all that joy described, for myself, just by understanding what I thought he meant. At one moment I knew better, but it seemed that in the same moment remained the residual sentiment that I knew this artist and that he knew me, too, without knowing it. I’d be doing him a favor by introducing myself, by letting him know he had a kindred spirit out there and someone who understood him. In my projections, he would need that the way I did before I found it, in him and others. I had, in my teenage years, rehearsed the things I’d say to him about his songs - praise of clever metaphors and questions about wild characters; snippets of those conversations came back at Mama Mia’s to convict me of girlish immaturity and to haunt me with embarrassment. I admit I felt stupid as I sat there and tapped my foot against the cracked tile floor to squelch the rising thoughts – that he’d be so happy that someone understood. That he’d be helplessly attracted to me. That I’d be a net to catch him and all of his vulnerability. Perhaps I should have considered the fact that obsession may lead to temporary mania…
It didn’t matter though, really, what I had been thinking or telling myself, because I forgot everything I ever knew as the band filed jauntily over the threshold and into the restaurant. They’d had a long drive from wherever and it showed in their faces but the fatigue just intensified the coolness. He came in last, my singer ducking to clear the doorframe, and I panicked quietly from my seat. In his worn black t-shirt, studded belt, and girls’ jeans embellished with buttons from eighties bands, he was a portrait of what I expected. He sat down wordlessly in the booth across from mine, within tattooed arm’s reach; not yet center stage but still bathed in spotlight. He looked down at us, sighed, and then smiled behind his hair. I will never forget the perfection of his teeth or his expression. I was enraptured, and my mouth was glued shut. They all began to talk about people I didn’t know and bands I had never heard, but I didn’t care. It’s always a boys’ club until after the show, as they strut around trying to impress each other with new pieces of rockstardom or information that they have acquired since last meeting. My singer said funny things, loud things, perfect things that didn’t even sound like clichés when they came from his mouth. I longed to say something witty or clever when he addressed me once or twice, but I doubt I even managed good eye contact. I watched him reach out with his long fingers and touch the Rilo Kiley button on my denim purse. He put on his best exaggerated rocker voice, high pitched with eyes squeezed closed, and fell into one of my friends, singing a Rilo Kiley song – “You’ll be awake, you’ll be alert, you’ll be positive, though it hurts, and you’ll show up for work with a smile…” He gave his most sarcastic smile and seemed even cooler for acting like being a rock star is just a day job. Soon, they had to go in for a sound check and though he didn’t look at me as he loped out, I was not deterred. I may have known him for years, but we had only just met.
He sang those lyrics that I loved with all the live inflection that I had imagined. Their touring band was with them and the huge sound made by the dozen or so onstage pieces surrounded me until it began to sink in. When my singer was onstage one of my friends leaned over and yelled in my ear; he probably made fun of the singer for some crazy dance move or mistake, but I didn’t catch what was said. You have to work to hear anything over the looming, beating, black amps and I was totally occupied, under the spell of my singer. The band seemed as one body, moving to the direction of the singer’s arm and producing a perfect sound. The drummer may have been the heartbeat, but the singer’s cue was the impulse that told that heart to pound. He was composer, conductor, and performer and one body and we all swayed along with him, even my more sardonic friends. We all sang along together to the hooks that we took home and sang in the shower. He towered over us on that stage, and we all watched him. We couldn’t tear our eyes from his movements. He was Mozart, he was Jimi Hendrix, he was Shakespeare, and I was a sucker. I probably teared up a couple of times. I will say that it was pretty perfect, that two or three hours the band was onstage. It was all that I had expected.
After the concert everyone got drunk quickly and they were beautiful, emptied of the things they had given up to the crowd. All of them. My singer became very drunk and started repeating some of the ‘perfect things,” though they now seemed a bit more cliché. Rocker girls with cleavage out were pulled to his sides as though he were magnetic and he didn’t address me again. They all wore skin covered in tattoos and countenances punctuated with metal rings. In the bathroom, I caught sight of my tiny nose stud in the mirror and stared at it for a long time, considering the difference between myself and the standards swirling around me. Could I live up to it all – did I want to. I found myself habitually wondering if my singer dealt with that, too.
Feeling ashamed and hungover from my expectations, I went outside to soberly sit on the curb. It hit me that we had never gotten to discuss his music. I sorted the finer points in my head and tried to consider what a drunk person would make of them. It was difficult to capture – the lesson in the night. Why is it that I get so caught up? Why is it that no matter what we know to be true, we attribute those words and the feelings they spawn within us to one man, the singer? Maybe we’re just jealous that he’s just living the dream, so we idolize him. If he’s living it, is it still a dream? In a world where so little works out the way we want or expect it to, that man (or woman) gets to stand on a stage and sing lyrics that completely encompass and express an emotion. Perhaps the height of it is no more real for that singer in life than it is for me in my longings, but he shines it on so well – standing on stage and maintaining untouchable masculinity while ‘pouring his heart out,’ completely and unblinkingly, and with oh so much style. Perhaps we are jealous of that outlet. Perhaps we totally idealize. Perhaps we’re simply mistaken. Perhaps, rock stars are just sexy.
I sat there lost in these thoughts and with my eyes closed until the heavy gray door of the bar swung open to release a cloud of noise from within. Decent support of that last ‘perhaps’ stumbled across the threshold and into my alley, accompanied by his drummer. My singer said, “You know, you’re gonna get caught – doing drugs in the alley. At least go in a bathroom stall or something.”
Before I could think, I quipped. “The stalls were all full and what would addiction be without the urgency.”
They both laughed and I breathed a sigh of relief. The drummer noticed my black dove tattoo, spurring a discussion about ink.
“Is that an original drawing?” my singer asked, and I nodded.
“I got it done at Evolved. I’d seen this guy’s work and I liked it.”
“Is it your only?” asked the drummer.
“So far,” I cautiously affirmed.
Half embarrassed, half proud, my singer began to roll up his sleeve. “This was my first,” he said, and pointed out a blue shape among the rest of the tattoos surrounding his shoulder. The shape was the MxPx Pokinatcha Punk, and also the same image in the same place where it can be found on the bodies of ninety percent of all guys who were ‘punk’ anywhere in the nineties. The drummer and I looked at one another and sort of suppressed a laugh. Neither of us really tried too hard. My singer smiled to one side and, turning his marked forearms up then toward the ground, said thoughtfully, “you know, sometimes now I think that some patches of bare skin might be pretty hip.”
I giggled, suddenly pointedly aware of who I was talking to, who was talking to me. Of all the things I had wanted him to be, this real was unexpected and superior. They talked on, my singer and his drummer, and I leaned my head back against the brick wall. Thoughts came pouring in: sometimes misinterpretations aren’t so far off, but simply outlines not fleshed out. I’d made an idol of a rock star – he was a corkboard that had held my thumbtacked dreams, but could no longer. I made a resolution to begin putting them on myself. I suddenly wanted very much to ask each of them who their idols were. They went on drunkenly, though, and I lost most of what either said to the distracting fascination that they both seemed the same size. Maybe I had just grown a bit.