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And I’ll See You at the Show

You’re miserable, and I’m useless

It’s 10:30 on a Friday night.

My t-shirt and jeans stick to my body, damp from a combination of rain and other people’s sweat. My ears are ringing, my feet hurt, and a guy with forearm tattoo of a t-rex wrapped in a taco keeps pushing into me on purpose.

I want to go home.

Becoming the single thing that we once despised

My first concert was the OC Supertones at the Electric Factory in Philly. The Supertones were a Christian ska band, the type of group that plays hard and loud and tries to make Christianity appealing to teens by singing embarrassing lyrics like “so I jump for Jesus/it’s Jesus who frees us/let’s get dumb like Beavis/I don’t care who sees us.” 

By the time my pastor took me and the rest of my church’s youth group to see them, I’d already been bitten hard by the music bug. I’d gone through a Beatles phase and a Zeppelin/Hendrix/Clapton guitar gods phase, and now, as a freshman in high school, I was crushing hard on my newest discovery: punk rock.

Needless to say, my parents were a little wary of my desire to dress exclusively in Dickies work pants and gas station shirts with someone else’s name above the pocket. The escapades of Keith Moon and Brian Jones, those were known entities, but who the hell is Fat Mike, and why is he telling my son to buy his album called White Trash, Two Heebs and a Bean? 

They erred on the side of protection, more or less forbidding concerts unless I was being escorted by a clergyman. Fortunately, I had a pastor who was young and cool and didn’t mind driving 20 teens into downtown Philly on a school night.

I wasn’t much into the prayer circle The Supertones led before their encore, but I immediately fell in love with everything else: the smash of bodies writhing in the crowd, the humid air saturated with sweat, the way my body felt wrung out and spent on the way to the exit.

And my god, the music. The music that was so loud I felt it with my body, my ribs and organs. It moved me, pushed me around like a bully on a playground and then stayed with me, my ears ringing and my calves aching for days afterwards. 

Concerts became the foundation of my social life. I hung a calendar in my college dorm room with the exclusive purpose to track concerts and CD release dates. I’d go with friends, taking the Metro from College Park to the Black Cat or 9:30 Club, or if I couldn’t find an escort, venture into the city alone. As my obsession with live music increased, so did my range. I drove south to Richmond or north to Philly or New York to see bands play, sometimes watching the same tour in multiple cities. To wit: Between 2003 and 2004, I saw Fall Out Boy 23 times. The scene swallowed me whole. 

But after my two-year tenure as the tour manager of a mid-level pop-punk band and learning how the music industry makes the sausage, I lost my taste for the night life. In 2009 alone, I managed 214 shows on three full-US tours and a trip to the UK. Every day for two years, it was drive, load in, show, load out, drive more, collapse. 

They say you can’t ever have too much of a good thing. I don’t know who “they” are, but they’re fucking liars. Even when I quit working for bands, I could no longer stomach standing in another cinder block club, rubbing against another dirty kid, enduring the sloppy set of another opener, only to wake up the next day and drag myself through a work day bleary-eyed and hungover. I was out on shows. Chapter closed.

Now the dust covers my heels

People still ask me if I want to go to shows. Like, all the time. Less Than Jake at the Filmore? Cartel? Reel Big Fish? The Starting Line is back again, wanna go?

Hard pass. Been there, done that, got the black zip-up hoodie.

About three months ago, my friend and co-worker Jon started a conversation I knew would end in a show pitch.

“There’s a show coming up I thought you might wanna see,” he began.

I took a breath to begin my defense, and then he told me who it was.

“Lifetime’s playing.”

Lifetime needs no introduction. It’s well-documented they were among the first to merge hardcore sensibilities, pop melodies, and spleen-dripping lyrics; the shit that’s basically inescapable when listening to pop punk today. Innumerable artists owe their careers to Lifetime — bands you know: Saves The Day, Thursday, New Found Glory, Fall Out Boy — despite the band releasing fewer than 90 total minutes of music in their entire incumbency.

Some of it’s rough and some of it’s sloppy, and seriously, who the fuck knows what singer Ari Katz is mumbling about, but Lifetime strikes a nerve in the listener the way few bands can.

The first time I saw them was in the summer of 2005, to be sure a seminal period in both my life and in my consumption of melodic hardcore music.

My friends and I stood outside the Ticketmaster kiosk at the Deptford Mall for half an hour before they opened one morning in the spring of 2005 so we could be one of the first ones to buy tickets to Hellfest. Hellfest was a punk/hardcore music festival at the Sovereign Bank Arena in Trenton scheduled for August of that year. I have no recollection of any other band on the bill, only that Lifetime was scheduled to play their first set in almost 10 years.

I was an intern sitting at my desk in the newsroom of the Gloucester County Times newspaper the day I found out Hellfest was cancelled, and I was heartbroken.

Luckily, Lifetime responded to the fest’s last-minute cancellation by quickly announcing three shows: two in Philly and one at Asbury Park’s famed venue, The Stone Pony. That next morning, my friends and I were back at Strawbridge’s, buying tickets for all three shows.

That whole weekend was a blur. For three nights, I danced and sweat to the band I only dreamed about seeing live. For three nights, they delivered.

Even now, listening to the drum and guitar salvo that opens Jersey’s Best Dancers — an album released when I was 13 — puts me in the passenger seat of my friend Wayne’s purple Pontiac Grand Am speeding up Route 45 toward the Colonial Diner, the windows down, the smell of Parliament Lights permeating every fiber of the night. Those experiences didn’t feel important at the time, but looking back, they were crucial in shaping who I was, who I am. To pilfer from Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower: “And in that moment, I swear we were infinite.”

Caught in my own snare of schmaltz, I weakly told Jon I would go.

Knives, bats, new tats

Doors for the show are at 6, and Jon and I roll up to the church at a casual 6:30 after a few beers and dinner. It’s a brisk 45 degrees and has been raining intermittently all afternoon, so we’re damp from our walk.

The church parking lot resembles a dehydrated memory of my youth reconstituted and placed before me. Three beat-up 15-passenger vans line the driveway. Dudes — always dudes — litter the front lawn in tight circles, shoulders hunched against the drizzle. Most of them sport “the uniform:” jeans or cargo shorts; a black hoodie emblazoned with the logo of some esoteric band; Buddy Holly glasses; a pair of New Balance or Converse sneakers that look like they should have been retired before the Towers fell. The more progressive ones take pulls from Juul vape pens; the die hards still clutch Marlboros and P-funks between their fingers.

It’s a picture of reality I once lived and breathed, but distorted in a grotesque way, like an impressionist painting that looks right from far away but swirls and warps the closer you get. Then I understand why: everyone is old.

These are no longer the teens and twenty somethings that once proliferated the venues of yore. I mean they are — I recognize a dozen or so bearded faces — but like myself, they’re no longer teens and twenty somethings. They’re haggard and round, their man-tits straining against their wet, too-small hoodies. The whole thing makes me feel irritated and kind of sad, the way I feel when I hear old veterans at a bar trading banal stories about basic training or the monotony of peacetime service.

The first act is scheduled to start in less than 15 minutes, but there are only 20 or so old heads milling around the sanctuary. Everyone looks lost, like they got off at the wrong bus stop and are trying to regain their bearings.

Jon nudges me in the ribs and points to a guy who’s by himself, leaning against the wall and staring at the floor planks. He’s wearing a beat up red trucker hat and a striped fisherman’s shirt under two half-buttoned western shirts. His khaki Levis are pegged and cuffed, accentuating his toothpick legs and LL Bean camp moccasins. My Brooklyn-dwelling friends play this game called “hipster or homeless,” and I’m hard-pressed to determine which category this emaciated vagrant occupies.

“There’s your guy,” Jon says, poking me again. “The man himself.”

I take a second look and realize this wastrel is Ari, Lifetime’s muttering frontman.

“Jesus,” I say. “He looks like a hobo.”

“Like an old man who might yell at kids from his porch,” Jon adds.

It’s not funny anymore

The first band starts a casual 25 minutes after they’re slated to begin. They’re sloppy in a way I think is supposed to be on purpose — what I would have labeled back in the day as “raw.” The guitar, bass, and vocal melodies don’t ever quite line up; they might be playing different songs at the same time.

Watching an opening band like this is an exercise in self-doubt: is there something I’m missing? Do I not possess a sophisticated enough ear to comprehend the artist’s purpose? It’s the same way I feel when I go to an art museum and stare at a post-modern installation; its mere presence in such a prestigious venue indicates value, and so the problem must be in me, the viewer.

I’m able to tune out both the noise and my cognitive dissonance because I’m entranced by the band’s drummer, who mouths his parts while he beats them into the skins. Poom poom PAH, poom pa poom PAH. Digga digga digga digga poom poom PAH.

Nobody else is paying attention, either. The only people engaged in the set are standing side stage, nodding their heads to the beat. But even they look bored.

The most exciting part of the band’s set is when a baby wearing pink earmuffs wriggles away from her tattooed dad and starts to crawl across the stage. She gets as far as the bass amp before Dad pulls her back and shoves a pacifier in her mouth.

Two other bands play. The sound is sludgy and poorly mixed, despite the sound guy pacing the back of the room with an iPad, scratching his head and doing his damndest to not make it sound like shit. At one point, the three youngest kids in the room not sucking on pacifiers try to start a mosh pit, but their exuberance is quelled by a wall of cross-armed Dad bods.

One thing of which I am certain is that no one attending this show is attractive. Their costumes make them look silly, and the faded, smearing tattoos festooning their bodies make me glad I abstained from inking myself up years ago.

My feet start to ache as I wait through the set changeover. The squirrelly guy next to me pulls out a book from his messenger bag entitled Witch Hunting and the Fear of the Power of Women and dives in. A compelling read, I’m sure. More and more bodies press into the space. It smells like wet dog and onions.

Bringin’ it backwards

Part of the magic of a show is the pageantry of the whole thing. The stage is a powerful thing, and it lends mystique to anyone thrust upon it. Usually, this showmanship is so easy to execute that you even see it at a high school talent show. The lights go down. A cheer erupts from the crowd. Darkened silhouettes creep across the stage. A single spotlight and a crescendoing drum cadence. Suddenly, the stage is alive with music and light, sending shivers through your body. The singer nods his head to the beat and smiles. “What the fuck is up, DC?! You ready to get this shit started?!” You are, you scream. The show has begun.

Lifetime does absolutely zero of the above. I watch them open the door of the office doubling as a green room, wind their way apologetically through the crowd, and mount the stage with an affected, nervous ambivalence. There’s a couple of woos and a smattering of applause as they strap on their instruments, but the crowd mostly looks confused. Is this the band? Roadies getting the guitars tuned up for the main event? The house lights haven’t even gone down yet.

Homeless man Ari Katz shuffles centerstage, twirling the mic cord with his fingers like a girl playing with her pigtails. “Uh, hi everybody. We’re Lifetime.”

We don’t hear ‘cause we don’t care

I find myself hesitant to fling any criticism in the band’s direction. For one, there’s nothing more obnoxious than cynical criticism offered up solely for the sake of looking jaded and cool. For another, at this point, talking shit on Lifetime is like making fun of your grandfather for propping his glasses on his forehead and forgetting where he put them.

But if I’m being honest, they were bad. Lifetime was never what I’d characterize as a tight band — it’s tough to play songs that fast without being sloppy — but this is a new level of muddy. All of them wear a tight-toothed grimace of concentration, like they know if they can just get through the next 30 seconds of this song, they can have a rest.

When each song — the longest of which is “Airport Monday Morning,” clocking in at 2 minutes and 32 seconds — finishes, theres a brief burst of cheers and applause followed by silence. Stone. Dead. Silence.

Ari makes no attempt to interact with the crowd, except for during one lengthy stretch between songs when he looks down at the floor with the mic to his lips. “We’re not so good at the showbiz part,” he says. “Sorry about that.” The crowd responds with cheers that feel conciliatory, like the way you’d clap for a little leaguer who just hit into a double play.

I find out later guitarist Pete Martin was dealing with a painful back injury that prevented him from holding a guitar, so much of Lifetime’s rehearsal time before the show was cut short. Sympathetic dad me understands. Cynical asshole me thinks there’s nothing less punk rock than cancelling rehearsal due to back pain.

They finish their set and snake back through the crowd to the office/dressing room. It’s clear the crowd expects an encore, as no one has moved. So back they go through the crowd, dragging ass.

As the band tunes up to give the people what they want, Ari lets us know we should manage our expectations.

“We only practiced the songs in the set,” he says. “So uh…”

He never finishes the sentence. The band plays an unmemorable song from their self-titled album I can’t name and hustles the fuck off the stage. It’s clear that this time, they’re not coming back.

Could it be a stranger night?

I go home miserable and introspective, disappointed at the show’s inability to give me that electric tingle I once felt every time a band took the stage. I find myself asking: what has changed? Is it the band? Has time taken away the magic that once made them kings of the scene? Or were they always this bad and I didn’t notice?

The answer is probably both. The world has changed a lot since the band released Jersey’s Best Dancers 22 years ago, and so has my perspective.

I bought a ticket to see Lifetime, a band etched onto my punk rock Mount Rushmore, thinking I could re-create the joy I once felt standing in a crowd and watching my musical heroes throw themselves around on stage. Like a reformed junkie longing for just one more fix, I wanted to feel that buzz again, the sensation of the music vibrating through my body, the lyrics cracking open my ribcage and seizing my heart. 

Nostalgia is a hell of a mistress, though. No matter how hard we try, we’ll never capture that lightning in a bottle again, at least not in the same way. That carrot will always be just out of our grasp.

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