By 5pm on July 25th, the doctors had told us she was going to die. And among the many, many thoughts I had in the beginning was “ . . . How long does dying take?” My mom had been sick enough to require almost constant assistance for the last four years, but my parents always encouraged me to carry on with my life. My life involved going out to shows, and I had several on the horizon for the rest of the summer. There was Andrew Jackson Jihad. There was Goodnight, Texas’s record release. There was Outside Lands. Would she be gone in a few hours? A few days? Weeks? And for that matter, would she actually be gone? We had seen her cheat death so many times, and she didn’t look much worse than she had during the countless number of close calls she’d had since 2010. It seemed entirely possible that her sticky eyelids would roll open at any second. But if the doctors were in fact right and they didn’t, I didn’t know if it would be better for me to hole up in my apartment and cry or go out and try to forget it all.
Shows have been a part of my life since I was 13; since my mom drove me to the Gaslighter Theater in Campbell to see what turned out to be a really shitty battle of the bands. My mom, actually, chauffeured me around constantly at the dawn of my show-going career. And then, once I became an adult, watching live music actually did become my career. But for at least the last decade, going to shows had felt like a chore. I showed up and saw the band I came for, but only rarely did they feel as exhilarating as they did when my mom was driving me and my cousin Megan to the Cactus Club or the Outhouse or any of the myriad all-ages haunts that dotted the South Bay in the early 2000s. Every once in a while, I might be pleasantly surprised by an opening act, but it had been a long time since I woke up the morning after a show still wrapped in a haze of glee.
She stopped breathing at about 9:30 in the morning. A small circle of friends – the same ones that had sat with us in her room, laughing and telling stories, the night before – came back to the 5th floor and said their goodbyes. We lingered in the room, sitting in a circle made of plastic chairs, talking about matters both practical and anecdotal. And people asked, “So are you still going to go to the show on Tuesday?”
We had talked about it the previous night, in that darkened, quiet room. And I said, “Yeah. I think I am.”
So I did. Megan, the same Megan, collected me after she got off work at the library and we drove down to Santa Cruz. By my estimate, that was probably our 50th show we’ve seen together; maybe more. We had gotten into AJJ when we had seen them open for Frank Turner back in 2010 or 2011, and we’d seen them open for a few other bands since then. The first time we saw them headline was at Café Stritch earlier this year, and that show was so good I ended up losing track of time and staying out until 1 a.m. on a work night. So it seemed like a no-brainer that I would see them again a few months later, when they came through Santa Cruz.
There wasn’t anything about the show that was all that special (sorry, guys). I mean, they did have a band with them this time, which brought some new and different dimensions to a lot of their material and meant they could play songs from their best-loved record, Knife Man, more true to its original form. But what made this random little tour stop so exceptional for me was that it was the first time in a long time a live show felt good. As good as it did before everything went straight to hell. As good as it did when Megan and I were 15.
I can’t say how or why it happened, but something so right just came together for me that night in the Rio. I can’t explain how wistful and bittersweet it was to be there — we were the oldest people in the room by a number of years; surrounded by teenagers playing out their youth in front of us. We watched and narrated to each other as they awkwardly hugged and flapped their hands and sang along, all of them unaware that that this might set off a lifelong love of live music for them, too. I can’t explain the slight thrill when Sean put down the guitar to “flail around like a dipshiiiiit” (his words) for a few songs; a simple way to connect with the crowd just a little bit more. And I can’t explain the exhilaration in the room when the band stopped and Sean alone lead the whole place in an a cappella round of “Big Bird,” a song I’d mumbled to myself in the car many times.
It’s corny to say, but it all felt like a tiny reward at the end of a long, hard road; a happy homecoming for my music-loving self. In some weird way, it reassured me that all those years of ER visits and installing ramps and handrails and flirting with her physical therapists were worth it: She didn’t get any better, but we did everything we could to make those last years good. Here in this tacky little theater in a seaside college town, the universe was whispering Please be happy; you deserve it. All the shows I’ve been to since have been this way — I’ve been aware, attentive, and really, truly loving live music again.
Music writers walk a finer line than most other writers. We are journalists, after all, so we have to (or should try to) maintain some impartiality most of the time. But the fact of the matter is that most of us got into this because we are fans. As such, we are constantly balancing bias, even though our line of work will always bleed over into our personal lives. Though they have no idea of any of this, Andrew Jackson Jihad’s Santa Cruz show in the summer of 2014 will forever be my First Show After.
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