Kissing is fine. It is pleasant enough. Repeat the act a few dozen-hundred-thousand times, and the pleasantness takes on a kind of general tone. Some smooches are better than others, but overall, kissing is nice. The particulars slip away.
Except for the first. No one ever forgets that kiss. If your first was with someone who has done it a few times before, don’t be too hurt when he does not remember your name. Also, don’t be afraid to be a little in love with him for the rest of your life.
The same goes for concerts.
Mine was Go Go Live at the Capital Centre, 1987.
We claim our own music at one critical moment. We never get that moment a second time, and we never forget it. Our tastes belong to our families and then, perhaps, to our friends. At some point, we find the direction of our own discernment, and we lean in. The choice does not feel so important when it is happening. Aren’t we just seizing an opportunity and just jumping into the pleasure of noise? Such things are usually not planned according to a grand strategy. Like that kiss. The moment appears, someone offers up a ticket. We enter that melee independent, freely choosing. “I love this,” we say, and without reading the terms and conditions, sign on to a lifetime membership among the acolytes.
Any concert is an anonymous experience. Hell, they happen time and again, and thousands if not tens of thousands of people converge. The experience of gathering into theater or stadium washes each spectator free of name and history, crushing everyone together into a single, teeming mass. An organism fills the concert hall. This unified Fan rises and falls under the sway of the music.
Also, though, nothing is more personal than that first time. Ask anyone about that earliest solo adventure, and she will call up the whole of the sensation with her eyes flashing and cheeks warming. This one clanging, bopping, overcrowded moment several lifetimes ago is burned into bone and still lives there. It still stings. The first concert marks us. Even if most of what we feel is embarrassment or lingering terror at becoming lost in it, even if we have no recollection of a single song, we still feel it. It pulses against skin and eardrum and vision as if Right Now. The echo is almost indistinguishable from the shout.
I was fourteen, a freshman in high school, and as dumb as a box of rocks. What did I know about the world outside the safe confines of my Bethesda neighborhood? Most of the time, I could not even identify my own tastes until my more self-possessed peers decided for me. (Guess jeans? My favorite!) From time to time, I was able to zero in on exactly what I liked. In these exceedingly rare cases, I could neither justify the preference nor find the company to commiserate, but I did not budge.
My one self-defined pleasures was Rap music. That was all we knew to call it then, that infant form of Hip Hop. Whatever it was, it worked its way right down into my bloodstream.
In the mid-80’s, Rap was popping up everywhere. Run-D.M.C. was hitting top 40. Salt ‘n’ Pepa were giving the girls a voice, Public Enemy was inciting rebellion, Ice-T was birthing gangster rap into being. Rap made me loosen up parts I did not even know I had. There I was, this dingbat white girl busting a move in her bedroom, I’m like Tyson icin’ I’m a soldier at war, I’m makin’ sure you don’t try to battle me no more. I was far too high on the beat to notice that I did not have the first idea what a “glock” was, let alone how to use one.
None of us is any single entity during adolescence (thank heavens). I was also bopping on the Pom Pom squad to Tiffany and could sing every word to every Madonna song. UB40 had me grooving. I would crank Donna Summer and bounce the pictures off the walls. My only criterion for falling in love with a band was this: Can I dance to it? Because once this girl started moving, there was no way she was going to stop.
This may not be true anymore, but in 1987, every bonehead in the ‘burbs knew how to work a radio dial. When I grew bored of my cassette tapes and 45s, I could roll on down to strange new territory on the FM frequency. Sometime around then, WPGC began playing the kind of music I did not hear at the school dances. I had no idea what it was, but it got my rear end in gear. It met the conditions for dance-ability then carried the bar up into the stratosphere.
Whatever I was hearing was like rap, but more vital. Juicy. It had this funk. Its cool down-tempo percussion and uh-huh beat made it hard to sit still. I had no idea what it was and I did not think to ask. What did it matter? All a girl has to do is listen and feel and let it shake loose the spine.
An older boy in art class razzed me to no end about my musical tastes. I was not so sheltered I couldn’t see him for the foul-mouthed Neanderthal he was. He favored country and kept trying to engage me in a stultifying argument about the superiority of his preferred musical form. To locate myself as far from his world as possible, I immersed myself in hip hop. Also, this drowned him out. I credit his blend of racism, misogyny, and idiocy with expanding my rap vocabulary exponentially during my first year of high school. (It took me another decade to realize I could actually like Garth Brooks without selling my soul).
This dude knew some other dude who had tickets to a Go Go concert. Go Go, it turns out, only sounds like the name of an 80’s pop-girl band. It is actually that funked out music I was discovering down the radio dial. Go Go is a homegrown DC genre of music with R&B roots and a dancehall style, though I did not even know that much at the time. (Check out a sample here).
The guy with the tickets went to another school, but he was old enough to drive and I guess he was having as much trouble finding a date to the concert as I would have in the same circumstances. So, without even meeting first, he showed up at my house on that weekend night and whisked me off to Prince George’s County. It amazes me now to think how this could have occurred. My parents must have been more consumed by their own drama than I can even imagine. Off I went, into the wide-open night with a complete stranger.
God bless their distraction. What a thing it was to walk into that giant arena and join 15,000 complete strangers in stomping and whooping to those rat-a-tat beats! I knew the sounds through the tinny bands of my radio, but here it was in the deafening flesh. Lights and voices and very real people on stage and more people pressing in on every side. My companion had scored tickets on the floor, and I was standing up on the seat, dancing like a fool. I was aware that I was younger and whiter than anyone else there, but I didn’t know enough to care. I just figured if I liked something, I was allowed to like it openly and shamelessly. That’s the privilege of being from a certain background, I suppose. I may have been far dumber at fourteen than I am now. I was also bolder. It did not occur to me that music may not belong to a person who has claimed it. Those rhythms were mine because they spoke to me, and so I was exactly where I was supposed to be.
The lineup included a few I knew, like Rare Essence, Junkyard Band, and Experience Unlimited (who later hit the charts with “Da Butt,” but that song had not been hatched when they hit the stage). I had not previously heard Hot Cold Sweat or Little Benny. I fell in steamy, pure love with each and every one of them that night, and chanted along in the call-and-response, and got up offa my thing, just like I was told.
Chuck Brown exploded through a fanfare of music and lights, jamming into the screaming adoration of the audience. Even then, they called him the Godfather of Go Go, and he lit up that whole arena. I remember feeling like I was a part of something I should have understood but did not. What is a girl to do but step aboard and go for a ride? I got up and got down – way too far down for a skinny-assed kid – but I felt it all. My throat was as sore as my feet, but that was only later. Inside the night, inside the music, it was only the funk. It was only the Right Now.
They razed the Capital Center a decade ago, and Go Go had slipped into retirement a few years before that. Today, just a few miles down the road, a memorial service for Chuck Brown took place. He died last week at 75. It’s a sad, strange thing to think of all that flash and groove going quiet. I am sure I am not alone in claiming his music as the soundtrack for a first or for a whole chapter of firsts. On body, city, time, and even on me, that man left his mark. Just by playing his music, just by sending it out to the crowd, he gave this place sound in motion.
Go Go has been making its return to the District over the past few years. I have not had the courage to make my way in and see what the fuss is about. I know I will have to make the pilgrimage soon. We never forget the first one. The sting it leaves is still hot and deep. Even if the music does not remember me, it will always be my one true love. Chuck Brown, thank you for that kiss.
You can read Natalie Hopkinson’s tribute to Chuck Brown’s role in shaping Go Go here: http://www.theroot.com/views/chuck-brown-dies-75?page=0,0