Commentary

Mascis' music brightens night's mood

Originally Published: November 3, 2009
By Paul Shirley | Special to ESPN.com

It was billed by the hype machine that operates in my mind as the concert experience of the year. Bruce Springsteen and Dinosaur Jr. on the same night, in the same town and, crucially, sufficiently start-time staggered so I could hope to see both shows without missing too much of either.

[+] EnlargeBruce Springsteen
Kevin Kane/Getty ImagesTragic circumstances altered the Bruce Springsteen half of an incredible night of music.

First, I'd watch a legendary performer in a massive arena, and then I'd see a semi-legendary performer in a tiny bar. There would be logistical issues; I wasn't sure I would make it out of one in time to see the other but, as I left my house at 5 p.m. on a Monday, it appeared that a successful transfer was possible. I was even excited about my company for the night. My man date, Casey, is the boyfriend of a longtime female friend. Months before, I had targeted him as a potential pal based on his taste in music and ability to stay on my side of a current events argument. This would be our first chance for a hangout.

It was a night filled with potential, but also one steeped in latent pressure: Would Springsteen's encore negate my aspirations of watching Dinosaur Jr.? Would Casey and I be able to handle the friendship crucible that is live music? Would anyone from Springsteen's camp be found dead in a Kansas City hotel room, resulting in an unpopular, but warranted, cancellation of the night's show?

The answers, an hour into our night:

Maybe, probably, and, sadly and surreally, most definitely. (Springsteen's 36-year-old cousin and road manager, Lenny Sullivan, was found dead in his hotel room only hours before the show's start time.)

We were nestled into the bar at Willie's, which sits a cellular phone's throw away from Kansas City's shiny downtown arena, when Casey got the news. By looking out the window. There, he spied one of those newfangled electronic billboards. It read, "Bruce Springsteen: Canceled. Refunds Available at Point of Purchase."

We tried to convince ourselves that it was possible that we were the victims of an elaborate hoax, but our efforts were short-lived. A 50-foot sign next to the venue doesn't leave much wiggle room.

By 6:30, I'd been the bearer of bad news to three fellow concertgoers. Two of them thought I was making an awful joke, which made me question how well those two humans know me; I'm not one to dash hopes for the sake of a laugh. Every recipient of my 2006-era Twittering (text messages which convey information) was devastated. I played along, even while remaining remarkably unmiffed. I hadn't told anyone -- Casey included -- but, while I was excited to see Springsteen, Dinosaur Jr. was my real raison d'étre.

I didn't want to burst their respective bubbles because Springsteen fans are cute in their earnestness. Earnestness with a touch of insecurity, that is. Because the way they try to make sure you're also into The Boss makes me think they're still not sure they should be into him quite as much as they are. But that's OK, because it's Bruce Springsteen. And Bruce Springsteen's great. It's just that he's old and he plays only in arenas and, if I've learned one thing in my time as a concertgoer, it's that transcendental live shows rarely happen in arenas. They happen in tiny bars, where the PBRs are $3 for a 24-ounce can.

And it just so happened that we had one of those to look forward to.

After several hours spent commiserating admirably with fellow cancellees at Willie's, Casey and I packed ourselves into his girlfriend's car for the ride to the Riot Room, a name that still makes me cringe even after several mentions in these very pages. We stopped off at Walgreens for ear plugs; Dinosaur Jr.'s reputation as Eustachian tube-ruiners preceded them.

When we got to the RR (I can't type it again), the opener to the opener was hard at work on the minds of the early birds. I won't mention that band's name because they weren't very good. And anyway, I was more distracted by a girl in the room, but not for the usual reasons.

I don't run into exes very often because most of mine are scattered across the globe. Thus, I was startled to see one in the audience. It dawned on me when I did see this particular person that one of the few things we had connected on had been music, so I shouldn't have been so surprised. (The other things we connected on were partying, making out in public, and late-night, come-hither text messages.)

The girl, who I'll call Sara because that's an innocuous enough fake name, looked good. Better, probably, than she did when we, ahem, dated. This was going to be a problem, I thought, as she leaned in to kiss my cheek. I did not need to be tempted for several reasons but I wasn't sure I was lucid enough to remember that fact.

Fortunately, I didn't have to address the issue right then. Lou Barlow's side project (he's also in Dinosaur Jr. as the Snuffleupagus to J Mascis' Big Bird) distracted me from any love life issues. His band's work was serviceable enough to keep me vaguely interested, but it was by no means spectacular.

[+] EnlargeJ Mascis
Will Ragozzino/Getty ImagesJ Mascis' guitar skills and music are more impressive because he doesn't play it safe.

Between sets, Sara came back. The look in her eyes did not bode well for either of us feeling good about ourselves in the morning. But then she said a strange thing. She pointed to her friends, three guys my age, and said, "You see the red-haired one? He was mad at me for talking to you. Which was weird, because I thought we [she and Red] were just friends."

I had seen the fellow in question because I see everything. (I'm really tall, as one might recall.) When Sara had disengaged from Casey and me the first time, I'd seen Red put his hand on Sara's hip while talking to her. I told Sara this and related my theory that, if a guy puts his hand on a girl's hip while he's talking to her, he feels possessive of her. "Really?" Sara asked. I was surprised this was a revelation. Regardless of Sara's forced naiveté, I felt smug -- a balding, bland-looking guy was threatened by me. "Ha," I thought, unnecessarily.

Sara wandered back into the not-massive bar and Casey and I took up positions near the front of the place so we could watch Mascis from close range. I had done all I could to get Casey excited about Dinosaur Jr. "All I could" consisting mostly of buying for him several servings of the aforementioned 12.5 cent/ounce beer. He appeared to have shaken off at least 40 percent of the cancellation doldrums and I considered my pump-priming finished.

I'd never seen Dinosaur Jr. live. As I've written before, I wasn't even much of a fan before the band's most recent two albums. Dinosaur Jr. had one heyday long before 2007's "Beyond" and this year's "Farm," but those two albums would seem to indicate that the band is having a second. Heyday, that is. Because both albums are good. Really good.

The same could be said about Dinosaur Jr.'s live performance. It's been discussed ad nauseam by more-qualified souls than I, but it should be noted that J Mascis is a virtuoso with the guitar. Even if I didn't like his music, it would have been fun to watch him for the same reason it's fun to watch Roger Federer play tennis or it's fun to watch Glenn Beck spew outlandish theories that make him look provincial and ignorant. It's fun to watch people do things they're really good at.

But beyond Mascis' talent with the guitar, there is something transcendent about his band's music. On the surface, or to the person reading these words, that might seem impossible: The songs are almost all melancholy and/or wistful. They usually follow the same pattern. And Mascis doesn't seem to care at all whether anyone likes what he's doing. But it works, and I think the main reason is the last of the above three.

It became clear to me during Dinosaur Jr.'s set that I wasn't going to have to worry about any tomorrow morning regrets. Sara had disappeared with Red/Marriage Material -- the dull-looking fellow who appeared to hate his life, but who is a good, safe option. But I didn't really care, which is a credit not to any sort of sour grapes emotion I was feeling, but is a credit to the attitude I was seeing displayed onstage.

When I saw that Sara was gone, I turned back to the stage, where Mascis' dull stare was fixed on a point at the back of the bar. I was oddly inspired. Mascis is married, as it turns out, but I would guess he's never been the safe option. For someone like me, there's comfort in that. I don't want to paint myself as any sort of leather-jacket wearing, proto-Arthur Fonzarelli. I did buy ear plugs, after all. But I'll probably never be like Marriage Material. I'll never be the safe option. (I hope not, anyway.)

I watched the rest of Dinosaur Jr. at peace. I even closed my eyes a few times, letting one of the many guitar solos wash over me. I'm sure Mascis was unaware and uncaring that he made me really happy, but he did nonetheless.

By the end of Dinosaur's set, I had forgotten that I was supposed to have seen Springsteen earlier in the night. I had stopped caring about whether Casey and I were going to strike up a long-standing friendship. And I had quit worrying about beautiful girls in New York and old flames in Kansas City.

I was happy with the way things were at that moment. If that seems hokey or hyperbolic … well, I would probably think the same, if I read these lines. But I think it speaks to the power of live music. Because a concert is nothing if not a chance to live in one moment -- a chance to forget about today's work or tomorrow's responsibilities. Acceptance of this concept -- "the moment" -- is a struggle for me. My brain wants/needs/lusts for order that does not exist. I want to predict the future. I want to worry. I want to obsess.

But that never helps. What does help is to stay in the present -- to forget about the past and, importantly, to forget about the future.

In the 90 minutes that I got to watch Dinosaur Jr. play music, I was able to do just that. Of course, such a feeling is often available at a live show, but because of Mascis' approach and general aura, it was accentuated. It seemed to me that his very carriage implied a sense of calm that, truthfully, bordered on apathy.

After Dinosaur Jr.'s one-song encore, Casey and I walked down the street and had a nightcap at a nearby bar. Soon, it was time to go home. We said our goodbyes and pledged to do it again, which may or may not happen. And then I caught a taxi and rode home in a state of blissful calm that is rare enough to be remarkable for me.

I think some people call that happiness. And I think Dinosaur Jr. had something to do with mine.

Paul Shirley has played for 13 pro basketball teams, including three NBA teams: the Chicago Bulls, Atlanta Hawks and Phoenix Suns. His book "Can I Keep My Jersey?" -- which is available in paperback -- can be found here. He can be found at Twitter (Twitter.com/paulthenshirley) and you can e-mail him here.

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