Blast intern Morgan Lawrence is following the Foo Fighters from Washington, to New York, to Newark and back home to Boston. This is part two of her four-part series.
NEW YORK — The city that never sleeps, except between the hours of 1 and 5 a.m. You learn that pretty quickly when you frequent the 1 am Peter Pan/Greyhound bus from Boston to the Port Authority. Despite the fact that the schedule dictates that the bus should arrive around 5:30, the complete lack of traffic in the wee hours (especially on weekdays) means that the 4.5-hour bus ride actually gets in anywhere between 3.5 and 4 hours after departure. Let me emphasize again: nothing is open during these hours, except the Tick Tock Diner on 34th and 8th. So basically if you’re not up for a big stack of pancakes and a 10-block walk that early in the morning to get them, you’re out of luck, and you’ll be spending a lot of quality time with the dirty bus terminal floor.
Knowing this, I nonetheless chose that bus to get me into the city for my second Foo Fighters show. My original plan was to get to the venue (every venue, in fact – yeah, I was kind of optimistic and unrealistic when I made these plans) by 6 am. I soon realized, though, that sitting outside a venue in New York City, potentially alone, in the dark, was not the best course of action. And so it was that I found myself standing outside a Starbucks on 42nd street at 5:29 a.m., waiting for 5:30 or whenever the employees felt it was appropriate to open the door. As I waited, I was passed by a friendly and well-meaning man who quite clearly thought I was some form of homeless (something that I should really be accustomed to at this point with the traveling hours I keep).
Anyway, I killed time drinking coffee (my sleep schedule being completely through the wringer at this point in the tour) and waiting for the sun to rise before I trekked over to MSG around 7. Gratefully, although somewhat to my surprise, I found my barricade neighbor from the night before and two other people I didn’t recognize already there and waiting. Not bad at all.
The morning wait passed slowly, as they always do, as we tried to re-acclimate to the loss of feeling in our extremities and derrieres due to cold air and sidewalk. Just as we were getting settled in (read: found stuff to sit on and were honestly looking really homeless), Madison Square Garden staff approached us and told us to move to a space along the side of the building, away from the sidewalk foot traffic. It just so happens that it was in this spot we’d seen at least two homeless people sleeping not an hour earlier. As if to accentuate this point, the smell of urine was there to greet us as we got back in our line formation and were placed behind waist-high barricades that kept us along the wall.
We overheard staff ask via walkie-talkie for a custodian, presumably to clean up whatever spot under our feet smelled like it had been used as a bathroom. When said employee arrived, however, he did next to nothing and simply walked off. After 20 minutes of watching the mop sit there unused, frustration that none of us (set to be there for hours more) could sit down took over me. I asked security – still standing there, seemingly unconcerned about the whole lack-of-cleaning thing – if I could use the mop myself. They responded with an irritating amount of enthusiasm at the prospect, standing by and watching as I tried to bleach the smell away. I can’t make this up: one of them even went so far as to critique my mopping technique as he stood by. But I digress: at least that day, with all of our concerns, we didn’t have to worry about smelling like urine.
The day was slow, but I had good company in a group of women who had come from their home city of Quebec to, with the exception of the show in DC, do exactly as I was doing. Their second-language English prevented us from talking as much as I would have liked, as we indulged in New York’s thankfully ample selection of $1 slices of pizza, but they were still very friendly and inclusive. Best of all, they told me that they all wanted to be on the left side of the stage, meaning I was second in line who wanted the right. If not the corner, at least one spot to the right of it was mine.
I say that with conviction, but I hardly felt so certain. Soon the final hour and a half of the wait – as you’ll recall, the absolute worst period of the line time – was upon us, and I was totally unconvinced I’d get my spot after all. All day, courtesy of those who had been in Madison Square Garden pits before, I’d been fed horror stories of slow ticket scanners, innumerable escalator rides before being let in, and general chaos. I knew how easy it was for venue management, always just a little clueless, to mess everything up in a second.
They kind of made good on that, too. First we were led in (20 of us) and kept in line at the bottom of a flight of stairs. Then we were herded to a table where our tickets were checked and marked and we were given wristbands. Then we were lined up again before they finally let us through, through some maze of escalators and hallways until we finally made it to the floor. “Don’t run!”, staff screamed at us, as per usual, to no effect. As usual again (weirdly) there weren’t as many people interested in the right side of the stage as the left, so I was one off from the corner. Perfect.
It all started off with the news that The Joy Formidable’s set would be shortened. This after we’d heard that the Foos had already pushed back the door-opening time to start everything earlier, all presumably to make the midnight NYC noise curfew. The group made the most of it, though, packing their half hour with music, including what seemed like a lengthened version of their distortion-filled, gong-pounding, guitar-throwing ending to “Whirring”. I have to say, though, that despite what I’m sure must have been disappointment about their set being cut, they seemed to be having even more fun, and showcasing more energy, than they had in DC just days before. So when “Whirring” came along, it was no-holds-barred. Bassist Rhydian Dafydd lurched forward and threw his hands back in exaggerated strokes with every note, yelling lyrics or just simply yelling. Singer-guitarist Ritzy Bryan stomped her way across the stage and, while kneeling to adjust the effects pedals to produce as much of a swirling sonic mass as possible, headbanged on all fours, almost doing push-ups with the effort. The drummer who is not Russell Brand (but is Matt Thomas) threw his sticks against the cymbals before him, launching them toward his band mates like arsenal. I have to agree with Dave Grohl on this one: they have the musical chops to back it up, and it all came off as very rock n’ roll.
Speaking of rock n’ roll, next up was Social Distortion. Their set was not shortened, but was switched up a touch – they rotated in a seething older number that really brought up the mood and energy in the pit. As it should have – it would have brought down the house in one of their smaller gigs, where people actually know how to mosh for fun. Anyway, it seemed that despite singer/guitarist Mike Ness’s anecdote that in his previous New York experience he was beat up on H Street, “Social D” as a whole was all the more energized and confident, too. Ness strutted around the stage all the more, planting his feet and straightening himself up as he played as if readying himself for a fight – a fight that, given the signature half-sneer of an expression on his face, he was confident he would win. With his suspenders, old school tattoos, slicked back hair, and almost Elvis-like leg-shaking in time with the music, he was the picture of classic rock n’ roll. Not “classic rock”, of course, but what the genre meant at its origin and was always supposed to mean. Social Distortion represents that with pride, and they do it well.
And then, of course, was the almighty Foo. No matter how many times those extraterrestrial-esque fixtures descended onto the stage, shooting beams of light out into the stadium, I don’t think they could ever fail to give me butterflies. Without a sound, without doing much of anything, they gave the clear impression that something really important was about to happen. And the really cool part about being in the audience, let alone the front row, is that you know it will. Even for those last few seconds when the band is still hidden – their only sign being the razor-sharp riff that starts everything – the song “Bridge Burning”, the album, the show, the racing pulses of the audience – you cannot wait. It’s a simultaneous thrill and relief when suddenly the stage is clear, lights are flashing, Taylor’s drums are roaring through the speakers, and then: “These are my famous last words!”
Every song, even if it was the same as the night before, seemed tinted with the reverence of where we were – a place that management itself boldly proclaims (on all signage and merchandise) is “The World’s Most Famous Arena”. Taylor put this into words at long last during band introductions, quietly expressing his disbelief that the Foos had landed there: “I can’t believe we’re playing Madison Square Garden,” he said. “…all the adolescent dreams we had about playing this kind of show…it still seems unbelievable.”
Of course, no rock band can truly be classified as “reverent” – especially not when playing in front of thousands of screaming fans. During the switch-off solo portion of one of several “jams” built into the songs, this one being “Stacked Actors”, rhythm guitarist Pat Smear betrayed his usually positive disposition by lifting his guitar off his shoulders and smashing it neck-first on the amp in front of him. When a CD launched by a member of the crowd hit lead singer Dave Grohl in the leg during his between-song banter, Dave saw no reason to be anything but blunt. “Here’s an idea”, he said, tension running as a fierce undercurrent, “if you want me to listen to your fucking band, don’t through your CD in my face!”. He punctuated this with a raised middle finger and by picking up the CD and throwing it back in the general direction of the undoubtedly embarrassed audience member. Finally, he issued his usual command to parents, telling them to buy their children actual instruments instead of Guitar Hero, before launching into “Monkey Wrench”.
Nevertheless, things got kind of somber and significant again during the acoustic set – it’s hard not to take a step back in awe when a full Madison Square Garden is singing the chorus of “Wheels” back at you as loud as they can. The soaring “oooh” bridge during “Best of You” just about overtook Dave’s efforts on his acoustic guitar, as impassioned as they were as he stood, in a halo of light, on the raised platform at the end of the arena. I like to think that this is because everyone else, like me, took it upon themselves to belt it out with all that they had in them, sending all of the emotion that the song demands, with the lyrics, out into the air. But maybe not.
Then, of course, there was the actual encore – with the full band and the feeling that you don’t really know for sure what’s coming next. Bob Mould made another guest appearance, playing on a “Dear Rosemary” that has to be my favorite version to date. Something about the energy of that show, the passion of that song, and the fact that Bob Mould was there singing one of my favorite sections of Foo music of all time – “This was no ordinary life” – had me standing on my tip-toes, fist in the air, with the biggest grin I could possibly have on my face without my jaw giving in. And, as if on cue, Pat met my eye and gave me a huge smile back. Awesome.
That’s another thing about the Foo Fighters: the band’s effort to interact with fans is something that is within itself worthy of admiration. As far as I was concerned, even in DC – when I wasn’t yet making a habit of showing up on the barricade night after night – I got more than I’d hoped for. After indulging in my normal concert shenanigans, headbanging and singing and clapping and jumping (I was really, really excited to see these guys live, okay?), Pat looked at me, pointed, and said “You rock!”, topping it all off by bending down to give me his pick. You know you’re at a good show when a band can make you feel like you’re the only person in the room, not just one of tens of thousands. I don’t take that for granted for a second.
This gig wasn’t anywhere near over, though. It was Madison Square Garden, after all, and everyone knows that you don’t play MSG without something up your sleeve (which, when I was living in Ohio, was actually a source of more than a little resentment, but I digress). The front-row rumor mill had pretty much spoiled this for me, but that didn’t make it any less exciting when – as Dave started his introduction of “the most badass motherfucker” ever who, if we wanted to learn about rock ‘n roll, would be “the best teacher” – a roadie with a “Blackheart Records” sweatshirt came on stage to set up. It was official: to quote Dave, it was “JOAN JETT!!!”.
With that, a rock and feminist icon, bestselling artist, and all-around badass casually walked out, hugging the 3 Foo boys on my side of the stage before strapping on her guitar and stepping up to the microphone. Her brief introduction went a little something like this:
Dave: “How do we start?”
Joan: “One, two, three, four?”
Dave: (pointing at drummer Taylor Hawkins) “That’s what he says!”.
Taylor took this as his cue and counted off, launching them into the song. Despite Dave’s earlier quips, which one would assume were hints that they would be playing “I Love Rock n’ Roll”, they charged into a searing version of “Bad Reputation”, Joan on lead vocals and Dave taking the “No no no” backups. Make no mistake, this version was badass rock n’ roll at its finest. It’s been a while since I rocked out so hard and shamelessly on a barricade – but then, the occasion seemed to more than call for it.
And then, of course, it was “Everlong,” the emotional punch that ends every show. The emotiveness of the song, and the sheer quality of the performance, every time, hardly softens the blow, amazing enough to make you wish more than anything that you didn’t have to go home.
Thankfully, I didn’t really have to worry about that: as I dutifully held up my “See You in Jersey!” sign, (which to my surprise got a smile and a “Fuck yes!” from Pat Smear) I tried not to think about the fact that that trip to Jersey was going to happen a lot sooner than my exhausted body would have liked…