My parents were Deadheads. Sure, they had jobs and a house and drove a Ford Windstar in lieu of a psychedelic bus, but when I was growing up everything was suffused with endless, searching guitar solos and the pot-drenched drone of “Drums in Space.” Summer touring season entailed a weekend spent with my grandparents while my mom, dad, aunts and uncles camped, grooved and lived on grilled cheese sandwiches. The first concert I ever went to was a Grateful Dead show at Chicago’s New World Music Theater—my parents got me the tickets for my 10th birthday—and when Jerry Garcia died, we held a wake at our house, with a T-shirt featuring his face flown up on the flagpole and looping live sets giving us space to mourn.
I, on the other hand, always wanted to be a punk rocker. The difference between the two demonstrates exactly what music does for us. Buying a ticket to a concert the first time is like shipping that first rent check off to the landlord—it’s an investment in independence. The reason music has such a hold on us, particularly the music we listened to when we were young, is because bands and albums serve as some of the first building blocks used in the construction of our own identities. While you might not be able to choose the town you grow up in or how much money your parents make, you can say, “This is what I love,” whether “this” be Nirvana or Tupac or G. Love & Special Sauce or Shostakovich. “This is what defines me.”
So many of our firsts (beyond the stereotypical one) are associated with music. The first concert I bought my own ticket to was Tom Petty’s. He came to Notre Dame’s Joyce Center on his Dogs With Wings tour when I was 14 years old. I paid my way with paper-route money. While the concert was great, what lingers most is the freedom of being alone in the dark with friends, the realization that no one was looking over our shoulders, thus leaving us free to stand and scream and boast as we saw fit.
The first time I expanded my palate to include Ethiopian food was while killing time on Clark Street, where I now live, waiting to see Everclear at the Metro. It was after my first drive into Chicago—also my first time scrounging for quarters for the parking meter—and I ate with my hands, the sting from the spices making me cry. Later at the concert came my first time being drenched in beer by the jerk standing next to me; unfortunately, it was far from the last time that happened.
The first time I told my mother instead of asking was when the Stone Temple Pilots played at Rosemont Horizon. Too young to drive, I’d walked into my trigonometry class with an extra ticket and without any means of transportation; I walked out having convinced my high school valedictorian to drive to the show, using her grade point average as a shield against my mother’s worries about the hazards of spontaneity.
The first time I slept out in the open was in the parking lot of a Furthur Festival, a collaboration of Dead survivors and like-minded musicians, in Noblesville, Indiana. I’d left home without knowing where I was going to sleep that night (a first) and ended up sprawled out next to a fire built at a friend’s campsite, surrounded by the siren calls of pot salesman and drum circles. I shivered through the night and woke up to ash at sunrise. It was still early, but it was time to go home.
All of these firsts combined in my mind to forge the great teenage realization that there was a life outside my hometown which I could chase down and make my own. Growing up in South Bend means that Notre Dame is less a place of awe than part of my home, and a dull home at that, with fundamentalists’ letters swelling the local op-ed pages and no outlet for the movies I’d dream about every Friday after reading the Chicago Tribune. Occasionally a band would roar in, sucking up all of the oxygen in its arrival and reminding me that, yes, there was more to life than the place you grew up in. Wilco burned into Stepan Center when I was 16; I’ve been scorched ever since.
When I applied to Notre Dame, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go. Beyond the prospect of being rutted at home while my friends moved on to new places, I was concerned about the school’s character, whether it would be too conservative, too wealthy, too stultifying. As a kind of test, I decided to write my admissions essay, which was supposed to detail a piece of art that was significant to me, on the Velvet Underground’s song “Heroin.” I filled the page (pretentiously, I’m sure) with drugs and death and transcendence and freedom, figuring that if they couldn’t accept my music—if they couldn’t accept me—then I didn’t want to be there. They did accept me, though, and I went. On move-in day, all of my music, including a few Dead CDs, was packed with me. I arranged it carefully in my new space, ready to embrace a whole new realm of firsts.
James Seidler is a writer living in Chicago, where he doesn’t catch new bands visiting the Metro nearly as often as he should.