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Grave Dancer's Union by Soul Asylum
You only get one first real concert in life. Mine was Soul Asylum at the Agora in 1993.
"What was your first concert?" It's an age-old conversation starter, and for the music fans I know, there are multiple answers to a question like this. I don't know what my actual first concert was, but it was probably something like Peter, Paul, and Mary or Johnny Mathis with my family some summer in Chautauqua, New York. We were lucky to have the opportunity to see lots of live entertainment growing up in Chautauqua, including concerts by the seasonal orchestra. Those were my first concerts, but the real first concert for me was Soul Asylum at The Agora in Cleveland on March 26, 1993.
There were four of us in the eighth grade who wanted to go see Soul Asylum. I already owned their album, Grave Dancer's Union, because I was obsessed with "Somebody to Shove." The opening guitar riff pulled me in even before I ever heard the chorus for the first time. It's an incredible song. There's a verse and then a pre-chorus that you think is the actual chorus the first time through the song. "I'm waiting by the phone. Waiting for you to call me up and tell me I'm not alone" feels like a chorus because they instantly go back into the verse. Only the second time through do they get to the actual chorus, "Cause I want somebody to shove. I need somebody to shove. I want somebody to shove me." Dave Pirner's vocals are at least doubled in the recording. It sounds huge, and the video made me want to see them live with all the moshing.
Pirner, Dan Murphy, and the rest of Soul Asylum were at it as a band for a decade before Grave Dancers Union put them on the map for real. It’s hard to imagine grinding it out as a band today for ten years trying to make it, but that’s what these guys did. They opened for bigger bands like Husker Du in the mid-1980s. They flirted with the idea of breaking up a few times, especially after mediocre sales of their 1990 album And the Horse They Rode In On. Thankfully for them they didn’t because then they wouldn’t have gotten to do Grave Dancers Union. They wouldn’t have had the chance to play the inauguration for Bill Clinton’s first term. Most importantly to me, they wouldn’t have been in Cleveland at the Agora in March of 1993.
So, we bought five tickets so my one friend's dad could drive us there and get in for free. He sat in the back watching sports, I think. We made our way through The Agora to the entrance to the theater. It was like walking into a cigarette-smoke-filled chapel. The Cleveland Agora Theatre and Ballroom is legendary. While it hasn’t always been in the same location thanks to a fire, the soul of the theater has spanned generations. The version I came to love was born on Euclid Avenue in 1986. Most people who think about the Agora outside of Cleveland think about Bruce Springsteen’s legendary concert at the Agora from 1978. That show has been remastered and is available as a digital download live concert. Below is a pic I took in more recent days in the Agora after a renovation to the club within the past five years, and, you know, long after the indoor smoking ban.
The degree of difficulty for us to get down to the floor and into the pit was high. You had to dodge people standing in every available aisle and staircase. Security didn’t clear people from being a fire hazard in those days either. I had just turned 14, and wasn’t anywhere close to a full-grown man, so I ducked elbows and cups of beer that were shoulder and head high. After what felt like a Double Dare obstacle course, here we were, squeezing our way onto the floor of The Agora to see our first mostly-unchaperoned rock show.
The Goo Goo Dolls and Mosh Pit Etiquette
This is one of those really crazy things in hindsight, but the opening band was The Goo Goo Dolls. They were still just a hard rock band from Buffalo, but they were starting to find their pop stride. You might not remember the song, but they played “We Are the Normal” live that night, and caused me to buy that record. Turns out it was Paul Westerberg who helped them write that one, but I didn’t know Westerberg just yet. That would come much later thanks to the Singles soundtrack
You can make fun of the Goo Goo Dolls for writing soundtrack and prom songs in the last 20 years, but they had a moment for a reason. They got the pit going in those days.
(Check out this video below and notice that a John Oates lookalike is doing stage-front security. I also love Hall and Oates, but it is funny to me that anyone would want to look like Oates.)
And even though I think of Soul Asylum as my first mosh pit, technically it was the Goo Goo Dolls because they opened the show and the crowd was raring to go. I was an athletic little kid, but I was not big compared to the average audience member. I learned to brace myself by keeping my elbows out to protect my guts. I learned to not fight the crowd, but to go where the wave of bodies would take me. It wasn’t a violent pit like a hardcore or punk show with people throwing spinning backfists and other violent moves. These were the days where mosh pits felt like communal celebrations. If somebody fell, there would be three people rushing over to protect them and pick them up. It was fun, organized chaos, and then I saw my friend Kevin go crowd surfing.
I’ve never seen a more elated look on anyone’s face. He made eye contact with a guy, pointed up, and all of a sudden, he was being hoisted onto the hands and heads of the pit. He got passed around for a bit before finally finding a hole in the audience and landed on his feet. He instantly started jumping up and down to the music again. That’s the nature of a mosh pit. You just keep going, no matter what just happened. I knew that I absolutely had to do it, but it would not only take bravery but trust. I wasn’t able to muster either the courage or trust for the rest of the Goo Goo Dolls’ set.
They finished and the lights came up. My friends and I located each other having been separated by the chaos of the Goos set. I have no idea what it was like to wait for Soul Asylum to take the stage. Today, we’d all look at our phones, I’m sure. I don’t know if we just stood there in silence, or if we were talking about something. This was well before I had started smoking cigarettes, which became the natural pass-time a few years later. It’s amazing that we ever used to pass the time at all before phones.
Concerts and Cigarrettes
As an aside, I remember the smoking ban for a few specific reasons. The Soul Asylum show was about 13 years before the smoking ban. My whole body smelled like smoke when I got home, including the concert t-shirt that I bought that night at the merch stand. I hung it up in the garage to air out so that I could wear it the next day. I’m sure it still didn’t smell good, but hanging a concert tee in the garage the night after a show could help it smell less bad, at least. You better believe I was going to wear that shirt the next day though. How else could I let the world know that I was cool enough to have gone to a real live rock concert the night before? Airing out your merch was something you did in those days.
The other thing about the smoking ban? Cigarettes covered up a lot of other smells and it only occurred to me after the ban was in effect sometime in 2007. I remember going to one of my first post-smoke shows at The Grog Shop. I don’t remember what band it was, but I remember there being a mosh pit. At some point in the night, between songs, I remember thinking that it smelled like the devilish combination of an armpit mixed with a fart. I had never been able to smell that before in the haze of Marlboros and Parliaments. Oh, the unintended consequences of a smoking ban!
After what felt like an eternity, the lights went down in The Agora, and the club exploded with excitement. The band walked on stage and the opening notes of “Somebody to Shove” rang out at a tempo at least 25% faster than the record. The pit became an amoeba of humanity shifting from side to side and in unpredictable rotations. I was still too nervous to crowd-surf, but I wasn’t beating myself up over it. I was having too much fun.
It’s worth noting that just a few months later, it would have been impossible to score tickets to this show. The band released “Somebody to Shove” in May of 1992. They released “Black Gold” in January, and here we were seeing them in March. Those songs had put the band on the map for me and my friends and enough people to fill the Agora that night, but the bigger crowds were coming. They ultimately released “Runaway Train” in June of 1993, and that’s when the band hit their commercial peak.
“Runaway Train” literally turned the band into just that. They went from being this little alternative rock band to having the Number 2 song in the entire country. They ultimately won the Grammy for Best Rock Song for “Runaway Train.” The video was its own story too. The video featured pictures of missing children across the world. There were different versions of the video in different countries. According to video director Tony Kaye, the video led to 26 missing children being found. The band became a phenomenon at that point, and many people probably consider Soul Asylum a one-hit-wonder to this day as a result.
Not that Spotify stats tell the whole story, it’s pretty stunning to see. “Runaway Train” has over 177 million plays, and the next closest song is “Somebody to Shove” with 8.5 million. Fifth on the list is an acoustic version of “Runaway Train.”
That night in the Agora though, we didn’t know any of that was about to happen. We were there experiencing our first real live rock show. We were experiencing our first real live mosh pit. I was having the time of my life with friends and falling in love with the bands on stage merely because they were there to create that special bond with me.
To this day, I think about Soul Asylum and The Goo Goo Dolls differently because of this experience. I can be objective to some degree, but only so much. I don’t care for every place the bands have gone since those days, but they’ll never owe me anything else because of what they gave to me that night and in the months after from their records. No matter how little I cared about songs or albums later, you couldn’t take away that feeling that Soul Asylum was one of the most important bands to me during that brief period of time. Fandom isn’t completely rational as we all know.
You might have thought I missed my window and never did crowd surf, but you’d be wrong! The band launched into “Black Gold,” and the verses are pretty chill, but the guitars kick in during the chorus with huge anthemic chords. It was in the second half of that song where I made eye contact with a much bigger man in the mosh pit. I looked at him knowingly, pointed up, and then put my hands on his shoulders. He put his hand down for my foot, I stepped up and launched up and backward like a track athlete attempting the high jump landing on my back. I landed on a mass of people and my eyes opened as wide as they possibly could. I was rocking out as the amoeba carried me around for a bit. Eventually, there was a small break in the crowd and I came down on my feet in my Doc Marten boots and kept rocking until the song ended.
So say what you want about Soul Asylum, for me, you only get so many firsts in life. It was my first real rock show. It was my first mosh pit. It was my first-time crowd surfing. And you better know I told everyone the next day while wearing my stinky smoke-tinged concert t-shirt.
(I can’t swear that this is the one I had, but glancing through Google images as a 42-year-old, I feel like I remember this one. Again, can’t swear to it with any certainty. Still, the trip into the time machine is so much fun.)
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