What It's Like to Meet Your Twenty-Something Self at a Concert
A couple years ago my wife took me to see Sufjan Stevens' Carrie & Lowell show at the Paramount in Seattle. The last time I saw him live we were in our 20s. Now I’m almost 40.
For the most part we’re realizing our age, our enduring love of good music, and the limitations of pure unadulterated emotion. Many of the events we navigated in our 20s were new, they were frontiers to be blazed with raw enthusiasm and not enough tools. Now we’re homesteaders, and while we’re not so surefooted as we think we are, we’re able to navigate through the events in our lives with a little more wisdom and experience.
But that night at the Paramount I was treated to the ghost of Mr. Vermeulen past.
My wife and I settled into our seats and remarked at all the beards and eyeglasses in the audience. And then, shortly before the show started, a tall young man with long blonde hair sat down beside me. He was amped up, and he wanted to talk. “Have you been to any shows before?” he asked, “This last summer I went to my first festival, Sasquatch.”
One of my character flaws is my inability to engage meaningfully in public conversation with strangers. My first inclination is to assume they're either going to try to sell me something, or they’re going to ask for something unpleasant from me. But I tried, and I told him we’d been to Sasquatch before. He said, “it was amazing, I can’t believe how much fun it was. Who’d you see when you went?” It was a long time ago. I thought for a minute. “I think The Shins were headlining? And we saw The Decemberists on one of the side stages. It might have been 2004.”
“Man, I’d give anything to see either band when they were first coming up!” He said.
He asked me if I’d seen Sufjan before. I had. It was in 2002. He was touring for his Michigan album with Joanna Newsom. I felt so old. Of course I’m not, but when confronted with such exuberance and joy, it’s hard not to feel the rime of old age collecting around your new wrinkles and gray hair. This was enhanced by the music we came to hear.
Carrie & Lowell is a melancholic, ruminative, and sometimes heartbreaking album. Many of the exuberant flourishes from his previous works are stripped down in favor of barren contemplations. It can be agonizing.
And for my man sitting next to me, it was rapture. He was on his feet the whole show. He was singing along. He was telling me in between songs how amazing this show was. He was dancing every now and then. It was goofy, embarrassing, and infectious. If transcendence is real, he was transported away. The currents of the universal being were swirling through him.
He was right, of course: the show was wonderful. Stevens' long synth jam of Vesuvius was thunderous. His side stories were poignant. The artistry of his set design was flawless.
He culminated the night with the brutal Fourth of July. The song swells to a kohn-like melodic chant of “We’re all Gonna Die.” The first few times it was Stevens alone singing. Then it was Stevens and my young friend. He knew he was singling himself out, but like a man overcome in the back of church during a particularly rapturous recital of Amazing Grace, he didn’t care. He was proud, vulnerable, and combative in that moment. He was singing for his young twenty-something life. He was letting all of his fears and hopes and joys come spilling out in those lyrics. I contemplated joining in with him, but I didn’t.
When it was over, he turned to me, flush, disappointed, “my friend saw him in New York. He said the whole place joined in.” His voice was tinged not just with dissatisfaction and judgment, but curiosity. Why wouldn’t we all join in?
“Seattle can be kind of a downer sometimes.” I told him. What else do I say? We should have all joined it; it was a bummer we didn't. “But keep it up.”
That’s all I could come up with. But he wasn’t paying attention, because he realized Stevens was leaving the stage. He joined the crowd in the “one more song” chant (dutifully, I did too), and he was overjoyed when Stevens came back out. It was still real to him.
The encore crescendoed, then settled down into little--less--nothing!--and that ended it. The crowd made its way out through the aisles. My innocent friend was lost in the crowd.
* * *
In one way, I hate those youthful days: so much I didn’t know. But there's joy there, too. And what a brief and lovely grace that I got to relive that exuberant joy again vicariously through that kid. Young, stupid, overflowing with emotions, hoping to commune with life through beautiful music, to go beyond the mundane and leave behind the smoke and smog of life; to experience something pure, and for a brief and fleeting moment, really think that you’ve touched it. I felt dumb telling him to keep it up, but I meant it. That moment of life only lasts so long. There’s wisdom in it. And folly.
I’m better off now than I was then; we’re all idiots then. I’m certain my young friend was an idiot. But I hope he remembers the joy when he gets gray.