Taken By the Spirit
by Michele Christopher
Click here for a fun/fact-filled Introduction to Joel, the newest writer to join the Faster Than The World Cabal. Joel will be doing a weekly music column, as well as Imbibe, a bi-monthly column about beer, wine and whiskey.
And it frightened me.
I was standing in line at the Aladdin Theater, waiting to enter the venue for a Jackie Greene concert. It was concert season for me--six concerts over the previous few months--and this was likely the last one until the end of the year.
As I waited in line with two friends, I began peering at our line companions. I realized that this was not the same sort of crowd as my other concerts. Those were dominated by people in their twenties and younger. This was a line dominated by people in their forties and fifties, with a small minority being in their twenties and thirties. This was not my home crowd.
It made sense. Jackie Greene's different than the music I typically listen to. While he's young, in his mid-twenties, his style of music is that which could be embraced by older people with less adventurous taste--a mix of blues and rock with an old school sound. It's good, well-played, strong music that's easy to listen to and could be enjoyed by multiple generations, as evidenced by the composition of the audience. There were stiff sixty-year-olds next to middle aged receptionists next to thirty-year-old hipsters next to kids in their early twenties, in jeans and black hoodies, laid back and ready for music. It was strange, but not at first worrisome.
After a short wait, we filed in to the theater. My friends and I grabbed seats three rows back, just to the side. All around us, people claimed their seats and headed for the concessions stand, for the beer. Alcohol was purchased and consumed by the crowd while we waited for the opening act. Up front, a few people milled about near the stage, drinking and talking. I watched them. There were three middle aged women who looked like the women who used to sit in the administration office at my high school, or the receptionists at my dentist's office, or the soccer moms I used to wait on when I worked retail. They were talking with men, drinking, laughing loud and oddly jarring laughs.
These people would be me in a few decades. I thought about this as I watched them. Except then I began to doubt that assertion. Perhaps I was being too optimistic, but these people did not seem to be the same as I would be in the future. They seemed . . . tight, wound, and a little too eager to drink and relax and let themselves go. This was not just a concert--something simple and entertaining--but a rare night out and away from responsibilities, the perfect opportunity for them to lose their inhibitions. They clung to their alcohol as if it was a lifeline. They laughed in desperate tones, as if the fun they had tonight would be the last for weeks, perhaps even months. It had to last. It had to be memorable.
Yet, it still was only vaguely interesting. It was something to look at and think about while I waited for the music to start.
It soon did. Time passed and the opening act, Leroy Bell, came on stage. Young, competent, confident, he and his band launched into a set of soft rock, soul-tinged love songs that bordered on easy listening. And the crowd loved it. At this point, there were approximately ten to twelve people hovering up by the stage. I watched the band as they started their first song, but then my eyes were drawn down to the base of the stage and two of the middle-aged women who had been standing up front.
They were dancing. But I don't mean simple, standard dancing. No, these women were dancing as if they had listened to every bad stand up routine about how white people can't dance and had internalized it, worshipped it, buried it deep into their very souls and then sworn to themselves that they would travel the world, entering concerts and dancing so very badly that everyone who saw them would be forced to believe in those ridiculous stand up bits, fully and without question. They danced as if they were actors on a hidden camera show, desperate to create a situation so absurd that it was unbelievable. They danced in a way that would put Carlton from Fresh Prince of Bel-Air to shame. They were clichés, so large and dominating that you could not look away, as if you had inadvertently stared into the face of Medusa and been turned to stone.
That would have been a relief, though, to be rendered inanimate and unable to comprehend the horror on display. No, this had to be digested and internalized, to be understood and integrated into your understanding of the world. I stared at them in disbelief, quickly trying to determine if it could be a joke, only a joke. Except it was not. These two women--one in a red blouse, one in an ugly black and pink sweater--danced as ridiculously as anyone has danced before. The one in red had this method in which she made fists with her hands and sort of twisted her torso to the side and down, so it was almost parallel with the ground, and then pumped her arms back and forth, back and forth while she sort of did a two step, forward and backward, twisting and turning and dipping in such an exaggerated, tortured way that one could only wait for her to pull a muscle and stop, bestowing upon the audience a merciful relief. The one in the bad sweater was somehow even worse, holding her arms out in a pose reminiscent of the standard flexing for the camera and then violently dipping her torso back and forth, up and down, to the point that you thought she must be on the verge of passing out from the blood rushing in and out of her brain.
And understand, these women were not laughing. They were not smiling. They were not stealing glances at their companions to see if they were amused by their ridiculous shenanigans. No, they were completely serious, engulfed by the music, abandoning themselves to a rhythm only they could feel, that even the Devil himself would deny.
The singer soon closed his eyes. I admired his ability to control himself. The drummer had a smirk the entire set and appeared ready to burst into laughter at any moment. He kept staring at the ground, unable to stare directly at the dancing women. I looked multiple times behind me into the audience and a large portion of them were laughing at any one moment. Some people were literally throwing themselves to the side, over adjacent seats, nearly falling to the floor, eyes closed and faces twisted with disbelief and hysteria.
It was insanity. Bedlam.
And it became worse. Emboldened by the two women already possessed by the spirit, others joined them. An older man who was with the woman in red stood next to her and began to bob and convulse as if having a seizure. A hipster in his thirties rushed onto the dance floor, grabbed his temples and started swinging his head back and forth, as though the sheer brilliance of the music was tearing apart his mind, shredding his very sanity. Another woman with a mullet started swinging her arms back and forth, snapping her fingers, dipping and twisting in a manner that could snap bones.
A religious revival had nothing on this concert.
One young, attractive woman started to dance somewhat normally, in an apparent effort to mitigate the disaster. But even she had trouble moving her arms in an organic way, leaving them at times to appear loose and broken.
More and more people spilled onto the floor until it all blended into wild, nonspecific gyrations. The opening band finished their set and for a short while there was a calming period.
However, the crowd used this time to drink more. After an infusion of alcohol for a crowd in need of an infusion of sobriety, Jackie Greene took the stage. The crowd erupted in enthusiastic cheers. Luckily, though, as the music began, the floor became so packed that no one was able to dance wild and uncoordinated, as they had with the opening band. Constrained by the crowd, they instead decided to revel in their drunkenness.
A gray-haired man in a Pogues shirt started bellowing his love for Jackie Greene, swaying back and forth and grasping wildly at nearby members of the crowd. At any moment, I expected him to let out a final scream, vomit into the crowd and collapse on the floor. Near this man, two men pounded and beat on the seats in front of them, so overtaken by the music that they could only express themselves through random violence, as if reduced to primates, and inarticulate ones at that. They grappled at each other, hugged and punched each other, and I kept waiting for them to give into their urges and start making out, tear off their clothes, fuck right there on the floor as the music washed over them. It never happened, though, which was disappointing. I was sure the guy in the Pogues shirt would join in if only they would get the ball rolling. He had been drunkenly hugging guys from the moment Jackie Greene came on stage.
We eventually moved to the balcony, both so we could see and also so we didn't take an inadvertent punch to the face or find ourselves in the midst of a shower of vomit. Even from the balcony, we could hear the guy in the Pogues shirt screaming wildly and see him thrashing about down on the floor.
After the annoyingly obligatory encore, the concert drew to a close. The crowd below us began to relax. The spirit left them and the dementia dissipated, leaving a crowd of happy, drunk, slightly confused people filing out of the theater into the cold Autumn night, blinking and entering a world they barely recognized. As they shuffled down the street, you could see the realities of their existence returning to them, weighing them down. Their night of release was over, their wild abandon done.
For a few brief hours, the music had taken them. Taken them to a dark, incomprehensible place, yes, but also taken them from lives that were too boring, too normal, too quiet and controlled. For that one night, they were different. They were a new person.
A person unburdened by responsibilities.
Who couldn't fucking dance.