I WENT TO SEE AC/DC’s FLY ON THE WALL TOUR in 1985 at the Five Seasons Center in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. “Five Seasons” caught every touring metal act crossing from Minneapolis to Chicago in the 1980s. I saw the Scorpions there, Triumph and a freshly unpainted KISS on their Animalize tour. Admittedly, I wasn’t a huge AC/DC fan; at the time, I don’t think I owned any of their records, but I of course knew the singles. Even back then, AC/DC were a bit of a heritage act—a kind of Grateful Dead for the hard rock sect, so in hindsight, I wasn’t there to see the Aussie rockers so much as I was paying homage to a band that had inspired so much of the music that I loved. And hey, any concert was better than no concert, so committing to the hour-and-a-half trek from my hometown of Moline, Illinois on a school night to see AC/DC was something of a no-brainer. What did surprise me was the lesson I learned that night about being a writer.
Five Seasons holds about five thousand people—standard auditorium style, with an open floor surrounded by rows of seats going up and up. At any Five Seasons show, entrance to the arena involved getting frisked, which I actually enjoyed. The idea that I could be dangerous—a dark and shady type who almost certainly concealed a cache of deadly weapons beneath his denim jacket—appealed greatly to my fifteen-year-old self. In reality, I suspect the biggest concern for the owners of Five Seasons was that people would sneak booze in, thus sidestepping the four-dollar lagers on sale inside. We never smuggled booze into shows, primarily out of a healthy fear of the consequences, should we get caught. And the truth was we didn’t really need it at these shows. The thrill of a big time rock show offered more than ample release for my friends and me.
The instant we crossed the gate, we literally ran to the front of the stage. The open floor allowed concertgoers to stand and watch if they wanted, but the closer one got to the stage, the more cramped it got, and thus the harder to see. I didn’t grow much until my seventeenth year, which meant that my close proximity to the stage would invariably result in being smashed in a sea of people, not to mention barely seeing the tops of my heroes’ heads, hoping that other attendees might tire and leave so I could slither closer. The closest I ever got was maybe two or three “rows” back; the stalwarts along the barrier seeming to have a preternatural ability to keep their coveted spots.
I have no idea how these front row people endured it—forgoing food, water and restrooms for the entire four hours of a heavy metal concert. I never went to a Five Seasons show where I didn’t eventually wind up retreating to the cheap seats, sweaty shirt clinging to my skin, an extra-large Coke in my hand and a clear if distant view of the stage. The older me now wonders why I didn’t simply enter the venue and go straight to the tony, seated sections abutting he stage, offering comfortable views of the musicians, not to mention positions that were eminently save-able should I want to eat or go to the bathroom. To miss the action down front was to miss “the experience.” Still, I always felt good while watching the end of a show from the cheap seats, knowing I’d toughed it out in the trenches for a while, coloring those final encores as fist-pumping testaments to my grit and temerity.
There were always those hearty folks who lined up at shows many hours before doors opened, simply to ensure their place at the very front. These people couldn’t conceive any chain of circumstances that might inspire them to leave their front row posts at Five Seasons concerts. I remember one such person from the AC/DC show—let’s call him Lenny—skinny, with long black hair, the beginnings of a mustache and a red bandana around his head. Lenny held a spot along the barricade just to our side of the stage. This barricade came up to his chest and it looked completely unforgiving. Nonetheless, Lenny remained stoic in his spot, his features noble, his mouth shut. He was front row.
The claim that one experienced a big time rock show from the front row carried such high prestige among fans that it was easy to lose sight of the inherent danger that accompanied such an honor. It wasn’t that long before the AC/DC show that eleven people had been trampled to death at a Who concert in Cincinnati. If you were going down front at a rock concert in the Eighties, you were implicitly accepting that something really bad could happen to you and therefore it wasn’t uncommon during a particularly rambunctious interlude at Five Seasons, for someone to yell, “Knock it off! This isn’t a Who concert.”
What typically happened down front was that eager, often short-sighted people pushed from behind, no doubt wanting to force their way to the stage, pinning the front rows against the immovable barrier in front of the stage, which is precisely what happened at the AC/DC show. We were maybe six “rows” back, and even before the opening act (Cinderella) hit the stage, people started pushing from behind. This led to a weird kind of motion where everyone was so tightly packed together that all we could do was sway back and forth in wave-like unison. My legs became almost useless; at times I could pick my feet off the ground. During all this, I couldn’t help but glace at Lenny, next to that unforgiving retaining wall. Weren’t his ribs getting crushed? Wasn’t he about to vomit? He looked the same, facing forward, motionless. I was glad to be mashed up against the slightly more forgiving flesh-and-bones barriers around me.
Then it happened.
A giant, gut-folding push came from the back, at least twice as much pressure as any of the others to that point, and everyone moaned. Clearly some group had decided they wanted to cause as much grief for those down front as possible and organized the push. I started to feel my lungs get constricted, and my head swam in the unholy heat and smell of the boozed up metal fans around me. Everything took a step up in intensity. A woman not far from me struggled to push her way out. A boy shorter than I held his hands above his head, trying to take in the cool air above.
Then the push came again, the same concerted effort to crush us, and the moan grew louder. A group of guys to one side, clearly mad, organized a counter-push—“one, two, three, go”—shoving back, but it seemed little compared to the monster that was bearing down on us from behind. Now the woman was getting panicky. “Let me out!” The boy’s hands no longer floated above the crowd. Lenny stood against the railing, unflinching.
Then a third push came, this one dwarfing the previous two in intensity and pure, body-
crushing impact. The crowd’s moan became a unified cry of despair. We were packed in too tightly; it was getting ugly. We were going to be in the paper tomorrow, injured or … I just wanted to see a rock show.
As the push subsided, everything got quiet. I’m not sure why. Maybe we were all contemplating our fate, wondering if there were any good seats left in the bleachers, wondering what manner of dense, self-centered frat boys would recklessly crush a room full of strangers just for being shrewd enough to get to Five Seasons well before them so they could be front row.
Then I heard a voice. It was the thin, reedy voice of a young man, a defiant shout, and as I turned, I realized it was Lenny. He said, “You’re gonna have to push a lot harder than that.”
For almost thirty years, this line has popped into my head periodically, but in particular it surfaces in relation to my writing life, which has formed a daily practice for seventeen years. I’ve endured over a decade of rejection from the traditional publishing industry, submitting three novels, a memoir proposal, a dozen short stories and countless essays and humor pieces to every market in the country, from the most impressive agents to the smallest literary magazines. Each rejection was a little—or big—push from the cosmos, wanting me out, but I’ve managed to keep at it. Do I think I’ll outlast the people around me, winding up front row during “For Those About to Rock” when the cannons go ka-boom? Not really. I’m just happy to have found something at which I have as much endurance as Lenny along that barricade. You’re gonna have to push a lot harder than that. That’s right. Bring it on, cosmos, because when it comes to my passion, I’m as tough as you are.