Saturday night I went to see Billy Bragg at the Keswick Theater in Glenside, PA. This is an odd concert venue, as it is in a very out-of-the-way suburb of Philadelphia. The upside of this hard to get to venue is that, for every show I have ever seen there, I always end up with the sweetest seats. This time we sat in seats CC 104 & 105, otherwise known as sixth row, center; I once saw Emmylou Harris there, and had similar seating. Each time, I marveled at my luck.
The show was very good. In-between old and new songs, Mr. Bragg ripped on the ambiguity of hipsters and their beards at SXSW, knocked on Nick Cave’s style, dissed Morrissey twice and, of course, talked about what his day was like when he woke to the news that Margaret Thatcher had passed. On that day he shopped for a wardrobe of pearl snap button western shirts and checked his email on his phone in a coffee shop, all the while sporting the same hipster beard he made fun of. He may be terribly more vain than he could ever recognize, as a great deal of what he spoke of related to what people or ideas “looked” like.
I spent some parts of the show being a silly girl, crying in row six, dead center of the stage. The apparent sincerity of songwriting and a new guitar for each song are exactly the ripest of conditions for me to unload some of my own heartache and angst, and a bit of the sadness I don’t know what to do with. No matter how much I carefully apply heavy black liquid eyeliner, wearing it like a precaution so I won’t cry, a seatbelt of sorts, I still do. Especially in dark concert halls.
He spoke about Woody Guthrie, how Woody never got to play an electric guitar before his death and how he, like me, dreams of alternate universes. In his, Buddy Holly never died and Woody did get to write his supersonic boogie on an electric guitar. That was when I really wished I had just packed a few tissues instead of trying to stop myself from feeling anything through thick eyeliner; because I do feel things. It is not ambiguous.
Throughout the show the smart phones were aglow, filming videos and taking photos of Billy. I certainly can be very guilty of this pandemic keeping-my-monkey-hands-busy-with-a-dumb-phone-nonstop-documentation myself. I even recently setup an Instagram account, doing so regardless of my feeling unsure about participating in yet another way to share, my instinct trying so hard to push her way through the distraction of another shallow sharing app to ask, “Why the need to share and view so much of the mundane, sweetheart?” But my dissing Instagram while owning and operating a blog is as laughable as Billy Bragg dissing hipsters. He is one, whether he realizes it or not.
Towards the end of the show, I watched this guy from the audience sneak up to the stage, in a hunched-over, burglar-style tiptoe, to take a few shots of his idol on his phone. It reminded me of the time I decided that I wasn’t going to take photos in front of monuments anymore. Well, only if I didn’t want to. I was in Italy with my ex-husband. I had been to Italy at least a half a dozen times before but only once to Rome. He and I were traveling with a good friend, visiting the lovely and less traveled Umbria before we spent this single perfect day walking through Rome. While in front of one of the Egyptian obelisks, I decided to end my lifelong façade as a polite, obliging tourist. I declined to have my photo taken. It wasn’t some big declaration; I wasn’t rude; I just didn’t need to have every single moment of this dreamy day documented like I was in a pack of crazed, Japanese tourists. I didn’t need to prove “I was here!” over and over and over again.
I just wanted to sit and look, really look at that obelisk. This object, like Billy Bragg, had been photographed by thousands of novice picture takers, as well as thousands of professional ones. I could just look it up in a book if I wanted to see it again. What I couldn’t do again was to sit on a bench, drenched in early October sunlight, and quietly study it, wondering about the men who carved it, and what their lives were like, what was going through their minds as they worked.
Why do we rush to take a photo of someone we admire, or of a monument we find ourselves in front of? Is it some type of ego-driven ownership, like a dog marking his territory? When we are face to face with greatness, why aren’t the impressions that form in our minds of any more substance than the urge to indulge in crappy photography?
I may never walk through Rome or see a Billy Bragg show again; or sit in the Keswick theatre, crying over all the spilled milk I wasn’t wise or careful enough to not knock over. I didn’t take any photos on my phone to upload that night. But my impression of him and his thoughts, and mostly of who I am in the middle-end of my thirties, is forever stored deep in my collected impressions.
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