One night when I was a child my grandparents drove me and my brother and sister to a family gathering. Grandpa Joe fiddled with the radio dial and accidentally settled on a rock station. He flipped past and found some smooth, boring music full of slow beats and creamy smooth melodies. When we reached our destination he turned to us kids and said, “You don’t to listen to that rock music, do you?” We told him “no” even though my sister and I were fans of the Monkees and the Beatles. Grandpa added, “That music is too loud,” and curled his lips in disgust. Fifty years have passed and I’m beginning to understand what he meant.
Last Sunday night I stood on a crowded sidewalk outside the Social waiting for Dave to return. My men’s book group had decided to come downtown to the Orange Avenue club to see the son of one of the members play bass in a soul band. Hal, the father of the bass player, asked me, “When was the last time you went clubbin’?” after I was told to step aside at the door. I had paid for my ticket but was barred when I showed a burly security man the pocket knife I carried. Dave had one too, and he offered to run our “weapons” over to our car parked two blocks away. I told Hal that the last time I had gone to a club was in the early eighties, and that no one had searched me or had considered a pocket knife threatening.
Dave returned and we were patted down, front and back, and allowed to enter. The interior was dark with a high, wood paneled ceiling, concrete floors and a long bar along the north side of the room. The music played by the DJ blared from two speakers the size of refrigerators suspended on chains from the ceiling. It was loud, loud, LOUD. It was so loud that I couldn’t make out the style of music at first as the drum and bass lines were dominant to the degree that the melodies and words of the songs were partially buried beneath the noise. I eventually picked out some Amy Winehouse and soul music with such an insistent and relentless attack that it sounded like it was being played by a punk band.
A wooden rail ran around a small mosh pit, and I took a spot for leaning rights. There were no tables and chairs in the establishment, and I realized that the longer I stayed the more my feet and ankles would hurt in the morning. Couples were gathering around the rail and in the pit, and most were young, fit and attractive. A smattering of older couples and a few single men in their forties and fifties rounded out the crowd. I shouted some words to one of my buddies but soon gave up any attempt at communication.
Hal’s boy, Ted, stood nearby with his band mates. They disappeared about ten minutes before their set began, and then reappeared on stage to plug in their guitars and electric organ and to do a bare bones sound check. They played an updated version of soul with two part harmonies and tight drum/bass rhythms. The music was enjoyable except for one problem: the lead guitarist couldn’t be heard over the bass. On some songs it didn’t matter as the vocals and organ competed with the rhythm lines. But on one or two it sounded like I was listening to my problematic stereo at home. One speaker goes out at odd times, usually in the middle of a Beatles song, and I get to hear Paul’s bass playing with great clarity while missing his lead vocal.
The club packed in a lot tighter as more people arrived for the main attraction. Ted’s band finished their last song and exited the stage to happy applause. The next band set up immediately, but the DJ took the opportunity during the ten minute gap to blast us again with soul gone punk. My ears began to ring, and I felt claustrophobic as I got lightly bumped and elbowed by passersby. I looked at the exit doors behind me and fought an urge to run outside into more open spaces and cool night air. But I had paid twenty dollars for the cover, and a sign on the door told me that I wouldn’t be allowed to reenter. I decided to stay.
The next act was Charles Bradley and his back up band consisting of trumpet and sax players, an organist, a bass man, drummer, rhythm guitarist and lead guitarist. The band opened with a lovely instrumental that had clear melody lines and a snappy, danceable beat. I turned and smiled to a buddy. The organist got up and introduced Bradley, who came onto stage wearing a short, white jacket with gold epaulets. He extended his arms and beamed at the crowd, and they roared back in approval.
Bradley’s music was more old school soul, somewhat in the style of James Brown, and he sang it with unflagging passion. He asked us if we wanted to “go to church” before launching into a gospel inspired song. At one point during an instrumental middle eight he picked up the mike stand and carried it in slow motion over his shoulder across the stage. He looked like Jesus carrying the cross.
Five songs in my ears began to ring again and I edged farther away from the stage. I looked at the exits doors with longing once more. The young couples around me stared intently at the stage with smiles on their faces and swayed in time to the music. They looked completely comfortable with the volume of the music and the press of the crowd. I found shelter leaning on a wall in a slightly more open and less noisy pocket of the room, but still didn’t feel at ease. My right leg has been bothering me lately, and my knee and ankle suddenly give out at random moments causing me to lurch sideways. As I leaned most of my weight was supported by my right leg. I feared that I would suddenly slump onto a twenty year old woman standing next to me. She wore a low cut, skin tight dress, and I doubted that her excessively muscled boyfriend would understand the innocence of a platonic limb failure.
Dave appeared at my elbow and asked me if I was ready to go. He and I had made a pact to leave as soon as one of us had hit our limit. We escaped into the cool night air and walked/nearly ran to our car. It felt great to move in a space with fewer constrictions, to feel a breeze, to escape the relentless sonic bombardment.
When I got home I sat down with my wife in our living room, and we had a quiet chat. She turned on Downton Abbey, and the classical strains of the intro music soothed my nerves. I became engrossed in the multiple drama lines unfolding at a leisurely pace, and thoroughly enjoyed the moment when Edith told Mary that she was a bitch. Thank God, I thought. Somebody finally said it! How bold!
Judy went to bed at ten, and soon after I fell asleep on the sofa while doing a Sudoku. My snoring woke me up in the wee hours, but I felt too groggy to get up. I finally staggered back to bed, right ankle popping all the way, around five in the morning. When I woke up to start my Monday morning I felt like cement bags had been fixed to my back, and my head was muddled. Three beers and a concert the night before had taken their toll. And I thought, “Damn, I’m old.”