I’ve gone to a lot of concerts in my life. The gateway to this lifestyle is symbolized by the day my SouthSide goon friends and myself traveled to a baseball field near UIC on the last day of freshman year of high school to see a teenaged Rise Against, junkie singing Unwritten Law, and surging Sum-41. That day would see Tim McIlrath, heterochromatic lead singer of Rise Against, smash two guitars, see my friends and I staging usually-reserved-for-the-pool chicken fights in mosh pit, and not see Sum-41 perform, as a thunderstorm would descend and turn the concert into a mudslide fest.
It was awesome.
According to a new quarantine hobby of cataloging every single concert I can remember (and definitely not every one I’ve actually been to), I have seen one-hundred-sixty-eight live music performances. That number is likely woefully short, and lacking many, many occasions where I’ve stumbled into shows, where I’ve been at a bar that turned into a show, or occasions where I’ve been at festival or larger shows and just plain… forgotten who was there.
Most of the music I like is the typical rock verse-chorus-verse style rock, but the music I love is political punk rock music, such as Anti-Flag, Rage Against the Machine, Against Me!, and the aforementioned Rise Against.
In these times, much is in question about the value of live music, or how it will resume once the quarantine situation and COVID-19 resolve themselves. People are seeing gatherings of these size as unsafe. But for me, for a very long time, they were the only place that was safe.
Let me explain: just recently a friend of mine, a tall, intelligent gentleman of Indian origin who has made clear his struggles against racism in America, reached out and expressed gratitude and empathy for getting angry in my long-winded political rants on Facebook and elsewhere. This isn’t the first time I’ve been applauded for speaking my mind on the Internet or in person, but what’s different about it is that he actually applauded me for berating our mutual friends; I was not talking down to some nameless, faceless rural-dwelling person whose lifestyle I’ve never nor will never experience.
Yeah, during a conversation about the state of Wisconsin holding elections during pandemics despite the unsafety and disenfranchisement such a move brings, I was applauded for explaining to my own closest friends that I vehemently I disagreed with them.
I really appreciated that because, in all honesty, that is in my nature. Whether due to my upbringing or whatever else, I dig deep into details to express my knowledge and opinions.
But, going back to the concerts, I don’t think the need to push back to defend their beliefs stems solely from what my parents taught me. The “safe space” of political punk mosh pits taught me something. It taught me a fucking lot, to be honest.
Let me give you a few examples: at the first RiotFest I went to, it was still indoors at the decrepit Congress Theatre. With the building crumbling all around us, the band Anti-Flag turned crowd into a giant spinning circle pit and then into a fucking tornado. While I’ve slowed a little bit in recent years, I have been into a million circle pits, and I often bounce my ass off random strangers for fun. But on this occasion, I swear to God I was in a fucking blender.
There are underwritten rules of mosh pits. The very first one is: if you see anyone, trip and fall and go down, regardless of who you are, you help pick that person up. (In fact, in a live recording of an Anti-Flag concert I am listening to at this moment, the track just caught audio of the lead singer saying, “When we are down, pick each other back up,” in between tracks). So I never felt unsafe, or I never worried. I could be pushed down, but there would be dozens of wild angry happy strangers ready to lift me up.
Back to the Congress Theatre that day, I did fall, and people did IMMEDIATELY pick me back up. In fact, there are so many occasions where I have fallen and been dropped and been nearly trampled and crowded surfed and stood on the shoulders of strangers and thrown people into the air and danced and kicked and punched and spun in damn circles, that I can barely pick one to write about; no single occasion sticks out, and they’re all a blur. But growing up and spending tons of time in a purposefully chaotic environment, and having one of the rules be strangers HAVE TO HELP THOSE WHO HAVE YOU’VE FALLEN–that gives you an empowering perspective. And let me tell you, there’s no one more loyal than a complete stranger in a mosh pit.
And not just at the shows, but within punk rock music, there is an incredibly empowering message of self reliance and do-it-yourself-ism that runs throughout the lyrics. The general throughlines in the music that fuels my brain are powerchords, incredibly fast beats-per-minute, and the idea that the system we lived in is fucked up and we have to got fix it before it’s too late. The amount of times I’ve seen a band put down their instruments and say something along the lines of, “No one else is looking out for you. It’s up to you to stand up and go out and take it,” is uncountable.
In fact, doubling back to Rise Against as an example, a couplet from their song (and one of my favorite) Prayer of the Refugee, goes as such:
The hungry, and the cold
We’re the ones who kept quiet
And always did what we were told
In the safety of your home
We’ve been pulling out the nails that hold up
Everything you’ve known
They won’t sympathize. They will talk about vague policy solutions that are middle-of-the-road answers that won’t help.
They won’t get angry too. They will say, “Well, actually…” and turn to a detailed explanation that “compromises” a lot of points in the sake of being polite but really does not move toward justice.
They won’t reach out and ask the person affected by the problem what needs to change and trust his or her judgement and then work to make it happen. They will listen, and forget, because they’ve never had to make choices based on money, or never had to take jobs they hate in order to survive, or never had to go without in many ways.
Now, my friends, the common ones I’ve spent sometime sussing out the details about just above, are the best people I’ve ever met. Some of what I wrote may be exaggeration due to my writing style, for sure.
But I’ve spent a few years trying to define the difference in my head about the gap I always feel like I’m trying to cross, and I think that’s it.
So if you’re one of those friends, let yourself get mad not at the lack of decorum in the way President Trump speaks about the virus, but over the fact that people are dying because of his intentional efforts at killing them through governmental neglect.
If you hear a member of a more disenfranchised and historically disadvantaged community say something is worse for them than it is for you, just believe them. They’re speaking from experience, and they are watching your behaviors and outcomes like a hawk, and studying you to learn how the hell to get the same return on effort as you do.
McIlrath was asked, “What’s it like coming from the scene you grew up on?”
He said, “One time, I was coming out a small bar in the middle of nowhere after playing a show, and out of the crowd someone threw a potato, of all things, and it hit me in the chest.
“And I just looked at him and I didn’t say anything. But I thought, “Man, I grew up playing the Chicago hardcore scene. People used to throw bottles or batteries at me.”
Now some people might be taken aback that someone threw a potato at him. It’s strange, for sure. Did Tim deserve it? How can we resolve this potato issue? Right? Maybe, we should catch and punish the potato guy.
Me? I just laughed.
McIlrath elaborated, “You’d have to throw a potato about 90 miles an hour for it to hurt me.”
Same, Tim. Same.