nostalgia

On Seeing Adam Ant in Concert

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The author dressed as Adam Ant, circa 1983.

I lived parallel lives when I was young. I had an imitation life, a false life. In this life I was a painfully shy, slightly chubby pre-teen going through the motions of algebra classes, study hall and–horror-of-horrors– gym class. My real life was elsewhere. It began when I closed the door to my bedroom, fired up the turntable and escaped into the pages of Bop Magazine. My real peers were not the preppy pre-teens in their Gloria Vanderbilt jeans or the pimply, skinny boys who bullied me. My true peers were the friends I saw in the videos on the brand-new music television network. It is a well-kept secret that MTV was created just for me.

The greatest rock star of them all was Adam Ant. Clad in war paint and pirate gear, Adam yodeled, war whooped and pounded his way into my consciousness. Adam exuded sex appeal and a sense of freedom. His songs were a crashing mixture of electric guitars, tribal drums and yodels. He swashbuckled through his music videos as the consummate 80s hero—a suave Valentino with his tongue planted firmly in his cheek.

He posed and preened and looked down at me from every inch of my bedroom wall. When I ran out of space there, the posters expanded like vines onto the slanted surfaces that led to the ceiling. Then I rearranged the furniture to expose more wall for Adam images.

The pretty boys of Duran Duran were too polished, too fashionable, too tame. Adam had emerged from the underworld of punk music. There was something about him– something complicated, strong yet vulnerable. I sensed he was wounded, and I knew what he had overcome to get where he was.
I understood Adam Ant. He had been underestimated and under-appreciated like me and now he was living a dream– my dream. I had to go to school and be ordinary and ignored but he had created his own world. He was a pirate sailing the seas, an Indian chief, whatever he wanted to be. Adam Ant gave me hope that I could do it too.

Somewhere out there– in the fake world that others called real– was a musician who had been born Stuart Goddard. He looked very much like the man in my posters, but this Adam Ant was no more real to me than a unicorn in Brigadoon. The real Adam Ant was the one I imagined– the one my true self lived with inside MTV. So I waited, planned my escape, and kept my secret.

But predictably, I grew up, moved on, and the posters came down. I never upgraded my Adam Ant LPs to CD. The dusty records sat unplayed as I devoted my attention to my own ambitions.

For my 44th birthday my mother (who attended my first Adam Ant concert with me when I was 13) gave me a pair of tickets to go see Adam Ant perform at the beautiful Majestic Theater in downtown Detroit.

I remember quite clearly when I was a young teen that I believed my tastes would never change.  I wasn’t going to be like those boring sell-outs who stopped listening to rock music and all the obviously good things.

My tastes did change. The obviously good things for me now include Shakespeare, Oscar Wilde, sociology and theology texts and classical ballet.  All of this would have sounded very dry and dull to 13-year-old me.

I was curious about the concert though. Adam Ant would not get the same unconditional devotion he would have received from my 13-year-old self. He would have to win me over.

I won’t keep you in suspense: He did.

Things have changed since 1983. The audience, for example, was made up of people my parents age.  Did I need reminding? I am, in fact, the exact same age my mother was when she took me to my first Adam Ant concert in Cleveland, Ohio.

I had twisted my ankle that day.  If you must know how, I jumped in the air to imitate a popular Toyota commercial and I came down wrong. That is the kind of thing I don’t do much of these days. When the lights went down on the crowd thirty years ago, the squealing girls and a few guys rushed forward, closer to the stage. I was not about to lose my place, and I ran too.  I remember myself standing, on a bum ankle, holding onto a bar so that I could keep my spot right up against the stage.

In all honesty, I may be melding the memory of a couple of Adam Ant concerts here.  At the first Adam Ant concert I saw, Adam tore some ligaments in his knee, and came back with it bandaged.  I don’t think I was also standing on a bum ankle for that one, but the experience of staking my claim and holding that spot on the edge of the Adam Ant stage is what I remember most vividly.

Flash forward and I am at the Jack White Theater (so named because singer Jack White bailed out the Masonic) in row 14.  Not bad.  The band is on stage, the music is swelling in preparation for Adam Ant’s grand entrance. Everyone is standing. I am hoping they will not stand through the whole show, because I just got back from tour and I am tired.

I’m tall, and before iphones I had a height advantage at concerts.  Now the woman in seat 13 H has her smartphone in the air above her head, right at my eye level. She wants to record this moment for posterity instead of living it now. I see Adam’s entrance through the phone’s screen.

Adam Ant no doubt has been sent his complimentary copies of the AARP Magazine. In a couple of years he’ll be 60.  He is a bit thicker in the waist, his movements are a bit more stiff, and when he enters in his hussar jacket and Napoleon hat– fetchingly paired with horn rimmed glasses, I might add–my first thought is that it is all a bit ridiculous for a man his age.

Adam, I will forgive you for getting older if you will forgive me.

Why is it, anyway, that drawing attention to yourself seems less and less acceptable as we age?  “When I am an old woman I shall wear Prince Charming Stripes.”

“Ridicule is nothing to be scared of.”

Go on then, Adam, rock the Napoleon hat.

1983 and 2013 seemed to fold in on each other.  I saw my younger self, clinging to the stage, breathing the rock star in, willing to brave permanent ankle damage to be close to him. (My ankle swelled up to twice its size the next day and it still bothers me sometimes when it is humid.)  Am I the same person I was then? Do I want the same things?

Modern Adam performs a seamless set, rarely stopping to talk to the audience or catch his breath. One song melts into another, and the number of familiar songs, hits, favorites is quite staggering.  As my eyes get accustomed to the new version of him, he seems to slim before my eyes.  He becomes younger. Maybe I do too.

I am surprised by the power the anthem “Kings of the Wild Frontier” still holds over me. It is not nostalgia, it is something else.  I respond to a call to create a different world with  community of Ant followers.  “Ant people are the warriors!  Ant music is our banner!”

Back in the day, he was the embodiment of my ID.  He was voicing something primal that I wanted to release, if only my youth didn’t stand in the way.  If only I could be allowed out of the prison of school, out into the world instead of having to wait.

Now I stood thinking, if only I were younger.  If only I had the energy and the freedom I had then.  The freedom, perhaps, not to worry about looking ridiculous.  (Where is my Napoleon hat?)

Was there a moment in the middle I missed?

My favorite Adam and the Ants song was “Beat My Guest.” If my parents worried about the S&M lyrics of songs like that and “Whip in My Valise,” they never said anything to me about it. (My father did balk at the idea of my wearing an Adam Ant t-shirt with the words “pure sex” on it.)  The songs weren’t really about bondage to me, I just liked their energy. My friend Jenny and I made up parody lyrics to “Beat My Guest.”  I don’t remember them, except for the line “fish that fly” which I found myself wanting to shout out at the concert.

I notice something about Adam’s signature costume that never occurred to me before.  That combination of colonial military jacket and native American garb is a bit weird when you think about it. The colonizer and the colonized in one persona.

“Oh no, no the ants invasion.”

Did you know that there were European settlers who admired the Native communities so much that they tried to defect?  Hernando de Soto had to post guards to keep his people from fleeing to Native villages. Pilgrims passed laws to prevent their men from copying Native fashions.  They made it illegal for men to wear their hair long. Benjamin Franklin once said, “No European who has tasted Savage Life can afterwards bear to live in our societies.”

The fairly unconventional definition of “savage” as “irresistible” begs the question: What was it about Native life that was so appealing that Europeans felt they had to enact laws to maintain their social hold?

“I feel beneath the white there is a red skin suffering from centuries of taming.”

Maybe the defectors looked something like Adam Ant.

Just read this today: “A great example of low theory can be found in Peter Linebaugh’s and Marcus Redliker’s monumental account of the history of opposition to capitalism in the seventeenth and eighteenth century, The Many-Headed Hydra… Their book traces what they call ‘the struggles for alternative ways of life’…In stories about piracy…they detail the modes of colonial and national violence that brutally stamped out all challenges to middle-class power and that cast proletarian rebellion as disorganized, random and apolitical.”

“A new royal family a wild nobility. We are the family.”

Perhaps a sociologist would read more into a working class boy’s appropriation of the colonial officer’s regalia than I care to. I just liked it. The Ant costume pushed a lot of subconscious buttons.

Did you know you can buy a “Lady Adam Ant” costume on Ebay for $105? I put mine together from thrift store cast offs.

I saw an interview where Adam Ant said he realized he had arrived when he met The Queen. “Adam, I did not recognize you without your makeup,” said Her Majesty.  The son of a house cleaner, and the Queen knew his name.

Pinned up against that stage, I remember dreaming. If I could only lose 40 pounds, I thought, I could be worthy of someone like him.

I skipped lunch, put my lunch money in a box, and saved up for records and pieces of clothing to imitate the Adam Ant look. I choreographed an aerobic dance routine to “Ant Music.” It was an insanely fast piece of music for an aerobic dance routine. I lost 40 pounds, but I never felt Adam Ant worthy.

If only I’d appreciated how beautiful I was when I was young. In my twenties, I was as physically attractive as I would ever be, and yet I never experienced that moment of feeling Adam Ant worthy.

Then again, Adam-Ant-worthy is not how I measure my attractiveness or status these days.

So this was my experience of the concert. It was hardly a review, more about me than about Adam. Totally unfair to him after he went to all the trouble of sweating it out for two hours.  The thing is, reporting on what happened on the stage would not capture the experience.  I couldn’t share the moment with you, even if I’d filmed it all with my iphone and uploaded it to Youtube.

I can tell you something about that awkward 13 year-old girl though. She wanted so much from life.  The music of Adam Ant sparked her imagination because she was a dreamer.  She longed for deep human connection, but her shy temperament drove her off on her own to read, to reflect and to imagine, to create other worlds in her mind.

I have not changed.

Thanks, Adam.

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Losing My Religion

“It is an age of nervousness… the growing malady of the day, the physiological feature of the age,” said a New York Tribune editorial.  “Nowhere are the rush and hurry and overstrain of life more marked than in this much-achieving Nation…  Inventions, discoveries, achievements of science all add to the sum of that which is to be learned, and widen the field in which there is work to be done.  If knowledge has increased, we should take more time for acquiring it…  For it would be a sorry ending of this splendid age of learning and of labor to be known as an age of unsettled brains and shattered nerves.”  The article was written in 1895.

There is one thing that you can count on throughout history.  People are nostalgic for an earlier age, one that was less busy, one in which young people took the time to read books, and when people still believed in that “old time religion.”

As for reading, that golden age in America, when every person had his nose in a book is as much a myth as the memory of an age when no one felt pressured and rushed. 

“If you grew up in a rural area, you have seen how farmhouses come and go, but the dent left by cellars is permanent,” Paul Collins wrote in Sixpence House.  “There is something unbreakable in that hand-dug foundational gouge into the earth. Books are the cellars of civilization: when cultures crumble away, their books remain out of sheer stupid solidity. We see their accumulated pages, and marvel – what readers they were! But were they? Back in the 1920s, booksellers assessed the core literary population of the United States, the people who could be relied on to buy books with a serious content, at about 200,000 people. This, in a country of 100 million: a ratio of about 500 to 1. It was this minuscule subset spread out over a three-thousand-mile swath, this group of people who could fit into a few football stadiums, that thousands of books released each year had to compete for. Perhaps the ratio has gone higher since then. You see, literary culture is perpetually dead and dying; and when some respected writer discovers and loudly pro­claims the finality of this fact, it is a forensic marker of their own decomposition. It means that they have artistically expired within the last ten years, and that they will corporeally expire within the next twenty.”

Which brings us to that old time religion.  I was reading on the blog Made in America today an article by Claude Fisher, Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Berkeley.  His article, Faith Endures, opens with a scene from 1907 when a group of ministers met with president Theodore Roosevelt to discuss the crisis of declining church attendance.  Yet church attendance did not decline, and was booming in the 1950s.  Fisher describes a complex history of Americans relationship to church-going from the nation’s founding- the good old days when most of the founding fathers were “unchurched” to the present day.  The history is not a straight line (oh but we love to see history as linear!) Rather church attendance has waxed and waned.

“Since time immemorial, it seems, people have described – some have decried – the loss of that ‘old time religion.’” Fisher writes.  “Modern scholars call it secularization. With the coming of science, industry, and urbanization, faith had to crumble, they argued. There must have been a time when everyone believed deeply and that time has presumably passed.”

The article presents a graph that shows a surprisingly consistent level of church attendance throughout our history.

Importantly, we see this consistency in expressions of faith even though the early surveys include many respondents who had been born around the end of the 19th century and in the later surveys these elderly folks are replaced by respondents who had been born in the 1970s and ‘80s. Swapping the World War I generation for Gen X’ers hardly changed average levels of faith.

Faith among Americans endures, surprisingly so to many casual observers — even to professional observers…

Had the ministers who visited Teddy Roosevelt in 1907 known that a century later this would be the level of American faith, would they have been less alarmed? I suspect not.  Except when the evidence is too overwhelming — for instance, during the Great Awakenings around 1800 or during the 1950s — people just assume that faith is one of those things we are always in the process of losing.

So the loss of those old time values and a simpler way of life have always been and will always be decried even as things remain, to quote that great thinker David Byrne “same as it ever was.”

Talking Heads – Once In A Lifetime by hushhush112