“Someday they’re gonna forget about us
And we’ll wonder if we were ever good enough
It hit me last night in this song I heard
I remember the feeling, but forget all the words.”
- “California,” The Airborne Toxic Event.
Earlier in the year, when The Airborne Toxic Event announced their 2014 Fall Tour, I started making plans.
First, it was exhausting every possible and plausible situation that could get me to San Francisco for their 3-night residency in September with a 7-month-old. A few kind people even offered to babysit while I went to enjoy the shows. In the end, I decided to bow out this time, even though I would have loved to have seen almost their entire catalog performed live. I stayed up late on the second night of their residency to watch the live stream of the show online. I even wore a temporary tattoo of The Bird so I could fangirl from hundreds of miles away. A few awesome friends who were there at the show that night also wore the tattoo on their faces, both a tribute to the band’s insignia and to show I was truly there in spirit. It was an amazing performance, one I wish I could have experienced in person, but I was glad I got to see at least one night of their show as it happened live.
I was pumped. I was counting down the days until I could travel a little closer to my hometown to see them in October.
Since the venue was still a two-hour drive away, we decided to stay the night. My in-laws graciously offered to babysit at the hotel while my husband and I had our first night out since our son was born earlier this year. It was the first time I would be away from him for any length of time, and I was extremely nervous. I knew he was in good hands, of course, but what if he cried the whole time we were gone? What if *I* cried? What if I was unable to enjoy the show because I missed him so much? Was going to a concert really worth leaving my baby behind? Didn’t I publicly swear I would never be one of “those” parents?
Yet I told myself that going would be healthy for both myself and the little guy. We needed a “night out,” and he needs to learn to be without mom sometimes. What better occasion than an Airborne show?
Hubby got there early to secure our place in line, though the weather forecast was hardly cooperative with his valiant effort. Rain all day. Heavy downpours. Thunderstorms. Twenty to thirty-mile-per-hour winds. A high of 55 degrees. But Hubby didn’t even flinch. Or if he did, he didn’t do it in front of me. I arrived a couple hours later before the doors were scheduled to open and relieved his post so he could take a bathroom break.
Meanwhile, the raging self-doubt continued when I took my place in line.
The fans in front and behind stared at me with raised eyebrows. And for the first time ever, I felt self-conscious with this wounded bird emblazoned on my face. I didn’t feel like a fangirl at all. Instead, I felt like a fake. An imposter with the “Look-At-Me” confidence on her skin, but beneath a wide range of doubts the size as mountains. I immediately regretted my decision to be The Girl With the Bird.
Who did I think I was, and who did I think I was fooling?
As I quietly gazed at the leather boots which had been gifted to me by another Airborne fan, I realized that perhaps I had made a mistake coming here. After all, there was a time not long ago when I used to stand in line like this and wish to be transported back home with a baby – because that was all I ever wanted, anyway. Not waiting in the cold rain and wind to see a band who didn’t care if I was there or not.
I had to refocus. I had to shift my attention to something else.
So I struck up a conversation with the group standing in front of me. There was the kid clutching White Noise, his ticket holding the place where I assumed the page read the band’s name in bold letters. There was a middle-aged woman speaking affectionately with him – his mother, perhaps. Three girls his age chirped to him and each other, but no one seemed to notice I was there.
I asked the innocent and friendly question, “So where are you guys from?”
The mother answered. She said they had driven three hours and arrived an hour earlier than they planned. Then they asked where we were from, and I told her. I motioned to the boy. “I see you’ve got your copy of White Noise. Are you hoping to get it signed?”
“Yes!” he cried. “Have you met them? Do you think they’ll do it?”
I smiled. “Yeah, I think so. Have you seen them before?”
“No. This is our first time.”
I immediately went into rapturous gushing over the band. How much they’re going to love it. How excited I was for them. How it’s going to blow their minds. How they’re going to remember this night for years to come. I specifically instructed the boy - who identified himself as “the fan” of the group – where to stand and to have his phone out recording during “Does This Mean You’re Moving On” because Mikel had been fancying himself a cameraman these days, apparently the very 2014 thing to do.
They asked if the band usually came out after the show to sign autographs and take pictures, and I gave them instructions to go around the back of the building after the show and hang out for a while.
We talked about our favorite songs. They asked how many times I’d seen them. I felt like the veteran of the line, though I knew this could hardly be the case.
In spite of all this, the nagging feeling that I shouldn’t be there continued. At one point, I even quietly asked my husband if he felt strange, too, and he agreed that he had. “It feels like I just woke up from a dream,” he said. “A really long and crazy dream.”
When the doors finally opened, we headed for our usual spot in front of the stage, though we didn’t get barrier. We had come to find out the venue has a VIP package deal with perks like early entry for those who don’t care to impress their wives by standing around in the rain. And if there never ended up being a show - if The Airborne Toxic Event were to have been spirited away somehow – that would have been enough. Hubby standing in the rain so I could have first dibs on the front row. It’s the thought that counts.
I saw a few familiar faces from the years prior, but the regulars were missing. The crowd looked foreign to me, and most of the glances I caught were the kind that made me feel like I was two feet tall. They all seemed to be asking me who I thought I was coming here with the Airborne bird on my face, and I was asking myself the same thing. Why am I not at home singing lullabies to my baby? Why am I here at all?
The anxiety I felt was stifling. All the while I kept making small talk with Hubby, afraid to ask if he felt the same. Was he wondering why we came, too? And with such horrible company as I!
Then someone tapped me on the shoulder and handed me a piece of paper. I looked up to see them pointing at a woman standing a few feet away. It was a reader and contributor to This Is Nowhere, Airborne’s unofficial fan blog, and someone with whom I exchanged a few emails. She had picked me out of the crowd. Because of The Bird.
I hugged her immediately, and the group of benevolent concertgoers we were standing by actually made a space for her to now stand next to me for the duration of the show. We shared a pleasant conversation while waiting for the opening band to take the stage, and in between sets. But I couldn’t shake my anxiety. I didn’t feel right in my own skin.
Before the show even started, I was sweating buckets. Secretly I hoped that The Bird would drip off my skin and then maybe I wouldn’t feel like such a weirdo.
When it was time for Airborne to take the stage, the lights dimmed and the intro music began to play. This time they choreographed lights and lasers to accompany the music and the experience. I felt like I was about to witness something amazing – living, moving sounds of art happening in front of me. And I wasn’t wrong.
All my anxiety melted away as soon as the band launched into the opening of “Welcome To Your Wedding Day.” The toxic cloud of sound and light rained down a cleansing concoction of music and emotions that could only come from months and years of following a band that has somehow weaved its way one’s subconscious, accompanying every major event like a soundtrack, and transcending the gap from one life to another.
Oh, Airborne. Your celebration of what is painful to speak, yet brought into the light and admired for the beauty in its ugliness, is what brought me here in the first place.
That, and a darn good show. And do they ever put on a show.
This was my first time seeing Adrian Rodriguez replacing Noah Harmon on bass, and quite honestly I forgot that he hadn’t been there all along. But there was something different about the show and the songs as he brought his own spin on the old favorites. He didn’t try to fill Noah’s shoes, and neither did he need to. This was Airborne reborn – the same, but different.
That theme would persevere through the rest of the show, persistently tugging at my subconscious like a nagging child. This is different.
I shushed it and went back to enjoying myself. These were all my favorite songs, played live and at decibels that would bust my neighbors’ eardrums if I played them at home. It was glorious. I danced. I jumped. I screamed. I did all the things I normally did at the shows I went to last year and the year before that, letting the music lift my feet off the ground as it drowned out the constant chatter in my brain that has plagued me ever since my child died.
I lost my voice screaming the words to the new song “Wrong,” which is decidedly un-Airborne in nature, but so much fun and face-melting live.
I lost my heart to a gloriously-delivered “Elizabeth” and a rocking good time of “What’s In A Name.”
And it never fails. I always cry during “Graveyard,” only this time I leaned into Hubby’s chest, feeling less celebratory and more reflective. This was all so strange. Had we just woken up from a dream like we thought, or was this the dream after all? And whose dream is this, anyway?
Clearly, it wasn’t mine.
During the encore, they played “Moving On,” and whose phone does Mikel decide to steal this time but the one belonging to the kid I met in line. His reaction was priceless. A euphoria only known to those who have that once-in-a-lifetime interaction with their favorite musician. It’s so brief and fleeting and wonderful. And his is documented forever, a moment he can replay whenever he wants. I know what that’s like.
Yet I stood there in a strange and hazy fog, feeling like I was on the outside looking in, watching others have those interactions, remembering my own, and questioning every thing I thought I knew. I was a ghost of a fangirl past, a different kind of fan than the one I started out as. Then it occurred to me that albeit for Adrian, the band wasn’t really that different – I was. The way I perceive them is different, and the way I experience their show is different, and maybe the way I appear is different, too.
This culminated after the show was over when Mikel was handing out setlists from the stage. I had taken it upon myself to secure one somehow for This Is Nowhere’s collection, even though I don’t make a habit of collecting setlists or any trophies anymore. Mikel stood on the stage above me with a setlist in hand . . . and handed it to the girl who was by the barrier in front of me. Then he disappeared backstage.
It was such a small thing – trivial and stupid – that was exaggerated by my perceived ghostliness and lack of visibility. After all, I am just a fan, just like everyone else in that room.
Hubby wasted no time grabbing my hand to find the kid whose phone Mikel had taken during the song, but they had disappeared as well.
I felt desperate and insignificant. Lost. Strange. Sad. I shouldn’t have come.
As the crowd filed out, we went to the back of the venue where my old Concert Buddy was standing with my sister-in-law and another couple. They had foregone waiting in line and stayed dry, opting instead for a hot dinner and arriving when the doors opened. I was so happy to see her – and all of them – and relieved when they gave me a hug and thus snuffed out the fangirl ghost. It was back to business as usual.
We talked about the show some, but mostly about ourselves. Concert Buddy had a conversation with Adrian before the show, who remembered her from San Francisco last month. The fan whom I had met that night came up to say goodbye, and I wished her well.
Concert Buddy asked if we were going to wait around outside to talk to the band.
“I don’t know,” I told her honestly. “I don’t want to, really. Are you?”
“Yeah. You should really go. I think Mikel will be happy to see you.”
“Oh, he doesn’t remember me.”
“You never know.”
I laughed. “I’ll go with you. You can introduce me to Adrian.”
The six of us headed outside and around to the alley behind the venue. Already a small crowd had formed, among whom included the kid I had met before the show and whose phone Mikel had taken. They excitedly thanked me for the “advice” and gushed over the experience. Now that I had finally let go of the ghost, I beamed with genuine happiness for them. After all, it wasn’t that long ago I was at my first show having my own amazing experience. I was glad I could share it in this way with someone else.
We didn’t have to wait long for the band members to meander outside. Adrian was already talking to a few fans on the other side of the street, and immediately recognized my Concert Buddy when she approached him to say hello and take a few pictures. A small swarm of people gathered around Mikel and Steven, everyone talking at once.
I stood off to the side against the wall of the building, waiting for everyone else to have their turn. I wasn’t feeling particularly fangirly at the moment, and once again I asked myself why I was there and if I should just leave.
Out of nowhere, Adrian came over to introduce himself and I told him how excited I was to meet him, and that his performance tonight was amazing. I was quickly won over by his charm. We had a nice chat for a few moments until I glanced at Mikel, and he glanced at me.
“Oh, hey,” he said casually. “How ya been?”
“I’ve been good. How’ve you been?” And then I think I may have laughed. I’m not sure because I started to get very embarrassed and awkward and I felt my brain explode inside my skull.
He said he was good, but to me he looked tired. At that moment, I didn’t know what else to do but clumsily ask him for a picture and then politely excuse myself. Hubby was standing there with the phone ready, and when I stood next to Mikel and turned to him, I slowly felt my brain put itself back together.
“This is my husband, by the way,” I said after Hubby snapped the photo.
Mikel extended his hand and said it was an honor to meet him.
“You know,” Hubby said, “I’ve seen you several times now and I’ve never gotten a picture with you. I’m always the photographer.”
“Oh, absolutely, let’s take a picture then.”
This time, I snapped the picture. Hubby thanked him and they shook hands. Another fan jumped in and got his attention, and we stepped away.
We regrouped with our friends at the top of the street where Daren was chatting and taking pictures with the kid I met in line. I wanted to say hi to Daren before we left because Daren is always so nice and down to earth, and just a cool guy in general. After we said hello, he asked how I drew The Bird, and instantly I became self-conscious and shy and told him that “I’m just a big nerd.”
“Well, so am I,” he confessed. “I think it’s really cool.”
“Oh. Thanks.” I probably blushed. “I just draw it in front of the mirror free hand. It’s no big deal. I’m just a fan, is all.”
And it’s true, I thought after I said goodbye. I am just a fan, as small and insignificant as it sounds. It doesn’t change the fact that I’m just an eyewitness, a spectator, an audience. I came there perhaps foolishly hoping to have an experience and feel special, only to realize I’m just a cog in the machine. In the end, the experience is about them. They’re the ones who have worked tirelessly to produce the art of which we are simply eyewitnesses. They’re the ones who spend hours on the road, probably not getting enough rest, away from their loved ones, and tirelessly putting on a show night after night. And only they know the price they have paid to stand there in front of us, the sacrifices they’ve made, the work that goes on behind the scenes to get the notes just right, the motions choreographed, the machine running smoothly so we all can play our parts and feel connected in the grand scheme of the art.
The dream is theirs, and I have just a very, very small part in it, but I’m happy to be part of it nonetheless. The experiences I’ve had because of it have been nothing short of amazing, memories I’ll remember for a lifetime, and some of them have very little to do with the band itself. The other fans I’ve met, some of whom only briefly, are some of the most extraordinary people. They are kind, supportive, even talented in their own right. They are people who matter. They are important in their own way, and I’m so grateful to know several of them personally.
But whereas the band moves on to the next city, the next show, and the next group of eager fans standing in line hoping for their piece, the rest of us get to go home and back to our regularly scheduled lives.
For me this was walking hand in hand with the man who waited in the rain for me to a restaurant for a late-night snack after the show. Then it was going back to our sweet baby boy, who cried as soon as I walked in the door and then smiled and laughed with joy when I picked him up. This is my life now, and it may not be glamorous or terribly exciting, but it is truly all I ever wanted, and significant in its own way.
I’m just a fan, and maybe you are too. Maybe you’re not even an Airborne fan, but a fan of something or someone else. Maybe you’re like me, and you shamelessly love the crap out of things because they make you happy. You’re in good company, and whether they have happened yet or not, you are letting yourself be open to have some amazing experiences. It could be your favorite musician stealing your phone and taking a video during a show, or taking a selfie with your favorite artist. It could even be sharing a knowing glance full of meaning and a thousand unspoken words with a loved one during a show. No matter what it is, being a fan is an experience in itself.
And even though one day they may forget about us, we will always have these memories burning brightly in our lives. Even if one day far in the future, we forget the words to the songs. We will never forget the way they made us feel.