The frantic gallop of Steven’s guitar. The soft and gentle pull of bows against strings.
These are the sounds of an invisible curtain that lifts to reveal The Airborne Toxic Event, performing tonight in these stunning ruins.
The lights illuminate the stage to a cool glow that shines on sober, downcast faces. Anna clutches her shining viola at her side, waiting for the moment at which to wake it. To her far left is Noah supporting an upright bass, his brow lowered and serious. Beside him is Steven, launching us out of the gate with the precise gallop of his guitar. In the back and center, Daren waits patiently for his moment to strike the drums, and we are waiting with him as one might wait for a pulse. And behind them all is a force waiting to be unleashed – a seemingly endless sea of faces with instruments, eyes fixated on the conductor, the master of this musical tempest.
With his back turned to us, Mikel is at the center of this tempest, and we wait with bated breath to see what is to become of us. Of them. Of this moment we have been reaching for, dreaming of, and clinging to like the guardrail in front of us.
This is the uphill climb of the rollercoaster. This is the beginning of a two-hour ride through a man’s struggles, heartbreaks, reflections, and triumphs. All we can do is hold our breath and hold on when he suddenly turns around to sing.
“We were born without time
Nameless in the arms
Of a mother, a father, and God.”
I find myself invisible. Transparent. Though I can feel the presence of a thousand bodies, I can no longer feel my own. His empty gaze at the audience is a reflection of my own emptiness, in that I have lost myself in the music. The beautiful crashes of drums and the flashes of light from violins have emptied the contents of my figurative soul.
They are spread unseen before my eyes. Images. Memories. The sounds of my past. They light up the sparkling night sky above the stage, and I remember everything.
All at once.
The struggle to survive. To go on. To live.
The heartbreak of losing what you thought you could never lose and yet somehow go on living.
The reflection of the time that has passed and the persons you once were.
And the triumph of having made it this far.
These are not just his struggles, heartbreaks, reflections, and triumphs. They are ours. They are mine.
And tonight, we celebrate them all.
We start with “Gasoline.”
This tongue-in-cheek ride leads into smiles and screaming the lyrics at every sudden drop of Daren’s beat. Noah’s bass line dissolves our hearts into that heady mix of adolescent hope and angst, then Steven lights a match with his guitar and sets us ablaze. Anna turns her viola into a siren of rock and roll, and even Mikel’s sedated seriousness melts into a smile of disbelief of something only he knows. But perhaps we are all thinking the same thing: that this is more fun than we could have possibly imagined.
And then he throws us down a “Wishing Well.”
We have all been there before. We have all been the coin, and we have all cast our hearts into a fountain of hope with waters we can only dream of reaching our parched lips. It is quite possibly this song that connects us the most, and what connects Airborne fans in general. We have sat in that dark corner, fearing that This is All There Is. Afraid we may never come out. That the sun will never shine again, and if that happens, we will surely wither away to nothing. But we haven’t given up hope just yet, and we cast that hope into a well. And tonight, it feels as though our dreams may come true after all.
But not before we all experience a “Changing.”
Lighthearted foot-stomping, eager clapping, and cheerful cries of “I am a gentleman” ensue when Mikel turns the mic on us. They are the hosts, and we are the life of the party. This atmosphere easily transitions into “Happiness is Overrated,” the most tongue-in-cheek of them all. “I’m sorry, I really lost my head.” We all have, Mikel.
The ride picks up speed with “Does This Mean You’re Moving On?” Mikel abandons the Gretsch for a roving mic and an energetic romp into the audience. We are delightedly laughing and singing with him like children. This energy bleeds into “Something New,” where Mikel carries his roving mic and daredevil skills to climb the scaffolding that flanks the stage, singing above our heads. The rest of the band takes advantage of his absence onstage and each has a turn in the spotlight. Steven demonstrates his impressive, precise talent. Noah just seems to want to make the women swoon and the men jealous. Anna enchants with her delicate, ethereal voice. And Daren is ever faithfully keeping them all in time with the beat.
They change the pace with “Safe,” and I start to regain a kind of self-aware consciousness.
“It was early for a summer . . . “
The piano has us hooked, as if we’re watching a story unfold. The strings paint the skies with their earnest beauty, and the drums beat in time with our hearts.
I can feel a return of awareness, of who I am and why I’m there. There is no rhyme or reason for this. It is simply the power of the music.
But it is this music that begins to transform the landscape in a way I had not anticipated. The wilderness of these ruins begins to twinkle, as if the trees are blooming with stars. The carved faces of the mountainside begin to glisten, and if I look closely, I can see the lyrics flashing like patterns of sparkles in granite.
I quickly glance over a few faces in the crowd. No one seems to notice the magic taking place around them. Their eyes are fixed onstage, as they should be. But I am equally mesmerized with the surroundings as I am the music that is living in front of my eyes.
They begin to play “All For a Woman,” and I am temporarily distracted with memories that are not mine. No matter how much time has passed, or how far away from that mystical place that is my imagination, this song will always remind me of writing my first book. Seeing them perform it here, and watching as he sings the words that call to mind such yearning, causes tiny flashes of “Where AM I?” to occur. Because surely this must be a dream of mine, just another product of my imagination. Surely this isn’t real.
Then the yearning changes to that of another kind as violins sing the opening of “A Letter to Georgia.” The piano pulls out sutures with every note, and Anna’s viola tugs at heartstrings, so that my heart is rendered completely open, fragile, and exposed. I am powerless to stop the shameless weeping that occurs.
“Your face reflected in the glass
The lines on the pavement go past
Just like the lines around your eyes
That held the weight of all these sad goodbyes.”
This ride has suddenly descended into our deepest, darkest fears. He is guiding us there with “Innocence,” and I am skeptically wondering if I am going to come out of this without completely losing it altogether. But this song is gorgeously arrayed with the gems of the orchestra. In a similar way, the lights in the trees around the stage are twinkling in time with the music, and a warm glow shines on the surface of the rock formations left when a tidal wave ripped through this land.
Something incredible is taking place here.
The song builds into an uphill climb once again. We are clapping along with the beat, like warriors in a song of victory. We are all fighting the same enemy, and we will all lose one day. Yet still we go on fighting.
This ride takes a dark and passionate turn with “Welcome to Your Wedding Day.” It is a wake-up call. It is my wake-up call since those early days before I knew the name, when it was just an alarm on a cell phone every morning. Now it is a living, breathing monster of a song that we taunt with chants and screams and then slay.
“Arm your fears like soldiers, and slay them.”
“All I Ever Wanted” trickles through the air like a soothing rain. But we know this is a storm. Flashes of light are conjured with strings, cast down from the clouds of words like “Your eyes all wet, your face so warm and inviting” and “Love is defying.”
We are breathless and taken. I wonder if there is an end to this, or if they will just continue to play all through the night. Maybe forever. I could certainly live in this kind of euphoria for as long as there is a sun and a moon in the sky.
Then they introduce the belle of the ball. The beautifully adorned, tragically lovely “Sometime Around Midnight.”
That familiar melancholy now sounds like a beautiful nightmare.
“Listen to him!” I had said two years ago. “This is AWFUL!”
And now we are right there with him, watching this madness of a legend unfold. The One That Got Away. Such a familiar theme in art of many forms, but never more gloriously displayed than in this song.
I remember this song reaching past the broken and twisted barriers of a heart so broken it seemed unreachable.
I remember running to the music festival, this song in my ears and carrying my footsteps.
I remember running to this song when I finished my first 5k.
And I remember the lessons I learned from an artist’s amusing mistakes when he tried to play this song on New Year’s Eve.
But he remembers something else.
“You just have to see her
You know that she’ll break you in two.”
We have all been there, in one way or another. Whether it’s a breakup at a bar or the death of our first child, we all are going mad from a kind of unrequited love.
I have fully regained consciousness now. I am standing in the front row, no longer transparent. I am fully present, fully aware of who I am and what I’ve lost. I’m so distracted with my own tragedies that I fail to remember I share them with others.
The lights in the trees suddenly go out. The charming lamp posts that line the perimeter of the crowd have mysteriously gone dark.
When the stage falls silent, I panic.
Have I cast a spell on this event with my own descent into darkness?
Have I ruined everything?
Then a pale light shines on Mikel as Steven and Noah lead us into “Timeless,” and I sigh with relief.
I remember you, too.
You were like a validation of everything. You were a declaration, a protest, an acceptance, and a truth. You were a secret I would cry over in the car, or collapse to in the middle of a run, or whisper in a moment of panic: “Everything we have, we have everything.”
Now, you are the climax to a story.
As the realization that this is truly the end nears, I am fully present. All of my past images and memories have been carefully returned. I am Colleen, the girl with the bird emblazoned on her face. And just like the bird, I am wounded, too. Now you know why.
I just had this broken heart, and they were just a band.
On the surface, I am nothing but a common fangirl. Some might call me a fanatic. I don’t try to dispute these labels anymore. And when I turn around, I know why.
That you have come here shows your compassion and bravery, whether you are a fan of The Airborne Toxic Event or not. These ruins are not easy to view. Ruins never are, whether they are written in prose or in song. They are ugly, distorted, twisted renderings of destroyed dreams and painful tragedies.
But your presence here makes them beautiful. And whether you are here for me or The Airborne Toxic Event doesn’t matter, because we all share these tragedies. You, me, and them – we are all fighting. Some of us are barely surviving. And some of us are trying to write them all down to make sense of them, so that maybe we won’t feel so alone anymore.
I remember a statement Mikel once made a long time ago. Perhaps it was on Twitter in a question-and-answer session with fans, or something I read in an article. In any case, I can’t remember the exact quote. What I do remember is that he had expressed his wish that he could play these songs “on the moon” with an orchestra. I remember this statement being amusing to me, and then thinking “I wish I could see that show.”
What he perhaps doesn’t realize is that he doesn’t have to play on the moon. He plays in the hearts of people every day, and some of these hearts are just as desolate and barren as the moon itself – isolated and impossible to reach. But somehow he still does, the power of music transcending all physical, mental, and emotional barriers. If his goal was to connect with one person, I’m so glad it was me.
But not just me, as evidenced by the faces in the audience here tonight and elsewhere other nights. We are all like wounded birds, desperate to fly. He is not alone, and neither are we. We have all been “tied in tethers” by the power of this music.
As the bridge of “Timeless” plays on, suddenly I remember the reason I am even here.
It has nothing to do with the band, but with the man who first introduced me to the band. The man who has stood behind me this whole time in so many ways, and has lifted me up every time I would fall.
In his kind and loving eyes, I know the meaning of this song.
We are timeless.
Everything we have, we have everything.
You are the only thing that makes me feel like I could live forever with you.
Not even death could tear us apart.
In this beautiful and touching reminder comes a sudden change our surroundings.
The lights begin to twinkle again. The landscape begins to glow. These ruins truly become stunning, but it’s not my doing. It’s the people in them that make them shine. And it’s the unfinished journey that adorns them with hope.
At the swell of the song, the sky erupts with flashing lights and colors. The booms and flashes of fireworks help finish the last song, and the band appears just as surprised as you. But we are all enchanted and amazed. This is the grand finale of a celebration of life and death and everything in between.
This is what sets this show apart from one on the moon, and from every other show there ever was.
Now it is over. We must return to our regularly scheduled lives. And they have other shows to play and other hearts to play in, no matter how much I wish they could stay.
One by one, the band disappears backstage as we cheer and cry and whistle and scream.
But Mikel jumps down from the stage, right in front of where I stand.
I don’t have time to think or move or breathe. He wraps his arms around me and holds my head against his chest for a moment. Then he kisses my hair.
“That’s for you,” he says.
When he lets me go, he has already started tying something around my wrist.
But I’m not watching. I’m looking straight into his eyes, because I want to see. I want to see what is behind them. He is every bit a mystery to me as an artist should be, and yet it feels like I know him as well as a close friend. And even though I am just a blip on his radar, I wonder if I’m not the only one who saw these ruins light up and the memories flash and play as they performed here tonight, for it feels as though he knows me, too.
What I see is what I’ve always thought all along, but perhaps had forgotten. Beneath his rock star exterior, he is human. Just like me, just like you, just like everyone else here. And we all share the same struggles, heartbreaks, reflections, and triumphs. We are all wounded birds. And we are all timeless.
We were born without time
Nameless in the arms
Of a mother, a father, and God.
I blink once. Twice.
By the third time, he is gone.
Everyone has left.
And I am standing in an empty venue as the sun begins with rise, leaving me to wonder if this has all been just a dream of mine.
Then I look down at my wrist, at the humble, black thick string tied around it – and I remember everything.
The music whispers in the early morning mist. It echoes in the steep canyons. It sings softly between the trees.
I take a deep breath and close my eyes.
I don’t know what will happen next. This is hardly the end of my story. It is merely a chapter, but it is one that I had the courage to write. I decided to make it happen, no matter what stood in my way. I am not ashamed of who I am anymore. You, the band, the music – you all have left something beautiful for the person I am now and the person I have yet to become. But no matter who I am – fangirl, fanatic, bereaved mother, wounded bird – I am more the phoenix than the ashes, and if I am a phoenix, then I can fly.
And that is when I know what it feels like to be truly airborne.