You’ve all been on a road trip or two, right? Used to be so easy, didn’t it? You’d call up a friend and say “let’s go…” and what seemed like only an hour later you’d either be heading off in a car together, jumping on a bus or train, or maybe even hitchhiking. I went to see the Jam play two nights in France back in ’81 and I know that I didn’t bring anything but the clothes I was in, as I well remember over a dozen of us Brits walking five miles in the snow back to the Jam’s hotel after the second show and the one guy who had packed a sports bag of spare clothes was made to feel acutely embarrassed for doing so… Ah, memories.
So, that was me then, a teenager, and this is me, now: a 44-year old parent of two kids. Which means that a road trip with the wife to see R.E.M. at Jones Beach on Saturday turned from a simple “that sounds like fun” to the kind of production that Bill Graham might once have blanched at. We’re fortunate that our older boy, Campbell, can child-sit our three-year old Noel for a few hours (as when we drove half an hour to Kingston on Tuesday to see Blondie), but nobody can look after Noel for a full day or more except his mother, my wife Posie. That’s fine, we thought; Noel loves rock’n’roll, he rarely goes anywhere without his guitar, he adores R.E.M.’s version of “Superman” so we know he likes the sound of them, the group were happy to comp all three of us with VIP privileges (Thanks greatly!) and Jones Beach is not only an outdoor venue – essential if you’re going to take such a young kid to a show – but, as its name suggests, right on the water. We could take Noel to the beach for the afternoon; go see R.E.M. in the evening. What could be easier?
Well, first, we had to find accommodation for Campbell for the weekend. Fortunately, his best friend was hosting a birthday party and let him sleep over. That part was easy. But then we realized we’d better find accommodation for ourselves, too: we didn’t fancy getting home at 3 or 4am and losing out on Saturday night sleep. (Which is hilarious, given that we used to regularly roll out of Manhattan nightclubs and bars at that time – on weekdays.) A quick web search turned up the Freeport Boatel and Motor Inn just five miles from the venue, which looked ideal, as indeed it was. It was also $125 plus tax. Just as well we were getting the free tickets.
Traveling overnight now meant packing for Noel overnight – and as we were heading for the beach, also meant packing swim wear, towels, and various play items. Noel has a lot of very specific food allergies, which means just about every meal has to be brought along with him. So Posie spent half Saturday morning making sure that he had every allergy-free food he could possibly need for the next 24 hours. Then there was the cat to take care of, but I’d let him out in the morning and he had no intention of coming back on a sunny day. So were left him out for the night in the company of coyotes and bears. Plus it was Father’s Day on Sunday and as I found out the next morning, Posie also needed time to wrap a hammock, her gift for me. (We could take a tangent into the merits of buying your husband a hammock when he’s a year late with his latest book, but let’s not!)
We finally set off Saturday lunchtime, a good hour behind schedule. Stop on Route 28 to fill the car with gas – the big car, because that’s the one Noel rides in and can fit everything. (Did I mention Noel’s pack’n’play crib? His guitar?) $75 lighter – and that not even for a full tank – I express gratitude that I don’t have a daily gas-guzzling commute to work.
Two hours and a hundred miles on, we hit what I call the funnel. Brits can look at a map of New York City to see what I mean. Any which way you want to get from west of the Hudson River to Long Island, you’re going to have to negotiate that very tight strip of land at the north of New York City which is, not surprisingly, a constant bottleneck. The Cross Bronx Expressway, the route advised by all the map services, is possibly the most miserable few miles of road ever built by Robert Moses. (And that’s saying something.) But on Saturday, the Cross County and Hutchinson Parkways prove little much better. It’s while we’re still stuck on the latter that my wife laments how the traffic on Long Island is always terrible. I have to point out that we have yet to even enter the Bronx, let alone navigate the Throgs Neck Bridge onto Long Island, after which we will only have the Grand Central Parkway, the Cross Island Parkway, the Southern State Parkway and the Meadowbrook Parkway before we get to the southern end of the Island.
Are we there yet? Yep, we pull into the motel shortly after 5pm. Noel, who did not use up his usual quota of energy in the morning at home, has only just gone to sleep. The National take the stage at 7pm. It’s cloudy. Upon setting off almost four hours earlier, I’d said that, with Noel in tow, we would simply go with the flow today, and not allow any mishaps stop us having a great time. Going with the flow, I decide there and then to scrap the beach for today, hopefully do it tomorrow. It proves a wise move. Am I getting wiser in old age or just more cautious? Or is it the same thing?
The room we’ve booked is upstairs. And being a motel, there’s no elevator. We have a lot of bags, despite staying just the one night. (The pack’n’play, the food bag etc. etc.) We are offered a room on the ground floor, at the back, overlooking the marina, with a deck. It’s much nicer than the one upstairs. It’s also $25 extra. Plus tax. We take it.
Noel wakes up. He’s only been asleep for an hour. Fortunately, he’s full of beans; there’s nothing he seems to like more than a road trip. I take him for a walk round the marina while Posie “gets ready.” I hold his hand tightly so he doesn’t fall in the water, which is littered with oil streaks and plastic bottles. My mind flashes back to a junket to Naples, where I jumped in the ocean by the harbor because it seemed like a good idea at the time. I spent the rest of the evening scratching my infections.
Noel and I return to the room. Posie is in the shower. We head out again. I pick up the Long Island Press from the front desk. Blondie are playing on Wednesday, with the New York Dolls in support. I stare at that ad for a while, wondering what people would have said had you shown them it up back in 1975, when the New York Dolls had just broken up and Blondie had just formed. The paper also notes of tonight’s R.E.M. concert that the National are not only the best band on tonight’s bill, but that they made greatest best album of 2007. Many people have said this. I listened to the album (Boxer) yet again on the drive down. It’s good. But it’s not great. Am I no longer in touch with taste? Or has removing myself from the immediate vicinity of (all) the (other) hipsters on the planet simply allowed for independent thought? Maybe the live show will change my mind.
Noel and I return to the motel room. Posie is still “getting ready.” I make a comment about the amount of time men spend waiting for their dates to “get ready” and my wife makes a perfectly justified comment in return about the amount of time it’s just taken her to make Noel’s allergy-free sandwiches when she’d prefer to be walking round the marina. During my shamed silence she asks what cocktails I brought from our well-stocked home fridge. None, I reply; I thought we’d be at the beach right now and going straight to the show. I take Noel back out for a walk and pick us up some Lipton’s tea from the front desk instead.
It’s almost 7pm by the time we’re both “ready.” We decide to skip cocktails and dinner- as we have already skipped the beach – and head straight for the show, even though we’re hungry and thirsty and not sure what food and drink may await us. We pick up the Meadowbrook Parkway again and within seven minutes we’re pulling up to the Jones Beach car parks. Wow. That’s fast. What a great choice of motel. I may actually get to see some of the National.
“Shit!” says my wife suddenly. She’s left Noel’s “black cookies” back at the motel. Paul Newman’s Newman-Os (yes that Paul Newman) are Oreos without wheat and dairy. They’re Noel’s favorite treat, our secret weapon for when we need to keep him going a while but without the same sugary stuff other kids can have. We turn the car around, drive back to Freeport and get them. It’s barely a 15-minute round trip. No great sweat. Though just enough time to miss the National.
All this said, I’m in the best of moods. Nothing is going to rain on my parade today. It could be the end of the world as we know it and I’d still be feeling fine. My relative calm pays dividends as I decide to drive up to the VIP car park and try my luck. With a click of the guard’s two-way radio, it’s confirmed that we have VIP tickets – but not VIP parking. I’m told I can unload inside this car park and then I need to exit and drive, ooh probably half a mile away to a vacant parking spot. (Aside: these outdoor shed shows can be great fun. They’re an American tradition, the centerpiece of the summer tour circuit. But most of them are outside city centers and almost entirely dependent on fossil fuel-consuming automobiles.) I make a great display of unpacking Noel and his stroller, and the food bag, and the play bag, and the headphones we’re going to use as earplugs, then I go back to the security guard/parking attendant and ask very politely if I really have to park back outside given that I have the toddler. It works. He lets me park here, all of about twenty feet from the entrance.
We pick up our tickets and passes. We’ve been given seats just far enough back to ensure that the PA does not deafen Noel. (I have no doubt this was deliberate.) We sit him down just as the National walk off stage. I say I’ll go off and figure out what the VIP passes are good for. It takes me approximately 30 minutes to do so. Consciously, I’m quite sure, these big outdoor venues operate on a need-to-know basis, and nobody seems to know what the VIP pass is for except that it’s not for whatever door, gate or seating area they’re commandeering. They would like you to just treat it as a souvenir and not actually try and do anything with it. When I try to slip side of stage I’m told by the security guard there that the pass is for After Show. I happen to know it’s not, but I don’t argue with him. I ask around of enough middle-aged officials until I’m encouraged to go to a gate at the loading bay. Finally, at that gate, the pass does its business: I’m walked out of the amphitheater, into the loading bay and, twenty feet later, walked right back out into the amphitheater. (This is true!) I now walk right past the same security guard I had seen two minutes earlier and slip into the backstage area.
Glamorous, right? Far from it. The Jones Beach stage backs onto the water. There’s literally only about 50-100 feet circling the rear of the stage for the entire backstage area, including all production offices and dressing rooms. (Equipment is loaded in and out through a tunnel that runs underneath the audience.) This allows for barely six feet of corridor access at any given point. It’s tight, it’s cramped and though everyone is professional and polite back here, it’s not by any imagination the rock’n’roll equivalent of a 5-star hotel. It’s very hard work.
I see who I need to see, and I’m told that we can watch the show from an elevated viewing pen above and slightly behind the stage – which could be important with Noel in tow – but that it will be that much better from out front. That’s something I don’t need too much convincing about: I’m a music fan first and foremost, and I’ve always enjoyed watching concerts from where you’re meant to, out amongst the audience. I get back to our seats. Noel is happily munching on a sandwich. Modest Mouse take the stage. We attach my big DJ headphones to Noel’s ears and it works: he seems to think they’re bringing him the music as they do with his CD player. He sits absolutely transfixed. He watches the big video screen which at first is barely visible in the waning daylight, but as the sun goes down and the clouds move in, the figures on the screen become clearer and he claps at the end of each song and even asks “What happened?” when they take more than a usual CD’s pause between songs. Modest Mouse are mental: trumpets and banjos and double drummers and grunts and screams and shouts and rhythm and Johnny Marr on guitar though you would never ever think of the Smiths unless you knew the connection… They would also be much better enjoyed as headliners in a smaller venue, but we knew that already.
Nature soon joins in the light show. A lightning strike over the bay there. Another one a little closer here. The clouds grow more ominous and oppressive. Last time we came to Jones Beach, David Bowie’s set was cut short by a thunderstorm and Moby’s closing set (yes, Moby headlined over David Bowie) started late. It’s a strange climate out here on the Long Island Sound, especially at this time of year. You’d be smart to be prepared for it. As the lightning gets closer, many of those around us don their plastic Macs that they’ve bought just in case. Posie and I look at each other. We didn’t bring any. Even though we live in the thunderous Catskills, even though I bought these bloody plastic Macs for Burning Man last year and didn’t need them, we are dressed in t-shirts and shorts and floppy hats, none of which are remotely waterproof.
When the rain starts falling, it’s of a velocity that suggests it’s just warming up, so to speak. We decide it’s time to stop acting like punters, and start acting like VIPs. We grab Noel, leave the stroller where it is (under the seats) and make our way backstage. We climb the stairs to the chicken-wired viewing pen just in time for the bigger thunderclap I may ever have heard in my life. It is approximate 2-3 times louder than Modest Mouse, and that’s saying something. It deafens everyone and whether by coincidence or circumstance, Modest Mouse stop playing, issue a very hurried “Thank you” (the most they’ve said to the audience all night) and run. Someone takes the stage to announce a rain delay as the crew rushes onstage, pushing back and covering the monitors and quickly throwing rain covers over all the other equipment. This is not just rain like we get back in England (usually all summer festival long); this is a summertime, coastal thunderstorm/lighting storm/borderline tornado of flood-density proportions. In fact, little do we know at the time, but the Long Island Expressway has just been closed in both directions, due to flash flooding, which prevents at least a few stragglers from getting to the show on time. Besides, the venue is no longer letting anyone in or out. We’re under lock down. (I’ve been on nearby Fire Island when a tornado hit; it took the roof off of the house next to us and flew it halfway across the Island. These storms are not to be taken lightly.) The crew is studying a truss above the stage. Apparently lighting hit it. I think of Curtis Mayfield and how he was paralyzed when a lighting truss hit him after being hit by lightning – at an outdoor show in Brooklyn, which, technically, is Long Island. It’s not the kind of accident you would wish on anyone. As the rain floods everything in sight, I make a couple of exploratory runs through the backstage area, then I grab Noel and race through the downpour to a cramped but welcoming area that houses a few mutual acquaintances. Posie follows suit.
There’s an upside to the rain delay: I finally find a cold beer. For not only had I forgotten to bring the weekend-away-by-the-bay cocktails, I had forgotten that Jones Beach does not serve alcohol. No wonder so many people were tailgating in the car park. As I sip on a Budweiser like it’s the king of beers, crew members, promoters and band members alike are walking round looking extremely nervous. Rumors spread that someone was hit by lightning, that the show is about to be cancelled. I check my watch. 9:30 pm. It’s approximately 12 hours since we started packing for the gig. It’s also the time R>E>M> were meant to take the stage. I run up to the pen and take a picture of the entirely empty amphitheater, thinking, didn’t I do this at the Bowie show too? When I come back down, I find Noel has been treated one of his black cookies and that he’s happy as can be. He’s drawing face, happily using a chair as his table, with other kids of various ages similarly hanging out. Noel has no idea what’s going on or where he is except that it’s an adventure. He’s on a road trip. And there’s nothing going to rain on his parade.