Written by Patrick McNamara
My first show wasn’t really my first show but it was my first “show.” You know? No? Well, then perhaps I should clarify. I had been to concerts since I was a little kid. I can’t remember the very first one with 100% exactitude. But it might have been Carman (one name - like Prince or Beyoncé or Steve) at Six Flags Great America outside Chicago circa 1986.
Are you familiar with Carman’s work? For all the heathens and unbelievers reading this, he had a pretty big time Christian radio hit in the ‘80s with the song “The Champion” - an epic 8+ minute mostly spoken word song where Carman ingeniously assumes the dual roles of both God and Satan as they duke it out for the fate of the world. In one classic line, a taunting God says to a threatening Satan, “Go ahead. Make my day.” It was a real burn on God’s part and nicely incorporated a pop culture “Dirty Harry” reference that was already over a decade old by that point. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t mind watching Carman sing “The Champion” instead of riding the roller coasters, though. Because I was 7.*
The first real life actual rock “show” I saw was with my hometown heart lovers Smashing Pumpkins (they weren’t “The” Smashing Pumpkins then - not sure when that unnecessary article nonsense started) in 19-Naughty-3 at Aragon Ballroom (we’re still in Chicago) on their “Siamese Dream” tour. I had just turned 15 a few days earlier. Maybe that’s a little late in life to go to your first rock show. But I was a little busy watching Nick-at-Night. I never got Dobie Gillis but The Patty Duke Show was the bomb.
When I wasn’t watching reruns, I was just getting into music. I first heard Smashing Pumpkins on the “Singles” soundtrack. I loved the guitars on “Drown” but still wasn’t sure how I felt about Billy Corgan’s nasally voice and also decided that I really needed to move to Seattle and hang out in coffee shops with Matt Dillon and Eddie Vedder immediately. I didn’t though. Because I was 12. Then I got into the band’s debut album “Gish” a little bit. But “Siamese Dream” is when I started crushing. Hard. Ask me about the posters on my bedroom wall sometime.
I had bought the album a few weeks prior to the show with some money I had saved up by not eating the food at school (I once found a screw in my chocolate doughnut - I shit you not - a screw). I’d like to say I purchased “Siamese Dream” at an alt DIY independent brick and mortar record store. But that’s not Best Buy’s scene, man. Maybe I also happened to be microwave shopping with the Moms. Did you ever think of that? Don’t tell me my flaws. For I already know them. Regardless of where it was procured, the record was, and remains, one of the best rock records of all time. Let’s not argue about it. Let’s just agree to agree. It’s better that way.
It was shortly thereafter discovered by my older brother and his college friends that the band was playing one more local show before hitting the road and conquering the world. One of them waited in line the day they went on sale at the Ticketmaster kiosk in the Jewel supermarket, impossibly got some, and even more miraculously, I got invited to tag along. It felt pretty big time to high-school-sophomore me. Sure. I’d have to miss My Three Sons. But boy, was it going to be worth it.
The night of the show we got there for doors (everybody gets there for doors in the beginning - have you forgotten already? - have you???) and the Frogs played first.
Perhaps, like Carman, you aren’t familiar with this Milwaukee band’s work. That’s OK. Wikipedia can fill you in on everything you don’t want to know about the Frogs. I remember costumes and props and the band’s frontman shouting to the booing audience, “You just don’t understand what we’re trying to do up here!” Whatever you say, flowing sequined robe man. Trust your vision.
Next up was England’s Swervedriver. They soared. They swirled. They shredded. And I still listen to this exceptional band to this very day. But they weren’t Smashing Pumpkins and man their set felt like for fucking EVER.
Finally, after the Frogs played their art garbage, and Swervedriver took their sweet time swirling, Smashing Pumpkins sans Billy came out. The crowd went crazy. Then Billy literally jumped out onto the stage as if to say “tah-dah! the rockstar is here!.” The crowd went crazier. Like, crazy crazy. And let me tell you what. I was one scared shitless kid. I had never been in a sweaty mass of people like that. I mean, my church’s Sunday worship could be lively when singing songs like “It Only Takes a Spark” (technically it’s called “Pass it On” but nobody on the inside calls it that) but never before had I been part of something like THIS. I thought “uh-oh I shouldn’t be here” but then the band launched into “Geek U.S.A.” and it sounded even BETTER than the record and I thought “holy shit, I can’t believe I’m here!”
(BTW. This show was also the first time I smelled weed. I remember smelling something smoky. But sort of sour smelling ((now it smells sweet - it’s totally an acquired smell)). I couldn’t figure out what it was. That’s not the way I remember the cigarette I once tried which then made me spit for approximately the next six days smelling like. But if not a cigarette, then what? What is that smoky smell? Oh my god*, this place is on fire, isn’t it?! That smoky smell is smoky SMOKE from a FIRE and we’re all going to crush each other and DIE! Sweet Jesus, tonight's the night I die. Right before I could run... even though I knew it was useless... my brother’s friend leaned over and said, “Good to see somebody here remembered the pot.” And I was like, “ohhhhhh.” Dobie Gillis was a honest-to-goodness beatnik alright but I never saw him smoking anything like THAT, man)
I don’t remember the exact set list. Much to our collective relief. But I do know Smashing Pumpkins played the entire “Siamese Dream” album (even “Disarm” - their biggest hit and only flaw in an almost flawless album - those maudlin strings tho) as well all the hits from other albums, including “Drown” and “Siva” and “Bury Me.” I spent the entire night getting chills. And sweating. Profusely. At least that hasn’t changed.
And at the very end, when they closed with the forever epic rocker “Silverfuck” (eat your heart out, “The Champion”) and Billy sang that one part that goes, “bang bang you’re dead…. holding your head….”, and you know from the album that this quiet pause was the cue that the band was about to EXPLODE, except they didn’t, Billy improvised** and instead softly cooed “somewhere... over the rainbow... way up high... and the dreams that you dreamed of…. once in a lullabyyyyIIIIIIIIIIII hear what you WANT!!! And I FEEL that WAY!!!!!" - well, I thought I could die right there and while a little young everything would be just fine.
But I survived. And I’ve been chasing that first show dragon ever since.
(*around the same time I went to this same super sweet theme park venue to see Sandi Patti - aka the Christian Whitney Houston - but we don’t need to get into it here - Sandi’s a whole other dynamic original digital article waiting to be written by me instead of achieving my dreams)
(**at the time, I would’ve said “gosh” and would’ve capitalized “God”)
(***I just now 21 years later realized Billy probably wanted to sing that on the album all along but didn’t want to pay or couldn’t get the rights to use “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” But don’t quote me on that. That’s why this theory is in parentheses.)