Gray Skies Glorified
Even though this is Seattle, it’s not supposed to rain in July. My tickets say Lollapalooza ’92, Take the Day Off, Kitsap County Fairgrounds, Rain or Shine, Wed. July 22, 1992 1:00PM. I was totally psyched about this show, but when I bought the tickets I assumed it would be a glorious sunny day. Now I’m not so excited. I hate being cold and wet. Plus, I can’t afford to get sick. I work two jobs and go to Shoreline Community College. I’ve got rent to pay and car insurance and everything else. It was bad enough that I had to take today off.
But God, I had to come to this show, I mean, it’s Lollapalooza! I just wish it wasn’t so far away. I didn’t even know how to get to Kitsap County until I pulled out my Washington roadmap. My boyfriend Danny and I just got off the ferry at Kingston and we’re driving in my ’85 Civic down a curvy two-lane road flanked by tall evergreens, ferns, and blackberry bushes.
The car ahead of me churns up the water on the roadway. The spray is so heavy that I can’t even see the road or the car. Gray mist is pretty much all I can see out of all my windows and mirrors. It’s practically the longest day of the year, yet it’s dark on this road in this weather, even at twelve-thirty in the afternoon.
We missed the ferry we meant to catch and we’re gonna be really late. I had no idea it would take so long to get down here. We better not miss Pearl Jam. They’re my favorite band. I’ve got Ten playing in the tape deck right now. Eddie is singing about a girl. He knows she’ll have a beautiful life. He knows she’ll be a star. I wished he were talking about me. I once thought that was possible, now I’m not so sure.
Danny doesn’t care about any of the bands on the line-up. He basically came along for the ride. He doesn’t care what we do, especially since I bought his ticket, and I’m driving. He likes heavy metal: Queensryche, Metallica, Tesla. I’m all about alternative, especially the Seattle Sound: Alice in Chains, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, and Soundgarden.
I start to see cars parked along the road ahead of me and decide that this must be the overflow. I pull onto the shoulder. We’ve got to be two miles away. I wish we hadn’t missed that ferry.
“Did you bring a raincoat?” I ask, pushing down the door lock.
“I don’t own a raincoat. Did you?”
“No, but I wish I did. We’re gonna be drowned rats before we even get there.” It didn’t occur to me that it would be pouring over here. It was just overcast when we left. I grab my backpack out of the back seat that has a couple of Dr. Peppers and some Doritos for later. I also grab my blanket and wish it were a tarp, instead. I’m wearing jeans and a flannel and a pair of Doc Martens. Danny’s in jeans and tennis shoes and a light jacket. He brought nothing with him—not that I can see, anyway. I’ll bet he’s got a prescription bottle filled with joints hidden somewhere on him. I can’t believe I’m going out with a twenty-three-year-old stoner. He never even offers me a toke. Maybe if he did, I’d smoke with him, but probably not. Adults shouldn’t do drugs. I quit smoking pot in high school. Now I only smoke cigarettes, but rarely. I’m trying to quit. My family doesn’t even know I smoke. They would flip.
We take off walking through the wilderness until we come to a chain link fence and then some signs and finally the entrance. Danny reaches out for my hand timidly, as we walk. He’s a nice guy and we have a decent time together, but I don’t love him.
We really have nothing in common. He’s the kind of guy you can walk all over. No balls. Totally not my type. But I’ve kind of given up lately. Lowered my expectations, I guess. I no longer anticipate finding someone who will knock my socks off.
Lush is playing already when we finally get to the fairgrounds. They sound pretty good. I’m not familiar with them, but it’s nice to have females represented in a male-dominated line-up. We follow the throngs of people to the main stage area. There’s already a huge crowd; thousands and thousands of people, I’ll bet. A sea of heads bob up and down in unison. Bodies are being passed above heads, through the crowd. Danny and I find a spot way in the back and spread the blanket over the muddy grass. I sit cross-legged, wet and grumpy.
Danny and I sit there, barely talking and I wonder if this concert would be more fun with someone else. But he is here with me. He’s my boyfriend and our relationship is safe, comfortable, and easy.
Pearl Jam comes on next, and they sound fantastic. Eddie sounds incredibly sexy, and I wish I were closer so I could actually see him. The rain lets up and I want to dance, but I’m so cold. I’m shivering, my muscles are stiff and sore, and I don’t want to move. I’m miserable and I tell Danny that maybe when Pearl Jam is done playing we should go. He nods in compliance.
When their set is over, we sit and listen to the Jesus and Mary Chain for a while, but I don’t really know them and I have to pee, so we make our way over to the string of Honey Buckets. I peel my saturated jeans down my legs and hover over the seat. At least with the cold weather there isn’t much of a stench rising from the liquid below me, despite the heavy use. I hurry anyway, just because I don’t like to linger in the porta potty. I can barely get my pants back up and the feeling of the cold, wet denim is not pleasant. Even my cotton panties are soggy. I turn the lock, squirt sanitizer on my hands, and then kick the door open and pile out, the heavy plastic door slamming behind me.
Danny isn’t standing where I thought he would be. I look up and down the corridor, but I don’t see him. I wait, assuming he’s gone somewhere to get high. Twenty minutes pass, and he doesn’t show.
I watch the crowd. The rain is falling hard again. A thick cloud of steam rises from the sweaty bodies in the cool air and looks like a smoldering fire. They’re having fun and they don’t care that it’s raining.
“Why are you standing here all by yourself?” A smooth, deep voice asks. I assume he’s talking to someone else. When I look, a gorgeous pale-skinned guy with long, curly dark hair, a goatee, and perfect white teeth is smiling at me. His cheeks are flushed and his skin glistens with sweat and rain. There’s a smear of mud on his chin and forehead. He isn’t wearing a shirt except for the flannel tied around his waist. His frame is lean, but not thin. He has no hair on his chest and a tattoo of a black sun on his shoulder. My eyes are drawn to his pecks. My God! I want to touch them, but I avert my eyes. On the bottom he’s got thermals and baggy pants—cut off at the knee—wool socks, and boots that I assume are black, but are now covered in dense brown mud. He’s holding a huge half-full Evian bottle in one hand and a smoke in the other. I try to think of something interesting to say, but nothing comes.
“You been in the mosh pit yet?” he asks.
“No. Not yet.”
“You’ve gotta come. It’s fantastic! I’m Jack, by the way.” He says as he puts the cigarette in his mouth and extends his hand out.
I take his hand, which is surprisingly warm and feels like heaven. “Hi. I’m Kate.”
“Kate, why do you look so bummed? We’re at the best show of our time. Twenty years from now, they’ll look back on this like it’s Woodstock. This is the Woodstock of our generation.”
“Yeah. Do you think any of those people thought they were going to the concert of the century? No. They were just goin’ to hear some music and maybe get stoned, drop a little acid. But look what it turned in to. What we’ve got here is the same thing.”
“I wish it wasn’t raining,” I reply. What a stupid thing to say.
“The rain makes it all the better. It’s about suffering. It’s about putting it all out there, right? Listen to Cornell. His larynx is fucked, but he still wails. His style of singing is fuckin’ hard, man. Rips up your vocal cords. But he doesn’t take it easy because he’s afraid of hurting himself.
I listen. Soundgarden has taken the stage. He’s right. There is something wrong with Chris Cornell’s voice. It’s strained, warbly. But he’s still giving it everything.
“That’s how I am when I sing and play. Me and my band; we rock hard.”
“You’re in a band?”
“Yeah. We’re called The Stain. We’re playing at RKCNDY on Saturday. It’s our first big gig. We’re opening for Supersuckers. You should come.”
I don’t know what to say. “Sure, I can probably make that.” I can’t, of course. I have to work at the restaurant Saturday night. I’d never get someone to switch with me. I’d love to go, though. I never go out anymore. I’m always doing the responsible thing, the adult thing.
“Okay, now you’re coming with me. You need to mosh.”
“I…I’m waiting for someone.”
“Oh. They’re in the shitter?”
“No. Well, I’m not sure where he went.”
“You can catch up with him later. If he left you here waiting all this time, he doesn’t deserve you, anyway. Let’s go.”
I’m not sure about moshing, or taking off with this guy, but my adrenaline starts to flow and for the first time in a long time I’m excited. “Okay. Hey, can I bum one of your smokes?”
He reaches into his pocket and pulls out a box of Camels and a brass Zippo. He flips the lid open and I pull one out and put it to my lips. He flips his lighter and offers the flame, cupping it with his hand to block the wind. I lean in and inhale deeply. The smoke fills my lungs deliciously. I detect the faintest taste of lighter fluid and I pull the cigarette from my mouth and release the air from my lungs slowly. The smoke blows away in the breeze. I enjoy the feeling of the cigarette between my index and middle fingers. Since I hadn’t smoked in while, when the nicotine hits my brain I get a little light-headed and tingly. I smile at Jack as he holds the water bottle out to me.
“Maybe you’d like some of this, too?”
“Sure.” I take the bottle, unscrew the cap and pour it into my mouth, not putting my lips to the edge. I swallow quickly and it burns all the way down into my belly.
“Why don’t you finish it. I’ve got this.” He reaches into his waistband and pulls out a silver flask and holds it up as if to toast something monumental.
We walk toward the stage and I take swigs and we navigate our way through the midway passing booths for Rock the Vote, abortion rights, souvenirs, and hamburgers.
I stop when we get to the Jim Rose Circus Sideshow. A guy is lifting a cinder block by his nipple piercings. That has to hurt.
“What do you think of that?” Jack asks me.
I look up at him with big eyes, “Would you ever try that?”
“Sure, why not? Have to get my nips pierced, though.” He touches one of those amazing pecks and winks at me. He puts his hand on the small of my back and leads me toward the stage. Assertive. I love that!
We come to the edge of the crowd near the front. Suddenly, I’m frightened. I don’t want to go in there. I could be trampled. Killed. He pulls me in and he doesn’t let go of me. I relax, grab his loose shirtsleeve and begin to mosh with the crowd. I’m flailing my arms and nodding my head to the beat and I’m twisting and bumping into sweaty, wet bodies. I get shoved hard from the back and lurch toward the ground, but someone rights me before I hit.
I close my eyes. I am the music. I am the lyrics. It gives me the butterflies, Gives me away, Till I’m up on my feet again…Outshined, Outshined, Outshined, Outshined! I hardly even feel the blow to my mouth. I don’t know if it’s a noggin or an arm or a foot that hits me. I taste metal, but I keep moshing. I catch a glance of Jack out of my peripheral vision and see his eyes widen when he looks at me. He tugs me out of the crowd and plops me down onto the ground.
“What the hell happened to you?” He yells over the music.
“What?” I yell back. I’m not following. I’m breathing hard and sweating and my ears are ringing.
“Your mouth is bleeding.” I’m reading his lips.
I put my hand to my mouth and pull it away covered in blood. Shit. My tooth must have gone through my lip. I look around for my backpack, and I remember that Danny was holding it when I went in to the porta potty. I have tissues in it. I even have a small first aid kit. But that won’t help me now.
Jack leans down and offers me his hand. I take it and he pulls me up. He points with a head tilt and I go with him. We walk until we find a taco cart that has a bunch of napkin dispensers. He takes the vodka bottle and pours the little bit that remains onto a napkin and cleans my face. It stings.
“A little swelling of that beautiful lip, is all.” He says and then he brings his head down, level with mine, closes his eyes and plants the most astonishingly tender kiss onto my swollen bottom lip. I start to melt. A feeling washes over me like being swaddled in a cozy blanket. My head spins. Maybe it’s the vodka; maybe it’s the adrenalin. My lids get heavy and I begin to fall into a lustful trance. But then he smiles so big and bold that the edges of his eyes crinkle up.
He jerks away from me, exuberant. “C’mon!” He says. “I love this song!”
He pulls me through the crowd, saying, “Excuse us” and “pardon us” the whole way. Some people are pissed; others don’t care and just move. We must pass through sixty or seventy people until we are right there, practically center stage, in the thick of it. We’re crammed so tight that I can smell the deodorant of the girl next to me, and I’m glad she’s wearing it. Smells like Teen Spirit. The security staff is hosing us down. Water drips from my bangs and I don’t even care anymore. So much steam rises from the hot crowd that I can’t even see the stage most of the time.
I’m bobbing up and down. I’m smiling and I can’t stop smiling. This is what it’s all about. This is how you’re supposed to experience a concert.
“Having fun?” Jack yells in my ear. His voice is so loud that it hurts, even though I can barely understand what he said.
“Yes!” I holler back.
“Wanna go surfing?” he asks. But his words don’t register and it isn’t until he has crowded in behind me and put his hands in my armpits that I realized what he means. He hoists me up over the crowd and I roll awkwardly—a hundred hands on my breasts, shoulders, stomach, and ankles. I maneuver onto my back, outstretch my arms and throw my head back, exposing myself to whatever will come. Light as a feather, stiff as a board. I close my eyes and open my mouth and taste the rain. I’m not afraid of being dropped. I know these strangers have me. I’m flying. On stage, Cornell wails and we both give ourselves fully to the moment.
When the crowd finally releases me, I’m on the other side of the stage, a million miles from Jack. I’ll never make my way back there. My heart is pounding. I feel more alive than I ever have. I feel like myself. I feel like I can do anything. I buy a pack of cigarettes. I blow smoke rings into the cold, gray sky, and I don’t care who sees.
I think about Jack. I wonder if I’ll bump into him again. As I wander around the perimeter, I scan the crowd for him every so often, but I can’t find him. I think about Saturday… what would I tell Danny? How would I get off work?
Fuck it! I’m going.
I feel a tap on my shoulder. “Hey, stranger.” My heart stops for a moment, but the voice is too familiar.
I turn and it’s Danny, looking a little bloodshot and boring.
“Where have you been?” he whines. “I’ve been looking all over for you.”
“I got lost,” I say. But in my mind I say, I got found.
This story was originally published in Stratus: Journal of Arts and Writing, Summer 2011.