One of the most interesting things about live music is the cross section of the public that is on full display. You can actually tell a lot about the artist by looking at the crowd. Back in my hardcore days it was all safety pins and mohawks; the high octane rock bands of the 90's shifted things to a flannel stoner vibe; followed by the hipster chic of indie rock.
But by far the most interesting crowd I ever witnessed came back at my favorite club The Living Room in Providence in the late '80's.
I was not yet a huge Ramones fan when I heard that they would be touring behind their latest album. I'd heard their songs, seen parts of 'Rock and Roll High School' at high school parties, but to be honest, I took them for granted somehow. I think everyone does, actually. Their sound and look is so perfectly realized that they don't seem real...they are avatars.
The usual ritual of the live show in Providence ensued. Someone was chosen to drive. A full party could be achieved before having to head up the highway. Headliners at The Living Room didn't usually hit the stage until midnight. 9 times out of 10 we knew who the openers were and disliked them. There were very few local bands that we cared for so we invariably had some sort of party before the show.
Once the beer was gone we would pile into the designated driver's car and head out. Fast food would be purchased and consumed by the time we hit the county line and before you knew it we would be looking for parking outside the old mill that housed The Living Room. I know it can't be true, but in my memory, the streets are always shiny with rain. The bricks of the mill have that wet sheen as well, as if moss is just about to sprout.
The courtyard outside the club was usually packed with smokers, under 18 kids hoping to get into the club somehow, and people who needed a break from the incessant slam dancing. So as you entered you got a good idea of what kind of people were in attendance.
Now, up to this point, I'd been used to extremely homogenous crowds. In fact, my friends and I tended to be the odd square pegs who didn't have purple mohawks and leather jackets with English punk band logos spray painted on the back.
What I saw outside The Living Room the night the Ramones played astounded me. Inside the club it was even more pronounced.
First of all, there were more people there than I'd ever seen. And I'd already seen The Replacements, Husker Du, Violent Femmes, etc., etc. There were more people outside in the courtyard than were usually inside the shows.
If you'd been an anthropologist, you absolutely would not have been able to pin down what this gathering was for. The diversity was staggering and seemed dangerous somehow, as if some strange faction might attack another at any moment.
There was a large contingent of Hell's Angels, average age mid 50's, sporting the hardened look of men who'd spent the better part of their lives astride giant machines. Their beards hung between their leather jackets, their boots clanked and jangled, their tattoos weren't visible under all the coverage but you could feel them just the same.
Then there were the hardcore punks. The Ramones were a bit too mainstream for their tastes but options for entertainment were so few in those days that they would show up on principal. But they scorned the rest of the crowd because they weren't true believers, they were only drawn to the world of punk by the commercial success of The Ramones. Their hair hovered feet above their heads, shaved into a thin fan that ran from the back of their necks to the tip of their foreheads. They wore leather biker jackets much like the Hell's Angels did, but they covered them with stickers, logos, sayings, anything they could get their hands on. Their jeans had holes ripped into them and held back together with safety pins and the black leather began again midway up the calf with combat boots. If these were clean, you weren't a real punk. Many of them had adopted a straight-edge lifestyle, refusing to drink or do drugs. Inevitably they wound up in college two years later wearing Polo shirts and doing beer bongs.
Peppered amongst the throng were the tenured Professors. They were probably in their late 30's but seemed older, guys who still lived like college kids but taught them instead. They were wearing suit jackets and band t-shirts underneath, blue jeans and topsiders. Occasionally their hair was enveloped in gel, adding a touch of the underground to their establishment look.
Hippies were also everywhere, oddly enough. How they hooked into the 3 distorted chords and no guitar solos that the Ramones played over and over, I'll never know. But there were many tie-dyed t-shirts, Jesus beards, patchouli splashed onto hairy female underarms, and bad dancing hippies in attendance.
Goth was a barely known fashion choice at this point. If there were 20 goth kids in Rhode Island at this point in history, I'd bet each and every one of them was at the Ramones show. Black eyeliner, white pancake, extra piercing...
Then there were the frat boys. Izod, khakis, Nikes, wasted on beer. No dope for these guys yet so they were still annoyingly hostile to all the other people who had decided to venture out.
The Ramones hadn't gone on yet so all these various groups (and many which I have omitted) circled each other warily; I kept expecting dancing Jets and Sharks to start snapping their fingers and threatening each other.
Then the lights dimmed, a smoke machine filled the teensy stage, and out the Ramones came. Joey seemed to be twenty feet tall. The smoke machine must have been their own because I'd never seen smoke at The Living Room unless it was coming out of my lungs.
He stepped up to the mike. This legend!!! What would he say to this impossibly varied group of worshippers?
'One Two Three Four!'
All hell broke loose and stayed broken loose for 2 hours. Joey never said a word that wasn't a number to count off for his band. There was never more than 3 seconds of silence between songs. The disparate fashion factions were instantly and totally transformed into one swirling mass of humanity. Distinction was impossible. How can one unit be divided?
At one point I was somehow lifted and deposited onto the bar. I sat there with no way to get down. It was as if I were sitting on a barn roof just above a flood. The bartender didn't tell me to get the hell off the bar, he poured me a water and yelled that I could get down at the end of the song. Indeed, I barely made it off in time because the Ramones were off and running.
What had seemed like a powder keg of differences was now a fireworks display of diversity.
Hell's Angels helped hot punk chicks escape whirlpools of slam dance destruction, frat boys held up stage diving goth geeks, hippies shared joints with mohawked straight edgers, and The Ramones gave everyone a center to slouch towards.