Did We Start the Fire or Not? (First Concert Memories)

Photo by  Andre Benz  on  Unsplash

Photo by Andre Benz on Unsplash

I went to my first concert in July 1990 when I was nine years old. For those of you who know me, it might come as a surprise that I was so young. However, the concert was Billy Joel, so now it probably makes more sense. 

Of course, those of you who don’t know me are probably wondering why a nine-year-old was so into Billy Joel. That’s easy. I have an older brother and he was super into Billy Joel.

I distinctly remember him sitting in a wooden chair in our family room, leaning forward with his head near the cassette player, mouthing the lyrics to We Didn’t Start the Fire as he read them from the cassette tape liner notes. 

“I can’t believe you can read with that music playing like that,” either I or one of my two best friends liked to quip. It was probably me, but that joke would’ve been completely on brand for Matt as well so I can’t be sure.

I mocked it, of course, as any good little brother would. But eventually, I took it as my own.

The details of how this first concert outing came to pass have recently become a hot topic of discussion in my family. What can I say—we’ve been running low on topics. My brother remembers basically nothing about the concert or the events leading up to my attendance. He wasn’t at the concert the night I went, but I specifically recall that he paved the way by going the night before with his friend John. Billy did two shows on back-to-back nights, a Saturday and Sunday, at the old Orlando Arena (I confirmed that I remembered this detail correctly with a little digging on the internet). I had been pushing to go, but my mom had resisted, citing my age as the primary concern. However, after going to the Saturday show, my brother was able to confirm that, first, Billy Joel was fantastic live, and second, there were no crowd stampedes. My mother had been really hung up on the stampede possibility, so this latter bit of information was apparently enough to assuage her concerns.  

My brother also provided tantalizing details that piqued my interest even further. Don’t get me wrong, I was a Billy Joel fiend when I was nine, so I was more than ready to go, but when my brother told us that the person from the crowd who caught the drumsticks the drummer tossed at the end of the show was on his bus back to the parking lot, I was even more hyped. He also told us that when Billy sang “it’s a pretty good crowd for a Saturday” during Piano Man, the crowd really went wild because, you know, it was a Saturday; I felt a little sad that I missed it, but I was still willing to go on a Sunday because it was better than nothing.

The second night, it was just me, one of my sisters, and my mom in attendance in the upper reaches of a section directly behind the stage. Well, I assume there were a bunch of other people we didn’t know there as well, including one guy seated directly behind me who I now realize was likely stoned or drunk. He sat slumped forward in his seat the entire time barely moving. I remember him specifically because I was hesitant to get up and bust a move for fear of blocking his view.

In addition to my complete deference to the stoner sitting behind me, I remember just bits and pieces of the event. For example, during the outro to I Go to Extremes (which is an unusually terrible Billy Joel song, by the way), Billy changed the lyrics from “why do I go to extremes?” to “why do I go for ice cream?” I loved that. Probably because, you know, I was nine. 

I believe there was also some sort of fire during We Didn’t Start the Fire, but I could just be guessing on that one. Yes, it was very much a pre-internet and pre-social media experience. There are no pictures or Facebook posts or blogs commemorating the evening. All that remains are failing memories. 

Looking back, the whole affair seems so retro, quaint, and also confusing. Like, how did we even buy tickets the day of the concert without the Ticketmaster website or Stub Hub? And how did my brother know there was a concert in the first place? The newspaper? What a world. 

Even more quaint, I could not wait for my two best friends, brothers who were away on vacation, to return home so I could spring the news of my concert-going exploits on them. There was literally no way of letting them know about the concert while they were gone. Well, I suppose we could have figured out which campground they were staying at and called up the main office, but short of that, which I obviously considered, they might as well have been on Mars. And upon their return, all I had as proof that I had seen Billy up close and personal were a ticket stub and Stormfront Tour T-shirt. The pre-internet era was such a heady time. I don’t remember exactly how my friends reacted, but I can only assume they were suitably impressed. 

Similarly, I am hoping that my kids will be suitably impressed by their first concerts. I asked my six-year-old recently if he would be interested in going with me to see Imagine Dragons in concert (he likes several of their songs and they are touring near us soon). He politely declined. He’s probably too young anyway, so it was good judgment on his part. You never know when one of those concert stampedes might crop up again. Three years from now, though, that will be a whole other story. I can only hope that Green Day is still touring then. And you never know, maybe the Piano Man himself will still be alive.

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