I’d been telling the story the same way for so long that I’d forgotten it wasn’t accurate.
My friend had just texted to say she was taking her daughter to see her first concert that night, and couldn’t help but think back to the concerts we went to as kids, the earliest of which were chaperoned by my mother.
The words “first concert” set me off; I was eager to once again entertain with my own first-concert tale. Surely you remember, I wrote back, thumbing every letter, building the text in complete sentences, telltale sign of the middle-aged, that the first time Billy Squier came through Chicago was as the opening act for Pat Benatar, and my mother said “You’re too young to go to a concert.” Six months later he came back with Queen, and she said “Let’s Go!”
I waited until the blinking cursor was replaced by the message that she was typing. Finally, the reply came.
I didn’t, actually. That’s great, she wrote. Concerts now are very different. Very corporate. No beer and pot.
I remembered that the performer they were going to see was the Disney-created Selena Gomez, star of some recent T.V. program aimed at the after-school set. How long ago had that show ended? I wondered. Was she still a shill, or was she now trying to break free, to redefine herself a la Britney and Christina and Lindsay Lohan?
That’s when it hit me that the Billy Squier/Queen show that kicked off a string of honest-to-god rock performances we attended over the four years of my high school career was not my first concert after all, as I’d been telling everyone for nearly thirty years. The first show – correction, shows – was actually a pair of concerts by The Osmonds, back-to-back annual appearances at the Illinois State Fair when I was eight and nine years old, respectively.
I was madly in love with Donny, who was an addendum to his brothers’ show and career, but the only one onstage as far as I was concerned. He was almost the baby of his family but a decade older than me. To my mind his brothers were ancient, practically my parents’ contemporaries, though in truth my parents were intellectuals who married late, became parents late. My mother was 32 when I was born, my father 37, common now but nearly unheard of back then. Borderline scandalous.
Well, it’s not exactly Deep Purple you’re going to see, I texted back, inwardly still grappling with the fact of having inadvertently re-written my own history.
I hadn’t exactly forgotten Donny’s shows, but over the years I’d relegated them to a different memory box than the one I’d labeled “concerts.”
Whenever his name came up – brief career resurgences in each of the decades that followed his initial popularity – I was always grateful, and more than a little amazed, to have been as spoiled as I was. Two family vacations were spent three hundred miles from home at the State Fair so that I could swoon over a Mormon boy in a white bell-bottomed pantsuit. To give you an idea of how out of character this was, nine of our summer vacations after that were spent up in Ontario, Canada, always first at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival and then on to Toronto (save one year where after Stratford we visited Quebec and Montreal and then drove down the eastern seaboard to Boston and New York); another was spent in Washington, D.C.; and two were spent in L.A.
This is why I think I put Donny in the “early crush” category and not in “concerts”: the same year we first travelled downstate to see The Osmonds another personality was hitting the airwaves, an actor by the name of Michael Kearns. He was playing a part, though no one knew it at the time, portraying a hustler-turned-writer promoting his memoir The Happy Hustler. In reality the volume was fiction penned by a friend of his, Thom Racina, and was meant to capitalize on the success of Xaviera Hollander’s The Happy Hooker.
Michael was making the rounds of the same talk shows Donny was, the guest of Tom Snyder and Chicago’s own Phil Donahue. This was before VCRs; my mother taped (or “time-shifted” in the parlance of the day) the soundtracks of Donny’s appearances on cassette and played them for me when I got home from school.
Spoiled rotten to the core.
It’s all mixed up in my mind now, because I got it secondhand and also filtered through my mother’s uber-dramatic lens, plus I was a kid with my own dramas to focus on, but apparently when the story broke that the whole Happy Hustler business was made up and in reality Michael was just an actor, there was a desire to know who he was and why he did it. He explained he was an actor, classically trained at The Goodman School in Chicago.
My mother was also a graduate of the Goodman. She penned a letter to Michael in which she explained that she’d been wondering who he reminded her of, and she’d just figured it out. You remind me, she wrote, of me.
She didn’t expect a reply but got one, in which he urged her to write again. She discounted it as a publicist-generated nicety and put it aside.
I’m fuzzy on exactly what happened next, how long it took for the friendship to progress. At some point she finally did write again, and he replied a second time, something to the effect of “I asked you to write back before. Why didn’t you listen?” Thus began a friendship of many years, to which I, despite my age, was privy. She read me her letters to him before she sent them, and his replies. Eventually they started talking on the phone, and many times she’d tell me that she was expecting a call, or was about to call him, so naturally I would hover just beyond the kitchen doorway, attempting to decipher from her responses what he was saying. Afterward, listening to her accounting of the call, I’d try to spot details that didn’t mesh with what I’d just heard, but there were never discrepancies as far as I could tell. She wasn’t one to pull punches and I was going to hear the next round of letters anyway, wasn’t I?
Michael had a rough go of things in those years. Deceiving the public turned out to be not a great way to advance a budding career, and being the first out Hollywood actor was a worse one. And of course there was too much booze and too many drugs and sex everywhere with which one could become distracted.
My mother was a good counselor. During high school and even afterward, when I was away at college and then starting my career, my friends would call the house to talk to her because she was smart, and fearless, and never sugar-coated anything. Michael would call and my mother would give him her honest opinion of whatever he described, work he was thinking of taking or someone with whom he’d gotten involved. They talked about acting, about the teachers they’d had at Goodman, and what they’d learned from them. Before The Happy Hustler he’d been just starting to break in to Hollywood. He’d been on The Waltons, and years later he would make further inroads, landing parts on Cheers and in Body Double and on and on and on. In between was a sine wave, some serious downs but also some notable ups, like being cast in a production of Jean Genet’s The Maids, and starting to write autobiographical plays. We took our first family vacation to L.A. to attend his one-man show The Truth is Bad Enough. Those things, he and my mother agreed, were ones to really be proud of. They weren’t just work; they were Art.
I think I re-wrote what was my “first concert” in the catalog of my memory because the Billy Squier/Queen show was a first concert, of sorts. It was the first following the end of my childlike innocence, marked by my mother becoming friends with Michael and deciding to tell me the truth about his situation. Because of that, a teenaged teen idol doing covers of pop songs from the 1950s and 1960s, singing about the pain of unrequited feelings (“They call it Puppy Love”) just didn’t have the gravitas needed to be the first-ever concert. That experience got downgraded as not real, a remnant from a time of Santa Claus and dollhouses. But pining away for someone who not only didn’t return your feelings but could ruin your entire life by exposing your truth (“There are many ways that you can hurt a man, and bring him to the ground; you can beat him, you can cheat him, you can treat him bad, and leave him when he’s down”) performed by a band whose name was a cheeky double-entendre and was fronted by a man who switched gender pronouns verse-to-verse and steadfastly refused to talk about his personal life, despite the fact that everyone felt they already knew his secret(s)? That concert had the requisite pathos to be the first (real) one I ever saw.
And let’s not forget that the man I was madly in love with at that concert had – at that point, anyway – used nothing but genderless pronouns in his songwriting, a fact that was not lost on me for a nanosecond. I thought Billy Squier was hot and, rightly or wrongly, I also believed he could never return that feeling. And that was okay.
That’s my story and, this time, I’m sticking to it. As for Michael’s story, if you want to know more, he released an autobiography last year called (what else?) The Truth Is Bad Enough: Whatever Became of The Happy Hustler?