I ripped my pants (twice) at an Arcade Fire concert, and I feel just fine

On a pleasant September evening in San Francisco, a couple years back, I was on a BART train to Berkeley, where I’d hike the mile or so from the station on a steady incline to the Greek Theater where I’d enjoy the second and final night of Arcade Fire’s three-show tour in which the band was playing their first album, Funeral, in its entirety.

The ride on the train, soundproof headphones canceling the click-clacking of wheels on the track, allowed me to tear through late-afternoon torpor as I brushed up on some of the songs I hoped I’d hear that night. Grizzly Bear would be opening for them, too. A quick burst of “Knife” followed by the restorative “Haiti” and I was heaven-sent. When I looked up from my book before entering a tunnel, the weather seemed serene and sunny.

Then we pulled into the first of the four downtown SF stations, and the conductor’s voice crackled over the intercom: We have experienced an equipment malfunction. Remain Calm. Famous last words for any strange situation involving a mass of people.

At first, nothing happened. Then I learned how quickly mundanity—a simple train ride—can spiral out of control. Rivals the Tesla in terms of accelerative capacity. A crowd of riders came streaming through the car I was in, one of the latter in the six-or-so connected. Panic, palpable. In what would be the first of a series of moments of clarity that took control of my mind—which struck me as odd considering the chaotic tilt of the situation—I found myself thinking of high school math class, when I’d stave off boredom by tapping the likes of “2 squared” into my calculator and then watch it increase exponentially toward infinity.

The idea that life flashes before your eyes when you’re on the cusp of death has always fascinated me. Why would your mind do that in such a literally life-and-death situation? Why take the time? Is the human need to make sense of our surroundings that fundamental to our experience?

Smoke began to engulf the platform. And yet, the conductor remained calm. She repeated that it was a simple equipment malfunction, that passengers should exit the train in an orderly manner. Mmkay. All I saw were people sprinting onto the platform and up out of the station.

The next thing that flitted into mind was those emergency evacuation drills we used to have to do some mornings in grade school. The alarm would ring, our teacher would tell every kid in class to calmly proceed single-file to a safe area. I always noticed my classmates talking during the exercises; I probably did, too. You didn’t smell smoke, you knew there was no fire; this was, literally, a drill.

Looking back on it, from many years’ perspective, I noted that these exercises never take into account the “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth” curveball provided by fear. The adrenaline spike when THIS IS NOT A DRILL crackles onto a loudspeaker. If there’s a fire, people are going to start running. Exits will be clogged. It will not be a good place to be.

Speaking of narrative, the lack of it mystified me. All of a sudden, everything seemed so indiscriminate. Like Christopher Nolan’s depiction of Dunkirk, dispelling the notion that bravery wins out in wartime. So much of survival comes down to chance. How harrowing that simple truth can be.

I found myself thinking of Molenbeek, that terrorist attack on the Belgian metro: is this what happens during a disaster? You’re a bit confused, then you’re flustered, and before you can think of a suitable reaction to the situation, you’re gone? Do some people go without life flashing before their eyes?

In ended up being nothing more than an equipment malfunction; when the threat of danger passed, people calmed down, and exited in an orderly manner. The problem was fixed within a couple of hours. I was no worse for the wear, just running a bit behind schedule—when I finally got to the Greek, I’d missed the first few songs from Grizzly Bear’s set, but after a bit of wriggling and wrangling, was able to inch my way into a decent viewing position in the Pit.

I didn’t spend much time thinking about my journey—concerts are great at removing worry—but when I had some time to reflect on the trip home, buoyed by the thrum of thought a good show puts you in, it struck me as surreal that all I really had to complain about was a delayed commute and having missed the start of the opening band’s set. It could so easily have been worse.

Eleven months before that evening, I was at another Arcade Fire concert. It was the first rock concert I’d been to in more than five years, and just about the third or fourth I’d gone to in my then 28-year-old life. I’d never gone to a concert alone.

So, like any loner prone to too much thinking, I Googled whether it’s weird to go to a concert alone. Of course not! Lots of people go to concerts alone, I learned.

Of course that’s not true, but we have to coddle our loners, and at any concert, if you look around a little, you’ll find the odd lad or lady by his or herself. Exception to the rule, but no matter.

Anyway, I was nervous for that concert, but as is so often the case, I need not have been. Impression, so much worse than reality. I got there, ate the meal I’d brought along with me before entering the stadium, whereupon I meandered about admiring Arcade Fire’s setup (on that tour, they called their stage The Ring) until Angel Olson, that evening’s opening act, got on stage.

From there, I was golden—literally, felt like I’d been suffused in some strange kind of light. The concerts I’d been to before had not felt like this. Almost nothing had. It was a good film, a good run, everything good rolled into some potent combination. I danced so much on my own that when the concert was over, I was parched. I hadn’t yet learned I could sneak in water to these gigs rather than pay $8 for a bottle at the bar.

Riding back on BART that night, I was in a glow. I didn’t sleep, sticking it out with a few beers’ sustenance until Arsenal took on Everton at 4:30 a.m. PT the next morning. Then I crashed, and woke up with the same glow. This felt significant, as if I’d finally happened upon a key that could unlock some strange door.

In my freshman year of college, a professor spoke of the muscle memory from cell phones: that phantom twinge at the thigh when we expect a text might have come through. Vibrate setting.

In the weeks and months following, I tried my best to recreate that feeling I’d found at the Arcade Fire concert. In the end, I overdid it. I tried to go to every concert I could. Some were great, some less so, but what I soon learned (of course) was that the overexposure of experience diminished the effect. That happens with any drug. With a few years’ perspective, I realized there was a good lesson to be had: concerts are fun, if the band is really good, and integral to your life in some way, they can be transformative.

But you still have to wake up the next morning. If you live alone, the glow might diminish a bit sooner than you’d have hoped. This gets to one of the great riddles of the COVID era: when concerts are forbidden, when nearly everything that used to provide the loner with some shred of sustenance is closed off, where do you go? This doesn’t factor into any lockdown study, of course; the state doesn’t deal in particulars when it rolls out its grand plans.

You have to find is a balance. You have to get good with yourself. A concert will not save you; a job will not save you; what will save you is whatever you find, coming home late at night, that dampens somewhat that old feeling of despair. Could be family, could be something else. The key is to find it. No one, or no thing, can take that away from you.

My pants ripped at the concert; at the time, it felt like a sign. That this was where I was supposed to be. I’d sacrificed my pants in pursuit of a good time—in this instance, a good time dancing. Now, without the specter of concerts, I divert myself through exercise and music and talk.

For now, it’s enough.

Game of life, with a twist—and shout. Twitter: @alleywhoops

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