a mixed drink sitting on the counter in an empty bar

Life Before the Pandemic: Thanks for the Memories, Even If They Weren’t So Great

A long time ago, in a world full of T-Mobile Sidekicks and Chuck Taylor All-Stars, I used to be a scene kid. I never had the disposable income to follow bands around the country, but I saw a respectable number of shows each year between 2005 and 2012. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about life before the pandemic, especially the kind of gritty, dive-bar experiences I fear are gone for good.

The Last Good Thing About This Part of Town

I grew up podunk. The population of our closest city has hovered just over 4,000 for my entire life, and my family wasn’t even lucky enough to live there. Our house sat far off the road, at the end of a potholed red-dirt driveway, next to a cow pasture. Our community was a one-caution-light town that celebrated when it finally got a Dollar General in the late 2010s.

Naturally, living the rural life meant having to travel if I wanted to see any concerts. The Greenville-Spartanburg area was home to a few venues—GOTTROCKS, GroundZero, and The Handlebar. If you had the means to drive for an hour or two, you could see what North Carolina had to offer—Amos’ Southend, Cat’s Cradle, The Fillmore, or The Orange Peel. Southward lay Atlanta, where The Masquerade and Tabernacle were the go-to hotspots.

My personal favorite venue was Charlotte’s now-defunct Tremont Music Hall. I broke in my All-Stars there, kicking gravel dust over them in the parking lot so they wouldn’t look brand new. I went there twice with friends, and several more times with my mother, who endured metal bleachers and stifling heat on my behalf. (Thanks, Mom.)

Tremont was also the stage for one of the most visceral memories I’ve retained of my teenage years, one that I can’t get out of my head today.

Move Fast, ‘Cause the Time Is Short

When you’re a kid who loves the mix of emo, hardcore, and metal groups that I latched onto, you only want to go to concerts if you can get General Admission, or GA, tickets. GAs not only give you the opportunity to get in close proximity to the stage, but they also provide you with access to the Pit: a swirling vortex of sweaty bodies bouncing off of one another in response to the music.

A lot of shit happens in the Pit. People get hurt, usually not too badly. The worst I’ve ever seen was a broken nose, and the honest truth is that when someone takes a fist or an elbow to the face at a show, they probably deserved it. There are unspoken rules that govern how concertgoers behave, both inside and outside the Pit. You don’t throw elbows, for one, and if you do, you can expect to have one thrown in your direction before the night is through.

The Pit abides by these rules, but it really answers to the band, even more than to the concert venue. Bands have stopped shows dead because someone in the Pit broke the rules of good conduct—usually when a fallen comrade got kicked, or some pervert decided to put his hands on an unsuspecting victim.

Get a popular band with a charismatic lead singer on stage, and the GA crowd turns to putty in their hands.

Hidden in the Glitter Is the Real Thing

There’s a certain camaraderie about dive bars. They’re small and grungy, concrete floors, cash only—that even goes for the ones that pretend to be highbrow on the nights they aren’t hosting shows for the scenekid set.

Venues like Tremont had an intimacy that the BILO Center and Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre lacked. I mean, just look at this:

I was at this show.

Or this:

This video captures the exact moment I said “fuck” aloud for the first time.
(Sorry, Mom.)

You can only get that close to your favorite bands at a tiny venue with a low stage, or no stage at all. You can only get that close if you a) are in line at least an hour or two before doors, or b) know how to push your way through the crowd and keep your spot at the railing.

So maybe it was the fact that we were all packed in like sardines, or maybe it was the $1 Pabst Blue Ribbon, but there was always some sort of strange affinity between concertgoers at shows like the ones above.

You could count on getting makeup tips from a drunk woman in the bathroom, who thought you were the most amazing person to ever live, and wanted your number so you could go get coffee sometime. At the right kind of show, you could look forward to having a blunt or two passed through the crowd. In my life before the pandemic, that was normalcy, at least for a time.

You’d never see any of the people you sang and smoked with again, generally speaking, but for a few hours on a weeknight, you were family.

Sweating in the Dark, We’re Freed

I apologize for going all longread on you, but need you to understand what it was like at these tiny shows so I can get back to this visceral memory of mine.

Remember how I said a charismatic lead singer could get the people in GA to do whatever they wanted? Around 2007 or so, there was a pervasive rumor that concert attendees had to be airlifted out of Atlanta after one frontman split the crowd for a wall of death and said, “This side is the English, this side are the Scots. Kill each other.”

My experiences were never quite that dramatic. There’s only so much momentum you can build up doing a wall of death in a dive bar.

But there was one show, late in the Bush 43 era, when a band gathered all the folx in Tremont close to the stage—no, closer than that, as close as we could possibly get to one another—for a giant group hug. Arms around our neighbors, pressed together like riders in a Japanese subway car, we swayed there and took a breather before the next song brought on another wave of screamed lyrics and flying sweat.

In all of this, my right hand happened to fall against a man’s shoulder blade. He was short, probably a few years older than me, wearing a fishnet shirt. (It’s called fashion, sweaty, look it up.) When we finally let go, my palm clung tight to this stranger’s hot, sweaty back. It peeled away like a suction cup. I can still feel the sensation of it in my hand.

We’ll Meet Again When Both Our Cars Collide

That kind of up-all-hours, earplug-free concert experience hasn’t been a fixture of my life in more than a decade at this point—both because I’m chronically ill and because shows hit your body differently once you pass twenty-five—but for some reason, this is the memory I come back to whenever I think about life before the pandemic.

Let’s face it, a lot of things that seemed normal and harmless in the Before Times are unthinkably gross to us now. Blowing out the candles on a cake that other people are going to eat? Sharing those fruity punchbowl drinks with friends? Hitting a blunt that appeared in your hand out of nowhere in a sketchy club? Being in a public space with people you don’t know?

Hard passes all, amirite?

But the pandemic has crystallized that memory of pulling my hand away from a stranger’s sweaty shoulder into something new. Before COVID-19, it was just a gross story, an experience I could share with friends and then laugh about how fearless we all were as teenagers. Now it represents a time and a place and a way of life that the pandemic may have eradicated for good.

The sense that that kind of concert experience will never make a comeback has made me nostalgic for the grit and grunge of it all. Those shows were dirty and unsanitary before, but now they’re repulsive and dangerous. Part of me wonders if they can ever go back to just being dirty and unsanitary.

If no one gets to live like that again, at least those of us who did wound up with some damn good stories to tell.

Image credit: Sergey Isakhanyan on Unsplash