As a high school sophomore who didn’t yet have a drivers license, my hours were often filled with amp-fueled 6×9 speakers blasting into my eardrums from the backseat of my friend’s Camaros, Chevettes and Cavaliers. As a young teenager, I’d begun to move past the country music foisted upon me by my parents and explore the dangerous avenues provided by MTV’s Headbanger’s Ball and Beavis & Butthead. Luckily, two of my best friends were about a year older than me and had already made that leap. They brought the exciting and dangerous sounds of hard rock and metal into my life. Metallica, Pantera, Megadeth, Motorhead, Sepultura, Guns N’ Roses…and yes, AC/DC. To be certain, we were steeped in the alternative grunge superpowers of the day, but we were also searching for something more. Much like in college we found a superior country product in the Texas scene as opposed to popular radio.
Prior to this experience, I was faintly aware of AC/DC. As a child of the 80’s it was impossible to avoid the cheeky awesomeness of the “You Shook Me All Night Long” video and the prominence of the Back in Black album. There was also the passing awareness of them providing the soundtrack for one of the ultimate 80’s movies, Maximum Overdrive. And the memory of “Money Talks” making it rain years before that entered hip-hop parlance. Yet, I’d certainly never delved into the depths of their catalog and hadn’t the foggiest idea about the identity of Bon Scott.
That would soon change.
Each mile on the country backroads that surrounded our mapdot hometown or riding around the nearby middle class suburban sprawl was overtaken with the riffs and leads of Angus and Malcom Young. They were mesmerizing to be sure, but nothing quite hooked into me like the powerfully shrieking vocals of one Brian Johnson. The English blues bar singer turned reclamation phoenix for one of the biggest bands in the world soon became my favorite thing in this musical era. His bravado. The way he sold the corndog lyrics with a gospel-like passion. And, of course his hat. Tearing through the band’s catalog we soon came all the way back to Bon’s era. The Highway to Hell album might yet be my favorite to this day. This was pre-internet, or at least pre-internet as we know it now. A lot of geocities sites and AOL level dial-up haggling.
Therefore, most of our discovery happened at the local, mom and pop record store. A place that sold vinyl in the mid 90’s. A place that had both a Rob Gordon and Barry Judd behind the counter. Those guys were my heroes. Sometimes I’d take a cd to the counter and they would shame me and point me in an ultimately better direction. They noticed we were getting very into the AC/DC set and started branching us out into things like Thin Lizzy, Zeppelin, Deep Purple, Maiden, KiSS etc. One day the Barry casually asked if I had AC/DC’s 1991 live album. The double live album. I said no. The moment I put it in the truck’s factory system, it changed my life.
From the opening rumbles of the production for “Thunderstruck”, the cheerful roar of the European crowd, I was immediately entranced. I had to go see this for myself. My friends felt the same way. We called around on landlines to find out when AC/DC would be within 200 miles of us. Nothing was on the books for quite some time. Months pass, our tastes evolve…yet we’re still rocking out to AC/DC quite a bit and still are spellbound to go see them live. One early spring day I was in the record store when the Rob said, “Hey dude, AC/DC’s coming to Reunion next month…y’all should go.” It was on. We found out it was on a Thursday. April 4, 1996 to be exact. Baseball practice and other obligations be damned. We were going. Somehow.
That begat the dilemma of paying for the tickets. They were something like $40 plus fees. I distinctly remember racing home at lunch to dump out my loose change bucket and literally scrounge together pennies to pay for my first big concert. This was happening. I hadn’t thought any further ahead than getting my hands on a ticket.
Suddenly, there was the whole matter of asking our parents and getting them to check us out of school early. It came in handy that one of us in the group’s father was our HS principal. Gotta love growing up in a small town. For some reason they obliged without much protest or hesitation. Can you imagine sending a crew of unchaperoned 15-16 year old boys on a roadtrip to AC/DC 90 miles away on a school night? We always knew our parents were cool, but this certainly confirmed it.
We were like Wooderson heading to Aerosmith with 10 years less experience.
Soon, the day arrived. We checked out of school at lunch, grabbed some fast food and hit the road to Dallas The concert was not until 8PM. Doors opened at 6:30PM. We were on the road by 1PM. This was near the end of I35’s golden age. There was little traffic, no construction and Carl’s Corner was still thriving. We zoomed northward at a rate Dale Earnhardt would appreciate. 3 of us crammed into a tiny 1994 pale blue Chevy Cavalier blasting the tunes we’d soon see live. Around DeSoto we flipped over to 97.1 KEGL to hear them promoting the show and playing nothing but AC/DC. It was glorious. As the skyscrapers of downtown Dallas and Reunion Tower began to come into view, the anticipation was palpable. Anxiety, excitement, adrenaline, fear…all wrapped up into one. 35 made that hard left turn and we made the immediate exit for Reunion Arena.
But, wait…where was everyone? Had we been pranked? Was this the wrong day? There were no cars in the parking lot. No activity whatsoever…anywhere. So, we pulled in much like the Griswold’s pulling up to Wally World. We parked in the very front parking space outside the main entrance. No John Candy security guards were around. We explored. Big rigs, tour buses and the now familiar hum of diesel generators. Yet, no other humans in sight. We began tailgating, without knowing that’s what it’s called. Except we were 15. No booze. Bottled water and potato chips. Baller status, right? With the car key steadily in accessory position, the draining alternator and battery provided a continued AC/DC soundtrack. As the minutes passed, more folks began to fill the parking lot. Many burned out metal heads came over to offer us Budweiser’s and congratulate us on being the first ones there. They accepted us and watched over us. It was not only my first experience at a big, legit concert…but also my first experience at being part of a scene. Those metalheads couldn’t have been cooler or more gracious. It was a good blueprint for what I’d come into with Hogleg and Tank some five years later.
The sun began to sink and soon it was time to head inside to revel with our new pals. There was an opening band but who they were and what they did has been lost to time in my brain. I was so overwhelmed and amazed upon heading in that all I remember is the size of the stage and the scope of the show that was soon to be happening. Smells of what I didn’t know was marijuana wafted through the air and vendors pounded the concrete aisle steps hawking popcorn, soda, beer and the like. It was akin to the first time I saw a Rangers game at old Arlington stadium. The grass was greener. The field larger. The players seemingly superhuman. Here the stage was bigger, the arena larger and the players were still seemingly superhuman.
I don’t think I moved from my seat once I sat down. It was all a spectacle. For a lifetime music lover such as myself, I’d seen big shows before. I’d seen Garth at Texas Stadium. I’d seen George Strait a handful of times. And countless other shows of that variety. But this was different. There were no parents. There were no cowboy hats. This was real, live rock n’ roll on a 70’s Zeppelin scale. We were about to proverbially turn it up to 11 and rip some knobs off in the process.
The opening act came and went. House lights up for about 25 minutes…then house lights down.
Pandemonium. I remember a Beavis and Butthead cartoon playing on the jumbotron…an enormous wrecking ball crashed through a wall…and all of a sudden one of the greatest riffs in rock music history started hitting my ears…the opening to “Back in Black” was happening in front of me. The volume was unlike anything I’d ever experienced before or since. I could feel it crunching my chest. The sonic booms enveloping me as Angus Young confidently strode onstage through a crack in that wall and bowed. The wall fell and the song continued. There was Malcolm and Cliff and Phil…and Brian.
What followed was 22 songs of ferocious heavy blues rock complete with Angus antics and Brian’s voice. I learned and saw so many things that night…some of which are still unfit to print. Just imagine what was happening while they played “The Jack”. I couldn’t have chosen a better set list if they had let me choose it myself.
That night set aflame a fire that hasn’t gone out since. I became a live music addict and was soon continuing to expand past the country and hard rock genres I loved so much. It wasn’t long before I was in college and sneaking into tiny bars to see some dude named Pat Green. So much of what I learned to appreciate about a live show was fostered on that trip. Buying merch that I still have. Blearily returning to school the next day like a conquering Viking. Telling as many people as possible how awesome it was. I’ve seen hundreds of live shows since. Of all variety.
Fast forward almost exactly twenty years and I’m going to see AC/DC again. Things have changed a bit for both of us. They’re much more longer in the tooth. Malcolm now rests in a nursing home. Angus isn’t quite as fast on that duckwalk and Brian’s voice has more gravel than testosterone. I’ve been involved in just about every aspect of music. I’ve learned to play guitar since I saw them. I’ve had kids. I’ve lost my dad. I’ve been married and divorced. One thing has remained constant for both of us though: the love of music. As I prepare to head northward on 35 again this evening to see them once more, I’m curious whether I will see them through my griseled, experienced, jaded eyes or through the eyes of that 15 year old who plucked pennies together to make it. I think I know the answer.