Last night, my wife Amanda and I took our two older kids—almost 16 year old Joe and 12 year old daughter JJ—to see Billy Joel play his monthly club date at Madison Square Garden in an intimate performance for 19,000 of his closest friends. Amanda and I had seen him a few months ago, and these two of our three children went crazy and begged us for tickets as a Chanukah present. (Child #3, 11 year old daughter Ita, declined the ticket because the names of the musicians were not Harry, Liam or Niall, and the only thing that matters is 1D, duh (eye roll).
The night before we went, Amanda and I had a discussion of what kind of concessions crap the kids would be allowed to eat and drink, and whether we’d try to get sandwiches through security. But then we got to the discussion of whether part of the present was a concert t-shirt if they enjoyed the show, Amanda was skeptical. “They’re forty dollars and they’ll grow out of them. They don’t need shirts.” I was appalled, no more so than because she was wearing my tattered tie-dyed Dylan and the Dead t-shirt from 1987, which she co-opted to knock around in because of its worn perfection.
Let me tell you my feelings about concert t-shirts. I fundamentally believe they are ineffable symbols of growing up; they provide memories of happy moments, of watching musicians you have heard playing songs you know, pumping your arms and tilting your head back and singing; or pogoing in a club or holding hands during a date.
In my high school, wearing your t-shirt from the previous night’s big concert—at the time it would have been the Rolling Stones or U2 or Springsteen or the Dead, or for one month in eighth grade The Kinks; and if you were in certain social groups Black Sabbath or Rush or even Dio; or in others the Ramones or in others The Smiths—gave you stature, signified who you wanted to be that day. (It also was a big deal if you wore one of those t-shirts on a Tuesday or Wednesday because that meant your parents gave you a degree of freedom, and also could afford to get you frivolous tickets to a band on a school night.)
Of course, those t-shirts from the early 80s didn’t cost any $40. They were ten dollars in the parking lot of the Brendan Byrne Arena, and they were black and they had the dates and cities of the tour on the back. Often they had three-quarter-length jersey sleeves in different bright colors—I remember a Jethro Tull Broadsword and the Beast jersey with incongruous powder blue sleeves that I wore until I couldn’t see Ian Anderson’s freaky eyes anymore. But I could replay that concert better than if I could see videos on YouTube when I put on that t-shirt, much in the way that I could remember being underwhelmed by the long and not-terribly-exciting show that the Dead put on with Dylan that day at Giants Stadium. I just loved that particular tie-dye shirt.
And the concert t-shirt was also the symbol of a particular time. By the time I was in college I no longer needed a concert shirt—I had limited spending money when I went to see bands, and usually bought beer instead. So these thin, faded shirts got thinner and more ragged (and eventually considerably snugger) as I got older, and became the memories of adolescence with their own kind of nostalgic purity.
So when I looked over during Only the Good Die Young and saw the kids laughing and singing along, I knew that we needed to do it. There were no black market shirts in the lobby of the Garden, or in the corridor leading to the subway; so we went to the stand and got them their shirts. A little better quality, and softer and somewhat more artsy--and neither kid wanted the jersey--but cool. They both wear uniforms stop school so they couldn’t wear the silent brag of the Morning After t-shirt (but they had posted about the show on Facebook and Instagram anyway, so that was taken care of before the second encore). But when I came home and JJ ran out of her room to say hi, she had on her Still Rock n Roll To Me shirt. And I felt unreasonably proud.