“Greed, the Summer of Love and Hate, Sinead O’Connor, and the First Death Knell For Rock as We Knew It”

MSG hall

“…Almost everyone on the stage that night had something in their blood, in their DNA, in their artistic heritage and output that at least left traces of pissing off the establishment in one way or the other. In retrospect, it was probably the first crack in the foundation of what was once the rebellious spirit of rock and roll. It marked a softening in tone and a corruption of values, as a major part of a symbolic era chose to be offended over the actions of an artist rather than recognize and appreciate the human, social, and artistic integrity in it.”

By Mike Derrico

Taken from …AND THE CATHEDRAL FELL TO THE GROUND: Tales of Rock & Roll Suburbia

I’m standing in one of the stalls of a men’s room on the 200 level of Madison Square Garden with my dick in my hand. It’s Friday night, October 16, 1992, and I’m witnessing history. I’m drunk but still very aware of the significance of the night and all I am taking in. From the farthest reaches of the Garden, I can hear the echoing sounds of the Clancy Brothers making their way through Bob Dylan’s “When the Ship Comes In.” The sound bounces off every rafter and section wall, ricocheting across the arena and beyond, as it becomes cushioned and muffled by the time it reaches the halls and even farther, the restrooms. I’m usually pee-shy and prefer to avoid urinals whenever I can. So in the stall I stand. The pee arrives. It is happy to come out as I’ve been holding it in all night having stalled through one exciting act after another. In the past few hours, I’ve seen Stevie Wonder, John Mellencamp, Tom Petty, Lou Reed, Johnny Cash, June Carter Cash, Rosanne Cash, Booker T and the MGs, Eddie Vedder, Tracy Chapman, Richie Havens, Ron Wood, Mary Chapin Carpenter, George Thorogood, Willie Nelson, Johnny Winter, and Kris Kristofferson. They were all paying tribute to Bob Dylan on the 30th anniversary of his signing with Columbia Records. I was hoping, even praying for an act that I had no interest in seeing, just so I could get up and pee. It was at the arrival of the Clancy Brothers onto the stage where I jumped out of my seat, left Tom and Eric, and headed for the aisles. As I recount this story, let me once again veer off track into the underlying subtext that accompanies the story. In the weeks leading up to this particular event, one that was heavily promoted and talked about with intense anticipation on rock radio, it became widely speculated upon whether or not Bruce Springsteen was going to be there. As reality would have it, Bruce was on tour and scheduled for a show in Washington State that night. Yet, rumors persisted of the Boss cancelling his gig to quickly fly across the country from the opposite coast to pay tribute to one of his biggest influences. There were rumors of Mick and Keith showing up as well, but for me personally, the hope was that somehow by some miracle, Bruce would show up. So as I walked through the halls of the Garden toward the nearest men’s room, I could hear the sounds of the Clancy Brothers performing “When the Ship Comes In,” and so could lots of other people who made their way toward some other form of arena civilization aside from watching the Clancy Brothers perform “When the Ship Comes In.” Assorted stragglers in various forms of intoxication squantered up, down, across and around the narrow halls of the Garden in search of food, drink, or a place to pee. A designated smoking area was not one of those destinations, as this was before you had to go outside near the escalators to smoke. Smoking was still allowed in the Garden in 1992, so it was one less inconvenience. But I had to pee, so to the men’s room I went, and as I walked in, I was pleasantly surprised by the vast emptiness where only one or two people were up against urinals. Still, I chose a stall and was finally able to unleash the torrent of the last three hours of beers. As I stood there drunkenly swaying back and forth trying to direct the flow as best I could without creating a fucking disaster, I laughed to myself at the thought of what an amazing and mind-blowing night I was having, and of all the legendary artists I was seeing. Damn, I thought. I had just seen Johnny Cash! And Stevie Wonder! And George Harrison was still coming up…another Beatle that I would get to be in the same room with! What a night it had been and still was!

As I stood at the bowl watching the final broken streams of pee trickle down into the water, it had become apparent to me that some point during my deep contemplation of the night, the Clancy Brothers performance had come to an end and the background noise was reduced to a distant applause.
The final pee trickled out. I watched it. The applause began to die down. Something deep within my drunken state had suppressed the urge to want to get back to my seat in order to see who the next act was for fear I might miss something. I had gotten complacent in the stall and just stood for a few seconds watching the broken flow turn to eventual isolated drops. Staring down into the toilet, I lost focus as my stare morphed into complete zoning.
And then I heard it.
At first it was as unpronounced as white noise, not fully getting my attention…until I realized what it was.
“Bruuuuuuuuuuuuuce!”
I looked up, startled!
The distant roar of the crowd.
“Bruuuuuuuuuuuuuce!” they screamed!
Fuck!
“Bruuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuce!”
I let go of the band of my briefs as it snapped back, pinning my penis flat against the surface of skin beneath my belly button, the head sticking out from the top of my underwear like the gopher in Caddyshack peeking out of the hole in the ground.
Fuck!
I put everything back in place, zipped my jeans, and ran out of the men’s room.
“Fuck!” I screamed, booking through the narrow halls of the Garden feeling as though I were on a treadmill and getting nowhere. I was pissed off and panicking at the same time. I sat there the entire night, and the one time I get up to pee, Bruce shows up. Typical!
Fucking typical!
As I got closer to my section, the crowd roar grew louder and more intense. God fucking damnit! He’s onstage already, I’m thinking. I’ve missed his whole introduction!
“BRUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUUCE!”
I approached my section and walked in where I was eventually able to see the circular shape of the ceiling as I got closer to being inside. As I came up between sections walking inside, the screen hanging from the ceiling over the middle of the Garden floor became visible, and nothing could have prepared me for what I saw…and for what was actually taking place. On the screen was the face of Sinead O’Connor in full close up. The camera then panned back to reveal her standing onstage, arms at her side, face looking down. And the Bruce chants were not Bruce chants, but boos. Loud relentless boos.

Sinead had ripped up a picture of Pope John Paul II on Saturday Night Live about a week before. A while back, she refused to go onstage in Holmdel, New Jersey because the venue played the national anthem before each show. Indeed, she had ruffled some feathers as of late, so on the surface it wasn’t surprising that they booed her. What blew my mind though, was that it was at an event for Bob Dylan. This was an audience made up of people who had protested the Vietnam War. It was an audience that had stood up and protested for civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights, and social justice across the board. So when Sinead was protesting the silence of the Catholic Church in the face of child abuse or the sexually abusive actions of many a Catholic priest, or protesting oppression by not wanting nationalist sentiment imposed on her performance, it probably should have registered to the children of the 1960s that this was an extension of their counterculture. Instead, they booed. Not all did. Many applauded. But the booing no question drowned out the applause. I stood there frozen in the aisle. I had stopped walking, and I was frozen. I couldn’t move. My eyes shifted back and forth from her image on the screen, to the stage where I could see her actual tiny frail figure standing there. She just stood in place, taking in a monstrous wall of shouts and boos all around her. I was witnessing a massive public condemnation of one human being, and it was both surreal and frightening. It reminded me of one of those scenes of ancient Rome where a gladiator or slave standing in the middle of the Coliseum is being shouted down or condemned with a cheering crowd calling for death. I thought of Jesus at the moment the Jews chose Barabbas. The intense screaming surrounding one central figure had to have been similar. I had never witnessed anything like this, and it wasn’t what I signed on for when I bought my ticket. Regardless of how you felt about Sinead at the time, it was a scary and ugly scene. Between the cheers and the boos, it was an overbearing clash of sound unlike anything I’d ever heard at a concert. I’d heard similar sounds at football games, but never such collective and sustained booing at such a volume.

so

**********

Sinead O’Connor stood onstage at Madison Square Garden waiting for the crowd noise to die down so she could begin her performance of Bob Dylan’s “I Believe in You.” The crowd, however, would not let her. She was there to pay tribute to Bob, and the crowd, his fans, would not let her begin. The booing was relentless. After two minutes of nonstop cheers and jeers, the keyboard player began the song, probably hoping people would settle down, but Sinead immediately cut him off, motioning for him to stop. She then ripped out her ear monitor and told the sound guy to turn up the mic. Seconds later, she ripped into an accapella version of Bob Marley’s “War,” the same song she had performed on SNL. This time she screamed out the lyrics, determined to get above the volume of the crowd. The defiant look on her face seemed to have come as a result of possibly being appalled by half the audience’s hostile reaction. It was almost as if she were thinking this is what happens in America if you speak out against pedophilia and child abuse? Fuck you all! She shot the crowd one more disapproving look upon finishing the song and walked offstage where Kris Kristofferson stood by to greet her in an embrace. Sinead hurried off behind him however, cupping her mouth as if she were going to vomit. The crowd roared in satisfaction as if delighted that they had shaken her up enough to run off the stage. At that instance, I realized that I had been standing in place between sections for about three minutes, so I continued walking back toward my seat. When I reached my row, Tom and Eric were looking at me in shock as if to say Holy shit… What the hell just happened?
I sat in my seat stunned. I couldn’t believe what I had just seen take place. I was so consumed by the thought of it that it wasn’t until halfway through Neil Young’s second song that I even realized he was playing. I missed most of Neil’s set and he was right in front of me the entire time.

I wasn’t a fan of Sinead O’Connor. I don’t think any of us were. I had her first album and thought it was okay, but never followed up with anything else she did. “Jerusalem” and “Just Like You Said it Would Be” were really great songs I thought, but I wasn’t crazy about much else. But that said, I was taken aback by the audience’s reaction to her in that… one, here was an artist standing up to injustices in ways that were absolutely traditional in the chain of rock and roll activism that went all the way back to Woody Guthrie. And two, it was a Dylan audience…children of the counterculture and their children. Hippies. Anti-establishment motherfuckers whose M.O. was sticking it to the man. One of their own would be elected president of the United States in less than one month.

What was going on here?

How could this happen?

How could they boo?

Almost everyone on the stage that night had something in their blood, in their DNA, in their artistic heritage and output that at least left traces of pissing off the establishment in one way or the other. In retrospect, it was probably the first crack in the foundation of what was once the rebellious spirit of rock and roll. It marked a softening in tone and a corruption of values, as a major part of a symbolic era chose to be offended over the actions of an artist rather than recognize and appreciate the human, social, and artistic integrity in it. O’Connor’s actions certainly garnered negative attention in recent weeks, but coming from a generation of hippies, the booing was almost as offensive and disgusting an act as many found her actions to be.

But were they all hippies?

Were they even Baby Boomers?

These were questions asked in all forums of discussion in the days and weeks following the event. Suddenly the socio-economic implications surrounding the show came into focus as it became apparent from fans having been there, that it was a gathering of suits of all kinds gobbling up the majority of the astronomically-priced tickets…CEOs, investment bankers, sports team owners, big business galore enjoying the benefits of first dibs. Within a few more years, as triple digit ticket prices became the norm, it would become customary for promoters to offer the best seats to the rich before tickets became available to the plebian public. A simple comparison of the before and after of this period of time: It used to be that we’d hear of a concert, and wait for the ticket information. When tickets went on sale, we stood on a line at Ticketron or Ticketmaster. If they expected extremely long lines, we were given a wristband the day before, which only guaranteed you a place on line, but not always a ticket. Still, everyone had a shot at a ticket, and everyone had a shot at great seats. By the mid to late 1990s, when a show went on sale, the first week was only open to the holders of the American Express Gold Card. The rest of us had to read about the Golden Circle seats or whatever the fuck else it was that we peasants couldn’t afford. And even if we could, we weren’t part of that club, so we had to wait for the shitty seats to become available, for which we’d still have to pay three times what we were paying just five years before. In 1986, Gordon Gecko uttered the arrogant line that became the catch phrase of the Reagan 80s, “Greed is good.” By the mid 90s, that greed would reach rock and roll.

So as concerts became excuses for very expensive social gatherings, the sacramental experience for diehard fans became watered down and cheapened as prices went through the roof. To explain this thought in more detail, I will give two examples drawn from actual conversations that occurred between 1999 and 2003. The first took place on the golf course of a country club in central Jersey on the afternoon of Wednesday, July 14, 1999:

Mr. Ashkeeshkenshkeez: Alright I gotta head back to the office…Connie is meeting me there with my grandson. Tell Twiggy I’ll pass on the hot dog when he gets back.

Roberts: (laughs) okay, will do

Mr. A: Oh, by the way, Connie’s got a…some extra tickets to see the ah…ahh…that Bruce Springstreet tomorrow. What are you and your wife doing tomorrow? Ya wanna come?

Roberts: Uh…I can’t stand him but Sheila’s firm was given 24 tickets and I’m already stuck going on Saturday.

The second conversation happened in the break room of an insurance company in January 2003:


Jennifer: Oh my God, Matt got us tickets for La Vesta De Zortda.

Heather: What the heck is that?

Jennifer: I’m not really sure. I think it’s an opera.

Heather: You like opera that much? You seem excited.

Jennifer: I don’t know. It’ll be something different.. ya know?

Heather: David and I are going to see the Rolling Stones in New York on the 17th.

Jennifer: Wait. You guys got tickets?

Heather: Yeah, we’re going with some guys from his company.

Jennifer: Heather, we have like a dozen tickets for that show.

Heather: You and Matt?

Jennifer: No, us! The company! You know we get tickets for every concert. You could have gone with us.

Heather: Oh, I don’t know. I don’t even care for the Rolling Stones that much. Matt’s just going because they talk business at these things and it’s just a place to go. They do it all the time at the Knicks and Rangers games. I mean it’s the Stones and all, and I do like some of their really early stuff. What that’s song they have? You can start me up? That was one of their first songs when they first came out in the 80s. I liked that song.

Am Ex tix

So it’s people like Heather, Matt, Roberts, and Mr. Ashkeeshkenshkeez who have to fuck it up for the real fans who just want to go and see their favorite band or artist. Yet the majority of the tickets go to non-appreciative cocksuckers in suits. Unaccountable assfucks who without thinking twice would hold a meeting on the upcoming fiscal year at a Roger Waters performance of The Wall just as easily as they would in the food court of the Mercantile Exchange building.

Honestly, I was disturbed by the booing of Sinead O’Connor at the Dylan tribute. This was an audience that had burnt their fucking draft cards in the 1960s. Even if we rule out all of the martini assholes, it was still largely a crowd of Dylan fans who knew exactly what Bob Dylan was about, even if Bob Dylan had never said so himself. They were thinkers…humanists…social justice advocates…hippies…

Suits.

Investment bankers.

Yuppies.

Offended.

At what point did half a generation get the granddaddy of all sticks up its ass? If there had been anything noble about music in the 1980s, it’s the fact that it had become socially and politically active along with consciousness-raising. The 1960s counterculture was coming full circle, and its influence and spirit was seen in everything from U2 to REM to USA For Africa to Live Aid to Janet Jackson to Public Enemy. Earlier in the year, a massive rock and roll revolution happened, ignited by MTV catching up with some underground music that would prove vital and relevant to its own time. The media had to hang a label on it as they do with everything, so they called it grunge. In the fall of 1991, Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” appeared on Music Television near its last days of actually playing music, and blah blah blah, we know the rest. By the summer of 1992, we had seen the rebirth of the long-lost festival in the form of Lollapolooza, then in its second year. The radio playlists as well as MTV’s were rock and grunge-heavy. There were also equal parts rap and R&B to strike a harmonious balance of co-existence not seen in music since. If you were of Generation X, 1992 was your 1967. As my friend Pat Ivanitski once said, it was our playground. In rock, there was a blurred residency among bands and fans alike, made up of hippies, punks, rap, and metal, all interweaving as closely as they ever did or ever would again. Across the country however, heightening tensions between black and white, and citizens and law enforcement were a foreshadowing of the brutal 2010s two decades later. And while not everything was quite a peaceable kingdom, as the strains and echoes of the L.A. riots still reverberated throughout the States, it was as close to my generation’s Summer of Love as well as to the tumult of 1968 as we would simultaneously get in our youth. There also lay the promise of a liberal Democrat from Arkansas that fall, the first counterculture president who was about to pull the country out of twelve years of Gordon Gecko-style greed and ineptitude, only to be met eight years later with a conservative backlash that would profoundly make the world a much more dangerous place in the 21st Century. Little did we know of the civil unrest and chaotic times that lay ahead well into adulthood. For the time being, 1992 was our summer of love and hate. Whatever the case, there was a spirit of rebellion, social activism, and political awareness in the air.
But out of nowhere, the brakes screeched inside the Garden and brought that spirit to a sudden halt. Sinead O’Connor declared war, walked offstage, and left a bunch of us wondering what the hell had just happened.

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