When you hear “Saginaw, Michigan,” you don’t immediately think of a cultural Mecca. A blue-collar town about 75 miles northeast of Lansing, I’m usually reminded more of the relish with which my friend Kevin calls the town, “Sag-nasty.” It’s not the place you’d seek out the opera, but it’s a pretty good place for a metal concert.
Maybe it’s because the summer season is upon us and a lot of my friends are talking about the shows they’re planning to see, or maybe it’s because Alison is visiting her family in Michigan this week and I miss her. Whatever, I’ve been hearkening back to a Metallica show more than 15 years ago – probably the best concert I’ve ever seen.
In 1991, Metallica released the self-titled disk, better known as “the Black album.” It was a solid work, not quite what Ride the Lightning or And Justice for All had been, but there were several excellent tracks. My sophomore year saw me returning to college early from Winter break, and New Year’s weekend found me lying around in East Lansing with a 40 and two of my all-time great friends from the crew, Eric and Pete. We were rocking to “Enter Sandman” and “The Unforgiven.” I don’t remember which of them pointed out that Metallica was playing in Saginaw later that night, but it was suddenly something that had to happen.
Pete was the one with wheels, so we piled in and headed north with a pocket full of cash, determined to buy tickets outside the venue and see our rock idols. We decided that it would be a relatively easy task to find tickets, so we debarked Pete’s car in just t-shirts, opting for convenience within the Civic Center over comfort while out front. Except … we needed three tickets together, which turns out is not easy to find when you were trying to work your way into a show by one of the most popular bands then in existence. Everyone we talked to was looking for upwards of $100 a ticket and we spent about an hour wandering around looking for enough to get all of us in. In Michigan. In January. Wearing t-shirts. We came to the point where Pete was making jokes about what they’d say at the funeral of three young men who were stupid enough to freeze to death trying to get into a concert.
Finally, we were too numb and tired to keep trying. We decided that we’d duck into the Will Call office for five minutes to warm up, then begrudgingly pile into Pete’s car and head back to East Lansing. As we were standing there, defeated, a guy walked up to us and casually asked if we were looking for tickets. Hope springs eternal. Conscious that he may be selling scalped tickets under the watchful eyes of the authorities, Eric gave Pete and me a conspiratorial look and let the man take him aside. He nodded quickly at us to shush any kibbitzing. Turns out, he need not have.
“Here! From your friends at KQZ!” exclaimed the man, handing over three tickets on the rail, right across from the stage. All three of us were dumbfounded … for about five seconds. Eric snatched the tickets and we hustled in to claim our impossible seats.
Perhaps hingsight isn’t 20-20; it’s easy to forget who Metallica really was back then. They’ve kind of embarassed themselves over the Napster thing, and when they released a long, rambling single last year, radio stations had to call it a comeback. Critical acclaim wasn’t forthcoming and DJs practically gave them a handjob in comparison to the old Garage Days material. But on 2 January 1993, James Hetfield, Lars Ulrich and the gang were GODS. They played for two and a half hours, a set unheard of by today’s standards. It was like listening to a Dead concert, except with actual songs.
The band finally shook their instruments triumphantly above their heads and exited the stage. Lars hurled his drumsticks and James whipped guitar picks into the crowd — I got one of those, although the years have hidden it in one of the countless unsorted boxes I have stashed away in the closet. Lighters came out as the house lights waxed and chants of “Me-tal-li-ca” shook the building. The lights had risen almost completely when, with a sharp snap, the entire arena was plunged back into darkness. Smoke started to rise from all edges of the stage and tiny flashes like fireflies sparkled throughout it, as a soundtrack played faint men’s voices shouting and machine gun fire. Then, out of the darkness and into the mad screaming from the crowd flowed the slow, deliberate guitar intro to the song that had been conspicuously absent from the playlist all evening: One. Up into the dissipating smoke, the center of the stage rose with the band on it. They spent the next eight minutes killing the single best encore I’ve ever even heard of.
Over the years, my taste in music has migrated all over the spectrum, from classic rock to country to metal to indie to jazz – as long as the music is well crafted, I’m a fan. I’ve learned that that goes for concerts, too. I’ve had front row seats for Radiohead opening for R.E.M., and for the Counting Crows in a theater that only seated 2,000 people. I saw the Rolling Stones in Spartan Stadium in 1995. Pearl Jam, Tori Amos, U2, ACDC. Recently, dozens of smaller venues and more obscure bands. Still, Metallica in 1993 stands out as the single greatest concert-going experience I’ve ever had. Free tickets, for great seats, when it looked like the entire thing had been a bad impulse, with two of my best friends. I still can’t hear anyone talk about going to a concert without remembering that I’ve been to the mountaintop. And it rocked.