Few experiences are more unpleasant than a rock concert at the Red Hook Elks Lodge. I went to dozens of these shows as a teenager — in basements, church halls, high school gymnasiums, and, every so often, a place that could afford a sound system. I don’t remember much pleasure, only discomfort: from the volume, the heat, the aggression of the crowd, and the mediocrity of all but the occasional band. I loved every violent minute of it.
It helped, of course, that I had little else to do. Seeing a worthwhile band meant traveling two or three hours, to Albany or New York City or out of state, to find age-appropriate venues (rare for the under-18 set) and weekend dates. Local acts had access to their own backyards and the handful of pay-to-play clubs that required you to shake down your friends in order to make back gas money, and little else. So if a couple of pop-punk bands were stopping for one night between New Jersey and Boston, you went to the show. It didn’t matter that maybe one out of six acts were worth your time, or that this was an era in which some guy stalked around the stage for four-fifths of a song just so that he could scream during the bridge; that one band or one minute were worth the $5 door charge.
Eventually my friends started our own bands, which meant creating venues and playing anywhere we could get in the door. My bands bothered shoppers at the Kingston Barnes & Noble, gave people headaches in the foyer of Rhinebeck’s historic Grasmere estate, played outside a Red Hook High School art exhibition until they closed the door on us. We did everything ourselves, because we had to. No one was going to tell us what to do, and no one was coming to show us how. We just did it. You petitioned your school or church for a space to operate, used a club budget to print up posters, borrowed a PA from your friend or your friend’s friend, and relentlessly pressured everyone you knew to attend. I would approach any acquaintance, no matter how tangential, if it meant they might humor me.
We weren’t thinking about money, let alone success. We jammed way, way econo, and to this day our basement recordings remain embarrassingly unlistenable. No one ever made it out of the scene. But, on those few occasions when people actually showed up and an out-of-town band would stop in your cafeteria for a benefit show, nothing could have been more important. There was an uplift, a kind of transcendent joy that comes from doing something yourself and seeing it ripple out to other people, lifting them out of that evening and that Elks Lodge and their overwhelming teenage boredom into something pure and exciting and new, a feeling that hums in the air for an hour or two before fading gradually away, distant and unrecoverable.
When I was a kid, I surrendered it for nothing.
Robert Rubsam is a writer from Dutchess County who has reported from Ireland, Bulgaria, and Japan.
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