There are some things I honestly never thought I’d still be doing at this point in my life.
For one, dating—or wearing a bikini; eating burritos for breakfast, lunch and dinner (or wanting to); and going to rock shows. Of course, there are also things I imagine I should’ve done a helluva long time ago, but never quite got around to. I’m thinking taking LSD, writing that next great American novel, finding true love, procreation and a three-way in a hotel room in Paris. (Actually, I’m not really the three-way sort of gal, but wouldn’t that be funny?)
Truth be told, if I look back on my expectations versus the reality, my life has turned into this strange inversion. I got married in my 20s and a good deal of my time was spent viewing life from the sidelines . . . or at least the side of a stage, considering my husband at the time was in a band. But in college I had big dreams—all I wanted to do was be a writer, a performer or a something. I wanted to see and do everything. Though when life played itself out, I played it safe. I found myself both literally and figuratively in the backseat with no real desire, or ability, to control where I was going. And though I don’t see myself taking up recreational hallucinogens anytime soon, the older I get, the more risks I find myself taking.
When I think of how this change took place, I can’t help but mark time—and my hurdles—with the many rock shows I’ve experienced. It’s been a series of tiny clubs, wayward openers, drink tickets and bottomless beers that finally hit this mad pinnacle. Though there was Casey Kasem and an early dominance over the car radio, my real love for music started when I was 12 years old. That’s when I saw my first show at the California State Fair, where I accidently stumbled on Romeo Void with my born-again Christian bestie. I could hear Debora Iyall’s growl, “Never—never say never!” and it lured us past the Tilt-A-Whirl, a game of corn toss, and cotton candy stands lit in neon to find ourselves experiencing a legitimate live performance without the parents.
At 14, I saw the Thompson Twins at UC Davis. A year later, garbed in a velvet tuxedo, China flats and white geisha makeup, I stood in front of Freeborn Hall reading a well-worn paperback version of Edie: An American Biography while waiting to see the Cure perform during their Head on the Door tour. Backstage, somewhere between kissing Robert Smith on the cheek and chugging a bottle of Freixenet cava I’d “borrowed” from my parents, I unofficially met the teenage boy who would later become my husband—though we wouldn’t officially meet for another five years.
At 16, I saw the Smiths on their Queen Is Dead tour and then Camper Van Beethoven during their Our Beloved Revolutionary Sweetheart era and REM on their Green tour. I mention these shows not so much to brag about my arguably discerning taste so much as to say that I thought I knew who the hell I was then or at least what I liked. I thought the Smiths were the greatest band in the world and someday I would actually pay back that Freixenet loan.
While studying English and American literature at Berkeley, and still dewy with possibility, I saw Buffalo Tom at Berkeley Square and looked around the room long enough to say to myself, I will not hang out at this particular party too long. Someday I’ll get rid of my record collection, my array of beer-stained band T-shirts and I won’t give a shit about keeping up with new music anymore. I’ll do what generations before me have done—I’ll stay home and listen to the oldies.
But then senior year in college, I officially met my now ex-husband at a dive bar in Sacramento. He was studying urban planning while playing in a “band” he called Pavement. I was an English major and imagined I would graduate to become an artist, writer or actor—okay, maybe even a mime—and I’d travel the world madly, visiting places like India, Indonesia, Ireland . . . and Indiana.
We listened to Echo and the Bunnymen and the Sun City Girls on repeat, drank gin and tonics and ate Blondie’s pizza. I didn’t know it at the time, but I can now unequivocally say that this was one of those chance experiences that changed the course of my life. That urban planner became my first boyfriend. And though I did complete a Eurail stint and wrote my fair share of (really) bad poetry at Café Intermezzo on Telegraph Avenue, a year after graduation I found myself selling ugly turquoise T-shirts at Pavement’s first West Coast show in San Francisco. At that moment, even though I was standing on a chair at the back of the room, I felt like I was watching history in the making. I was cheering my boyfriend on, and I felt like I could support him and help hold it all together with pure will. And it came together. There was palpable electricity in the air. Something was actually happening. They sang, “Everything’s ending here,” and it felt like something was just beginning.
I didn’t apply to grad school or teach English in Japan or take a job at the alt weekly or even become a mime—at least for the moment. Instead, I spent the next ten years managing my boyfriend’s band’s finances and answering fan mail. When they played Lollapalooza, I’d fly out to places like Atlanta to pick up merch money, stuffing it in a FedEx envelope for the flight back to San Francisco, where we lived. I wrote letters to the World Wide Web to reserve a website under the name “Pavement” and miraculously got a manila envelope in response. I also did a few things for myself—like taking the occasional film class or making lattes at a local café. But overall, I willingly traded my own dreams for the chance to ride along on someone else’s.
It took too long to see I needed my own gig, but I did see this. And the summer before I went to grad school in Seattle, I found myself in another room, watching my then-husband in a different band. This time I was tour manager, driving a white van through the Midwest while my ex’s post-Pavement solo act opened for Wilco. It was a tough period, and, in retrospect, I can see I had started to figure out who I was right as my ex was mourning the loss of his own identity.
The band played a show in Evanston, Illinois, where I was one of only two people in attendance. It was the kind of show that can break you, even if you’re just watching. I wanted to hold up the band and hide behind the merch table. But this was something I couldn’t hold together—not the band or my imaginary future. I had thought once Pavement was over, my “real” life could begin. But it became clear that there wasn’t any such thing as a real life, only this.
A few months before we got divorced, around the same time I was graduating, two things happened. It came over me that I wanted my maiden name back. I’d never been particularly tied to my name, but I suddenly missed it. Around the same time, my ex stopped listening to new music.
“Everything sounds the same,” he said. “I hate all the new bands.” He started buying boxed sets of Springsteen and Petty and incessantly alphabetized his vast record collection. By turns, I started really listening to music. I read music reviews, took recommendations and went to shows on my own.
After grad school, newly single and living on my own for the first time in my life, I taught creative writing at the University of Washington and wrote restaurant reviews for the Stranger. I eventually moved back to San Francisco and continued to discover my own interests. I realized I had my own inner compass that led me in directions I didn’t even know existed.
Over the years, I’ve thrown crazy dinner parties like it was a sport and traveled to Vietnam, India, Cuba and Africa. And regardless of whether anyone is actually paying attention, I’ve written articles and short stories and—more recently—made short films with friends.
Now, I’m 47 years old, and I still go to live shows. I say f*ck it—why would I ever give this up? Maybe I’ll grow gray and decrepit, but the truth is, I know now that there are no age limits when it comes to appreciating and creating art and music. There are no points in life when we need to give up the things we love.
I recently saw Dungen in the redwoods while surrounded by tree houses and wild Swedes with dancing babies. I saw Savages at the Fillmore, Black Mountain at the Independent and, based on a friend’s recommendation, I’ve been listening to A Giant Dog on repeat. Even if I’m an old fart, I still like to dance.
The other night, I saw Cate Le Bon at the Chapel. I ran into friends I hadn’t seen for a while, and the room was full. I stooped behind an impossibly tall guy, straining to see, and then there was this lovely surprise of her noodly guitar and that crazy magic was in the air. Something was happening—I knew!
My heart clinched and I felt the sting of tears welling up inside me. The music made me feel all my heartbreak, and the rise and fall of life’s happiness and despair. I fell into her effervescent vocals, and they rang through me as she sang, “Are you with me now? AhAhAhAh!” I felt as much with her, and everything, as I ever have—maybe more.
Excerpted from: A Glorious Freedom: Older Women Leading Extraordinary Lives by Lisa Congdon, published by Chronicle Books 2017.
Chrissy Loader is a lapsed academic, a freelance writer, a fledgling filmmaker and the managing editor at the Presidio, an innovative national park near the Golden Gate Bridge. She lives in San Francisco and is at work on a full-length screenplay—a comedy about a ramshackle band touring the United States circa 1991.