A little over a month ago we played our first show in Pennsylvania. We were supposed to be on a bill with 2 other local bands, but when we got there we learned that the local bands had cancelled. It was just going to be us, the out-of-towners. Loading our gear into a basement in Allentown, it occurred to us that maybe no one would come.
The venue was really 2 venues: a main stage for nationally touring bands, and a basement downstairs. We were downstairs, which was OK. After big summer shows at Bowery Ballroom and Irving Plaza, we had a certain romantic attitude about hustling on a basement stage out of town. It was a chance to reconnect with our roots, and that would be fun, until we realized the local bands had bailed.
The basement was long and narrow, with a low ceiling. It had the vibe of a storage room in an unused country club, and since it was the week of Halloween, it felt like we were playing a gig in The Shining. Plus, in the daytime the club used the basement as some kind of haunted attraction, so there were fake corpses and entrails strewn about backstage. I got a kick out of that. I had to smile at the Halloween weirdness of it all.
But then, during soundcheck, my amp died, mysteriously and absolutely. It just powered itself down, and when we checked the fuses one of them had been obliterated into a million little pieces. I had never seen anything like that before, and it made me wonder if the satanic forces in our midst were not pleased with us. We’d had tough shows before, dealt with our fair share of issues. But this gig was starting to take on an extra level of spookiness. This gig was acting like the cranky old man who insists on giving you a trick instead of a treat on Halloween.
The sound guy patched me through the PA system and I left my dead half stack on stage for appearances—it was, truly, a costume performance. Earlier in the afternoon, Tommy and Marco had found a local chapter of Occupy Wall Street and convinced 8 protesters to come see our concert. These 8 people were the entire audience. Tommy and Marco just gave them the tickets for free, a gambit that did not endear us to the promotor, but somehow we talked our way out of it. The show had to go on.
We played. We performed with the freedom you get when you know the Eyes of the World are not on you. The 8 people were supportive, and I tried to comfort myself with the knowledge that this was not the smallest audience we’d ever had (in 2008 we played for 3 people on the upper east side and 2 of them were my parents).
People say things about paying your dues, but after you’ve played for hundreds of screaming fans, playing a show for 8 people does not feel like paying your dues. It feels like digging your grave. I was trying not to say to myself, “What if Irving Plaza was the high point of the parabola? And what if the Fall of 2011 is the precipitous decline that follows?” This had been in the air since August, and I was doing my best not to succumb to it.
After the show, I carried my broken amp back through the hallway of horrors. I could hear the national band upstairs finish their set.
“Do you know who those guys are upstairs?” Marco said to me. “They have that song.”
“Don’t tell me,” I said. “Just don’t tell me.”
I was stepping over plastic rats and rotten mannequins. I could hear people upstairs chanting for an encore. I heard the sounds of fame, trickling down as echoes to the underworld, where I was carrying a broken half stack to the street. One week before I turned 25, I learned for the first time that my faith in the band is perhaps not an indestructible thing. Because in between the stomping and cheering of the crowd above, I also heard a new sound. I heard the ticking of a clock.