"At thirteen years old, we had been swayed to the proverbial dark side and were determined to do things our way"
In this episode of AutoMusicologies Ty Hall recounts how his first rock concert sparked a passion for music.
In the summer of 1994, I was twelve years old and heading into grade seven at a new school in my hometown of Ottawa, Ontario. My friends and I would spend our days riding homemade skateboard ramps before gathering around the television to consume hours of music videos on MuchMusic. The charts of the day included a mix of artists such as Soundgarden, Coolio, Smashing Pumpkins, Snoop Doggy Dogg, Ace of Bass, and Aerosmith among many others from a wide range of styles and genres. I remember the first time I saw the "Basket Case" video from Green Day’s breakout album Dookie (1994). A paranoid-looking Billie Joe Armstrong appeared on the screen and belted out the first line of the intro, “Do you have the time to listen to me whine.” I was instantly mesmerized by the vaguely familiar harmonic progression that was essentially "Pachelbel’s Canon" on speed. It was this moment that sparked a new enthusiasm for music and would lead to one of the most memorable experiences of my young life – my first rock concert.
Green Day appealed to my adolescent sensibilities on multiple levels. First of all, the power trio didn’t take themselves too seriously. Their brand of playful in-your-face punk rock revival contrasted the dark, introspective grunge of the early 90s in a way that made music look like a lot of fun. Furthermore, the DIY punk ethic that came across in their general aesthetic made the music accessible and inspired us to pick up instruments and make music of our own. There were no virtuosic instrumental solos, the music was fast and loud, and the lyrics resonated with our coming-of-age anxieties while tapping into our new-found fascinations with sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll rebellion. As Dave Grohl once said, “When you're thirteen and listening to punk, the aggressive nature of music can sway you to the dark side.” We pooled our money together, bought some second-hand instruments and spent the next year in my friend James’ garage blasting out tunes by Green Day, Rancid, NOFX and Bad Religion. These middle school years were marked with many milestones as we began the first chapter of our young musical careers, taking every opportunity we had to perform at school assemblies and birthday parties. As juvenile aspiring rockstars, we tried our best to play the part while dreaming of one day catching our heroes live on stage.
In the fall of 1995, Green Day was planning to release their fourth studio album titled Insomniac and announced a world tour that, as luck would have it, included a stop in Ottawa. I’m not sure exactly how my friends and I convinced our parents to let us go to this concert, but we were very resourceful in devising a plan full of half-truths and clever manipulation tactics. At the end of the day, we were able to attain a batch of general admission tickets to the show scheduled for October 29th, 1995 at the Ottawa Civic Centre. I do know that our parents were under the impression that we would be supervised and seated a safe distance from the stage for our first rock concert, but at thirteen years old, we had been swayed to the proverbial dark side and were determined to do things our way.
When the day of the show arrived, five of us arrived early to sit in the parking lot passing around Gatorade bottles filled with jungle juice as we discussed the songs we hoped to hear that evening. Upon entering the building, it soon became clear that we were out of our element, but we threw caution to the wind and stormed the floor through a sea of the city’s rowdiest young hooligans. In his review of the concert, Ottawa Citizen music writer Norman Provencher described the majority of attendees quite accurately as “tiny little mallrats in tour t-shirts that fit like granny dresses," noting how promoters had decided not to sell alcohol three hours before the show upon realizing the demographics of the early arrivals.
"tiny little mallrats in tour t-shirts that fit like granny dresses"
Norman Provencher, Ottawa Citizen, 1995
Standing roughly a head shorter than most of the concert goers, when The Riverdales hit the stage to open the show, we decided to b-line it towards the mosh pit for a better view, and this is where I literally ran into and bounced off of one of the scariest looking individuals I had ever encountered. The towering, tattooed giant who looked to me like a professional wrestler spun around with a scowl that quickly turned into a look of confusion as he was clearly taken aback by the spiky-haired brat who thought he could muscle past him. He chuckled and introduced himself as "Chronic." Realizing my dilemma, he offered to help me out, “You wanna go up?” he asked pointing toward the rafters. Before I could answer, he lifted me over his head and tossed me atop the crowd like a rag doll where I surfed through the pit in the best seat in the house. My friend Adrian was next in line, but he would not be so lucky. He demonstrated what can go wrong while attempting to crowd surf and found himself on the way to the hospital with a fractured arm before the headlining act. The rest of us did not take this as a learning experience.
When Green Day finally hit the stage, we were somewhat shocked to realize that this was not the tame version of the band that we were used to watching on Much Music. The stage banter between Billie Joe Armstrong, Mike Dirnt, and Tre Cool was full of vulgar obscenities as they tried their best to incite debauchery among the receptive crowd announcing, “We’re only touring Canada, fuck the United States!” At one point, the band invited a young audience member on stage, ordering him to chug a beer and then stage dive back into the crowd, ignoring the panicked pleas from the helpless security personnel. Later in the show, Billie Joe became irritated with a heckler in the front row who had been flipping him off. Armstrong proceeded to drop trou and engage in what Provencher’s review would describe as “weenie-waggling” as he laced into the individual with some “serious verbal abuse.” At this moment, I sympathized with my school chums in the soft seats with their parents but was relieved that I was not in such an awkward position myself. The band blazed through seventeen of their best tunes in a concert that was as thrilling as it was shocking. By the time the night was through, my buddy Reg had become the second casualty of the violent mosh pit and ended up at the hospital with a concussion. At the time, I didn’t have anything to compare this experience to, but in the almost twenty-three years since, I have attended hundreds of concerts with this one topping the list as the most berserk. Green Day dished out a serving of high-energy raucous punk rock to a frenzied crowd, and we ate it up.
As I reminisce on these couple of years in the mid-nineties, I can safely say that Green Day was the band that first ignited my passion for music. Since then, music has always been at the centre of my existence as a performer, spectator, and as an academic. Today, at thirty-six years old, my touring schedule has taken a back seat to my scholarly pursuits as I prepare to write my master’s thesis in the Music and Culture program at Carleton University. Reflecting on my experiences as a young music enthusiast I feel nostalgic, grateful, old, and most of all lucky to have been on the front lines of this moment in rock and roll history . As Brett Gurewitz, the founder of Epitaph Records and Bad Religion put it, “the best pop music is the kind of stuff that you grow up listening to and remembering always, whether it's The Beatles, or Elvis Costello, or you know, a record like Dookie; it's those songs that last a lifetime and stick with you.”
Ty Hall is a singer-songwriter, and 2nd-year master’s student in the Music and Culture program at Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario. He has released four independent albums and maintains a steady touring schedule over the summer months. Ty’s research focuses on issues of race, gender, and class in popular music. His master’s thesis is titled “Atlanta Trap Music and the Current Directions of Afrofuturism.”