“Release,” I said.
“Wash,” my husband, Ricardo, declared as he kept an eye on the stage at Berlin’s impressive amphitheater, Waldbuhne, built over 80 years ago as home to the 1936 Olympics and a Nazi propaganda tool.
The first band I ‘followed’ was the Grateful Dead back in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s.
The spotlights blasted the stage and we saw familiar figures in their usual places at drums, guitars, keyboards. As we waited to see which of their 110 songs Pearl Jam would start the concert with, I looked over the thousands of expectant heads in front of me. Then came the opening strains of the song “Wash.” The sweaty crowd erupted. I looked over at my husband, who has innate talent for picking opening songs, and smirked.
Berlin was the last stop on our 10-day European visit; we were there doing the thing we both love—even though some people can’t understand how two responsible adults, with an 11-year-old at home, can devote the time, energy, and, yes, money to our favorite pastime. We were following Pearl Jam for part of the #PJEuro18 tour, taking in three concerts in three cities because, really, our relationship has been about music from the start.
My husband and I were with “our people.” Many of them are GenXers like us, but the Jamily (a term I can’t come to embrace but is nevertheless the accepted lingo for die-hard Pearl Jam fans) reflects all ages, colors, nationalities, and lifestyles. If Hitler had a grave, he’d be rolling in it, and that makes me smile. While nationalism and racism are great dividers, music is the great uniter.
While nationalism and racism are great dividers, music is the great uniter.
Think about a song you hear that takes you back to your senior spring break or reminds you of falling in love—or your first broken heart. So many of my memories include standing backstage or in front of one—forming lifelong friendships with other fans, partying in the front row or singing in the nosebleeds, interviewing (and sometimes dating) musicians.
I knew Ricardo was The One when we swapped Grateful Dead tour stories on one of our first dates and simultaneously said “Prince!” when someone asked who is the most underrated guitarist of all time. How fortunate to find a kindred spirit.
Ricardo didn’t jump on the Pearl Jam bandwagon until I convinced him we needed to see their 2014 performance at Joe Louis Arena in Detroit,; the iconic venue that was slated for demolition. The crowd vibration felt more intense than any other, anticipating Pearl Jam’s first Detroit appearance in eight years. On this night, PJ opened with “Release,” and I immediately burst into tears of joy and spent the three-hour show trying to stay somewhat composed. The outpouring of emotion and camaraderie between audience and artists bound by pounding backbeats and screaming guitars was all it took. My husband, like me, drank the Kool-Aid.
The Golden Road
The first band I “followed” was the Grateful Dead back in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s during my tenure at Ohio Wesleyan University. My friends turned me on to a counter culture that changed my life and sense of reality forever. In fact, my sorority, Kappa Alpha Theta, had so many Deadheads that if the band played anywhere in the tri-state area, we couldn’t make quorum and had to cancel our chapter meeting. Certainly not a stereotypical sorority problem, but the Dead had a hold on our members that belied the pearl-necklace-and-black-turtleneck portraits that hung upon the walls of the sorority house (and in the hearts of our parents).
If we were “dead,” those old hippies were so much deader than us.
Off we would journey with up to six people per carload, carrying backpacks and mixed tapes. Staying in a hotel room was a luxury. Instead, we pitched tents in parking lots and parks the day before the event and walked through mazes of bootleg t-shirts, fruit jugglers, and nitrous tanks (a.k.a. “Hippie Crack”). Tickets and weed were the two highest-valued currencies as both were always in short supply.
And how about those old hippies—the gray-haired veterans who saw the early shows back in the ‘60s and ‘70s?. They were so much hipper than our parents, who were stuck in the 40-hour work week, listening to WASP-y, soft-rock radio. These hippies were unflappable, with many shows and miles under their Guatemalan belts. If we were “dead,” they were so much deader than us. We aspired to be as cool when we got old.
Too Damn Old?
Now I’m here at 49, probably the same age as some of the hippies I admired when I was younger. Admittedly, I wasn’t sure I had it in me to take on this #PJEuro2018 tour when the band announced the shows. As an old friend, Joe, informed me: “You’re still a rock star, now you’re just a daytime rock star.” Well, hang me out to dry.
Now I have real responsibilities. Taking exams is not at all the same as running a business, not to mention an amazing boy who’s counting on me to make it home in one piece. Would I be able to survive the sweat? The decibels? The crowds? The unrelenting pace? Am I just too damn old for this like most people would advise?
No more regrets. ‘Let’s do it,’ I resolved.
Yet my husband—a fearless road warrior who believes driving through a desert for eight hours is romantic—convinced me that touring with Pearl Jam is exactly what I needed. He was right, but perhaps not for the reasons he thought. Yes, I work almost every day running two businesses. Yes, my alternate title is “personal assistant and chauffeur” for a child with multiple sports activities, homework assignments, and the need for gluten-free/dairy-free meals. Yes, there’s a household to help manage. Yes, I turned into my mother who, 30 years ago, seemed so…uncool.
However, those reasons paled in comparison to the real one: REGRET. In 1999, I had the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to spend New Year’s Eve Y2K in Cairo with ex-pat Deadheads whom I adore. The plan was to attend the massive musical celebration slated for the the Pyramids of Giza. (Rumor had it that Pink Floyd would perform.) Who in their right mind would turn down that invitation?
Because there was too much work to do.
That was 19 years ago, and, for the life of me, I can’t remember what was so goddamned important that turning down a concert in Egypt seemed like the right decision.
No more regrets. “Let’s do it,” I resolved.
“Fuckin’ A,” smiled Ricardo with a little fist bump to seal the deal. The wheels were in motion.
Because we’re Pearl Jam 10 Club members, we could enter a lottery for first-available tickets. We decided to try for tickets for Prague, Krakow, or Berlin since the competition for the other cities—London, Paris, Amsterdam, and Rome—was much heavier.
We were thrilled to get tickets for all three cities, but I began to worry about transportation logistics. The thought of carrying my luggage between train stops caused an anxiety attack. Fortunately, we learned through Facebook about an American named Jeremy living in Prague who organized a chartered, three-city bus tour for 100 fans. We took a leap of faith and signed up.
We took the redeye from Austin to London, then landed in Prague and immediately connected with some PJ fans at a beer garden overlooking the city. They stood out: most wore concert tees and PJ hats. Representing four different countries, we chatted like old friends thanks to our common passion.
OMG, was this what the entire tour would feel like? Have I lost my mojo?
The Prague show was rough for this GenXer. We had standing VIP floor tickets up front, but most people were taller than I am, so I felt claustrophobic. On top of that, the fenced-off area was over crowded, and there was only one way to get in and out.
Visions of the suffocation deaths at a Pearl Jam concert in Roskilde, Denmark, filled my brain, and I panicked as the first song “Of The Girl” started. OMG, was this what the entire tour would feel like? Have I lost my mojo? By the second song, Ricardo grabbed my shaking hand and, led me past the fencing to the back of the arena. The veil lifted with this easy adjustment. Now I could see, hear, and breathe! The band broke into “Corduroy,” and I lost myself for the next two and half hours.
Get On the Bus
The morning after the show (still a bit jet lagged) we boarded one of two busses that Jeremy and his friend Aleš chartered. Jeremy provided custom t-shirts for everyone, an immediate bonding ritual. The busses then morphed into a mobile party. We could sleep, eat, drink, socialize, and gaze upon the countryside while watching the documentary “Pearl Jam 20” on the DVD player. By day, we rode; by night we stayed in hotels with showers and room service. No tents. No sleeping in cars or train stations.
Krakow was my favorite stop of the tour. Pennsylvania Dave and Chicago Dave gave two extra tickets to our young Uber driver on the way to the show. That gesture of kindness set the tone for the night, and the three-hour show did not disappoint.
The amount of gray hair (or lost hair!) in a Pearl Jam crowd doesn’t escape any of us.
I think we bought more drinks for other people than we did for ourselves. Boston Mike and Myrsini shared tour stickers and saved us the best seats in Berlin. Detroit Jim and Amy immediately made us feel welcomed in Prague. German Lisa offered to be our tour guide when we venture to her adopted hometown Edinburgh, Scotland, next year.
While we stood in line at Berlin’s Waldbühne, a huge Scottish man with black curly hair struck up a conversation with us. We later called him Braveheart for lack of formal introductions. Quite entertaining, though somewhat hard to understand, Braveheart made the three-hour wait more bearable. He was a formidable ally in keeping people from jumping in front of the line. “No fuckin’ cuttin’ the queue!” he bellowed out on occasion. Maybe we’ll meet again. He’ll be easy to find.
As screwed up as this world is, there are still good people everywhere. Simply be kind to one another. And whatever you do…don’t cut the queue!
It’s Evolution, Baby
The best part about touring after all these years? We are the veterans. The amount of gray hair (or lost hair!) in a Pearl Jam crowd doesn’t escape any of us. There were kids on the bus who weren’t even born when we bought the Ten album or saw our first shows—mine in 1995.
We wanted our MTV as much as the new generation is glued to its YouTube. We’re growing old with Eddie Vedder and crew just like the original Deadheads grew old with Jerry Garcia. We sing loudly with hands upraised and open toward the sky just like the hippies waved peace signs. For a few blissful hours, Ricardo and I feel exhilarated.
At a Pearl Jam concert, we sing of peace, protest, and purpose.
My husband was right: following a rock and roll band is exactly what I needed. People may assume this trip was about reinvigorating or strengthening our relationship, which is a natural but not purposeful byproduct. Personally, it’s about being part of something bigger than us: a collective human experience energized by music, a fleeting point in time that lures me into living 100 percent in the moment. That’s where the real magic happens.
For me, a Pearl Jam show isn’t just a concert, it is like going to church. We sing of peace, protest, and purpose. Of rearview mirrors, lightning bolts, and little red mosquitos. My first Pearl Jam show was a revelation, and nothing has changed all these years later. Each show is a therapeutic reminder: I’m still alive.
Thea Wood is publisher of SheSpark, a TEDx speaker, and author of “The Intentional Makeover.” Her biggest motivation is to help give women the confidence to become an equal force in this world. She wants to see more female CEO’s, more female politicians, more female Pulitzer Prize winners, more Oscar-winning female directors, and more female rock bands!