Every Small Town Wants to Be a Cultural Mecca These Days

But there’s a Philly spirit that the hinterlands can’t mimic.

I never thought I’d hear a deejay say this: “Van Halen is about to take the stage, so come on out. Tickets are still available at all price levels,” but I did, and I became instantly indignant because the show was in Reading. What else could anyone in Reading have to do on a Monday night? Go see Van Halen. You never know when their last time around will be their last time around. Eddie looked like he’d disconnected himself from the blood transfusion machine five minutes before the show started in 2007, and he was wearing capri pants. I was a little worried then, mostly about the capri pants, but the show blew my head off, but it was in Philadelphia—where concerts are supposed to be.

My first live show was Rod Stewart at the Spectrum in 1982. I was only 13, so my mother went with me. She was barely in her thirties, all foxy in her gold hoop earrings, and that was the night I knew I’d found my people, even the skanky ones. I got my first real part-time job to fund my groupie-ism. Again and again, I’d meet up with my congregation, mostly at the Spectrum, or at JFK in warmer weather, and eventually at the Tower, the Electric Factory, and Ripley’s, among other places. Somehow, someway, the pilgrims made their way to the gritty sacred spaces of live music in Philadelphia.

A healthy New Jersey contingent was always present because they usually had nothing better to do, plus they were used to driving to everything, and camping, when necessary. My cousin Vienna, from Glassboro, was one of my steady concert companions. Together with my high-school posse, we ponied up $12.50 each to see U2 at the Tower. We rested our elbows on the stage, and Bono pranced around in full mullet. It was glorious. When we walked out, Vienna proclaimed, “I think they’re gonna be really big.” Apparently she had an eye for these things because she’s now married to one of The Dead Milkmen, and I’m still waiting for David Bowie to write me back.

Depending on whether a tour was going from east to west, or vice versa, Philadelphia was a stop at the beginning or the end, often a multi-date, sold-out stop. Show dates and ticket sale announcements were momentous radio occasion. No one huckstered a “big announcement” better than Pierre Robert, but deejays teased listeners for weeks on both sides of the unofficial dividing line that determined whether you saw your concerts in Pittsburgh or Philadelphia.

If you lived in Doylestown, Exton, Pottsgrove, Quakertown, or even further up the line like Hazleton, Harrisburg, Shamokin, Tamaqua, and, yes, even Reading, you dug out your mothy sleeping bag, chipped in for gas and Doritos, and figured on missing school the next day because traveling into the big city was an important part of The Ritual. Who can blame anyone for not mustering up too much excitement about seeing a concert in Reading or Scranton or even State College? When I was a student at Penn State, we only expected REM types to occasionally roll through Rec Hall. If we wanted to see the likes of The Who or Genesis, we fired up the caravan and hit the road.

We may be hard-pressed to admit it since we think we’re so awesome, but we’ve over-conveniened ourselves. Maybe you don’t think so until you realize that the only places left for The Gap or Starbucks to expand are on icebergs and inside volcanic craters. The more we limit our lives to what’s easy, fast, close to home, or on the Internet, the less sacred and special our experiences seem to be. We’re unimpressed and bored with everything.

Our small town and suburban neighbors are trying to fill a niche by marketing themselves as urban hybrids, selling the cultural amenities of city living without the riffraff, but Philadelphia proper has a soul that can’t be co-opted. You can see a live concert anywhere these days, but it won’t be a religious experience without the riffraff, the skyline, a cheesesteak, and the long ride home.

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