When I first discovered Steve Weinberger’s book No Air Guitar Allowed, I was curious to see what his observations would reveal about the live concert experience. In the end, I learned what it was like for Weinberger as he humorously describes the live music fans and other concert characters he encountered after attending 1000 concerts over the last 20 years.
I had more questions when I finished reading, so I spoke with Weinberger via phone from his San Diego home to talk about how he developed his observational eye for concertgoers, his thoughts on the myths and evolution of concert culture and what he plans to do when his daughter hits concertgoing age. No Air Guitar Allowed was self-published in 2008 and Weinberger plans to put the book’s “characters” in motion by showcasing a screenplay version of the book at Comicon this summer. And if you plan on attending music festivals this summer, you’ll also want to be sure to take notes when Weinberger suggests some characters to look out for.
You started your concertgoing career with a KISS concert in 1977 . Since then you’ve been to over 1000 concerts. How did you think back through all those experiences to write No Air Guitar Allowed?
When you go to so many shows you become an observer after a while and that’s what makes it so fun. I was able to get perspective with my co-writer Sarah Torribo. She was a great help in guiding me and helping with the observations and rounding out the different characters. She helped put great perspective on the female experiences especially the Lilith Fair character experiences.
It reads like a guidebook, a humorous mix of concert sociology and satire. Was that intentional?
I really wanted to make sure that the writing came across as a mockumentary style because the last thing I wanted was to have people think that I was trying to be above or make fun of anyone. I considered myself sort of like a leader in an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting [laughs]. I mention in the introduction that I have been each person in the book at one time or another, so I wrote it hoping that all concertgoers could read it and have a good laugh and new concert fans could learn a bit about concert culture evolution.
You use the different characters to talk about various parts of concert culture. And it’s interesting to see how concert culture has changed. What do you think is the biggest change in the live concert experience over the last 20 years?
It’s really become a lot more corporate for sure, especially with the backstage access. Twenty years ago people didn’t really talk about ticket prices for a show. It was around twelve bucks and that was about it. These days fans expect more from an artist’s performance; like they’re watching their favorite sports teams. Also, 20 years ago, bands didn’t tour to make ends meet, it was the other way around. They made the money on the album and toured more for fun, but all that has changed.
You’ve been a dedicated music fan for a long time. And you have a few characters in the book that deal with getting older but still love to go to concerts. Have you had any experiences where you felt out of place because of the myth of “you’re this age and you shouldn’t be going to certain concerts anymore, or at all?’
Yes, several times. I was at a Stone Temple Pilots show with my wife awhile ago when they toured recently, and a group of people were talking behind me during the show. So I gave them a look letting them know they were ruining the show for the people around them. Then I overheard this younger couple next to me say something about me “that older guy” complaining. After that experience I did some research and I found that most guys going to Stone Temple Pilots shows are my age or older but there’s also a mix of younger fans in their mid to late 20’s, too. This started to make me wonder about the artists perspective. I wondered what bands like STP or guys like Trent Reznor from Nine Inch Nails feel towards their younger fans. Does it give them a different perspectiveve as they grow older and see the younger fans in the crowd? I also realized that a lot of these bands like NIN and STP are way older than their current fan base. I just think it’s really ironic and weird for me to go to a NIN or STP show and get called an older guy in that way.
You mention that you’ve been a concert evangelist to some of your friends who are stuck in a concert ‘timewarp.’ What do you say to them about live music today?
I’m forty-one and I still love exploring new bands and discovering new music at concerts. I tell my friends who are stuck in a timewarp that live music can still be a great experience, and that it’s not that live concerts have changed for the worse, but that those ‘timewarp’ friends might not be educated on what’s changed. They just haven’t taken the time to learn about all the new bands and how things have evolved.
After going to so many shows I would imagine that you get used to them and you started observing the culture more than the music at times. Was this a factor in inspiring you to write the book?
Yeah, it was. I love going to concerts to just observe, too. There can be a negative side of going to so many concerts over the years because overtime you know what to expect. So to keep it fun, I did become a fan and an observer of the concert fan culture. I would take notes about what I saw after the show. One of my favorite types of shows to observe is the rock shows like Madonna or the Rolling Stones. Those shows are really fun to watch people enjoy the show.
A crowd can really interact with the artist on a deep level during the show. It’s fun to watch fans express themselves to the point where it makes other fans feel awkward or annoyed.
Absolutely [chuckles]. I’m always amazed at how a fan will just blurt out a deeply emotional and personal comment. I write about how Sarah McLachlan gets so personal with her fans at shows and how fans will shout out such deeply personal connections to what she’s singing about or talking about in between songs. It’s interesting to see how different artitsts get different reactions from their fan, but every audience gets personal in their own way. And each show has its own story of how the crowd interacts with the artist and the music.
Every so often I get the chance to take Autistic kids I work with to concerts. Most times Autistic kids have problems with crowds, but concerts & music seem to override their normal struggles with crowds or personal interaction. And those types of experiences are amazing to consider because, for them, the “concert behavioral rules” I poke fun at don’t matter to them at all. For them it’s all about the individual experience. They’re focusing on what it means to them in the moment. And what that really says to me is that, like all live music fans, it’s not about making the mistakes as much as it’s about enjoying and being able to laugh at yourself.
What single piece of technology would you say has changed live concert experience the last 20 years?
I’d have to say the cellphone. Because it’s made everyone a bootlegger and a YouTubestar, and it’s become the new lighter and last few years. A lot of the younger crowd is not aware of key role the lighter used to play in shows when bands play used to play their power ballads. The concept of the bootlegger actually being accepted by bands because it helps their sales is surprising to me. The cellphone has certainly revolutionized concert culture the most from the fan perspective.
You depict the crafty characters of concert culture like Old School/ New School Scalper and the Un-authorized T-Shirt Guy. Do you have any concert tricks of your own to share?
Sure, I can share one. Over the years, ticket prices have gone up and fragmented, separating fans into different areas and based on ticket price. So in order to move around to different seats I’ve developed a plan. My wife and I sometimes bring old Ticketfast tickets from previous shows and flash them to ushers to get into the closer seats. You really have to get to know the ushers to pull off those types of tricks, though. Before you do this, you also want to make sure that you do your scouting. Because you don’t want to do it too early in the show.
Funny stuff [chuckles]. You mentioned that the book unexpectedly turned out as a guidebook for new or the next generation of concertgoers. Did you have the younger generation in mind when you were thinking about some of the experiences you recall in the character descriptions and funny anecdotes?
I wasn’t thinking of the younger generation necessarily when I was writing it, but it did eventually turn out to be a “guidebook.” We were really trying to hit a wide group of people with the book. Which is really something hard to do because music, especially concerts, has such a wide demographic; and there are so many different music types of live music experiences to speak to.
I always wonder if fans who love a certain genre don’t go to live shows because they feel like they won’t fit in with the music, even though they love the music.
You’ve been to so many different types of shows over the years. Did you ever feel like an outsider at a concert?
As a teenager I was a big 80’s metal fan. I had friends who had the long flowing rocker hair. I‘d be tugging and toiling at the back of my hair trying to get it to look that way but I never could. I’d be at those metal shows thinking, ‘I don’t look like a rocker or dress like one, what am I doing here? I can’t pump my fist in the air because I don’t have that look.’ I was killing for that look. But I never could get that look. And when I go to the classic rock shows today I fit right in[chuckles]. But when I go to shows like Modest Mouse or Interpol I do feel a little out of place.
What would you tell your daughter about live concerts when she gets to be that age?
It would be funny to have her read the book before she goes to her first concert. I would tell her to do the opposite of what she thinks she should do. If she thinks she should yell out a song don’t do it [laughs]. I would just tell her to enjoy herself, too. Which is the goal of the book. I wanted all concertlovers to be able to laugh at ourselves at all the silly types of behaviors and social rules we’ve imposed on ourselves.
Most people believe the myth that the live concert experience is something you should stop doing when you reach a certain age. So much more goes on during a concert than we realize. When we think about the whole impact of concerts it can really teach us a lot about how our bodies and minds work; and how we relate to other people. What do you think about the emotional benefits of going to concerts for an entire lifetime?
Live music brings out so many emotions. I saw Bruce Springsteen in 1984 and it was one of the best shows I ever seen. He put on a four hour show; the emotions that went on in me during that show were some of the strongest I’ve ever experienced. Yes, it’s true, people go to concerts for all types of reasons. Some people go for the music experience and some just go for the communal experience of being with other people and some people go for both reasons. Some people get so connected to a crowd that it’s only during that live concert that they ever truly feel connected to a large group of people. And that might explain the whole theory behind the mosh pit or other unique concert behaviors.
With festival season underway, concert fans will be able to see many of No Air Guitar Allowed’s characters out and about this summer. Which ones should they keep an eye out for, or brief themselves on before they interact with them?
For starters, I would keep an eye out for the Margarita Whoo Crew, the Un-Authorize T-Shirt Guy, Chatty Cathies, The Fight Chick Girl, The Rock and Dialer and the “When-You-Gotta- Go-You-Gotta-Go-Girl; she likes to run into the men’s washroom while a guy watches on guard. I’d especially watch out for the Urinal High Fiver; he can be a fun-loving guy but equally dangerous [chuckles].
Check back on Live Fix for future guest posts and collaborations with Weinberger as we explore more of his concert culture characters.