I went to a Dave Matthews Band concert last night.
It was a completely unexpected miracle. I knew they were coming to Austin, but missing the local DMB concert was nothing new to me. In the eight years that I have been a fan of the Dave Matthews Band, I have been either depressed, broke, or both; and neither of these qualities, especially in combination, is particularly effective in getting you to concerts.
So I had settled for a comfortable Tuesday night at home. And as I was wrapping up the one-drink, two-Daily-Show combination I had decided on for my evening entertainment, I got a text from my friend Rick, a text with the rather mysterious opening line, “I have a stupid question….” I was exhausted, and worn down from a difficult conversation I’d just had; but even in my semi-lucid state, the line “extra ticket to a certain postponed concert” made my heart stop. A little Googling quickly informed me that the Dave Matthews concert, planned for that evening, had been postponed to the following day due to severe weather warnings. And Rick’s friend? date? friend-date? could no longer attend.
Less than 24 hours later, I was there when the lights went on.
While I’d known vaguely who they were throughout high school, I truly discovered the Dave Matthews Band – like most people, through a friend – towards the end of senior year. “The Dreaming Tree” was the first Dave song I ever really sat down and listened to. I remember that moment exactly – me, splayed across the bed in my parents’ office, with Pat, my Dave gateway, sitting in the chair at the computer where he’d just queued up “Before These Crowded Streets,” both of us sitting quietly, taking in the 7/8 time signature and the tragic, lyrical story floating out of the song. In 3D and full color, it’s a vivid memory, along with many other memories I made over that spring and summer, as my life suddenly took a left turn out of the mundane and into the tragic. Within a few months of that night – just before my high school graduation – my close friend Arthur died of injuries sustained in a car crash of his own making.
The moments surrounding a loved one’s death that will eventually become the moments you remember years later are not logical. They don’t always make sense. Anyone who’s experienced sudden grief and loss can attest to this. You remember the strangest things, and forget the things you thought you would have remembered. I remember getting the news, of course, and the funeral. I remember joking with my friends that Arthur’s accident was nothing more than a drastic, last-ditch attempt to see us naked whenever he wanted. I remember cutting school to work on my graduation party invitations, a futile attempt to lose myself in a mindless task where my life without Arthur, and the deafening roar of grief inside me, did not exist. I remember crying, and anger. A lot of anger.
But I don’t remember much else. And mostly, I remember Dave.
The day after Arthur died, my friend Tyler met me at a coffee shop after I’d attempted to attend school and failed. He sat with me and listened to me say nothing and was a pillar of sanity in a moment where I thought I might be losing my mind. He walked me to my car, and as I was about to leave, he pressed something into my hand.
“This will help you,” he said, and left.
What he gave me turned out to be the DVD of The Central Park Concert, one of the bands’ most impressive and memorable evenings onstage. I spent the next four weeks falling asleep to it every night on the couch, suddenly unable to sleep in my bed for reasons known only to psychologists. When I wasn’t ghost-walking through what remained of my high school career, or listening to “Two Step” on repeat during aimless drives up and down the coast, I was lifelessly sacked on the couch, unable to do anything other than watch this show. I must have played it over fifty times. It became my lifeline. To this day, whenever I hear the interlude in “Jimi Thing” that opens the DVD menu, I flash back to waking up to Boyd’s grooving, indomitable fiddle every morning. “Crush” fills me with the same sense of relaxation and peace that I started to find while it played me through those long sleepless nights. And “Two Step”…
“Two Step” was the song that brought me to life again. It happened on yet another drive down the coast, when I was turning left onto Pacific Coast Highway and thinking about Arthur. And the second verse of the song came on, and all of a sudden I *got* it, I got how tiny and insignificant these pathetic human bodies are and how infinite and expanding and grand are the souls housed in them, and that “we might last a thousand years or more if not for this, our flesh and blood, [which] ties you and me right up.” And all of a sudden I realized that that’s all Arthur had done: he had given up the charade. Taken off the costume and assumed his true form and was now anywhere and everywhere at once, and I didn’t ever need to cry about it again but I could if I wanted to, so I pulled over and found a place on the beach underneath the stars to cry and laugh and cry some more, and feel my heart bursting out of my body in grief, in hope, in the sudden, irrefutable awareness of the incomprehensible oneness of all things.
At the end of the night I went home and slept in my bed for the first time in over a month. The healing – long though it would be – had begun.
Anybody who hasn’t done this – who hasn’t latched on to SOMETHING in the midst of anguishing grief, whether a video, an author, an activity, whatever – cannot really understand this. And if they’ve read this far, they might be thinking I might be a little high on the drama right now. And that’s fine. But those of you who have done this – you do understand. You do understand how deeply that thing – that which has become your lifeline – etches itself into your brain, your heart, and becomes irretrievably connected to the events it guided you through. And it does this for the rest of your life. My brain and heart, helped and aided and healed by the music of this band and this concert, have been permanently altered to remember this time in my life when they hear those songs. The Dave Matthews Band, whatever it might mean to other people, to me means healing. It means growing up. It marks the dividing of my life into a Before, and an After – a life irrevocably altered. And though I will miss him for the rest of my life, I can’t deny the enormous role Arthur’s death has played in that life. I can’t deny that in a very real way, my life began when his ended. Everything, everything in my life, changed when he died. And in addition to all the usual ways death impacts someone – appreciation of the little things, telling your friends you love them, the very real knowledge that your time on earth isn’t known or guaranteed – it took me years to realize that I was not diminished, but actually *expanded* by his passing. Because of Arthur, I would eventually learn that joy and pain are not separate things; you can only experience one to the extent that you have experienced the other. And the despair, pain and sorrow of losing him stretched my emotional boundaries, and would eventually, exponentially, expand my capacity for joy, love and happiness as well.
So needless to say, the concert was awesome.
They played almost everything I wanted to hear, and some great songs I’d never heard before, and the night was cool and the venue was perfect and even the crowd was hovering at a level of obnoxious well below the average reading of a typical DMB show.
(I will adore the band until I die, but the same cannot be said for most of its fans. Discounting you of course, dear reader.)
And I was fine. Really, I was. I was great. I was rockin’ out and lovin’ it and holding it together just fine, thank you.
And then came their encore:
The song that pulled me back from my life’s first abyss nearly eight years before.
And before I closed my eyes and lost myself in the music, I took a moment to notice the wave of emotions that filled me. There was nostalgia, of course, and remnants of grief. There was the sweet longing for an absent friend, a longing sweet precisely because it will never be fulfilled.
But mostly, there was awe. Awe for myself, awe for life, and awe for what I have been through while living it.
And then I danced.