Chasing down a memory can lead to delightful places. I was thinking about the first concert I ever attended, Foreigner, and how I managed to get there. A new family had arrived at our church from California and had a friend in tow we’ll call Ron. No one ever quite got the story of how Ron had attached himself for the journey or how old he was or what he did exactly. But we all knew he was cool; big and handsome, with that laid-back Cali vibe. Since he didn’t have to prove anything, he treated everyone as equals, and his manners wowed the adults.

Everyone at my high school played Foreigner 4 constantly. Followed the next year by Def Leppard’s Pyromania (both of those albums produced by Mutt Lange1) and then wrapping up with Journey’s Frontiers. The soundtrack of our lives.

I was all about “Urgent” on that album, a song which featured a big sax solo instead of a guitar jam. Sax made a comeback during the 80s, with bands like Quaterflash using it the way proto-rock bands had decades before. The sax player used to get all the women, while the guitar just formed part of the rhythm section. The fabulous Louis Jordan fronted his band with a sax, and “Rocket 88,” considered by many people to be the first rock-n-roll single, featured a sax lead.

I always thought the sax solo on “Urgent” was great but only learned recently that one of the reasons why had to do with Foreigner losing nearly all their members except Lou Gramm and Mick Jones before they recorded 4. Needing help in the studio, they hired Junior Walker to play sax2. They also hired a young keyboard player named Thomas Dolby who became an underground music hero, recorded “She Blinded Me with Science,” and has long served as the music director for TED Conferences.

Ron liked older Foreigner, especially the song “Headknocker;” I’m fairly convinced that song served as his creed. When I gushingly expressed how much I wanted to go to that concert, Ron came over to my house and assured my father he would look out for me. Done. It was good to be the Ron, know the Ron, hover in proximity to the Ron.

When we arrived at Henry Levitt Arena in Wichita, the line snaking around the block looked like every person I had been taught to avoid had gathered in one spot. So many three-quarter sleeve T-shirts. Molly Hatchet3. AC/DC. Judas Priest. I would have held Ron’s hand if offered. Why did everyone have two liters of Coke? Ron explained they drank some of the soda and then topped them off with Jack Daniels or rum. Much vomiting and passing out occurred before we got inside.

The opening act was some kid with acne named Bryan Adams. Had we only known. I would  have no interest in seeing Foreigner now as nostalgia acts make me blue. But that night, at the peak of their abilities, I would like to say Foreigner made me understand that line of kids for the first time, how they had an opportunity for a brief moment to feel part of something bigger than their grinding existence and the culture that repeatedly told them their music and their lives would amount to nothing. I had no capacity to fathom such depths then, however; all I felt was very, very happy. Especially when they blew up the giant, inflatable jukebox at the end of “Jukebox Hero.”

I felt bad for Ron because “Headknocker” didn’t appear to have made the set list, but then out it came during the encore. Ron talked about it all the way home. Had to be the James Dean reference in the song I decided later.

Oddly, that first show was also the last secular concert I would attend for years and years. The next fall, convicted about the corrupting influences of pop and rock music I heard about church, I would stop listening to the radio and sell all my cassettes. Even Foreigner. I would attend many concerts featuring Contemporary Christian Music, or as I came to think of of it, Secular Lite, but none of them every approached the excitement of that night with Foreigner.

Now that music, especially live music, occupies so much of what makes my life a pleasure, that long void seems like a form of amnesia. I kept hearing a distant sound, unable to recognize its shape. It was the wail of a sax calling me home.

  1. When you wish to rock in a certain manner, Mutt Lange is your man. He has produced AC/DC, The Cars, Bryan Adams, and Maroon 5 among others. His marriage to Shania Twain led him to slowing down Def Leppard’s sound and conquering country music as well.
  2. You know Junior Walker even if you think you don’t know Junior Walker. He recorded “Shotgun” with his All Stars and played on countless soundtracks and albums. If you still don’t know who Junior Walker is, you need to rethink your life choices.
  3. My friend that attended the Molly Hatchet concert claimed a guy took a header out of the balcony because he believed he could fly. I also assume he thought of himself as a Golden God

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