Did you ever camp out overnight for tickets? I did it once. 1989. Public Enemy was coming to town.
I’ll never forget the first time I heard Public Enemy. It was probably the most powerful experience with music I’ve ever had. God, I’d love to feel that way again. The first song I heard was “Public Enemy No. 1”. It totally melted my brain. To that point, most hip hop songs were funky. This thing wasn’t funky. It wasn’t even musical! It sounded like a military march for a squad of evil robots. Right after hearing “Public Enemy No. 1”, I heard a song called “M.P.E.”, which blew my mind even more. It had the slowest tempo of any hip hop song I had ever heard. There’s almost nothing to it - just a brutal, slow-ass drum beat being sawed in half by a terrifying industrial drone. I might be the most un-danceable song in history.
Public Enemy’s music made my brain work. It was so challenging. I needed that. It moved me. It pumped me up. It confused me. It was hard to understand, which is why I liked it. I was their biggest fan in the world. So when I heard they were coming to town, I almost went into a panic attack with the excitement. Nothing was going to stop me from being there. And nothing was going to stop me from being first in line for tickets.
I was just a kid, but the night before tickets went on sale, I somehow talked my mother into letting me camp out in the dark, concrete wasteland of the parking lot of a sports complex in a city that was pretty rugged at the time (Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, known colloquially as ‘the dark side’). When I showed up with my snacks, walkman and blanket, I was relieved to be the first to arrive. I got set up and made myself as comfortable as possible. It was 10 p.m.
When the clock struck midnight, I was still the only person there. I had a few encounters with vagabonds and crack zombies, but no Public Enemy fans. Through the wee hours, I wiled the time away listening to tapes and having incredibly awkward conversations with prostitutes (I didn’t know they were prostitutes at the time). I taught them everything they needed to know about Public Enemy.
I started feeling pretty stupid when the sky started getting light again and I was still the only person there. I honestly expected to be the first in line in front of thousands of Public Enemy fans. I was starting to wonder if I was there on the wrong day when at dawn, another guy finally showed up. He couldn’t believe I was there before him.
“How long have you been here?!”
“Oh, just a few minutes,” I lied, garbage from eight hours-worth of snacks strewn in a perimeter around me.
“My name is Jay.”
For the next few hours until the box office opened, Jay and I were the only guys there. We talked about music the whole time. We were the two biggest nerds on earth.
A warm joy ached behind my solar plexus when I finally held my ticket in my hand. I couldn’t stop staring at the name printed across its face: PUBLIC ENEMY. When I stopped marvelling over the truth that it was actually happening, I searched the ticket for my seat number. I looked for something like: row 1, seat one. I found no such thing. Only the words: general admission.
“What does ‘general admission’ mean?” I asked the ticket lady?
“It means there’s no seats. Everyone just stands wherever they want.”
My heart sank. All those hours in the cold and dark with the junkies and weirdos. I felt like such a boob. And when the show happened a few weeks later, it was kind of letdown. The show was very poorly attended. Public Enemy arrived very, very late. There was no elaborate stage design like I’d seen in photographs. There were no props or military uniforms - they were all dressed in regular street clothes. Flavor Flav wasn’t even wearing a clock! The whole thing seemed a bit half-assed.
Don’t get me wrong. It was great to see Public Enemy up close and at the peak of their powers. And they announced they’d make it up to us (the audience) for waiting around by playing a brand new song for the first time. And then they played “Welcome to the Terrordome”. But the best thing about the whole experience was that I made a new friend. Jay and I stayed close and traded tapes for years after that. I still hear from him once in a while. Jay’s a great guy.
Jay States! If you’re out there, holler!