A chronological (from 1970-2005) journal that is part travelogue, part music history, and part meditation on the evolution (if you can call it that) of our culture through the often-bloodshot eyes of one man.
The Decibel Diaries: A Journey Through Rock in 50 Concerts, by Carter Alan. University of New England Press, 320 pages, $19.95 (Paperback).
By Jason M. Rubin
Everyone remembers their first concert. Mine was the Beach Boys at Providence Civic Center in 1978. Carter Alan, legendary Boston radio jock (19 years at WBCN, currently at WZLX), remembers his, too: James Gang at Muhlenberg College Memorial Hall, Allentown, Pennsylvania, December 28, 1970. The difference is that I’ve probably seen a couple of hundred concerts since then and can probably remember a third of them. Alan has seen 3,200 and seemingly remembers them all.
Of those 3,200, he has selected 50 to write about in a chronological (from 1970-2005) journal that is part travelogue, part music history, and part meditation on the evolution (if you can call it that) of our culture through the often-bloodshot eyes of one man. Along with the requisite sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll, there is hitchhiking, jail, tear gas, tiny clubs and massive stadiums, gods and devils, punks and proggers, and, inevitably, “Free Bird.” It’s an exhilarating read, each concert prefaced by the artist’s history up to the time of the show, the author’s experience getting to it, and a summary review of the show itself. Alan’s own growth as a person, a fan, and an industry professional colors his commentaries as the decades pass by.
I was most interested in how he came to choose these 50 (only 1.56% of the total; yes, I did the math). “It was very difficult leaving out some shows,” he told me via an email interview, “but each story had to have some interesting episode driving it – almost a punch line, if you will. I wanted these to read like adventure stories. For instance, I left out a story about seeing the Jam in 1976 in Boston because I couldn’t associate an entertaining sidebar to their performance other than the fact they were very important to me growing to embrace punk rock. I had to tackle that evolution in the chapters on Talking Heads, Ramones, and the Cars.”
As for remembering the shows, he said that he had kept notes and journals of his musical adventures, and had also written reviews of many concerts he had attended. And then, of course, there is that endless treasure trove of facts known as the Internet. “Setlist.com was valuable to jog memories, but I never quoted from them unless my memory or another source corroborated the information,” he said. “Another valuable source of info was bootlegs and also you-tube [sic] clips of the actual shows.”
Many of the concerts in the book have some musical, historic, and/or cultural significance beyond his evaluation of the performance. For example, Carter was in the crowd for the Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young concert on August 9, 1974, when the band announced from the stage that Richard Nixon had resigned as President. Conveniently for them, they had the ultimate anti-Nixon song, “Ohio”, in their pocket for just such an occasion. He saw Fleetwood Mac in 1975, mere months after the group’s first album with Stevie Nicks and Lindsey Buckingham was released (humorously, he thought Stevie was the white guy with the afro and Lindsey was the hot chick); nearly 20 years later, he heard Nirvana a few months before Kurt Cobain put a bullet into his own head. He saw Mick Jagger ride a 10-foot fabric penis. In 1981 he took in Prince at Boston’s Metro nightclub — “Before the Purple Reign” in the words of the chapter title. He saw Live Aid at Wembley Stadium in England, and Roger Waters perform The Wall in Berlin.
How significant can an individual concert be? According to Alan, “Concerts are most important, I believe, in the ears and eyes of the beholder and how the shows effect them personally. But, an event like Live-Aid can certainly affect culture, at least temporarily. A ground-breaking tour, by say, David Bowie (such as the one I describe in the book – ‘Heroes’ in ‘78) can advance the progression of music – hastening it into a fresh arena and changing cultural taste. I’d say that most often, it involves many bands pulling in the same direction, but singular live moments can change the times – Woodstock, Altamont, Woodstock ’94, U2’s Zoo TV tour, CSNY (first stadium tour in 74 – sign of things to come).”
Of local interest, many of the concerts chronicled in the book took place in New England, some in venues that no longer exist (either lamentably, like the Rat in Boston, or mercifully, like the Manning Bowl in Lynn), and local heroes the Cars, J. Geils Band, and Aerosmith are included.
The book is structured in such a way that you can easily skip around to read about the bands or shows of greatest personal interest, but each chapter offers something to enjoy, especially for a live music fan. Essentially, it is a love letter to the communal spirit of being a member of an audience digging an artist making art in the moment. For however long the concert lasts (and with festivals and Bruce Springsteen that can be several hours), there is a feeling of connection with the people around you (which often dissipates as soon as the lights come back on and you actually get a good look at the people around you!).
My last question to Carter Alan was an obvious one, perhaps, but I had to ask it. Who haven’t you seen that you wish you had?
“I will always rue that I never saw Led Zeppelin, Hendrix or the Sex Pistols,” he wrote. “Wish I had seen Joe Cocker and I love Kate Bush and wish I could have seen her first shows since 1979 in London last year.”
Jason M. Rubin has been a professional writer for 31 years, the last 16 of which has been as senior writer at Libretto, a Boston-based strategic communications agency. An award-winning copywriter, he holds a BA in Journalism from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, maintains a blog called Dove Nested Towers, and for four years served as communications director and board member of AIGA Boston, the local chapter of the national association for graphic arts. His first novel, The Grave & The Gay, based on a 17th-century English folk ballad, was published in September 2012.