Music To My Ears (Part 3) — The Worst Pop-Rock Shows I’ve Ever Seen
Writer’s Note: This is the conclusion of a three-part series. What follows are the two WORST pop-rock performances I have ever seen.
SECOND WORST ROCK PERFORMANCE OF ALL-TIME — BOB DYLAN AT PLANET HOLLYWOOD IN LAS VEGAS — 2006:
It’s hard to believe, but Bob Dylan actually won a Grammy for “Album of the Year” for the rubbish that was piled onto the stage during the first and only time I ever saw him perform live in concert.
He was FUCKING AWFUL.
For the 90 or so minutes I had the misfortune of being in his presence, Dylan was disinterested. Disconnected. Arrogant. Thoroughly unprofessional in every sense. There is not one positive thing I can say about this dismal experience, except seeing the EXIT sign on my way out. That’s right. I walked out. It was a maddening waste of time and money.
The venue was Planet Hollywood in Las Vegas — an almost-perfect arena to see one of America’s last true musical icons.
Mike Paulle (the great poker writer) got us two premium seats in advance. Right before the lights when down and the show was to begin, Mike leaned over to me and revealed how special this moment was in his life — that he just wanted to be there as if completing some kind of pilgrimage. Mike was there to pray to the Zimmerman god, raise his hands high into the air, and say “thank you” to the great Dylan for all the magical music that had been given to him, his generation, and the world over five decades.
Indeed. This wasn’t so much a rock concert as it was a pagen moment of worship.
As things turned out, we ultimately discovered that we’d been worshiping a false god all along.
I’ve never been an actual Dylan devotee. Maybe he was just a little too before my time. My favorite Dylan album is EMPIRE BURLESQUE (1983) — which I rate as a masterpiece. I recognize and appreciate his monumental influence on our culture which all began on the folk music scene during the early 1960s. Like my colleague, Mike — I looked forward to this show with great anticipation. I mean, this was on the same level as seeing Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Ray Charles, or The Beatles — which is sadly no longer possible since they’re all long fone. So, Dylan became the last volcanic island of greatness swarmed by a rising sea that has engulfed so many other legends.
So, the lights go down. Arena is about two-thirds full. We are perhaps 60 feet away from the stage, dead center. PERFECT SEATS.
As the curtain slowly rises, Dylan and his band, consisting of perhaps 8 or 9 bodies, appear onstage before our eyes. The band is all dressed the same, in matching grey sharkskin suits.
Three of the musicians are standing off to the left, playing what appears to be keyboards, piano, and assorted percussions. Then, three guitarists are lined up in the center, facing the audience. There’s another performer or two on the right, and the drummer is positioned in the rear.
The lighting is beyond annoying. Imagine those halogen lamps you might buy at the Home Depot, used to rig up lighting at a crime scene. Then, imagine dozens of those lights pointed towards the audience, like a deer caught in headlights. Then, add in some fog machines making grey smoke. That was the visual experience of seeing Bob Dylan for the first time. Like I said — a crime scene.
I sat there in stunned silence listening to the half-assed rendition of a song I’ve never heard before, played without enthusiam or passion. The song lingered on for perhaps five minutes and then ended abruptly.
The Audience cheered, more so for the fact the shitty song was over.
The next song begins. We’re watching the band perform yet another song which seems to be a complete mystery. About halfway through this unknown song, my eyes are fixed on one of the keyboardists, who is wearing an odd-shaped cowboy hat, like the type Bob Dylan often wears. However, I gradually come to realize — THAT’S NOT BOB DYLAN!
My eyes darted over to one of the guitarists. Was that Dylan? Or was it the one next time him? But none of the guitarists seemed to be quite the configuration of Dylan. Again, the lighting was SO BAD and SO BLINDING, you couldn’t make out the performers. We are now about ten minutes into the show.
The second song ended. At this point, I expected that Dylan might step forward and identify himself, approach the microphone and — I don’t know — maybe say a few fucking words to people who paid $120 a pop to see him. Would that be too much to ask?
Another song. The mystery intensified.
People, I am NOT making this up.
I’m not sure when I finally broke, but I couldn’t take it anymore. I leaned over to Mike Paulle and asked, “So, which one is Dylan???”
“Fuck if I know!!!” was Paulle’s reply.
So, I wasn’t alone. Can you actually believe we got to the FIFTH SONG before that lame-ass overrated shell of a man finally stepped to one of the mikes and identified himself? I don’t remember exactly what he said. But someone who sounded a lot like Dylan was in front of a microphone and mumbled a few words that no one could understand — SO IT MUST HAVE BEEN BOB DYLAN!
Mind you, this was not a prank or a goof on the audience. It was shoddy lighting and an utterly disinterested burnout with the personality of a doorstop simply going through the motions with all the passion of a factory worker.
It might have been the sixth song, or perhaps the seventh. I don’t remember exactly since I had given up all hope and was so angry by this time. Finally, Dylan played a song or two that was mildly entertaining. But by that time, he had completely LOST his audience.
I looked around. People were starting to head for the exits. People were actually WALKING OUT OF A BOB DYLAN CONCERT. Not a trickle. More like a stream.
Mike Paulle couldn’t take it anymore. He stood up and announced he was going to try and move closer to the stage in a desperate attempt to somehow salvage some kind of enjoyment out of this travesty. It was so sad seeing Mike crushed like that, witnessing an illusion exposed. I know how much he expected from this show, and when Dylan not only failed to deliver but didn’t even give the audience one single ounce of himself, Mike was as digusted as I was.
Dylan played some other mundane shit and the show droned on for another half hour. Clearly, this show was not going to get better. If anything, it was getting WORSE.
I removed myself from center aisle and went back to the last few rows on the lower level, which were completely empty. I propped my feet up on the row of chairs in front of me. I looked over and saw one “fan” sleeping. At least, he got SOMETHING out of the show. Smartest guy in the house.
After about an hour and a half during which Dylan bored this shit out of his audience and barely spoke 20 words to the crowd during the entire time, I finally said FUCK HIM and stormed out.
That night, I was still so furious that I couldn’t sleep. Fortunately, I didn’t have any Dylan material in my house, or there might have been a bonfire.
The next day, I wondered what had happened to my loyal colleague Mike Paulle who I assumed had stuck out the misery. So, I called Mike and asked him how the rest of the show went.
“I walked out,” was Mike’s reply. “I couldn’t take it anymore.”
Think of this — two people who were fans of his music, one of which was a huge devotee. Both coming to the same decision independently, that Bob Dylan wasn’t worth our time.
In the many years I have seen and heard interviews with Dylan, I always sensed that — behind the idolotry — he was a real prick. An utterly disinterested alien from another age who disrespects his audience and couldn’t care less who likes him and who doesn’t.
Yes, there is someting to be said for counterculture and rebellion. But Bob Dylan hardly seems to deserve the mantel or the intense devotion so many have bestowed upon him. It’s time we rip off the golden fleece, expose the reality of the myth of Oz, and remind ourselves that all we are led to believe is not necessarily true when it comes to those who deserve our utmost devotion.
WORST POP/ROCK PERFORMANCE OF ALL TIME — SEX PISTOLS AT THE LONGHORN BALLROOM IN DALLAS — 1978:
When I saw the Sex Pistols perform live in Dallas back in 1978, I had no idea I’d be a witness to one of the iconic moments in rock and counterculture history.
The oddest of shows took place at arguably the most unusual venue imaginable for an English punk rock band engaging on its first-ever American tour. There were about 2,000 of us there that night. I was in high school at the time, and one of my friend’s mothers took us to the show. Can you imagine that? The performance was a complete sell out, which meant no one else could get in. We didn’t have tickets. So, along with a few dozen other brave souls (including the mom), we crashed in the back door where deliveries arrived. Bottom line was, we got to see the show for free. It saved us $3, which was the ticket price.
First, some background.
If you were a teenager during the late 1970s, this was the era when heavy metal ruled the universe. I was much more of a rocker than a metal-head. Nobody was much into punk back in those days, at least not yet. In fact, young people were divided into two camps. Half were into disco. The other half were rockers. There was NO crossover between the two. None whatsoever.
At the time, Dallas had two enormously popular rock stations — KZEW-98 and Q-102, which were both album-rock oriented. The stations were locked in a death match for ratings and so they tended to showcase the latest songs and new bands. If a new act was about to hit the city, before anywhere else you’d hear about it on the radio. This was before the Internet. The radio was like a lifeline. Well, one of the stations started promoting a new punk band no one had ever heard of before. They were called the “Sex Pistols.”
Wow. What a name. You had to love THAT NAME.
When we first heard about the Pistols, I think most of us expected a reincarnation of The Clash, which was probably the best-known punk band to American audiences back then. I forgot how three of us teens managed to talk our parents into attending the show — on a school night, no less. I don’t think they asked us the NAME of the band. That might have been a disqualifier. Either that, or we all had really cool parents.
So, the Sex Pistols were to play at what has to be considered the most bizarre location in history for a punk band. The name of the place was “The Longhorn Ballroom.” Picture this: It was EXACTLY what it sounds like. The Longhorn Ballroom was little more than a giant dance hall with very little seating. There was a massive wooden floor and a cramped stage. Naturally, there were bars everywhere. It was more of a nightclub than a concert venue.
The Longhorn Ballroom was located next to the old Dallas Sportatorium, which was a huge sheet-metal building wrapped in chain link wire that used to host wrestling matches. From the outside, it looked more like a prison. Then, there was a string of liquor stores and porno shops around, on what was called South Industrial Blvd. The Longhorn Ballroom stood in the shadows of the tall glass and steel towers of Downtown Dallas, near the Trinity River. It was a time-warp and a throwback to a time that barely existed anymore. It was also about as univiting and unglamorous a place as one could actually imagine. At one time during the early 1960s, The Longhorn Ballroom was owned by Jack Ruby (yeah, THAT Jack Ruby — the underworld figure who gunned down Lee Harvey Oswald).
The Longhorn Ballroom was known for hosting country music acts. For that reason (little interest in country at the time), I was only there once — which was the night I saw the Sex Pistols. But it’s importnt to note that just about every country-western performer from the 1950s through the 1980s performed there at least a few times — including Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard. Even Elvis played several shows over at the Dallas Sportatorium If you want a surreal visual, check out a photo of the sign out in front of The Longhorn Ballroom (see above). “Merle Haggard” and “The Sex Pistols.” Tell me where else you would see anything like that? Not even in Las Vegas.
Indeed, this seemed like the LAST PLACE ON EARTH a group like the Sex Pistols would come and play (let alone be booked as an act) — which is EXACTLY why the band decided to pluck this pearl of a juke joint for a stop on their American tour. During that series of shows, the Pistols made an outlandish decision to avoid all the hip clubs that might welcome their kind, and instead visited dive bars and dangerous venues like The Longhorn Ballroom where they could essentially step out on stage and give the locals the extended equivalent of a screaming FUCK YOU.
But if the Pistols thought they would be playing in front of a gang of goat ropers and cowboys, they didn’t have a clue as to what Dallas really was really like and the intense rock scene that was ready to embrace them as revolutionary invaders. When the local rock stations started talking about the Sex Pistols coming to town, it became the misssion of anyone who was a rocker to GET TO THAT SHOW at all costs. The cheap $3 ticket price also ensured they would get a full house.
Fortunately, we lived on the south side of Dallas and The Longhorn Ballroom was not difficult to drive to.
And so finally, here’s my actual recollection of that show that happened almost 35 years ago.
Like I said, we couldn’t get tickets. But that wasn’t about to stop us. We entered through one of the back doors. There was absolutely no security at all. Looking back on it now, there’s something entirely appropriate about crashing a Sex Pistols concert.
The ballroom was so packed that no one could see a thing. Any fire marshall not on the take would have stopped the show, emptied the room, and written up thousands of dollars in fines. No way a show like this would have been held today. Everyone was standing — or I should say — flailing around wildly on the dance floor, with arms flying and heads banging in some crazed collective stuppor. It was like walking into an insane asylum.
The sound was deafening and maddening. It was like a garage band was asked to perform without warning in front of an audience for the first time. Imagine. A guitar player strumming perhaps three chords over and over. A drummer banging the skins like he’s possessed. And a crazed frontman seemingly making up indecipherable “lyrics” as the show progressed. It was like Janov’s primal therapy set to “music.” The amps and vocals were cranked up so loud no one could hear anything except feedback.
I think most people were there for the same reason we were — as a curiosity. We wanted to say we were THERE when something new and exciting happened for the first time.
But in the end, instead, it was almost like a bad joke had been played on all of us. Sort of like being pranked, as though the radio stations and promoters and a nightclub conspired with four complete morons totally void of any musical ability to try and see how many people could be FOOLED into this thinking this was an actual show.
Seriously, this was like “Pranked” or “Jackass.” Had it been a parody, ala “Spinal Tap,” it would have been pure genius. But this was no gag — this was meant to be a real show.
Lead singer Johnny Rotten was shirtless during much of the performance. Of course, at the time no one knew his name or who he was (in America). I don’t recall if bassist Sid Vicious had left or joined the group by that time. He’d be dead within a year. I guess their intent was to invade the American South, shock its audiences, and create a national sensation.
But from the moment I walked in, they were a complete bore. They were nothing more than a few heroin addicts who lacked any musical ability whatsoever, and by design went to extremes in order to gain attention fpr themselves and inexplicably be grouped into some avant-garde counterculture, in the process earning enough money to get them to the next fix. Imagine being subjected to four wailing Yoko Onos. THAT was the show.
The Sex Pistols were beyond repulsive, which actually might have been worked had they even managed to hit that low mark — sort of mimicking the late Andy Kaufman performing one of his bizarre rituals or Rosanne Barr singing the National Anthem and getting booed off the field. It COULD HAVE BEEN an act that was so bad, it might have actually been GOOD.
Much worse than being repulsive however, the Sex Pistols commited the worst crime for any performer. They were dull. They had absolutely nothing to say. Once the “shock” of hearing a few songs quickly dissippated, they pretty much resembled a discarded condom tossed into a back alley. A profane, messy, and utterly useless waste of energy and effort — just as quickly forgotten once the dirty deed was done and the act of perversion was completed.
Alas, unless the obective is to punish the listener in an evil Abu Grahib sort of way, it would be impossible to imagine a show worse than the Sex Pistols. Ever. Anywhere.
Utterly. Fucking. Awful.
Final Note: I’ve never seen Britney Spears, Justin Bieber, or Jennifer Lopez in concert. I expect they might actually be WORSE.