Watching my mother watching music

Getting gifts for my mother was never easy — she was special, as I am, and she wasn’t always in intertwined ways. But when I saw that Tina Turner was performing on her birthday in 2008, I bought tickets as soon as they were available.

Growing up, there was a light hardcover of “I, Tina” above the fridge. My mom spoke of Tiiina as an old friend, someone she was getting into trouble with. If you’re alive and watching TV in the mid-’80s, the picture of Turner stomping ecstatically across the screen, his hair pointing at the moon, is indelible. Here was a woman responsible for her fate.

Because I got it quickly, our seats were in the middle of the second or third row. There’s just something going on at a concert, especially in the arena, when you’re seated at the front. The speakers generally make a booming sound in the middle and back of the room, but up close, you can actually hear what’s happening on stage, as well as what’s going on around you. Which is why I couldn’t hear the roar of the crowd for most of that night’s show, but I could hear my mom screaming loudly at the turner.

It was a raster approach to a viewing experience – a quasi-literal call and response. My mom wasn’t cold in any way. Turner shrieked, Mom. Turner sang with shaky love, and mom clenched her fist in approval. I can’t tell you exactly what the concert was like, because during those two hours, I felt like I was eavesdropping on private data.

More than anyone else, my mother – who passed away late last year – gave me music. It gave me the idea that there is freedom, or identity, to be found within. My mother grew up in an unkind home, and from a young age she searched for any safe place available to her. Often that meant music, which would become a constant in my young life: a WBLS or Z100 in the car, Whitney Houston or Andreas Volllenweider or the Bee Gees in the house.

At the time of Turner’s party, I had been writing about music for over a decade, and had been regularly reviewing shows at The Times for a few months. Those nights outside were alternately restless and dreary, always testing a little. You have become a professional observer.

Which I’ve always been, in fairness, since my first proper concert I attended: Ryuichi Sakamoto at the Beacon Theatre. This was in 1988, shortly before my parents divorced. My mother gave birth to me at a very young age, and for most of my childhood up to that point, I was mostly a stay-at-home dad. But she has recently started working, and has achieved success in Manhattan. Our lives were changing, subtly in the moment.

I don’t remember much about that night apart from needing to get dressed – it was a long way from Sheepshead Bay outside Brooklyn to the Upper West Side. Bacon’s theater audience was disciplined. This was the most reserved thing my mom ever saw at a concert.

But the elegant, cosmopolitan character of performance reflects a future she had envisioned and wanted to achieve. She was also showing a range of imagination to me that was much wider than that which she had been given as a child. After the show, my mother, my grandmother, and my grandmother waited at the exit door of the theater to catch a glimpse of Sakamoto as he was leaving—for months and years until, my mother insisted he arrived through the crowd, he looked me in the eye and shook my hand.

She had a way with the narration – she was the main character long before the main character’s energy became a thing. And she wanted it for me even if I’ve always been naturally a little reserved. As a Mama’s boy who studied and practiced, I learned to navigate the world by bending over her shape, the brave, eager mother’s son.

Everyone was playing their part when, two years after Sakamoto’s show, I urged her to take me to watch the Club MTV tour of the Jones Beach Amphitheater. The lineup was chosen, frankly: Bell Biv DeVoe, C + C Music Factory, Gerardo. Top NRG.

I was still learning how to navigate those spaces, trying to figure out how to loudly proclaim my enthusiasm in public. So even though I knew every word of every song for every performer, I mostly sat down.

My mom, though, was as prolific as she was on The Turner Show. Like any sullen teen, I was embarrassed—but I also was learning firsthand that it’s safe to be yourself, even as Bell Biv DeVoe was aesthetically attacking the stage during “Do Me!”

She was giving me a blueprint to feel free, though so far I feel more energetic at concerts on the inside than on the outside. This is probably part of my original story as a critic – watching the show, watching my mother watching the show, watching others watch my mother watching the show. It’s all part of the experience.

by the time From The Turner Show, my mom has been living with lung cancer for about three years. She was diagnosed, miraculously, on examination after a car accident. The years that followed were horrific and unpredictable.

Nothing will strip your lacquer quite like watching someone you love wither. It made me momentary, as if any wrong move on my part might put her in danger. When she told me, in 2017, that she wanted to see Aretha Franklin perform, all I could think of were commitments — what if the show was delayed? What if Mom starts to feel weak while performing? What if Franklin looks… sick? Will it be too much to bear?

Over the years, as a critic, I’ve had to watch several concerts late in my career for former Titans—it can be bleak. It was part of my reluctance, too, that the effort I knew my mother would make in going to the show would somehow not be repaid. I wanted to protect her and me too.

As anyone who’s seen Franklin’s performance knows, you really don’t have to worry. She was a little weak, but strong and stubborn, perhaps motivated by the insistence of someone who was not in good health. (Franklin died the following year, and it ended up being one of her last shows.)

There were long periods of time during my mother’s illness when I felt I had nothing to give him, and that anything I did would be beneficial. In the face of the size and grace of a foxy Cancer, you can’t help but feel inadequate.

This, however, you were right. As in all other shows, I watched my mother watch the stage. All night long, she radiated hope. Franklin was in poor health, but my mother saw none of that. Or maybe she saw it, but not just how you saw it. To her, Franklin was invincible. Beacon of endurance.

The days immediately following the show were tough – for me. I freaked out that I couldn’t give her that feeling every day. My mother, on the other hand, has been talking about it for weeks. About how Franklin led the band. About the way she brought her bag on stage and someone ran after her when the show ended. about her fur coat. In every novel, Franklin was alive, and so was she.

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