Time Passages, Part 2: Music City
Nashville, Tennessee – A concert, long forgotten, came to mind the other night as I witnessed another amazing show in the same location.
The forgotten show was on Labor Day 1973, outdoors on a muggy night at Vanderbilt’s football stadium. It featured a Legend on a downhill slide of a colorful and twisted career. That legend was Jerry Lee Lewis – “the Killer.”
Jerry Lee was one-fourth of the storied rockabilly Million Dollar Quartet at Sun Records in Memphis in the Fifties along with Elvis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash. His star flamed brightly across the sky with hit song after hit song, but his drinking, fighting, carousing and marriage to his 13-year-old cousin had just about flamed him out by 1973.
On that night, the stage on the 50-yard-line was simple, just a piano, a drum set, routine spotlights and a couple of microphones and amps for the two guitars.
Jerry Lee didn’t show up when it was his turn to perform, a frequent occurrence then for the Killer. Thirty minutes passed. Then an hour. No Jerry Lee. The small crowd grew restless, then surly.
As we all were all about to give up, Jerry Lee appeared, sporting a large bandage on his nose. He mumbled a hello into the microphone and then began pounding the piano and rocking the house down like the natural showman that he was.
According to the story, the delay was due to a fistfight between Jerry Lee and one of his musicians, resulting in a pre-show broken nose for the Killer. Despite the broken nose, the show went on. By the time he kicked the stool out from underneath the piano and went into his manic rendition of “Great Balls of Fire” and “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” Jerry Lee owned that place.
Jerry Lee later had a couple of country hits and was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986. Seventy-six years old, he still performs today.
Now, let’s fast forward 38 years to another hot summer night in Vanderbilt’s football stadium. On this night, it was U2, another member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame at the peak of its power, who owned the place.
The iconic Irish band took the stage for the 100th stop of its record-shattering 360 Degree world tour. The stage itself dwarfed the entire Vanderbilt stadium. Resembling a hovering alien spacecraft, standing more than 14 stories high and known as “The Claw,” it is the largest stage rig ever built for a concert tour. This leviathan covered 29,000 square feet – almost half of the football field. It included a sound and light system built into each of the four spider legs and an expandable and cylindrical video screen with more than a million pieces. Over 100 tractor-trailer trucks are required to transport it; dozens of them lined the side streets near the stadium ready for the 3-day load out.
The stadium was packed with 45,000 people, but it was still one of the smallest venues of the three-year tour, which has shattered all records by grossing almost three quarters of a billion dollars and selling more than 7 million tickets.
Even Music City had never seen anything like it. The massive circular screen, which expanded and contracted, allowed endless multimedia dimensions to the music. For example, “It’s a Beautiful Day” was introduced from the International Space Station by Astronaut Mark Kelly, who dedicated the song to his wife, injured Congresswoman Gabby Giffords.
But this is a music city, the Mother Church, filled with more stars, musicians, legends and ghosts than any other. Jerry Lee, Hank Williams, Johnny Cash and so many others had all come before U2.
The U2 show was a masterful concert by any measure, but it was clear that Bono and the band had a palpable sense of place – repeatedly paying homage to Nashville’s roots in their first concert there in 30 years. I sensed the ghosts of Music City stirring.
U2 must have felt them, too. At one point during the closing notes of “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” Bono leaned over to lead guitarist, The Edge, and whispered something into his ear. Edge smiled and then launched into “The Wanderer,” the song U2 recorded with the great Johnny Cash in 1993. Bono did a passable deep baritone imitation of Johnny’s lead vocals as U2 played that song for the first time ever in any concert.
Bono stands in no one’s shadow, but I sensed that for a moment, even Bono was conceding the spotlight — in this town, on this night — to the late Man in Black.
Hell, if it had been 15 years earlier, I think Johnny himself would have taken the stage with U2 under “The Claw.” Now, that’s a show I’d like to see.
(Photos courtesy Andrew Thompson and Jerryleelewis.com)