Dancing with Myself: Dan Williamson On Watching Music Idols Age, Relive Former Glory

For a lifelong concertgoer, aging gracefully is not an option.

Dan Williamson
Forever Young: From left, Daryl Hall of Hall & Oates; Billy Idol; Perry Farrell of Jane's Addiction; Adam Ant; Axl Rose of Guns N' Roses

One of my first rock and roll concerts was Billy Idol in 1987. He played the Ohio Center, which has since been encased in the Greater Columbus Convention Center. I snuck out of school to buy tickets for a handful of friends and my younger sister on the day they went on sale and got great seats. Before the show, we all donned black eyeliner, dressed in our best British New Wave attire and drove into Columbus from Granville. The Cult played a strong opening set before Idol kicked his off with “Dancing with Myself.” It was one hell of a show.

Billy Idol hasn’t had a hit in 30 years and is remembered as a somewhat cartoonish relic of the MTV era. But this past summer, I came across a list of upcoming local concerts and was surprised to see he would be making a return to Ohio. At the dinner table, I offhandedly mentioned it to my wife, quietly hoping she’d express interest in going. She didn’t, but my teenage son, Riley, briefly looked up from his smartphone. “Billy Idol—‘Dancing with Myself,’” he declared, as if answering a trivia question. “Can we go?”

The show was in early August at the Rose Music Center in Huber Heights, an hour’s drive along I-70 west of Downtown. The crowd was, well, rough. No one had dressed in their best British New Wave attire. Some of them clearly had gotten out of the house for the first time since the beginning of the pandemic; others seemed to have been cooped up since that show at the Ohio Center in 1987. But what they lacked in decorum and sobriety, they made up for in enthusiasm, greeting Billy like a conquering hero when he took the stage.

Related:A guide to proof-of-vaccine requirements for Columbus’ music venues

Billy soaked it all up without a trace of irony or self-awareness. He snarled, thrust his fist in the air and threw his shirt into the crowd as if he were a young man at his professional peak. At first I was kind of embarrassed for my intoxicated fellow Gen Xers, for Billy and for myself. My own kid was seeing us all for who we really are. How would he take me seriously the next time I told him to unload the dishwasher? Eventually I allowed myself to just enjoy the music. These weren’t the greatest songs ever written, but they were the ones I grew up with. As for Riley, he didn’t seem to think any less of me after the concert. “That was a lot better than that Bob Dylan show you dragged me to,” he said.

In mid-October I was chatting to a fellow dad at our kids’ soccer game. He was talking about going to the Newport later that week to see Lucy Dacus, a 26-year-old singer I’d never heard of. “I refuse to see geezer shows,” he told me. “Rock and roll is a young person’s game.”

From Columbus Alive:Lucy Dacus gets up close and personal at the Newport

It once was. But what about now, when so many of the rock and rollers are old? When Mick Jagger was 31, he famously said, “I’d rather be dead than singing ‘Satisfaction’ when I’m 45.” Now he and the Stones are on tour again, singing it at 78.

Not everyone approves. “There’s nothing more pathetic than these old guys going out on tour,” another friend told me over the summer. “Imagine how sad it would be if, say, Robert Smith put on his hair dye and lipstick and brought the Cure back on tour. Nobody wants to see that.” But I do—and I would. For me, the opportunity to see a washed-up rocker has grown from a mild curiosity into more of a quest. I used to wonder how Elvis Presley’s early fans could stand to watch him as he deteriorated in the 1970s. Now I kind of get it. If their King was going to keep trotting himself out, even with a puffy face and a failing voice, who were they to turn their backs on him?

Elvis Presley performs in Providence, R.I. on May 23, 1977.

In 2013, I went to see Adam Ant at Express Live. Ant was no Elvis. He wasn’t even Billy Idol. But when I was 14, my older brother had one of his records, which he never let me borrow. I would sneak into his room to find it, but he would go to great lengths to hide it under a stack of clothes or on top of his bookshelf. Now, all these years later, Ant had left the British Isles to visit my hometown. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity.

A notably handsome man in his day, Ant looked different than I remembered him from the picture on my brother’s record sleeve. He was now paunchy, wearing a thin moustache and an enormous feathered chapeau. He played all the songs I remembered from my childhood, but rearranged them so that they were largely unrecognizable. But it was Adam Ant. I snapped a picture and triumphantly texted it to my brother.

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Since then, I’ve spent my hard-earned money on tickets to Echo & the Bunnymen, Joe Jackson, the Pixies, Jane’s Addiction, Hall & Oates and U2—all long in the tooth and decades past their prime. Some of these shows were better than others, but not one was a complete disappointment. Except, of course, the scheduled Replacements reunion in 2015 that was heartbreakingly cancelled when the singer fell ill two days before the concert. This was a guy who regularly took the stage in the 1980s fully poisoned with drugs and alcohol; how sick could he have been?

I’ve seen some contemporary artists as well, and those have been much more of a mixed bag. For example, when I saw St. Vincent at Express Live, it was just the singer playing her guitar over her prerecorded songs. This seems to be a growing and disturbing trend I’ve noticed among younger artists who perhaps have realized it’s cheaper to travel with a partial band, or in some cases, no instruments at all. For example, when Kanye West came to the Schottenstein Center a few years back, there was just a hooded figure on a darkened stage barely bothering to rap over his music. The younger fans loved it, but I felt cheated. As we filed out of the arena my friend remarked, “As far as we know, that was Shia LaBeouf.”

These experiences have made me wary, perhaps unreasonably so, of modern live music. I love Billie Eilish, but would she be any good live? Would she have an actual band? Or would it just be her weird brother standing at a keyboard?

But if I’m honest, there’s another reason I’m not sure I want to shell out for Billie Eilish tickets. I felt old at the Kanye show, and I was in my mid-40s then. As I settle into my 50s, I risk making the unfortunate transition from young at heart to sorta creepy. This is not an issue at my “geezer shows,” as my soccer dad friend calls them. I may not have been the youngest person at the Rose Music Center back in August, but I know I was younger than the one onstage.

Riley joined me again in September for the Guns N’ Roses concert at the Schottenstein Center. He only knew three of the band’s songs, but concluded the opportunity to hear those three songs was well worth the obscene ticket price, especially since he wasn’t the one paying it. The years have not been kind to Axl Rose, who now looks a lot like the late comedian Sam Kinison. That high-pitched throaty scream that Axl could pull off better than anybody in the late 1980s now sounds like a barnyard animal has been violated. By contrast, Slash hasn’t aged a day.

Guns N’ Roses played for almost 3 and a half hours, which is impressive for men in their late 50s, but far too long for a band with only one really good album in their catalogue. Especially on a school night. There were too many classic rock covers, prolonged guitar solos and throwaway tracks. But somewhere in the middle of the marathon, they hit their stride and put together about an hour’s worth of a great concert. When Slash played the opening chords to “Sweet Child O’ Mine,” with my son grinning next to me, it was perfection.

We stayed through the bitter end, a decision we lamented as we trudged, exhausted, toward the car for the drive home. If we’d left an hour earlier after they played “Patience,” Riley and I agreed we wouldn’t have missed much. “Dad,” Riley told me through a yawn, “I think I’m concert-ed out for a while.” Not me. I have tickets to see Dinosaur Jr., another ’80s band, at the Columbus Athenaeum. It was supposed to be back in September, but they postponed it when there was a spike in COVID cases. By the time they finally take the stage in Columbus, the three members of the band will be a combined 169 years old. It’s going to be one hell of a show.

This story is from the December 2021 issue of Columbus Monthly.