The Endless Dance: Spending My Birthday With Spandau Ballet
A woman checks my ID at ATL TSA and hands me my driver’s license. “Make it a good one,” she says. I walk to T Gates and fill my water bottle before boarding. In less than two hours, I’ll be in a taxi heading to my favorite museum, where Man Ray’s collages and Renoir’s “Luncheon of the Boating Party” await.
On the plane, my row mate is already feigning sleep, so I pull the plastic shade over the window to avoid the glare of the intense morning sun. When the seatbelt sign dings, I check my iPad to see if anyone else has responded to the invitation for tonight’s gathering. A few weeks ago, I got the hair-brained idea that I should invite my Facebook friends to meet me in Washington, D.C. to celebrate my birthday on a Tuesday, at a club, to see a band. Who would travel hundreds of miles to do that? I know it’s 100% unrealistic, but I’m a daydreamer whose M.O. is “go big or go home.” So, here I am. As I pull up the RSVP page on the screen at 25,000 feet, my relationships are reduced to boldfaced numbers on the analytics page of an online invitation site, where the birthday party data exposes realities about friendships in the digital age:
99 pages views, 8 responses, 1 attendee.
Sixty-five minutes pass and we are on the tarmac at DCA. The cab ride is short, and the blue skies are spread out before me like a blanket. It’s 63 degrees. I get out of the car at the corner and walk to the entrance of The Phillips Collection. I attach the metal “P” clip to my collar and head directly to the Rothko Room. I’m too excited to feel blue, so orange will have to do. Every museum needs a space like this: a place to pray, think, dream, rest or just stare at the canvas until your vision blurs. It’s more therapeutic than a spa, IMHO.
After touring the exhibitions, I go to the café and order tomato soup, a grilled cheese sandwich and a green tea. I take my tray to the tiny courtyard and find a spot not obscured by the shadows of buildings. I notice how much Embassy Row resembles Paris, France. There are the sloped slate and zinc roofs, the dormer windows and plenty of birds, including the finch sitting beside me on the brick garden wall. After eating, I have some time to spare, so I drop my bag at the hotel and walk in the direction of the Potomac River. I know this neighborhood, but I have never studied the Gandhi statue in the middle of Massachusetts Avenue. “My life is my message,” the bronze inscription reads. I cross over the Rock Creek bridge on M Street, where I investigate the spring-green grass along the trail next to the stream — and then shop after shop.
99 pages views, 8 responses, 1 attendee.
I return to the hotel room and organize my clothes. The health app on my phone says I walked 11,281 steps in three hours. I shower, set up the ironing board and flick on CNN while I press my pleated cotton dress. The Nepal quake and Baltimore riots are on the ticker. Too heavy. I change to HGTV and there’s a hapless couple searching for houses in Atlanta, of course. I cut it off. I text the publicist to see what time I’m supposed to meet up with the tour manager. I’ve got 90 minutes to get to the 9:30 Club.
99 pages views, 59 responses, 1 attendee.
I love talking to cab drivers. They’re always from some place interesting, and they are befuddled by real Southern accents.
“What is this you are seeing tonight?” my driver, Victor, who says he’s from Nigeria (and looks to be in his late twenties), asks.
“It’s a band called Spandau Ballet,” I say.
“It is the ballet?” he says.
“No, it’s music, with guitar and saxophone.”
“No, it’s pop, rock, they called it ‘New Romantic’ back in the day.”
“Oh, you are romantic with the band?”
“No,” I laugh. “But I love their music.”
I pay Victor and get out of the cab in front of the venue. A guy with a London accent shouts “Nice dress!” at me while he carries a piece of equipment into a side door.
I was at the 9:30 Club once before in 1997, to watch Radiohead and Teenage Fanclub. This doesn’t feel the same. There’s a long line of fans down the block, but seeing Spandau Ballet in 2015 isn’t exactly about cachet. If you’re here at this show, you’re probably looking for the piece of your heart you left on a dance floor in 1983. Or maybe you can’t shake the spine tingling that happens when you hear “True,” the song that takes you back to crushing on the boy in Episcopal youth group with the curly sandy-blonde hair, Ralph Lauren button-down oxford and tortoise-shell eyeglasses. Who can forget the movie Sixteen Candles with Molly Ringwald’s Samantha Baker and Michael Schoeffling’s Jake Ryan? During the last scene Sam kissed Jake while a Thompson Twins tune played in the background. She got the cake, the candles and the boyfriend. But we always think of the moment in the film when Jake held another girl close at the dance to Spandau Ballet’s “True,” the song which captured the longing, the chase, the hope.
Over time, our love for the music of our youth can become an abstraction. Depth isn’t measured by chart hits, critical acclaim or cool factor (we’ll save those for Leonard Cohen or Dylan or McCartney or Patti Smith or Springsteen). Today, I’m processing memories of a 14-year-old me playing Spandau Ballet’s “Paint Me Down” 1,000 times in a row in my bedroom. And the 16-year-old me in front of the TV on the morning of July 13, 1985 dancing on the coffee table to “Only When You Leave” during the Live Aid broadcast. And the 20-year-old me studying in Munich and waiting in line at World of Music to buy Heart Like A Sky. And a forty-something me who listens to my Spandau playlist on Spotify when I walk the dog. This isn’t about fandom or living in the past. Music is so much more than yesterday or today; it’s all the days of our lives added together. It’s difficult to untangle or compartmentalize.
“You’re the writer!” Spandau Ballet songwriter and guitarist Gary Kemp says as I meet the quintet inside the venue before the show. I recently interviewed Gary for an article in The Economist about the 30th anniversary of Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas.” I also wrote a crazy Huffington Post blog with a silly infographic about Spandau’s popularity (I think the band got a kick out of that). Gary and I follow each other on Twitter.
I receive hugs from John Keeble, Steve Norman, Tony Hadley, Gary and his brother, Martin Kemp, before I start blabbering on about the Man Ray exhibit at The Phillips Collection and asking the guys if they think the artist who designed their albums covers in the 1980s, the late David Band, was influenced by him? I am such a nerd. I do finally manage to mention something about waiting 30 years to see the band, and they’re all happy, chit-chatty and like, “We hope you enjoy the show.”
“Did you come here by yourself?” Gary asks.
“Yes,” I say, hoping this doesn’t make me out to be a loser. “My husband caught a bad cold and wasn’t able to make the trip at the last minute. I have a friend coming to meet me later” (referring to the one attendee of my birthday celebration).
“And it’s my birthday.”
“Well, Happy Birthday!”
30 years, 7 albums, 1 night
I turn around and see the doors opening for the sold-out show. There is a balloon bobbing above a few heads in the line of ticketholders. It’s my sole attendee! Her birthday was yesterday. She just turned 25. We met at work when she was as an intern on a project last summer for one of my clients. No matter our age difference, we Taureans hit it off. She recently moved to D.C. and wanted to catch a show the 9:30 club. Of all people with whom I could share this evening, I’m so fortunate to have a youthful friend to help me commemorate it. Good music stretches across generations.
We stake our places near the stage with a group of Brit expat ladies who are wearing paper masks made from photos of Tony and Martin. There are far more men in the audience than I would have imagined. The vibe is electric and unexpected. This is Spandau Ballet’s first tour of America since 1983, when “True” was a Top 5 hit in the U.S. While the band performs in theatres and clubs like the 9:30, Soul Boys of the Western World — a documentary about the Spandau’s rise and fall and regrouping — is playing concurrently in movie houses. The film airs the dirty laundry about a gruesome legal battle over royalties that damaged the core of the band nearly beyond repair, then it tantalizes viewers with clips of an upcycled Spandau Ballet preparing new material for recording. Here in the venue right now, we wonder: Will Spandau Ballet feel whole again? Will the music win?
When Tony Hadley sings the first song (a new one which, not ironically, shares part of its name with the documentary), the room bounces. His voice is as strong as we remember. I don’t have to explain the role of nostalgia in this frenzy to my companion; but she notes that the energy is all about this moment, even as the band smiles through its catalog of hits from the 1980s (“Only When You Leave,”“Round and Round,” “Lifeline,”). The playing is crisp and joyful.
I’m sure at least one YouTuber is inadvertently capturing me near the front row, dancing and singing every word. But in spite of my abandon, I’m still wearing my cynical music writer hat. I’ve seen a lot of artists on reunion tours over the past few years and 98% of them phone it in. This gig, on the other hand, has the feel of a band who respects its audience immensely. The musicianship and showmanship are massively legit. It’s amusing now to think so many bands who hit it big during the 1980s — Brit Invasion II acts including Duran Duran and others — were considered a bit flimsy at the time, especially when so much of what’s on the radio in 2015 is algorithmically composed and programmed.
Performing in a club is the ultimate test of a band’s sea-worthiness, and Spandau Ballet is organic and solid. The music is exposed and every move is intimate. I grew up in a time when we all knew every band member’s name, understood their public personalities and how each player’s instrument and role contributed to the whole. This type of knowledge and perception affects the reception of a live performance, because it means the audience has higher expectations– and the band has more at stake. The musicians feel a duty not only to entertain, but also to be the best they can be individually, for themselves and for their fellow bandmates as much as for the crowd. Real bands are about brotherhood.
“True” arrives to great anticipation, complete with its iconic sax solo by Steve Norman. Then the encore concludes with “Through the Barricades” and an extended, percussive arrangement of the anthem, “Gold.” Just before Spandau Ballet leaves the small stage at the end of the night, Gary, in a gesture of unity, slings his right arm around Tony’s neck for a quick squeeze. It is a demonstration of affection and camaraderie only bands and their fans might understand. No one knows what is happening behind the scenes emotionally, but onstage tonight, this was a class act, a team with an effective, coherent and vivid presentation.
My sweet attendee #1 and I eat cake at midnight in a restaurant near my hotel, then I tuck in and wake early to go to the airport. I tweet at Gary and post a few photos on Instagram and Facebook while in the cab.
“So sorry I missed it!” is the most popular reply on my status update.
“I told you they are one of the best live bands I’ve ever seen,” a journalist friend comments on the Facebook album.
“Happy Birthday again,” another writes.
Birthdays aren’t the same at 46 as they were at 16. We are busy. We have kids, jobs and budgets. We forget to celebrate. We settle for store-bought presents rather than walks in the park, a homemade meal or a museum visit and a concert. Sometimes a birthday spent alone can help us realize what an accomplishment it is to grow another year and to own our ages, live up to our being. I feel a wave of gratitude for the past 24 hours. I realize that each opportunity is a blessing, each adventure a privilege. Bravo, Spandau Ballet. Thank you for this year’s birthday gift of music, one true luxury that never goes out of style.