If you were born in India in the 70’s or 80’s like me, chances are you grew up with limited choices when it came to entertainment. You had DD National on the Telly, Binaca Geetmala and Ameen Sayani on the radio, and Bollywood potboilers on single screen cinemas. As a kid, I spent a lot of time outdoors, playing cricket and football, usually healthy and generally happy. Choice though is overrated, and inversely correlated with happiness. Lynyrd Skynyrd got it right when they crooned “I like the simple life, the way it used to be”. Cable TV came much later in my life, right in time for the 1992 cricket world cup, and brought with it the miracle of “MTV”. I was an impressionable teenager, trying to impress girls and music came in very handy. MJ’s ballads, and boy bands singing about unattainable love dominated my early teens. My parents were horrified, and thought I was gravitating towards “negative influences”.
The obsession with “sounding cool” turned another corner when I discovered rock and metal, Nirvana, Metallica, Bon Jovi, Iron Maiden and GNR. Overnight, boy bands sounded silly, and pop unfashionable. Iron Maiden and Metallica opened up a world where lyrics did not involve love. Riffs and base, strings and guitars became my obsessions, irrespective of whether I could afford them. Yanni, Enigma and Fatboy Slim introduced me to the wonders of instrumental music. I bought my first guitar, a cheap local imitation with my measly savings, and imagined the world at my feet. Rock and metal kept me alive when I couldn’t earn a living after graduation. My late teens were spent unlearning the early ones, and building newer delusions of the way the world worked. The music of that age left a lasting impression on my adult life, so much so that barring Coldplay, no artist or band has left a mark in the last decade and half. I still refuse to listen to boy bands and a large part of my music collection belongs to the 1970-2000 period.
I discovered the magic of live music and rock concerts much later in life, partly due to the fact that they were expensive, and required a lot of planning and travel. India’s music scene has exploded over the last five years, with the who’s who of international music making a beeline, but back then, all we had were MTV re-runs of Nirvana and Bon Jovi. In the six years of my unsuccessful music career, I dreamed of making it to atleast one concert of all of my heroes. But then, career took over, and I spent the last ten years chasing money, titles and “success”. Music took a backseat, my guitar gathered dust, and my voice went from promising to just passé. Till Yanni landed in Bangalore, seventeen years after his first India tour, and rekindled long-forgotten passion and dreams. A bucket list emerged with a lot of bands and concerts. I resolved to tick off the list before I turned forty.
Circa UEFA Euro cup in 2016. Paris in summer. Tickets to four round-robin matches purchased six months ahead. And I discover, to my horror and delight, that scheduled bang in the middle of it was Iron Maiden with their “Book of Souls” world tour, and in Paris. The heavens had smiled on me (literally, since Paris was flooded the week before). I passed on one of the matches, and made the long walk to Hippodrome de Longchamp, with what seemed to be millions of other maiden fans. Growing up listening to them, I had practiced the metallic twang of the lead guitar, and the high pitched energetic vocals a million times. It was time to see the great band in flesh.
After what seemed an eternity, the mass entered the concert grounds with anticipation. And waited as the other bands kept us busy. Iron Maiden were headlining the event, and preparation meant beer. Lots of it. My mind was filled with angst. They had aged, were maybe well past their prime; would it be a case of unwarranted anticipation and disappointment? An endless discussion on these lines with a lovely French couple and a German helped bide time. At 830PM sharp, with the dying embers of the sun, Bruce started with “If eternity should fail”, and all doubts dissipated in a jiffy. The Gods could still rock. The energy levels seemed to pick up with each passing minute, and the twang kept getting louder and sharper, as they launched in to the riffs in “The Red and the black”. These guys were literally grand-parents and they seemed to have more energy than the crowd, which could scarcely believe their luck. Air guitars and lyrical leads dominated. The ability of Maiden to attract fans from all age groups and geographies was incredible. I danced with teenagers, sang with the grand-daddies, and shared beer with a group of really tall Swedish women. Or were they Dutch? We chanted as Bruce went to “Fear of the Dark” and ended with “Blood Brothers”. The golden oldies drew more cheers and we wouldn’t let them off the stage after almost two and half hours. Time stood still and I wished the show would go on forever. We all did. A snapshot in memory to remember the good times. Iron Maiden was tick-1 on my musical bucket list.
My love affair with Metallica has lasted almost my entire adult life; I still go back to the “Unforgiven” series at the end of a long day, and consider “Turn the Page” one of the most soulful compositions ever written. The raw energy that a Metallica album, atleast the older ones, possess can drown all your sorrows. They land in Singapore in Jan 2017. The “World-Wired” tour, and the Indoor stadium is jam-packed with black-shirted freaks. James launches into “For Whom the bell tolls” and we go delirious. The mind is a strange creature. It remembers lyrics from a song you heard decades ago, but not the stuff to buy for home. My head begins to spin and I blame the beer. The girl next to me with the pierced nose is in equally bad shape. We exchange smiles. I give a full-throated rendering, along with a couple of Russians who seem dazed. We still manage to exchange hugs. Throats turn hoarse and shoulders and arms hurt. The mind wants more, just one more "Yeah".
When the initial notes of “Unforgiven” hit the stadium, the roof goes down. Kirk’s solo follows “One” and draws the loudest cheers. Kirk’s master-class, oh that magnetic intro on “Fade to Black”, feels as if it can summon the dead out of their graves. We shout out for “Nothing Else Matters”, and they duly oblige. How long have these guys been whipping up crowds into a frenzy? How can a band sound as good over such a long time, and still retain the ability to hypnotize masses with their one wave and a strum? At that moment, they truly seemed the beginning and the end of the universe. And they had heavenly approval. It started pouring the minute they wrapped-up and continued for the next three hours. Enough time for loving fans to honor their heroes by chanting each and every song anyone in the taxi-queue could remember. Feeling well and truly alive and fully awake at 1AM is an incredible feat. Tick-2, Metallica.
I’ve had a love and hate affair with GNR for as long as I could remember. The “Spaghetti Incident” and “Use your Illusion” series were their best albums by a mile, but my interest in the band dwindled when Slash left. You cannot replace Slash, just as you cannot cover Santana and imitate Yanni. When GNR announced that Slash and Duff would rejoin for the “Not in this Lifetime tour” at Singapore in Feb 2017, the holy trinity were complete. I had missed them in Bangalore in 2012, gallivanting in Srilanka as I was, a regret I believed would last till eternity. Here was a chance for redemption.
The Changi exhibition center is massive, and so was the crowd, surprisingly mostly young for a band that originated thirty years ago. I found a nice spot at the front against the railings, along with a bearded drunk and a strange-looking, chain smoking Aussie who had flown in from Perth. Metal fans have a habit of sizing up each up with a smile, while they wait for their heroes to make their appearance. Trust and anticipation build, while we argue on whether Axl will let Slash overpower the set. Axl and Slash started really slowly, with some of their second rate numbers. Maybe they were just warming up. But something happened during “Better”, almost half an hour into the set. A genuine moment of magic, and from then on, they seemed to pick up pace, and Slash came into his own. “Estranged” followed and it felt like a different show, one that Slash would go on to dominate. The crowd sensed the magic. Axl hit his high notes perfectly on “Civil War” and Slash took off on his miraculous high notes. The theme from Godfather, on Guitar? Who could have imagined, and who could have pulled this off, except him. I do not know what he was on, but Slash rejoining GNR is probably the event of the year, and the feeling was one of witnessing a moment in history.
“November Rain” remains one of the greatest songs of all time, and Slash’s lead and Axl’s lyrics were pitch-synchronous. I do not remember if I was ever more high-spirited. The bearded guy hugged me, and a spirited teenaged couple treated a lot of us to free kisses. I did not protest. Fans do unimaginable stuff at concerts, and the sillier it gets, the happier we feel. The encore was probably the best. They played “Patience” and “Paradise city”. In that order. “Where the grass is green and the girls are pretty”. The trinity was complete. I could die today, and the three concerts would make it worthwhile.
Vishy Anand said the feeling of winning the world title, and the sense of achievement is fleeting. It lasts exactly ten seconds, and what comes next is a great let-down. The most difficult question to answer after reaching a goal is "What's next?" I do not intend to stop. The bucket list grows. U2 and Radiohead beckon in the second half of the year. Maybe Knopfler will put in one of his rare appearances, now that would really be something to look forward to. Instead of regretting the decade I lost, I seek solace in the ability to teleport and imagine the goose-bumps. Music can transcend boundaries they say. Add time travel to the list.