The trip was planned for our anniversary, last year. We’d drive to Chicago to see James Taylor, of all people, on tour. I last saw him live circa 1970, but I’ve followed him, loosely, ever since.
To sweeten the deal, the tour promoters threw in Jackson Browne, adding an infusion of laid-back, seventies LA onto James’s Stockbridge-to-Boston sensibility.
It seemed like a good idea at the time. A chance to see two famous old white guys rock out after their naps. It’s not like we get to a lot of arena concerts —exactly zero in the last thirty years — so why not?
The concert, scheduled for June 2020, was of course postponed indefinitely. Something about a virus.
Cut to this summer, and suddenly the tour is back on. The event was moved to late July — last week — and we wouldn’t want to waste the tickets, right?
The decision to go wasn’t without trepidation. I had just flown — for the first time in eighteen months — to Florida, epicenter of Covid lunacy. I’d worn a mask from airport to airport, but while in Ft. Lauderdale I sat in several smallish restaurants without one.
Should I have been more worried? I believe I’ve absorbed most of the conventional wisdom around vaccines and vaccinations, and this has instilled in me a certain sense of security, possibly ill-advised, but personally comfortable. The risk/reward ratio seems acceptable, and I fully accept that there’s no such thing as zero risk.
The idea is to not do anything too stupid, though sometimes it’s hard to know. The news of the delta variant was unsettling, and there was some real reluctance to venture to Chicago to spend three hours in an arena with a few thousand of our demographic peers. Just the thought of it brought to mind all that petri-dish imagery we were treated to last year.
On the other hand, I doubt you could find any venue with a higher concentration of vaccinated Americans than a James Taylor concert. My presence might have lowered the average age in the room — which doesn’t happen often — and our age group has been generally good about vaccinations. But still, there were good arguments for not going.
These included concern about Lollapalooza, the music festival going on across town in Grant Park. Ten thousand people, mostly from a vastly different demographic, some of them in our hotel. Three days, dozens of bands I’d never heard of, proof of vaccination required.
So we knew the risks. We debated them, we listened to friends, we thought long and hard. And we went.
While the risks were defined, the rewards were less so. Which was no fault of the old guys onstage. Let’s just say the whole experience underscored that I’m not twenty-one anymore, and that nostalgia has its limits.
Among those limits were the three hours in a not-particularly-butt-friendly chair, in that indoor space where too many people were — in defiance of CDC guidelines — singing. At the top of their lungs. On “Sweet Baby James” and “Fire and Rain,” I could swear I saw the droplets floating in the air. On top of that, the jerk behind us knew all the words and sang louder than James, but not nearly as well.
Happily, the droplets were figments of my imagination. We tested negative six days later.
Which brings me around — somewhat circuitously — to the warped politics of Covid, which are even more depressing now than they were last summer.
In consecutive weeks, I traveled to two states at opposite ends of the vaccination spectrum.
Illinois has an enlightened governor — J.B. Pritzker — and a Democratic legislature. Not coincidentally, the state — or at least Chicago — seems to be getting back to a wary sort of normal. It’s one of the most vaccinated states in the union. Most places are open. Masks are not generally required. Yet still, the delta variant looms in the background, putting a big question mark in front of anything we want to do.
Florida, on the other hand, is a well-chronicled catastrophe — and broadly illustrative of the power of malevolent intent. It’s no secret that the governor — Ron DeSantis — is criminally disinterested in governance, competence, or even objective reality. Or that he’s become a one-man disease vector, almost as murderous as his idol, Trump himself.
Twenty percent of new cases in the country are happening in that one state. So the anxiety is real, especially among the vaccinated, who ostensibly have the least to worry about. They’re surrounded by hordes of oblivious never-vaxers, many of whom will be dying soon. How can you not feel helpless in the face of such avoidable carnage?
It’s harsh to say it, but at this point most people who die of Covid have only themselves to blame. But it’s hard to keep your brain from going there. It’s hard not to indulge in a sick sort of schadenfreude in which people who take pride in their ignorance pay with their lives. The very idea offends us, even as we revel in it.
But as I sat in that Chicago arena that night, I wasn’t thinking about that. I was thinking about Covid’s economic cost. About how that tour — a significant investment of money and time — came to a screeching halt a year and a half ago. About how everybody involved took a huge financial hit. From the investors to the rock stars to the arena owners. From the backup band to the roadies, lighting people, and stage crew. From the neighborhood bars and restaurants that couldn’t serve us, to the Uber drivers who couldn’t pick us up, to the ushers who couldn’t show us to our seats, to the cleaning people who couldn’t sweep the aisles. Nobody was unaffected.
Some will break even, most won’t. Some will bounce back, some will be shattered. And that’s just one tiny snapshot of a global economy that’s been shaken to its core. Economic tragedy inevitably turns into human tragedy.
Covid was always going to be bad, but it didn’t have to be this bad. The fast-track vaccines were a huge lucky break that we obviously didn’t deserve. The fact that they even exist is astonishing, a deeply underappreciated accomplishment, one that never could have happened even ten years ago. By now, we should be taking vaccines for granted. Instead, too many fools aren’t taking them at all.
I’m tired of hearing how Trump and his cronies botched the pandemic response. They didn’t botch, they sabotaged. And they’re still doing it, in plain sight, telling anyone who’ll listen that vaccines destroy personal liberty. I’m still not sure how that works.
But in spite of all that, the show did indeed go on. The old white guys nailed it, and the old boomers in the crowd ate it up.
Still, it wasn’t the music that made that evening in Chicago. It was the fact that we were there at all. Everyone felt it.
Halfway through his set, James Taylor — almost embarrassed to be enjoying himself — looked out sheepishly at the mostly-full house and said what everyone in the room was feeling: “We didn’t know if anybody would show up.”
And when you think about it, it’s amazing that anybody did.