My last spontaneous action involved buying four tickets to a Vinyl Theatre concert. The venue was two hours away in a town so unimportant that it doesn’t show up on Google Maps unless you’re significantly zoomed-in. I can’t argue that the band was too good for such a place. They have a few good albums, but “Breaking Up My Bones” is the only song that will show up on your Spotify if you listen to enough indie rock. If you’re like me and share a hometown of Milwaukee with them, you’ve probably seen their performances enough times at Summerfest to know they harness the trifecta of likable band characteristics: They’re young, passably attractive and actually pretty good at making music.
To this day, I’m not sure why I bought the tickets. They were $10 each, so the entire transaction could be covered with the e-giftcard burning a hole in my inbox. Still, that’s more money than I usually drop on something that I haven’t thought about for at least a couple hours. This might be one of the only things I’ve ever done on what others call “a whim.”
There’s an adrenaline rush that comes with this whim, and it’s dangerous. You start to think you’re invincible. The concert could be on the Wednesday of midterm week in the middle of nowhere with a band barely anyone knows, and somehow you can still convince yourself that people will agree to go. You think that buying the tickets makes going to the concert a certainty. That if you build it, they will come.
But nothing ever goes smoothly, especially when the universe has to tap me on the back of the hand for doing something irresponsible like wasting $40 on tickets without consulting a single person about whether this was a sound idea. I created a Facebook group titled “I Road Trip Across Illinois For A $10 Vinyl Theatre Concert,” on which I wrote an enthusiastic message that doubled as a plea for travel-partners-slash-concert-buddies. There was a dreamworld in my head where everyone listened to Vinyl Theatre and class was always canceled and everything was all right, a world where at least three of the 15 invites actually accepted. Instead, no one responded for two days, and when one person did, it was to ask a question: “Is Vinyl Theatre the name of the venue or the band?”
At this point, I was fully aware that I was an idiot, but hope is a dangerous thing. I still thought, in some glimmery portion of my brain, that the concert was happening. I had the tickets. I was going. I had to go. It was going to be great.
As luck and sheer determination would have it, I found two people to come. One ticket went to waste, but I was taking what I could get. I found someone willing to lend me their car; I picked up Austin and Adam at 5 p.m. We were pulling up directions on my phone when I felt an ominous buzz and saw the flag notification creep downward: email from Ticketmaster. Vinyl Theatre canceled the show. The lead singer, Keegan Calmes, blew out his voice in Cleveland. The openers would continue to play. We were encouraged to go and support them.
“Screw that,” I snapped. “I don’t want to see the openers.”
I reread the email at least three times. Keegan blew his voice out, fine. The rest of the band was probably still in DeKalb. In the dreamworld in my head where everyone listens to Vinyl Theatre and people are nice and everything is all right, the band members of Vinyl Theatre still show up to the canceled concert to surprise us all. They perform the best set they’ve ever played because they’re throwing a concert for only their truest of fans, the ones who believed in them even when the rest of the world gave up. They even hold a world premiere of their next hit single, the one that actually makes them famous. And this all happens in a town so small that I couldn’t find it on Google Maps.
This dreamworld is a dangerous place. With newfound spontaneity, I became a game-maker instead of a pawn. Anything seemed possible.
“Well?” I asked, turning to Adam and Austin. “Do we still go?”
“We have a car,” Austin said.
“We’re already here,” Adam added.
“And I bought the tickets already,” I sighed. In my head, I was still kind of wishing the email was wrong. I jerked the car into reverse, rolled out of the parking lot and headed toward the highway. Austin was navigator; Adam was DJ. There was no hole for an aux cord in the car, so we turned a phone upside down in the cupholder and blasted Vinyl Theatre’s entire discography for the two-hour drive. We went through all of their music once, and when we finished, we replayed the songs that had played when the rain was so loud that we couldn’t fully appreciate them. At some points, the storm was so heavy that it was impossible to see farther than a foot in front of the windshield. The speedometer never rose over 50 and I don’t even know if the wheels touched pavement on the highway or if we hydroplaned all the way to DeKalb. But somehow, we made it.
The venue was called The House Cafe. On the drive over, we’d postulated why they would name a concert hall something so unassuming. As it turns out, it was actually a cafe. We got there an hour early, thinking the place would be packed, but when we walked in to realize we were wrong yet again. A table of teenagers sat in the back corner chewing on sandwiches. Four thin dudes in dark T-shirts and ripped black skinny jeans sat on a plaid couch beside the door. A giant board broadcasted “Mouth-Watering PIES” in varying colors of faded chalk. I would have assumed we’d driven to the wrong House Cafe, except that somebody with a clipboard approached us at the door.
“Are you here for the concert?” he asked, as if it was completely normal that this restaurant would transform into a concert hall when the clock struck a certain time. “Let me see your tickets. Who are you here to see?”
He had a chance, right then, to tell me that the email had been wrong. The show wasn’t canceled; third-party vendors like Ticketmaster were spewing lies. He did not say any of these things. Instead, he just added a tally mark on his clipboard. The page was split into four equal quadrants, each labeled with a performer. Vinyl Theatre, upon our entry, had all seven of the tallies to represent ticket-holders, and they weren’t even coming. Supposedly.
We had an hour to kill, so we sat down in the back with the other four tallies and watched as the skinny dudes set up their electric guitars. Our table was beneath a giant slab of plywood that read “The House Cafe” in curvaceous graffiti, perhaps the place’s only ode to an atmosphere it would never have. Slowly, a few more people wandered inside, but at its maximum volume, the crowd held fewer people than my most well-attended discussion section.
At approximately 10 p.m., the lights dimmed and the raised portion at the back of the restaurant became a stage simply because it happened to be the space on which the instruments ended up. There was a row of lights on the ceiling that belonged in my neighborhood Chuck E. Cheese, bathing the room with a dappled tacky rainbow. The four skinny dudes ambled onto the stage and took their places under the unforgiving glow. “Hey everyone,” the skinniest one mumbled into a standing microphone. “We’re The Catching. Now, let’s get ready to rock.”
At that moment, no one was ready to rock. Austin, Adam and I were waiting in a booth with our clothes still damp, stone-cold sober at a mysterious cafe-turned-rock concert in DeKalb, Illinois. When the band started playing a floor-shaking, string-shredding ballad, we simply watched, in awe of how much the music could consume them in a room where no one else was dancing.
“Someone should go into the middle of the crowd and dance,” Adam said finally.
“You’re spontaneous,” Austin said, pointing to me. “You do it.”
At that point, I’d failed enough times to had any shred of decency knocked out of me, so I did not hesitate before putting my entire body into jerking dance moves to match the angsty opener. The boys joined. A couple people in their 40s danced with us, eventually, but only after they’d acquired a graveyard of empty Shock Top bottles. When the first band stopped playing, we continued our dancing for the second band, and eventually, the third. The whole time, I was delusional. I was waiting for a band that would never come. Maybe.
That maybe – that dreaded maybe – was the momentum behind my swinging limbs. I could imagine how Vinyl Theatre would introduce themselves when they eventually came out: “How are you doing tonight, DeKalb?” they’d whisper through the microphone, voices prepared for the boom of amplification, even if the immature bands were not. “I know we said we weren’t coming, but we made an exception for you guys. You came all the way out here, didn’t you?”
I imagined it so vividly that I could hear Keegan’s voice – not blown out in Cleveland after all – and see Chris opening his laptop above the keyboard. I imagined the way the gaudy roving lights would swing around the room in excitement, how Adam and Austin’s faces would light up under the wash of color, how crowds would rush in from the streets and suddenly the entire experience would happen the way I’d imagined it would this whole time. I’d know every song just from the first chord. This whole stress-ridden disaster of a Wednesday night would turn into a spontaneous, miraculous rock-pop revelation that makes everyone else on the Facebook invite jealous they hadn’t come along.
I was wrapped up in this fabrication when I heard a sound that jolted a smile onto my face before my mind even caught up with what was happening. Four synthetic beats, the beginning of a hit song that even non-fans could recognize: “Breaking Up My Bones.”
I screamed, but when the voice came in after a few notes, I realized that this was simply a cover – a song fed to the grief-stricken crowd by a weak replacement for the band that should have been there, the cardboard facade with animated renderings of screaming kids when the rollercoaster is under construction.
In that moment, I realized something I should have realized long before. Vinyl Theatre wasn’t coming. I’d bought the tickets, I’d gathered a group, I’d found a car, I’d driven the whole way and they still weren’t going to show up. Being spontaneous had made me feel like some sort of god, but there were laws above me like fate and chance and singing-too-hard-in-Cleveland and things didn’t have to go the way I planned just because I bought four $10 concert tickets. Canceling their DeKalb show was pretty lame, but Vinyl Theatre hadn’t betrayed me. My unrealistic expectations had done that all by themselves.
I grabbed Adam and Austin and trudged back outside. The rain had stopped. The show was over, but the other residents of DeKalb stayed behind, turning the lights back on and unplugging the instruments as if the concert had never taken place. The four skinny dudes flopped back onto the plaid couch. Nothing seemed real. I felt very lost. I couldn’t remember where I’d parked the car.
“This is wild,” Adam admitted. “Like, where the hell are we? What is this place?”
“I’ll tell you one thing,” Austin said. “That was pretty fucking spontaneous.”
I couldn’t help it: I snorted. My rain jacket was still wet from earlier and the material clung to my bare arms, geometric patches of it darkened on my skin. The entire town was dark and quiet – the complete antithesis of the chaotic storm that had brought us into this small town, that strange cafe, that bizarre concert. I was remembering how much work had gone into planning this event and it was over, it had happened, just not in the way I had thought it would when I bought the tickets and formed the Facebook group. And then I started humming “New Machines” until all three of us were belting the words we hadn’t been able to hear onstage and we arrived at the rain-soaked Honda Accord. We jumped inside, I turned the key into the engine and we swerved back onto the flooded small-town streets for the long drive home, prepared to listen to Vinyl Theatre the whole long way.
At this point, I know what you’re wondering. Did I really just write an entire essay about a Vinyl Theatre concert that they didn’t even show up to? Yes, I really, truly did. You see, sometimes things happen that you don’t completely expect. I get it. It sucks. But if you’re along for the ride, you’ll probably realize that you’re okay having a different experience than expected.
Maybe, that’s what spontaneity actually is.