The Freedom of Going to Shows Alone

 "I’ve been to plenty of great live shows with friends, but I remember music better when I witness it alone, which makes that choice really important to me," writes Ashleigh Hill.

"I’ve been to plenty of great live shows with friends, but I remember music better when I witness it alone, which makes that choice really important to me," writes Ashleigh Hill.

 

I’d been following poet Andrea Gibson for ten years before I finally bought tickets to see them perform in Chicago this year.

I thought about inviting a friend, and then realized I didn’t want to see Andrea with anyone but myself. Their poetry means so much to me, and has been with me through several life transitions. I didn’t want to experience it live with anyone else. I have this black and white picture in my head from a YouTube clip of Gibson performing the poem “Birthday” at Keuka College in 2009. It’s one of my favorite readings and I’ve watched it hundreds of times by myself. I’ve certainly changed a lot since the first time I watched it, but the words, background strings, and giant pictures of unimpressed suffragettes behind them in the video all still resonate with me. That’s a much different connection than just liking a song.

People become who they are in relationship and in community, but not enough attention is paid to how people become themselves when they’re alone, discovering what’s important and beautiful. In their poem, “Boomerang Valentine”, Andrea writes about forcing loneliness to reorient their body back to their own self, even creating a new muscle pattern in doing so. They say,

I want the heavy to anchor me brave
To anchor me loving
To anchor me in something that will absolutely
Hold me to my word
When I tell cupid I intend to keep walking out to the tip of his arrow
To bend it back towards myself
To aim for my goodness; 'til the muscle in my chest tears from the stretch of becoming.”

The 9:30 Club in Washington, DC is in an area of town now so gentrified, you can barely see the club from the road when you drive by. In the early 2000s, when this block just included the U Street Metro stop, a gas station, and one bright light shining onto them both, I went to see dozens of bands perform there all by myself. In 2006, a Wilco show ran long at the club, but I waited, inching as close as I could to the front door, hoping they’d play “Heavy Metal Drummer” before I had to leave. They did, and I listened to the last ten seconds of the song as I sprinted to the Metro stop with four minutes before the last train. I know that writing about loving Wilco now seems haughty, but at the time, they hadn’t put out an album since 2004, I didn’t know very many people listening to them (I know), and I listened to the album Being There constantly, even though it had come out ten years prior.


When you make friends with being alone, the landscape changes. In the constant work to stay in my body and not rely on the idea that harm or rejection is imminent, “choiceful solitude” has been the best ally.


I find myself alone a lot. I go to concerts alone. I go to movies alone. I travel alone. I feel safe alone. Usually. The day after Trump was elected, I went running by myself after dinner– purposefully without headphones. I had to stop halfway through. On a route where I usually feel safe, I couldn’t get into a rhythm. I felt my breath catch every time I got close to a man who could grab me. Being alone didn’t scare me but what someone could do with my aloneness did.

A few months later I booked a mini-vacation at a bed & breakfast I’ve visited multiple times, staying in the largest room in the house, which came with wine and dessert for two (come on, 2016 was a hard year). When I arrived, the desk attendant had to check the record three times to verify I had booked the room alone. I wasn’t ashamed of being there by myself but for a split second her reaction made me question if I had the right to be.  

I don’t hesitate to do anything alone–in fact, I often choose solitude–until it’s all of a sudden right in my face that maybe I’m making a mistake, whether because of safety or social concerns. These instances don’t often happen, but I still think I wait for them to slam up against the knowledge that being alone is good for me. I assume solitude or the need to be alone will be taken advantage of or questioned. Maybe I’ll have to prove that I’m good enough to be with myself, sans friends or a man. When I’m alone I’m not worried that whomever I’m with is texting someone else. I’m not worried if they’re having a good time. I can run at my own pace and reconnect. I can enjoy wine and dessert for two people. And I can leave if the concert isn’t good, without having to check with anyone else: once I stayed just two songs into seeing The Kooks because they were so disappointing live that I couldn’t enjoy them. But if I hadn’t been alone, I probably would have ordered another drink and powered through.

 Tracee Ellis Ross of  Black-ish  and  Girlfriends  embraces solitude in her adult life. (ABC/Image Group LA). Licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

Tracee Ellis Ross of Black-ish and Girlfriends embraces solitude in her adult life. (ABC/Image Group LA). Licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0

Tracee Ellis Ross of the TV shows Girlfriends and Black-ish has spoken a lot about choosing to be alone. On being an adult by herself, Ross told The Times UK: “It’s all a choice. Which is incredibly empowering and can be extremely lonely. My work as an adult has been making friends with the loneliness, and actually coming to terms with the fact that I love it. And I now call it choiceful solitude.”

When you make friends with being alone, the landscape changes. In the constant work to stay in my body and not rely on the idea that harm or rejection is imminent, “choiceful solitude” has been the best ally.

I’ve been to plenty of great live shows with friends, but I remember music better when I witness it alone, which makes that choice really important to me. When I think about music that has been formative for me, the concerts I remember first are the ones I experienced alone, where I only had to concentrate on the music and how it moved through my body. I closed my eyes and wept listening to Andrea Gibson. When I hear “Far, Far Away,” my favorite song from Being There, it brings me to a place where I’m by myself and with myself.

Making choices about where you want to put your body and what you want to experience–is freeing.

A division of time exists when you go to a concert with other people. Since I know several people who also go to shows alone, I polled a few of them. “I think when I'm by myself I feel free to really feel and lean into emotions that I'm feeling or spend time contemplating the thoughts and feelings that are stirred up by what I've seen and experienced,” said Chicago Public School teacher Chelsea Hosler. “I don't have to rush through them or stifle them for fear of offending or boring the other person I'm with in that moment.”

“It’s really simple but just starting to do stuff on my own helped to open up all these parts of myself to just be,” reflected Ra Mendoza, co-founder of the Mystic Soul Project, an organization that offers community space for people of color to to build support around activism, spirituality, and healing. “It’s actually become a necessary thing for me. I love doing things alone and I love going to shows alone. It feels really good to love something, know that you love it, and let that love exist. Nobody can say anything about it. The reality of me feeling it makes it the most real, not someone else experiencing it.”

In the early 2000s the unfortunately short-lived indie band, Le Loup, played the small Iota Club (R.I.P.) in Arlington, VA, opening the show by starting in the back of the room and then marching the whole tamberlin-carrying band through the small, packed bar while playing “We Are Gods! We Are Wolves!” I know exactly how that moment felt (breathtaking), where I was standing in the room (stage left, halfway back), and what I was drinking (Red Stripe). I’ll never lose the image of watching singer-songwriter Patty Griffin perform “Icicles” in Chicago in 2015, wearing a white dress, backed by white flickering lights. I don’t know if I would have remembered those moments if I were with someone else.

I’ve noticed in the circles where I spend time that there’s been an emergency uptick since the 2016 election on talk of self-care, being present, community involvement, and creating a more just world now that it’s more obvious to some that we don’t live in one (a lot of people have known all along). Being by yourself fits in the same list because paying attention to yourself–making choices about where you want to put your body and what you want to experience–is freeing.

“I bought season tickets [by myself] for Broadway in Chicago a few seasons ago. I remember really feeling and leaning into my emotions during all of those shows. Particularly the show The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime. It’s a show about a young man with autism and the way he viewed the world,” reflected Chelsea. “I was just about to graduate from a Special Education MA program and I was really moved by the portrayal of the struggles, challenges, and joy that exists for families [with autistic individuals]. I remember sitting there for a few minutes after the show crying and really leaning into the emotions the show invoked.”

“[After going to a show alone] I get to go home and be happy and no one gets to say anything about my happiness. I just get to feel all my happiness the whole way home,” mused Mendoza. “Music anchors me to myself, God, what I believe… it helps me process feelings. I can’t verbalize it. It makes me feel the most complete.”

 Pussy Riot performs at the Subterranean in Chicago on March 7, 2018. Photo by  Daniel X. O'Neil . Licensed under  CC BY 2.0 .

Pussy Riot performs at the Subterranean in Chicago on March 7, 2018. Photo by Daniel X. O'Neil. Licensed under CC BY 2.0.

On International Women’s Day I saw the Russian activist collective Pussy Riot perform by myself. Since they are a multi-faceted and changing collective, Nadya Tolokonnikova was the only official member of the collective on stage that night. At one point someone yelled, “Where is the rest of the band?!” She ignored them. To open the show Nadya said: “Today is International Women’s Day, or as I prefer, International Day of Your Emancipation.” She made it personal–maybe she’s supposed to act one way today but she prefers to be freer. To be herself with herself. To create a new muscle pattern. She chose to put herself on stage in Chicago alone and didn’t let an audience member with no knowledge of her history do anything with it. She wore a blue mask and neon tights. I was in the center of the room drinking whisky.