I used to steal setlists. One musician’s trash is another geeky fangirl’s coveted item. It’s not as if these were pieces of paper passed through the hands of Springsteen or Bono to the lowly sweat-soaked roadie to me. And let us pause for a moment over the absurdity of Bruce Springsteen bent over a sheet of notebook paper thinking “Okay, in the third hour we’ll play…” I stalked the indie performers, the neo-folkies, the thoughtful, earnest singer-songwriters of the late-1990s and early aughts traveling with their lucky capos, a box of CDs, and the legacies of Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell, and Jackson Brown whispering in their ears.
I would go to see them perform anywhere–in cramped basement clubs and intimate coffee houses, on raised stages under punishingly and unflattering red fryolator lights in dive bars, or on ad hock stage “areas” set up in the antiseptic spaces of community centers. This made grabbing the set list pretty easy. The performer typically cleared out fairly quickly after the encore to stand near whatever piece of furniture passed for a merch table and sell and sign CDS. All you had to do was loiter near the stage for a couple of seconds pretending to be fascinated by the rug or a random piece of equipment like the amp—“Is that a Brockton 3300? Top notch!”—while fishing around on the stage for the piece of paper either tacked or simply dropped near the mic stand. After carefully (CAREFULLY) folding the sheet and slipping it into the requisite, oversized, slouchy Boho bag, you’d sort of wander away, avoiding (VERY IMPORTANT) eye contact with any other of your fellow music devotees who sidled up to the stage, a little too late (sorry not sorry!).
I wasn’t after a record of the show. Please. Any good music nerd/junky comes with her own notebook to track each tune, adding thoughtful notes for posterity such as “Holy shit she played “29 Hours!” RARE!!!” I was after the writing.
Later when I was on the subway heading back to my apartment or after I had driven home, slipping my ticket on top of the pile I kept in the small, antique chocolate tin on my bedroom bookshelf, I would take out the set list, studying shorthand code: “snow,” “free now,” “encore black 2am alt. dig/red sky.” I would run my fingers over the black sharpie markings—the “t’s” that went uncrossed, the “o’s” practically crushed under the heels of a neighboring letter, the tail of a “y” dangling in the face of whatever word was scratched just below it.
I would stare at the writing for a good, long while, divining the story from these loops and slashes and busy or deliberate markings. I could see the performer bent over the sheet of notebook scrap paper or the back of a club flyer. The press and release of the marker as she sketched out a loose road map of the show between bites of a pre-show dinner, the rhythm of the jotting taking her out of the million other details vying for her attention to focus on the show’s architecture, pen strokes that would bring the evening to life.
I found it all incredibly intimate, this exposure. Artifice is a part of every kind of show. Even the moments that are real and raw get filtered through the performer’s showmanship—she makes a funny joke out of flubbing lyrics, he unplugs his guitar and walks out into the audience to perform the encore. Something as unassuming and disposable as the setlist felt different. It was like getting a little bit of access to some authentic part of the person because that’s what our handwriting does—it lays us bare, our common humanity bleeding through the ink.
Most people want to sustain the magic of concert for as long as possible. I simply wanted the best of both worlds: to be utterly transported by these people and know that I could have coffee with them, too.
I don’t pinch as many setlists as I used to, though it’s not because my skills aren’t up for the task (3-foot metal barrier between me and the stage? Hold my drink).
Last fall one of my friends and I went to see singer/songwriter Josh Ritter, a smart, talented musician who has not yet realized he’s in love with me. Give it time, Josh. I’ll wait.
He played an unforgettable show at a mid-size club in Boston, a general admission type show without seats so it’s a test of wills to see how close you can squeeze yourself up to the apron of the stage. My friend and I had wiggled our way into what passed for the second row. I could count the beads of sweat on Josh’s forehead (35). We danced and sang and let ourselves get rung out by this sweet boy from Idaho and his bombastic tunes.
As the lights came up, the crowd shifted and broke like a wave, dispersing itself toward the exit. We stood around for a few minutes, letting the last notes of music play in our bloodstream for a little while longer, our skin still vibrating from the experience. I turned and angled myself against the edge of the stage, which was about a foot taller than me. The crew was already starting to swarm, dismantling the drum kit, yanking up chords. I stood on my tip-toes to peer over the giant wedge-shaped amps and saw two pieces of white paper taped by the mic stands. A beefy stage dude in a Red Sox cap was rolling up chords near the stand. He ripped up the pieces of paper and saw my friend and I staring.
“Here, want’em?” he said, thrusting the sheets over to us. I shook my head. “I’m good,” I said, turning to leave. He shrugged and noticed another couple loitering a little ways down, staring at him. He turned and made the same offer. The girl’s face broke into a huge smile and her hands reached up eagerly.
“Why didn’t you grab them?” my friend said. I shook my head and made a face.