Getting gifts for my mother was never easy — she was particular, as am I, and not always in overlapping ways. But when I saw that Tina Turner was going to be performing around her birthday in 2008, I bought tickets as soon as they were available.
Growing up, there was a lightly worn hardback of “I, Tina” above the refrigerator. My mom spoke about “Tiiina” like an old friend, someone she used to get in trouble with. If you were alive and watching television in the mid-1980s, the image of Turner ecstatically stomping across the screen, hair pointing to the moon, was indelible. Here was a woman in charge of her destiny.
Because I got them quickly, our seats were in the center of the second or third row. There’s a thing that happens at a concert, especially in an arena, when you are seated right up front. The speakers are generally booming sound to the middle and back of the room, but up close, you can actually hear what’s happening onstage, and also what’s going on right around you. Which is why for most of that night’s show, I couldn’t really hear the roar of the crowd, but I could hear my mom yelling encouragement, loudly, at Turner.
It was a pointillist way to experience a show — an almost literal call and response. My mom was in no way chill. Turner vamped, my mom hooted. Turner sang of brittle love, my mom pumped her fist in assent. I can’t quite tell you how the concert was, because for those two hours, I felt like I was eavesdropping on private communiqués.
More than anyone, my mother — who died late last year — gave me music. She gave me the idea that there was freedom, or identity, to be found within. My mother was raised in an ungenerous home, and from her youngest years was looking for any safe space available to her. That often meant music, which would become a constant in my young life: WBLS or Z100 in the car, Whitney Houston or Andreas Vollenweider or the Bee Gees in the house.
At the time of the Turner concert, I’d been writing about music for more than a decade, and had been reviewing shows regularly for The Times for a few months. Those nights out were alternately riveting and glum, and always experienced at a little remove. I had become a professional observer.
Which, in fairness, I always had been, dating back to the first proper concert I attended: Ryuichi Sakamoto at the Beacon Theater. This was in 1988, not long before my parents separated. My mother had me very young, and for the majority of my childhood until that point, had mostly been a stay-at home parent. But she had recently begun working, and finding success, in Manhattan. Our lives were changing, subtly for the moment.
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I don’t remember much about that night apart from the need to dress up — it was a long way from Sheepshead Bay in outer Brooklyn to the Upper West Side. The Beacon Theater crowd was disciplined. It was the most reserved I ever witnessed my mother at a concert.
But the chic cosmopolitanism of the performance reflected a future she was envisioning and willing herself toward. She was also manifesting a range of imagination for me far vaster than the one she’d been afforded as a child. After the show, my mom, grandmother, great-grandmother and I all waited by the stage door exit to grab a glimpse of Sakamoto as he left — for months, years even, my mom insisted he reached through the crowd, looked me in my eyes and shook my hand.
She had a way with narrative — she was the main character long before main-character energy was a thing. And she wanted that for me even if I was always a little naturally reticent. A studied and practiced mama’s boy, I learned to navigate the world by bending myself around her shape, a fearless mother’s careful son.
Everyone was playing their part when, a couple of years after the Sakamoto show, I cajoled her into taking me to see the Club MTV Tour at the Jones Beach amphitheater. The lineup, frankly, was jacked: Bell Biv DeVoe, C+C Music Factory, Gerardo. The highest of NRG.
I was still learning how to navigate those spaces, trying to figure out just how loudly I could declare my enthusiasms in public. So even though I knew every word of every song of every performer, I mostly sat still.
My mom, though, was just as exuberant then as at the Turner show. Like any sullen teenager, I was embarrassed — but I also was learning firsthand it was safe to be yourself, even while Bell Biv DeVoe was calisthenically attacking the stage during “Do Me!”
She was giving me a blueprint to feel free, though even now, I experience exuberance at concerts far more intensely on the inside than the outside. Maybe that’s part of my origin story as a critic — watching the show, and watching my mother watch the show, and watching others watch my mother watch the show. It’s all part of the experience.
BY THE TIME of the Turner show, my mom had been living with lung cancer for about three years. She’d been diagnosed, miraculously, on a scan following a car accident. The years that followed were harrowing and unpredictable.
Nothing will strip your varnish quite like watching someone you love wither. It made me tentative, as if any wrong move on my part might put her in peril. When, in 2017, she told me she wanted to see Aretha Franklin perform, all I could think about were the liabilities — What if the show ran late? What if my mom started to feel weak during the performance? What if Franklin seemed … ill? Would it be too much to bear?
Over the years, as a critic, I’ve had to watch many late-career concerts from onetime titans — it can be grim. That was part of my hesitation, too, that the effort that I knew my mother would put into going to the show would somehow not be repaid. I wanted to protect her, and myself too.
As anyone who’s seen Franklin perform knows, though, I truly needn’t have worried. She was a little frail, but vigorous and stubborn, perhaps powered by the determination of someone who was not in flawless health. (Franklin died the following year; this ended up being one of her last shows.)
There were so many stretches of time during my mother’s illness when I felt I had nothing to give, that nothing I did would be useful. Faced with the scale and nimbleness of a wily cancer, you can’t help but feel insufficient.
This, however, I’d gotten right. As at all the other shows, I watched my mother watch the stage. All night long, she radiated hope. Franklin was in declining health, but my mother saw none of that. Or maybe she saw it, but just not how I saw it. For her, Franklin was indomitable. A beacon of resilience.
The days just after the show were difficult — for me. I felt awful that I couldn’t give her that sensation every day. My mother, on the other hand, talked about it for weeks. About how Franklin was bossing the band around. About how she brought her purse out onstage and someone ran after her with it when the show was done. About her fur coat. In every telling, Franklin was very much alive, and so was she.
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