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Jason Toews and fifi (the band)

You Don’t Know How it Feels

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Seattle, July 24, 1985

In the summer of 1985, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers were touring in support of the album “Southern Accents.” In hindsight, it was a pretty lousy album… Petty writes such great stuff on his own, it’s hard to understand why he hooks up with people like Dave Stewart or (shudder) Jeff Lynne. In any case, I was a huge Tom Petty fan then (as I am today), and could overlook the occasional misstep.

In fact, one of the first albums I ever had was “Damn the Torpedoes” on cassette.

damn

My aunt Susie recorded the tape for me on her Sears console stereo, mixing in a few songs from Dire Straits’ “Making Movies” album, and “Long Cool Woman In A Black Dress” by the Hollies, which is still one of my favorite songs of all time. This was all before Susie married the mysterious Filipino lounge singer and disappeared, but that’s another story.

No, this story is not even remotely about my aunt Susie. This story is about me attending a Tom Petty concert in the summer of 1985.

At the time, concerts were primarily social events for me. Driving to the concert, standing in line, enduring the weather outside, enduring the crowd inside, eating at Denny’s after the show – those were all things that had to be done with a group of friends. Normally, I would never have gone to a concert alone; what would be the point? This time, however, I couldn’t talk any of my friends into going. Perhaps the $13.50 ticket price was too steep. At first I was bummed, and even considered skipping the show altogether. But when July 24 came, it was a gorgeous, cloudless day, and I felt differently. Hanging out at the Seattle Center on a warm day, lying in the grass, reading a book, watching girls splashing in the fountain… what’s not to like? I happily caught a bus downtown to the Seattle Center Coliseum (known these days as “Key Arena”).

When I arrived, a grim security guard informed me that ticket holders would not be allowed to line up until 6PM. I consulted my watch, did some quick mental arithmetic, and found myself with a little over seven hours to kill. That was no problem, since it was warm outside and I had brought “Children of Dune” with me. I was working my way through the “Classic Dune” series at the time, and was eager to find out what would become of the royal twins, Ghanima and Leto II. (Spoiler: Leto mutates into a sandworm.)

Seattle Center has an awesome central fountain with hundreds of spouts that alternate and rotate around the clock, sometimes choreographed to music. At night, there’s a light show!

The fountain is set inside a huge bowl with gently sloping sides, and every Seattleite loves to tempt fate by creeping up as close as possible while the fountain is dormant, then frantically scrambling away and shrieking with delight when it erupts. In 1985 the fountain retained its “classic” design with the water shooting out of foot-long iron nozzles. When they redesigned the fountain in 1995, those nozzles were the first thing they removed. There were two primary reasons for this decision:

  1. Too many people used those nozzles as hand- and foot-holds to clamber up the fountain, only to be surprised by a 120psi jet of water hammering their genitals.
  2. For a 10-year-old boy, the conceptual leap from “high-pressure water nozzle” to “empty tin can launching device” is practically instantaneous.

None of which relates to this story; I just think it’s interesting.

So I picked a nice spot on the grass, watched people, and enjoyed being alone for once. As mid-day approached, it got warmer. I delved into my book and got drowsy. After an hour or so, I was restless and hungry, so I popped into the Center House to get an Orange Julius and a pizza dog. After eating, I rested on the grass again and tried to read, but my stomach was full, it was unusually hot, and I had been up late the night before… I couldn’t concentrate, couldn’t keep my eyes focused. Finally, I gave up and decided to take a short nap. Mmmm… the sun felt so comforting, so… sensuous. I drifted off peacefully.

I awoke groggily a couple of hours later. Bleary-eyed, I sat up. My shirt was sticking to my back, so I took it off, and felt much better. I tried again to focus on my book, but it was just too damn HOT to read. I closed my eyes. The grass felt strangely prickly against my skin, but not enough to keep me awake.

At 5:40PM, I sat bolt upright, looked at my watch, threw my shirt back on and ran to the Coliseum to get in line. Crap! What happened? I NEVER sleep that long during the day. My head was fuzzy, I felt queasy, and my mouth was all gummy. Ugh, I could still taste that pizza dog. And there was something else, something very wrong, hovering at the periphery of my consciousness.

The line formed, I stumbled into position, I entered the Coliseum. I noticed a few people looking at me with a mixture of bemusement and horror, but couldn’t figure out why; perhaps my hair was messy, or I had some blades of grass still stuck to me. I honestly had no idea. I was having enough trouble just staying upright, and I was distracted by other mysterious symptoms I was experiencing. Everything seemed much too loud, yet strangely muffled, as if the treble control had been dialed all the way down. You know that effect you see in movies sometimes when they actually strap the camera to the actor’s chest, and the actor’s face stays rigid in the frame, but the rest of the world is careening wildly behind him? It’s supposed to visually demonstrate the fact that the character is drunk or stoned or going insane, and it perfectly captures how I felt that night at the Tom Petty concert. Not only had someone messed with the treble control, now they had also cranked up the reverb. Another interesting thing: I seemed to be viewing everything through the distortion of a fish-eye lens, and the lights blurred crazily as I turned my head. I couldn’t figure out what the hell was wrong; I thought maybe I had the flu, or maybe I got a bad Orange Julius. A bad Orange Julius wouldn’t normally make your face feel hot and puffy, though, at least not in my experience.

I was miserable and delirious, but not so miserable and delirious that I stopped noticing the ladies. There was one particularly cute country-looking girl there, complete with overalls and boots. I was smitten, and tried to communicate that fact by grinning at her and working my eyebrows furiously. She noticed me, and I thought I was in business… until she did an exaggerated double-take, nudged her friend, and pointed at me. “Heh heh… she thinks I’m cute,” I thought. But then it appeared that she was pointing at my legs and, well… laughing. Country Girl also pointed at my arms and face. She and her friend were busting up about something, but I couldn’t suss it out. Was I covered in grass stains? Was there some dog crap on me somewhere? Mortified, I frantically examined my body to locate the object of their mockery, but I couldn’t find any dog crap on me, so I shrugged it off. She probably thought I was too “city” for her, I reassured myself. The hell with her! Anyway, my nausea, headache, incessant shivering and cold sweats made it easy to forget about Country Girl.

After what seemed like an eternity, the house lights went down, and the opening act, Lone Justice, took the stage. You remember Lone Justice – they had that one good song? The one that Tom Petty wrote for them? The one that sounded exactly like a Tom Petty song, and Tom Petty sang backup, and Tom Petty’s band played all the instruments? Remember?

It was loud, hot, and humid in the Coliseum, and I was still punchy. My brain didn’t seem to be working right. It was about three songs into Lone Justice’s set when I realized that I was running a fever. I don’t mean fever as in, “I think I’m running a little fever.” I mean fever as in, “Please do not stand within ten feet of my body, or you will be incinerated.” It felt more like radiation sickness or something, as if the heat pouring out of my body might actually distort visibility. Damn! I had paid good money for this ticket, and now I was getting sick! I kept telling myself that it was just a bad cold or a mild case of the flu, and that leaving the concert wouldn’t make any difference at this point. I would be just as sick at home, I reasoned, and I wouldn’t be rocking out to Tom Petty! I clenched my teeth and vowed to stand my ground. I had never walked out of a concert early before, and I wasn’t about to start. First of all, I had invested a whole day in this concert already. I could surely tough it out for another two hours. There was NO WAY I was gonna let a stupid head cold (or whatever it was) prevent me from hearing the Heartbreakers rip into “The Waiting” or “Refugee” or “Don’t Come Around Here No More,” even if the live versions did sound exactly note-for-note like the studio versions that I could listen to from the comfort of my bed at home. My mind was made up; I was staying, come hell or high water.

Then someone lightly brushed against my right arm. Visceral waves of unimaginable heat and razor-edged pain rippled outward from the point of impact, and I swooned. Thinking back on this experience, I can see that I must have been very stupid, because it was not until this moment that I noticed my lobster-red skin and realized I had been badly sunburned. But this was like no sunburn I had ever experienced; I felt dizzy, nauseous, it was having surprising effects on my vision, hearing, and capacity to think, and the pain was appalling. My t-shirt and shorts felt like they were lined with needles, and I ached to tear them off.

Meanwhile, Lone Justice resolutely twanged on and on. I guess I had hoped they would play their hit song a couple of times, then graciously leave the stage to make way for the headliners. Who knew Lone Justice had so many other songs? Good God, now they were playing Buffalo Springfield covers to pad out their set. I stood near the back of the general seating area, trying to avoid any more blindingly painful physical contact.

At last, Lone Justice left the stage, and the lights went up for intermission. My joints were aching, my mouth was dry, and the restless crowd sounded to me like a million Charlie Brown adults, squawking through broken megaphones. I greedily gulped tepid water from a drinking fountain, then sat shivering in a bathroom stall for a while before heading back out to the general admission area. 30 minutes later, the house lights went down, the stage lights came up, and Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers launched into their opening song. “Oh she was an A-MER-ican Girl… raised on PROM-ises!” Right on cue, the crowd went gonzo. I tried to keep my body safe, but hundreds of Petty fans were surging past me, dancing, shoving…

45 seconds into the first song, I gave up and headed for the exit. To my great relief, the sun was down and the temperature had dropped considerably. I removed my shirt, grateful that this horrible experience was ending. I would call my dad, he’d come pick me up, I could go home and apply aloe vera, take a cool shower… I located a pay phone and called home.

“You’re ready to be picked up NOW?”

“Y-y-y-yes.” I stammered, unable to keep my teeth from chattering.

“I thought the concert wasn’t going to be over until midnight or so? I mean, your dad – ”

“MOM!” I screamed. “I’m SICK! I n-n-need dad to p-pick me up right away!”

“But that’s what I’m trying to tell you – he’s not here.”

“WHAT?” I shrieked, my voice cracking.

“He’s out running some errands, and isn’t planning on picking you up until midnight.”

This was before everybody had two cars, before everybody had a cell phone – there was nothing to do but wait. I couldn’t think of anyone else to call, so I went to the designated pick-up location and waited for my dad. It was just after 10PM.

Half an hour later, sitting on the concrete steps by the street in nothing but my shorts, it seemed really cold for late July. I shivered and whimpered for a while, tried putting my t-shirt back on, then took it off again. 45 minutes passed, then a whole hour. Every square inch of my skin throbbed. Clenching my teeth was making my jaw ache. I rocked back and forth on the step, hoping the movement would cause a slight breeze against my upper body, but it only increased my nausea, so I stopped. Some cops stopped to ask if I was okay.

I tried to explain that my dad was on his way, and I was fine, not a drug addict, just sunburned, and that I had wanted to see Tom Petty, but I got sick and Lone Justice played too long, and –

“Okay, okay,” said the cop, holding up his hand. “We’ll be coming back this way in about 40 minutes, and I don’t want to see you here. Are we clear?” he demanded, pointing at his eyes like he was a Navy SEAL or something.

I nodded my understanding.

“And put your shirt back on, for God’s sake,” added the other cop. “This isn’t New Orleans, you know. We have public decency laws here in Seattle.”

They drove away, and I was alone again, on the concrete, feverish and frightened. About 20 minutes later, my dad drove up in the Volkswagen Bus.

“Your mother said you needed a ride,” he said, as I struggled to rise from the steps and climb into the bus with the least possible skin movement.

“I happened to get home early from my errands, and – ” he noticed my skin. “Looks like you got yourself a little sunburn.”

“I c-c-can’t talk right now. Just PLEASE g-g-get me home.” My teeth clacked loudly, my head shook, my eyes were glassy and wild.

“I think you need to go to the hospital.”

“Ok-k-kay.”

In the Northwest Hospital emergency room, my dad led me to the sign-in desk. Without looking up, the woman behind the counter pushed a form toward us.

“Fill this out, give me your insurance cards, and sign in on the sheet here. I’m warning you, there’s about a two-hour wait right… Oh my goodness. You look pretty bad. While your dad fills that out, why don’t you come with me.”

The nurse led me briskly down the hall, ushered me into an empty room, and undressed me. I felt like the most vulnerable consumptive orphan child, whimpering while the nurse efficiently removed my underwear. For the first time, I could see the contrast between my sunburned and non-sunburned skin, and it was frightening. Some parts of my legs looked purple.

“What exactly happened?” demanded the nurse.

“I w-w-was going to see Tom Petty, and Lone Justice played for too long, and I started to f-f-f-feel dizzy, and they only have one good song, and Tom Petty wrote that one, but people kept on b-b-b-bumping into me and – ”

“Okay… Jason, is it? How many hours were you in the sun today?”

“I d-don’t know,” I answered, and burst into tears.

“What time did you go outside?”

“I think about 11AM, but I – ”

“What time did you come in, out of the sun?”

“Around 6PM when the concert – ”

“Were you in any sort of shade?”

“Not really, because – ”

“And I’m going to assume you weren’t wearing any sunscreen? Is that correct?”

I nodded sheepishly, prompting a weary sigh from the nurse.

“Let me get this straight – you were in the direct sunlight for 7 hours, with no protection whatsoever?”

“I went in to get an Orange Julius once, around -”

“Jason,” she interrupted, “you’ve received a very serious sunburn. Before we can do anything else, it is crucially important that we bring down your body temperature.”

I tried to formulate an answer, but she was already marching me down the hall to another room, which held a sort of shallow tub on a table. After I climbed into the tub thing, the nurse draped heavy gauze all over my naked, burnt flesh. I assumed the gauze was there for the sake of modesty. I was wrong.

“Jason, I’m going to put some liquid coolant on the gauze. The gauze will hold the liquid in contact with your skin. This will lower your temperature, but it may seem cold at first.”

“Okay, but could I – JESUS!”

“Yeah, it’s pretty cold, huh?” she agreed, and chortled. “Here,” she held out some pills and a paper cup of water. “Take these for the pain.”

I took the pills, and the nurse disappeared with a promise to return soon. I remained, naked and charred, softly crying, under cold and wet sheets of gauze, in the empty room. Gradually, the intensity of the pain diminished, and I drifted in and out of consciousness. Some time later, a doctor appeared. Without introducing himself, he brusquely lifted one of the sheets of gauze, now stuck to my skin, and the pain erupted again.

“AAAAAHH!” I protested.

“Well, this isn’t the worst sunburn I’ve seen this year, but it’s darn close. Probably the second worst,” he mused, stroking his chin. “Actually, there was that kid from Matthews Beach – that was a bad one.”

I raised my head slightly and tried to ask a question. “Doctor, will there be any lasting damage from the – ”

“Nurse!” he barked, ignoring me completely. “Look at this sunburn. Worse than the kid from Matthews Beach?”

“Oh, definitely. Look how his skin is blistering here… and this patch is a much darker purple.”

“Mmm. That kid was pretty bad, though. Made a lot of noise, too…”

They left the room, still engrossed in their comparative analysis. I waited. An hour later, a different nurse appeared.

“Oh – why are you still here?” she demanded.

Eventually, I was allowed to get up and swab the remaining blue coolant from my body, and they sent me home with some pain medication and a tube of aloe vera. I stayed in bed for several days, and when my skin began to peel, it came off in flakes and patches and strips for several more days, making me look like some sort of post-apocalyptic zombie. I had to brush the dead skin out of the bed every time I got up, and my mom wouldn’t let me sit on the “good” sofa.

Oh well… I heard the Tom Petty concert wasn’t that good, anyway.

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