It happens to all venues eventually, I know, but this time it kind of hits home: for the first time since its 1977 inception, Alpine Valley won’t host any concerts this summer, and it may be in jeopardy of closing permanently. Tucked in rolling hills of southern Wisconsin, Alpine Valley is a spectacular site for a large concert, but it’s miles from nowhere and has fallen victim to the likes of Wrigley Field and Soldier Field, two Chicago venues that are hosting more concerts than in the past.
Nonetheless, Alpine Valley remains an integral part of my memory’s concert vault. It's the venue where I experienced the inimitable thrill of witnessing not just a show, but an Event, larger than life and at times life-affirming. I attended eleven shows during those hot, summer nights of my youth:
1984 Bruce Springsteen
1984 Rod Stewart
1984 Elton John
1985 Tom Petty with Til Tuesday
1987 Tom Petty with Del Fuegos and Georgia Satellites
1989 Elvis Costello with Cowboy Junkies, Violent Femmes and Edie Brickel and New Bohemians
1990 Billy Joel
1990 Jimmy Buffett
1991 Elvis Costello with BoDeans
If I could go back on see one of these shows again, it would be the first: Supertramp’s Famous Last Words show from 1983, the last tour with Rodger Hodgson. I may have enjoyed Springsteen and Stewart and Petty and the rest, but I lived for Supertramp. They spoke directly to me and my brooding teenager sensibilities. Hodgson sang about living a meaningful life in a world that didn’t understand you, and regardless of what Rick Davies sang about, he did so with cynicism and anger. I identified with both. I memorized their lyrics, labored over their piano patterns, and studied their albums' liner notes and intricate cover art. At their Alpine Valley concert, the opening segment on the movie screen of a tightrope walker about to fall to his doom as Bob Seibenberg attacked his kick drum prior to the opening of "Crazy" was the perfect introduction to my amphitheater concert-going experience.
The biggest show for me by far was Springsteen’s 1984 performance, the first of two nights. (The second night can be streamed on youtube, but I sure do wish the first show was available.) Bruce was just about to hit his peek, “Dancing in the Dark” was on just about every frequency along the radio dial, his voice was forceful and confident as opposed to the twang he’s adopted over the past couple of years, and when the first booming note of “Born in the USA” kicked off the show, the rumbling cacophony of 25,000 fans filled my gut with a palpable thrill. I’m not sure I’ve equaled that level of excitement at any concert I’ve attended since.
That same summer, Elton John toured his last decent album (IMO), Breaking Hearts, and sped through a cocaine-induced set that I enjoyed at the time, but in hindsight was probably really mediocre. I’ve listened to recordings of that tour, and they suffer from the constant drone of a synthesizer mimicking strings and other sounds from the studio recordings. They also suffer because Elton was a performer who was tired of performing, so much so that this was supposed to be his final tour. Har har. On a brighter note, I may have witnessed the last Elton John tour during which he was able to belt out the high notes in all their falsetto glory. Elton likes the way his voice sounds now compared to his younger years, but to me, give me Elton pre-1985. Among the purest and most flexible voices I’ve ever heard, and hearing him sing "One More Arrow" was worth the price of admission.
Rod Stewart and Jeff Beck may have started off the Camouflage tour together, but by the time Steward came to East Troy, Beck had had enough and was likely happily sipping a martini in England without his pain-in-the-ass colleague. A terrific replacement was recruited, and at the Alpine Valley show an audience member proudly displayed a home-made sign that read, “Jeff who?” In front of my brother and me was a gorgeous blonde who was taking photos of the show and who promised to send us some prints. She never did.
It was on my return trip from Tom Petty’s Southern Accents show in 1985 – a tour that sported a regrettable giant Confederate flag as a stage backdrop, and an almost equally regrettable horn section – that I received an East Troy welcome in the form of a speeding ticket, as I was going a whopping 67mph in a 55mph section of highway (it’s now 65). I wasn’t the only one. It was Wisconsin's favorite way to thank visitors for spending money at the local venue. My buddy Jim did his best to support my case with the officer, but a ticket was issued before the cop even put his car in drive.
That same day a fellow fan in the parking lot heard me ruminating over my wish for a classic Yes reunion by mentioning their epic track, “Gates of Delirium,” and he yelled “YES,” kneeled down on the ground in front of me and echoed my feelings, after which we spent five minutes discussing all the great songs we’d like to hear a reunited band perform. The shirtless man had cut his knee on a piece of broken glass when reacting to my plea, and said, “It was worth it. We’re like Yes blood-brothers.”
Lou Reed was to open up for Elvis Costello in 1989, but he cancelled and was replaced by The Cowboy Junkies, who paid tribute with their rendition of “Sweet Jane.” It was also during this show that my buddy Todd looked to his friends from England as Elvis sang a spectacularly subtle performance for such a large venue of “Tramp the Dirt Down,” during which he spouted the venomous lyrics:
When England was the whore of the world, Margaret was her madam
During the Jimmy Buffet show in 1990, the old folks yelled at my gaggle of college pukes to sit the hell down. At the Billy Joel show that same year, he bragged about getting to sleep with Christie Brinkley. And you know what? Even decades after their divorce, he’s still entitled to brag about that one!
Just two weeks later, Stevie Ray Vaughan and four others died in a helicopter accident as it was leaving the venue.
Elvis capped off my Alpine Valley experience in 1991, promoting an album that had no business at such a large venue, and the driving riff of “Pump it Up” was the last sound I’d ever hear in the lush, green hills of East Troy, Wisconsin. There are concerts I probably should have gone to since then (Radiohead comes to mind) but life gets complicated, bands become repetitious, and now if I really need to see a concert at a big venue, Miller Park and Wrigley Field are a-callin’. Live Nation claims they will book shows for at Alpine Valley in 2018, but I have a hunch we may have seen the last concert at East Troy.
And I have to wonder, how the heck are Wisconsin's finest going to reach their ticket quota absent concerts at Alpine Valley?