I walked in through the alleyway door of Tattoo and was immediately hit by a wall of sound. The sound check had already begun for the show that night. I arrived at the venue early in the hopes of getting some instruction for the days ahead but it was too loud for any conversation. I sat in a booth with the venue’s other volunteers, mute on account of the volume of the drum test. It seemed the drummer’s playing style was beating the shit out of the drums. A moment of silence came after fifteen minutes of booming, only to the broken again by the Sleigh Bells sound check. Their set up instructions read “The Sleigh Bells show is LOUD.” The sound check was certainly true to the show description. Finally, I was waved into the entrance way to get some instructions about the night to come. I was working the door as a NXNE volunteer at a Queen West bar that was the focus of a Red Bull showcase. Having been given provisional instructions, I stood awkwardly behind the closed dooring waiting to direct people. I looked like the festival’s female Huck Finn, wearing ripped jeans and Birkenstocks. At half past eight, the bouncer leaned into the doorway and said, “We’re ready.”
The hours that followed were filled with a cacophony of noises and split second encounters as I gestured people towards the appropriate lines. There was no conversation, just a directions or a brief exchange of words. Glances, gestures, and at 1:15, I was allowed to leave. I walked out into the Queen West night, thinking. I signed up for this to find a story, but there was no story, just four hours of synth pop. No faces stood out, no sounds. I couldn’t even give an adequate review of any of the shows. It was all a mess, and the only thing I could think to say was, “I’m tired.”
I arrived later the next night, and the crowd came earlier. I was tired of the synth pop soon after it started. I stood out in front of the venue with two of the bouncers, Justin and Rob, who were feeling similarly unenthusiastic about the music. After some time contemplating the setting sun, Justin asked me why I decided to volunteer with NXNE. I told him I was a writer and I mainly did it because I was looking for something to write about. Rob came back from checking up on everything inside and said of the performer, “He’s got the rhythm!” At least someone was other than the performer and his father standing in the crowd was feeling the show.
I had caffeinated well for the Friday night show, knowing that the people at Tattoo expected a big crowd for A$AP Ferg. The night started as the previous two had, with an initial rush and a period of calm. Tonight was the hip hop edition of the Red Bull showcase. From eight until one, I heard nothing but hip hop. When I told Justin that I appreciated the change, he said, “Just wait.” It was 9:30 on the longest day of the year when the sun started to set and the line started to form. I hurried back to my position inside — in sneakers, rather than my Huck Finn sandals — and prepared for the mob to descend.
I was in South Beach as a fourteen year old on the night of a Ludacris concert, and even that night could not compare to the number of grills I saw the night of the A$AP Ferg concert. It was like something out of a Nelly song when the people started to roll in. The hip hop duo on stage was screaming out “Fuck the police!” while I tried to keep the line flowing. By eleven, the venue had reached capacity, and my fellow volunteers and I were free to watch A$AP Ferg. I noticed a remarkable mix of men who looked like old school rappers and men who looked like frat boys. (The women varied a bit more.) When A$AP Ferg actually came on, no one was going crazier than the frat boys. The highlight of my night was watching a short guy wearing Lacoste hop on one foot while he sang out, “I got hella hoes!” The discussion that ended our volunteer shift was whether or not A$AP Ferg wore his grills while he smoked weed. Grills or not, he certainly managed to hotbox the basement of the venue.
I arrived for the what was supposed to be the craziest night at the venue with a coffee in one hand and a free granola bar in the other. The bouncers high fived me when I walked up to the venue. I met with the team of volunteers, then took advantage of the quiet before Tattoo’s opening to stand outside. “How’s the writing going?” Justin asked. “I haven’t found the story yet,” I replied, “but I’m getting close to it.” The line up started at 8:30 and went around the block by nine. We reached capacity long before Future Islands began, so I was free to watch the shows that night while the bouncer dealt with the chaos outside. Future Islands put on a great show for the capacity venue, adding to their welcoming address that they felt really bad for everyone standing outside in line. When their show ended around one, the mob that had descended hours earlier streamed out of the venue. In the crowd, I saw a mix of artists from other venues, local and national celebrities, and guys who seemed to have finally stumbled out of the venue after too much time partying with A$AP Ferg. (Read: more grills.) My friends the bouncers continued letting people in based on priority, so I was free to watch the Mac Demarco show. When he stepped on stage, he gave an opening of pancakes, blue balls, good to see you looking well, Toronto, before he went into “Salad Days.” By way of introduction, he said he was Mac Demarco and this was his band, but for the evening, we could call them “the Poo Band.” I couldn’t make something like this up. My fellow volunteer and I agreed that we hadn’t made sense of a word he had said since he stepped on stage. After a few more chilled out songs, I said goodbye to everyone I had worked with and took off down Queen St. eating an apple.
“The only way to prepare for a trip like this, I felt, was to dress up like human peacocks and get crazy, then screech off across the desert and cover the story. Never lose sight of the primary responsibility.
“But what was the story? Nobody had bothered to say. So we would have to drum it up on our own. Free Enterprise. The American Dream. Horatio Alger gone mad in drugs in Las Vegas. Do it now: pure Gonzo journalism.” Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson
I decided to volunteer for NXNE because I heard about the opportunity and thought, What would Hunter do? I concluded that he would get inside, see the show and find the story. It only took me a few hours at Tattoo to realize that Hunter wouldn’t have been volunteering at a music festival. He would have been in the green room with A$AP Ferg or finding a way to get on Mac Demarco’s level. At the very least, if the Fear and Loathing days are anything to go by, he would have chewed up a couple of blotters in the bathroom. But that wasn’t my story. I had to find the story when I was given the opportunity to find it. I had to immerse myself in the madness in whatever way I could. An event is made a story through the act of telling it. What was the story? I have no NXNE story except the one you have just read.
Song of the Day: “Seasons (Waiting on You)” by Future Islands