“Close your eyes, give me your hand … darling. Do you feel my heart beating?”
Earlier this week, I found myself swaying back and forth, a glass of Prosecco in my hand, belting out the lyrics to The Bangles’ “Eternal Flame,” my favorite song circa 1988. I was 8 years old when the tune came out and, at the time, it seemed far more important that I learn to tease my hair a la front woman Susanna Hoffs than study my multiplication tables for third grade math. I put even more effort into memorizing the lyrics to “Walk Like An Egyptian.” The song remains my karaoke standard to this day.
As I looked around the packed club at the large number of iPhones being held in the air, capturing the moment on video, it occurred to me that “Eternal Flame,” a song that had sounded so deep to me as a kid, was actually kind of trite. But I pushed the thought from my mind. I wasn’t hear to evaluate the artistic merit of the music I had loved when I was younger—I was here simply to revel in the fact that I had loved it. As the song ended, Susanna took a moment to address the crowd with some heartfelt words. “It’s the 30th anniversary of The Bangles,” she said. “All the love you’ve given to us, we want to give back to you.”
I jumped up and down, clapping wildly. And something occurred to me—I realized that I am a reunion tour junkie.
For me, this fixation started when the Pixies reunited back in 2004. The seminal indie band—one that Kurt Cobain often noted as a major influence—flamed out in 1993 when frontman Frank Black announced to the BBC that the band was over. He subsequently sent notice via fax to Joey Santiago and Kim Deal. The dynamic between the band seemed so toxic that no one thought they’d ever assemble on a stage to play their signature meld of surf rock and punk again. But a decade later, they announced a “one time only” reunion tour. I attempted to be one of the first in the cyber line for tickets. But by the time my internet got through, the only tickets available were for a show an hour and a half outside the city in New Jersey. I gladly took them. My roommate and I put on ad on Craigslist, trying to find a non-crazy person with a car who would be interested in swapping a ride for a ticket. It worked. A few months later, I had tears in my eyes as I rocked out to “Gigantic” and “Where Is My Mind.”
The Pixies reunion tour grossed $14 million in ticket sales and ended up being extended through 2005, 2006, and 2007. In 2010, the band even repeated the feat. I saw the Pixies reunite a grand total of six times. And I won’t lie—each and every time was wonderful.
Soon after, Pavement—another seminal ’90s indie rock band—announced that they were reuniting. Tickets for their New York concert went on sale a full year in advance. I logged in at the stroke of noon to purchase tickets and, though they went in two minutes flat, I was one of the lucky ones to see Stephen Malkmus and the crew together on a stage for the first time since 1999. Listening to the band play “Spit on a Stranger” and “Gold Soundz” made my inner 16-year-old very happy.
In general, I like my reunion tours in two flavors—’80s groups I adored when I was in elementary school and the ’90s bands of my teenage years. And the past two years have given me both in spades. In the first category, I broke out my jean jacket to see Tiffany and Debbie Gibson tour together. (I flirted with the idea of seeing NKOTBSB, but just couldn’t get down with the Backstreet Boys part.) In the second category, I witnessed the reunifications of Superchunk (who have lost none of their frenetic energy over the years), The Dismemberment Plan (whose final show I was actually at in 2003), The Descendents (seeing Milo Aukerman in person was priceless), and Smashing Pumpkins (if you can call them that—it was basically Billy Corgan and a bunch of new people. Still, “Rat in a Cage” was cathartic.)
Looking back at this list of reunion shows, I realize that I have plunked down hundreds of dollars to see my favorite bands of yesteryear perform again. Which brings me to the question: why?
In some ways, reunion shows kind of suck. Years past their prime, bands rarely play very tightly—even if they’ve practiced out the wazoo. And then there’s the highly anticipated moment when the lights dim and the band walks onstage and your inevitable first thought is, Wow. They look so much older than I remembered. Plus, like with The Bangles, it puts you in the unfortunate place of listening to songs now that you loved as a much less experienced listener—sometimes they hold up, and sometimes they don’t. See: when Archers of Loaf, a classic indie rock outfit from my hometown, reunited. I excitedly brought their CDs over to my boyfriend’s place, assuming he would be as enchanted with their choppy riffs, layered pings, and absurdist lyrics as I was. “It sounds really …” he said, trailing off. He could have ended his sentence with “muddy” or even “juvenile.” I still loved their albums, but they just weren’t the same as I remembered in my 17-year-old, hungry-for-something-different ears. Luckily, their musicianship at the reunion show was far superior to that old recording, vaulting them back to hometown hero status.
So why do I subject myself to this? I’m not exactly sure. I think it has something to do with the oddness of time—the way it bends and twists while simultaneously moving in a measured timeline. In some ways, it feels like eons since I was an angsty teenager with overly Manic Paniced hair. In some ways, it feels like it was just a few days ago. Going to a reunion show somehow affirms both of these things at the same time. You know it’s been a long time since you’ve seen this group perform and yet, the lyrics come instantly rushing back, even if you haven’t listened to a song in a decade. It’s a nice reminder of all the information packed into the folds of your brain.
But it’s more than that. Going to a reunion show puts you in a room full of people with whom you have something in common. For every song that was the soundtrack to one of your first teenage kisses, or that evokes a summer road trip, or that reminds you of a long-forgotten breakup you never thought you’d get over and then subsequently did—other people in the room are having similar memories dredged up at the exact same moment. You are on a nostalgia trip together, a beautiful shared experience. As you sing along to those lyrics you’d assumed you forgotten, people are doing the exact same thing all around you.
There’s also something so satisfying in seeing a band get a second shot. Last week, Neil Patrick Harris blew me away with this analogy—that a career is like surfing. You paddle out and out, trying to catch a wave. When you finally get one, it brings you back to the shore. Eventually, you have to paddle out again.
Going to a reunion show is like watching a band catch their second, sometimes even third, wave. Heading back into the public eye takes a certain boldness, a special brand of resilience. At a reunion show, band members have a newfound humbleness that goes along with the usual rockstar swagger. It’s hard to imagine The Bangles being as emotional as they were last night in the ’80s, when they were touring arenas and making platinum records. When a band is on top, it’s easy for them to be distracted by the mundanity of it all—the interpersonal issues, the label skirmishes, the discomfort of being on the road. But during a reunion show, they just seem happy to be there, happy that people remember them, happy that they made an impact on people’s lives.
And so, to my ’80s and ’90s favorites who haven’t thought about reuniting, I say do it. If not for yourself, than at least for me.