Thursday, April 27, 2017

My Own Private Elton John Concert

Facebook is exploding today with the list-10-bands thing. I'm sure you've seen it: people list 10 bands but only nine they've actually seen in concert, and then everyone replies with their guess as to which band is the fake, etc. It's really quite exhausting. But it got me reminiscing…

When I was an undergrad at Texas Tech, I had a job working for the athletic department in the Double T Shoppes. We sold Tech clothing, tchotchkes, car flags, noisemakers, and all kinds of red and black fanfare flare. We also set up vending booths at all of the Tech football, basketball, and baseball games. It was really kind of fun, and a whole new world for me—a kid from New York exploring my West Texas roots, excited for my very first job outside of the family business I grew up in—and soon after I started as a student assistant, they gave me quite a bit of responsibility and realized that I had a good eye for setting up displays and working with store layout and stuff.

In October of 1999, Texas Tech University built an enormous new Spanish Renaissance-style basketball arena: the United Spirit Arena. It was/is massive, and soon after I started working with the department we had the opportunity to open a brand new, gleaming Double T Shoppe in the new arena's main lobby—the first thing you would see when you walked through the main doors. So I worked as part of the team that set that store up, figured out where everything would go, got the product mix right, and on opening day it was a big hit! (And it happened about the same time as a big logo revamp for the university—going from a 2D to a 3D style "Double T" logo, which I, as a marketing major, totally nerded out over.)

Working in the brand spankin' new arena was a blast! I got to know its back entrances, unseen corridors, and inner workings; it was quite an impressive machine! And it just so happened that our shop was between the basketball coaches' offices, and Marsha Sharp at the time was the NCAA Champion Lady Raiders Head Coach. She was a local hero, and my office neighbor.

And then we hired Bobby Knight to coach the men's basketball team: the Red Raiders. His decision to move to Lubbock to join the Tech family was a whole giant event in itself because he was fresh off of his Indiana University drama and starting a new chapter in his legendary career. We had shirts made to welcome him, and for the longest time, upon every entrance he made to the arena, we blasted "Night Fever" (but of course spelled it "Knight Fever"). It was all in good fun, and Coach Knight was really a good sport. I truly enjoyed working near Coaches Sharp and Knight, and when I graduated they both signed a basketball for me—a piece of memorabilia that I regrettably sold years ago, trying to make ends meet during a figure-it-out moment.

(I know this article is about Elton John. And I'm sure at this point you're all kinds of wondering how that's going to fit into this story which, up until now, seems to be about basketball. But obviously I'm busy name dropping right now. And I'll get to Elton soon, I promise. I'm setting the stage…)

I started running (or at least was a lead on the team that ran) the vending for all of the Lady Raider and Red Raider basketball games at the new arena. For a kid that never really understood or cared about sports growing up, I caught a serious case of Raider fever; I never missed a game! So after a few months of kicking serious tail doing the arena's sporting event vending, I was approached by a promoter who was planning to hold some major concerts at our brand new venue. He needed a local team to set up vending for the artists' merchandise and offered to pay a significant sum (for a poor college kid like me, anyway) if I and a few coworkers of mine helped him out. So, of course, I jumped at the opportunity!

Elton John was slated to play the inaugural concert at the United Spirit Arena. We hadn't hosted a concert yet, so I got to the arena incredibly early to make sure the booths were set up correctly, get to know the product that we'd be selling, and do all of the responsible things that a hardworking 20-year-old who's trying to make a really good impression does. After setting up and making everything look fantastic, I had quite a bit of time to kill before the doors opened. And it just so happened that Elton had come out to the stage to warm up and do some sound checks.

No one was in the arena; the seats were empty. Elton was on stage, wearing a pink wind suit (wind suits were still kind of a thing then) (at least I think it was a wind suit) (maybe it was a warm-up suit) (whatever) and fluffy slippers, sitting at a gigantic piano. A few sound technicians were around, tweaking mics and speakers and running tests. But Elton didn't pay them much attention. He just played and sang—as free as ever, with talent that simply just cannot be described. His fingers danced on the keys, performing what can only be explained as music magic.

I wandered down to the front row of a section near the stage and took a seat—just me, sitting alone in a cavernous, brand new 15,000-seat arena, not 10 yards away from Rocket Man himself. He kept playing, and for all that mattered it was just for me (and the sound people, and the lighting people, and of course for his warm up … but this is my story, so indeed it was just for me). At one point, he looked at me and we made eye contact. In my head now, 17 years later, I remember him giving me a big smile … but honestly that could be imagination mixing with memory. Though he most certainly did look at me and we had a moment—very brief, but a moment—and a connection. Sir Elton Hercules John was giving me a private concert, and for a few minutes I just sat there in blissful wonderment, breathing it all in.

Eventually, my moment ended and Elton got up and went to his dressing room, likely to change out of his fluffy slippers and pink wind suit and into his sequined blazer and giant glasses for the big show. And so I went back to the vending booths, tweaked displays, and waited for the crowd.

We sold a lot of shirts that night, and from the concourse I thoroughly enjoyed the first major concert we held at the United Spirit Arena. From that point on, we played host to a number of acts, and I had the privilege of similar experiences with KISS, the Dixie Chicks, Pearl Jam, WWE, Jars of Clay, and others.

I understand that the Double T Shoppe at the United Spirit Arena ended up closing. At least, I think it did. I was back a few years after graduation to visit family in Lubbock and was shocked to see it wasn't there anymore. Perhaps that grand entrance spot could be used for something else? Perhaps it was rebranded? I really don't know. Because it was pre-social media, I missed a lot of news from my alma mater in the years after I left. So all I have are good memories—memories, perhaps mixed with a bit of time-passing-fantasy—like those of the early evening on February 8, 2000, when Elton John looked me in the eyes, smiled, and sang to me … just for me.

#TexasTech #UnitedSpiritAreana #MarshaSharp #BobbyKnight #LadyRaiders #RedRaiders #EltonJohn #RocketMan #AskUncleMarty