Is It Worth Being a Seat-Hog or Rope-Jumper at Concerts?

Music vet and New Times scribe Lee Zimmerman offers his insights, opinions, and observations about the local scene. This week: The scramble for seating.

I have a friend named Dan who won't go to a concert unless his tickets take him way up close. So close that he can see the sweat pouring from the artists' brows or read the buttons pinned to their lapels. Unless he's in, say, the fifth row or better, he's simply not satisfied. It seems like a badge of honor to him, so much so that if I tell him our tickets are midway back, he gives me this look that's a mix of pity and disapproval, a frown that clearly suggests that they never, ever would be suitable for him, because, after all, only the best seats will do.

Now mind you, I like sitting up close, and when it comes to pleasing my wife, it's almost a matter of necessity. Because if we're stuck all the way in the back of the house in the perennial nosebleed section, she makes it seem like we're sitting in another time zone.

"You couldn't do better than this?" she'll complain, insisting that while it may not be my fault, in reality, it is. Let's face it, great seats are like a prized trophy, an elitist distinction that tells us we're somehow better than the rest, that we're a member of the privileged few. So naturally, I value it as much as the next guy. But we also need to face the fact that great tickets come with a cost, a cost that's not always measured in money.

That's what I tell Dan anyway. Admittedly, though, it's an excuse to disguise my disappointment and hide my envy. I say I don't want to be close enough to make eye contact with the performers. It feels awkward, and besides I don't want to distract them from the task at hand. Of course, when we managed to snag front row seats in the press pit at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival a couple of weeks ago, I felt like I had won first prize in the musical lottery, and all it took was a sure-footed stance and a focus on the target once the race to enter that area began. I'll be bragging to Dan about that, and hoping to win his approval.

Still, when I go to a concert with Dan, he makes it a challenge to scramble for better seats as if we're on a dare. It's cunning and illicit, but he takes great pleasure in trying to claim seats up-close and vacant. The man will even brave the forward part of a mosh pit, clinging desperately to the front fringes of the stage despite the crush of other revelers if that's what it takes for his up-close view. He'll make a dash to the front, hopscotching from one empty seat to another, guerrilla-style, until he's achieved his objective and reached the closest unoccupied seat to the stage. All the while, he defies the ushers and security guards to spot him as he makes his gains.

"Look," he'll tell me, "see how easy it is." It's as if he's challenging me to join in on his dare, knowing that my natural aversion to getting caught will likely hold me back. "It's too risky," I'll insist, knowing he won't be deterred even despite my warning. Most of the time, I'll follow his lead regardless, relishing the victory along with him and sharing in the satisfaction once we meet our objective.

Now mind you, I don't condone this behavior, and nor do I recommend that anyone else take this course of action. You take what you pay for, nothing more, nothing less. In my own defense, however, I have to say that oftentimes, I'm harangued and shamed into following Dan's lead.

Still, for most concerts, the need to sit up close is often mooted by the placement of giant jumbotrons that can bring the action front and center no matter where one sits. Even though if you wanted to watch a concert on a big screen, you might as well save your money and stay at home.

On the other hand, when you attend as many festivals as I do, you accept the notion that it's all but impossible to situate yourself up close every time. It's simply not the nature of the beast. At Bonnaroo last year, I ran from venue to venue, hoping to catch certain bands in more intimate surroundings. The Red Hot Chili Peppers performance proved a nightmare; as I tried to work my way through the crowd, I became paranoid with the thought of what it would be like once the show was over. Would I be crushed by the hordes as they opted to escape?

As it was, I became trapped up against a fence while retreating, the victim of a woman who shimmied me from behind as she did a bump and grind to the music, completely oblivious to my presence. I tried making my way to another stage, thinking all those that flocked to the Chili Peppers' set must have abandoned the other other venues and left them vacant. Yet, amazingly enough, that was never the case. Ben Folds Five, Alice Cooper, Alabama Shakes, all their shows were similarly jammed, leaving no doubt the masses were bound to overflow no matter who the performers were or where their sets were taking place.

All this leads to the moral of this tale. And yes, dear reader, there is a lesson in all this, one that will still no doubt be lost on people like Dan and anyone else for whom front row seats are prized possessions. My wife Alisa was at Woodstock -- albeit at a very young, perhaps illegal age. And while she was nowhere near the front of the masses, and her memories of seeing the Who and Joe Cocker and Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young are sparse at best, she still can claim bragging rights for having been there.

Indeed, when you look back in years to come and tally up the musical experiences you witnessed, sometimes it's not about recalling the color of a singer's bandana or the inscription on his or her belt buckle, or a knowing wink in their eye. It's more about your ability to brag that you shared in the celebration and to actually experience the joy of a collective dance.