I saw Tony Bennett and the Ramones live in concert in the mid 1990s. Yes, in the same concert. It was the best show I ever saw. I know this because for the next 24 years I reduced the entire experience to an effective bit of small talk, a one-liner that came out in the car en route to music festivals or while chatting with seatmates before a show.
“Best show you ever saw?”
“Tony Bennett and the Ramones.”
“Tony Bennett and the Ramones? What?”
As a conversation starter, this phrase transcended audiences of strangers, friends and family through sheer incongruity: How did a Greatest Generation crooner end up playing on the same stage as pioneers of punk?
In honor of American treasure Anthony Dominick Benedetto’s recent (Aug. 3) ninety-third birthday, let us journey past the deep-worn grooves of my favorite anecdote.
Two decades on, I couldn’t tell you much about this “best show I ever saw” beyond the fact that it occurred. I knew Bennett was a surprise guest at the end of a summer music festival, and that audience members reacted first with confusion, then delight. The annual HFStival, a day of alternative rock produced by the now-defunct Washington, D.C. radio station WHFS, was legendary in the minds of anyone who was ever a teenager within reach of its broadcast. HFStival came to RFK Stadium every summer, and in two or three years the festival had given me my first taste of a mosh pit (I left quickly, dodging spilled beer, wondering who was making the captivating, haunting music I heard coming from the stage. “PJ Harvey,” a fellow mosher said). I saw Soul Asylum perform Runaway Train (remember that video?), and barely missed a mercurial Courtney Love, who walked off stage early in a huff. It was at HFStival that I learned how fast you had to run-walk from the upper decks of RFK down the street to catch the Metro before the last train left at midnight, following a transit schedule at baffling odds with rock concerts.
And, of course, it was at HFStival that I saw both Tony Bennett and the Ramones.
Not long ago, Tony Bennett came up again at a Yuletide Wynton Marsalis show I attended with my husband. I knew I had related this story many times during our years together, and yet, I felt compelled to tell him again, just to get under his skin, because I know he thinks of Tony Bennett like a god. Born in the wrong era, he owns several Tony Bennett albums, has elected, of his own volition, to watch Tony Bennett documentaries, and dare I say, gets a little misty-eyed when speaking of the man. But despite his obvious devotion, my husband had never seen Tony Bennett live in concert, as I had. And this bothers him. I mentioned my Tony Bennett connection during the Wynton Marsalis intermission expressly because my husband was, at that moment posing for a photo with Bennett’s signed photo on the wall of the concert venue, a photo that he had requested that I take in order to post it to Facebook, perhaps the only social-media post that he had ever requested.
“I saw him with the Ramones,” I said.
“You’ve mentioned that,” my husband grumbled.
And I felt bad. Tony Bennett had been wasted on high-school me. If my husband had seen Tony Bennett live in concert, no matter his age, he would have remembered at least one song he played. He would have remembered the entire set list and little details about stories he told, his twinkly eyes. I told my husband that I felt fairly certain Bennett had sung “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” but this just made things worse. I was dead certain that the Ramones had played “Wanna Be Sedated,” at this concert, but I don’t think my husband gave a flip about the Ramones.
I knew the Ramones had played “Wanna Be Sedated” because when I hear that song, it brings me back to that day, and, even though the Ramones released it in 1978, I feel the zeitgeist of the late 1990s from a primal and essential part of my being. I feel my favorite red-checked flannel shirt against my arms, the draft passing through the strategically ripped holes in the knees of my jeans. I see fuzzy dice hanging from the rearview mirror of my old Honda Civic. I feel sad about Kurt Cobain all over again. As sad as when I decorated a fishing tackle box with the below collage to render it fit for my teenage-angst-fueled CD collection.
Music brings memories, but memories play tricks.
I wondered, had I really seen Tony Bennett and the Ramones live in concert? Had I told the story so many times that I my brain had encoded a false memory?
Late one night, I cranked up the Ramones and turned to Google.
Warily, I turned to Google.
Did I want to know? Would the reality live up to the memory? Would Tony Bennett and the Ramones remain the best show I’d ever seen? If not, what would I use as a concert conversation starter?
Typing “Tony Bennett and the Ramones” into the search box, I expected to have to dig through results or comb a newspaper’s archives. My youth happened in a time before the Internet.
But no, my answer came up right away, the third item, a Washington Post concert review from June 5, 1995 (the “Nasty Display of Love” headline, not so fair to Courtney or womankind).
“Polly Jean Harvey’s emotive, full-throated singing brought out the layers of pain, longing and lust in songs such as ‘Come on Billy,’
“Soul Asylum produced a set packed with numbers from its 1993 hit album, ‘Grave Dancers Union,’ …”
“During Tony Bennett’s brief interlude of gentility and style that followed Soul Asylum, it was remarkable to see the denizens of the mosh pit cease body-surfing to clap calmly along to ‘Old Devil Moon’.
“The Ramones, who closed the show … showed no signs of slowing down. They barely paused between their breakneck renditions of such classics as ‘I Wanna Be Sedated’ and ‘Rockaway Beach.'”
Like my fellow audience members watching Tony Bennett come out onstage after Soul Asylum, I reacted to this Google find first with confusion, then delight.
This could not be the right concert.
But it was the right concert.
It was more than the right concert.
It was a combination of three of the greatest concerts I thought I had ever seen, all rolled into one. My memory had played tricks on me. In my mind’s Greatest Hits reel of HFStivals I had attended in high school, the scenes were not from a trilogy as I recalled, but one movie: Tony Bennett at the same show as not only the Ramones but also a grunge pantheon: Courtney Love, PJ Harvey, Soul Asylum! Reality, as recorded in history’s first draft by Post correspondent Rob Pegoraro, was better than the memory.
On second read, the date caught my eye: June 5, 1995. I had attended this concert at fifteen, unchaperoned? In an atmosphere aptly described in the review as “sun, sweat and beer”? Still curious, I decided that an answer to this question would be worth blowing a forgotten cover story that had held for 24 years.
Cringing, I asked my mom whether she remembered letting me go to the HFStival as a high-school sophomore.
“You must have thought it was like a garage band festival or something,” I said, laughing nervously. “Did you know it was Courtney Love?”
“Oh yeah, I remember that concert,” she said. “People at work asked me if I’d let you go to that.”
She shrugged. “Why not?”
My mom has a favorite concert tale too. While working as a junior counselor at a camp in upstate New York in the summer of 1969, she heard about a music festival happening nearby, on a farm, near Woodstock. Fifty years ago, this coming weekend.
In the litany of great shows my mom has seen, Woodstock was The One that Got Away. She would never have let her daughters miss their Woodstock. When we wanted to see a concert, she found a way to make it happen.
Pegoraro’s dispassionate take on the 1995 HFStival in the Post that day lacked Woodstock-level enthusiasm. But years later, even he had to admit, that he had witnessed something special on the day that Tony Bennett and the Ramones came together. He mentioned it more recently in his personal blog, “It’s been real, RFK”, which also popped up in my search.
“Washingtonians tend to have long memories about RFK.”
“For Generation X DC however, RFK+ concert will always equal HFStival. That all-day music festival put on by the long-gone modern-rock station WHFS packed the stadium and its parking lots every summer in the mid 1990s. “Seeing Soul Asylum, Tony Bennett (?) and the Ramones closeout that first show from the risers was definitely one of those ‘I can’t believe I’m being paid to do this’ moments.”
As it turned out, the answer had always dwelled not in cyberspace, but in my hoarder pile. Recently, I found a 1995 HFStival T-shirt, created, most likely, without official authorization; purchased, no doubt, in the stadium parking lot; and turned, ultimately, into a quilt. For some reason, the creator listed the most enduring performers at the bottom, in the fine print. You won’t find Tony Bennett here. He was a surprise.
As I hit middle age, the Tony Bennett and the Ramones anecdote has become my old-timer tale that the millennials in my life placate snarkily (“The 1990s! What an exciting time to be in high school!”) Most of those HFStival bands lacked staying power. The kids moved on to new artists; digital files, then streaming, replaced compact discs.
But one thing hasn’t changed at all: Tony Bennett. At 93, he has bridged the generations; his duet partners have ranged from a young, classic Frank Sinatra; to tragic GenXennial Amy Winehouse, and now millennial icon Lady Gaga. Tony Bennett has only gotten better since his comeback.
And I was there for the start of his second act.
With the Ramones.
Stop me if I’ve told you this story before.
Meghan Meyer has traded the metaphorical DC swamp for the real one in Florida, where she writes.