On Meeting the Pet Shop Boys

Posted October 7, 2009 in

Neil rocks the crowd.

As any music fan will tell you, meeting a favorite artist or band can be a religious experience. One is given that rare chance to grab an autograph, a picture of or with their idols, a chance to tell that artist how much their music has meant to them, or just the opportunity to smile/wave or even just gawk at them. In my many years of fandom, I think Iʼve experienced it all with varying degrees of success. When my long-time favorites Pet Shop Boys announced their Fall “Pandemonium” tour with a chance to purchase a “VIP Meet and Greet” package, I jumped at the opportunity.

And this VIP package was not cheap, boys and girls, especially with our crazy economy right now: it was the near equivalent to buying 3 general admission tickets. I joked with friends that I had just committed musical prostitution, but I was secretly thrilled with the notion. I justified all of this by reasoning it was my own birthday present to myself (and it was, as the shows were scheduled within a week of mine) and immediately felt better. The Boys would be playing for two nights at the historic Warfield Theatre on Market Street in San Francisco and I purchased tickets to both nights, scheduling the meet and greet for the second night.

I made my purchase in the beginning of June and though a progression of events have triggered excitement for it (friends talking about it, then receiving my tickets in the mail, and finally receiving my instructions for the meet and greet) the reality that I would actually be meeting Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe didnʼt really hit me until they came onstage Tuesday, September 22, to very thunderous applause. As with each time Iʼve seen them, the ʻPandemoniumʼ show is visually stunning and like no other show Iʼve seen before. Dozens of white cardboard cubes filled the stage, with a keyboard on one end and a white cube booth (complete with Mac, presumably where Chris would be stationed) on the other. Out came two dancers dressed head to toe like living graphic objects right off the cover of their latest (and very awesome) album, “Yes,” (which is comprised of eleven colored squares--each representing an album track--arranged like a check mark). Inside their bodysuits are more boxes/cubes in interesting places, and their heads were covered with a different colored mesh box. The music had already started (the aptly titled “Magical dub” of “More Than A Dream” from “Yes”) and the two dancers tansformed into robots at the keyboard, striking keys in rhythm to the beat. Suddenly two sections of the white boxes are pulled away and out step Neil and Chris and they too have colored mesh boxes over their heads, and the dub segues into the unmistakable chords of “Heart,” and that nightʼs spectacular has officially begun. The crowd around me are going crazy and it is only the first song! A quick glance backward and to the balcony shows that the magic has touched the entire venue.

“Heart” is performed with the colorful head gear on and then when they briefly exit and return donning sun glasses, there is no mistaking Neilʼs excitement as the
music for their new hit “Did You See Me Coming?” starts and the crowd is clearly in love with it.

As their electrifying set continues to wow me, so do the costume changes, the dancers/back-up singers (there are four of them), the cubes, the projections and the tunes (from their remarkable 25 year plus back catalog) and for the first time, Chris is not just at the keyboards, he is suddenly playing these awesome electronic drums, to the delight of the audience. Here are never-before-played-live tracks “Two Divided By Zero,” and “Why Donʼt We Live Together?” where the background singers are now New York City skyscrapers and (on my second night when I was closer to the stage) their glee unmistakable as they sing through the slots in the cardboard and first dance around Neil and then as he exists, Chris leaves his platform and in his amazing “mirrored” jacket briefly dances with the buildings. It is a highlight both nights. Two of my favorite songs of the evening are the b-side “Do I Have To?” with Neil looking dapper in a tuxedo, followed by longtime favorite “Kingʼs Cross.” I have often told friends that I try not to “wish” for songs to be played at concerts, because often Iʼm disappointed. So when “Yes” favorite, “The Way It Used To Be,” starts and Neil announces the title, I think Iʼve just died happily. Those semi-tragic chords, the beat, and its achingly beautiful melody are perfection performed live.

Of course they perform their major hits (“Itʼs A Sin,” “Always On My Mind,” “Go West”) and it has all been very well thought out, as each section seems to top the one before. Also--which seems strange for a concert--it ends at just the right time. Donʼt get me wrong, I (and the whole theatre for that matter) would have loved it to go on and on-- but it seems like they leave on the right “high” for the night. The metallic confetti shot into the crowd seem to work best the first night (perhaps because of where I was standing on the second night?) and when those hypnotic and unmistakable chords of “West End Girls” start, it really is the perfect ending for this fantastic nightʼs entertainment.

The next day, as I wander around the Haight Ashbury area by Golden Gate Park, I try not to get too excited about meeting the Pet Shop Boys later that night. The day before my iPod was playing my deluxe extended “Yes” playlist repeatedly, but today Iʼm listening to “Please” (mainly because of seeing those rare tracks performed for the first time) and as I browse their section in the amazing Amoeba Records Iʼm impressed with their selection and it hits me again that Iʼm actually going to be meeting them! I also try not to over analyze what Iʼm going to say. Since most of my encounters with celebrity have been spontaneous or at least not “scheduled” like this one, I wonder what it will be like. The instructions said no photography would be allowed which would be more disappointing except there was no such restriction at the shows themselves. Also Iʼm
starting to regret not bringing some CD booklets or at least some smaller tour programs to get autographed; a risky choice this since the instructions say they would be autographing the VIP laminates, but when traveling so far, it would be just one more thing to pack and then lug back home. The night before I wore my “Welcome to the Sodom and Gomorrah Show” shirt from their last tour and it got a lot of compliments from the general admission crowd. I myself was most impressed with the two bears stationed right off the main floor in matching home-made (Iʼm guessing) orange “Very” t- shirts and orange caps, with huge grins on their burly faces. I buy a great “Pandemonium” tour shirt but the tour booth concessions girl is on her iPhone and vaguely agrees it is the right size (as it turns out it isnʼt) that has the European tour dates on the back of it. The line for the meet and greet starts at 5:30 and even though Iʼm only a block and a half from the Warfield, I realize at about 5:15 that the t-shirt is too small and Iʼll have to make another choice. I feel a minor panic attack coming as I review my remaining clean travel clothing and finally decide on a ringer T with no writing on it will work just fine.

It is insane to think that the show itself wonʼt really start for four more hours (with a DJ set as the opening act starting about an hour earlier) and Iʼm running around my rather cozy hotel room making sure I have everything for the night. It is now more than ever that I wish my childhood friend Kevin (Iʼve known him since we first met in kindergarten) who is a huge fan, could have gone too. But with so many kiddies and a wife to support, this would have been a considerable stretch on his finances. We had a blast at their last show in Salt Lake City in 2007, and I know he really loved the new album as much as I did, so it was disappointing when Salt Lake was not announced on the tour schedule. I could have used his calming effect of not taking things too seriously at that moment. The night before I actually forgot my ticket just as I was heading out to the show and had to lug it out of my locked luggage. Later, as “Heart” was heating up, I called Kevin randomly and just held up my cell phone so he could hear. He called me back a few tunes later, and I did the same thing, trying to include him in the magic the only way I could think of.

Finally I am ready and head the short distance from my hotel to the Warfieldʼs entrance on Market Street, where a fairly healthy line is already forming. The weather is how I like it: cloudy and slightly breezy, unlike the past few days in the City by the Bay, where it had reached 90 degrees. Luckily I have my iPod to listen to (and Iʼve switched back to my 40 track “Yes” playlist to help put me in the mood) but realize that people have indeed brought some rather cool things to have autographed. At that point I have nothing, as they havenʼt given us our VIP badges yet. The panhandlers are aggressive and even a little rude, to the point of telling a group of people ahead of me that they hope it is a “horrible” concert since they wouldnʼt cough up. The Warfield, unfortunately, is located in a seedier section of Market Street, and is the neighbor to a strip club just next door. But since there is safety in numbers and a Warfield employee keeps giving us updates (someone will be coming out shortly to verify our IDs, so please have your tickets handy) so the wait wasn’t bad.

Right before we are finally let into the venue, I strike up a conversation with another single male who also appears to be by himself. Thomas and I, fortunately, have an instant rapport and it is dawning on me again that Iʼm about to meet the Pet Shop Boys for the first time in person. There is another couple behind Thomas and the girl has a very cool PSB record sleeve purse that she explains was made for her by someone on ebay. As we head into the Warfieldʼs historic lobby (with its photos from past shows, and those famous posters designed specifically for each show and given to each audience member as they leave--a tradition that sadly seems to have ceased) I start seriously wondering what I can possibly say of interest to these legends in my head. Hundreds of ideas stumble over themselves and I wonder if Iʼll end up being that stupidly gushing fan who makes a fool of themselves or if I can just play it cool?

The line is moving, but not steadily and as we inch slowly towards our meet and greet destiny, I realize that the tour concessions are being set up and not only could I exchange my too small t-shirt, but I could also buy an extra poster for myself and Kevin and ask them to autograph those. Suddenly, all thoughts of what Iʼm going to say (or not say) vanish from my head as the first awestruck meet and greeters emerge. They have these rapturously happy faces and clearly look speechless. Many more start to exit and sit alongside the cushioned seats of the Warfieldʼs lobby, reviewing their autographed treasures. It is now or never with the poster purchase/exchange and Thomas kindly holds my place in line during my two attempts. Suddenly Iʼm next in line and a patient British man asks me if Iʼm alone and when I confirm this fact, he explains that he wouldnʼt want me to have my time with them compromised by sending me in with people I didnʼt know. My body literally tingles with electricity as I realize Iʼll be meeting the Boys alone!

And I do. The British gentleman advises me it is my turn to enter and I decide to play the humor card and I walk towards the Pet Shop Boys and mock bow to them (via Wayne and Garth meeting Madonna on SNL) but their mild amusement to this silences my “Iʼm not worthy...Iʼm NOT worthy” and instead I extend my hand first to a sitting Neil Tennant and then a sunglass and baseball cap-free standing Chris Lowe and I introduce myself as “Dean from Salt Lake City,” to which they inquire if Iʼm a Mormon. It is charming and instantly breaks the ice. I stupidly explain Iʼm not (and by “stupid” I mean because it is hard to be articulate) and Neil launches into a disarmingly quick aside about how Brandon Flowers (of The Killers) is and is always going on and on about it and rolls his eyes with a quick “Oh God!” and wins me over. I suddenly am inspired to tell them about my oldest friend in the world, Kevin, and how he was their biggest fan but couldnʼt come because he has 7 children and a wife to support, and then it is Chris who wins me over with his quick wit and asks if Kevin is a Mormon. When I confirm this, he then asks me--with a grin on his face--if his children are musically inclined. I have no idea and donʼt know how to respond, so he says that if they were they could be “The Osmonds Two.” This is hilarious to me and then Neil takes ahold of my VIP badge (which is around my neck) and signs it, followed by Chris. They are both so dapper and charming in the flesh and most refreshing of all, extremely laid back.

I try hard not to sound cliched, and while Iʼm not really sure if I completely succeeded, I thank them for continuing to make such great music, which has become-- like all classic music has over the years--a soundtrack of sorts to my life. I know I stumbled a bit in explaining this but tried to articulate how certain songs could instantly transport me to a certain place or time. Neil looked reflective as I explained this. Around this time I asked if they would be willing to sign a poster for poor Kevin and they couldnʼt have been nicer, and also when I asked if they would sign one for me as well. Chris said my friendʼs name a few times and I couldnʼt wait to tell him.

There was absolutely (and pleasantly) no pressure to end my encounter and had I listened to myself and brought more memorabilia, I know they would have obliged. Iʼm sure I blubbered more, and then decided I had taken up enough of their time as I knew others were waiting (like my new friend, Thomas) and I remember thanking them, mentioning that last nightʼs show “rocked,” and then as I was walking away, Chris reminding me to tell Kevin about the new groupʼs name. It was both hilarious and the perfect ending. And then it was my turn to exit to the lobby with that contagious and awestruck look on my face. I caught it on Thomasʼ face too as he exited. It was a unique thing to hear about his encounter and how he had told them he bought “Yes” in London, but couldnʼt find the limited one and Neil telling him that he had seen it for sale in a record shop by the Castro.

When the meet and greet was finally over, and the staff allowed us to enter into the floor area before the general public (which was part of the whole VIP experience) I met four new very excited and very friendly fans. We were lucky enough to secure our positions right against the front barricade and all shared bits and pieces of our recent encounters with Neil and Chris. Thomas came up front for a while but decided he wanted to move around a bit. My new friends couldnʼt believe that I had travelled so far to see them, which was very flattering. When the show finally started (and you must understand the excitement of having just met them and then to be right on the front row) Neil speaks to the crowd for the first time, standing literally a few feet from us, and says how nice it is to see so many familiar faces up front, which is extra icing on the cake. Tonightʼs show is incredibly entertaining and the energy level actually seems to have increased from the night before. And I donʼt know how they do this, since the night before was so contagiously exciting.    I, like everyone around me, take far too many pictures and Iʼm actually sad when the lights come up after the final encore of “West End Girls.”

Thomas seeks me out to shake my hand and he is blown away by what he has just witnessed. We have spoken about other shows on DVD (since this was his first time seeing them) and I secretly hope that there will be a DVD release of this show, but even if there isnʼt, I have so many great memories of finally meeting the Pet Shop Boys that it wonʼt matter. As I finish writing this, it is exactly a week later--and nearly to the hour that I met them--and Iʼm still excited about it. The experience will stay with me for a long time.

Neil rocks the crowd. Mr. Lowe, I presume. A dapper Neil sings 'Jealousy.' The Finale: 'West End Girls.' The Warfield Marquee