Your Worst Concert Experience: The Phantom Grabber

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Hey, you know what’s really great? Ninety percent of all concerts you attend. And you know what’s truly miserable? The other ten percent.

Starting today on Paste, we’re going to turn our attention to the darker side of live music. Forget the ecstatic moments when you felt transformed by the spiritual power of watching your heroes perform; we want to hear about the soul-killing misery. I know from personal experience, and from numerous first-hand accounts from friends and family, that there is a treasure trove of awful, traumatic concert stories out there. We want yours.

Typically, a bad show has very little to do with the music. The real problem can best be expressed by a famous Sartre quote: “Hell is other people.” There’s nothing quite like a concert for attracting the cretins, douchebags, drunks, lechers and sadists of our world. And you cannot escape them. If you attend enough shows, the probabilities will absolutely find you. You’ll be enjoying a pleasant night at some amphitheater, soaking in the energy, and suddenly you’re being tackled to the ground by an angry dude with a leather jacket and a blood-curdling scream who’s high on angel dust and has convinced himself that you’re the devil.

We’ve all been there. So for this feature, we’re turning to you, the reader. If you have an awful concert story—and I know you do—send it along to mailbag@pastemagazine.com with “Worst Concert Experience” in the subject line. We’ll give you full credit, of course, unless you want to remain anonymous. That’s cool too, because some of these stories are probably too painful or humiliating or hilarious to attach to your name. If the story in question happened to a friend or someone else you know, that’s fair game! Our ears are open.

It should go without saying that the more shameful and horrifying your story is, the better. If Brandon Flowers was drunk and put on a terrible show, that’s not a Worst Concert Experience. If Brandon Flowers was drunk, put on a terrible show, and hit you with a full water bottle as two drunk sorority girls vomited on you simultaneously, that’s a Worst Concert Experience.

You get the idea. To kick things off, I’m going to delve back into my early days of concert-going for a story I call:

 

THE PHANTOM GRABBER

You will undoubtedly be impressed to know that I keep a concert spreadsheet of every show I’ve ever attended, complete with city, venue, artist, friends attending and a “notes” section. That’s how I know that my third show ever was on Feb. 22, 2002 at the Raleigh Entertainment and Sports Arena (now simply “PNC Arena”) in North Carolina. The band was Weezer, post-Green Album but pre-Maladroit, and my friend Nate and I, along with someone named Andrea (the spreadsheet doesn’t lie, but I honestly can’t remember who she was), were ready to rock the fuck out. This was my freshman year of college, and I was well into the delusional phase where I thought I was cool. The fact that I was attending a Weezer show while my classmates were hanging out in their dorm rooms only confirmed that fact in my mind.

The arena was dark and packed when we arrived, but we fought our way to the middle of the floor by the time Weezer took the stage. Things went as planned for about one song, and I was thrilled to note that the crowded floor made it possible for me to disguise the painful awkwardness of my dancing. This was a head-nodding show all the way. It couldn’t have been more perfect.

And that’s when the Phantom Grabber made his first appearance.

I felt a subtle squeeze on my ass, lightning fast, and because it was a concert and we were close to each other, I barely took notice. Just an accident, I must have thought, if I thought anything at all. I was so young, so naïve. Today, my concert total has topped the century mark, but back then I still operated with a newbie’s innocence, ignorant to the horrors of concert culture. A song or two later, it happened to Nate, though I didn’t realize it at the time. Maybe it happened to Andrea, too. I’m not sure, because she only exists for me as a word in Microsoft Excel. But the Phantom Grabber rarely misses his mark.

Here’s where I wish this story went next: I wish we had banded together, sniffed out the Grabber, dragged him into the hallway, and delivered some vigilante justice as our fellow concert-goers applauded and we received the keys to the city.

Here’s what actually happened: Nate and I wanted so badly to enjoy the show that we didn’t even tell each other what was happening. We kept up a defensive wall of plausible deniability. It’s a classic middle-class instinct: avoid conflict at all costs, even if it means lying to yourself. Maybe there wasn’t someone grabbing our ass, we said to ourselves. Maybe it was just a weird coincidence. There was no reason to take any action at all, because surely something so outrageous wouldn’t happen IN A CIVILIZED WORLD!

Finally, though, we couldn’t keep up the fantasy. Every two minutes or so, our asses would get grabbed, and instead of enjoying the show (I think they did a good job, those Weezers) and focusing on the music, we were worried about the next attack on our defenseless hindquarters. Tentatively, I finally asked Nate if he had noticed anything odd, and he confirmed that we were under a full assault. And this is shameful to admit, but I was relieved that it was happening to him too. I didn’t want to carry that burden alone.

The problem identified, we tried to catch the Phantom Grabber in action. The problem was, he was too fast. Clearly this was a criminal on the move. When we spun around, looking for him, we only saw a group of older girls behind us. And as much as we would have fucking loved to believe they were the guilty party—a prelude to a hook-up, perhaps?!—in our hearts we knew that if someone was grabbing our asses at a concert, there was a 100 percent chance that it was a creepy dude.

The show was already ruined, so we devoted our full energy to the Phantom Grabber. Maybe we fake-danced a little, but it was all for show. Finally, our nerves reached such a jumpy pitch that we were able to spin around virtually at the same moment when hand met ass. The next time he struck, we whirled around…and there he was. The villain in the flesh.

You probably have a mental image in your mind of what the Phantom Grabber looked like, and I can confirm that you are exactly right. He was in his late 30s or early 40s, skinny, short, with facial hair that looked more like dirt and stringy hair that came down almost to his shoulders. I don’t remember what he was wearing, but a jean jacket seems like a good guess. When we finally saw him, we shouted through the noise, but he just leered. He hit us with the lewdest grin south of the Mason-Dixon, and then—poof! He was gone.

We watched him work his way down the line, grabbing the asses of everyone he passed without regard to gender, race or age. The Phantom Grabber was an equal opportunity criminal, and to be honest, it was impressive to watch. He moved like a dancer, darting in and out of the pressing bodies faster than the constricted space should have allowed. It was fluid and fast, and you could tell he was a true pro. He had clearly been perfecting his craft for years, and if I had to bet, I’d say he was still attending shows in the greater North Carolina region—maybe the entire mid-Atlantic—grabbing away. He’s probably the White Whale for concert security forces all across the state. No one has ever caught the Phantom Grabber.

Nate and I probably should have tracked him down and meted out that vigilante justice. That would have been the manly thing. Nate was tough and I could pretend well enough, and the Grabber didn’t seem like the type who could hold his own without the cover of a crowd. But we didn’t, because people hate conflict and we decided we could tolerate the violation. Maybe it would even be a funny story? And so we rationalized, like a bunch of people were doing all over the venue. It’s why the Grabber could operate with such immunity.

Instead, we moved out of his range, pressing forward to the stage. He didn’t grab us again, and eventually we got to the front row. That was the story I’d tell people about that show—”we were front row!”—in order to disguise the trauma and make it seem like I had the awesome time you’d expect from a legitimately cool college freshman. But to be honest, trauma was all I felt. I tried to focus on the fact that I was watching Rivers Cuomo from mere feet away, but I couldn’t shake the reality that I’d just been groped by an older man who was going to get away with it. And that wasn’t cool at all.

Damn you, Phantom.

***

THAT, my friends, is the story of the Phantom Grabber. It’s probably pretty tame in the grand scheme, and I promise to someday tell the better (worse?) stories in this space. But now I turn to you. The email address again is mailbag@pastemagazine.com. Share that misery!

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