In the summer between my junior and senior year, my friend Jef bought tickets to Lollapalooza ’94. The billing was not the best bill the at-the-time touring juggernaut had ever possessed: L7, Tribe Called Quest, Boredoms, P-Funk, Beastie Boys, Smashing Pumpkins, all headlining over a little known trio named Green Day who started off the concert. Jef came to me and told me he picked up eight tickets through a friend of his — at $185 a pop, $30 less than the Ticketmaster prices. Of course, I had to represent Generation X to the best of my ability. I already had a closet full of multiple flannel shirts, my best cargo pants knifed-up the previous summer to magically transform into shorts (who needs pants when flannel winter socks pulled up all the way do the same thing?), and closet full of Converse All-Stars that made me the neighborhood’s alterna-Imelda Marcos.
Forking over the $185 was hard on the pockets to a teenage pizza delivery guy, but to my soul, it was worth every penny. I felt no pain when I went to the ATM and withdrew every dollar I had in “savings” to venture to the Canadian border. My father refused to give me money for the concert (my “this-is-my-Woodstock!” argument lost to his “my-dad-didn’t-give-me-money-to-go-to-Woodstock-either!” rebuttal) and refused to give me cash after — this was going to be the ultimate in sacrifices: no money for weeks, no extra cash for food, girls, summer gas money, or the new Mudhoney shirt hanging on the wall at the local record shop.
Well, grow me a goatee and call me Jesus Christ Cornell — I was gonna be there, cash be damned. I was young, irresponsible, and for as long as people desired pizza I figured the money pool would fill itself back up in no time.
The show was one of the most memorable experiences of my life. Andy drank something called “Brain Juice” that proceeded to make him scream “HOLY SHIT!” and stare off into the clouds after imbibing the beverage and then launched vomit high into the air. I met some girl in the Virtual Reality tent who showed me her very Reality-Based Boobies. And Jef punched a guy, or maybe a guy punched Jef. Someone in the crowd started a near riot when he pointed at a blurry dude off in the distance and yelled out “It’s Perry Farrell!” and like all the others, our flannels waving behind us like capes, we flew like superheroes across the festival site trying to save some riot-grrl Lois Lane.
For us, the show was worth every penny. We got to be close to our heroes, reach out and practically touch them. During Smashing Pumpkins’ closing set, someone picked me up and I crowd surfed to the front of the stage where I was promptly thrown over the barricade. A security officer grabbed me by the collar and rushed me along the lip of the stage. I broke free and slipped under a tarp and found myself right next to James Iha’s cabinets. I watched the Pumpkins close the show from the side of the stage. When the last chord of “Today” rang out, ending the night, the band passed me. “Great show!” I energetically called out to Billy Corgan, who looked me dead in the eye and replied a courteous “Fuck you! We sucked!” Iha gave me an apologetic look even though he didn’t recognize that my one interaction with Sir Billy happened to be greatest moment of my young life, beating out the Reality Boobies from only a few hours ago.
The images of MTV and the numerous magazines hyping Generation X suddenly seemed organic in nature. These were common people, at least we were told they were common people, whose bands were defining a generation accustomed to failure. To say the feeling was magical would not be strictly hyperbole, but a reflection of our youth, our voice and our direction in this world. In ’94, we were still recovering form the death of St. Cobain, still hurting from the sense of directionlessness (“If he can’t make it, how can I?” I overheard someone say on the day after he died), and we needed to be reminded of something.
But the so-called grunge movement that marked the era became ever more directionless. It turned into a marketing strategy that fell on increasingly deaf ears shortly after Cobain died. We got tired of feeling the way the television told us to feel and soon began cutting our hair, shaving the goatees, trading in our Chucks for penny loafers, and flannel magically turned into Best Buy or McDonald’s work shirts. I happened to trade in all of the above for rave gear, but let’s not talk about that.
Flash-forward. The rock star is dead. It is going to be a long time before we see it again. It didn’t die when Cobain blew his brains all over his garage loft wall. It died the day someone figured out how to post an MP3 to a computer website and get a million people to download it for free. Instead of having three or four bands that define the zeitgeist, we have a million mediocre bands and a handful of great acts that will never make it to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame because they don’t release albums, just computer files. What we have left are leftovers.
The new rock star is the television paranormal investigator: those guys you see on Monday, Wednesday, or Friday nights on your local cable TV providers airwaves — depending on which you choose to grasp onto. Their stage is not MTV’s 120 Minutes or Alternative Nation, but rather the warm green glow of IR illuminators. Their instruments are not bought at Guitar Center but at Radio Shack. But, like the rock star, they do wear black.
The only reason why I say this is not due to their level of popularity. It has nothing to do with their television shows being the highest rated programs on TV (which they are not), their DVD sales (which are lackluster), or their name recognition levels (practically zero). These people can go to the local mall, movie theater, or supermarket without being bothered by mobs of fans – they are no Jonas Brothers.
But what they have is a fervent and rabid class of fandom — people who hang on every word they say and believe everything that they see on the show. They are followed around the country like they are the Dead and not hunting the dead. Their tour vans get spotted in random cities across the country and fans post awkward photos of the investigators lined up with fake smiles, arms around the glowing fanboys and fangirls onto blogs and social networking sites. It is rabid. It is fanatical. And it rakes in a ton of cash. If you don’t believe me, let me tell you a story:
IDEAL Event Management is company out of the Northeast which organizes, promotes, and markets events across the country. The company specializes in two specific types of events: local professional wrestling and paranormal events. They approach a site that has a fantastic reputation for being haunted, preferably something that has been featured on a paranormal television show. They rent the site out a few nights and hire folks from various shows to come out to the site and do meet-and-greets, a Q&A session, as well as an actual investigation with the people from the television shows. Through the event, it was my job to act as a tour guide, moving the people from station to station to meet and investigate with the TAPS people.
And they charge $300 dollars to get in the door. And they sell out every night.
The result is an epic display of fandom – hundreds of people piling into a dangerous environment (usually a decrepit building – insane asylums work the best) with EMF detectors in hand. They huddle en masse outside of the building hours before the doors open. They hold DVDs to be autographed and wallets full of dollars to fork out for tee shirts, glossy photographs to get signed, and the new fangled “ghost hunting” equipment to help them figure out that their pipes creak in middle of the night.
I got the call from Ben, GRASP’s leader and founder, to head to Buffalo, NY to work with IDEAL at the Buffalo Central Terminal. The BCT is a mammoth of a facility: built in the 1920’s, the art-deco building conjures images of the obilisk from 2001: A Space Odyssey – it juts out into the Buffalo sky like a dark gravestone, cutting a door into the blue sky. IDEAL rented the space out for two nights and brought in the legendary paranormal investigator/exorcist John Zaffis. John Zaffis is the Obi-Wan Kenobi to everyone else in the business. I first heard of Zaffis when I was in high school. He is a regular on every television show concerning the paranormal and can tell you stories of his experiences to make the most honed investigator shake in their boots. Zaffis is a God among men, a legend among newbs, despite the fact that he is shadowed by the fame of others.
The small moon that is blocking Zaffis’ large sun happens to be the Rolling Stones/Beatles/U2/Green Day of paranormal investigation, the television stars known as SyFy’s Ghost Hunters: TAPS (The Atlantic Paranormal Society) — Jason Hawes, Grant Wilson, Dave Tango, Steve Gonsalves, Kristyn Gartland, and Kris Williams.
Ghost Hunters is one of network television’s most watched programs. With millions of viewers every week (even the spin-off show: Ghost Hunters International, which is nearly unwatchable, rides the wake of the Ghost Hunters show into top ratings), TAPS has reached an epic level of fame and para-glory through their investigations. The show first aired nearly seven years ago and, at the time, was cutting edge and innovative – there was nothing else on television like it. Ghost Hunters approached the paranormal like it was not a focus of fanaticism of goth kid left-overs, bad actors, and fakery. These were normal, everyday people with day jobs who were fascinated with all things paranormal. They were just like their viewers: regular people, but doing the unmentionable and out in the open — ghost hunting.
I was glued to the show when I first discovered it. I told my wife, the ever skeptic non-believer, that she shouldn’t make plans on Wednesday nights anymore because my schedule was full. For years we both watched the show. My wife liked it when they declared things to not be haunted, I liked it when they did. It was our thing, something that I could introduce to people (“Seriously, you are into ghosts and stuff? Ever seen Ghost Hunters? No! Oh man! You have to watch it!”). But as time grew on, the show blew up. And, something changed — the show was different somehow. Something you can’t put your finger on or are afraid to admit. It was great when just you and your weird friends knew about it and whispered about it in coffeeshop corners, but when suddenly it seems everyone is a fan, it doesn’t seem the same as it did in the beginning.
Just like Weezer.
I will admit that I was excited to work with Grant, Jay, and the group. By no means do I consider myself a star-fucker, but watching the TAPS team do its thing would be a dream come true for me.
The Buffalo Central Terminal Event was a phenomenal success. Both nights were sold out events, with tickets going at $275 a pop. Entire families came out. Friends came out. First time investigators came out. And, unfortunately, many “seasoned” investigators came out as well hoping to land a spot on next season’s premier. The TAPS team is made of cordial people, they treat their fans with the utmost amount of respect and courtesy that you would expect from a rock star.
Even when the psychos pulled out their “Hi! I’m a complete fucking nutjob!” card, the TAPS team would be incredibly polite. One guy introduced Steve to a new technique of EVP that he said could not just record the paranormal talking to the living, but also talking to each other! One man came in with a homemade tee-shirt reading “TAPS Family Member” telling me that he was once asked to join TAPS but turned it down, he told me this while staring at me with a look of despair and a need for my admiration.
The TAPS team were a very welcoming group of people, I absolutely refused to run up to them and introduce myself with a big handshake and a be-my-friend-please attitude, instead, they approached me. Grant was incredibly polite, Jay was stoic but approachable, Tango and Steve would talk to me frequently throughout the evening. By the end of the weekend, Gartland and I swapped emails, phone numbers, and even had an inside joke between us. I even went out to lunch with Williams, Gartland, psychic Tiffany Johnson, and other members of GRASP. In all, they were a pleasant group of people who enjoyed being treated like people and not television personalities.
All in all, they are exactly as they appear on the show.
At the Buffalo Central Terminal, they held a meet-and-greet, did some lecturing, took questions from the audience, and then, the coup de grace — the fans got to go out and do an investigation with the television stars. To me, as a blossoming investigator, it was far from an actual paranormal investigation.
Think of it as baseball fantasy camp — with equipment by Radio Shack rather than Louisville Slugger.
There you are in a haunted location that you saw on television, standing with the guys you saw on television in that haunted location, and you are reliving it together. Imagine pulling up a stool beside Norm at Cheers and sharing a beer, or sitting down on the couch with Heathcliff Huxtable and listening to some jazz music and you get the idea.
The smiles never stopped. The fans were in awe. Each word the TAPS crew mentioned was carved into gold. The fans laughed at rehearsed jokes and banter, they discussed their favorite episodes with the TAPS crew, and they walked away from it all with a Facebook Add within 24 hours.
Imagine sitting down with Mick Jagger and doing the same.
What TAPS did, in complete sacrifice of what made the show great in its beginnings, was made it ok to talk about the paranormal in public. Here in Buffalo you are safe. You are surrounded with like-minded individuals who share your beliefs and ideas. The people around you don’t think you are a freak for buying an EMF reader to see if your home is still frequented by long gone Uncle Jack – you are with your own kind – and Jay and Grant are either the Jerry Garcia of the group, or the Charles Manson, depending on your cynicism and point of view.
And in the corner, through all the hoopla, was John Zaffis – the unsung hero. When people walked around the tables for the meet and greet, they had to pass Zaffis. And pass him they did – not knowing who that the man at the last chair before Tango happened to be a pioneer in the field. I know because I was standing next to him selling TAPS tee shirts. While the throngs of the television fans saliva’ed on their fresh tees and DVDs, Zaffis would smile at them and they would awkwardly smile back. Occasionally someone would stop and acknowledge the man who gave thirty years of his life to the paranormal investigation, and he in turn would be the gentleman that he is. By the end of their conversation, there would be a handshake, a picture taken, and a new appreciation for the paranormal’s iconoclastic forefather.
At the end of the day I met the New England New Wave of Paranormal Investigation and still wear my TAPS tee shirt; and look forward to the day to work with them again – but at the end of the day, it was seeing John Zaffis and meeting him one-on-one and discussing the paranormal as a colleague and equal that made my time in Buffalo all worth the while.
At the end of the night, I was packing up my stuff, Zaffis was doing the same. “Great night,” I energetically called out to him. He looked at me and smiled. “Yes. Yes it was. Great job.” he replied.
I listened to Siamese Dream on the plane back to Atlanta and smiled until the plane touched down.