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My Night at Ronnie Spector’s Best Christmas Party Ever AKA Dreams Do Come True

This is sort of a Throwback Thursday post, since it happened last month but I was so amped up and busy that I just kind of blew past it, but because I want to preserve the memories, and I want you to know, and THE WORLD NEEDS TO KNOW, here it is, in full: My Night at Ronnie Spector’s Best Christmas Party Ever.

Sometime early in the semester, I was looking up something online and I saw that Ronnie Spector was playing a concert in Milwaukee sometime in November. I thought about going, but was like…I’ll probably buy the ticket and then something will come up and I will have wasted my money. But a few weeks ago, when I was feeling pretty down and out about my prelims and totally bummed by the election, I looked it up again, and realized that it would be on November 29, which would be after Thanksgiving but two days before prelims were due, and a) I would be in Madison, and b) I had nothing scheduled, so I did something I don’t normally do…bought tickets to the show, no regrets! It was only $52, and I’d need to drive to Milwaukee, but I got a floor seat and OMG I DON’T CARE I’M GOING TO RONNIE SPECTOR. I sat on my hands about it for a while, not telling anyone, and was hoping to finish my prelims over Thanksgiving and then have that be my reward. I ended up not finishing but getting pretty close, but I decided to reward myself anyway.

So, come November 29th, I go to teach, and then, I’m off to Milwaukee, to the Northern Lights Theatre at the Potawatomi Hotel and Casino. I was kind of nervous at first…I mean, this is a big deal, would I get to meet her? What would I do? What would I say? Also, would this place be weird? (I mean, it’s a casino I’d never been to before…) But anyway, I ended up getting there plenty early, and there was plentiful parking, and I headed inside, passing all the machines and bright flashy lights – those places really are mazes. But I was determined to get to that theatre.

Though the casino was full of smokers, the theatre itself was quite lovely. I was guided to my seat in Row F, given a $10 voucher which I didn’t use, and paid $3 for a Coke. The seating was around little tables, and I guess I got lucky, because my table mates were so much fun; like me, they were also teachers, and also like me, they weren’t drinking because they had to teach in the morning (well, two out of three, one of them had just retired). We quickly got acquainted and chatted up a storm while we waited for the concert to start. I was seated next to Harry, the school principal; next to him was the school guidance counselor, whose name was either Marilyn or Marlene; and their retired Spanish teacher, Evie. We didn’t get too much of a chance to talk because the lights came down…

And when they came up, three backup singers dressed as the Ronettes were onstage, as was the band, and they broke out into “Baby, I Love You.” At first, I thought it was just an opening act, but then, Ronnie Spector emerged in all of her black leather glory, and I actually did start crying a little. I mean…Ronnie Spector, the original bad girl of rock and roll, a living LEGEND, was on a stage just yards away from me. Marilyn and Evie giggled as Harry and I passed tissues back and forth through the first song, but then I composed myself. Interspersed with the songs was some lovely Ronnie banter and projections of interviews and TV appearances by the Ronettes in their heyday. She made a lot of funny jokes, and sang all the classics, with several tributes: one to her late sister Estelle (“How Do You Mend a Broken Heart?”), to the late Amy Winehouse (“Back to Black”), and something in honor of the Beatles, which I can’t remember at the moment.

Right when the show was really getting hot…it happened.

Bum, ba bum TSS…bum, ba bum, tss…

Yep, “Be My Baby.”

I was instantly up out of my seat, dancing like a fool, and singing along with the chorus, and thinking to myself, “holy cannoli, Jacob, you are actually listening to Ronnie Spector, singing ‘Be My Baby’ RIGHT HERE RIGHT NOW LIVE. It will not get any better than this.”

Minimal crying occurred.

Then she had a costume change and launched into some Christmas tunes (after all, it was a Christmas party) and now a lot of audience members were up and dancing, not just me. And in the middle of her last song, she knelt down and shook hands with the people in the front row, and I was like…”now is your chance, Jacob, just do it…” so I impulsively ran down front, hoping not to be hauled off by security or anything, and squeezed in next to the stage, and I got to be the very last one to shake hands with Ronnie Spector. She even pointed to me and mouthed something like “I saw you dancing” as we shook hands (I think I might have blubbered something like “thank you, I love you”) and she gave me a thumbs-up before finishing the song and heading offstage. I will never forget that handshake…her hand was sort of soft, sort of leathery, but it was still warm from holding a mic and OH MY GOSH I WAS JUST LOST IN THAT MOMENT. The only thing that would’ve been better would have been to get a picture with her, or a hug, but her acknowledgement of my presence was a present in and of itself.

She might be 73 years old, but she’s still got that rock n’ roll. Two thumbs up; I would go see her again if I could.

When the lights came back up, I walked back over to our table, and walked to the exit with Harry, Marilyn and Evie, my new teacher-friends. We somehow managed to get some pictures with the backup singers, who bore incredible resemblances to the young Ronettes. There were a lot of people, so I didn’t manage to get a picture with just me and them, but I have one with all three of them, Harry in between the two who looked most like Estelle and Ronnie, and me standing next to the one who looked most like Nedra. I was hoping that Ronnie would come on out, but it was pretty clear that it was time to go as they whisked us out and closed the door behind us. I stood outside the theater and chatted with some of the other concertgoers about our experiences – I thought that I was pretty crazy for driving in from Madison, but there was a group who had driven in all the way from Indiana, just for this, which is dedication.

Anyways, since there didn’t seem to be any swag on sale, and it was getting late, I decided to exit the casino before I died of smoke inhalation, and headed to Rock Bottom Brewery for a quick snack before heading back to Madison, calling Hanna and my dad on the way, freaking out. Hanna was actually at a party or a gig or something, so I apologized for interrupting, and at first she didn’t register why I was freaking out, but when I told her it was the “Be My Baby” singer, she was like “ooooohhhh wow!”

And that is my story of seeing the original bad girl of rock ‘n roll.

And if you’re reading this, Ronnie…thank you for all the music, I had the time of my life. Next time, let’s dance together or at least get a picture, please.

Baby, I love you.

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14

The Safe House, Zap Mama, and Friends

I actually had a great post prepared for yesterday, but I decided to go to visit WeKache in Milwaukee for the weekend, so that never got done.

So, yesterday was Valentine’s Day. I’ve never been a huge Valentine’s Day person, but I acknowledge its existence, and it seems like most of the world does the same. This year, however, everyone went batshit insane over Valentine’s Day. On Friday, one of my classmates said that he and his wife had booked dinner for Valentine’s Day over a month in advance. I thought he was just being silly, but oh my lord, there was absolutely nowhere to eat dinner that night. I think that coupled with a weekend, especially a Saturday night, made people more susceptible to eating out. After we called a few places that ended up having two-hour-long waits, we decided to go a nearby mall and try our luck. It was already 9:30 PM, and PF Chang’s had a 90 minute wait. They did say that bar seating was open, first come first serve. Stupidly, we didn’t wait nor put down our names, and went to try Maggiano’s at the other end of the mall instead, to find the exact same story, minus the bar seating. WeKache wanted to phone it in and just go home and cook something, but I wanted to go back to PF Chang’s and try for bar seating. We got back and the wait was still that long, but eventually we got a table and a more-than-decent meal. The only thing they were out of was the banana spring rolls, so we went for chocolate cake for dessert instead. We shared tofu lettuce wraps that were to die for, I had the Hunan fish, and WeKache had the beef and broccoli. Adding a coconut cooler (for him) and a sangria (for me) led to a ridiculous check of $60, but we tipped generously since our poor waiter had been dealing with a crazy crowd and the food was good and didn’t take that long to arrive, comparatively.

Today, we slept in, had brunch at WeKache’s place, then headed out through the snow (yes, it snowed) to Starbucks to get some work done, after which we would get dinner. After reading 120 pages for Indian Theatre, I was checking my email and suddenly realized that I had bought tickets for Zap Mama at Memorial Union, for tonight at 8.

It was 5.

Whoops.

After a minor freak-out on my part, we packed up, jumped in the car, and went to one of the restaurants we called the night before, a place I have been dying to go to, called The Safe House. They were considerably less busy than the previous night when we called, and we were only 12 minutes away, so we went.

The Safe House is a spy-themed restaurant in a building called “International Exports Ltd.” After parking and saying “heyyy!” to the sculpture of The Fonz on the nearby Riverwalk, we headed inside a tiny room, where a woman asked us for the password. I gave it my best shot, but of course I was wrong, so she told us to put our backs against the wall. Fortunately, at that moment, a handyman walked in, and the woman pressed a button, opening a swinging bookcase that led to the entrance. Ever the rule-breaker, WeKache walked in behind him even though he wasn’t supposed to, while I stayed and answered the woman’s question of when the Berlin Wall was built (1961, on my third try, which impressed her) and she opened the bookcase for me. Behind the bookcase was a short mirrored hall, at the end of which, a wall opened, revealing the interior of the restaurant.

The restaurant itself was a feat of architecture. After we were seated and had ordered, we were encouraged to look around. There was tons of spy memorabilia, from James Bond posters to a Checkpoint Charlie sign, and several hidden doors, behind one of which was a phone booth. Each little area had a different spy-related theme, from the KGB to the German Underground, and it was pretty awesome. The food was a bit on the small and overpriced side, but service was quick and the atmosphere was worth it. The waitress even got into it, calling us “spies” rather than customers. I checked my geocaching app for some reason, and it turned out there was a geocache inside the restaurant! So, I went to the bartender, and she pulled it out: an ammo box full of goodies that has been there since 2002. 

We finished our meal, but then realized…we didn’t know how to get out. We certainly couldn’t go the way we came, so we asked a waitress, who responded, “Go find the phone booth and put in a quarter.”

So we did, and as I picked up the phone, a message played, with a number combination. Once I dialed the number, the wall opened up to a cold underground tunnel, which led us to the exit. What a crazy experience.

After I got all my stuff from WeKache’s apartment, I said goodbye and drove my snow-covered car back to Madison. According to my GPS, I was due to make it home at 8:11, eleven minutes after the beginning of the concert.

Shit, shit shit.

Nevertheless, I pressed on, and once in the car, flew down the road, despite being dead tired. I made it home at 8:05 and walked into the Union at about 8:12. Fortunately, my ticket was still there and the show had just barely started, so I headed in. And I wasn’t the only one who was late – a huge group of at least 10 people walked in behind me – so I didn’t feel so bad as I headed to my seat in the first row of the mezzanine.

I actually came across Zap Mama randomly while doing research for a paper on Ruined by Lynn Nottage (ironically, what my parents were watching at Everyman Theatre in Baltimore at that very moment) and found some songs on YouTube which I liked. The group is headed up by the incredibly talented and energetic Marie Daulne who was just as gorgeous onstage in her black dress as she is on her album cover. Hailing from Belgium and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Zap Mama has sung their “polyphonic urban African hip-hop” since 1991, on albums and in movies like Tortilla Soup and Mission Impossible II.

Marie Daulne of Zap Mama

I was not as familiar with their set list, or with their co-musical act Antibalas, but the sheer joy of Daulne and her backup singers made up for that. The only song I recognized was “African Sunset,” originally done by Miriam Makeba. In the middle of the show, Zap Mama left the stage and Antibalas performed, but they came back for a funky Afro-inspired rendition of Rockwell’s “Somebody’s Watching Me,” which I couldn’t help but sing along to. As the concert progressed, more and more people got up and danced, and by the last song, I was one of them. I danced until the end of the encore, which was at 10:30, making it one hell of a concert. For most of the concert though, I was in my seat dancing like this:

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And now I am back home.

All in all, I had a great weekend, productive and fun, the kind that my younger self always wanted to have: dinner with friends at a funky restaurant, some fun driving, a concert at night, the real ideal “twenty-something” life.

Oh, and according to my statistics, yesterday I was visited by my 100th unique country of the year, Hungary, so there’s that to celebrate.