Dirty Boots: “When the Underground Is Just Not Anymore”

The one chance I had to see a show at Masquerade, back in the heyday, was when a group of friends and I went over to Atlanta in the summer of 1992 for the second Lollapalooza tour. We found out, after we’d gotten in the big ol’ city, that Pearl Jam was playing a set at Masquerade the night before the festival under the pseudonym Mookie Blalock. We were stoked and made plans to see the show, but there was one problem: I was not yet 18 . . . and they wouldn’t let me in.

Masquerade was a legendary music venue when I was coming up. It opened in 1988 – when I was thirteen and too young to travel far for a show – in what had previously been an old mill, and it was a staple of the late 1980s and ’90s alternative scene in the Deep South. Down here, we didn’t have many concerts, especially not by the bands we wanted to see. Though some great regional bands came out of the Deep South back then, the bands we were seeing on MTV didn’t come to the mid-sized and smaller towns and cities where we lived. But everyone you can think of played at Masquerade: “Nirvana, Fugazi, N.I.N, Bjork, Radiohead, The Dave Matthews Band, Foo Fighters, Motorhead, Ice Cube, Outkast, Rage Against the Machine, Coldplay, Green Day, Nick Cave . . .”

I guess the bitterness and embarrassment of that summer night in 1992, when I was turned away a few days shy of my eighteenth birthday, got the best of me, and I never did try again. I never did see a show at Masquerade. So it was peculiarly heartbreaking to me when I read, in August 2016, that Masquerade would close. I had missed my chance. Though, now well into my forties, I am fully cognizant of the current situation . . . The ’90s are over, Generation X has grown up, and even if I had gone to a show more recently, it wouldn’t have been the same. Because the times aren’t the same, and I’m not the same. Even if Masquerade had stayed open, I truly had missed my chance.

However, it was another kind of peculiar heartbreak to find out that Masquerade wouldn’t actually close, but would be moved instead into a shopping-and-entertainment district in downtown Atlanta called Kenny’s Alley. The go-to site for ’90s alternative music in the South would be forced out of its flat-black, paint-flecked mill by a new-construction project and moved into a clean, new location in a new development . . .

All I can say is: when an underground institution – call it “alternative,” if you want to – is brought out into the mainstream for general audiences to enjoy in a well-lit area with plenty of parking . . . it’s not the same thing anymore. It becomes Cracker Barrel. It becomes Music Town, with orange aprons and Rex Manning cutouts. Neil Young sang that “it’s better to burn out than to fade away.” To me, it’s better to fade away than to relocate in plain sight and pretend that it’s still counterculture. It’s not. Sometimes it’s better just to let things go, to let them be what they were when they were cool, and to accept the fact of time with the growing grace and partial wisdom of middle age, something that even the grungiest of Generation-Xers should recognize.


“Dirty Boots: A Column of Critical Thinking, Border Crossing, and Noblesse Oblige,” a weekly column published every Tuesday afternoon, offers a Deep Southern, Generation X perspective on life in the 21st century. To read find and read previous posts, click here for a full list.

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