My introduction to Sarah McLachlan came by way of her collaboration with the mostly-forgotten band Manufacture. The Nettwerk label had a weird roster that included a lot of electronic acts like Skinny Puppy, Manufacture, and Moev, but they also worked with the then unknown Sarah McLachlan and other artists with a more commercial, radio-friendly sound. I think it had something to do with being Canadian.
I had missed a chance to see McLachlan play a free show on Clearwater beach a couple of years earlier, so by the time Fumbling Towards Ecstasy came out, there was no way I was going to miss her again. Fumbling was one of those records that I wound up putting on in some capacity just about every day for maybe six months straight. I would listen to it in the car, on headphones in the halls, or on my stereo in my room. I was collecting all of the singles and videos and back catalog and I went through a phase where I would buy other albums, listen to them once, and then return to Fumbling. I turned everyone I knew on to it and there was clearly something special about that record because Sarah McLachlan was making a lot of quick converts.
In March of 1994 though, those converts were still coming by word of mouth rather than a huge marketing campaign or saturation on MTV. Nettwerk was a relatively small label without a lot of reach in the US market and maybe the world gripped by the sound of Seattle wasn't ready for McLachlan's brand of slickly-produced, formula-driven but sincere pop. McLachlan already had her die-hard fans (I proudly considered myself a member) but this was all pre-Lilith Fair and pre-VH1 playing McLachlan's videos to death. As a result, her tour didn't come through Tallahassee, so my only chance to see her was to make the five hour drive back to Tampa.
I had inherited my Dad's 1983 Jeep CJ7 after my first semester of college. I bought it from him over the summer with money that I made at Pizza Hut (whatever money I DIDN'T spend on samplers, keyboards, and drum pads) and it became an easily-recognizable extension of me. I had vinyl stickers of all of my favorite bands plastered on the back and side of the vehicle, and thanks to the Jeep's incedible blind spot, it didn't matter at all if I covered nearly an entire side window with Front 242, Curve, Godflesh, and Skinny Puppy stickers. You could always spot my car in a parking lot or driving down the road and that's how I liked it. The stickers were like a calling card to all of the other freaks in town: "hey, we like the same bands, maybe we should hang out." I don't think they ever worked to that end, though I did meet people who would later say "so that's YOUR car."
The prospect of taking the Jeep on a road trip to Tampa was not at all daunting. Though it chugged along at nearly 19 mpg and it was noisy as all hell on the highway, I enjoyed driving it. I pretended that my Jeep wasn't from a model year known for flipping over and I convinced my friend Sara (without an H--an important distinction) to make the trip with me. This wasn't a hard sell as Sara without an H was one of the people who like me was caught up in the Fumbling Toward Ecstasy web.
What made the trip such an anxious one was the fact that I had been spending entirely too much time listening to McLachlan's songs of love and loss and I had been spending equally dangerous amounts of time with Sara. I didn't have a large group of friends in college--I spent most of my time with the same three people every day. As was probably inevitable in the wake of my disasterous breakup, I had fallen hard for one of those three friends and now we were on a trip to see our favorite singer in the world. There were three crushes barrelling down I75 towards Tampa, but the only two that were going to work out were for Sarah McLachlan. The third was an ever-tightening knot in my stomach that got no relief from a steady diet of mopey music.
Somewhere north of Ocala as the night started getting darker, the sounds from the stereo started growing fainter and my view of the road began to dim. Sure enough, my alternator had died and my battery was losing its battle to keep things running as we raced toward an exit. We finally ran out of juice about a mile away from an exit which was fortunate since there are stretches of I75 that have no exits for miles and this was long before the days of the ubiquitous cell phone. I stalled out on the side of the road and popped the hood to see if there was anything I could do but I knew it would be useless. A semester of autoshop in high school hadn't really prepared me for anything other than recognizing that I needed a mechanic.
Sara and I walked to the exit in the dark and by then there was already an uncomfortable tension due to that third crush in the car that had made itself known somewhere around Lake City. I managed to call a tow truck and my options were to tow the car to a local shop where it could be looked at in the morning, or to tow it all the way to Tampa. I was tempted with the latter choice since it would mean we'd surely get to Tampa in time for the show the next night, but I thought that if we had to spend a night at a hotel in middle-of-nowhere Florida with this crisis, it might somehow give my desperate romantic plea a chance.
We opted to wait it out and hope that the local guy who owned the shop and the tow truck could sort out the problem in the morning. Stocking up on chips and soda and whatever other vegetarian treats we could find at the Texaco, we got a ride to the nearest motel which was walking distance from the auto shop. I wish I could say that the situation had gotten better from there or that the stress of the trip had magically brought us closer together and that my nighmarish Freshman year of rejection was suddenly brought out of the dumps by Sarah McLachlan and a dead alternator but none of that was the case. We got a room with two beds and I spent most of the night awake, staring at the wall and wondering what kept this from working.
The alternator was a quick fix and it was the first shot to my soon-to-be massive credit card bill related to Jeep repairs. We got back on our way in more uncomfortable silence and we made our way to my parents' house before heading out to Ybor for the show. So far this trip was a disaster in just about every possible way, but at least I could look forward to the show and to the melancholic beauty of that record being performed by its creator. Though I had long-since written off having any kind of emotional reaction to live music of the sort I'd experienced at those early shows, somehow this show was different.
In the perfect storm of a fragile sense of self-worth, an expensive trip 'home' and a tour for an album that was at least six months too early to be really successful, I had one of those concert experiences I thought was no longer possible. There were only about 300 people in the Ritz, which was considerably less than the last few times I had been there thus making the room look extra empty. Hell, I had played on that same stage to a crowd three times the size of this, so it seemed like we were just enjoying an intimate private night with a friend. I think McLachlan's music works best like that--where you feel like you aren't alone in the way that it speaks to you, but that you aren't necessarily sharing the experience with 20,000 strangers either. Her songs are so ripped from personal stories but so perfectly written that I think we all felt like we had compelling, inescapable reasons for being at that show.
McLachlan was incredible and the band was note-perfect playing songs that I'd already heard hundreds of times. In between songs, McLachlan kept nervously thanking us for showing up--the tour had apparently not been a huge success--and the warm, heartfelt reception at the Ritz that night was what she needed. At one point, a woman standing near us shouted back "no, thank YOU" and we all cheered. It was a special show with an incredible and rising talent and it's something that would be impossible to ever experience again. The next time I'd see McLachlan in the same building, the place was sold out and I felt that personal connection to her slipping away. The next time I'd see her after that was at an arena with 15,000 people, box seats, and popcorn.
At the end of the night, I knew that I had a five hour drive with the Sara without an H ahead of me, and that the Sarah with the H couldn't help anymore. I knew we were both in love with the show and that we were both emotionally wound up, but none of that made the drive back any easier. I pleaded my case for a while, hoping that the whole trip was going to end on some impossible high note where my heart-spilling honesty and willingness to drive us back to FSU in the middle of the night would be rewarded. We spent most of the drive with the stereo turned off and by time time we hit Lake City again, I had run out of things to say.