Some people love adventure travel. Others seek luxury and comfort. There are globetrotters who head off to a new destination each time, and folks who always return to one much-loved place. My nephew Isaac travels to wherever his favorite soccer team is playing, which has brought him to the unlikely vacation venues of Manchester, Stuttgart, and Malmö (Sweden).
My travel planning is all about Jonathan Coulton.
JoCo is a singer-songwriter much loved by a devoted fan base of mostly twenty-something computer nerds. Although you’ve probably never heard of him, on the Internet he’s a superstar.
Coulton makes a very good living recording and performing songs about social anxiety, Rick Springfield, dysfunctional relationships, zombies, and mathematician Benoit Mandelbrot. Imagine if Charles Addams and John Cheever fell in love and had a kid who wrote great pop tunes with odd lyrics. And resembled a monkey, but in a good way. That’s Jonathan Coulton.
Coulton doesn’t write “I Saw You Standing There,“ because that’s not what he’s living. Instead, he writes “I Crush Everything,” a song about a giant squid who loves you so much it’s all he can do not to squeeze you to death. His songs about cyborgs intent on world domination, ship-crushing killer squids, and doomed astronauts are actually about love, loss, insecurity, and failure. (Lots of failure.) The kind of music Billy Joel might have written had he been born in the ’70s, started out writing code instead of playing in a piano bar, and was full of crushing self-doubt.
In concert, Coulton kibitzes easily with his audience, responding to their smartass nerd wit with his own smartass nerd wit. The crowd he draws is as odd and compelling as his songs: Most would look right at home in a Diane Arbus photo. They know all the words. They sing along. They dress like zombies. A Coulton show is where you fit in if you don’t fit in. I felt right at home.
I heard my first Coulton tune on NPR (of course) five years ago. It was “Shop Vac,” a great little rocker about suburban angst. Although I’m a middle-aged librarian and not a twenty-something code monkey, I fell in love with it. I downloaded more Coulton songs and loved them too.
When he next played Philadelphia, my hometown, I went to my first Coulton show. It was, as the kids say, awesome. I didn’t want to wait for him to return to Philly to see another, so when he performed in New York City, a month later, I went. It, too, was awesome.
Everyone should have a goal. I decided to try to see Jonathan Coulton in concert one hundred times. (I’m not saying that the goal has to be sensible or age-appropriate.) Luckily for me, Mark, the man in my life, is also a fan and was happy to accompany me.
If you can’t devote yourself to chasing a crazy dream in middle age, what’s the point? I’m happily divorced. My son is grown and out of the house. At 57, I’ve got enough free time and disposable income so if I want to hop on Amtrak, or even a plane, to get to a show I know I’m going to love, why on earth shouldn’t I?
I was inspired, in part, by the Deadheads of my youth—fans so crazy about the music of the Grateful Dead that they quit their jobs to follow the band from gig to gig. I would never quit the library job I love. But my decision to get to as many Coulton shows as I could has been life-changing.
I hadn’t been to Boston in years, but when Coulton scheduled a gig at a club on Commonwealth Avenue, I took the opportunity to spend the weekend with Boston friends and treat my nephew, who was attending Tufts, to his first Coulton show. We had a blast. When Coulton played Atlanta, I finally enjoyed a long-postponed visit with my dear friend Anne and her family. Ever since, whenever Colton comes to Atlanta, I’ve been there, with Anne, her husband, and their two daughters, all of whom now know the lyrics to “Skull Crusher Mountain” as well as I do.
Coulton-inspired travel has led Mark and me to enjoy weekend getaways in places new to us, like Annapolis, Alexandria, Brooklyn, and New Haven. Not to mention an unforgettable evening music cruise around Manhattan during a severe thunderstorm. Passing the Statue of Liberty, the sky streaked with lightening, with Mark at my side, listening to my favorite music, was one of the best moments of my life. “If this boat gets struck by lightening and sinks,” I joked to Mark, “my friends can all say that I died doing what I loved.”
I’ve read that Madonna has a fan who has never missed a show. And there’s a dude who has seen Metallica over 400 times! (Once would be plenty for me.) Compared with these folks, I’m small potatoes. Still, over the past five years I’ve managed to attend 31 Coulton shows. If there’s ever a Guinness Book of World Records entry for the most Jonathan Coulton shows attended by a person who is not actually Jonathan Coulton, you’ll see my photo there.
“Don’t you get tired of the same thing over and over?” people ask.
If you love a CD, you don’t play it just a few times, right? You play it constantly. And you know it’s never going to change. But each live show is different. You never know exactly what you’ll get. Some nights are magical. Others are just good fun. But I’ve never been to a bad one, and when I’m at a Coulton concert, I never want to be anywhere else.
I’m not suggesting that YOU drop everything and start following Jonathan Coulton around. But maybe you’ve got your own dream to chase. Don’t be afraid to follow that dream. It‘ll make your life a little less predictable and a lot more fun.
What does Jonathan Coulton think of all this? At the post-show meet-and-greet, Mark and I always take a photo with Coulton to mark the occasion. After we’d turned up five times in five cities, we let him in on what we were up to. Now when he spots us waiting in line, he’ll smile and ask us, “Which number is this?”
“He’s probably scared to death of you,” a friend joked. “You’re just a couple of creepy stalkers.” I don’t think so. Mark and I don’t look like dangerous killer weirdoes. We look like what we are: a middle-aged librarian and a retired bookseller. Jonathan Coulton isn’t afraid of us. He seems amused and charmed and only slightly puzzled by our devotion. We’re assured him that as long as he keeps performing, we’ll keep traveling to see him. It’s not as if he expects to see us at every gig, but he’s no longer surprised when we do turn up.
Although I am looking forward to seeing his face when he spots us at his London show this fall.