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OPENING ACTS

There's a lot about a first concert that makes it special. It's a rite of passage that reverberates long after your ears stop ringing.

It was at Hersheypark Stadium in Pennsylvania, summer of 1988. A heavy metal throwdown between Judas Priest and Cinderella. My first concert. I was 18.

I went with my friend Dustin. We wore the most subversive clothes we had. For Dustin, a mesh workout jersey. For me, a Boston Red Sox jersey and too-tight gym shorts.

If this had been a Village People concert, we would have been golden. But it's hard to headbang when your shorts are riding up on you.

We arrived at the show early, sitting high, and sober, in the stands. It was chaos down by the stage. Heavy metal mamas exposing their breasts. Tattooed nasties jockeying in the front row. We were terrified.

Then Cinderella started to play.

Everything changed.

It's the greatest icebreaker. It should be asked on all first dates, at all job interviews. It reveals who we were at the crossroads of cluelessness and Clearasil.

What was your first concert?

A few weeks ago, I asked readers about that unsung rite of passage. The response was passionate and immediate, as nearly 75 people opened up about barfing at a Billy Joel show or screaming for Shaun Cassidy. Nearly all of them involved tales from the post-Elvis era of massive stadium shows, the kind of communal bacchanals that leave your ears ringing.

On the surface, the stories are funny and foolish, evocative and entertaining. But the best of them are more than just a wink of nostalgia.

Like first dates and first kisses, the first concert is an experience at once deeply personal and resoundingly universal. Whether you went with Mom or your buddy with the fake ID, whether you saw Rush or Dave Matthews, you essentially went alone, processing this new (and often) pot-scented world with wide eyes and ringing ears.

Forget the other 70,000 people; it was really just you and the band, rocking as one, every fiber in your young being jolted with a revelatory buzz like no other.

Listening to the radio, watching MTV, studying the liner notes - nothing could prepare you for the visceral assault of the crowd, the smells, the lights, the volume.

What was your first concert? is my favorite question to ask at a party. It's the great equalizer, with the power to turn small talk between strangers into heftier discussion between new friends. First concerts tell us who we were, who we wanted to be.

For young music fans, the first concert was a tantalizing glimpse of excitement, freedom (and sometimes wine coolers) - all the best things you imagined adulthood would bring.

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It was the loudest thing I'd ever heard.

It actually hurt.

Cinderella was tinnitus-inducing, but Judas Priest, man, they sounded like they were lighting M-80s in my brainpan.

It was dangerous. It was rough. It was sexy.

As the rambunctious sound of heavy metal delivered thoracic jolts, I had two thoughts:

(1) I'm going to die.

(2) This is the greatest night of my life.

I bought a $15 Judas Priest concert T - "Ram It Down, Shove It Up,'' it read - and immediately pulled it on over the dorky Sox jersey.

My mother confiscated the new shirt as soon as I was in the door, but it didn't matter.

I was a new man.

Sean Daly can be reached at sdaly@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8467. His Pop Life blog is at blogs.tampabay.com/popmusic.

Readers set the stage with their own first time.

Making out at a Dave Matthews show. Sobbing at a Tom Petty gig. Fighting perfumed preteens swarming New Kids on the Block. Launching missiles in a paper cup war at a Monsters of Rock show at the old Tampa Stadium.

More than 70 first-concert stories streamed onto our Pop Life blog on Tampabay.com. The best of them weren't just sweet and funny. Like any true rite of passage, they've taken on deeper meaning through the years.

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"Talking about your first concert takes you back to a time when you had fewer responsibilities and concerns," says Largo's Sherrie Williams, 38, who wrote of seeing Billy Joel at the USF Sun Dome in Tampa (and hurling blueberry schnapps into the bushes out front).

"Now there's career, bills, kids and all the other things that have sort of stepped to the forefront and dimmed that euphoria."

- - -

It was 1972, and two girls, Laurel St. Clair and a friend, wanted to see Stevie Wonder at the Boston Garden. "I can still smell the warm Almaden jug white wine that we smuggled onto the train" to the show, she wrote.

But it was more than cheap drink that made that trip memorable. "It was the first few months of kids being bused to different schools in the name of racial equality," writes St. Clair, now living in St. Petersburg. "Two 12-year-old white girls taking the train into the city for a 'black' concert wasn't likely to happen, so our parents made my friend's brother and a buddy of his accompany us. . . . Good times."

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Seven years later, Michael Pound went to see Kiss at Cincinnati's Riverfront Coliseum, where the festival-seating system meant fans had to rush to get close to the stage.

"We were in the middle of the crush when one of just two sets of doors opened about 90 minutes before showtime," wrote Pound, now a 40-year-old journalist in Pennsylvania. "When the push began, I was able to lift both of my feet from the concrete and not fall, because there wasn't anywhere to go."

A few months later, Pound was doing homework in his room, listening to the radio, when the DJ reported that 11 people were killed at a Who show at Riverfront Coliseum when fans rushed for seats.

For the first time, the 12-year-old thought about his own mortality. "To me, it was more existing than scary (when I was at the Kiss show)," Pound wrote, "but I realized a short time later exactly what kind of danger we had been exposed to."

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