This blog post is an open letter about a man who 1.) helped me get through both middle school and grief and the pandemic year and 2.) is one of THE MOST underrated frontmen of one of THE MOST awesome yet under-appreciated rock bands, like … ever.
Let me set the stage:
It’s 1995 or 1996; I’m probably wearing Umbro soccer shorts or JNCO Jeans, and an oversize Nike tee with some Airwalks. Maybe I have a butterfly clip in my hair and a daisy choker on my neck. I might be writing in bubble letters, playing with some ‘devil sticks,’ or trying my hand (foot?) at hackey-sack. I haven’t yet discovered highlights, straight teeth, or a hair straightener, but I rock my Laura Ashley glasses, awkward bangs, and lust after chain wallets, lava lamps, and bellybutton piercings as I hitch a ride on the ‘pegs’ of someone’s BMX bike. I’m a true nerd and very awkward, but I desperately want to fit in. Luckily, I can “pass” as a cool kid and that helps me, a lot.
But internally, I battle with major self-esteem and confidence issues. I’m a ‘gifted’ student who looks like a popular girl but isn’t really sure where I belong. I’m battling an illness no one really knows about; I live in pain every day.
I discover MTV and those mail-order music clubs: BMG, Columbia House, and so on.
I had always turned to books for comfort (Babysitter’s Club, Goosebumps, Fear Street, Sweet Valley High, the Boxcar Children and Nancy Drew,) but this? CDs? MUSIC? It was like a light came on and lit up a dark world, especially because previously I’d only really listened to my Paula Abdul and Michael Jackson cassettes. (Which, no regrets. Still adore both of them!)
No Doubt – Nirvana – Smashing Pumpkins – the Spice Girls – Marilyn Manson – Garbage – Prodigy – Weezer – Alanis Morrissette – Cake – Nine Inch Nails – Oasis – Hole – Toad the Wet Sprocket – the Verve – Everclear – and then …
He wasn’t my first celebrity crush (Jonathan Taylor Thomas from Home Improvement; Jason Priestly from Beverly Hills 90210; Devon Sawa and Leonardo DiCaprio; and Justin Timberlake from the Mickey Mouse Club preceded him,) but he was the first celebrity crush I had that felt like was about more than appearance.
I didn’t know it as a junior high kid, but … I liked his soul.
As early as, I don’t know – age 7 or 8, maybe? – I was writing stories, songs, poems, lyrics. I sketched fashion designs and wrote in my diary and devoured the written word. So, finding a rock star who was, in my teenybopper opinion, ALSO a true “poet” and wordsmith was more swoon-worthy than the boys I was hanging up posters of, from the pages of Teen Beat magazine.
I felt like Gavin Rossdale and others of that era gave me permission to lean into my truest self even when I, at times, tried to hide it to “fit in.”
And boy, do I regret trying to fit in! I had graduated from my plastic Flutophone recorder to a real, live saxophone and was pretty good at it. My music teacher and band instructor encouraged me to stick with music, but I quit because some boys made fun of me and I was too insecure to be seen as a band nerd.
It’s literally one of the biggest regrets of my life.
As an adult at age 37, I now wish I could revisit playing the saxophone. I wish I could play my acoustic guitar and my ukulele and my piano more, but, I’m facing hand surgery that could render that impossible.
It sucks. But, I digress. Back to Gavin.
For a time, I had my people: I rollerbladed; I blasted rock music; I wore the baggy jeans and the raver shirts and tried to skateboard and ski. I went through a rebellious phase, a goth phase, a ska phase, and music was my salvation. Bush’s Sixteen Stone and Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill were the soundtrack to my life (along with the actual soundtrack from Bazz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juilet.)
I pretended I was cooler than I was.
But as happens in high school, friend groups changed, priorities changed. Boys (and grown men – yuck) began to notice and pay attention to me – sometimes too much attention, I can say in hindsight. I was still insecure but I thought I was hot stuff. People began telling me I looked like Britney Spears; I let myself believe it. After all, who in 1999 wouldn’t have wanted to be her?
Sixteen Stone remained (and still remains) one of my favorite albums and a Gavin Rossdale poster remained above my bed, but in true late-90s and early-aughts fashion (or, lack thereof, judging by some of my clothing choices,) I leaned into pop, hip-hop, bare-midriffs, short skirts, and skintight low-rise jeans. The Airwalks and Converse were replaced by Steve Madden platforms and chunky jelly wedges. No more black hair; I was Sun-In, bleached n’ bottled blonde. My life was consumed by NSync, Britney Spears, Nelly, Juvenile, DMX, Destiny’s Child, and Eminem … parties and football games and trips to the mall. Boys. Boys. And more Boys!
By that point, Gavin Rossdale was a man and a bit off my radar. I still stanned Sixteen Stone. But, the rocker-skater-tomboy Ashley? She had vanished, or, at least been dulled by the bubblegum social norms of her formative years.
Quitting sports didn’t help – my musculoskeletal autoimmune disease put an end to softball (which was my world), basketball, and eventually cheerleading. No more skateboarding; efforts to snow ski and water ski and snowboard had passed and were, because of my ailments, not even a realistic possibility even as a teenager.
So the saxophone-playing Ashley of the alternative-grunge era faded into the bright lights of clubbing, rap music, and parties.
There were some people at school who saw me for who I still was at heart: the girl with the Bush CDs and the Gavin poster above my bed.
Once, my good friends BJ and Jessie got to go to a Bush concert – I believe at Pittsburgh’s Metropol or Rosebud in the Strip District? – which I was invited to go to, but wasn’t allowed to attend. It was one of my first true tastes of real disappointment! But my friend BJ brought me back a signed white t-shirt allegedly from Gavin Rossdale himself.
Now I say allegedly because we were in middle school, after all – so who knows if it was really signed or worn by Gavin? (Not that I doubt you, BJ, but … we were kids, so I’d forgive ya if it wasn’t actually Gavin’s! Haha.)
At any rate, it was an amazingly appreciated gesture, that made me feel so very special … and that shirt hung on my wall for many years until I went to college! Another kid, whose real name I won’t use but we’ll call him Jonathan, knew the real me so much that he put me on a ‘hit list’ and wrote nasty blog posts about me and said he wanted to kill me all because I was “a sheep trying to fit in with the pigs.” Which … trauma aside … was a fair observation. (And yes, I do mean trauma: that whole experience is where my anxiety began. Having to go to court as a 10th grader will do that to ya!)
>>>> Fast-forward …
… through switching majors (marketing, music business, english) and colleges (Robert Morris, Clarion, PITT) a couple of times … through an internship at a radio station … through a partial completion of grad school … through a couple of medical withdrawals … through a few knee surgeries and a brain surgery and several jobs at tech companies and nonprofits and even a Catholic school… I would find Mr. Rossdale – and myself – again.
So, as my luck would have it, I missed Gavin in Pittsburgh again when he came for a solo tour on the Gateway Clipper. (Which, HELLO – boats and Gavin Rossdale? Damn it if that isn’t wholly and fully my jam!!!!)
When I saw that Bush was coming to Stage AE in Pittsburgh along with Chevelle in July of 2016, I knew I had to go.
At that point I’d been a fan for, what, like…20 years? … and had been to probably 100 concerts, but, had still never seen Bush live and in person. I dragged my husband Mike, and we stood front row for what up until that point was one of the best concert experiences I’d had (along with seeing Britney Spears twice from front row and Justin Timberlake from 3rd row then and first row a few times after. The poppy side of me never fully disappeared, after all.)
But I’d been so used to pop, top 40, and hip-hop shows – the big spectacles, the productions, the dancing, the dramatics, and lip-syncing – that I didn’t even realize what I’d been missing out on: rock shows were life.
And Gavin? He’s what a frontman should be.
He oozed sex appeal and raw talent. He was full of charisma and stage presence. You could tell that he FELT the music, that he SAW the audience. I even felt like he saw ME! … Yes, every artist is a performer and usually going off a memorized script or routine. I get that. But Bush? Gavin? They felt AUTHENTIC. Real. Not manufactured. Not phony.
I loved it.
The concert high lasted weeks, which I’ve learned happens with any good show. I would watch the videos on my phone over and over again and couldn’t wait to hopefully see them live again sometime.
It’s now 2019 and Bush is coming back to Stage AE, along with Live, another band who I liked back in the day. This time, I had no one to go with, so I sold my second ticket and went alone. Now, keep in mind, I’m not someone who, at that point, did NOT do a lot of things alone. I’d gone to see a movie by myself once, and traveled solo for a few work trips… but a concert? At night? By myself? This was big stuff.
The insecurities crept back: would people think I was a loser or take pity on me for being at a show by myself?
I realized I did not care, and this was the start of me doing what I wanted to do…. even if I had to go it alone.
I’d gotten VIP tickets for this 2019 show and had mega heart palpitations at the prospect of meeting Gavin Rossdale. Now, I’d met plenty of other celebrities before so I knew that it was likely that he’d barely say hello or acknowledge my existence. And because I have met kind of a lot of famous or semi-famous people, I also don’t get super starstruck and I know how to play it cool. USUALLY. Not so much with my favorite band, though! I felt like such a nerd and am more than sure that they all felt my awkwardness radiating off my body in nervous giddy waves.
“I’ve been your fan since middle school,” I shyly told Gavin, probably turning blotchy beet red, as I often do.
He smiled, and gave me a hug. Inwardly, I melted; outwardly, I made some more quick small talk and told him and Chris that I hope they liked Pittsburgh. It was lovely. I got a signed poster and some other merch. I don’t care much about the free swag but I do have the autograph hanging in my home office and I will treasure the photos forever.
I had front row at this show too and I swore that Gavin made eye contact with me. In my little fantasy-world he was singing to me. In reality I know it’s an act. But I’m okay with being in fantasy-land for a few hours.
Life is hard enough. It’s okay to escape now and then.
The story isn’t over. I enjoyed myself so much at that show and had begun to grow more confident in doing things alone: hiking, birdwatching, dining, etc. Mind you, I am very happily married! But, my husband and I support one another in our individual endeavors and we both value solo time and pursuing our unique interests and passions which rarely align with one another. (Me: music, concerts, nature, animals, fashion, books, pop culture, astronomy, travel … him: fitness fitness fitness fitness fitness fitness travel fitness.) So, no red flags here — in fact, I am grateful that Mike has helped to empower me to feel confident doing things on my own. And that he doesn’t get jealous or insecure about my little celebrity crushes!
Thus, when I saw that Bush was doing a show in Las Vegas for the 25th Anniversary of Sixteen Stone, I HAD TO GO. There was no discussion; no debate. I have two jobs and freelance; I’ve worked since I was 15; I don’t have kids; I budget for concerts and travel because those things are a priority to me.
And – my Grandma (Joan) who lived in Las Vegas? She was unfortunately dying.
I knew this concert – this trip to Vegas – would very likely be the last time I could ever see her. Little did I know that, because of a impending pandemic, it would ALSO be my last concert for … well … who knows how long.
So I booked the trip and began counting the days.
Thank goodness I did.
That night – February 28, 2020 – was not just one of THE BEST concerts of my life but also one of THE BEST nights of my life. It was an emotional day – I’d gotten to spend a lot of quality time with my Grandma, and saying goodbye that morning knowing it would likely be our last hug, was incredibly challenging and emotional. But having the concert to look forward to that night (and some quality alone time in the hot tub at the Paris with a delicious Bloody Mary,) helped put a salve on my hurting heart.
I got dolled up, blasted Bush in my hotel room, and took an Uber to the House of Blues. I’d gotten VIP again; we all were crammed in line, no one knowing that we were likely all being exposed to covid-19 for every second of it.
Finally – it was time for the meet-and-greet! Now, I’m sure that most bands hate doing meet-and-greets, and I get it. But, Bush does an awesome job of at least pretending they enjoy it!
I made my way up to the line. Chris complimented me on my leather jacket. He said he smelled popcorn. I said I promised it wasn’t me. He laughed. Gavin laughed. I told Gavin I’d seen them in Pittsburgh. He said he likes Pittsburgh. We hugged. We smiled. We took a photo. I floated away on a cloud of happiness (and I don’t wanna come back down from this cloud …)
Front row, again. I impatiently sat through 3 opening acts and then … those opening notes: Machinehead.
I rocked out for the entire time. Devil horns in the air. Jumping up and down. Screaming, singing, taking photos and videos on my phone. I lived for the sense of togetherness that we were experiencing that night (and at any concert, really. Its one of my favorite feelings ever in life! Everyone singing along…it’s bliss…)
I flew back home to Pennsylvania the next day, emotionally exhausted from the fun and excitement of the show, and from the goodbyes with my grandma. And then, within a couple of weeks, life was on lockdown.
The pandemic had fully arrived and life, as we knew it, was about to change. It was hard. Everyone was isolated. Everyone was afraid. I was especially afraid given my immune system issues. But…
Gavin Rossdale and Bush guitarist Chris Traynor unbeknownst to them, brought me immense happiness via interactions on Instagram and Twitter. Chris regularly liked my photos from the show. Gavin put a picture I took from the concert on his Instagram page and gave me photo credit. (He shared that same photo again recently, in fact!) Gavin also began to do live chats on his Instagram Live. Once, he gave me a shout-out when I submitted a question, “hey! I know you!” and another time, he played a song I kept requesting, “All Night Doctors,” one of my fav yet most-underrated Bush songs (which also seemed fitting for the pandemic and some personal things I was going through!) In the summer, Gavin and Chris both also shared a video of my resuce pug Olive doing some head-tilts to their hit song, “Flowers on a Grave,” (which I actually go to hear live in Vegas before it was even released!)
These little interactions, seemingly stupid or silly, actually meant a lot to me.
My grandma passed away shortly after that show … one of my dogs passed away shortly after that .. not to mention, well.. covid. So, any and every bit of happiness I could take was welcomed. And I got that happiness through these little likes, follows, mentions, and shares: not because I need validation or followers on social media, but, because I need human connection.
And to feel “seen” by someone who inspired you to write song lyrics and poetry; someone you’ve admired for the last 20 or 25 years? Well … that’s a blessing and a gift.
I’m not a Groupie. (Well – I don’t think I am lol!)
But I’m a die-hard Bush fan. I respect Gavin and the band so much. Why they don’t get more credit and recognition is beyond me. Truly, Bush has some masterpieces. The albums Sixteen Stone and The Kingdom are flawless. But the entire discography is great. And the staying power? Come on! Not to mention, their music is timeless, ageless. Sixteen Stone sounds as good now as it did when I was listening to it on my Discman on the school bus. Some of the songs hit differently the older I get, but … dang it if Rossdale isn’t a phenomenal lyricist. (Yes, I love his vocals and guitar skills too but I’m a storytellers, so the words matter, too. Big time.)
In another life, had I not quit band, had I stuck with music, if I didn’t have medical issues, maybe I’d be a songwriter too.