Ron Onesti: Wearing rock history
Each week, we feature some of the most loved entertainers and bands, bringing musical memories to the masses. Excited concertgoers arrive wearing their vintage concert shirts purchased "back in the day."
Mathematically speaking, the age of the shirt is directly related to the amount of belly protruding between the bottom of the shirt and the top button of the wearer's jeans, a projectile one thread away from shooting onto the stage itself. I think my mom called it "ten pounds of meatloaf in a five-pound pan."
Nonetheless, it brings them joy to wear that souvenir from a 1977 Led Zeppelin concert. The beloved T-shirt still carries its own history. From the moment the $6 was paid to a strolling vendor wearing a cardboard box supported by a standard belt around his neck, the wearable became an item that remained with the purchaser during his or her life's journey.
Band merchandise has become such a large part of the band's revenue stream these days. Countless designs on numerous styles of shirts join the drumsticks, headbands, CDs (not for long), photos, caps and other paraphernalia available for purchase that hit the concertgoer hard near the entrances and exits of the shows. For an extra $20, you can get a quick scribble of a somewhat legible autograph of band members on top.
Back then, concert shirts were relatively an uncommon commodity. Who had "extra" money to buy a shirt those days? It was such a bonus to buy one then. These days they are must-haves.
At 16 years of age, I got into the T-shirt vending biz. It was 1978 and a friend of mine was printing shirts in his basement. I convinced my buddy, who had the locker next to me at Weber High School in Chicago, to allow me to store my books (all with book covers my mom made from brown paper lunch bags, onto which I inscribed band names such as UFO and Alice Cooper) in his locker. That freed up space for my T-shirt inventory in my locker.
Rush, Zeppelin and Pink Floyd were my biggest sellers. Each day, immediately after the lunch bell, a crowd would form as guys who paid a couple bucks a week came to make their final payment and pick up their shirts. They proudly pulled the shirt over their heads just enough to show the 4-inch knot of their bright orange or blue tie.
At Weber, we had to wear collared shirts, ties and sweaters, but there was no "official" uniform. So as much as that ensemble may sound like well-groomed students at an upscale school in England, the daily fashion statement consisted of tan cloth "Earth" shoes, corduroy pants, various colored plaid flannel shirts and some oddly colored, wide tie taken from our dad's closet from his first days on the job several years before.
It was an all-boys school, so fashionable pairings were of little concern.
The cool thing was that my high school locker products replaced the V-neck sweaters the parents THOUGHT their bright-eyed schoolboys were wearing to school.
Now, as I put on shows featuring the bands we idolized back then, I realize just how much those T-shirts branded not only the band, but also the personality of its owner.
Over the years, we donated our wide-collared shirts, bell bottom jeans, Sansabelt slacks (what pants were called then) and corduroy jackets to the Salvation Army, but we always managed to squirrel away our sacred concert shirts.
It truly makes me smile to see the pride on the faces of our customers who saunter through our grand lobby, intentionally flashing their vintage walking billboard of a T-shirt to the merchandise seller whose inventory consists mainly of "50th Anniversary" designs.
My dream is to one day host a vintage concert-shirt fashion show featuring the shirts' original owners. I think the designs of tightfitting, paper thin pastel blue and yellow shirts would be second to the proud stride of its owner doing a Mick Jagger rooster strut at the end of the runway.
As classic rock sounds as good today as it did in the Seventies, the look leaves a bit to be desired. But it is all part of the experience -- and I would love it if EVERYBODY attended the shows in this fashion time warp. Now is the time to venture into attics, explore top shelves in the garage and dig out basement boxes stored behind the StairMaster. Grab that shirt from the Yes concert in 1979 and proudly wear it. You are part of a classic generation.
And don't worry about what your kids will say. We will always have the Who and Eric Clapton; they will only have Taylor Swift and Brittany Spears.
• Ron Onesti is president and CEO of The Onesti Entertainment Corp. and The Historic Arcada Theatre in St. Charles. Celebrity questions and comments? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.