When I was 17 years old, I went to see Iron Maiden in concert with 2 of my high school buddies, plus Sean McPhillips, an older guy we looked up to. Sean was a cashier at Blockbuster Video who had started talking to me about the stuff I was renting. He was in his 20s, and for a while his recommendations on movies and rock bands were the basis for my entire personality. Having him come with us to Iron Maiden was a major jackpot.
Based on his instructions, we met him at the venue at 3 PM, so that we could wait outside for hours and get a spot near the stage when the doors opened (there was no assigned seating). We were surrounded by hardcore metalheads with denim jackets covered in patches. I was still young enough to have my mind blown by meeting people who were way, way more obsessed with something I was obsessed with. This was a crowd that had nuanced, sensitive views about the lost Maiden albums of the 90s, which were straightforwardly terrible. They had finished the Maiden CD-Rom video game, which was unplayable. Everyone on line with us was a heavy metal version of Comic Book Guy from the Simpsons.
I, on the other hand, was a junior in high school who listened to Iron Maiden before cross-country races. I had never seen another person wear an Iron Maiden T-shirt in my life. On the strength of that, I considered myself a passionate fan. But when I saw the line outside the Iron Maiden concert, I realized how big the world really is: big enough to include untold thousands of people for whom the band is the meaning of life. Most of them were at least 15 years older than me, way hairier, and way fatter. They were repellant and fascinating. With Sean there, I felt like we were about to enter an interactive, live-action version of Wayne’s World, which would last for several hours before we even got inside the venue. “OK,” I thought to myself. “Cool.”
We spent the afternoon trying to hang with these guys without forming the sort of friendship where a stranger talks to you nonstop for as long as you’re standing next to them. A lot of them were insufferable fans of mythology and literature and stuff like that. The rest were nonverbal Hells Angels types. I went back and forth a lot about who was easier to like. Finally, at 7 PM, the doors opened. We went straight to the front of the stage and got spots in what became the second row. It was exciting. Whenever Iron Maiden came out, we would be close to them.
But that wasn’t going to happen for a long time. We still had to get through the opening bands and all the mucky muck between sets. The hours rolled by, and we took turns going to the bathroom and getting drinks, but after a certain point Sean told us that was no longer realistic. The room was filling up, the crowd was getting more and more packed. There would be no way to get back to our spot in the second row if we went anywhere else at this point. We nodded our heads and huddled closer together among the crowd.
Finally, at like T-minus 30 minutes to Iron Maiden, the guys in front of us—and I mean directly in front of us, the guys whose shoulders we were pushed up against—started calling to a friend of theirs out in the crowd, somewhere distantly behind us. Somehow, amazingly, they were guiding him through the room by shouting back and forth. The guy made it all the way to the third row, right behind us.
“OK,” the guys in front of us said to me. “Now let him through.”
“No,” Sean said.
We were all pressed together so tightly that the guys in front of us couldn’t even turn around. We were looking at the backs of their heads.
“Come on, let him through,” they said again. They knew, just as we did, that if we let their friend through, we would lose our own spot in the second row.
“No,” Sean said.
At this point, I had no idea what the laws of Iron Maiden Nation were. Were we supposed to give up our spot, for this random guy behind us? Hadn’t we earned the right to be in the second row by standing in place and holding in our pee for 7 hours? And then also, who enforces the laws of Iron Maiden Nation? I was beginning to sense that they were self-enforced.
So my next question was, were we going to fight the guys in front of us? I had no idea, literally no idea, how a fight would go for me. I wondered if I would win easily, because I was a tall 17-year-old athlete. Just as a physical specimen of health and fitness, I was easily in the top 1 percentile of Iron Maiden Nation. Is that what wins fights? I tried to decide how easily my varsity letter in cross-country could be overcome, in combat, by the savage killer instinct most of these metalheads seemed to possess. For sure, I was the better runner. But would that beat an overweight psycho? “It’s an open question,” I said to myself in total seriousness.
Meanwhile, Sean was talking directly into the necks of the guys in front of us. “We’re not gonna move,” he said. I had no idea where this was headed, but Sean did not seem like a guy who was calculating his chances for survival. He was past that. He appeared fearless.
Finally, one of the guys said to him, “Hey man, who made you the president of the Iron Maiden fan club?” It was a loaded question, here in the land of hardcore fans. Was Sean ready to get into fan-club bullshit with these guys? There were people all around us who had been listening to the whole thing. For the first time, Sean hesitated.
Then he said, “I’m the president of this area right where I’m standing.” He knew, as soon as he said it, that it was over now. We all did. It was the perfect answer: impossible to argue with, impossible to ridicule. It was almost funny, but also not funny. Sean wasn’t a huge guy, but when he said he was the president of the area right where he was standing, you believed him. No one was going to fight us now, or ever.
“Wow,” I thought to myself. “I wonder if I could ever learn to talk like that.”