Blame David Bowie. A Thin White Duke T-shirt propelled a little white lie, which snowballed with every wearing.
Being too young to attend a show on Bowie's 1983 Serious Moonlight tour, I did what any underage doofus would do. I bought a concert T-shirt -- three-quarter-length blue sleeves, image of Major Tom himself on the front -- from, yikes, Columbia House, the record and mail-order giant (56 albums for 10 cents!).
Then the untruths unfolded. (Cool older guy at school: "You saw Bowie?" Me: "Yeah, of course. Don't touch my shirt, man.")
I was in da club (decades before you, 50 Cent). And today, every Jane and Joe Sixpack can belong -- whether or not they went to the show, thanks to the appearance of concert T-shirts at stores from Bloomingdale's and Macy's to J.C. Penny, Kmart and Target. Many of these new threads look like they could be oldies -- there are Jimi Hendrix and Beatles T-shirts galore at Target. Is this is what the fashionable call "retro-hip"?
I feel more like hip-replacement at this point, especially when I think about the Merch-brand vintage shirts Kmart is hawking. The president of Merch is John Hecker, who discovered Avril Lavigne while president of Hi-Fi Records (but don't hold that against him). His days are filled trying to secure original designs that can be reproduced, "to keep it true to the original," he says.
"I go directly to Jimmy Page for Led Zeppelin shirts," says Hecker, a lifelong Manhattan resident. "I go directly to Gene Simmons for KISS. He was actually going to go to his mom's basement to find a vintage shirt for me."
Some designs are so rare, Hecker, 40, says, that they are bootlegs the artists have approved. Hey, 30 years after a tour, is Ted Nugent going to have one of his official tees in a box?
Hecker has done his share of tracking, too. He trolled eBay for a Pink Floyd shirt from a July 1975 show at Knebworth Park in England. Cost him $1,500. The Kmart version will be in stores for the holidays, for considerably less than a grand, we imagine.
Getting their cut
As to the business of paying for the rights to reproduce these vintage designs, Hecker says: "The artists or estates of artists get a cut. A big cut per shirt." (He says contracts prevent him from divulging just how much; and pesky corporate policies don't permit Kmart sales figures from being released.)
If you think Hecker's starting to sound like The Man, music's been his life. The first concert he remembers was when he made his dad take him to the Concert for Bangladesh at 6. The first concert T-shirt he purchased: Led Zep in 1974 or '75. And yes, he raids his own concert togs of yore -- Rolling Stones, KISS, Queen and The Who -- for reproduction purposes, too.
Howard Kramer not only bought concert tees back in the day, he also sold them when he worked in management roles for such acts as the Dead Milkmen, G. Love and Special Sauce, and rockabilly god Robert Gordon. Alan Merrill could have written "I Love Rock N' Roll" about this guy Kramer, who works as the curatorial director at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland.
"The first T-shirt with a rock likeness was put out by an Elvis Presley fan club around 1956," Kramer, 43, says. "It's very rare and had a rendering of the famous Tampa '55 photo on it, colorized."
He may not see the King's antique apparel on kids in the Hall, but he does feel a tinge of nostalgia. "The amount of teens wearing the Led Zeppelin '77 tour T-shirts walking around the Rock Hall is absurd. Absurd," Kramer says. "I saw them on that tour and didn't even buy a shirt. It tells you what these kids feel about music. People take music very seriously."
Does he remember his first concert tee?
Yes' Going for the One tour, August 1977.