Thursday, August 16, 2007

T-shirt collection proliferates

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When I get dressed in the morning I'm confronted by a dizzying array of concert t-shirts. I'm talking about a closet full of cotton and polyester tees, some of recent vintage and others showing their age.

The problem is of my own making. You see, my wife Sue and I have made a practice of buying t-shirts as concert mementos for years.

In case you're wondering, standard white t-shirts were first issued to U. S. servicemen in World War II and became a fashion staple for youth and rock 'n' rollers in the following years. Surely, you remember James Dean in "Rebel Without a Cause?" The t-shirt made the man.

Without boring you with too much history, screen printing and tie-dying further popularized the shirts during the 60s, while the black concert t-shirt became popular a decade later.

Although we certainly bought music-related t-shirts during that time, the habit really took hold when we attended Grateful Dead shows in Wisconsin during the 80s and 90s. If you're not already aware of it, fans of the San Francisco group, or Deadheads as they're called, are not afraid to express themselves with colorful attire.

The Grateful Dead concerts featured an avalanche of psychedelic t-shirts worn by virtually every one of the tens of thousands of people who attended those shows. Many of the available tees were of the "official" variety sold through Grateful Dead Merchandising.

But the Dead's fans also produced their own versions, or "bootleg" t-shirts, not approved by the band. For these shirts, the seller kept all the money and didn't pay the band any royalties. Vendors would literally appear from behind the bushes as you left the concert, offering shirts, often of poor quality, for as little at $6.

Sue and I also collected some unique shirts when we attended Beatlefest, a fan convention held at Chicago's Hyatt Regency Hotel every August. During those get-togethers, we witnessed a kaleidoscope of designs as thousands of fans wore their devotion to the Fab Four on their chests. There were so many different t-shirts, you were hard pressed to see the same one twice.

That sea of shirts is especially impressive when you realize that as the group toured the United States in the mid-60s, there were no Beatles t-shirts. Today, counting group and solo product, hundreds of different licensed shirts are available for any fan of John, Paul, George and Ringo. We bought additional Beatles apparel when we attended various solo concerts by ex- Beatles McCartney and Starr.

Showing our closet no mercy, we added t-shirts from artists as musically diverse as hard rock legends Led Zeppelin and country superstar Toby Keith. Many of the shirts picture the musician or group on the front and tour dates on the back.

Our closet also holds a couple of Record Rack tees, dating back to the 80s. One shows a woman looking strangely like Rita Hayworth standing next to a Wurlitzer jukebox, while the other, designed by Jeff Simmons, depicts a young man singing along to a jukebox he's transporting in the back of his pick-up.

I also have the option of wearing a Hard Rock Cafe t-shirt from far-away Singapore, although you can rest assured I've never been there. Sue and I, however, did attend the grand opening of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland in 1995 and for our efforts obtained shirts emblazoned with their modernistic "House That Rock Built" logo.

Selling t-shirts has become an important source of income for virtually every touring act. My brother-in-law James Hahn, who attended the July 20 Kiss show in Sault Ste. Marie, reported a mob in front of the t-shirt stand, with fans eager to pay $40 for something new to wear. Not only that, the Kiss attire quickly sold out, disappointing some concert-goers.

Local events have utilized the t-shirt as both a promotional tool and as merchandise. Fans attending the Jim "Smiley" Lewis Tribute at the Terrace on Oct. 21, 2006, were able to buy an appealing black tee which featured a "Blues Cat" logo in turquoise on the front and dog and cat tracks on the back. Proceeds benefited the Delta County Animal Shelter.

The most recent shirt in our collection commemorates Norton Fest which took place in Flat Rock on July 28. Held annually since 2002 at the home of Jeff and Theresa Norton, this incredibly well-organized event showcased performances from five bands. The line-up included Slipt from Marquette, a Ramones tribute band from Green Bay called Blitzkreig Rok, as well as local 70s rockers Hey Mikey Band. For veteran music fans, the evening featured the on-stage reunions of Neptune and Stormbringer.

From its war time origins, the t shirt has become an essential accessory for music fans. Popular with young and old alike, they may serve as a fashion statement, collectors' item, or merely a souvenir.

In any case, there are millions of music fans who love their t-shirts and that combination isn't likely to change any time soon.

Now, which t shirt should I wear today?

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