Rock t-shirts appeal -- They help define the wearer's identity and community

By David Browne
Updated August 25, 1995 at 04:00 AM EDT

The time had come, and what a sad day it was. Once a thing of beauty, its aqua-blue star and luminous red logo absolutely sparkling, it was now battered and worn, beaten into submission by everyday use and besmirched by beverages consumed long ago.

It was time to trash the ”Jesus &amp Mary Chain at the Ritz, March 5, 1990” T-shirt.

Sorting through the pile of fading rock T-shirts in my closet is a this-is-my-life tour of concerts attended. There’s the navy-blue Dinosaur Jr ”Alien Workshop” T from their 1994 tour, with its enigmatic photo of an extraterrestrial peering through a window; the shrunken relic from Simon &amp Garfunkel’s reunion concert in New York’s Central Park, some 14 years ago; that memento of the Who’s 1989 tour, which garishly lists the name of every song from every one of their albums on its back; and the striking black Oneita Power T with an astronaut spacewalking across the front, a souvenir from a club date this spring by Hovercraft, Eddie Vedder’s side project.

But rock Ts are far more than remembrances of shows past or proclamations of fandom; they allow us to reinvent ourselves a little. During high school, I felt less nerdy with a sullen Neil Young staring from my chest; to convey just the right dab of caustic, anti-corporate-rock humor, I donned a parody shirt with the word ”Maybe” written in the same loopy, intertwined lettering as the Yes logo. (These days, my ”John Tesh Live” serves much the same ironic, postmodern purpose.) In short, these precursors to E-mail names don’t just bolster whatever attitude and stance accompany a band’s logo. They define our own identities and help us feel part of a larger community.

As for which scene or band you want to align yourself with this summer, the options are plentiful, even if the execution can be maddeningly unimaginative. With few exceptions, concert Ts fall into several distinct categories, each of them currently on display at an arena or club near you. Fans of Clint Black, Boyz II Men, Melissa Etheridge, and even an iconoclast like Björk can choose from the standard, boring portrait style. There’s the quasi-medieval skulls-and-dragons imagery and lettering that continue to lurk on the black shirts of headbangers like Megadeth and Queensrÿche. Perhaps most clichéd are those shirts that depict an act’s current album cover, thus turning buyers into walking billboards for the likes of Bon Jovi, Van Halen, and Yanni.