Around 3 o'clock on the last Sunday in June, somewhere between Caesar's and the Johnny Rockets, two women walk into a bar. It's Wild West-themed, and via the confusing corridors of Atlantic City casinos, you can get from here to both an oyster restaurant and the poker floor of Bally's without touching the outdoors. One of the servers—a middle-aged employee who is a first-grade teacher during the school year—has been on a double since the day before, telling gamblers and vacationers that they are running low on the signature $3 domestic lagers. (Miller Lite, on draft, is the staple, but you can get a Coors, too.) They're nearly out for a reason: The previous evening, thousands upon thousands of aging punks had found refuge in the saloon, escaping a thunderstorm that seemed to have no chance of abating.
In the end, the skies did part quickly. But Kerry Bochetto and Victoria Ungvary, both close to 30, were among those who fled the rollercoaster that is summer weather. Now, when they sit down almost 24 hours later, the same bartender is still there, telling her co-workers about how a former porn star holds an important job at the Borgata. They ask about the beer. There's some Miller left. It's a clear day, but their backs hurt now. They've had enough, they say, of Warped Tour.
"This has to be the oldest crowd yet," Bochetto proclaims. "I saw this couple with a baby in a carriage, just baking in the sun."
Bochetto and Ungvary were just two of a reported 30,000 guests each day. And just like the many others, they had arrived at the AC boardwalk each morning before noon, standing in a line of mohawks, dyed hair, and band shirts that snaked to the sea. There were three stages set up on the beach—a main one, for the larger acts, and two smaller ones, for the smaller bands—as well as a wrestling rink, beer and nonprofit tents, and a halfpipe for Andy MacDonald to skateboard on. It was a harried formation to enter, and everyone in it looked like they were waiting for the last ship off an apocalyptic island. (The only queue that challenged its length was beyond the fence, for the "hydration station.") The attendees were flanked by New Jersey tourists who had no idea what was happening, as they rushed on by in their bathing suits and graphic tees, those with the sorts of phrases you only see when people go on vacation and want to vocalize the morality they may or may not have left at home. ("The world's greatest farter.") A plane incessantly flew over the Atlantic, brandishing a banner advertising the new Sleeping with Sirens album.
Much of the weekend for the Warped Tour crowd had been defined by brief moments of respite—by avoiding the showers that threatened to derail the whole thing; by running into the ocean to quell the humidity; by cramming below the pier, underneath which, during low tide, you would have discovered hundreds of people escaping the sweltering heat in the shade. There were a lot of jokes about the parking lots of the past—how so many of them had done this for a solid decade, equally as hot. As the afternoons went on, and as the water flowed further onto the shore, and as the headliners professed how much this has meant to them, those attending would creep in front of the stage, finally crammed together but comforted by the vague chill of the night. Unless they too had already had enough.
Bochetto and Ungvary had to come, though. Just once more. The pair have been concert-going friends for decades and have been to the festival countless times over the years—in Asbury Park, in Holmdel. And this, after all, was supposed to be its final act: It was the summer of 2019, and Warped Tour was to end its 25-year run. For real.
But who actually thought that was true?
On Sunday night, when Adam Lazzara, the 37-year-old now-bearded frontman of Taking Back Sunday, addressed the crowd, he sounded like a preacher who had just stepped off the Oregon Trail. His voice was low and raspy, and he spoke slowly, enunciating every other word. He couldn't quite hit the high notes like he had been able to in the past, and his infamous microphone swinging was much more timid, as if he were worried about accidentally strangling himself with the cord. Eventually, he launched into a slam-poetry version of Bruce Springsteen's "Atlantic City," because why not: "Well, they blew up the Chicken Man in Philly last night / And they blew up his house, too." He paused, however, prematurely. Had he continued, he would have uttered this line: "Everything dies, baby, that's a fact / But maybe everything that dies someday comes back." It would have been the most fitting sentence he could have said. It would have been a mantra, a motto, a summary of the entire tenor of the event.
It was supposed to be dead. In November 2017, Kevin Lyman, the man who founded Warped Tour and has been intimately involved in organizing it since its inception, revealed that 2018, its 24th year, would be the last. At the time, the media launched into content-obituary mode. Kerrang!: "I Cried When I First Heard About Warped Tour Ending!" Vulture: "R.I.P. Warped Tour, the Festival of Your Youth." Alternative Press: "The Scene Reacts to Warped Tour Ending." The New York Times: "R.I.P. Warped Tour. At Least We Still Have Vans." It had defined alternative music for one generation, and then the next. It had been like a traveling carnival, bringing music that largely derived from the coasts to a Middle America that longed for it. It has often been referred to as an adult "summer camp." But ticket sales were declining. (For comparison's sake, as opposed to this year's 30,000 in AC, Warped Tour stops in 2016 reportedly saw about half of that.) That is, until some shows sold out in 2018 following Lyman's announcement.
They did so again in 2019.
The sentiment of the eulogies were understandable. But the festival's evolution had already become a punchline: What began in 1995 as a scrappy idea to bring punk bands like Anti-Flag and NOFX across the country, and to highlight some local acts along the way, had evolved along with the music. By the early 2000s, pop punk dominated, and Warped Tour became a multimillion dollar celebration, just as overproduced as the songs it was forefronting. It had morphed into featured acts like Eminem, the Black Eyed Peas, and, quite notoriously, Katy Perry. Jarrett Reddick, of Bowling for Soup, had written the new Chuck E. Cheese theme song.
"The die-hard Warped fan was still coming, but the ones for the future seemed to drop off," Lyman told the Times last year, of his decision to end the festival. It had, simply, run its course. But Lyman had also chosen his words carefully. In his statement about Warped Tour's expiration in 2018, he wrote: "[I] look forward to what's to come as we commemorate the tour's historic 25th anniversary in 2019."
This was it: Atlantic City was the second of the three-stop tour. The lineup included a nostalgic buffet of veteran punk, pop-punk, ska, and emo performers, and was relatively uniform at each venue. There was Bad Religion, CKY, and Glassjaw. There was Thrice, the Offspring, and Atreyeu. There was the Starting Line, Taking Back Sunday, and Reel Big Fish. Previously, in early June, Warped Tour had swept through Cleveland, Ohio, through the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Museum, though that was to open an exhibit and lacked much of the expected flair; later this month, it's set to land at the Shoreline Amphitheatre, in Mountain View, California.
But it was this backdrop that could not have been more fitting. To exit the venue, for instance, you probably drove past the president's shuttered casino, one of many extremely potent metaphors for our times. (The city has gone through so many resurgences since its heyday, in the B_oardwalk Empire_ period of the 1920s, that it's almost necessary to announce its comeback in a tongue-in-cheek manner. Last summer, Philadelphia Magazine published a feature with the headline, "The Re-Re-Re-Re-Rebirth of Atlantic City.")
So here we were—in a Jersey Shore city long hoping to shed its sordid history, on a stretch of land that had developed, redeveloped, and developed again. It was hosting a party, though, that stood in stark contrast to that transformation, one that felt, no matter what, that it wouldn't forfeit its legacy. On Sunday, the lead singer of the Used, Bert McCracken joked, "I thought last year was the last year. Turns out this year is the last year. We'll see you next year."
He appeared in on the masquerade, and his words were less of a chiding and probably more of a description for what's to come—or what one 35-year-old fan, who requested his full name not be used, explained was "a funeral where everyone could keep hanging out." It was a purgatory without having to acknowledge any past sins, and as emo and pop punk and Warped Tour itself has been criticized for creating spaces where immature, whiny predatory men play for an audience full of women, and where its demographic is largely white, it registered as something of a copout. Like a wake for a deceased loved one, you only remember the good things. (It wasn't until I listened to Parker Cannon from the Story So Far—stoic in his sunglasses, and so low energy that he only moved his hands from behind his back to chuck a Monster into the audience—that I recalled he had drop-kicked a girl off the stage in 2016.) The #MeToo movement has, of course, struck the scene as well: In November 2017, for example, Jesse Lacey, the lead singer of Brand New and arguably one of the most prominent faces of emo, was accused of sexual exploitation of minors.
The comedian Hari Kondabolu has a bit in which he deconstructs the arc of Weezer's career—and how, although he felt old at a recent concert, the old people were in fact the members of Weezer. The whole purpose of lyrics like these, in other words, is about not wanting to grow up, about not wanting to change, about not wanting to stay in whatever boring suburban town you were forced to attend high school in.
"Warped Tour isn't just a concert," said Vinny Naselli, who has been going to Warped since the early 2000s with his wife, and brought his younger cousin along with him this time. "It's a way of life. It sucks that it's ending, because that was my youth. Being here, I got to relieve the experiences I had when I was younger, and feel like I was 17 again. So now with it officially ending, it's like I'm being forced to be an actual adult."
It is also about not wanting to write these songs any longer. ("I'm sorry for writing you this song" belts out the Starting Line's Kenny Vasoli, in a song.) It's about not wanting to be alive because you (a man, because it's always a man) have had your heart broken: "When everything you'll get is everything you've wanted, princess / Well, which would you prefer? / My finger on the trigger, or / Me face down, down across your floor?"
"I expect they're going to keep doing this," said Bochetto, one of the women I had met at the bar. "A year from now, or five years from now. Or even ten years from now."
"But what happens next?" a man wearing a pineapple-patterned button-down, beside his friends, also in pineapple-patterned button-downs, asked. "Are we actually supposed to procreate?" But "if the ones for the future seemed to drop off," as Lyman said, what else was this than a monument to the past? Perhaps even the originals had moved on; by the mid-2010s, when the so-called "emo revival" hit, some had likely long forgotten Warped Tour existed.
Before Sunday's headliner, Blink-182, would walk up to their microphones and perform their breakout album Enema of the State in its entirety, a woman in her late 20s was trying to bum a cigarette. She was approaching people near the ocean, where they were soaking their sunburned feet, asking for help. She would tell each of them parts of her life story—how she had come to Warped Tour after visiting family, and how she was a Black Jack dealer at a casino on the Nevada side of Lake Tahoe. Her voice was almost totally vanquished—a side effect, she repeatedly clarified, of screaming too much.
Once she was finally smoking, she started asking about her friends. She had gotten in a fight with one of them—but did anyone know where they had gone? Nobody had a clue. But that was alright, she said. She would descend into the mass of humans and try to find them. It was her only option.
She had to do it soon, in case they had already gone.