Sunday, May 21, 2017

So Sad About Us

I hate the clause "the first time I saw." I don’t want to hear it, and you don’t either. When you hear that clause, ‘the first time I saw,’ you immediately know the writer is going to maunder on about something that happened a long, long time ago, and that is relevant only to him or her. Suffice to say there was a first time, and a second and a third, and many other times as well, but there will never be another, and you know exactly who I’m talking about, don’t you?

Chris Cornell.

I cried when I found out, and I hardly ever cry, and especially not in public. I cried at Starbucks, for god’s sake. It wasn’t like I knew him, though at times we were in proximity. I had interviewed his band. I had ‘hung out’ with them – that is to say, we were all in the same room at the same time, not that I would ever have spoken to  any of them in such situations. In any truly meaningful way, I did not know him, or them, and the band isn’t in my top ten. I easily might never have seen them live again despite the events of last Thursday.

And yet I wept. I felt – I feel - just terrible, way worse than when I heard about so many others – even Prince and David Bowie, I’m sorry to say. I felt bad about them, and I will probably miss their music more. But this felt personal. It felt generational. It felt horrible, and unexpected, and like a punch in the gut. In some weird way it felt like it had something to do with me, when rationally speaking, it doesn’t.

At first I couldn’t understand it. I have never felt this way about a celebrity death. I remember when Michael Jackson died, the woman who lived next door to me in San Francisco went into genuine morning. I saw her on the street a few days later, draped in black, and she told me she hadn’t left the house in days, she was just listening to Michael Jackson music and weeping. I thought that was a little goofy at the time, but now I sort of get it. Michael Jackson stood for something in her life, as I guess Chris Cornell does in mine. It feels like I am grieving for a person that I actually knew, but what I am really grieving for is the past. I am grieving for grunge.

I guess I hadn't really thought about how much it meant to me. But all the obits and pictures and posts I’ve read in the last few days have really driven home how much Soundgarden was the actual fountainhead of everything we felt about that scene. The photographs of Chris, flicking his sweaty hair back; frowning, keening, surfing on the bodies of boys like him…it catches at my heart right now. Seattle and everything: it had a sensibility that just jibed with my inner self, and it was one I had never felt before in popular culture. It was characterized by dry humor, long silences, a slightly askance look at the rest of the world and it’s  vagaries, by which I specifically mean the Reagan 80s with its bright colors and major chords and fake sunny outlook and fucked up Patriarichical values. Grunge’s whole ethos was chilly but kind: hearing it was like breathing cold mountain air after being in a stuffy room full of awful smells. The Fluid and Mudhoney and the Afghan Whigs (my personal favorite of the bunch) all co-hesed around this sensibility, but Soundgarden were its purist distillation.

I didn’t always like their music – sometimes it could be turgid – but oh,  the look, the sound, the feeling of it: as my friend Jenny wrote on her feed, “there is music you turn to for joy and happiness, but Soundgarden were there for those other times.” That’s so right. Those other times are more often. Those other times need their soundtrack as well. "Rusty Cage"? "Seasons"? And some of the lines cut so deep. “Looking California, feeling Minnesota.” “Dreams have never been the answer/dreams will never make my bed.” “Hands are for shaking, not tying.” It’s breaking my heart to write them now.

People often claim that grunge was overly male, but I didn’t feel that, at least not in comparison to punk and even indie rock.* I can’t explain why because those mosh pits were one big testostorone-filled tureen of flesh-addled flannel, but I’ve been in them and they didn’t feel dangerous, like others I've been in - like punk rock ones, or hardcore. Plus, the grunge scene was the first place – hell, maybe the only place -- I didn’t feel like I was being judged all the time. It was a place where you could be a total schlep, you could wear beat up boots and torn stockings; you could sport big huge shirts, and have bad hair. I remember one time I was at this party in Park City Utah, at the Sundance film festival for the premiere of “Hype,” and a bunch of us (not Soundgarden, but other Subpopsters) were sitting in this hot tub in the snow, and I just thought, 'wow, these are the only strangers in America that I would totally appear naked in front of.'

Yesterday, I was sitting on the porch of Sue’s house on a rare sunny moment, looking out at the sound.  It was all dark forest green with glints of yellow sun glancing off the water below us. Faint shouts of children dragging some kayak into the water in the inlet. Mount Rainier, looming over the whole scene. Sue’s a nurse practitioner now. I’m an educator. In other words, we both have to be grownups and live in the real world now, and as we looked out at the Washington waterway – so far from our California roots, but so close, in looks and feel, to that snow-cold purity of heart that I grasped at when I first heard grunge -- we reminisced sadly about those days, and how Chris Cornell, personally, embodied that ethos, and was somehow implicated in a lot of our more  golden memories. Like, one time she and I were both covering some terrible metal conference at the LA Airport Hilton and Temple of the Dog played in the loading dock. The loading dock! It was hilarious. Another time, in Spain, Soundgarden were opening for Guns N Roses, and Guns N Roses cancelled, so they came to Nirvana’s show instead. Nirvana were so fucked up at that time, backstage was the most depressing place on earth, but the advent of Soundgarden there turned it into a mini moment of Seattle, i.e. less about hopelessness, more about hope. They were dour, but not sour. Being near Soundgarden that night made being an American in Spain feel like a good thing, not a bad one, and there's not many things you can say that about.

Of course, that was all a long time ago, and as several people have pointed out, the past is a different country, and besides the wench is dead. Only occasionally, now that I live in Washington State, it all comes back to me, just how different Seattle seemed from the rest of America at the time. Now, maybe less so, but that is the case only because these guys were successful, and because the world didn’t bow them down. 

Only it turns out, maybe it did, and that is what feels so unbearable. If only there were a word I could write here that indicated a single, long, shuddering sigh. Well, since they’re isn’t, please consider it sighed.
When we were very young. Photo by Lance Mercer

On social media, you can write your own obituaries. Instead of the bare facts of the deceased person’s life – born July 20th, 1964, died May 17th, 2016 – you can insert yourself in the narrative. That might sound selfish. But isn’t it important to know how much a person’s contributions to the world, meant to individuals like me? Sure, I didn’t know him. But in some profound way, Chris Cornell’s death is affecting me as if I did. Many years ago, Lester Bangs once wrote an obituary for Elvis Presley which he began by saying Elvis gave him “an erection of the heart.” The same can be said about Chris. To those who were older than grunge, andto  many who were younger, this may not make much sense, but to all of us who hailed each other in that allegorical loading dock of the early 90s, it must truly be said: We will never agree on anything as we agreed on Chris Cornell. So I won’t bother saying goodbye to him. I will say goodbye to you.*

Super thanks to Lance Mercer for allowing me to use these awesome photos. And for being an awesome person to cover the grunge scene with all those years ago. Not saying goodbye to you yet, my friend.

*You could say it was overly white, but honestly, now that I am living in Washington State, I don’t see how it couldn’t be. My daughter’s high school is 2.8% African American – and that’s probably more than many places in the state.
*apologies to Mr. Bangs, linked source.

Monday, May 15, 2017

The Arms of America

Just before U2 came on at Century Link Field my friend Jason, who lives in Portland, posted to FB from the field. “I don’t want to brag, but we stopped for tacos, sat in traffic, parked, and arrived just in time to not see Mumford and Sons.”

I wrote back. “I don’t want to brag, but I have a box of See’s chocolate in my pocket.”

Jason, like me, used to be a critic, and both of us were at Century Link Field to see the opening night of U2’s Joshua Tree 30th Anniversary Tour.  I am not even sure what possessed me to go. You might call it a form of emotional tourism. Perhaps I am revisiting the scenes of my youth, updated and recast, in a weird attempt to assess what I’ve done with my whole damn life. The last time I saw U2 was at the National Car Rental Arena in Sunrise, Florida, and I was six months pregnant. It was the opening night of the Elevation tour, almost exactly sixteen years ago, and, even though it might have been because I was in this hyper-hormonal emotional state whereby I would burst into tears at American Express commercials and shit like that, I liked it a lot. I didn’t like the album, but I liked the show. I have always liked U2s shows. In my opinion, it’s what they do best.

Or at least it used to be. That’s what brought me to Century Link Field – that, and boredom. Oh, and cheapness. Truly, things have changed since I was a critic. I used to think scalpers were the bane of the concert industry, and now I actively seek them out, because I don’t want to give U2 any money, and I don’t want to give Ticketmaster any money, and I certainly don’t want to give StubHub, Ticketmaster’s creepy resale site, any money, unless I have to. Today, I see touts as hard working independent contractors and worthy recipients of my bounty, so I paid cash down to a random parking lot attendant in a dirt field off Occidental, to a $10  purse-lockup place, and finally, to some dude with a grubby ticket in his hand. Cash.
seattle from century link field

Another reason I went is, being new to Seattle, it was fun to see Century Link Field. With its beautiful view of the water front and the ferries and West Seattle, it’s a hard place not to like. I did have a sad moment just before the band came on stage, when they played, as their intro, a song by the Pogues. This had the unfortunate effect of making me desperately want to see the Pogues instead of U2.

But U2 aren’t all bad – at least, that song “Bad” isn’t bad. “Bad” is good. They played it, too, in the first half hour, during which they did a round-up of their pre-Joshua Tree era work and I realized that was really all that I wanted to hear: ringing open chords, ebow and keening vocals galore, that whole Irish shebang that made 1985 chime with the sounds of freedom.

At this point – during the first six songs -- there wasn’t any video, either, just stripped down U2 on an open stage, and even though I could not see them very well from up high where I was sitting, it was fine. I felt no need to tweet. Indeed, it seemed as if it was only when the video began that I, and everyone around me, started to get antsy.  It’s one thing to show an endless desert highway during “The Streets Have No Name.” It’s another to start using Native American imagery – and Native Americans – to illustrate, say, “Running To Stand Still” and “Red Hill Mining Town.” Native Americans painting American flags on shacks. Native Americans feathers and fringes. Native Americans looking impassive. It all felt, as Jason put it later, colonial and patriarchical. This was no Zoo TV tour: instead, it was really kind of clunky, in the same way that Miley Cyrus’s recent foray-and-retreat into black culture is clunky (to say the least). As with her, no one had bothered to say to them, um, guys, it’s nice you like this stuff but maybe this isn’t really your story to tell?

Also I realized as I watched the rolling landscapes of the West what was eating at my soul so badly: it was something that had happened before the show even began, when the big screen behind the stage ran a running tally of poems by Walt Whitman, Sherman Alexie, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Alberto Rios, Shirley Geok Lin-Lim, plus pretty much every poet on every ethnic studies syllabus at every junior college from here to Puyallap.

Go ahead, read it. It's 108 pages. It's interesting.
Hey, I’m not putting those texts down. I teach them myself. But it was incongruous, to say the least, and here’s why: the other day my friend Hope sent me a link to the California Coastal Commission’s 2011 rejection of a petition to build 5 twelve thousand square foot homes on an (formerly unspoiled and heretofore inaccessible) mesa in Malibu; homes which would be then resold at a huge profit. The petitioner was Dave Evans, aka the Edge, and though the document she sent me was ultimately rejected,  a modified version of it was accepted in 2015. 

I thought about that 79 million dollar house as the big screen scrolled through a poem called “Puerto Rican Obituary” by Pedro Pietri:

They worked
They were always on time
They were never late
They never spoke back
when they were insulted
They worked
They never took days off
that were not on the calendar
They never went on strike
without permission
They worked
ten days a week
and were only paid for five
They worked
They worked
They worked
and they died
They died broke
They died owing
They died never knowing
what the front entrance
of the first national city bank looks like…

"Sing the names of the dead who brought us here.."
You know, there’s been a lot of instances lately of artists whose personal beliefs, values or actions are diametrically opposed to their espoused ones – see Exene Cervenka, and PWR BTTM – but the cognitive dissonance at work at a U2 concert strikes me as somehow more heinous. There are those who will argue that you shouldn’t let an artist’s personal life impinge on your enjoyment of their music.  But reading “Leaves of Grass,” or seeing the vast pristine Anton Corbijn-shot empty American landscapes that framed the band for that middle section, and then thinking about that CCC report quasi-simultaneously might make you sick to your stomach. It’s like listening to a gay politician shut down a gay rights act, or pass their own health care bill while striking down everyone else’s. U2s stock in trade is how moral they are, it is the bedrock of their bullshit, no question. I know that they are sincerely righteous and they raise money for good causes. But they might also have an entry in the Panama Papers.

Meanwhile, as the words of Alberto Rios scrolled past, from my seat in the stands I could see some ten or twelve equipment trucks, ready for load-out behind the stage. I knew, from having been there back in the day, that back stage the band was enjoying caviar and champagne, or whatever nutty fad they’re into. And suddenly, the number of so-called godly people outside the stadium protesting that the wages of sin are death began to make sense. I practically wanted to join them.

But I didn’t. Instead, I sat there high up in the cheap seats, looking down on a field of dreams and feeling melancholy. For a while, I liked it there, because the view was so beauteous. By this time, the sun was going down, and below me the stage was flanked by a wraparound screen so big that when the video began running on it – some six songs in – it filled the whole foreground. My view looked like a six slide split: screen, bleachers, downtown Seattle, Highway Five, Capital Hill, night sky.

The Joshua Tree video segment was, like every video sequence I’ve seen at a U2 concert, absorbingly gorgeous, like a giant mouth inviting you to be swallowed up by it. And yet, I noticed that as soon as it began playing, and everyone had pulled out their phone and selfied themselves with U2 behind them, the audience became increasingly distracted, myself included. Fairly soon, I went down to field level and plonked down in a super expensive, now empty, seat, to watch the rest of the show. Down there the sound was considerably better and I could see Bono in his dumb sunglasses, going through his motions like the thousand year old man he is, but the people around me were even louder and more irritating.

Who are all these stadium people, anyway? A couple extolling a Tragically Hip show they saw circa 2001 at the top of their lungs. Another one, snap-chatting their 13 year old selfies of themselves with that Joshua Tree backdrop, and a very high pitched couple behind me chattering nonstop about last weekend’s BBQ and someone’s crappy behavior there. There was also one very nice lone man with a thick southern accent who walked down the SW ramp alongside me, who said he was leaving because they’d played all the songs he liked and the “couple” next to him were actually a threesome who were making out so hard they kept kicking him. “Honestly, it got a little too interesting for me,” he said sheepishly.

And in addition to those people, of course there were the near-million people – almost literally a million – holding up their phones or hunched over them, posting, and posting, and posting. I did a little of it myself, of course, but I bet I wouldn’t have if it was the Pogues.
Pogues in Olympia 2012
After the Joshua Tree part, things got even more sanctimonious, and not in a good way. I seemed to have missed a duet with Eddie Vedder, Ben Harper, and Mumford and Sons on “Mothers of the Disappeared” – perhaps I was walking down the ramp right then. I popped back in to pay-attention mode during “Beautiful Day,” which was nice, but then they sang “Ultraviolet (Light My Way),” and during it, they showed a montage of women’s faces, women like Soujourner Truth, bell hooks, Angela Davis, Michelle Obama, Malala Yousafzai, and Lena Dunham. It could have been a nice gesture, but unfortunately, the four screen split panel behind them interspersed these shifting images of important women with images of U2 playing, so that there’d be three women and one man on the frame at all times, thus giving the impression that U2 members were either a) activist women themselves or b) equally important as these activist women.

Then, before launching into a song entitled “Miss Sarajevo” Bono give a shout out to Bill and Melinda Gates, Starbucks and maybe some other people, and on the big screen there was a video of bombed out streets of Aleppo and the Jordanian refugee camp Zaa'tari, while a young Arab woman intoned about how it was her dream to come to the US.

Zaatari Jordan. 
And that did it. I walked out the gates and into the arms of America, and I couldn’t help but notice that this was when everyone else began their exodus as well. I don’t think that people didn’t want to see Syria, though. It’s that none of them were listening very hard in the first place.