Friday, April 21, 2017

The Soft White Underbelly (of my life)

Every Tuesday night, I drive to Federal Way. I leave at around 4 p.m., in the hopes of getting there by
5:30, and usually I do so, unless there’s a jam around JBLM – Joint Base Lewis McChord, the nearby airforce-army compound that can gum up traffic on Highway Five at all hours of the day or night. The trip to Federal Way is only about 40 miles, but it often takes well over an hour.

At first, I found this journey frightening and dull. It bothered me that there were so many slow-downs, and I felt alienated by all the exits I knew nothing about. In California, there is hardly an exit anywhere in the Bay Area I haven’t been down at least once, to go to a diving meet, or to see a friend, or to buy some obscure tool, or whatever. But here, it’s all a mystery, and everything seems a little sinister. My neighbor Kelly once told me that Lakewood is where they film all the worst episodes of Cops. My friend Jason told me that Pulluyup is full of Trump supporters and people with guns. Caitlin is keeping track of all the near-school shootings that have happened in Lacey and Dupont and other nearby communities, since there seems to be some kind of High School tribal hot line abut that. So driving down Highway Five through all these places – slowly – was initially a bit of a chore.

Now I like it though. I look forward to it, even. I like it because I charge up my ipod and listen to my favorite songs or to the latest episode of Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me or S Town. I like it because for a long stretch just past Lacey toward Tacoma you keep seeing Mount Rainier peeking in and out of the horizon, and some nights it’s just beautiful. And I like it most because I am on my way to diving practice.

Diving practice ends at 7 and I always do the same thing: I call Vic’s pizza for a pickup at 8 and then I get in my car for the long drive home. Often traffic on the Five is still really bad towards Tacoma so I  take route 99 – the Pacific Coast Highway – through Fife. This  leads me past the Emerald Queen Casino, the Indian Bingo Parlor of the Puyallup tribe, and whenever I drive past an Indian Bingo Parlor, I fall into a kind of fugue state, thinking about those places and how they intersect with my past.

There are actually several other casinos on 5 towards Olympia, but the Emerald Queen Casino is the biggest. You can see it coming up for ages as you round the corner for Tacoma, because it has a giant flashing billboard sign advertising its upcoming shows as well as other important things – job openings, food specials, giveaways, boxing matches, all kinds of bingo parlor fun. I wait eagerly for those signs, because I have a weird fondness for Indian Bingo Parlors, born when I lived in San Diego and used to cover rock shows at the Viejas and the other casinos in El Cajon and San Diego counties. There was a period of time when I went to them fairly frequently, though the only show I can remember in detail was one by Jerry Lee Lewis. He played one of those shows like all those old guys do, where the band vamps for five songs and the artist comes on and plays, like, his three most famous numbers, and then goes off and the band vamps another five songs and that’s it.

As expected, Jerry Lee was an asshole, plus he could barely stand up and kick his stool out behind him during “Great Balls of Fire”, though he did manage to do it on about the third or fourth kick and being young a cruel and knowing his past as a wife-beater and not yet having been trolled into psychic oblivion,  I probably had a rock critic field day with that in the subsequent review I wrote. What I remember best about the experience, though, was that the ticket came with a free meal of BBQ and several side dishes, and as I was eating an elderly man came up to me and asked if he could have my baked potato. I am pretty sure that was the last show I covered at the Viejas Casino, but when, out of academic interest, I tried to look up the review the other day on the San Diego Reader archive, the only thing that came up was a letter the editor from that era saying: “Gina Arnold: Rape Victim or Bad Lay” that then proceeded to hope I was both. Those were the days, alright.

Like Viejas, the Emerald Queen Casino has rock shows too. On Valentine's day, they had a special concert with Air Supply that especially intrigued me, as did a subsequent one with Blue Oyster Cult, a band which I actually like. I went to see BOC last year with a friend from diving, and we put our index fingers in the air and yelled “more cow bell” and "go go Godzilla!" had a rollicking good time at it. It was at this terrible hard rock club in San Jose and we went to Applebys beforehand to get in the spirit, and my friend told me all about how he can play “The Red and the Black”. Later on, a Facebook friend who has made many records that I actually like mentioned that his high school band played that song too and I thought how perfectly odd it is that Blue Oyster Cult sits right there in that intersection between people with no discernable taste in music and people with MY taste in music. My Facebook friend is super leftwing, while my diving friend is one of those right wing, Harvard-educated Silicon Valley tech-millionaires who sold his shares out young and is in retirement. He plays in bands in a Paul Allen kind of way - in fact, playing alongside Paul Allen at a tech show hosted by Esther Dyson is one of his favorite band memories (they played "Brown Eyed Girl"). In other words, he and I had different agendas at that BOC show but we had a really good time anyway and therefore put paid to any idea that you can judge people by their record collection. And therein lies the mystery and magic of music. Or at least of Blue Oyster Cult.

But back to the Casinos. Every time I see that sign on Highway Five, I think, “Oh I should go,” but I just can’t face it – not Air Supply, or BOC, or next month's tempting act Randy Bachman either. Can you imagine having gone to the Emerald Queen Casino alone, on Valentine’s Day, to see Air Supply? I mean, it’s such an awful thought that it practically tempted me: I could have written the living shit out of that sucker, plus, I am actually dying to see the carpet there. (I collect pictures of casino and hotel carpets.) The problem would be, when I walk into places like that alone now I always get hit on. I didn't get hit on a lot when I was rock critic - unless you count writing letters to me hoping I’d get raped as a form of being hit on -- but nowadays, old men in their 70s have absolutely no problem asking if they can buy me a drink, even when I am not at Casinos. The last time it happened the guy was a former Marine who now runs fitness classes at an old people’s home. It was very disconcerting.

The other day when I drove by the Emerald Queen Casino I considered going there one last time, but I rejected it. I thought, ‘let’s not and say we did.’ After all, back when I was a rock critic, we did not have the internet. Driving around weird empty counties in California, infiltrating arenas where audiences congregated to see acts of yesteryear, and then opining cruelly on the whole phenomenon was, I see retrospectively, perhaps not the highest of callings. Today I can probably find out what the carpet looks like online, remind myself what hits Air Supply had via Wikipedia -- did you know they are Australian, and that one of them went on to form the Divinyls? -- or watch a BOC show on YouTube.

Compared to actually going, this method of writing about it would probably lack aura, and insight, and authenticity, but then so too would Air Supply’s performance. So tonight when I drive home from diving, I'm going to put on some music I actually like.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

The Felt Gap

The other day  in class we showed the first two episodes of “Eyes On the Prize,” theaward-winning PBS documentary on Civil Rights movement that was made in the 1980s, and on my way home from work I heard that, while I was busy watching legions of white racists in Mississippi and Alabama throw bricks at tiny school children in the mid 1950s, the USA had bombed Syria and surreptitiously confirmed Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court.

My takeaway? America is full of  mean people and injustice, and it always has been. Nothing changes, it just gets covered up for a time and then breaks out again, like measles or bamboo. If you’ve ever looked at a comments thread on literally any YouTube video, the only conclusion you can come to is that we live in a mentally ill society that deserves to be blown to smithereens.

The news made me want to go out and protest the shit out of something. That’s what you should do in the face of cruel and idiotic public policy. It’s what people did after My Lai and the Tet Offensive. It’s what we did a few weeks ago, with the Muslim ban, and it worked: it got overturned. It’s a thing. But it doesn’t seem to be happening now; people are too confused. People seem to be giving other people the benefit of the doubt. People don’t know which side they’re on.

One night, long ago, the USA bombed Kuwait while I was at a Replacements show. The band, one of the least political of its ilk, mentioned it before playing the song “Sonic Reducer” as an encore; I remember leaving the gig at the Warfield and walking into a small band of protesters on Market Street.

That didn't happen in Oly after the dropping of MOAB, and not just because there’s a windy rain storm going on. I think everyone is waiting for the Science March as well as sunshine. But I feel like sunshine is gone in my life forever.

My sense of unease may be heightened by the fact that the courses I am teaching this year are, quite frankly, downers. Necessary downers, but nonetheless. This quarter I’m co-teaching one on Civil Rights, the Counterculture and the rise of Counter-conservatism. My job is the Counterculture, with especial attention paid to the music; my colleague, Geoff, is a historian whose sandbox (as we say in academia) is the history of the American South. That being the case, he opened class with a two hour lecture on Reconstruction and it made me think of the song “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.”  

Now that’s not protest music – unless you consider protest music in the widest possible vein, as in, ‘music that comments on the effects of historical events.’ But it seemed worth playing to a class full of young people who had actually never heard it, as it is, in fact, about Reconstruction. The only question was, ought I to play the original version by the Band, or to use the cover – and hit – by Joan Baez. To decide, I asked my Facebook friends.

The first six responses said, simply, “JOAN.” Then the tide turned towards the Band in a flood of argumentativeness that could hardly be stemmed: "Musically the Band itself could be seen as a reactionary response to the psychedlic and never-since-as integrated influences on the pop music of the time -- I'm thinking of top-40 as well as say Jimi Hendrix or Sly and the Family Stone," opines one friend, while another argues "...the song is not explicitly a reactionary protest number in that slavery, African-Americans, etc are never mentioned at all, so it's hard to see it as a direct response to the rise of soul and funk in the '60s unless you're going to pitch pretty much ALL white Southern music as reactionary and urban black music as progressive."

Meanwhile, many other commenters point out, as Greil Marcus once did, that Joan Baez's version turns the line "There goes Robert E. Lee" into "There goes THE Robert E. Lee," as if he is a steamboat churning up the Mississippi River.

God, I love Facebook! How did I live without it? At least, I love my particular iteration of it – I think it’s important to remember that every person’s Facebook page is different: it depends a lot on your curation. If in some ways it is the product of a life well lived, then I have lived the best life ever. If it is just some kind of shadow-version of real life, the reflection on Plato’s ever present cave-man wall, then, well, I don’t know: I still think my cave man wall is smarter, better-mannered and more intelligent than most.

But back to the Band, whose version I played in class after all. (Joan fans should know she has gotten a fair share of time already, having contributed greatly to earlier lectures on Civil Rights protests.) In the book Mystery Train,  the critic Greil Marcus described the song as being less about the Civil War than about “the way each American carries a version of that event within himself.” Perhaps this echoes Robert Penn Warren’s claim that the Civil War is America’s only “felt” history, i.e. history lived in our national imagination, or as Pierre Nora once put it, a way to participate emotionally in history.  It may not be protest music per se, but “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” is an important reflection of popular memory of the Civil War.
Jacob Lawrence, Migration Series

Marcus went on to say, “It is hard for me to comprehend how any Northerner, raised on a very different war than Virgil Kane’s, could listen to this song without finding himself changed. You can’t get out from under the singer’s truth—not the whole truth, but his truth—and the little autobiography closes the gap between us. The performance leaves behind a feeling that for all our oppositions, every American still shares this old event; because to this day none of us has escaped its impact, what we share is an ability to respond to a story like this one.”

You know that quote by William Faulkner, “the past isn’t over, it isn’t even past”? So many things this year have conspired to remind me of that that I don’t feel I even need to name here.  Clearly, the repercussions of the Civil War are still with us, which is reason enough to listen to “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” again. The gap between everyone's truth has gotten so large. Is there anyway we can close it now?

Sunday, April 9, 2017

My (De) Generation

Every so often I go eat lunch by myself at the Pho-Teriyaki joint next to Target in West Olympia. It’s one of those extremely bad looking places with less than no atmosphere but it is the only place I’ve found in this godforsaken town where the Asian food actually tastes Asian. They are always playing this easy listening station on Pandora, and I have to admit that sometimes I kind of enjoy hearing songs by the Carpenters and Roberta Flack. Truth be told, I have a deep seated (yet easily sated) taste for songs from 1973.

The other day, however, it was playing “Ventura Highway” and I was simply struck dumb by how terrible a song that was. It made me want to go invent punk rock all over again, all by myself. Instead, I settled for tweeting my ire. “Listening to America. Christ what a bad band.”

Immediately, my friend Kim Warnick responded. “I know their current drummer! He was in the Posies and Jesus and Mary Chain.”

Ok, well, that was unexpected. I mean, think about that for a second: the drummer for Jesus And Mary Chain now drums for America. That’s just so wrong. America’s songs barely even HAVE drums.

But of course the worst thing about the above sentence isn’t the juxtaposition of JAMC and America, it is really the word ‘current’.
It makes it sound like America is on tour, which they probably are. And let me tell you, if they come here, I will be there, with bells on, yelling “Just Like Honey” in the front row. Maybe Kim’s friend can get me on the guest list. LOL.

(Just so people know, I never actually yell the things I say I’m going to yell. I just think about yelling them.  I yell them to myself.)

Later that day, Kim called me from Maine. We hadn’t spoken in ages, so we had a lot of catching up to do. I told her I was eagerly awaiting America’s advent at the Emerald Queen Casino, and she told me she’d seen David Lee Roth there once, which, honestly, I can’t even. We laughed and laughed just thinking about it. Kim and I both now live in towns which don’t exactly host a lot of rock shows. But Kim went to Foxborough Stadium recently to see Guns N Roses, because their drummer, Duff, is/was her best friend in High School. “You wouldn’t believe the crowd,” she commented. “All these old men, who’d brought their kids along, going absolutely bananas.”

The other day, Kim added, Death Cab For Cutie came through, and she went to see them and they ended up dedicating a song to her. Sadly, she had already left the building. That sounds so bad, but it  happened to me once, kind of. It was at a Lollapalooza, and I hadn’t left, I was just spacing out somewhere else in the fairgrounds and I guess Rancid did a shout out to me. At least, someone told me they did it and I was so sad that I missed hearing it that I wanted to fall through the grass and die. In fact, maybe I DID die, and that explains the downhill slide of the rest of my existence: it has all been my punishment for my rudeness. Or maybe it never even happened.

I think about that time, lately, whenever I see Rancid’s tweets from all over South America, where they are currently on tour. And this means I think about it constantly, since my twitter feed is completely taken up solely with posts from (horrified) rogue white house correspondents, (rightly) enraged black people, and, as a welcome contrast, a very, very happy Rancid. I suppose I need to get a better grip on the twitter algorhythm or something. Or perhaps twitter, being essentially evil, has a line deep into my psyche, because it really knows how to pull my chain. Rationally I know that I get @Rancid’s and its associated accounts tweets from twitter because a) I followed them b) I liked them and c) they have a good social media manager who floods the gates with pictures of their every move, from airport to stadium, from load in to load out, from front of stage to audience to backstage to giant wide angle photos of giant fields of Sudamericanos going mad in the mud in between. But…the thing is…it takes me back to my youth. And what makes twitter seem so insidious is that because Rancid is now touring with Metallica, and since once upon I time I went on tour with both those bands together, it feels like  twitter knows my personal history and is kind of unspooling it in front of me, Pensieve-like, to remind me of my own personal temps perdu.

Of course, the tour I went on was very different than this one. To begin, there was no twitter or iphone to document our every move, there was only me with my pen and my lurid and probably inaccurate and biased take on what was going on around me. I was also a victim of my own, not to mention Rancid’s own, 924 Gilman-born notions of anti-avaricious authenticity. I remember staring in horror at the giant number of anvil cases Metallica was loading out…it was so un-punk rock.  Metallica were flying between gigs and staying in special hotels and just generally being rock stars; I think they even had a humidor in their tour bus. A humidor! By contrast, little Rancid was going around the country with a van and bus which they shared with the Ramones. Besides their (minimal) equipment, they had two little BMX bikes and a blow up wading pool, because that was their idea of luxury.We used to get the bikes out and ride the perimeters of Lollapalooza's fairgrounds in Kentucky, or Texas, or Arizona, or wherever it was that day. Usually it was during Soundgarden's set, and to this day the song "Black Hole Sun" reminds me of a stupid hot Texas afternoon, the sky so full of it.

Judging by twitter, that is not the situation now: I saw a picture on Instagram of their anvil cases and it made me gasp. And yet, I don't know why I was so surprised. In a perfect world, everyone should all grow up to be big boys and girls and be able to buy all the guitars and all the anvil cases we could possibly want. That's what America's all about, right? Anyway, judging by twitter, Rancid have, through the means punk rock, achieved what Roland Barthes called "the sublimation of labor by its magical effacement," and fuck it, everybody: if they can, we can too. We can, too.

Thanks to social media's helpful photo essays on Rancid's recent rampage, I know that this is what's happened, and I am super happy for them. I hope they don’t have a humidor, but it's OK if they do now. I like watching them conquer Mexico and Columbia and Argentina and Brazil, but it is also kind of bittersweet, a glimpse over at the other life, the one I didn’t live. It is really weird to look at from afar, from my box-like house in the fucking rain forest; it's like looking down a long, long, magic tunnel, but not being able to climb inside it. Rancid actually once wrote a song about Olympia Washington, which somehow makes the whole thing seem more ironic. I think of that song sometimes, when I am walking down Sixth Street (well, fourth; Sixth is now called Legion) and avoiding all the little street punks, many of whom have Rancid  stickers on their backs. It's weird. Why them?

Maybe all these big bands, GNR and Rancid and Metallica, and the actual human beings who populate them, were just born lucky. And since unlike (the band) America, they’re my (de) generation, I am happy that none of them are playing the Emerald Queen Casino. But though I don’t wish that on them, I do wonder what makes the difference. Is it just the twenty year time gap that separates America’s biggest hit with Metallica’s? Is Guns N Roses really worthy of that kind of adulation? Will Rancid be playing there in 2025?

Kim, who knows this kind of thing, tells me that the Emerald Queen Casino plays bands big bucks, like in the five figure range, so it isn’t the worst fate in the world. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.