Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Summertime Blue

Blue Oyster Cult
Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, July 14th 2017

Friday night is Band-on-the-Beach night at the Santa Cruz Boardwalk, and I was planning on going there to see Blue Oyster Cult play all alone, the way I like to go to shows. I pictured myself cruising over the hill blasting the Afghan Whigs new record for the billionth time, doing a little shoe shopping at the mall, and eating crappy boardwalk food with no one there to see me do it. But at the last minute, Caitlin wanted to come along with her friends, and then the friends-plans fell through, and one way or another I ended up at a show with a sixteen year old plus one.

It didn’t seem like an ideal situation, as Caitlin hates my music. If it has guitars in it, she calls it ‘hippie shit’ and what could be more guitarsy than Blue Oyster Cult? However, despite the unpropitious prospect of seeing a band from the 1970s with a kid from the 2000s, it was a hot July night and we had only been back from Washington for a few weeks. We have been trying to revisit all the fun places we love in California; Santa Cruz tops that list. So we set out together, our differences briefly on hold. “Let us go then you and I, when the evening is spread out against the sky, like a patient etherized upon a table...” That’s what it looked like at the top of the mountain pass you have to go on to get to the Monterey basin. You top the summit and look down on a verdant carpet of redwoods that falls away to a vista of ocean. Normally, it’s shrouded in mist, but sometimes in the summer there’s a hot spell and you can practically see the curve of the earth.

This was one of those days. First, though, we sat in traffic. We crawled up to the top, and we crawled all the way down, but it never grew foggy: instead, sky blue and forest green and dark gold it was, a perfect Californian day, with the Victorians in pastels and the shadows lengthening on the mall, and a lot of kids playing guitar and singing. We ate fish tacos and went shopping, and when we were good and satiated, we headed over to the shore, walking slowly down Pacific past the Golden State Warriors B team arena, the soccer practice fields, and the Dream Inn.

Boardwalks are funny places, a rare  mix of total seediness and charm. I suppose it is because they are always in places – oceansides – that are almost unspoilable in their loveliness, or maybe it’s because they emit this ghostly air of nostalgia, but boardwalks of any kind are hard to resist, and the kind with rides are crystalline, perfect. You practically can’t ruin them, try as you might – and the bookers for Santa Cruz do try as they might: had I gone the week before, this blog would have been about Quiet Riot. Blue Oyster Cult, though, are almost the humano-aural equivalent of a seedy old American Boardwalk. As soon as the pier came in sight, we could hear the music, but it faded out as we got nearer and nearer, drowned out first by the cries of seagulls and people playing beach volleyball, then by the canned music of the promenade (Rhianna’s “SOS”) and finally, when we entered the pavilion, by the awful beeps and clicks and buzzers of the pinball arcade. God, I hate the noise in that room! When Caitlin and her friends were little they liked to spend time in there, it was awful then and it still is.

Then aesthetic of the video game arcade is truly abysmal, but it’s a different story under the portico where the taffy machines and the t-shirt stores are. I know it’s equally cheesy, but it’s cheesy circa 1911, which is a different thing altogether. Out there with the sea in sight and the screams of seagulls and children surrounding us, we began seeing large men with handlebar mustaches and beards wearing Lamb of God and Korn t-shirts, and yet we still couldn’t hear BOC: from afar I heard a snippet of “Burnin’ For You’” and something like “Harvest Moon,” but it was hard to tell. The band was drowned out by the terrorized shrieks of thrill-riders on the roller coasters that overlook the beach. Up the boardwalk we walked, past the haunted house and the merry go round from 1911, and Neptune’s Kingdom, alongside games like Plinko and Skeeball, at which you could win plushies of Spongebob, plushies of dolphins and plushies of, I kid you not, poop.  Poop plushies seemed to be a thing. There were also plush poop hats you could buy, which I refused to even take a picture of, on the grounds that if my camera phone was every hacked or somehow commandeered by the government, a picture of a poop-hat was just too shameful of an artifact to stand by.

In addition to the plushies and the knick knacks and the strange games and the rides, there was the usual array of horrifying food stuffs, including deep fried Oreos, artichoke hearts and PBJ sandwiches, garlic fries, corndogs, and something called Tacolocos, and I wondered if backstage they were bringing BOC a platter of this stuff to choose from. I like to think that there was a table with a little of everything from the boardwalk food booths, but especially the signature Americana foods, like dipping dots, saltwater taffy, roasted corncobs, rainbow colored daiquiris and so on. You’d never see those foods anywhere else, and you’d never eat them anywhere else, but somehow when you’re walking by the seaside in 70 degree weather and the sun is going down, it all starts to look strangely appetizing.

Indeed, I will confess I bought us each a softie ice cream, for the outrageous price of $4.50. Mine was dipped in sprinkles, but it couldn’t hold a candle to those ones you get in New York City from the Mr. Softie Truck, which I personally consider a culinary peak.

To pay $9 for bad ice cream is not a good thing, but if you think of it as the entire cost of admission to an evening with Blue Oyster Cult, it is pretty darn good. When they played the Emerald Queen Casino in Tacoma recently, tickets were $65. And even though I wanted to go to that show, and even though I only stayed for part of this one and couldn’t hear or see a lot of it, I think this one was better.

BOC were playing two sets, and we were aiming for the first. Alas, we only parked at 6:30 and it took a half hour to make our way through boardwalkmania to the stage; only when we were right on top of them could we finally hear BOC again, and – though according to set they began with “The Red and the Black” and played a few other numbers I know, at this point they were jamming. And when I say jamming, I do mean jamming; that kind of jamming from older-than-I-am-fashioned-days with traded off wheedle-wee guitar solos and a drum solo and so on. ( calls it, “Buck’s Boogie.”) We could barely see the stage, so we just looked at the people around us who were wiggle-dancing, as one HAS to, to a guitar solo jam, and I think it went on for fifteen minutes, minimum. I could only just see Buck Dharma – who is very short – and Eric Bloom over the heads of the people in front of me. I could only just relate the band in front of me, playing essentially in daylight, with the darker, more typical Blue Oyster Cult that I had seen a few years earlier at a club in San Jose; that draws a crowd of fans in tour thirst, whose index fingers stay aloft throughout, and who – like one guy I saw here, like to tape the shows on sticks with recording devices duck tapes to the top of them.  

But I could still hear the cowbell. And I could still hear the Blue Oystery-sound of the wall of guitars that makes this band special and unique, even today. Blue Oyster Cult don’t, in my opinion, play metal music. But it’s sort of what a lot of that music is derived from. In a more ruminative moment I might have spent some time pulling apart what is good about metal (its actual timbre) and what, to me, is bad (its, for lack of a better word, white, beatless, soullessness), but a free show at the boardwalk doesn’t lend itself to that kind of analysis. The boardwalk lends itself to smearing your face with salt grease and sugar, and then wishing you could find a place to wash it off.

In other words, it’s distracting.

The people in the comfy beach chairs in front of the stage had had to line up all day to get there, so most of the crowd was, like us, jammed along the actual boardwalk-walkway, hovered over by scare-rides. The whole time BOC was playing, people were literally shouting with terror on top of them, and I wondered if that was bothersome to the musicians, or if they just took it in their stride because playing the beach boardwalk is probably good fun in its way. The only thing is, the band’s backs were to the sea, so all they saw was red-faced revellers, with our pot bellies and our sunburns and our faces smeared with ice cream and chocolate, whereas what we saw, out beyond the stage, was a dead still blue ocean, a sail boat, and the pier with its pretty lights strung along, and the cliffs. In that way, we had the better deal.

Presently, the jam ended, and BOC began playing “Don’t Fear the Reaper,” possibly the greatest pop song ever written and surely the greatest one ever written about suicide, the meaninglessness of life, and the ravages of time. I mean, seriously. “Seasons don’t fear the reaper, nor do the wind, the sun and the rain and we should be like they are,” seem to me to be words to live by, even more so now that I am older than when I was young.

If anything, I find I like this song better than I did in high school; only today it reminds me of my parents, rather than Romeo and Juliet; if that doesn’t date a person, nothing will. Still, I never fail to get choked up at the end when they look backwards and say goodbye. Caitlin tells me that this song is a perennially loved by kids her age as well, who hear it on video games, in fandoms, memes and other solemn, doom-laden YA artifacts;  “Thirteen Reasons Why,” and so on. No wonder BOC are on permanent tour: according to the interwebz, they recently played a bunch of shows in Europe (including one at which the opener was Sweet);; in California, they were heading on to play a number of county fairs.

“Don’t Fear The Reaper” is surely BOC’s finest moment and it was the end-song of both sets. But while others at the Boardwalk rocked out to it and grooved on seeing a live band jam, Caitlin and I found ourselves drawn more intently to  the ASL interpreter who was an excellent one. Caitlin has taken ASL for the last two years, so she could understand some of it – the signs for “gone,” for example, and “fear,” and “40, 000 people” – and she showed me how the interpreter was singing the La-La-Laaaa-la-la part on the chorus  by lifting her hand in the ASL alphabet letter ‘L’ and then lowering her index finger to make it an A, over and over again. It was easy so we did it too: hand in the air, finger in ‘L’, “LA-LA-LAAAA, LA-LA,” and when the whole thing was over and people started to disperse, Caitlin turned to me and said, “Wow, that was so fun!”

I couldn’t believe it. Blue Oyster Cult! That’s what she said, I am not even making it up. It was like a miracle. Caitlin, who only listens to old jazz standards and Gorillaz, who thinks Kendrick’s new record isn’t as good as his last one and who won’t go see him because the venue is too big; who hates anything I like and who has just started listening to music 80s music ironically…liked Blue Oyster Cult.

You know how we live in these most  polarized times, when everyone hates each other and constantly says mean things, when democrats and republicans can’t agree on anything and most of us can’t even get behind either of them anyway? When the smallest comment creates an argument or accusation, when music, especially, divides rather than unites? How there is nothing on god’s green earth that we can all seem to agree about? For those who are disturbed by this turn of events, this night on the Boardwalk would have been heartening, since it turns out even now there is one thing we can all rock out to with no argument whatsoever, one single sonic moment of bliss that unites us, young and old. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Blue Oyster Cult.
Ain't no cure.

Monday, July 10, 2017

The gilded age

Isabelle just texted me from the airport to say that the elderly looking woman in the seat next to her had “Gardening at Night” as her ring tone and was unable to make it stop ringing. The flight attendants had to come over to help her hush it, and this event, she said, was making her sad.

Oh. Was it because the lady was too befuddled to turn it off, I wondered? Or was it the song choice?

Neither, she replied: “It makes me sad that I  will never see REM play “Gardening at Night” again, and that I don’t even really want to.”

And yet she can. Well…sort of. Because just the other night someone posted a video of REM on YouTube from 1982 and I accidentally clicked on it. I say “accidentally” because doing so caused an actual accident. Before I clicked, all was well. After, I was a goner. I stayed up until the wee hours of the morning, reliving my youth.

More often than not, when you look back at the bands you loved when you were little, it turns out they were silly, or sophomoric, or are just so dated that you can no longer look at them without laughing ruefully at your folly. Even the good ones tend to sound thin and wavery from this distance: seldom do you get that punched in the face feeling that you got from hearing them at the time. Maybe it has to do with technology? Things filmed on iPhones, I find, aren’t very emotionally resonant; and board tapes – of which I have a few  – never capture the feeling of being in the audience, since they tape what’s coming through the monitors.

The you-are-there quality of this one was entirely different. The minute it began it was like I was grabbed by G-Forces and smacked into the wall of the past. Flattened. It was so evocative. First, blacked out, a shout out to the openers. “Thanks Peter Holsapple. Ghengis Khan. Let’s Active.” Then: “Mirror,”  he says. “Flower.” And then suddenly the scene appears before you, smelling of stale beer, and I swear: it took my breath away. There he is, Michael Stipe, in all his youthful beauty, bee-stung lips, hair flopped over his forehead and that particular way of dancing: swinging his arms like an ape, hunching over and backing away from the mike in a way that, the first time we saw it, I and everyone I knew immediately began mimicking it. I had forgotten the origin of the move.

Then he begins singing. “Suspicion yourself suspicion yourself suspicion yourself don’t get caught." Oh yeah. "Wilder, lower, wolves,” he sings, on “Wolves Lower,” the opening track on Chronic Town, and then continues on through the rest of those songs plus a few tracks from the soon-to-be-released album “Murmur” and a couple unreleased tracks (which we will all hear many years later on “Dead Letter Office,” but not until then.)
Stipe 1982

Presumably your interest in this video tape is dependent entirely on your interest in REM back then (not now); I don’t expect those who weren’t there to sniff the aroma of that it exudes, but I do think the lady next to Isabelle in seat 28B will. To begin, it is shot in close up, on film no doubt, and I think it’s on a tripod. Actually, there are two cameras, and their footage is spliced together, but they are both stationary,  which is one reason this doesn’t have the same feel as so many music videos today do, where they train your eye on things they want you to see – bassists, drummers, feet; close ups, etc. I hate that feeling. Indeed, sometimes when I’m watching live  streamed video, like from Primavera, or a ‘live concert video of a band, I feel like someone has seized my head between their hands and is turning it from side to side, like at a tennis match. It’s so unpleasant. But this video is just the view of one single eye – the camera’s, so the performers jump in and out of frame sometimes but it doesn’t matter, it feels way more like being at the concert.

Anyway, I loved everything about it, including the cuts away to the album cover of “Chronic Town,” which presumably masked moments on the video tape that the videographer didn’t want seen. What I liked about those cutaways was that, in 1982, I was so obsessed with that record that I would often stare at the cover while I listened to the music on it, completely absorbed by the image of the gargoyle, and I did the same thing with “Murmur” and kudzu as well. It was different then, of course – since we didn’t have videos, we didn’t really know what the band looked like except for maybe a blurry photo or two; we only had the album cover to think about. But that cover in particular captured the mystique that REM cast over my musical world of the moment.

Chronic Town was barely twenty minutes long but those twenty minutes changed my life. I have never been so insane about a single, short piece of music before and obviously I am a lunatic. Today your ipod can keep track of how many times you play something. Back then there was no such form of measurement, but this EP definitely tops anything else I’ve heard before or since, in part because it was so damn short. In those days, bored by suburban life, we used to drive to San Francisco almost every night in Isabelle’s old VW bug, with it on a C-30 cassette tape and it would play 3 times through before we got there and three times through on the way home: six times per trip, four or five times a week, and that’s not even the times we listened on shorter journeys.

What was it that captivated me so? Well, to begin, the stream of consciousness lyrics, the impressions they gave, the jagged snippets, the phraseology …they made me understand so much about language, poetry and even authors like James Joyce and Thomas Pynchon, who, prior to hearing REM, I just dismissed as being ‘too hard,’ or ‘gobbledygook.’ It was after hearing REM that I read “V’ and “The Crying of Lot 49,” without which my life would be a poorer place.

So there’s that. But beyond lyrics, of course, driving the lyrics, there was the music, the 12 string jangly guitar, the  speedy arpeggios, the hollow, droney voice of Stipe, harmonizing with Mills pretty sin-song; the snare. Their sound was so complete, so fully realized, so in and of itself, that it is weird to think that they were a trio, a thing that didn’t strike me at the time. I do recall that I read somewhere at the time that Buck was influenced by the Velvet Underground and Big Star and the Byrds, but you know, although I made a point of listening to all that music immediately, I couldn’t hear it at all; to me they came straight out of nowhere, and immediately filled the vacuum that was my mind.

Of course I didn’t know much about music at the time (or even now, to be honest), so it was easy to impress me, but I still think they made something new out of what they had heard, something that felt like mine in a way that those old bands surely didn’t. For my era, they were my Beatles, and the way that I first saw them was like going to the Cavern Club, or the Reeperbahn – and then going over over again.

The tape is from 1982. The first time I saw REM was in 1983, in June, about six months or so after this was taped, and I remember that Isabelle and I, who were then djays at the local college station together, simply waited and waited and WAITED for them to come, and then when they finally came we saw them a whole ton of times in a huge rush that basically laid waste to every other show we’d seen prior to it.

I thought that I must have been imagining that, or somehow conflating three different years, but it turns out to be absolutely true: According to Wikipedia, the band played the Bay Area four times between June 14 and June 22nd of 1983, and that list is missing the secret show at the Catalyst that is the one I remember best.

Isn’t that fantastic? Well, fantastic or pathetic, since it is surely what laid the groundwork for a lifetime of concert idiocy, like up and flying to Paris to see the Replacements (in 986), or – say – driving to Vancouver to see Midnight Oil, which I just did a few weeks ago. Sadly, when I get into this state about a piece of music, it doesn’t even feel like I’ve really seen a band until I’ve seen them like five times on the same tour, and forcing that to happen is my version of self care. Back before the internet, I kept my concert tickets in the freezer, just in case the house burned down; today you can get into a show without doing all that spade work, but it’s still kind of a weakness; even as we speak, I have stashed a single ticket to a special show in a secret city this summer that I refuse to tell anyone about.

Anyway, given what an impact seeing REM play five times in one week in June of 1983 had on my life, it is certainly heartening to see from this videotape that yeah, they were pretty damn good. More importantly – and I don’t think this can be captured in the hearts or minds of any except those who were there – they were so incredibly different. To understand that jolt, you have to remember what was big on the radio at that time. I knew it was all horrid, and that REM were not, but a quick look at the charts for 1982 shows that the situation was far more dire than I even remember. The number one song of the year was ”Let’s Get Physical” by Olivia Newton John; other non stop hits included “Eye of the Tiger” (Survivor), “Abracadabra” by Steve Miller, “ and “Hard To Say I’m Sorry” by the deathless band Chicago.

 Air Supply, Vangelis, REO Speedwagon; Asia, Foreigner, Journey, Loverboy, the Little River Band, Christopher Cross...what more needs to be said about a year when the only tolerable song in the entire Billboard Top Fifty is…um, wait, there IS no tolerable song in the top fifty, if, like me, you don’t care for Joan Jett. These acts, with their vapid lyrics and overproduction and their super soft centers, like the worst possible chocolates in a box of a very very cheap bad brand, overlaid the atmosphere at the time. Hearing REM just wiped that shit out. Clean slate. Brand new. From then on music was dark blue and turquoise, like the cover of “Chronic Town.” It shone in my ears. It was gilt.

It was more attractive, inside that moral kiosk.

But time changes everything, right? And now Isabelle doesn’t want to see them anymore, and it comes out of cell phone on airplanes and is hushed away by flight attendants, and those of us who once proclaimed “I AM REM” as if they were Spartacus or something, hunker down  with embarrassment, and no one else even gets it. The flickering light of a youtube video notwithstanding, there seems to be no link between 1982 and now, no way to draw those experiences together. “You had to be there” has become the motto of our age. However, there is this: I was, and thank heaven for that. I was.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Small is Beautiful: Burger Boogaloo

Last Sunday afternoon, I parked my pretty new car in a very empty space next to a very seedy Carl’s Junior on a sketchy corner in Oakland, and left it there for 6 hours. Of course I know that this is not an advisable move, especially as I didn’t quite know where I was going, but needs must when the devil drives, as the saying goes, and I was cruising around looking for Burger Boogaloo. I could hear it but not see it, so I pulled the trigger and parked. And immediately, I knew I was where I wanted to be when I saw a couple walking down the street who were clearly heading for the same location.

The woman in the couple was wearing a polka dot mini skirt, hot pink biker shorts and white Docs, and she had a cotton candy colored beehive hairdo. The man was sporting tons of tattoos, a baseball hat and black t shirt with a zombie on it, and strapped to his chest was a baby Bjorn stuffed with a little bitty rockabilly baby. Somehow,  the three of them epitomized all things Burger Boogaloo: unified, defiant, fun, happy, and strangely untouched by the ravages of our era. They looked like they’d stepped out of one of those fun 1980s indie movies, like “Repo Man” or “Liquid Sky.” They were very awesome, especially the baby.

Burger Boogaloo is the three year old music festival sponsored by Burger Records that takes place in Mosswood Park in downtown Oakland.  I didn’t have a ticket, but I figured I could pick one up outside, and indeed I could: before I’d walked very far down MacArthur, a nice scalper guy offered me a cheap-ish VIP wrist band.

 “But how do I know it’s genuine?” I asked.

 “Oh I’ll walk you in and you can pay me inside the venue,” he said.

Done. He put it on my wrist, we walked in together – chatting about the glory of Iggy Pop’s set the day before, exactly as if we knew one another! – and then I paid him. It was unbelievably civilized. I told Caitlin it was the nicest illegal ticket transaction I have ever been involved in, and she said I should start a website, like www.

Burger Boogaloo takes place in the kind of very urban park that, even in the midst of a punk rock extravaganza still has a pick up basketball game on its courts. It’s surrounded by beautiful oak trees (not for nothing is Oakland called Oakland, folks) and Kaiser Permanente, in an area of the town we used to call pill hill. It’s a particularly weird place for a music festival, but a) Burger Boogaloo is a weird music festival, and b) Oakland has changed, like everywhere in the Bay Area, both for better and for worse. Some bits of it – Mosswood Park, for example -- are nicer than they used to be. Others, not so much: later that evening, someone actually OD’d in the restroom of that Carl’s Junior, and alas, I am not even joking.  

Anyway, having moved back to the Bay Area from verdant Washington within the week, being in Oakland attending a punk rock concert seemed somewhat jarring. Almost everyone in my family has lived in Oakland at some point or other, but it still wasn’t quite the Oakland I remembered. At one juncture on my way to the concert, I found myself on Market Street or Telegraph going under an underpass, and it was the underpass from hell. It looked like a homeless encampment in a dystopian movie like “District 9.” Later, I asked my Oaklish friend what that was.

“Oh that was Mortville,” she said.


“Yeah, you know…like in the John Waters film ‘Desperate Living’ – it’s like a shantytown where people go when life has mortified them.”

 ‘When life has mortified you.’ Hmmm. I need to think about that. Many of us, not just those poor people under the freeway, feel mortified a lot these days, so it seems like a fairly insensitive designation. John Waters, however, was an apropos cultural touchstone for my friend to quote, because at Burger Boogaloo, he is the MC. Last year – and this will sort of orient you to the Burger thing – it was Traci Lords.

I should probably clarify that I got to Burger Boogaloo very late on the second day, having missed what everyone said was an amazing set by Iggy Pop on Saturday: my lateness is the reason my VIP pass was so cheap. When I arrived, Shannon and the Clams were performing on the ‘Gone Shrimpin’ second stage, and it was packed. People wearing witches hats were sitting in the plethora of oak trees, looking down on other people, who were moshing in the tiny pit, and the band was rocking out.  Before I even had a moment to gather my thoughts, however, I ran into someone I knew – my friend Michele, who is also my hairdresser, and who has a very broken arm.

Michele was wandering around the park not sitting down, because she couldn’t get up again if she did.  So we wandered around together, and soon discovered that, probably much like Coachella or Bonaroo,  Burger Boogaloo was full of swag. Within a few minutes I had a free t shirt advertising a Vodka company, two peach flavored chapsticks, a bandana, a pin, and several cans of soda and cold coffee from Stumptown, a Portland-based coffee shop that must be coming to Oakland, because it was promoting itself here.

Stumptown gave us many  free cans of cold coffee soda til we were buzzing like nobody’s business: soon, we could have easily thrown ourselves into the Shannon pit, but frankly, like many people there, we were too damn old. Instead, we went to the merch booths and saw a lot of very cool stuff, much of which said FUCK YOU on it. The merch booths were all local artisans and vendors, and included an anarchist book collective, something advertising a new documentary about Gilman Street, and a bunch of tables selling items with the Burger aesthetic. What is that, I hear you ask? Musically, I think of Burger bands as being garage-rocky: three, four chord stuff with a kind of happy-go-lucky vibe; slightly beachy (the label is located in Southern California), slightly rockabilly and slightly tawdry. Lyrics are funny and tend towards bathroom talk: the label t-shirt has a toilet on it, and last year’s festival featured a giant blow up vulva. In terms of fashion, Burger people often have hair dyed lovely colors and clothes you can’t buy at Forever 21. Boots and beehives, fishnets and fifties dresses for the ladies; beer bellies on the guys.

The other notable thing about Burger is that they are for the most part a cassette only label, releasing music in old fashioned format and thus avoiding competition from other labels (indeed, other labels LIKE them, which is refreshing). According to one source I saw, Burger has sold over 100,000 cassettes, of god knows how many bands, and given the current music business, that is sort of the musical equivalent of publishing handmade chapbooks that were written typewriters, into a market of people who know longer know how to read.

But I still know how to read, and I also still know how to play a cassette, and nothing makes me happier than knowing that a whole bunch of other people do too. To honor that perspective -- to participate in an old technology -- is the whole point of attending Burger Boogaloo: it is to celebrate a certain kind of capitalism, not capitalist realism, but merely like what Michel De Certeau discusses in “the practice of every day life,” that is, the tactics and strategies that make life under capitalism possible for those who wish to elude it: not how to live without capitalism, but how to live within it.  Anyway, all this explains why I was able to get something really sweet and handmade for my daughter’s birthday. I am always talking about the waning of authenticity (Or as they’d say at Burger Boogaloo, the waning of fucking authenticity), so the fact that I was able to get her something one of a kind made me really happy.

The Burger Festivals, Boogaloo in the Bay Area and Burgerama down south, don’t only feature their own bands, but hire bigger bands who somehow fit into either the musical aesthetic or the mindset of the label. This year’s Burger Boogaloo had an excellent all day line-up, but due to my lateness I was only able to see three acts of it: the aforementioned Clams, X and the Buzzcocks. To be honest, three acts is about all I can handle these days, and I can’t say I even handled these all that well. I loved hanging around the park with all these likeminded people, participating in a culture that felt comfortable and familiar and friendly, away from the soul-sucking, and yes, always mortifying, content of American daily life. The bands – these bands -- were somehow just an excuse for that to happen.

X is a band I have seen so many times I can’t count – the first time, believe it or not, at an actual dorm at UC Berkeley (Barrington), and if that doesn’t date me, nothing will. My liking for X has waxed and waned though, and currently it’s at an all time low due to the fact that at least two of its members are rightwing nutjobs. I know full well that judging bands on its members politics or assholickness is a fools game -- and as one of my friends rightly said on Facebook, “it’s not like you are being asked to have dinner with them” --  but in today’s awful psychic headspace, the idea of being even remotely with supporters of YKW is pretty awful. And it’s not just him they profess to believe in. Exene, the lead singer of X, is actually one of those Newtown deniers.

Their music notwithstanding, at this point in time, I wouldn’t give X a dime of my money, in case that single dime wound up in one of their awful causes, but as it is, I didn’t have to. And I will grudgingly admit they did a good set: heard from afar (I didn’t feel a need to see them up too close), their sound was still pretty amazing. Zoom’s guitar has this particular engine sound to it, like a see-saw, that I just…like, and their boy-girl vocals seem to get better with age. However, it was an oldies set – “Johnny Hit and Run Pauline,” “The Hungry Wolf,” “Nausea,” “I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts,” and so on – and although that was fine, it wasn’t exactly necessary.

The Buzzcocks, who appeared soon after, as the sun was going down, also put in a good set. I’ve seen them relatively recently (meaning, in the last decade), and they were one of the few reunited punk bands that really still had it, but to be honest, they aren’t a band that should be heard outdoors. To really enjoy the Buzzcocks, I think, you need to be smashed up against your friends in a little club, buzzing hard, and despite Stumptown, I was not. About half way through their set, I said to Michele, “I really love the Buzzcocks, but I think I like them more heard one song at a time on a mix tape,” and she agreed, so we left.
how about a buzz,cock? 2017

Outside the enclosure, we came on a number of Oaklish people, watching from through the fence, and honestly? The sound there was just as good, if not better. So Michele and I watched from there for a while, until after a while, we slowly backed away, dawdling down MacArthur, still rapt, but getting  gradually less involved in it, like when the music fades out into the record grooves on a vinyl LP record.

 It wasn’t quite dark yet, the sky was an amazing color, and about a block from the venue I suddenly stopped short. Sometimes I just like to do that, to walk away from concerts listening to the music as it fills up the atmosphere, hearing it all from another perspective, away from the venue and the comfort of the crowd, out in the real world, where it actually matters. I like to think of it as radio waves made real. Instead of being invisible and being captured by your radio, during a festival like this one, the immediate world is suddenly forced to hear your music. No more personal soundtrack playing in the vacuum sealed of your headphones, or your car. No more Taylor Swift in high rotation; no. Whenever this happens, I think, very briefly, the world has to listen to MY music. For a moment that night, Oakland was held captive by the Buzzcocks, and that, to my mind, is how it should be. 
the butt stage from the back


Friday, June 23, 2017

The Bells

On my way down Highway Five to see Nick Cave the other night, I stopped at the Castle Rock exit, “the Gateway to Mt. St. Helens,” to use the restroom. It was summer solstice, and the whole drive down was one long vista of a lush green grassy carpet --  rolling hills, giant redwoods, craggy peaks, and a river running through it all —but beauty be damned: the Burger King at Castle Rock was as full of pock marked heroin addicts as every other place in America today.

In Portland though, the light was perfect. In the middle distance, it outlined Mt. Hood and glanced off the water below the crossy bridges: it turned the brick buildings a deep warm umber, dappled the grass beneath the park trees so they looked all glittery in the twilight; it brightened up all the murals so that it was like walking through someone’s well filtered Instagram feed, in 3 D. I parked three blocks from my destination and thought about how sad it is that, for the rest of my life, wherever I live, as long as it is not San Francisco, I will constantly be chanting “Wow, it sure is easy to park here” to anyone who will listen. Then, as I walked toward the venue on Broadway and Main, a man ran into me on his bike. It was on the sidewalk, and he was going super slow so I was fine, but it was so exactly like an episode of Portlandia it was startling.

I was meeting my friends at the bar next door to the theater, and although it was still an hour and a half til showtime, a long long line of aging hipsters in party clothes already snaked around the block.

“What are they waiting for?” I asked Jason.

“To get in.”

“But it’s seated!”

He shrugged. “I guess they just want to sit there and heighten their anticipation of Nick,” he said. Plus, merch lines, drinks lines, taking selfies with the stage in the background, putting on more lipstick in the restroom…there’s much to do before an important show like this one begins, and it occurred to me how nice it is that old people like myself can still act like we’re at a Taylor Swift concert. Because…Nick Cave! I read something recently where called him ‘hokey.’ But Nick Cave transcends hokum. If his act – like an Evil Elvis gone gothic and mad, ranting and preening, grawling and screaming  - doesn’t at least amuse you, then you, my friend, may as well just go play dead.

Is Nick Cave’s thing schtick, or is it in earnest? If you want to really think about this question hard, go watch some videos of his first band The Birthday Party, and even now your jaw will drop at the cheerful and crazy audacity of it all. I swear to god, you will swoon: the sight of young Nick will make you love punk rock all over again.

Jump ahead a decade or so, and revisit the question. Now, as a Bad Seed, his musical mood is decidedly more sinister. The tempo is as slow as mud. The timbre is dolorous. And the key is always as minor as it gets, like, as if a minor key could have its own, more minor key. The most frequently used word in every song is ‘blood’, if not guts; and they are written as if in the first person by the psychopathic murderer in a Jo Nesbo novel. Suffice to say that in Nick Cave’s musical world, pretty much everyone winds up dead.
A wizard from every fantasy

But then, that is true of life as well, and therein may lie the pleasure going to see Nick Cave.  It’s a long walk to the grave, so…you have to keep on pushing. Now, more than ever before. Hence, here we all are at the Arlene Schnitzer theater, at a hundred bucks a pop, and I hope he’s taking home every god damn cent of it. Because Nick Cave doesn’t just stand on a stage, he looms over it …surrounded by his band, which looks like it stepped out of a daguerreotype of the 19th century’s worst criminals, or, as that one famous meme put it, “like a wizard from each different fantasy sub genre.” To step into their world is to step away from ours for a few hours…and that is a blessing devoutly to be wished. At the start of his show in Portland, I kid you not, a whole bunch of supposed grown ups rushed the stage like little babies, just to get a little closer to the flame. They had to be pushed back by the burly guards. Later, on the encore, Nick told the bouncers to back off. He invited the stage rush once again, and then he did more, he took it up on to the stage with him. Stagger Lee, he killed a man, no he killed three…and he did it all in front of me. Stagger Lee!!

Hokey? To fucking hell with you, and back. One thing I can I guarantee you is that Nick Cave’s audience are readers. It is entirely made up of people who can make that leap from reality to imagination in one second flat…and then wander about in someone else’s crazy landscape, one peopled with murderers, whores and demons. Like a good book, Nick opens his mouth and swallows us whole:

“I read her diary on her sheets
Scrutinizing every little bit of dirt
Tore out a page and stuffed it inside my shirt
Fled out of the window and shinnied down the vine
Out of her nightmare and back into mine…”

And of course it’s all wrapped up and nailed down by a maelstrom that builds and moans and stutters to the top of its bent, rising and rising til a white light bursts upon us and we STOMP the ground like we’ve been whipped or tortured, or as if we were pagan infidels, beating out the rhythm of our special rites. Singing:

…You’ll see him in your nightmares
You’ll see him in your dreams
He’ll appear out of nowhere
But he ain’t what he seems
You’ll see him on the internet
Read his angry little tweets
You’re one microscopic cog
In his catastrophic plan
Designed and directed by his red right hand
look at all them red right hands

And we roared, and roared again, as the band crashed down in an avalanche of noise. It was two pure  minutes – maybe the two purest minutes I’ve ever experienced -- of unadulterated sonic bliss.

Recently, Dwight Garner wrote a book review in the New York Times about some typical rich lady’s travails, and in critiquing it, he said, “It is impossible to read anything in 2017, or to write anything, without thinking of America’s political and moral landscape. It is tendentious to mention it in every review, but I am thinking of it while writing every review.” And although I had to look up the exact meaning of the word tendentious, I must say I concur. There are ways in which Nick Cave is the least moral and the least political of artists. His work addresses, and exists, on some plain above that lowly and mortal coil, and that is what is so enjoyable about it.

At the same time, that is why, when for that single five word moment, his mallet of judgment descended into the real world, it came down all the harder. When it was over, I thought, “Well then. Can we just do that one all over again?”

But of course, they can’t. To do so would violate the unspoken code of the Rock Concert, the one that says that all songs performed live are unique and unrepeatable – but it’s what I wanted and what I still want, even now, because to be honest, that hammer he brought down so hard on the man in question was so very, very satisfying.

And to be honest it was a little surprising. Watching Nick Cave perform in Portland was awesome, but I had been a bit hestitant to go to begin with. The reason was, that there’s this frisson that comes from knowledge of the truly unspeakable thing that happened to him last year, the worst thing that can ever befall an actual human being, the death of his child. Nick Cave sings only of bad things but that’s why bad things shouldn’t happen to him, his wicked songs should keep them at bay, and the fact that it hasn’t haunted me so badly that every time he spake the world child I literally jumped out of my skin. “This is a weeping song…a song in which to weep. Why are they crying? They are merely crying son/true weeping is yet to come.”

 Every word, it killed me, dead, and – despite the subject matter - that is not really the way you should approach a Nick Cave concert; you can’t go into it grieving. Nick Cave is a man who laughs at death. He takes the hoodoo off. He doesn’t put it on again. He himself said, in a recent interview on the subject, “I don’t want people to come along (to the shows) and have to involve themselves in someone else’s drama…I want the shows to be inspiring and uplifting, and to walk away feeling better than they came, not some empathetic contagion that goes through the crowd and people walk away feeling like shit."

And so it was. There was healing in there, I knew it when I felt it, and that was the contagion that I caught, god bless. Maybe it was in the sonorous way that he intoned ior the hands that have to keep on pushing the sky. Maybe it was the Mercy Seat, or the Jubilee Song, or the interventionist God he doesn’t believe in. Maybe it was just the sight of him up there, actually healing himself. Maybe it was because, even after all these years, Nick Cave still plunges into the crowd and lets it lay its hands on him. He can part it like Moses. He can make it stand and he can make it sit, he pats it on the head and commands it to clap, and of course, he sails atop it, aloft, held up by love and hands, and there’s a part of me that really needs that now, that pseudo religious thing, and you all know why the hell that is.
Nick Cave tea towel. Nick has some good advice for you. 

It’s because hell is here now, and it’s for real. It is in the red-handwritten words of new health care bill and in the shootings in Portland. It’s in the way that the guilty go scot free and the innocent keep getting  shot. It’s in the terrorist acts happening all over the world, and it’s in the Burger King in Castle Rock. But then there is Nick Cave, who in the same interview linked above, said, “The events in our lives are like a series of bells being struck and the vibrations spread outwards., affecting everything…our present and our future, of course, but our pasts as well.” And this is so true to me: life is like a series of bells, and if you don't find ways to hear them toll, you will find yourself spiritually deaf.