Monday, August 8, 2011

An American Comedy: Book III: Paradise: Chapter 5

Chapter 5

“So bury me in wood, and I will splinter.
Bury me in stone, and I will quake.
Bury me in water, and I will geyser.
Bury me in fire, and I’m gonna phoenix.
I’m gonna phoenix.”

--Smog

Dear Beatrice,

In many ways, this is a book about suffering. For me, writing has been one of the ways I deal with pain—I write about it.

But I find myself in a bit of a conundrum. As I read over my journals, even through the “good” seasons of my life, I still find the same old themes of depression, anxiety, fear, cynicism, loneliness. I know, in my mind, that there were amazing things happening right alongside the pain—good and beautiful things. But those are not the things I wrote about.

So I am presented with a challenge, as I near the end of this project. Can I write about happiness and beauty with the same passion and clarity that I wrote about suffering? This is new territory for me, but I will try. There is only the trying.

Sincerely,

Jesse


I’m at the Tropics Lounge, a dive bar out by the municipal airport, watching a punk band called The Bellhaunts. I feel like there’s this whole underground world of awesome punk bands. The great musicians today are playing at random dive bars for drink tickets, while the shitty bands play big concert halls for big bucks. Everything is backwards.

Driving in my car, listening to KROQ, to some over-produced “song” by Linkin Park that the DJ informs me is on the soundtrack of the upcoming Transformers movie. And then he plays some piece of shit Weezer song , which really bums me out because I remember when Weezer was good.

I get thinking about how a lot of our cultural objects (music, film, etc.) are created or produced by corporations with these massive advertising budgets, so people are inundated with sub-par content—empty shit.

And then good stuff, the music and films and art made by humans with the simple goal of self-expression—this is the stuff you really have to seek out, because it exists under the radar of the corporate culture machine.

So I flip over to NPR and listen to someone reading poetry. In a better world, the artists (not the business men) would have the wealth and resources. In a better world, a lot of things would be different.

...

I walk in, past Matt the friendly bouncer and am greeted by the roar of many conversations, the sound of some drunk guy doing a horrible rendition of “Achy Breaky Heart,” which isn’t a very good song to begin with.

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Mike the bartender seems busy, but he gets me my usual.

Smells waft from the kitchen—pizza and burgers—greasy bar food for the late night karaoke crowd. It smells delicious.

I find a seat between my friend Kevin and this young woman with bright red lipstick and Chanel Chance perfume. I am able to identify this perfume because it is what my ex-girlfriend wore. Catching the scent makes me think of her and feel a little sad. They say the scent of smell is the scent most linked to memory. I’ll forget her after a couple drinks , when I am up there singing pretty sloppy and loud rendition of “Anarchy in the UK.”

...

Some of my friends and family think it strange that, at age 30, I am starting an old school, hard-core punk band. Punk, it is commonly thought, is a genre of the young—angry teenagers rebelling against their parents, against school, and whatnot. Also, I am a pretty mild-mannered guy. I like Simon and Garfunkel, the Beach Boys, Belle and Sebastian. I was never really a “punk” kind of a guy. Once, in high school, my friend Matt played me a Dead Kennedys album and, frankly, I couldn’t relate. All that anger, that frantic, abrasive sound. Who would want to voluntarily listen to that? Not me. But something happens around age 30, actually a lot of somethings, that plunge me deep into a genre I had avoided like I avoided horror films.

I start hanging out at The Continental Room (hands down the coolest bar in Fullerton), where DJs play old school punk records—bands like Stiff Little Fingers, The Misfits, The Cramps, The Dead Kennedys. Plus, local punk bands play there—not washed-up drug addicts—but young, cool kids in bands with names like The Audacity, Death Hymn #9, The Cosmonauts, and Cum Stain. A lot of these bands are on Fullerton’s own Burger Records label (hands down the coolest record label in Orange County). The music is wild and abrasive and frantic and, frankly, exhilarating. Here I am, a 30-year-old English teacher, finally “getting” punk music. It’s as if a curtain has been rolled back, and I am astonished.

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So I dive in head-first, loading my ipod up with both old school and new school punk. It’s an education, and my teacher is Casey, a DJ from The Continental Room, a college dropout who could easily teach a graduate-level seminar on garage, punk, and soul music. I begin with the classics: The Clash, Dead Kennedys, Sex Pistols, The Ramones, and then move on to the more obscure (or, at least, obscure to me)—Cock Sparrer, The Gun Club, X, Flux of Pink Indians, The Screamers, The Germs, The Weirdos, and on and on and on. There is so much amazing underground punk music that it is literally impossible to know it all. I absorb this music like a sponge.

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So what is the appeal of punk? For me, good punk is about things. In the 60s, music was about things that mattered. Artists like Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Pete Seeger used music as protest and inspired social change. After the 60s, music that meant things seemed to go away, and was almost thoroughly replaced by mindless pop. Or so I thought.

When I discover underground punk, I am like “Aha! This music is actually about stuff!” The Dead Kennedys, The Clash, and a host of other underground punks, used their music to speak against injustice, against war, against oppression. It was loud and abrasive because they were angry, they were outraged, and they wanted to change the world. It was art as protest, against Reagan—era economics, against religious hypocrisy, against American imperialism. The Dead Kennedys were Bob Dylan on steroids.

Don’t get me wrong. Not all punk music is serious. Some of it is downright silly, even gross. GG Allin is a good example of “gross-out” punk. But even the silly and gross stuff seems meaningful. It’s part of a lifestyle of rebellion, of saying “fuck you” to corporate pop culture sameness, and making a culture of freedom and unfettered expression.

So I find myself dusting off my old electric guitar and starting to write music again. When I was younger, in high school, I always had great difficulty writing songs. I was beset by perfectionism, which led to constant frustration and “writer’s block.” Punk music sets me free, creatively. I can write a song with three or four chords, played super fast. I can write about the things in the world that made me angry—corporate greed, health care, mega-churches. I find myself writing lots of songs. It is cathartic and fun.

I convince a couple friends to start a punk band with me: my roommate Landon borrows a bass guitar from a friend, my friend Christie (who has never played drums before), buys a drum set. We start practicing once a week in my apartment. We call ourselves Chicken or Fish. At first, we are terrible. But we keep practicing, writing songs that are angry and funny and fast and sloppy. After a few months of practicing, I convince my friends at The Continental Room to let us play a show. It is one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life.

I think punk music, and the punk mindset, has a lot to say to this generation, to this time and place in modern America. The economy sucks. We are involved in three wars. Corporations have most of the power. Politicians suck. Punk rock still speaks to these horrors, speaks truth to power, gets angry at injustice, beckons us to question authority, to rebel, to not accept things as they are, to make our voices heard, to do it ourselves, to be badasses.
Is punk dead? Hell no.

...

Here we are. Our first practice. Christie takes a very long time setting up her new drum set because she just got it. She started playing drums last week.

Landon’s borrowed bass guitar is slung over his shoulder by a leather belt. He has never played bass.

I am playing a really shitty Fender Squier 2 guitar plugged into my amp that I got in high school. The stickers are a bit dated—Sunny Day Real Estate, Ben Folds Five. Landon and I share this amp.

For the vocals, I bought the cheapest microphone I could find at Radio Shack. When you shake it, you can hear things rattling inside. I have plugged it into Landon’s tiny practice amp. The mic stand is a lamp stand that I duct taped the microphone to.

We are in the storage room behind our apartment. This place has history. This is where Cold War Kids started. Five years later, here we are. Our first practice.

“Any ideas for band names?”

“Last week, I was at this Vietnamese food truck and I heard someone say, ‘Chicken or Fish?’ I thought that might be a good name—Chicken or Fish.”

“It’s not very punk.”

“Neither are we.”

“Speak for yourself. I’m punk as fuck.”

“Alright. For now, we are Chicken or Fish.”

“Let’s jam.”

I start playing the chords for “Hard Travelin’” by Woody Guthrie.

Christie bangs along. Landon thumps along. It sounds pretty bad. We are not skilled musicians.

I step up to the microphone and yell these lyrics:

I been havin’ some hard travelin
I thought you know’d.
I been havin some hard travelin’
I thought you know’d.
Heavy load and a worried mind
Lookin for a woman that’s hard to find
I been havin some hard travelin, Lawd.


“That was okay.”
“Was it punk?”
“Sort of.”
“You know what? We have potential.”

...

I’m on the small stage of The Continental Room, wearing a tank top I made. It says, written with bleach, “Chicken or Fish.” That’s our band. We are all cramped on this little stage: Christie on drums, Landon on bass, Brian and Mike on guitars. This is our third show. Last night, I watched a bunch of old Dead Kennedys videos, so I am trying to channel Jello Biafra. The music screams and thumps behind me and I scream into the microphone and twist around and make weird faces and the crowd, and sometimes spit, just for fun.

I look over at Landon and he bobbing and watching the fretboard, making sure he’s playing the right notes. Christie is slamming away on the skins. Brian is like kicking his leg out at the crowd. Mike looks a little drunk. I am a little drunk too. How else could I do this, I think, or don’t think, as I lift my tank top, exposing my hairy pot belly. I fucking love this shit.

I’m sweating like crazy and out of breath and my head is fuzzy and my throat is hoarse, but this only makes me sing louder! Mike is jumping up and down, wearing his skin-tight Robin costume. I hope he doesn’t fall. Actually, that would probably be pretty funny. Someone knocks a drink off the stage and it shatters on the floor. Fuck it. We keep playing. I scream out: PUNK ROCK, BITCHES!

You wouldn’t think it by looking at us. We are pretty mild mannered. We wear cardigan sweaters. But when we get up here, we are punk as fuck. We are GG Allin. We are The Germs. We are uncorked rage. We spit hot fire into the darkness. We are the underbelly of suburban America. And we’re gonna burn this bitch down.

...

Tonight, the Back Alley bar was full of people, and next door, at Mulberry Street, I was spinning records, and like ten people came in. I was playing good music: Captain Beefheart, The Smiths, Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Audacity, The O'Jays. And yet people chose to go to the Back Alley, where they play top 40 music. Blarg.

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...

Mike and I are drinking beers on my rooftop. It’s a break during band practice.

“I’m working on a new song called ‘The Average American Male.’ It’s basically about how I have never been in love.”

“How old are you?”

“30.”

“How have you never been in love?”

“I dunno. I just haven’t. Have you?”

“I’ve been in love like 15 times.”

“But how do you define ‘in love’?

“You can’t really define it. You just know it.”

“That sounds a little vague for me.”

“We need to talk about this. If you have gone this long without being in love, you have problems.”

“I mean, I love my family. I love my friends. But romantic love—nada. I have dated girls. I have liked a few girls a lot. But I could never really say ‘I love you’ with any conviction. I always felt like a phony. I guess that’s why I usually break up with someone. Maybe I have like Aspergers or something.”

“I don’t think you have Assburgers.”

“I just read this book called ‘The Average American Male’—it was like the inspiration for the song. And it’s about this guy who has lots of sex with women and looks at porn a lot, but never really loves the women he’s with. It got me thinking—maybe this problem with love is, like, a pretty common problem for American males.”

“Maybe.”

“I once watched this interview with David Foster Wallace, the writer, and he was talking about how his grandparents, by the time they were teenagers, had seen a pretty limited number of kisses—maybe their parents, maybe a couple movies. A kiss was kind of a rare thing. But how our generation, with TV and the internet, by the time we are teenagers, have seen tens of thousands of kisses, and probably sex too. And so, for us, a kiss is not rare. It’s almost cliché. When I think about kissing and romantic love, I automatically think of some fucking movie. It’s not that interesting or rare or beautiful.”

“That’s sad.”

“Yeah. It’s really sad. Maybe the problem is the media.”

“But that is also kind of cliché—blaming things on the media.”

“Yeah. Everything is cliché.”

We drink our beers and watch a seagull fly overhead.”

“How do seagulls get here? We’re pretty far inland.”

...

I’ve got the downtown Fullerton Tuesday night blues. First off, I’m broke, so going out isn’t really an option. Second, I live above Back Alley bar, where this terrible cover band is playing. By “terrible” I don’t mean that they are terrible musicians. They are playing their songs just fine. What I mean by “terrible” is their lack of imagination. They are playing top 40 songs. Radio hits. Music that communicates to the lowest common denominator. Mindless radio drivel. Corporate music.

I don’t necessarily hate cover bands. I wouldn’t mind seeing a Kraftwerk cover band, or a Daniel Johnston cover band, or even a Kinks cover band. But 99 percent of the cover bands I hear at Back Alley, and other bars in downtown Fullerton play top 40 music. I suppose that’s what drunk college kids in Fullerton want to hear. They don’t want anything too experimental or creative or independent. They want the same shit they listen to in their cars. And so that’s what they get.

I consider going out, just to escape the noise of this fucking cover band, buying drinks on credit, maybe breaking my piggy bank. But where can I go? The one bar left in Fullerton that plays interesting music, The Continental Room, has been taken over by this knucklehead who is really into dubstep and, like, house music. And people flock to hear this bullshit. Again, it’s music that communicates to the creatively lazy. If you are looking to get drunk and grind on someone, there you go. But if you are looking to have a conversation, to hear something interesting or moving or creative, you are shit outta luck on Tuesday nights in downtown Fullerton.

So I sit alone in my apartment and drink a couple beers and write. I take consolation in the fact that tomorrow I will help install an art show, and then my band (not a cover band) will play a show in Long Beach, with other non-cover bands. We may not be terrific musicians, but at least we are creative. We make our own sounds. And then on Thursday, there’s Nerdy Thursday, which I started because there was nowhere else to go in Fullerton on Thursday to hear something other than corporate music. And then on Friday we have the Art Walk.

Sometimes I feel like there is a war going on, a war for the soul of Fullerton. On the one side, you have the bar owners and promoters who are making bank selling people the same comfortable shit. And on the other side there’s me and my friends and all those who are poor but resolved to prop up creative music, art, reading, thought, conversation. It’s a war I will keep on fighting. No retreat! No surrender!

...

I walk up to the bouncer and say, “How’s it going?”

He just stands there huskily and asks for my ID. He has this cold, business-like and sort of condescending attitude that immediately makes me want to leave. But some friends from high school are here, so I walk in, and am immediately hit by the smell of stale beer, like someone poured a beer on a towel and then left that towel on a bathroom floor for a week.

A terrible cover band is playing an uninspired rendition of “What I Got” by Sublime, and the singer has spiky hair and baggy shorts and I want to say, “Hey man, 1995 called and it wants its hairdo and clothes and music back.”

But I suppose he could come back with, “1975 called and it wants its hairdo and clothes back.” Touche.

This place depresses me, with its scantily-clad women and “bros” so clearly looking to get laid tonight. This place is uninspiring. So after one beer, I leave and head to another bar where Casey is spinning 60s soul records and I feel at home.

...

I am poor and my throat is hoarse from two punk shows in two days. Awesome!

I am a La Cita Bar in downtown LA, drinking a beer, sweaty as a wrestler. Our band just finished our set, and I am tired and light-headed and my voice is hoarse. I feel great!

“Hey, I really liked your set.”

“Thanks.”

“I like your political songs—that one about health care.”

“Yeah, we try to write about things that make us mad.”

“I get so frustrated sometimes because things are so fucked up, but what can I do?”

“You can write about what makes you mad, talk to people, make art, write a song, blog about it!”

“I’m not an artist, and I’m not a very good writer.”

“I bet you’re a fine writer. I teach writing and so many people get told they are not good writers because of grammar or some other bullshit. If you have passion and things to say, you can be a good writer. You can teach grammar, but you can’t teach passion.”

“Yeah, maybe.”

It is a conversation similar to many I’ve had in the past few years. So many people understand the problems of the world, they see injustice, but they feel powerless to do anything meaningful. Whenever I meet someone like that, I try to make it my mission to convince them that they can change things if they persistently speak the truth and share it with others in whatever medium they want—music, writing, art, blogging, facebook, whatever.

“If you have knowledge and education, I think you have a responsibility to share it. To put it to use for the greater good.”

“I agree.”

“So go do it!”

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