29 July 2006

A Fine Funeral

I left Berkeley late Tuesday night, landed in New York Wednesday morning, had a brief nap until about noon, went to the gym, then took a late-afternoon walk around Lower Manhattan (and I mean that almost literally) with Aaron Cometbus that stretched well into the night. That brings us to Thursday morning, when I rearranged the things in the suitcase I hadn't bothered to unpack - wait, that's not true; Thursday morning I went to the gym and then squandered the next few hours faffing about on the internet until it was time to leave for the airport in mid-afternoon. Then I started thinking about repacking my suitcase and ended up deciding to leave it pretty much as it was, caught the train to JFK, and was on my way again.

Landed in London at about 6:30 am, breezed through customs (nothing like "I'm attending a funeral" to dampen a customs officer's enthusiasm for further enquiries), and was flopped out on my bed by shortly after 8, which left me almost three hours to sleep before people started arriving. It was a hot and sunny day - apparently it's been that way pretty much all summer - so what might have been my appropriately funereal ensemble of black on black was not the most inspired choice, especially since most of the mourners honoured Olivia's memory by dressing in her sort of colours, i.e., bright. We crawled down the traffic-snarled Harrow Road in a cross between a limo and a hearse, following closely behind the actual hearse so that we had a clear view of the nut-brown coffin resting under a voluminous spray of what looked to my untutored eye like Easter lilies. An old geezer sitting at a rickety table outside one of the greasy cafes raised his hat as we passed, but didn't feel it necessary to interrupt his conversation or even glance more than momentarily in our direction.

It's only about a mile to Kensal Green Cemetery, but it seemed to take us half the day to get there. Not that any of us were in any particular hurry. When we arrived we found a small knot of people waiting, a few more turned up in the nick of time - literally dashing across the hallowed grounds and lucky not to trip over a misplaced gravestone - and still others didn't turn up until it was all over, muttering about traffic jams, dodgy maps, incorrectly labelled buses and idiotic minicab drivers. I guess there were about 20 of us in all, and we gathered in the stately but not visibly religious crematorium. Olivia had demanded many times that no minister or God-botherer be allowed near her funeral, so we had some fellow from the Humanist Society, who told a couple jokes, read a poem, and told stories about Olivia, whom he'd never met, to those of us who'd either been a part of the stories in the first place or had heard her tell and retell them in ever-greater detail through many gin-fuelled nights. Nevertheless, the man was good at what he did, and deserves whatever he got for it.

We had music: Nat King Cole's "Unforgettable" at the beginning, Edith Piaf's "Non, Je ne Regrette Rien" in the middle, and Bob Dylan's "Blowin' In the Wind" for the finale. I'd never been to a cremation before, and - I hate to admit it - was rather anticipating seeing the coffin disappear into the fiery maw of oblivion. However, that's apparently not how it works; the conveyor belt starts up, two doors swing open up, and the coffin disappears through them, but they didn't close quickly enough to stop us noticing that there were no flames, no further action at all, in fact, on the business side of those doors. The coffin simply came to a halt and sat there, presumably to be dealt with later. I didn't say anything at the time, but I later heard someone else complaining about the lack of fiery action, so I don't feel so bad now about expressing my own disappointment.

This may sound a bit callous or unfeeling, but you'd have to know Olivia and the sort of friends that she gathered round her to understand how little reverence she or they were likely to express toward death or its attendant ceremonies. For years, before finally being convinced that it was not only illegal, but simply wouldn't work, she had insisted that when she died we should haul her body out onto the street, prop it up against a lamp post, and hang a sign around her neck instructing, "Please take this old rubbish away." Despite being militantly anti-religious and essentially an atheist, she did believe in an all-pervasive life force (I tried many times to explain to her about Star Wars, but to no avail) and felt confident the raw material of both her body and soul would be recycled or otherwise put to good use. And she was determined above all that there be no long faces at her passing; that it should instead be an ideal excuse for a party.

Olivia was partial to gin - not just partial; she was wholly in thrall to it, and had been since at least the 1930s - and she was particularly fond of Tanqueray Export Strength, which is difficult to find in the UK, and prohibitively expensive (well, to a working class girl whose first job paid the munificent sum of 15 shillings (75p) a week it certainly seemed that way). So I'd long been in the habit of bringing her a duty-free litre every time I came back from the States. Preparing for this trip, I thought, "That'll be a pleasant change, not having to lug that bottle through two airports," but at the last minute decided to buy it anyway so her friends and family could toast her memory with her favourite tipple.

I needn't have bothered; Olivia had left behind a fair stash of Gordon's, her second favourite, and the ensuing chaos reminded me of the time I wrecked a performance of San Francisco's Angels of Light by dosing them all with acid just before they went on stage. Olivia's friends could not even charitably be described as moderate drinkers, and unlike Olivia, seldom saw a reason to exercise restraint when imbibing. You drank until there was no more booze in the house, and then you organised a whip-round to send out for more.

Which is more or less what happened at the post-cremation wake. Considerably more people turned up than had been there for the main event, and if anyone besides myself wasn't drinking, he or she did a good job of making themselves invisible. There was a large and steady cloud of smoke arising from the corner where the Jamaicans and their admirers had gathered, the rail-thin Sri Lankan girls perched on the edge of the bed nervously fingering their wine glasses, and the various hippies and queens shrieked, screeched and bellowed through the afternoon and into the early evening. Marvellously enough, no one fell down, at least not that I noticed.

From the time it was decided to move the party on to an open-air jazz concert in Ealing to the final exit (and re-entry and re-exit, etc., repeat as necessary) of the last of the staggering guests (the phrase "herding cats" took on new meaning for me) at least an hour or two had passed, and I decided to pass up this expedition in favour of some sleep. Which was probably just as well; according to this morning's post-mortem (possibly not the best choice of words, but it's late and I have no others readily on tap) it took the assembled masses one full hour to reach the nearest Tube station (approximately 500 feet away, if that) and another hour or two finding and half-demolishing a restaurant in Hammersmith. Somewhere in there was a potential riot involving one or possibly two arrests, though apparently relented when they were finally convinced that yes, this was indeed a funeral party. Bear in mind that if you remove the token handful of youngish (30s/early 40s) people, the average age of this crowd of roisterers was probably in the early-to-mid 60s.

Nevertheless, I can't imagine that Olivia, who herself had been known to fancy a brawl or mini-riot to top off a night on the tiles, would have wanted it any other way. She lived her life just as she wanted, died pretty much when and how she had always planned, and instigated a raucous knees-up to mark her passing. All in all, I can almost hear her explaining to any random life forces that happen to cross her path, not a bad life's work, not bad at all.

P.S. Lest I forget, the cremation and wake were really only a rehearsal for the real memorial service, which will involve transporting her ashes and all her lunatic friends via bus or armoured personnel carrier to their final resting place (the ashes, that is, not the friends) in Bedfordshire, and the subsequent drinking dry (strictly according to Olivia's wishes) of the local village pub. Fortunately there's a month or two to rest up before that one rolls around.

22 July 2006

Rats In Search Of A Buzz

I don't know whether to believe this or not, but a former neighbor from up Spy Rock way tells me it's been next to impossible to keep his phone (landline variety, remember those?) working of late because the local rats (four-legged variety) have developed a habit of chewing through the cables. Why? They get a kick, he swears, out of biting into the low-voltage electric charge. These are, it should be noted, the same rats widely believed to be responsible for gnawing away at the trunks - and thereby killing - the marijuana plants which form the cornerstone (not to mention the foundation, walls, floor and ceiling) of the regional economy.

21 July 2006

The Year I Disappeared

It's not always easy to know the effect our actions have on others. While sitting around with my mother today, she started talking about the year I "disappeared," as she put it.

Regular readers of this blog or my other writings will probably remember that I spent most of 1968 running around the country trying to avoid the police and the FBI, who were hoping to put me in prison for some rather foolish drug offenses I'd committed. Since I had to leave town in a hurry, I deliberately neglected to inform most people, including my family, about my travel plans.

My reasoning was twofold: if they didn't know where I was, then the police wouldn't be able to get any information out of them, and since I'd been nothing but trouble to the family for quite some time, I figured I'd spare them the heartbreak of having to hear about my latest disaster. Of course it was only a matter of days before they found out all about it from the police, who came charging into my parents' normally sedate living room with guns drawn.

By this time I was hiding out in Flatbush, Brooklyn, where I remained until the FBI showed up looking for me, apparently having traced me from a letter I'd sent to a girlfriend back in Michigan. I narrowly escaped, but from then on it was total panic stations, as I fled to Ohio, back to New York, and finally to California. I alternated between thinking that I only needed to hold out until the revolution, which I was sure was just around the corner, and fearing that I'd have to spend my entire life on the run, living under an alias, scrounging off people or working whatever lousy under-the-table job I might find.

It was a stressful existence. A big adventure at times, yes - I was 20 years old and living out the ultimate cops and robbers fantasy - but tedious and boring at others, and occasionally just plain terrifying. I didn't think about my parents or my younger brothers and sister that often, and when I did, I assumed that they'd eventually forget about me, and that it would be better for everyone that way.

But today my mother told me just what an awful year it had been on the home front, made worse by the fact that my dad refused to talk about it with her, and insisted that she keep it a secret from the relatives, the neighbors, and even the other children. "Sometimes I would go down in the fruit cellar by myself," she told me, "and just cry and cry."

I got quite a sinking feeling when I heard that. Could I have been responsible for that much pain? Apparently, and I started out to apologize - I've done so in the past, but when you're so clearly in the wrong, a few extra apologies can never hurt - and then decided to just keep quiet and let her talk. By the time she'd finished, I still felt bad, but it had also occurred to me that as difficult as it was to not know where I was for a year - or even if I were dead or alive - they probably wouldn't have enjoyed it any better if I'd been locked up in prison serving the 20-to-life sentence the authorities had in mind for me. So considering that by staying away long enough, I avoided having to go to prison at all and got off with a week in the county jail and two years' probation, perhaps I made the best choice after all, regardless of how much certain people suffered in the short term.

Who can say, though? Not I, and it will be a long time, if ever, before I forget the look on my mother's face as she described the torment I'd put her through. And funny, I thought, that she'd never given up on me, even when I'd pretty much given up on myself.

With that still weighing on my mind, I was off to meet Kendra for coffee and a chat about life, love and Coronation Street. It being a rare semi-warm night in the Bay Area, we decided to sit at one of the sidewalk tables outside the cafe, but it was still chilly enough that Kendra left her jacket on, and I was nervously eyeing the passing cars, fearing that we'd become the next victims of the Berkeley paintball assassin. We managed to have a pretty good talk anyway, despite Kendra's increasingly inexplicable obsession with Everton Football Club. It's not as though Sheffield Wednesday weren't bad enough; she seems to have decided to work her way through all the godforsaken Northern towns and slag heaps and the football teams that represent them.

Which is admirable in a way, though all things considered I'll stick with Fulham, not least because they've got one of the nicest - ok, quaintest, anyway - grounds in the Premiership and it's almost - not quite, but almost - within walking distance of my house. Which reminds me, the season opener is coming up in only a few weeks and for the first time in nine years, I won't be there. Man, that really depresses me. Enough to move back to London fulltime? Probably not, but it wouldn't make any difference anyway; my season ticket is gone, never to return, at least not in that halcyon position astride center pitch in the Riverside Stand. I just don't want to think about it anymore. In fact, I'm going to bed right now so I don't have to. Good night.

20 July 2006

Off The Avenue

It never fails. Every time I come back to Berkeley, I psych myself up to enjoy it and promise myself that even if it falls short of my expectations, I won't waste people's time (or my own, for that matter) complaining about it. And every time, usually within minutes or hours of arriving, I stumble across yet another reminder of this once-great city's sad decline, and, whether or not against my better judgment, can't keep quiet about it.

I landed in the Bay Area yesterday on a beautiful summer's day. The usual Frisco chill was nowhere in evidence, but neither was it 98 degrees with humidity to match as it had been in New York. No, the temperature was just right, barely a wisp of fog or smog in the sky, the sunshine splashed down benevolently over everything and everybody, and it felt like a perfect day to stroll through campus and up to Telegraph Avenue.

I don't go to the Avneue very often. Few people do these days, but I had a specific reason, a bit of banking business that could only be transacted at the Telegraph branch. It went quickly, as there were almost no customers, and I had half the staff ready to wait on me personally. For some reason my checks have the legend "Customer since 1976" printed on them (an error; it's actually been since 1972), and the mostly young employees seemed impressed that someone could be alive that long, let alone have a bank account. I in turn regaled them with tales of how the bank used to have floor-to-ceiling windows until the rioters smashed them so many times that they were finally replaced with bunker-like brickwork, which is why the place seems so gloomy today.

Even allowing time for these geezerly reminiscences, my business was finished inside ten minutes, and I decided to walk up the street to Cody's to pick up a book I needed. I'd barely got half a block before I saw that the Berkeley Market had closed up and gone out of business. It was never that great a store, but it had been there forever. I used to shoplift cheese and crackers there back in the 1968, and I think it had been there at least 30 or 40 years before that. Yes, the Avenue has been in decline for a long time, but some places you just expect will always be there. But apparently Berkeley Market won't be one of them.

That got me paying closer attention, though, and everywhere I looked there were empty storefronts or businesses already closed for the day even though it wasn't even 5 o'clock yet. Even the once-ubiquitous street vendors were thin on the ground, but none of that prepared me for the shock of walking up to Cody's, one of the Avenue's most venerable institutions, and finding it gone.

I'd read that they were going out of business months ago, but somehow didn't take it seriously. I guess I assumed they'd just announced the closure as a way of getting the city to pay attention and address some of the Avenue's problems. But apparently they weren't bluffing, and anyway, Berkeley's 68-year-old adolescent mayor breezily explained that Cody's failure could be blamed on internet book sales and had nothing to do with the fact that Telegraph had been allowed to degenerate into an unpleasant shithole during the time he and his fellow 60s throwbacks have been ruining, er, running the city.

If the internet were really to blame, it's strange that two other branches of Cody's have continued to thrive, one of them in a corner of West Berkeley far less accessible than Telegraph Avenue. But if Berkeley has always - at least since the 60s anyway - been about not only never having to say you're sorry, but also having someone or something to blame, ideally Republicans and/or global capitalism. Which is part of why the Berkeley city mothers and fathers have always been so keen on turning Telegraph and Shattuck Avenues into open-air day care centers for beggars, derelicts, dope dealers and muggers: they serve as living poster children for the failures of "the system." And if one business after another goes bust, well, who needs the petit bourgeoisie anyway?

I rarely see a familiar face on the Avenue these days, but there was one: a long-haired old greybeard who's been begging for spare change in front of what used to be Cody's since the early 70s. He was facing some stiff competition this afternoon, with younger, louder and more aggressive beggars having taken up posts on either side of him. If business gets much worse in the neighborhood, there'll be no one left to beg from, but I expect at that point the Berkeley City Council will either set up a Begging Subsidy program or organize a bus service to transport our indigenous mendicants to and from some of the Bay Area's more lucrative precincts.

Enough griping. On the bright side, I got to spend much of today with my mother, who is far more patient about such things. She just smiles agreeably while I rant and rave and then points out how lovely the flowers look this year. We had a long talk about what's next for me: do I relocate permanently to New York or go back to London? I know that if she could have her way, she'd prefer that I stay in California, and sometimes the notion is tempting, all my complaints nothwithstanding, though if I were ever to do so, it would be in El Cerrito, not Berkeley.

And Sydney's not out of the picture either; there's hardly a day that I don't miss that beautiful city and all my friends there, but realistically, I'm probably not going to end up living there. It would be nice, but short of coming up with a few million bucks or finding a nice Australian to marry me (I'd guess the former would be more likely), it's not going to happen.

So it's looking more and more like New York, and believe me, worse things could happen to a guy. In fact, all my angst about where and how to live could safely be put under the heading of "high class problems." When I think of all the people who don't even know where they're going to sleep tonight, or what they're going to eat tomorrow, or who've been dodging bombs and artillery shells, who've seen their whole families wiped out by war or disease or starvation, it makes me feel guilty for devoting a moment's thought, let alone all these paragraphs, to obsessing over my own comfort and ease.

But I'm only human, much as I'd like to think of myself as something bigger or better, and as such will always have an inbuilt tendency to be a self-absorbed bastard. One of these days I might learn to give more thought to others' needs and less to my own desires, but the best I can say about that is that I'm still a work in progress.

17 July 2006

Hot, Hot, Hot

Or so they say. I guess it was about 98° today (36.5C), and the TV announcers were positively hysterical about how we were all going to be dropping like flies if we spent more than a few minutes out in direct sunlight during the mid-afternoon hours. Except for the usual drunks collapsed here and there in doorways - and I doubt the heat had much to do with that - people seemed to be going about their normal business (as were the passed-out drunks, come to think of it) without too many problems.

I myself had to do laundry so I'd have some clean clothes my trip to California in the morning; I did make one concession to the heat by choosing the air-conditioned coin-free (it's all electronic cards now) luxury laundromat complete with plasma TVs showing seemingly endless Star Trek reruns instead of the more homey and friendly non-air-conditioned one on the other side of Metropolitan. But later, having to get over to the West Side up near 28th Street, I abandoned a barely-functioning subway and half-jogged, half-ran the remaining 9 blocks in full sunlight (well, as much sunlight as ever filters down into the street canyons, which at this time of year can be quite a bit) and arrived at my destination two minutes early.

I was also covered in sweat, despite being clad in about as little as is allowed by law, and found the room cooled to the meat-locker temperatures favored by most New Yorkers in the summertime, so much so that many of the people there were wearing business suits or (!) even sweaters. I was there just long enough to freeze-dry all the sweat off me, before heading back out into the streets. I've come to think of this back-and-forth between air-conditioned restaurants, cinemas and subway cars and oven-baked streets and subway stations as the salubrious equivalent of alternating visits to the sauna and a nearby snowbank, but to tell the truth, it didn't even feel that hot outdoors. Maybe nothing ever will again after that 113°F/45C bolstered by a coruscating desert wind that someone compared to a "nuclear-powered hairdryer" that I experienced in Sydney last New Year's Day. New York on a hot, muggy day seldom gets much worse than hanging out next to a pizza oven, with the additional advantage that there's usually pizza nearby.

Last night was perfect for wandering the streets, though you wouldn't have thought so by the sparse crowds, even for a Sunday night. Most of the tourists have either gone or are staying uptown, and it was a mostly locals-only get-together that I stumbled across in Washington Square around 10 pm. An informal group of musicians and singers that seemed to gain and lose in numbers based on the whims of passersby treated an audience of about 100 to renditions of classic hits from the 50s to the 90s. Both performers and audience were a typically New York mix of white, black, and Puerto Rican. Asians were the only under-represented group, with a few watching, but none singing or playing.

Maybe it was just my mood, or that the song selection leaned heavily toward my demographic (I could have done without the pot-bellied, walrus-mustached 50-something enthusiastically rocking out to "I Can't Get No Satisfaction," but I'm sure I don't conform to everyone's esthetic ideal, either), but it felt like one of those magical only-in-New-York nights and made me not want to go home at all, or at least not until after midnight (I'm so adventurous these days). But my unwillingness to brave the uncertain late-night vagaries of the L train led me to drift away reluctantly.

Which is the same spirit in which I leave New York in the morning. If it were up to me, at least in my present mood, I could happily stay on one of these two islands (Manhattan or Long) indefinitely if not forever. But life as usual has other plans for me, so it's a week with Mom and the immediate family in California, then another week of funeral gatherings and comiserations in London. By the time I get back it will be August already, and another summer will be sliding toward its inexorable end.

Speaking of endings, inexorable or otherwise, Coriander emails to remind me of one of Olivia's curious habits, the compulsive acquisition of orange lipstick. It seems that sometime back in the 1950s or 60s, Olivia decided that the only lipstick that suited her complexion was a certain shade of orange. For many years she happily wore it, until that particular brand became very hard to find, and eventually disappeared altogether. From then until she finally more or less gave up on makeup in recent years, any trip out with Olivia became a quest for the elusive grail of the Right Shade of orange lipstick. Every chemist or department store had to be visited, and at first she would buy anything that looked remotely orange, only to be disappointed when she got home to discover that it wasn't "a proper orange."

At that point, convinced that the shops were using trick lighting to make lipsticks appear orange when they weren't actually, she decided to stop paying for them and start stealing them, or, as the more innocuous British usage would have it, "nicking" them. By the time Coriander, then an impressionable 17-year-old, first met Olivia, she had accumulated an entire drawer of not-quite-orange lipsticks which she would show to visitors while bemoaning the sad state of customer service and mixing large gin and tonics for all and sundry. When I begin the process of clearing up her personal effects next week, there should be lipstick for all and sundry as well.

15 July 2006

New York Is A Little Old Town

One thing I've always liked about New York is that at heart it's just an overgrown village. Uptown people may tear around at breakneck speed as if the very fate of the earth depended on them reaching the subway turnstile 1.3 seconds ahead of you, but downtown they're more likely to amble and promenade, stopping here to gawk and peruse, there to offer an opinion on an ongoing street incident, and there again to butt into someone else's attempt to give directions to a befuddled out-of-towner.

But most of all they chat, with each other, with strangers, and with long-lost friends from around the world or up the block. If you'd like to re-connect with someone from your past and can't seem to locate them in the phone book or on the internet, you could always just try strolling aimlessly around lower Manhattan. Chances are that, sooner or later, they'll turn up.

Tonight I was cutting across 7th Street just east of 3rd Avenue when I spotted the unmistakable figure of Dan Vapid - known to most of you from his work with the Methadones, the Mopes, Sludgeworth, the Riverdales and Screeching Weasel, among others - headed in the general direction of the Bowery. It was my second Vapid sighting of the summer - he was in Baltimore for last month's Fest - but unlike the first one, completely unexpected.

Turns out Dan and his girlfriend were in town for a weekend holiday, and were on their way to have a look at CBGB's and maybe grab a drink there. I told them they probably wouldn't be able to get in, at least not without paying $15, as there was an all-day benefit show for George Tabb. "I think they asked us to play that," said Mr. Vapid when my prediction turned out to be correct.

We stood around for a few minutes looking at the immaculately got-up postcard punks. "These are your grandchildren," Vapid told me with a sweeping gesture. "It really smells like puke around here, doesn't it?" I said, and he agreed that it did. So we moved on, walking on down to Little Italy, where I left the happy couple to contend with the menu-wielding barkers, including one wearing a Santa Claus hat who planted himself in his path and demanded, "You wanna chicken onna bone or wit out da bone?"

Back up on Avenue A I ran into an English friend. I told him about Auntie Olivia's death, which led to a long discussion of the prodigious drinking exploits of our various relatives and my telling him how I once almost got in a fist fight with Neko Case (he was a fan) backstage at the Whiskey. I somehow doubt I would have come out of that one covered with glory. After that it was on home to Brooklyn for an early night; it's supposed to be horrendously hot tomorrow, and I want to get an early start on my errands before the city turns into an open-air broiler oven.

Quick update on the Thursday goings-on: the evening started out with my usual volunteer stint at a notorious local insane asylum, followed by an attempted quick dash downtown for the Weakerthans show. Being that the 2nd Avenue Subway is not likely to be open for another ten or twenty years, I opted for the bus, which crawled along at a speed just slightly greater than walking until we got to 23rd Street, after which it slowed down considerably.

I might as well have walked the whole way; if I had, I might have been late enough to miss the New Amsterdams altogether instead of having to endure three or four songs of their rather bland and characterless alt-folk rock. Apparently one of these guys had something to do with the Get Up Kids, which figures. I would have been more interested in seeing the other opening act, Bad Religion frontman and master of polysyllabic pontificating grandiloquence Greg Graffin's solo project, but people tell me it's just like Bad Religion only without Bad Religion, and that this is not necessarily a good thing. I always had a soft spot for the way Dr. Graffin (his doctorate is in evolutionary biology or something along those lines) could string together the most preposterous thesaurus rhymes while still keeping things relatively cogent, but when you strip away the magnificent backing track that Bad Religion provided, what remains is often little more than a Left Coast Richard Dawkins whose message can be boiled down to, "The government sucks, there is no God, Christians are stupid, neener neener neener." Very satisfying to the adolescent in all of us, and having nurtured and indulged my inner adolescent well into my 40s, I was a big fan for quite a while.

The Weakerthans were more or less flawless, almost, in fact, to a fault. This was the first time since 1998 that I was just another paying customer rather than a guest of or hanger-out with the band, and perhaps that had something to do with it, but it felt a little like listening to my favorite Weakerthans songs on an enormous stereo while watching a video. Granted, "Left And Leaving" and a couple others still brought me close to tears, but my iPod can do that, too. I missed bassist John Sutton, too, who left the band a little over a year and a half ago. His replacement is perfectly competent and probably more reliable, but lacks that lunatic glee that Sutton brought to the proceedings.

Then came part three: a trip down to the Sidewalk Cafe in the East Village, where best-selling author and criminally under-appreciated (until now, that is) singer-songwriter Dr. Frank had packed a standing-room-only crowd into a normally sedate folk music (okay, they call it "anti-folk," which makes it sound even worse) venue. I think it was quite possibly the most amazing (and amusing) acoustic show I've ever attended. Highlight might have been when the whole room joined in singing the anthemic "Ba Ba Ba Ba Ba Ba," much to the astonishment of the beard-stroking folkie who was hosting the event and may or may not have ever heard of Dr. Frank prior to this. On the other hand, it could have been Frank's newest song, containing what may well be his most piquant social commentary yet: "Cingular Wireless, Worse Than Hitler."

Having seen Frank at the dawn of his solo career, nervous and uncomfortable in front of a desultory crowd of a dozen or two MTX diehards, it was a revelation and a delight to see him working tonight's overflow crowd like a consummate pro. At least 15 or 20 bona fide members of the New York Pop Punk Clique were in attendance, livening up the proceedings still further with smart-ass requests and requisite in-jokes. They stuck around for Jersey Beat's Jim Testa, himself both cliquester and singer-songwriter, who had, it must be said, a tough act to follow. It's too bad Jim couldn't have gone on before Frank; when he finally took the stage it was well after midnight and many of the fair-weather fans had already bailed. Highlight may have been Jonnie Whoa Oh calling out, "I morally object to that song!" and someone (I'll not say who) responding from the other side of the room, "What would you know about morals?"

Jim finished up his set with a song about "Planet Williamsburg," which contains a line about carrying a guitar around, and then handed me a spare guitar which he'd generously agreed to lend me so that - ostensibly - I can get ready to appear at one of these shows myself. Then Frank and I headed off for the train to - yes, Williamsburg - with our guitars in hand, the living embodiments of the stereotype that Jim had just been perpetuating. I felt like telling people, "I'm just holding it for a friend."

13 July 2006

3 O'Clock In The Morning

I don't usually have trouble sleeping these days. Trouble getting to bed, yes; no matter how tired I am when I get home, no matter how determined I am to get to sleep straight away, I always find some excuse for putzing around the apartment, either on the computer, or in front of the TV, or suddenly deciding at a quarter to two in the morning that I can't really go to bed until I've done yesterday's dishes. It's crazy: if I had lain my head anywhere near a pillow back around 11 or 12 I would have been out like a light, but after an hour of checking email or calling someone in a different time zone or simply sitting there thinking about the day, I'm wider awake than I was when I got up that morning.

But tonight's different. I've already been to bed once, no, twice, I think, and I'm back up again at a quarter past three, completely unable to shut my eyes. There is the occasional rumble of thunder off in the distance, but quiet enough to be almost soothing after the horrendous storm that tore through here about 11 o'clock, just as I emerged from the subway on my way home. I'd chosen the stop before my house, even though it's further away, because I thought the few blocks' walk would be pleasant and relaxing. A few minutes earlier, I'd lingered on the edge of Union Square, watching the lightning streaking across the tops of the skyscrapers and thought to myself, "Wow, that's moving in really fast." But the weather forecast had said the storms wouldn't arrive till about midnight, so I thought I'd be all right.

Not so. My umbrella, the $2 one I got during the last bout of stormy weather, turned inside out within seconds, and huddling under an awning wasn't doing any good, either, because the wind was driving the rain in six directions all at once. Once I got around the corner onto my street, the trees and the buildings cut out the worst of the wind, so I was able to re-deploy the umbrella, which kept me dry from about the chest up. But as I hurried home, I could see the bolts of lightning marching up Metropolitan Avenue from Manhattan - i.e., in my direction - at a considerably swifter pace than I was managing. What are the odd, I kept telling myself, out of eight million people, a couple hundred thousand buildings, and God knows how many trees, that I should be the protuberance to draw down a bolt from the blue black night? I was comforted by this line of reasoning, but not much.

I think it was one of the fiercest storms I've ever witnessed, and definitely one of the fiercest I've ever been caught out in. It had an almost camp-like quality, like one of those Hollywood films about a hurricane where a bunch of coked-out queens are in charge of the special effects and they go completely over the top with them. And it passed almost as quickly as it had come, giving up the ghost with a petulant whimper almost the moment I finally got my key into the front door lock. It took me a while to get out of my wet clothes and unpack my groceries; it's been one of those days where the humidity has been about 127% and everything sticks to everything else and you pray no one will sit near you, even on the air-conditioned subway because you can practically see the heat and moisture radiating out from their bodies and the last thing you need is any of it spilling over onto you.

I'd been uptown to see Dr. Frank read and sing songs from King Dork at Coliseum Books on 42nd Street. Very good turnout, even though half the Pop Punk Clique had deserted the cause at the last minute in favor of a punk house show in the outer boroughs (okay, Brooklyn, but a far-flung part of Brooklyn) and an earlier thunderstorm had descended on the city just before Frank was due to go on. Saw some faces I hadn't seen in a while, like Ira Robbins, and some I hadn't seen in forever, like Skip from the Wynona Riders. Several of us, including Jersey Beat's Jim Testa, had planned to head out to Brooklyn after Frank finished his reading at about 8 pm, but a phone call from the front informed us that none of the four bands had even started playing yet, which meant we'd probably be straggling back at 12 or 1 in the morning. Not an hour, Ira commented, that you'd want to be out in that particular neighborhood unless you were looking for the sorts of adventures that I wasn't.

Still, I was a bit sad, because the headliner was This Is My Fist, from the East Bay, and guitarist Todd was a longtime friend and fan of the Potatomen, dating back to our first shows in Corvallis, Oregon in around 1994. But I just didn't have the energy or the fortitude for the long trip, especially after Jim Testa bailed and headed back to Jersey. So I ate dinner, did my shopping, and came home.

And there I was, putzing around as usual, this time catching up on all the Seinfeld and Will and Grace episodes that I missed by living outside the USA and without cable for so many years, and still fully expecting to be in bed by 12:30. Well, 1 o'clock, max, which was when the phone rang.

I don't get many calls apart from telemarketers, and even they don't usually call at 1 a.m. It was Rachel, calling from London. Rachel is, shall we say, a colorful character, but also quite a wonderful one, a transexual who spent most of her working life "on the game," as they say in Britain, and who has spent most of her retirement years helping look after people, despite the fact that she herself has been battling lung cancer for most of that time and has defied every doctor's prediction by continuing to be alive years after they started measuring up her coffin.

One of the people she helped most has been Olivia, my adopted auntie (she's actually my sister's ex-mother-in-law and grandmother to my niece and nephew). Olivia, who was 88 this past year, has been living with me in London ever since I bought my apartment there from her, and before that, I lived with her whenever I visited London. She originally came to Notting Hill around 1964 and fit right in with the hippies, kooks and Rastafarians who were beginning to take over the place. Prior to that she'd also been a communist, an anarchist, a hell-raiser, and the centerpiece of a scandalous court martial involving her adulterous affair with an American officer at the height of World War II.

Along the way she managed to produce two sons by two different fathers and hand both of them over to different women to raise, though she brought one, the father of my niece and nephew, back to live with her when he was 10 or 11, and run through a few other relationships before announcing at age 50 that she'd given up on men. From then on, her social life centered around a retinue of gay boys and drag queens some 25 or 30 years younger than herself, of whom Rachel was perhaps the most vociferous and certainly the most volatile.

Many of them are dead now, and most of the others have scattered into exile or obscurity, but Rachel stuck close to Olivia, often making four hour return journeys across London to run the simplest of errands for her, even when I'd tell her she didn't need to, that it would be no trouble to handle it myself. When I was away from London, which has been a lot of the time lately, I knew Rachel would be there to keep an eye on things, so when I heard her voice on the phone instead of Olivia's, I kind of knew right away that something was up, and this was even before I'd managed to calculate that on her end of the phone it was 6 o'clock in the morning.

Rachel is Scottish, and has never been one for beating around the bush. "Olivia died last night at 6 p.m.," she matter-of-factly informed me, and though she kept her voice firmly modulated, hardly wavering from her purpose of providing me with all the relevant data, I could tell it was all she could do not to start sobbing. For at least the past 10 or 20 years, Olivia had been her closest and dearest friend, and there's no one who will come close to replacing her.

As for me, well, it's hard even to begin to describe what kind of relationship I had with Olive over the years. We fought a lot, argued anyway; one of her favorite entertainments was to sink half a liter or so of gin and spend the night screaming abuse at anyone - but especially family members or loved ones - who dared contradict her, only to patch it all up with hugs and sentimental declarations of affection as a bleary dawn crept over the tops of the nearby council houses. After I stopped drinking, this form of amusement lost much of its appeal for me, much to her disgust. She couldn't comprehend why anyone would not want to drink, and frequently shared that opinion. She herself was a legendary gin drinker, but possessed with a degree of self-control I've seen in very few drinkers. Though she loved getting drunk, and frequently did during her younger (read: up to about age 75) days, on a ordinary evening with no company in, she'd religiously measure out her daily ration of two large gins and drink no more (nor less). The only time in 30 years I saw her go more than one day without a drink was when we were snowed in for a couple weeks up in Northern California. She claimed it didn't faze her, and I believed it. Anyone else who drank as much as she did, I would strongly suspect of being alcoholic, but I never really thought she was. She had an iron constitution, but, more vital than that, an iron will.

During the past few years we rubbed along rather easily, she upstairs and me down, sometimes barely seeing each other for a couple days at a time. I helped her with her shopping, changing light bulbs, picking up prescriptions from the chemist, but most of the time she was remarkably self-sufficient, still going out on her own several days a week, and occasionally stumbling home from a night on the tiles long after I'd gone to bed. Her friend Brenda, a retired schoolteacher and one of Notting Hill's original hippies, would come over with a couple bottles of wine and a bag of cannabis, and the two of them would sit upstairs getting drunk, stoned and playing Scrabble most of the night, usually erupting into a screaming match at about 3 a.m. over whether such-and-such counted as a word or not. I didn't appreciate the reek of dope that crept through the house - Brenda, being a bit of a cheapskate, always bought the lowest-grade rubbish from the old Jamaican shysters she'd known since she was a girl - but it was a fairly minor annoyance. I suppose when I go back to an empty apartment, I might even miss it a bit, just as it will be a long time before I stop expecting Olivia to stick her head over the top of the stairwell calling, "Larry, are you there?" to summon me to deal with the latest domestic crisis.

"Ah, but she'll be haunting that house for a long time," Rachel assured me, and I don't doubt it. As for me, it looks as though instead of going to California next week as planned, I'll be making an unexpected trip back to London in the next couple days. The funeral, according to Olivia's oft-stated wishes, is supposed to go as follows: we find the cheapest place possible to have her cremated, then gather together all her friends and family into a van or bus and transport her ashes to the cemetery in the tiny Bedfordshire village where she spent most of her childhood. There we are instructed to scatter the ashes across the graves of the granny and grandad who raised her, and with the money we've saved by avoiding conventional funeral rites, take everybody over the road to the village pub and drink the place dry.

As perhaps the only non-drinker in that crowd, I'll probably be driving the bus, and I won't be surprised if I end up wearing a funny conductor's hat, or spending half the day trying to corral people back on board or retrieving drunks who insist on trying to fall out of the windows. I expect there will be both tears and laughter, but probably a lot more laughter, which is exactly the way Olivia wanted it. I expect it may also knock my plans for a tranquil summer into the proverbial cocked hat, but tranquility having always been the bane of Olivia's existence, I suspect that will be just the way she wanted it as well. And before I think of complaining about any disruptions to my life, let me spare a thought for her: although this last party will revolve around her, just as every party she ever attended did, for the first time ever she won't be able to say a word about it. Rest in peace, old girl.

12 July 2006

Welcome To The Jungle

Dr. Frank phoned today and invited me to come over to the dark (aka hipster) side of Williamsburg to join him for lunch. I told him I was only two stops away on the subway, but that if he wasn't in a hurry, I might walk, since it would only take 15 or 20 minutes.

"Man, I wouldn't even want to walk two minutes in this..." His voice trailed off, as though even his stupendous vocabulary and range of expression were not adequate to describe the awful heat and humidity of a typical midsummer's day in New York City.

"What, this? It's not even that hot today," I told him. "Probably only about 85, maybe 87. I love it. If it were like this all year round, I don't think I'd ever want to leave New York."

As it turned out, at least according to a time-and-temperature sign suspended above Bedford Avenue, it was 94 (that's 34.5 for you non-Americans), which was a little warmer than it's been most days so far this summer, but nothing all that staggering, especially after the 113F/45C I enjoyed in Sydney on New Year's Day. Tonight they were predicting thunderstorms, but none turned up, so instead we had one of those steamy, sultry nights that are a New York summertime specialty.

If it were a weekend and a full moon, there probably would have been blood flowing in the gutters and packs of feral bridge and tunnel people stalking the streets, but being a lethargic Tuesday, the relatively few people out and about glided indolently along, half walking, half swimming through the fetid, swamplike night. I got a frozen custard and it was running down the sides of the cone before I could take the first bite. I ambled down Avenue A, sipping ginger ale through a straw to make it last, but it was gone before the first traffic light turned green. Down to Houston, back up to 14th Street, weaving interstices across the East Village by way of 4th Street and 7th Street and 13th. It was one of those nights where you just don't want to go home, even if you're lucky enough to have an air conditioner, because outdoors it's just so sensuous and rich, even if you're sweating like a pig and smell like one too.

Walking up 13th Street always reminds me of a misadventure I had there in the spring of 1968. My friends from E. 11 Street dragged me up to a fifth-floor apartment there to see their buddy Charles, who was a wild-eyed nickel-and-dime dope dealer and the token angry Negro for our particular East Village hippie pack. It seemed like every group of white hippies had one: an Afro-sporting, Malcolm X-quoting, bluff-spoken black man who got a free pass on everything he said or did because, well, you didn't want to add to the horrible burden of oppression he'd already suffered, did you?

Charles was always going on about one big deal or another, which made me wonder why he was constantly on the verge of getting evicted from his $40-a-month walkup, and on this particular day, he was banging on about the caseloads of machine guns he was supplying to the Black Panthers. My friends were like, that's really far out, Charles, but I wasn't buying it. Rather than call him an outright liar, though, I started spinning an even more preposterous tale about how I and my buddies back in Michigan were flying heavy weaponry into the Guatemalan rebels. I was 20 years old, looked about 14, hadn't had more than 50 cents to my name in recent months, was in imminent danger of being homeless, and New York was the farthest I'd ever traveled in my life from Detroit, but I insisted I'd made thre trips already that year to the Central American jungle.

At first Charles ignored me and went on bigging up his own Black Panther stories, but I matched him lie for lie until he couldn't take it any more. "I want this racist motherfucker out of my apartment right NOW," he bellowed at my friends. "I ain't gonna be responsible for what happens to him if you don't get him out of my sight."

Now it was my turn to be hurt. Call me a liar, fine, I knew perfectly well that I was one. But racist? Just because I'd questioned, however obliquely, what was obviously a bullshit story on his part? I turned to my friends and pleaded, "You didn't hear me say anything racist, did you? I would never say anything racist. I have total respect for Charles, even if I don't always agree with every single thing he says."

But I was about to learn a vital lesson in scene politics. To a man my friends said, "Sorry, man, if Charles says he wants you out of here, we gotta back him up." My ire with Charles had vanished; now I was on the brink of tears that I was about to be banished from the inner sanctum. But the inner sanctum of what? I didn't even like Charles, and as far as I could tell, my friends didn't care that much about him either. Even though they were only entry-level junkies, they'd already discovered much better connections uptown in Harlem, so they didn't need Charles for dope, and frankly, he didn't have much else to offer, except of course, a reliably steady line of bullshit.

Eventually it sunk in: what Charles offered them and I couldn't was credibility. If they fell from Charles' graces, they'd be the laughingstock among their fellow junkies, at least until they found another complaisant Negro to sanctify their endeavors at coolness. And, as lame as I considered Charles to be, I felt more or less the same way. Without at least one black friend - acquaintance, anyway - I couldn't walk the streets of the Lower East Side with the same swagger and élan.

As it turned out, it didn't matter. Within a month I had left New York for California, where I lived in the ghetto next door to a whole apartment building of angry young black men willing to validate my existence in exchange for the occasional joint or hit of LSD. Within a year all three of my friends from E. 11 Street were dead from heroin, and I heard Charles was too, though stories varied as to whether he'd been shot or OD'd. Occasionally I'd see genuine Black Panthers strutting around Oakland or Berkeley and was tempted to ask them if they'd really been getting machine guns from this Charles dude on E. 13th Street in New York City, but always thought better of it. From what I saw of the Panthers, they had if anything even less of a sense of humor than Charles, so I confined myself to buying copies of the Black Panther Party newspaper and saying "Right on, brother, keep the change."

09 July 2006

The Other Williamsburg

Considering my oft-expressed disdain for hipster, people who knew me laughed or even engaged in a bit of stealthy schadenfreude when they heard I was moving to Williamsburg. But what they weren't aware of, or, if they were, failed to consider, is that there is more than one Williamsburg.

These days the most well-known - and notorious - Williamsburg consists of the strip along Bedford Avenue north of Grand Street, along with the side streets leading off a couple blocks in either direction. That district is turning into a regular rabbit warren of restaurants, bars, clothing shops and related enterprises catering primarily to post-college 20-somethings. I imagine teenagers might find some of it interesting, too, even if they're legally barred from entering half the premises, but it can be a bit grim for people of almost any other age.

I suspect even the target demographic finds it a bit grim at times, or they wouldn't find it necessary to be so ostentatiously bored and/or intoxicated to cope with "the scene" and/or each other. But in attempting to analyze the social patterns of a generation as remote to me as the World War II generation is to them, I'd probably be overstepping my remit. Let's just say I don't find Bedford Avenue and environs all that enjoyable or exciting.

Because of that - and my inbuilt inertia - I could count the times I've been over to Hipsterville this summer without using up the of one hand, even though it's at most a 15 minute walk or a three minute subway ride. Nonetheless, I made the effort last night, first to meet up with Chris A for dinner, where we talked about Yellow Cardigan, the new magazine he's launching later this year (I know, sounds kind of twee-indie, doesn't it, but trust me, Chris A is very smart and I'd be surprised if this doesn't turn out to be one of the more vital literary outings in the coming months) and other cultural and sub-cultural matters. Then it was over to North Six to see a truncated version of the Steinways (guitarist Ace was MIA, so his place was unaccountably taken by Grivet, who's normally the drummer, who was in turn replaced on the drums by Mikey Erg). It started out shaky, not helped by the DIY PA system that kept cutting out in one channel, or the fact that without Ace there were few of the trademark backing harmonies that make the Steinways such a joy to listen to.

But within a few songs the ineluctable Steinways magic somehow kicked in, and Astoria's Finest showed Brooklyn just how it's done. They were followed up almost immediately by the Unlovables, with Mikey Erg on drums again (I was going to draw up a spread sheet illustrating the bands and permutations thereof that Mikey is or has been a part of, but my computer overheated and broke). At least one Unlovable is local to Williamsburg, but I'll keep it on the DL which one that might be, and anyway, the Unlovables don't sound at all like a Brooklyn band. If there even is such a thing as a Manhattan sound these days, they've got it, and they also had some new songs, which sounded great. The PA was cutting out even more during their set than for the Steinways, but Hallie solved that by singing louder. Best I've seeen them lately.

Then things took a turn for the worse. Not that the following bands were especially bad; in fact they were pretty decent. But they seemed oblivious to the logistics of putting on a DIY show in a tiny basement that's not even the size of my apartment. In the first place, they each had their own elaborate drum and amp setups, which had to be switched between each set and in the meantime occupied more floor space than the people watching the show. If they'd simply shared equipment, as the Steinways and Unlovables did, they could have saved an immense amount of time and aggro. Secondly, they cranked up the instrument volume to a level more appropriate to a mid-sized auditorium, which meant that the vocals could barely be heard, and was virtually guaranteed to induce ear damage in anyone not wearing protection.

I made it through one band, Banner Pilot, on tour from Minneapolis, and part of another, whose name I didn't catch (I don't think they ever said), but at that point had to get out. It was already getting on toward midnight and there were two or three more bands to go. I meandered back home to another, very different Williamsburg, completely awash in Italian flags and bunting and, just up the block, a home adorned not only with the usual Forza Azurri banners, but with a lifesize papier mache pope or bishop hanging from the upstairs window, arms outstretched in a blessing and clutching an Italian flag in one hand and an American one in the other.

This morning there were not one, but two marching bands parading up my block, both of which congregated in front of the Pope house. Aaron Cometbus asked me which Pope it was, and I had to admit that it didn't look like either of the two recent ones, neither of whom was Italian anyway. I started to wonder if it's not meant to be the fourth century bishop whose emancipation from slavery is celebrated by the Feast of the Giglio, a local celebration in which a hundred or so men hoist a seven-story tower topped by a statue of the Virgin and dance through the streets with it to the music of a band who riding on the tower and, quite literally, on the shoulders of the dancing Giglio Boys.

The fact that the Feast of the Giglio this year coincides with Italy's accession to the World Cup Final has driven the neighborhood completely mental. As kickoff approaches (seven minutes and counting), long black cars have blocked off the intersections so that nobody can drive through, and hundreds, maybe thousands of people are gathered on what is normally a quiet residential street to watch one of the many TV screens that have been set up atop trucks and cars, and loudspeakers are broadcasting (in Italian of course) the event at a volume that no number of closed doors and windows could shut out. The Italian national anthem just played to a rapturous reception, and now it's time for me to get out of here and watch the game myself. Don't tell my neighbors, but I was kind of hoping France will win. But in the face of the overwhelming sentiment spilling out of nearly every house up and down the block, I just may have to have a change of heart.

08 July 2006

A Testimonial

A well-connected friend lent me a copy of the long-awaited (by me, anyway) MC5: A True Testimonial, a documentary on what might arguably be called the world's first real punk rock band. I say "arguably" not because I want to argue about it, though once upon a time I might have. But categories and classifications aside, it's hard to deny that the MC5 have wielded an influence wildly out of proportion to their relatively brief career and lack of commercial success.

I was hoping to see old friends - or maybe even myself - in the crowd and background shots, but apart from the usual suspects like John Sinclair and Pun Plamondon - oh, and a quick shot of Gary Grimshaw - I didn't see many people I knew; either that, or the mists of time have befogged my ability to connect those teenaged and twenty-something longhairs from the late 60s to anything resembling real people today. But that was a minor disappointment, and just about my only disappointment in an otherwise excellent film.

I have no idea if it will be of similar interest to people with no direct connection to Detroit or Ann Arbor, though I imagine almost any punk rock fan would be intrigued to see the connections resonating down through the years, and students or devotées of 60s politics should be fascinated and/or appalled to see how intense - and at the same time, how ridiculous - the "revolutionary" movement could get. John Sinclair, caught in a rare moment of unembellished candor, admits that the White Panther Party's 10 point program was about as far from a serious political statement as it was possible to get, dreamed up as it was by "a bunch of guys sitting around a table high on pot, acid and beer." And other, harder drugs as well; my favorite and most revealing John Sinclair memory (forgive me if I've posted about this before; I can't remember if I did) stems from the time when I asked him how he could go around giving lectures to high school students on the dangers of "honky death drugs" like cocaine when he and other members of the "Central Committee" often used cocaine themselves.

His answer was a classic, proving that the man probably could have had a career in conventional politics or big business if he'd only been willing to cut his hair and tone down the rhetoric a bit: "My public policy is perfectly correct. It's just a matter of bringing my private practice into line with my public policy."

Sinclair is all over the midsection of this film, and even comes off as a little poignant when he talks about how the band sacked him as manager after he expressed disapproval over the "new direction" he felt they were taking, as typified by Fred Smith wearing a spaceman costume on stage and touches of glam rock beginning to creep into the act. The swagger with which Sinclair conducted himself in those days - more than a smidgen of which he retains to the present - both obscures and emphasizes his origins as the quintessential Detroit hustler, loud, brash, unburdened by normal conventions of civility, so transparently on the make that it's almost endearing. Danny Fields, the Elektra A&R man who originally signed the MC5, talks about Sinclair's black leather coat and his "yo ho ho" swagger, and while I'd never thought of John as the pirate type before, it fits.

Fields also provides the film's camp highlight when he describes himself as "coming from the most effete crowd in the most effete city, poised to be slammed by blood, lust, sweat, cum, and vigor. I expected them to be drinking out of horns...and using deer feet to spoon up the food. They were so, so butch. I never saw anything like it!"

For me personally some of the most exciting stuff was the MC5's very early years, before they got caught up in Sinclair's revolution. I knew they'd grown up pretty close to my neighborhood, but I wasn't aware just how close until I saw footage of some of their boyhood homes and of Lincoln Park High School, located just down the road from the much joked about intersection of Champaign and Dix ("Did you hear about the whore who lived on..."). I never met any of them during those days, though I did see them play a battle of the bands during the summer of '65, which they lost to my neighborhood's favorites, the Satellites. At the time they were thought of as a mod band, with matching English-influenced outfits and playing something described as "avant-rock." Being rather unsophisticated in the ways of the world, let alone French pronunciation, we pronounced it "Avon-rock," no doubt leading many to ponder what this kind of music had to do with either Shakespeare or makeup products.

By the time the 5 got involved with Trans-Love Energies - later the White Panthers - and moved to Ann Arbor, my own life had gotten so chaotic that I saw them play a lot less often than I might have if I hadn't had spent so much time hiding out from the police, estranged lovers, and myself, but I still saw enough of them to know that there was something awfully intense going on here. At the same time, there's an attitude that I think is common in Detroit, a collective lack of self-esteem that's so defensive that it often appears offensive - that makes it difficult for local people to respect local heroes, at least until they've been given the stamp of approval from allegedly more sophisticated places like New York or California.

Since the MC5 never achieved the full-on commercial success of Detroit's other homegrown sound, Motown, many of us tended to remain a bit dubious. Oh, we liked them all right, were quietly proud when they got written up in national publications, and loudly proud when they got slagged off in same, but we also put them down, joked among ourselves with the implication that ultimately they were just a bunch of goofballs from Detroit like us, and that when you were dealing with Detroit goofballs, you could never expect it to come to much in the long run.

How wrong we were; while the 5's moment in the sun was short-lived and abortive, and their drug-assisted demise almost bathetic, their legacy has lived on and grown stronger through the years. I don't know this for a fact, but I'd bet they've sold more records in the past decade than they ever did during their years as an active band. I regularly see kids wearing their shirts who couldn't possibly have been born when the MC5 broke up, and I've long ago lost track of how many contemporary bands I've seen who'd devoted themselves to copying that rough-and-tumble Detroit sound (and no, I'm not thinking of the White Stripes, whose contrived gimmickry has about as much in common with genuine Detroit rock and roll as Velveeta does with Camembert).

Wayne Kramer, who acts as narrator and tour guide through large parts of the film makes the obvious but still pertinent point about how the music echoed the sounds of the heavy machinery in the steel and auto plants that overshadowed our upbringing and threatened to devour our dreams. "You'll end up working on the line," was the all-purpose parental warning to kids who refused to study or behave, and a quick shot of what looked like Zug Island reminded me of what it was like when that warning came true.

Kramer was articulate, funny and insightful, and came off far better than the other members of the band. Two of them, of course, died at a young age, while the others who survived, drummer Dennis Thompson and bassist Michael Davis, seem to be carrying a little more drug damage. I'm only guessing in Thompson's case; he's actually uproariously funny when he goes on one of his rants or wishes one of his omnipresent guns were loaded so he could shoot the interviewer, and may just be acting like a conventional good old Detroit boy. But I've actually done drugs with Davis, the only one of the 5 I ever knew personally, though this was years later, in the Destroy All Monsters era, and what's scary is that at the time he seemed like the most rational and clear-headed guy in that scene, which included former Stooges guitarist Ron Asheton and his then-girlfriend, singer and performance artist Niagara. What, I ask myself, must I have been like at the time if that was my idea of normal?

Or perhaps Davis has spent too much time in the sun since moving out to Arizona, where he does most of his interview, alternately hunched over a campfire or poking around some cactus while raving like Dennis Hopper might had Peter Fonda left him wandering around the desert for the past 40 years. Not that he isn't interesting, just a little... out there.

But then who from that scene isn't or wasn't kind of out there? It never would have happened otherwise. What's mind-boggling, I guess, is how many people, myself included, were fully prepared to take such craziness seriously, and actually thought that we presented a credible and rational alternative to society as it was then constructed. "Total assault on the culture by any means necessary" were John Sinclair's words for it, and it was pretty intoxicating stuff for a while. Till the drugs wore off and the prison sentences set in, anyway.

Anyway, I'd tell you to rush out and see this thing right away, but unfortunately you can't; finished and ready for release a year or two, it's been stuck in legal limbo ever since as a result of some dispute over musical rights. It would be a shame if it never gets seen as a result, but somehow it wouldn't surprise me. It would just be an oh-so-Detroit kind of finale for the ultimate Detroit band.

04 July 2006

Rednecks, White Trash and...

...Blue Ribbon beer? It's the white people's equivalent of the aforementioned Red Stripe, originally popular with the lower socio-economic spectrum, then somehow transformed by subcultural fashion trends or brilliant viral marketing into something hip or with-it while still tasting and acting like the same old crap.

I drank a fair bit of it myself in the mid-60s, especially after a price war made it cheaper than Detroit's locally-brewed Stroh's Beer, but while I liked the red, white and blue can design, I was no great fan of the contents. Nonetheless, it did the desired trick, and once I went to work at Ypsilanti's Motor Wheel factory and moved into a boarding house with a dozen refugees from Kentucky, Tennessee and Alabama, Pabst was pretty much the only beer I saw. I used to think it was around the time of the hit country song "Rednecks, White Socks and Blue Ribbon Beer", but I was wrong; it didn't come out until the 1970s. Nonetheless the sentiment was definitely there in 1966. My father had been ragging on me ever since 8th grade about my fondness for white socks; now I lived with a whole houseful of white-socks-wearers.

According to Dad, white socks were the surest sign someone was a hillbilly, though I only wore them because my gang had decided they looked cool with the skin-tight black slacks and winklepickers we favored. Since it was the custom to wear our pants so that they finished about three to four inches above our shoetops, the socks became almost a focal point of our getups, and the more dad fulminated, the more, of course, I became devoted to them.

Working midnights at the plant and drinking Pabst by day (we never called it PBR; I suspect that's a modern-day hipster affectation), I was soon living up to all of Dad's worst hillbilly nightmares. Luckily he wasn't there to witness the night I passed out midway through my second sixpack and set the sofa on fire with my cigarette. That might have been when I realize I was becoming that other thing I'd been warned against back in my salad days: white trash.

I'd heard the expression often as a boy, but never understood exactly what it meant. Well, I did, sort of: it referred to Those People who lived on the other side of the tracks or the highway, who had cars up on blocks in their driveway (respectable people, like us, left the wheels on their junk cars), who lived in wood-frame houses instead of brick ones, or maybe even in trailers, and, of course, spoke with a Southern accent.

It never occurred to me back then just what a racist term "white trash" was. Not so much against the white people it was meant to slander, but against people of any other color. The implication was that other races - blacks being obviously the main target - could naturally be expected to act like trash, whereas it was some kind anomaly for white people to behave that way. That's probably also the reason there's never been a comparable epithet - at least not one usable in polite company - aimed at that portion of black people who acted in a trashy or antisocial manner.

I've also always had a problem with the term "redneck." It's generally used by snobby Northern liberals as shorthand for "ignorant, racist, hick" but it's nearly as abusive a term as "nigger" (and, not surprisingly, just as many blacks have, the people most commonly derided as "rednecks" routinely use the word to describe themselves. But just as whites are best off avoiding use of the N-word even if "some of their best friends are.. etc. etc.," they might also be advised to skip the R-word if they don't consider themselves to be one.

I was reminded of that when "American Idiot" came up on the iPod (that's one crafty little machine; it's been doing - unbidden - a 4th of July theme all day). Catchy tune, but the lyrics provide one of the few weak spots on the otherwise sterling album. "I'm not a part of the redneck agenda," sing Green Day, betraying a fundamental misunderstanding of the concept. The whole point of rednecks (if you'll allow me to break my own rule about using the term) is that they're in no position to have agendas (except perhaps those involving white socks and Blue Ribbon beer). They're marginalized and disrespected, very nearly to the same extent that members of the black underclass are.

Growing up where he did, Billie Joe should know better. There were plenty of Southern or Southern-oriented blue-collar types in his town, and I'll bet if he thinks back, few if any of them were plotting imperial wars or national schemes of oppression. Most likely they were trying to bring home a paycheck and keep their families fed. George Bush talking with an exaggerated hillbilly accent because he figures it might get him more votes does not make him a redneck, and the right-wing Republican agenda Billie's railing against is about as friendly to poor Southern whites as it is to poor people of any color anywhere in the world, i.e, not at all.

Red Stripe Beer

What about it? Terrible, headache-inducing beer from Jamaica which has become popular in the UK for some years among West Indians, those who admire or want to be like West Indians, and cheapskates.

They also have a commercial on the World Cup telecasts which shows a suave (by Jamaican standards, anyway) besuited black gentlemen gently grooving, while a lummox-like white frat boy flails about in arrythmic fashion. "Red Stripe Beer," goes the tag line, "helping our white friends dance for over 75 years."

Is it funny? Reasonably so. Is it racist? Hell, yes, very much so. If you doubt that, imagine the reaction to a Domino's ad that went: "Our pizza does for our black friends what the black man can't: feeds a family!"

Okay, maybe being accused of being lousy dancers isn't nearly as serious as being charged being derelict fathers, but both jokes are based on common stereotypes, and like all stereotypes, they contain at least an element of truth. Black people are on average better dancers than white people, and less likely to support their families. But the trouble with stereotypes is that they also unfairly brand vast numbers of innocent people, and have a way of perpetuating themselves. A stereotype about black people being lazy or poor workers makes it more likely that they won't get hired in the first place and given an opportunity to dispel that prejudice.

Similarly, white kids being led to believe that there's something dorky or embarrassing or shameful about being white can lead to the wigger phenomenon: emulating, in a desperate bid to be cool, the lowest common denominator of what is being sold to us as "black culture." That being said, I don't really have a problem with the Red Stripe commercial (except, as mentioned, that the beer itself is severely subpar) or with ethnic jokes in general. As long, that is, as it's clear that they are just that, jokes, and that they're allowed to fly freely in both directions.

Hitchhiking From Saginaw

The first song to pop up on my iPod this morning was, fittingly enough on this Independence Day, Simon and Garfunkel's "America." Two lines from it always get a rise out of me: "Michigan seems like a dream to me now," and "It took me four days to hitchhike from Saginaw."

Michigan has seemed like a dream to me for most of my life, except for the first 20 years, when it was more of a nightmare. I spent most of my childhood and adolescence concocting schemes about how best to get away; when I was no more than six or eight, I was begging my dad to move across the river to Ontario, where my mother was born. My motivations were simple ones at the time: they had legal fireworks over there, and candy stores were called "confectioneries," which struck me as no end of cool. But Windsor also had an air of tranquility - some might even have called it somnolence - that contrasted vividly with the gruff, brawling, hard-nosed and dirty goings-on on the Detroit side.

As a teenager I made bold plans to study at the University of Windsor - bold in light of the fact that as a foreigner I'd have to pay four or five times what a Michigan uni would cost, and my parents couldn't afford even that. The present system of student loans hadn't yet been invented, and if I was going to college at all, I was going to have to win some sort of scholarship. Having occasionally showed signs of being a very good student, I should have been able to manage that, but by 10th grade I'd decided that drinking and hanging out with the gang was far more important than studying for an unpromising future, and I was lucky to win even a partial scholarship. For that matter, I was lucky to graduate; 12th grade was a pretty much nonstop bout of drunkenness and petty crime of which I have only hazy memories. It was only the fact that some brief interludes of lucidity earlier on had allowed me to rack up some high grades that couldn't be completely canceled out by that largely lost year.

By 1969, when I first heard Simon and Garfunkel's "America," I'd been kicked out of college three times, once for trying to burn the place down, and I'd pretty much given up on education as a bad mistake. I had finally gotten out of Michigan, but even that had required the intervention of the Ann Arbor police and the FBI; a potential prison sentence of 20 to life proved a powerful motivator to head out and see the USA. A combination of hitchhiking, freight train hopping, Greyhound buses and the hippie underground railroad ferried me between Ohio, New York and California until the fuss died down and it was relatively safe to come back.

Now I was on probation, which bore with it two onerous conditions: I had to have a job, and I wasn't allowed to leave the state of Michigan. In the meantime, and here's where the other line of the song comes in: I'd gotten involved with someone from Saginaw, and was spending way too much time hitching up and down US-23 and I-75. It didn't really take me four days - it was less than a hundred miles - but it often seemed like it. Hitchhiking was easier in those days, but still challenging for a freakish-looking person like myself. I was on the cusp of my transition from long, greasy-haired thug-rocker to long, clean-haired glam-rocker, and neither look was particularly appealing to Mr. and Mrs. America.

And what of Saginaw? If Flint, as some have opined, is a half-assed version of Detroit, Saginaw is its quarter-assed counterpart. Dirty, ugly, industrial - well, it may not be anymore, but it certainly was in those days - but also isolated and provincial. Its main claims to fame as I recall are being the home town of ? and the Mysterians and being the Minneapolis to Bay City's St. Paul, the neighboring town which gave birth to Madonna (you probably don't need a link to find out about her). Apologies to any other famous Saginaw or Bay City-ites I've overlooked.

My most resilient memory of those days is of strolling through town in full-on glam regalia during my Alice Cooper phase. This would have been a year or two later, probably the spring of 1971. Tiny black velvet jacket, gold lamé trousers, patent leather boots, 14 colors of eye makeup, everything necessary to frighten the horses had there still been any plying the streets of Saginaw. As I walked past a junior high school, the entire student body seemed to come flocking to the windows as one, shouting "Alice!" at me as their teachers vainly tried to corral them back into their seats. At the time I felt like almost as big a rock star as the real Alice Cooper, who was all over the Detroit charts with the single "I'm Eighteen," but after more sober reflection in recent years, it occurs to me that the kids were merely reacting the way junior high school kids do to any freak of nature: with merciless ridicule.

And when I started this post, it was more with the intention of musing on the wide-open spaces of America that have always lured adventurers and crazies, not to reminisce about a smallish city in Michigan's midsection, but I guess you have to let this writing lark take you where it wants to fly. I still have a soft spot in my heart - some would say my head - for Michigan, and appreciate it in a way I never was able to when I actually lived there. In my darker imaginings, I wonder if I'll end up back there again someday, though both common sense and all my instincts strain against the very notion. But as I - or S&G, actually - say, it seems like a dream to me now, much like the one I woke up from this morning, in which an ambitious neighbor had bulldozed a Tahoe-sized lake into the hillside of my old Spy Rock home. "If only I'd stuck around a little bit longer," I mused, before the neighborhood children blasted me into full-fledged wakefulness with a barrage of firecrackers outside my window. Happy Birthday, America, wherever you are!

02 July 2006

An Orgy Of Grief

I've heaped a fair bit of vituperation on Sven Goran Eriksson in my World Cup commentary, but this fellow from the Daily Mail has put me in the shade as he kicks off the orgy of grief and recrimination that is England's favorite part of every football tournament. Or at least the one part that it truly excels at. Railing against "the cancerous weakness of English football," he goes on to maintain that the national team's ignominious exit also reveals "the inherent malfunctions of English society itself."

The denunciations, blame-heaping and I-told-you-so's will go on for days if not weeks, and almost makes me wish I were back in London listening to the presenters and callers on Five Live shouting, sneering, snarling and snarking over the latest national failure. But here in the USA I can rely on the likes of Kendra, who informs us that if you Google "England are shit," her blog comes up in the top ten results.

But I'm in America now, so no more misery-wallowing for me; my sole remaining resentment is that yesterday's extra time and penalties meant I was late in leaving the house, and that combined with a missing 7 train (as in London, the powers-that-be assume that people who want to go places on weekends are a bit suspect and needn't be catered to) resulted in my missing both the Steinways and the Leftovers at Oliver's Punk Rock Barbecue up Astoria way.

Knowing I was already late beyond all reason, I stopped on Astoria Boulevard where a dozen Brazil supporters had hauled a TV out onto the sidewalk and saw the last ten minutes of Brazil's ejection from the Cup. America as a whole may not yet have gone football-crazy, but a mini-traffic jam ensued as drivers craned their necks and called over to find out how things were going, and a French-accented taxi driver tooted his horn and shouted "Brasil bye-bye!"

At least I got there in time for what was to be - sadly - the last Slaughterhouse Four show, featuring the inimitable Chadd Derkins and his equally inimitable sparring partner, Chris Grivet. Why do bands always reach their peak just as they're breaking up? Lefty Loosey, three girls and a guy who'd also played the previous night at the Bent Outta Shape show, brought the Brooklyn sound to Queens, and the name just about describes them: kind of lefty and kind of loosey, and that's just about where Brooklyn differs from Queens, I reckon. More on this subject later, as I look to stir up a scene rivalry between the boroughs, but for today we're all united, and LL (love those initials, too) went over well, especially with Michelle Shirelle, Stephanie and Carla, who were right up front rocking away. Edit: I've just been told Lefty Loosey are not from Brooklyn at all, but from Wisconsin. I don't care, they look and sound like Brooklyn, and Brooklyn is where I first saw them. But while it's always tempting not to let the facts get in the way of a good story, I don't want to incur the wrath of the Cheeseheads who may want to claim LL for their own.

What else? Oh yes, there was an impromptu Dirt Bike Annie reunion, which left everyone wondering why they ever bothered breaking up in the first place, as they were as great as ever, and an enthralling performance from MC Chris, who I'm fairly sure is the first successful rapper to introduce elements of pop punk into the mix. MC's apparently becoming a pretty big deal out there in the larger world, and I can see why; trying to keep up with his barrage of words and images had my head spinning. The guy definitely has star quality; the way he worked the "crowd" of maybe 50 people reminded me of the first time I saw Billie Joe Armstrong play: even though his audience consisted of five high school kids who'd never heard of, let alone seen his band, Billie, then all of 16, worked the room like a consummate pro. I may not be the biggest rap fan around, to coin a glaring understatement, but talent like Chris's is easy to spot even for a novice like myself. I predict big things. Well, bigger things, as MC Chris is already about a hundred times more famous than anyone else in our little scene.

The music went on late into the night, but I left relatively early, prompted perhaps by JoeIII greeting me with, "You look really tired, man." That's always nice to hear, Joe, even when it's true. Bloody World Cup. Bloody England. Thank God for two whole days looming with absolutely nothing to do. My guess is that it will be about two hours before I start complaining.

01 July 2006

Quiet Mediocrity Is The English Way

Or I could blame it on the Swedes, one dour, morose, self-serving, cowardly Swede in particular, but it was England who chose Sven Goran Eriksson and England who ultimately have to take the blame for yet another ignominious World Cup exit, this time to an only fair-to-middling Portugal side.

On the bright side, this frees up the next week, as much of the remaining drama has now been removed. I can't see Portugal mounting a serious threat to any of the semi-finalists unless France or Italy somehow miraculously manage to get through, so I won't have to park myself in front of the TV working on my ulcers. On the not so bright side, Sven's even less bright understudy is taking over the England managerial duties from tomorrow. Another four years of hurt looms. Come to think of it, the England team reminds me uncannily of New Labour: full of bright faces and promise, micromanaged into counterproductive tedium and constant disillusionment.

Brooklyn and Queens: The Great Divide

This World Cup business is taking its toll. It's almost as bad as having a job, even now that the pace has slowed down to where there are days off and only two games per day, soon to be reduced to one, instead of three or four, the way it was last week. But it still plays havoc with trying to have any other kind of life, especially with one kicking off at 11 am and the other at 3 pm; although there's a two hour break between matches, how much are you realistically going to get done in that space? And if I were as ambitious as I'd like to be, I could be up at 7, back from the gym by 9, and still have a couple hours to do errands or clean house before the first match started.

In reality, as it was today, I lollygagged about until it was too late to go to the gym, entirely wasted the two hours after the riveting if not top-quality match between Germany and Argentina, which left me unable to watch the 3 o'clock match between Italy and the Ukraine at all, because I had to write the Punk Planet column that I was supposed to finish in betweeen matches. Yes, I know I could have written the Punk Planet column on any one of the previous 30 or 40 days, but it kind of goes against my grain to write anything in advance of the deadline (which was today) on the theory that if I were to die or the magazine go out of business or any similar number of unlikely but possible eventualites, I would have done all that work for nothing.

Not a particularly rational rationale, but apparently it's the way I roll. So there I am on a beautiful sunny day, sequestered in my basement and frantically typing and editing the last few words and sending them off just before they shut up shop in Chicago for the day (being in the Eastern time zone gives me an extra hour leeway, but after living in England all this time, I'm used to an extra six hours. Never mind, it's done, and at last I'm off to Manhattan as the last of the sunshine disappears behind some buildings and encroaching clouds. By the time I get off the train the thunder is rumbling, and moments later a fierce north wind comes sweeping down Ninth Avenue following by an almost frigid autumnal downpour.

It's been a wet week, more humid and swampy than full-fledged rainy, though we've gotten soaked several times. Nothing like upstate, though, where there are towns under ten feet of water. At the beginning of the week they predicted that it was going to rain like hell for seven days or so, but in fact most of the rain fell on Maryland, Pennsylvania, Jersey and mainland New York. At the end of the week they predicted that the rain was finally finished, that we were going to enjoy several days of warm, sunny weather. So, fool that I am, for the first time this week, I didn't take my umbrella. Never mind; at this point I don't care anymore. Years of life in London have conditioned me to walk defiantly through the rain, consoled by a smug awareness that once again the Weather Bureau has proven itself to be Even Dumber Than I Am.

I'm supposed to be back in Brooklyn by 8 or 8:30 to attend a gig at Tommy's Tavern in Greenpoint. It's the last show of a band called Bent Outta Shape, who I've never seen before, but who, I'm assured, are pretty much the linchpin of the Brooklyn punk scene. Which makes it kind of a drag that they're breaking up, but at least I'll see what I'll be missing in the months and years to come. There are a bunch of other bands, too, and I'm meant to meet Aaron Cometbus and Jonathan Tesnakis there, both of whom have promised to give me copies of new zines, though I'm forced to disclose that only Jonathan comes through on his promise. Also there are Hallie from the Unlovables with her boyfriend Matt, Michael Silverberg, of the Potatomen and Awesome Dude and the Consquences, some fellow named Justin, who apparently was a intern at Lookout Records in what we semi-jocularly called the declining years, and half a dozen other marginal acquaintances.

Notable by their absence: almost everyone from the New York Pop Punk Clique, who'd journeyed instead to the wilds of New Brunswick, New Jersey for a different show. I'd been invited along too, but I thought I should stay local and support my own neighborhood. Besides, I'd taken a similar trip to New Brunswick almost exactly 20 years ago, which coincidentally was the last time I spent more than a few days in Brooklyn. That time we were going to see the Ramones, who were playing a free show at Rutgers, and I found both the show - the Ramones were entering their declining years - and the journey uninspiring.

Not that that has a whole lot to do with anything. My main point was that while the largely Queens-based NYPPC often makes noises about uniting with the Brooklyn scene, Newtown Creek has thus far proved to be an unbridgeable barrier. Well, yes, there is a literal bridge between the boroughs; I'm talking metaphorically here, okay? So the clique were all off with the Ergs and the Steinways and the Groucho Marxists, leaving only me (and Hallie, but she's Brooklyn-based anyway) as their cultural emissary.

Well, I'm here to report that the Brooklyn punks weren't nearly as alien as might have been feared. A little too much facial hair, perhaps, and maybe an ever-so-slight patina of PBR-style hipsterism, but for the most part they were a friendly, happy-go-lucky bunch, just as prone to dancing and punching the air and singing along with the band as our own marginally more upmarket clique. If the Baltimore fest reminded me of Gilman circa 1987, this was Gilman 1997. Think American Steel back when they were still trying to copy Crimpshrine and Op Ivy. There was a lot more faffing about than necessary in between songs, very possibly due to the aforementioned PBR, but once they (I'm specifically referring to Bent Outta Shape now) got going, there was some impressive energy in the room. Just as at the fest, the crowd knew the words well enough to outsing the band on some of the numbers, and there was a bittersweet quality to the proceedings, as you'd expect. Jonathan had been talking to me very earnestly and at length about his zine, but the minute the band started tuning up, he dashed away, shouting over his shoulder, "I've gotta say goodbye to a part of New York."

I didn't get to stay to the end, partly because I wasn't feeling well (some rather alarming chest pains, actually, though I think/hope they have more to do with pizza and donuts than impending heart trouble), and partly because there's the gym, laundry, the England-Portugal match, and Oliver's last Punk Rock Barbecue to contend with tomorrow. If this is all to go off as planned, I'll need to be up by about 7:30 in the morning. It's 3:18 am now. Wish me luck. Or tell me I'm crazy. You'll be right either way.