15 August 2006

Defiance, Ohio

Back in the mid-1980s, around the time the Lookouts and I first crawled out of the Mendocino mountains, I was hyping the idea of a counterculture fusion that would draw on the best qualities of both hippie and punk. This of course was at a time when I still believed that hippies had some good qualities.

As usual, it turned out to be a case of being careful what you wish for. In the intervening couple decades, several sub-subcultures have sprung up on the punk scene that are barely distinguishable from hippies, although to be fair, most of the OG hippies were cleaner and smelled better. I'm especially thinking of the Plan-it X Punx ("If it ain't cheap, it ain't punk" appears to be the motto of the record label at the heart of their scene), also sometimes known as bike punks.

On the surface, they might appear to be what the Australians refer to as "ferals," determined to strip away the affectations and detritus of 2,000 years of Western civilization, a horde of New Visigoths on bikes instead of horseback. But apart from their crimes against fashion and sanitation (dreadlocks? still? the better part of a decade into the 21st century?), they're a rather peaceful and idealistic lot. Their rampant marijuana consumption no doubt has something to do with this, but so do their hippie-anarchist ideals. In his description of one of the Plan-it X bands, founder Chris rhapsodizes about "the anarchist anthems that hopefully our children will be singing on our communes in 30 years." If experience is any guide, those children will probably be wearing neckties and voting Republican as a way of sticking it to the old man, but it's a sweet thought anyway.

All this is a roundabout introduction to Defiance, Ohio, a band I saw twice tonight. Early in the evening played for free in Tompkins Square Park to a crowd that was equal parts charming and scary. The kids - and I use the term literally rather than ironically for once - were hopping around madly, doing syncopated handclaps, and singing along louder than the band, while the crusty dreadlocked 20 and 30-somethings smoked their spliffs and stumbled gracelessly around in what was otherwise a lighthearted and freeform pit. The truly scary sight was the 80 year-old hippies lurking around the edge, getting stoned and drunk with the dead-eyed élan of people who haven't done much but get older for the past 40 or 50 years. There were a couple I swear I'd seen during my own Tompkins Square days circa 1968, including one counterculture patriarch-cum-drunken stumblebum sporting a "Brigade Rossi" t-shirt, complete with star and Uzi as he sucked on a thumb-sized joint and gulped down a Foster's oil can. For the younger folks among you, Brigade Rossi refers to the Red Brigades, an Italian terrorist organization in the 1970s and 80s, and wearing their t-shirt would be roughly equivalent to wearing an al Qaeda t-shirt today. That being said, I've just been reminded that in the film Rude Boy, the Clash's Joe Strummer is seen making his own Brigade Rossi t-shirt. Of course Strummer was also a major pothead, so maybe there's a common thread here.

End of digression; despite the less than charming aspects of some of their audience, despite the frightening awfulness of some of the opening bands (the klezmer-punk had Carla running for cover), Defiance, Ohio were absolutely brilliant. They're kind of more rootsy Crimpshrine, or, as I thought later, a cross between Crimpshrine and the Pogues, if the Pogues were from Appalachian America instead of Ireland. When I heard they were playing again later in my neighborhood, at an "art space" called Maiden Brooklyn (I don't mean to sneer at art, but it looked suspiciously like any number of back rooms, lofts and warehouses where I've been seeing underground shows for the past 20 or 30 years, i.e., trashed. Suitably enough, it was next door to the Trash Bar, and across the street from some other rather trendy nightspot featuring "keyboard karaoke."

One of the night's more touching scenes was when a miniskirt-clad tout (female) from the karaoke bar ventured over to our side of the street to try and drum up some business. "Hey, you look like some nice skinny hipsters," she said to a scruffy knot of punks standing near me, and proceeded to tell them about how cool it would be to show some love for the keyboard karaoke scene. "What's going on here, anyway? Some kind of party? A show?" She was clearly rattled and sad at the 200 or so kids standing about on what, from her point of view, was the wrong side of the street, while her bar stood nearly empty.

Realizing she wasn't going to get anywhere with this bunch (they probably weren't even old enough to legally enter her bar anyway), she moved on, leaving the punklets to wonder what she'd wanted. "Dude, she called us skinny hipsters, and I'm not even skinny," said one (he wasn't; in fact he was unusually chubby for a bike punk) (speaking of which, there were so many bikes lining the sidewalks of Grand Street that late arrivals had to look two blocks away to chain theirs up). This led to a discussion of why she would have mistaken them for hipsters, which in turn seguéd into the question of whether there was such a thing as fat goths. Two words, I said: Robert Smith and/or the singer of the Funeral Crashers, provided they can be shown not to be the same person. Okay, neither of them is actually fat, but neither of them could be said to be featuring the emaciated look this season, either.

Whoa, more digressions. I'd been lingering around on the sidewalk for the longest time in hopes someone I knew would come along, but no Aaron Cometbus, no Jonathan Tesnakis, not even JoeIII, who you'd think would be all over a gig like this. If it hadn't been for some kid who recognized me - don't know how, possibly from when I was on TV last year - I would have had no one to talk to at all. Which was no problem, really, what with all the entertaining conversations to listen in on.

The one drawback of the gig, as is usually the case with these anarchist-hippie-punk things, is that it took forever for anything to happen. They'd be playing at nine o'clock, Defiance, Ohio announced back in Tompkins Square; by ten o'clock neither of the opening bands had played a note. I was able to walk home, change my clothes (putting on my vintage-1988 Crimpshrine shirt on the theory that it might help conjure up A. Cometbus - he always gets annoyed or at least uncomfortable when he sees me in it), answer my e-mail, talk on the phone to Kendra and Dr. Frank who were co-hosting a show on KALX in Berkeley, walk back to the club via the scenic (i.e., I went the wrong way) route, and Defiance, Ohio still hadn't started playing. I stood around for almost another hour before they did, and they stood around for almost that long between each song. The Ramones they were not, but it didn't matter. The songs they did play were so great that I forgot all about the fact that I was standing in a superheated sweatbox with a horde of hyperactive adolescents, many of whom hadn't bathed all summer and some of whom may not have bathed since last summer. As much as I've loved the ultra-neat and clean pop punk shows I've seen lately, this had a charm all its own. If the Baltimore Fest was like early Gilman, this show was like one of the warehouse or garage shows where the Gilman kids went when they didn't feel like behaving. Or one of Eggplant's legendary backyard shows. Fun times. And good on you, Defiance, Ohio.


JoeIII said...

I'm still intrigued as to how I could get mentioned in the same breath (even if digitally) as Cometbus.

Crumbly said...

Are you really gonna fly out for a dinner party with us and Dr Frank and Kendra? I think we're expecting it now.

oliver said...

You're gonna give Phil a complex! Binge and purge here he comes!

jb. said...

It warms my little heart that you like that band, Larry. I can always count on you to surprise me by liking the things I do but that I expect you to find morally repellent.

Would that you had been at Plan-it-X fest last summer with Angie and I-- then we'd all have known someone at the show. I'm all for making friends with a crowd half my age, but it doesn't always conjure up good conversation. Ah, how familiar you must be with that

Anonymous said...

Ah, to be old and bitter. It's a good thing only your friends read this blog, otherwise someone could be inclined to call you a twat. Get over your self, you sound like an old, yuppie snob. I'm not certin on how I ended up on this blog but I wish i could get back the 5 wasted minutes spent reading this garbage.