20 September 2007

Punk Rock? Are You Guys STILL Talking About That?

I meant to mention this a while back - maybe even before the event actually happened so that some of my friends might attend if they wanted - but last Monday, September 10, I was part of a panel discussion on the past, present and future of punk rock.

I know, I know, it's all been said 20 or 30 years ago, and if you really wanted to rehash the question, you'd just head over to the PPMB, but hey, it's hard to turn down an invitation where you can talk at length about your opinions and people not only won't interrupt you, they'll actually applaud when you've finished. Try getting that kind of reaction out of your average barroom conversation.

My fellow panelists were Liz Nord, who's done a documentary film on the Israeli punk scene featuring, among others, the band Useless ID, who I'd actually met a few years back when they first visited the US, Jon Vafiadis, better known as Jonny Whoa Oh of up and coming indie conglomerate Whoa Oh Records, and the legendary Danny Fields, renowned for his associations with the Ramones, MC5 and Stooges among other things.

Danny was the "moderator," though there was little moderate about his approach. He expressed befuddlement about the current state of punk rock ("How do you find out about these shows and bands?" he asked at one point), but happily told stories of adventures stretching back to the 1950s, only some of which were directly related to punk rock, but most of which - including those about his years hanging with the Warhol crowd - were fascinating.

He was a bit reluctant to relinquish the microphone to the other panelists. At one point, an audience member prefaced a query about why '77 punk got so much more attention than its later incarnations by saying, "This is for Larry," only to have Danny go on rambling discursively about talking dirty with Andy Warhol and follow it up with, "Next question." But I was happy to let him take the lead; I'm not sure I would have been a good moderator, not being a particularly moderate person by nature.

Anyway, apparently there are videos of this (thanks to the assiduous efforts of JoeIII) and some bits may or may not have made their way onto YouTube. And, I've just discovered, someone over at The Film Panel Note Taker has gone to the trouble of taking notes on the discussion and posting them on his/her blog. It's a very truncated version, and not that true to how we actually sounded, but you get the general flavor of things. So if you're curious about the past, present and future of punk rock, you're welcome to have a look.

Goodbye, California

I haven't really lived here in ten years, but I've always kept this small room, more of a storeroom than a living space, really, but it's still provided me with a base in Berkeley, something I'm now on the verge of finally giving up.

Considering all the awful things I've said about Berkeley in recent years, people could hardly be blamed for wondering why I'd want to maintain any ties to the place, but my reasons were twofold: most of my family is located nearby, and I had way too many things - the accumulated possessions of a California existence that dates back to 1968 - to consider shipping them over to England during the years I was living there. Most of the stuff has mainly sentimental value, but it's value nonetheless, even if it wasn't quite enough to convince me to lay out the thousands it would have cost to bring everything to London.

But now that I've got a new home base in Brooklyn, the time has come to pack up all these memories and move them out to the Right Coast. I flew out here on Monday night, not expecting any great drama to arise around this; if anything, I was annoyed at having to leave New York for a couple weeks at one of my favorite times of year. But as the plane crossed into California airspace, I was seized with sudden spasms of regret and fear: was I doing the right thing after all? Was California really as bad as I'd made it out to be? It certainly didn't look that way from 30,000 feet, with the lights of the cities splayed across the darkened land like so many jewels on velvet (sorry, I know it's a cliché, but it really does look like that).

It became painfully apparent that I couldn't casually cut my ties to the place where I'd had some kind of home or connection for nearly 40 years and not expect to deal with some rather intense feelings. I remembered how I first came here, young, scared, dead broke and wanted by the law, and immediately felt safe and at home. I recognized that despite my best efforts to screw things up, California had been very good to me, providing me with the opportunity to make my fortune and pursue my dreams. Basically, my life had been pretty crap before I got to California, and while there were plenty of crap intervals afterward as well, most of them were of my own making.

For the first day I even toyed with the idea of abandoning this whole Brooklyn thing, settling back into my little room in downtown Berkeley, and living here in quiet obscurity for the rest of my life. I could certainly afford it; the rent here is ridiculously low, with all utilities, even high-speed internet, thrown in. It might not be much of a life, granted; we're talking about a 9'x12' room that's so cramped I have to sleep in a loft up near the ceiling and can reach almost everything without getting out of my single chair. And not much light gets in through the windows, the stairways and common areas haven't been decorated (or, it sometimes seems, cleaned) since the 1970s, and the house in general is a classic example of Berkeley's rent control turning what might be a perfectly normal house into a time capsule hippie hovel.

Still, it's been a comfortable place to hang out, or perhaps more accurately, hide out from the world. I first took this room when my original Berkeley room, a bit larger and in the house next door, was devoured by the monster that became Lookout Records. I and two employees/partners ran the label out of that slightly larger room until the Green Day explosion of 1994-95, when the number of employees expanded to the point where there was no longer room for me to sleep there. When I got this new room in January of 1994, I grabbed a handful of blankets, took them next door and threw them on the floor, followed by myself, and slept for something like 29 hours.

Now, in two or three days if everything goes to plan, I'll be loading the last of this room's contents into a truck and setting off across the country. Normally I'd be looking forward to a transcontinental drive, but I'm kind of already dreading what it will feel like to wave goodbye to California for the last time.

Well, not necessarily the last time; I can always come back, I keep telling myself, if things don't work out in New York. And of course I'll still visit family and friends here as often as possible. But not having a specific place to come back to is going to make that a very different experience. Once upon a time, I would have thought nothing about moving thousands of miles away - in 1970 alone I did it three or four times - but perhaps I'm finally getting too old for this sort of shenanigans.

I try reminding myself that even if I were to stay in California, I wouldn't want to keep living in this room or this neighborhood. Downtown Berkeley was no prize when I first moved here (next door, into what would become the Lookout office) in 1990, and it's been going downhill ever since. Even if there were anywhere to go at night, I no longer feel all that safe on the streets, and the crime stats - almost double the rate of street crime compared with New York City - would seem to indicate I'm not just being paranoid. Today's Berkeley Daily Planet had a story about how a gunman strolled into a cafe directly across the street from the UC campus and robbed six students of their laptops; in New York I've grown used to seeing people sitting out on the sidewalks at two in the morning typing away on their computers without a care in the world.

So I guess I'm going to go, and if my recent experience in leaving other places - specifically Laytonville and London - is any indication, it'll be fine, and you won't catch me looking back or turning into a pillar of salt. But right at this moment, surrounded by the wreckage and detritus of my past waiting to be put into boxes and be carted off to a new home, I'm feeling just a teensy bit anxious. Give me a couple days, though, and I should be cruising up over the Sierra Nevada singing, in the words of Joe King, goodbye, California, it's really been nice, and getting ready for the rest of my life to begin.

13 September 2007

Somehow I Don't Think This Is What Dr. King Had In Mind

I haven't been keeping too close a watch on the news in recent weeks, but the past couple days I've been cooped up in this room in Berkeley, California sorting through papers and packing things for my upcoming moving van trip back to Brooklyn, with my only company being the none too tender ministrations of AM talk radio.

Normally that would mean being subjected to an unrelenting barrage of rabid right-wing ranting, but this being the Bay Area, we're also offered a similarly demented and hate-ridden outpouring of left-wing lunacy. Tonight I've endured three hours of the grotesquely obese race baiter Bernie Ward (a defrocked Catholic priest, who woulda thunk!) and half an hour of Ray Taliaferro, who's been spewing venom, often but not always race-tinged, at all things American for at least four decades now. It was in June of 1968 when, newly arrived in San Francisco, I first heard Taliaferro raving about how Richard Nixon was a madman, a criminal, and, if I'm not mistaken, a "son of a bitch."

Being a rather hateful little hippie myself at the time, I thought this Taliaferro character was just one more part of what made San Francisco great, but over the years I became considerably less fond of him, even on occasions when I agreed with him, because of his tendency to browbeat listeners and dishonestly distort what callers said in response to his inflammatory rhetoric. Example: Caller says, "Ray, I basically agree with you that racism is a problem in our community, but I'm not sure rounding up all white people and interning them in re-education camps is the way to go about solving it." Taliaferro responds: "Well, of course you'd say that, you rotten, good-for-nothing, Ku Klux Klan-supporting, inbred little cracker. Why, I bet you're just sitting there in your log cabin or your trailer park macraméing a rope to take to your next lynching, you low-life, worthless piece of scum. And what have you got to say for yourself? Nothing? I thought so (because Ray has turned off the guy's phone line)! See, folks, you confront these racists with the truth and they just turn tail and run like the cowards they are!"

Actually, Bernie Ward uses almost exactly the same technique, and tonight he, even more than Taliaferro, was obsessed with this Jena, Louisiana case. I'd just heard of it earlier today, and as far as I could see, the main thing it illustrated was the depths of depravity to which the so-called "civil rights" movement has sunk. We've got Mack Daddy Al Sharpton flying in to scoop up some publicity and no doubt some cash, we've got Jive-Ass Jesse Jackson accusing Barack Obama of being "white" for not having a sufficiently knee-jerk reaction to the case, and Bernie Ward doing a solid three hours of fulminating over how this proves America is a completely racist nation.

So what's the great injustice these crusaders are rushing to denounce? Well, apparently six young African-Americans are being denied their God-given right to rat-pack and savagely beat one white teenager as a means of addressing their hurt feelings over some racial tension and turf warfare that's been going on at a small-town high school in the Deep South.

Ward, Sharpton, Jackson et al. are comparing this to the freedom rides and heroic marches of civil rights activists in the 1960s, but as I recall, those protests were demanding the right to attend schools and ride at the front of the bus. I don't remember Martin Luther King declaiming about a dream in which one day gangs of young men would be allowed to attack and beat other young men based on the color of their skin.

Okay, am I being one-sided here by ignoring the initial provocation by white students, who apparently told black students they couldn't hang out under a certain tree and later decorated that tree with nooses to reinforce that point? Well, I'm not ignoring it, and of course I think it's vile to evoke, whether intentionally or not, painful memories of a time when black people were routinely lynched in the Deep South.

But what seems to be overlooked here is that however vile and hateful the white students were being, they were still engaging only in speech and symbolic actions. You know, sticks and stones and all that...? Calling people names, especially racially charged ones, or making it clear that you don't think very much of their skin color or their culture, is the mark of small-minded and ignorant people. But a gang beating someone black and blue and bloody is a whole other order of injustice.

Martin Luther King knew that, and struggled mightily and mostly successfully to persuade his followers to restrain their understandable anger and instead employ nonviolent tactics. The charlatans who claim to be carrying on his legacy are doing just the opposite: charging that the arrest and prosecution of the black teenagers for their gang assault is a violation of their civil rights.

If there was even a shred of logic to this position, you'd have to also accept that women were merely exercising their own civil rights if they attacked and beat every moronic misogynistic rapper who's making a living slagging off bitches and hos. White kids who get robbed for their lunch money or suffer gratuitous beatdowns by black kids in liberal bastions like Berkeley or Oakland should be immune from prosecution if they brought in their own posses to administer some street justice. I say if there was any logic to this position, which of course there isn't, but nonetheless the media are falling all over themselves to present the hatemongering of Sharpton, Jackson et al. as if it were a perfectly reasonable response to an obvious injustice.

Combine this with the usual suspects hopping on the "OJ's only being persecuted because he's black" bandwagon and I very nearly want to despair about the possibility of Dr. King's true dream ever being realized. He dared to speak of a day when people would be judged by the content of their character rather than the color of their skin; 44 years later we seem to have arrived at a point where the color of a man's skin is all we're allowed to see.

11 September 2007

At The Dark End Of My Street

This is what I see tonight when I look down my street in the direction of Manhattan. Not the buildings - there are too many houses and trees in the way, and anyway, I think this photo was taken from Jersey - just the lights.

And they're playing on the clouds in almost exactly the same way. It's very eerie. I didn't even know what it was when I first stepped outside. I thought maybe an airplane was coming in toward Kennedy and for some reason had put on its landing lights early, and then fell back on the equally plausible explanation of it being a UFO.

Then I remembered hearing about the Tower of Light that's been displayed every September 11 as a memorial, and realized simultaneously that this is the first September 11 I've actually spent in New York. Having such a close emotional involvement with this town for such a long time had somehow made it possible for me to forget how little time I'd actually spent here.

Surprisingly few people actually said anything about what day it was today, but they didn't have to; though they talked of everything but, their eyes told a different tale. And tonight along my block, many of the neighbors are out on the stoops or the sidewalks basking in the autumnal but still relatively mild breeze. Their eyes are fixed on each other, or on the beers that they're drinking, or on Joe-across-the-street dragging the garbage can out for tomorrow's pickup, but their glance and their attention keeps drifting back to the tower of light at the dark end of my street.

Semi-Obligatory 9/11 Post

Originally posted on the PPMB, reposted here by request:

I was living in London at the time, and my first awareness of it was my aunt calling downstairs saying, "You might want to turn on the telly, there seems to be some business about a plane and a skyscraper over in America." Then I spent about the next three days parked in front of the TV with a bottle of Jameson's feeling sorry for myself (why? nothing at all had happened to me personally) and angry that this had been allowed to happen, and confused and bewildered about what I was doing or should be doing with my life.

The thing was that at this time and for the year or two previous I'd been doing more and more drinking and more and more feeling sorry for myself, and the thought that kept coming into my head as I watched the New Yorkers risking their lives and pitching in to take care of one another was, "What if this happened here in London? Would I be able to help my neighbors the way those New Yorkers are doing? What possible use would my drunken ass be?"

It was actually those feelings that prompted me into finally giving up drinking and trying to become a more responsible human being. Remember, at that time there was a real sense that there were likely to be more attacks, and that they could come anywhere (London eventually was attacked, and very close to where I lived, in 2005), and I felt that if or when that happened, I wanted to be strong and clearheaded enough to be able to do whatever was needed of me.

A couple weeks later, I was in New York City. The planes had just started flying again, though they were almost empty, as were the airports, except for the machine-gun toting soldiers. It was the way flying looks in those airline commercials, where you never have to stand in line and everybody gets a good seat and has three stewardesses to wait on him. I got on the subway near JFK and that's when it first hit me in a way that it never could have on TV. The first thing I noticed was all the flags. Pretty much every house in Howard Beach had one flying. But the really amazing thing was the feel of camaraderie on the subway. It was like every time someone got on, everyone in the car would turn to him or her, check them out to make sure they didn't look like trouble, and then sort of silently say, "Ok, you're all right now, you're one of us, we're all looking out for each other here." I imagine it might have felt very different to a person who looked Middle Eastern - but to me it felt very safe and comforting.

I spent the next 10 days in Manhattan, and the smoke - and that horrible smell, which others have mentioned, and which I don't think anyone will ever be able to forget - was still hanging over the city. Some days the wind would blow it out to sea and the air would feel fresh and clean again, but then the wind would shift back and just like that the mood would change. People would be in the middle of a conversation and suddenly get a whiff of charred concrete and incinerated bodies and the looks on their faces would turn grim and desperate and the conversation trail off into non sequiturs.

I was running around with this girl at the time, and she was one of those people who saw the whole thing as America's fault. We were up in Central Park on an incredibly beautiful day in early October - even then you could still see a thin column of smoke rising downtown - and she got really mad at me for suggesting otherwise, capping it off with, "And I don't give a damn about those people who died in the World Trade Center," implying that it was their own fault for being there in the first place. That started a raging two-day argument in which we called each other every name under the sun, and guaranteed that our relationship, which had always been tempestuous at best, was never going to go much further.

By the time I went back to London, though, there was no longer any doubt in my mind that sooner or later I was going to live in this great city. Thinking of other places where I'd lived, especially London and San Francisco, where a large percentage of the people thought exactly like this girl did, made me especially keen to live in a place where people were grown up enough to take responsibility for themselves and others. Perhaps it was wrong of me, but I pictured Londoners or San Franciscans, if they'd faced a similar disaster, running around like headless chickens and looking for someone - probably the government or "capitalism" or "the corporations" - to blame.

And six years later, here I am, a proud New Yorker myself and feeling very honored and privileged to live in what I don't doubt is the greatest city on earth. The events of September 11, 2001 had a very large impact on me personally, in that they led pretty directly to two major changes in my life, stopping drinking and moving to New York City, but I suspect I'm just one of millions who had their lives permanently altered that day, and unfortunately - for those who lost loved ones or livelihoods, not always for the better. But I think the net effect for New Yorkers in particular and Americans in general has been a wake-up call, one that said essentially, "It's time to stop living in la-la land and to start thinking about what life and liberty and your place in the community of humankind are all about." A lot of stupid and excessive and overreactive crap has come down as a result of 9/11, but I'd say that overall we're a better and stronger people as a result of the lessons learned that day. Let's hope so, anyway, because I have a feeling that there are times yet to come when we'll need to be.

05 September 2007

Bottomfest 2007 - God, I Love These Guys

What is a Bottomfest? And whatever it is, doesn't it sound vaguely unappealing? If not slightly salacious?

That's what I thought when I first heard of it, but as it turns out the "Bottom" in the fest came only from Dr. Drew Peabottom, Ph.D., who despite his passing resemblance to Harry Potter and his childlike obsession with obscure Queers vinyl, is not only a genuine scientist (who studies, you know, science), but also is turning 30 years old this month.

Which prompted his devoted consort Ms. Sarah Peabottom to organize a two-day fest in his honor in a remote corner of northeastern Pennsylvania where about a dozen pop-punk bands could wail away to their hearts' content and the usual fest-related tomfoolery could ensue, all without any risk of alienating the neighbors or incurring the wrath of the authorities.

The first night's event actually took place in not-so-nearby Wilkes-Barre, and I managed to miss most of it, but things kicked off again before noon on Saturday with solo performances by Rapid Randy (of the Backseat Virgins) and Pat Termite (Beatnik Termites) before the full-fledged bands took over. It's always seemed a bit weird to me to see bands whose natural environment seems to be dimly lit night clubs and bars playing on green grass in broad daylight, but by the time New Hampshire's Guts, Maine's Leftovers, and New York's Steinways finished tearing things up, things like stage lights and walls and ceilings seemed thoroughly superfluous.

Some of the sets were sloppy and good-natured fun - especially the Guts' runthrough of a dozen or so punk classics in addition to their own songs. These guys are just so, so good, even missing vocals from Geoff, who had mysteriously mislaid his voice somewhere that weekend and could only croak along in the background. Others were more straight-ahead, like the Steinways, who debuted some of their best new songs yet. Who else? Project 27, Be My Doppelganger, Nancy, Dead Mechanical among others: a veritable treasure trove of pop punk circa 2007. Oh, and a "surprise" (Dr. Peabottom was one of the only people there who appeared to be genuinely surprised) appearance by the mysterious Jerkingtons, who first rocketed to prominence in 2005 with their merciless lyrical scourings of some of the PPMB's leading personalities (I hope I'm not being too vain in using that description, since I myself have been the subject of one of the Jerkingtons' verbal brickbats: "Larry Livermore Is 80 Years Old").

Unsurprisingly, given the participants, the locale and the nature of the occasion, there was a fair bit of drunkenness, though none so flamboyant and flagrant as that exhibited by Matt Lame, who seems to specialize in this sort of thing at fests of all sorts. Sporting a fishing hat of the style featured by Wilson on Home Improvement and wielding, among other implements of destruction, a purple air mattress, Matt wreaked several strands of havoc on festgoers for pretty much the entire 24 hours he was on the premises. Apparently he passed out at one point inside the tent that had been set up for him by less inebriated companions, but for reasons as yet unexplained, the tent proceeded to collapse and envelop him, as Chadd Derkins put it, "like a cocoon."

"It was awesome watching him struggle to find his way out of the collapsed tent this morning," observed Doctoracula, another attendee, "It was like he was being born." If, of course, being born entails being greeted with a cream pie to the face, which was Pete Repellent's payback for Matt's antics of the previous day.

Pete, who journeyed all the way from Chicago with his devoted partner Simple 81 (he actually refers to and addresses her as "Simple," and she occasionally even answers, though not infrequently with vulgarities or obscenities) also helped orchestrate one of the fest's other highlight when he dressed up in a yellow Peep costume (you didn't know there was such a thing? Neither did I) to confront Chadd Derkins over the latter's thoughtless boast that he could "probably" match the world record for Peep-eating (103 in half an hour). Chadd got through 30 before staggering out behind the garage to vomit; his orange (these were special Halloween pumpkin Peeps) puke pile proved to be a popular tourist spectacle for the rest of the weekend.

Someone, apparently relations to Ms. Peabottom, thought it would be a good idea to order 15 pizzas, which arrived sometime around 9pm, a few hours after dinner and just before a massive birthday cake was served. Then came the campfire singalong and marshmallow roast, though I suspect more marshmallows were thrown than roasted, especially once the aforementioned Mr. Lame arrived on the scene.

The singalong turned out to be one of my favorite parts of the day, not so much for its quality - it was a rare song where anyone could remember all of the words - but for its enthusiasm and the realization that the last couple decades of pop-punk songs had turned into - at least among this group - genuine classics. The group went through pretty much the entire Queers catalog, and large segments of Screeching Weasel, the Riverdales, Weston, MTX, and, of course, the Ramones. At one point there were competing singalongs, with the larger group carrying on with "Punk Rock Girls" while Oliver Poopsounds and I unaccountably tried to drown them out with our own version of "There Is A Light That Never Goes Out." Oliver was rather drunk; I had no such excuse.

Chadd and Oliver also serenaded me with their own ribald renderings of several Potatomen classics, apparently in an attempt to persuade me to pick up the guitar and do a few tunes myself, but I wouldn't fall for it. I'd seen Matt Lame dodging enough marshmallows to not want to take his place as the principal object of the crowd's ire. Afterwards, of course, I regretted my reticence; it's not often in 2007 that I'm likely to encounter people - drunk or not - bellowing for Potatomen songs. Maybe next fest.

It wasn't all goofing around - well, yes, actually that's pretty much exactly what it was - but the whole weekend just left me positively glowing. It wasn't a massive fest on the scale of Baltimore; probably no more than 50 or 75 people were there at any given time. And although some of the best bands of our time were in attendance, it wasn't primarily a musical event. The crucial element was just a lot of good friends getting together and having the time of their lives, and while I'm sure your friends and their friends and everybody's friends are just as nice and just as fun, these are my friends, and they're the best, and right now I feel so lucky and privileged and blessed to know them all.

02 September 2007

My Mustard Colored Mustang

One of the joys - for me at least - of living in New York City is being able not just to exist, but to live very well without owning or driving a car. In fact, unless you live in the outer boroughs or are rich enough to pay for private garage space (which in Manhattan costs as much as or more than an apartment or house in most cities), owning a car has got to be far more trouble than not owning one.

But sooner or later, one feels the need or desire to get out of town for a couple days, and unless you're going to one of the cities or towns served by rail (i.e., much of Eastern New Jersey, Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, etc., driving becomes a necessity, as does a visit to those extortionate vampires known as rental car companies.

I know, everything's more expensive in New York, but rent a car hereabouts and your per day price can easily equal what you'd pay for a week in other parts of the country. Nevertheless, they can and do get away with it because, especially at weekends, there's what seems to be an almost limitless demand for their services.

In my case I wanted to go to Eastern Pennyslvania for Bottomfest (about which more later). In principle I could have hitched a ride with someone else who was going or even taken a bus to nearby Scranton, but that would have meant having to camp out at the fest, something I'm sure I would have enjoyed immensely when I was in the Boy Scouts or drunk (or, as was often the case, both), but something I now seem to be thoroughly over.

So I bit the bullet and booked a rental from the Avis location - basically, a parking garage - in downtown Brooklyn. I'd requested the cheapest compact available and assumed I'd be driving one of Detroit's dorkiest little clunkers, something along the lines of the Neon I rented in Seattle a few years ago, only to have to pull off the road at one point because it wasn't capable of maintaining freeway speeds in the face of a stiff wind.

But quite the contrary. "Would you like to upgrade your rental today?" asked the clerk, "A nice convertible, maybe? Only an extra $100 a day." Unsure whether she was just playing with me or seriously thought I looked like enough of a doofus to lay out that kind of money for the privilege of getting defecated on by passing pigeons, I laughed and said, "No, I'm all right with the el cheapo model."

With that, she pointed behind me and said, "Your car's right there waiting for you, then." I turned to discover possibly the most garish automobile I've ever seen at close range: a brand new Ford Mustang in a color which can only be described as a particularly efflorescent and flamboyant variety of New York City taxicab. Not quite yellow, not quite orange, and not exactly, though it was my favorite comparison, the hue of mustard that has sat out in the sun too long. But close.

Somewhere, I supposed, there was an individual prepared to pay $25,000 for a car whose paint job was virtually guaranteed to offend every neighbor on the block, so I could comprehend why the Ford Motor Company might produce such a vehicle. But why on earth would Avis Rent-a-Car, presumably in the business of catering to public preferences, buy one? Before I could ruminate further along these lines, I had eased out into the traffic of Atlantic Avenue, nearly running over a man who had stopped in mid-street to gawk, his obvious desire to deliver a stinging insult stymied only by his jaw having dropped so precipitously as to render speech awkward if not impossible.

"Hey," I said, "at least if I get in an accident the other guy's not going to be able to claim he didn't see me coming."

And perhaps there was something in that, because despite it being the Friday afternoon before Labor Day with the highways being clogged by escaping urbanites, not only were there no accidents, but other drivers seemed to give me a wide berth. I cruised through the suburban wastelands and Mafia burial grounds of Eastern Jersey and then suddenly found myself at what looked like the entrance to the Oregon Trail: who knew that once you get away from the greater New York area, New Jersey suddenly becomes a verdant wilderness? Well, New Jerseyans, maybe, but I'm not even sure many of them travel this far west. I mean, we're talking at least 75 miles from Manhattan.

Things continued in this vein until Pennsylvania, which consisted of even more wilderness, except for the long lines of cars apparently headed for "the lake" or wherever people go on these holiday weekends, and I had to wonder why the pioneers felt it necessary to push westward all the way to California when it seemed like there was still plenty of frontier to explore within a day's wagon train ride of Wall Street. I also had a scare when it seemed as though I might run out of gas, towns and villages having suddenly become exceedingly scarce and those that could be found seemingly having shut down for the night by 6 pm.

But I made it - only just - to my destination in not especially lovely Wilkes-Barre (I asked if it were named for the same Barre in Guillain-Barre Syndrome, but nobody seemed to know), which apparently was a thriving industrial city at some point, but now looks to be suffering the long-term aftereffects of a zombie invasion. Between traffic, getting lost, and general lollygagging, I arrived at 11:30 pm, about three and a half hours later than planned, and got to see about ten minutes of the show I'd come for, before hopping back into the chariot for a half hour ride over the mountains to the slighly more lively town of Clarks Summit.

It was there that I found some people actually appreciated my mustard-colored Mustang. It caused a bit of a stir when I arrived at Bottomfest (of which, again I say, more later), with Stephanie and Michelle Shirelle jumping into the front seat and demanding to be taken for a ride. Who knew pop-punk girls' heads were so easily turned?

Leaving town on Sunday, I stopped to fill the tank once more. "Nice car," pronounced the attendant, with nary a trace of irony, which they didn't appear to speak in these parts. "It's full serve only," he said, stopping me from getting out to pump my own gas.

"Oh, sorry," I told him, "I'll just go to that station across the street then, I don't want to pay extra for full serve."

"Nope, it's not extra, same price here as there," he said, going about his business without waiting for my assent, casting an appraising eye back and forth as he did. "We only ask for a couple bucks tip," he informed me as he screwed the gas cap back on."

In an unguarded moment, I might even have fallen for this one, but hey, I was driving a brand new mustard colored Mustang, so I just laughed out loud at this notion. "Hey, that's the way they did it back in the 1950s," he protested.

"No they didn't, pal. I was there in the 50s, and if this was the 50s, you'd be checking my oil, washing my windows and offering to vacuum out my car, all for a buck an hour and not even a chance of a tip."

"Oh well, doesn't hurt to try, does it?" It was 11 am on a Sunday morning, but it suddenly occurred to me that he'd probably been up all night on crystal meth. Maybe not, though; he was still smiling and friendly as I drove away, something you don't often see in cranked-up small town boys. I drove back to New York City, made the unwise choice of trying to drive across Manhattan instead of going the long way around via Staten Island, and was home in Brooklyn before the afternoon was too far gone. I was completely happy to be out of the driver's seat, out of traffic, and back on the subway, even if it was only the lowly G train, but there have been a couple moments since then that I actually almost kind of miss my mustard colored Mustang. If you see it (and believe me, you'd notice it if you did), wave hi for me.

01 September 2007

"His Friends Thought He Was Doing An Art Piece"

I've never had a lot of time for the Burning Man yuppiefest in the Nevada desert. Very possibly that's because of a lack of open-mindedness on my part (you'll note that I dub it a yuppiefest without ever having been there, and that in fact I'm simply repeating an insult initially lodged against the event a decade or more ago). On the other hand, I decided long ago that I could spare neither the time, money nor inclination to investigate further.

All I know is that virtually everything I've ever read or heard about Burning Man has led me to believe that too many of its participants are drug-addled dingbats for me to have any chance of enjoying myself in their presence. And I thought along these lines even in the long-ago days before I had given up drugs myself. Nearly every quote I've read has focused on the Burners' (Burnouts, more like) predilection for elevating the banal and tedious into the profound and insightful, a surefire sign that copious amounts of marijuana and other psychedelics have been running amok in what otherwise might function as serviceable brains.

Apparently not everyone in attendance is completely loopy, though, at least if this article is to be believed. Some of the parties involved manage to sound pretty ditzy nonetheless, abstinent from drugs or not, which reminds me of an old saying about alcoholics: "You can take the booze out of a fruitcake, but you've still got a fruitcake on your hands."

Anyway, I've stopped paying much attention to the event in recent years, but I couldn't help noticingthis particular story: apparently some hapless camper hung himself and nobody bothered cutting his dangling corpse down from its makeshift gallows because they assumed it was some sort of art installation.

Another awkward issue: apparently the brain trust/corporate interests behind Burning Man are undergoing an agonizing examination of their collective conscience over whether the festival was in danger of being taken over by big business interests. With its patrons forking over an average of $200 a pop for the privilege of spreading a sleeping bag out on an otherwise godforsaken desert, the concepts of barn doors and bolting horses inevitably come to mind, but according to this story in the organization's in-house PR sheet (which, remarkably, doubles as the daily "newspaper' for the greater San Francisco Bay Area, such is indeed the case.