29 June 2009

Fest: Winners And Winners

Nephew Jackson and I are holed up in a quiet corner of Washington DC after three incredible days in Baltimore, during half of which I was too sick to move but did anyway, albeit with considerably less alacrity than I'm usually known for. Also missed, due to illness, about half the bands I really wanted to see, and half the people I really wanted to talk to, but it still added up to - and I know this refrain, repeated year after year, must get tiresome to you non-believers - Best Fest Ever.

I'll admit I had my doubts, and that they persisted well into the second, maybe even the third day. No real drop-dead headliners, half a dozen competing fests around the country, the absence of some notable Festers from years past, all seemed to conspire to create more of a low-key vibe for this year's event. Or maybe it was just a case of lowered expectations, but at some point it occurred to me that the first Fest, which some still insist was the very best of all, had virtually no expectations at all. It was just a couple hundred (if that) friends getting together in a corner bar in a desolate backstreet in Baltimore to watch each others' bands, most of which were completely unknown to about 99.99% of the American population.

The magic kicked in that time when - maybe it was during Delay, or the Copyrights, or the Steinways - it became obvious to all in attendance that unknown or not, our obscure little bands were at that moment making some of the best music in the world. Three years later the size of the audience, the number of bands, the venues, the stages, all have tripled, quadrupled, even quintupled. Delay, the Copyrights and the Steinways are now old standbys, and might only be unknown to 99.95% of the American public, but otherwise, not much has really changed. Each of those bands, not to mention a dozen or more new arrivals, is still capable of standing the Fest on its collective ear, and that's exactly what happened, again and again again, until any remaining doubts or fears or hesitations were, in the words of old Mr. Dylan, driven deep beneath the waves, until we could forget about today until tomorrow.

There's also those bits about dancing beneath the diamond sky, one hand waving free, far from the twisted reach of crazy sorrow, etc. etc., but even if we are talking about the pop-punk Woodstock, I'll spare you any more hippie blather (but man, that young Dylan could write a song; how in the hell did he turn into a gnarly tuneless old pseudo-blues grump?): now tomorrow's here and the full magnitude, the full excellence of yesterday's today begins to dawn on us.

Ironically - tragically, even, though not perhaps for those of us wishing to do something else with the next 72 or so hours of our lives - the PPMB, where the Fest would normally be being hashed and rehashed until readers' eyes bled, has crashed, possibly in response to everyone's simultaneous attempts to post their favorite photos, videos and recollections, along with the annual fevered debate over who "won" the Fest. So although I don't have much in the way of photos or videos, I'll have to settle that question for you here.

The answer, of course, is that we all won, the only losers being those who couldn't, due to obligations or financial hardship, or wouldn't, due to sheer oblivious bloody-mindedness, make it to Baltimore. But I said no more hippie blather, and I almost meant it, so here's a few of the high points; apart from my illness, I don't think there were any lows, though some of the walking wounded I saw staggering away late Saturday night may feel differently.

Thursday night undeniably belonged to The Max Levine Ensemble, whose Weasel-skewering antics won over even that portion of the crowd that was completely unaware of the band's feud with/vendetta against the Godfather of Pop-Punk himself. The background is that sometime last year, Mr. Weasel, apparently in response to hearing me praise TMLE so highly, checked them out and found them, shall we say, not to his liking. Among his more colorful remarks, delivered on his popular Weasel Radio broadcast, was, "If this band was a horse, I'd take it out and shoot it."

Most of us working in the genre would be, at the least, crestfallen at being so definitively damned by one of our idols, but the Max Levine boys managed to recover sufficiently from their depression to kick off their appearance on the Ottobar stage with a deadly medley of Screeching Weasel classics ("Hey Suburbia", "Cool Kids", and "I Wanna Be A Homosexual") that, despite the TMLE's being only a three-piece (OG Weasel had four members), managed to capture almost perfectly the sound and spirit of the Weasels' late-80s/early 90s heyday. They followed that up with the announcement of their "split single" with Ben Weasel, the cover of which featured a cartoon rendition of the Weaselmeister himself sporting an "I heart Max Levine" t-shirt. "Are we gonna get sued?" they wondered privately, but considering that the net worth of the band would barely pay for pressing up 300 copies of the limited edition 7", probably not.

TMLE were followed immediately by their brother band Delay, and at the close of Delay's set came back to join them for a finale that, even though both bands are firmly rooted in the 21st century stripped-down DIY punk rock mode, could teach a thing or three to the 1970s Dinosaurs of Rock generation about how to put on an arena show. If the Fest had ended Thursday night, it would have been Max Delay FTW hands down and no questions asked.

But technically speaking, that was only the "pre-show," and about 25 hours and 75 bands still lay ahead. Friday belonged to the Steinways and the Copyrights from what I saw, but an awful lot of people whose opinions I trust swear it was the Dopamines who ruled the day, if not the entire Fest (this was one of the many moments I missed due to my tragic illness). I had to drag myself back from my deathbed just before the Steinways to do my own turn on stage with SUCIDIE, during which Matt Lame's eyes bulged out further than ever before seen in public (see the photographic evidence here) and I managed to sing an old Lookouts song without falling over, dropping my guitar, or having a nervous breakdown, all of which could be expected to happen when I actually was in the Lookouts.

By Saturday I was mostly recovered, thankfully, because this was the day that really delivered the goods. I mean, nothing, really nothing could be said to have gone wrong with that day, the bands kept getting better and better, and I witnessed some performances that I'm pretty sure will be emblazoned on my memory till the day I die. Dear Landlord set the bar pretty high early on, but then came the Leftovers, four-Fest veterans who spanned at least four generations in their 60s-meet-the-2000s rock and roll sweatfest-cum-tent-show-revival. I first saw these kids when they were skipping school to come down and play house shows in New York and marveling at the wonders of Ikea ("We don't have anything like that up in Maine"); now, at 21 or 22 frontman Kurt Baker can work a room with the likes of James Brown up in heaven. I went crazy. Everybody did.

That should have been it, with the rest of the Fest being anticlimax, but then I walked in on the Kepi show. This longtime Ghoulie, now solo and/or with-whatever-band happens-to-turn-up act has been getting better and better these past couple years, but Saturday night was just completely sublime and transcendent, closing with about half a dozen (maybe it was a whole dozen) guest artists joining in for a finale that collapsed time and broke down all the barriers. I was laughing, I was crying, I was dancing like crazy: these are the moments when you not only want to live forever, but see no plausible reason why you can't. Kepi FTW. I don't think any further discussion is necessary or possible.

Not that there wouldn't be hours more of brilliance to come, and if I had hours more to write about it, I'd say tons more. But we're here visiting in Washington for the day, and Jackson and I want to get out and see stuff, so let me just quickly mention a few other highlights, like Squirtgun's cover of "The Science of Myth" featuring several former Weasels and at least one present-day one, Pansy Division doing a straight-up rock set that completely won over the pop-punkers, the Methadones doing one of their best sets ever, Lost Locker Combo with pushbrooms cleaning up their own mess before the club could even notice it was there, Sick Sick Burgers, my nephew and Tre Uncool (both at their first Fest ever) attacking and thrashing Matt Lame, the parking lot congregation that seems to be one of the best parts of every Fest, and one of my personal favorites: Paddy from Dillinger 4, with whom I've exchanged a few less than flattering words, seeking me out after the Fest to mend fences, bury the hatchet, and in general comport himself like the gentleman I should never have doubted he was. Prince of a fellow. Okay, that's it for now; I'm off to see the nation's capital. If you want to see DeutschMarc's incredible gallery of FestFotos, look here. Have a great day!

28 June 2009

27 June 2009

The Last Fest?

Admittedly it wasn't the best of planning, but my nephew really wanted to go to England, and the only time available was right before the Fest. Time was still so tight that I arranged for us to have only a few hours between arriving back in New York and setting off for Baltimore. No great strain for a 13 year old, apparently, but a little more hectic than I might have liked.

Still, it shouldn't have been a problem - there were at least a few hours available for rest in between Fest activities - except that I seemed to have picked up some sort of bug in England - well, Wales, to be specific - that followed me home. Or perhaps it was food poisoning, which I'd prefer, since I'd hate to think I infected any of the hundreds of people I've come in contact with these past two days with some version of Limey Flu.

But whatever the cause, the result was that I was unable to keep any food down or get much in the way of sleep for three days, and when I took my first steps out into the blast furnace heat of midsummer Baltimore, I might as well have asked the powers that be to take a cosmic sledge hammer to my midsection.

Thankfully, most of this town is air conditioned, the Fest venues included, so I was able to maintain some equilibrium - if only just. And if I were here to quietly spectate from a comfortable bench at the back of the room, I should have been fine.

But the Fest, more than being one of the biggest pop punk/punk rock/rock and roll shows of the year, is also kind of like an annual convention for the fans, musicians, scenesters, makers and shakers of the genre, and it's virtually impossible to shake the proverbial stick, let alone walk 20 feet in downtown Baltimore without banging into someone or several someones who need to be met and gret (?!) with an appropriate degree of enthusiasm.

And let's face it: as much as I love these people, it required a real effort on my part to show any evidence of it. Usually at these events I'm jumping around like a hyperactive monkey, shouting encouraging if sometimes nonsensical words at everyone I encounter, but for the first two days it was all I could do to manage a weak, "Good to see you! Me? Oh, I'm all right."

Even that wouldn't have been unmanageable, but greater duties loomed: in a fit of madness I'd accepted the responsibilities as second guitarist and vocalist for the hardcore combo SUCIDIE, scheduled to play a fast and furious eight minute set on the main stage in what was arguably the primest of prime time Friday night slots, just before Fest favorites, the Steinways.

Thanks to SUCIDIE's leader and resident genius MATT FAME living in another state, we were only able to practice his intricate musical compositions twice in advance of the show, once in May and once in early June. Of course we could also practice on our own, but I wasn't able - okay, wasn't willing - to haul a guitar around England and Wales with me, so during the last couple weeks before the show, I hadn't had a chance even to run quickly through the set list.

I figured I could make up for that by practicing by myself the night before leaving for Baltimore, and then with the band on Friday morning, but neither proved feasible, and I found myself, as showtime approached, feeling much like the student who has recurring dreams of showing up for an exam only to realize that he's totally forgotten to read the book the exam is based on. Oh, and that he's also managed to come to school completely naked.

I was even having trouble with the one song that I'd written myself, albeit some 21 years ago. My illness had left me not just physically weak, but mentally deficient, to the point where, even if I could remember what the chords were and where they were located, my brain couldn't get a message to my fingers fast enough to find them. It was a little like what I've always imagined senility would be.

I ended up having to miss most of the afternoon's bands in an effort to get some rest (I'd barely slept at all the night before), and when I showed up back at the venue with my borrowed black and gold GPC Weaselrite guitar in tow, I was far from ready to take the stage. In fact, what little brain activity I was capable of was mainly directed at figuring a way out of this. For instance, when Pansy Division broke the kick drum and a 10-minute delay was announced, I volunteered that by giving up our slot, we could put the show back on schedule.

No such luck, however, and anyway, by that point I'd become a little charged up, both from the Copyrights' exceedingly powerful set and from being repeatedly attacked by a youth coalition consisting of my nephew and (almost) 10 year old Tre Uncool teaming up to try and knock me to the floor (they never succeeded). So I did my duty, jumped on stage, bounced around, grinned probably a bit too much, at least for a hardcore band, and only made two or three flagrant mistakes (actually, it might have been someone else making some of them). It was, after all, as people kept pointing out, "only eight minutes."

We didn't get a resounding ovation, but neither did we get booed off stage. The only blatantly acerbic reaction came from Jon Pansy Division, who greeted me with, "Whose idea was THAT?" I refrained from pointing out that we had headlined over his band.

Then it was into the pit for the Steinways' Last Show Ever, and it was here that it all caught up with me. The adrenaline was still coursing through my system, and being further amped up by the band and the crowd, but by the time the set was halfway through, I had to retreat to the sidelines. I genuinely felt in danger of collapsing, and though my heart ached as I saw all my friends still thrashing like mad to the final strains of "Carrie Goldberg", I wasn't about to try to make my way back into the frenzied throng.

It was then that I thought, "Maybe I finally am getting a bit too old for all this." I mean, in principle, sure, I could keep coming to this for quite a few years to come, even if only in a diminished capacity, but wouldn't I rather go out in a blaze of glory (by which, no, I don't mean dying of a heart attack in the middle of the pit)? The chances of getting asked again to play on the main stage are at best minimal, and I've already been dubbed "Mr. Fest" and "the mayor of Fest-town," so maybe now would be the time to bow out gracefully, to retreat to my rocking chair and internet message boards.

Well, maybe. Today I feel considerably better; I've been able to eat two meals, one late last night and one this morning, without unfortunate results, and a whole day of Festing still lies ahead. I'm sitting here in my shorts and my classic sleeveless Crimpshrine shirt, getting ready to rock out to, let's count them, 42 (?!?!) bands between now and sometime after midnight, and I don't feel that overly daunted by the prospect. Maybe I've got another Fest or three in me after all!

What Else Was He Going To Do For An Encore?

Though I was never a huge fan of the man or his music, there's no denying that Michael Jackson was prodigiously talented, and if I didn't enjoy his classic work as much as a few hundred million others did, that's probably more a matter of my having spent the 80s rather monomaniacally wrapped up in punk rock than with any shortcoming on his part.

Still, by the time he passed away this week, even the most charitable apologist would have to acknowledge that his best days as a performer and/or recording artist were far behind him. That's sad in itself, since under the right circumstances - the right circumstances being his not turning into a circus freak - he could have carried on for many more years. A bit of the spring might have gone out of his dance steps, but it could have been more than made up for by the experience and wisdom gained from a life well lived.

That didn't seem to happen, either, though it's also dangerous to make assumptions about people whose only presence in our lives is via the media. But in this case, one could make an exception, because, based on all available evidence, there doesn't seem to have been much to Michael Jackson beyond a media image.

That's an unhappy thing to say about someone recently deceased, and I'm not even sure why I felt compelled to say it, except that his life and death seems like such a valuable object lesson into not just the cult of modern American celebrity, but also the dangers of choosing an insular and self-absorbed existence just because you're able to. You don't have to be famous or fabulously successful to do this, either, but if the unfortunate death and even more unfortunate life of Michael Jackson teaches us anything, it's that no matter how rich you are, you can't afford it.

I've been on TV a couple times and had some stuff written about me in magazines and newspapers; even that minimal level of "fame" made it evident how quickly one's view of oneself and objective reality can be distended and distorted by the looking glass eye of a voyeuristic world. When I was a young hippie on acid, I would sometimes spend hours staring into a mirror watching myself morph into unrecognizable shapes and personas at the rate of millions per millisecond, simultaneously believing myself to be in possession of infinite creative power and wondering why, with the entire universe seemingly at my feet, I still felt so terribly, ineluctably lonely.

Is that anything what Michael Jackson might have felt like in his declining years? If, in the face of what may have been chronic drug abuse, he felt much at all, I'm guessing yes. One report has him being regularly injected with the powerful synthetic narcotic Demerol. I was given that stuff once, in a hospital emergency room, and it was just awful. Yes, it's effective at temporarily taking away the pain, but it takes everything else with it. If you're familiar with the Harry Potter books, think of the Dementors, who suck all the hope and joy out of life. Yeah, it's like that. If I were having my leg amputated, I could see where something like Demerol could come in handy. But to live like that on a daily basis? You could forgive somebody for asking, "Why bother?"

That, ultimately, may well be what happened to Michael Jackson. 20 years ago he was the most famous and possibly one of the richest performers in the history of show business; everything since then has involved a sometimes slow, sometimes precipitous decline. Some people, especially those who've had to struggle with the conventional vicissitudes of life, can adjust and even thrive in the face of diminished circumstances, but to others it's a fate worse than death itself.

Face it, the man was never going to recapture more than a modicum of the brilliance he once possessed as a performer, and if he was as doped up as current rumor has it, his attempt at a comeback would have more likely become a study in unrivaled bathos. What else was he supposed to do? Someone possessing normal social skills and moral perspective might have downsized, given up the trappings (and isolation) of megastardom in favor of the simple joys of family and friends. But Michael Jackson, whether through his own poor choices or - more likely - the misguidance of the sycophants and leeches who inevitably attempt to attach themselves to any star, no longer seemed to have that choice. That being the case, his death, even at the relatively premature age of 50, probably comes as a blessing, not only for the man himself, but for his children, who might still be young enough to have a chance at a normal life.

Harsh words? Perhaps, but they needed to be said. I've made - perhaps most of us have - some of the same mistakes, albeit on a far smaller scale, and I've also known the kind of loneliness and depression where my only desire was to die. Thankfully life is not like that for me anymore, and hasn't been for quite a while. Michael Jackson, it seems, was not so fortunate.

I don't rejoice in his death, but neither is there much to mourn in this passing. He was, in Claude Brown's phrase, a manchild in the promised land, perpetually hamstrung between youth and senescence, capable of manifesting all and touching or enjoying none of it. May his soul finally find some rest, and those he has left behind, some joy and some peace.