Monday, July 25, 2011

USA ROAD TRIP pt. IV


PENNSYLVANIA, OHIO, MICHIGAN, ILLINOIS, MISSOURI, KANSAS

Toledo, Youngstown, Cleveland, Detroit. A string of broken towns. Would the lucky few doing well be insulted I call them broken? Yes—because like most bourgeois they think of doing well as an individual concept, not a group one. But when this many people in your town are suffering, when this many houses are vacant and dilapidated, when hoods like Slavic Village only have a handful of Slavs left, as everything and everyone flee the dying neighborhoods as fast they can, one by one, well then don’t tell me your town’s not broken. One of the most annoying bourgeois pigs I’ve met was this college student in Youngstown, Ohio whose band played with The Sacred Dice when we played there in 2006. We were singing the praises of Springsteen’s heartrending “Youngstown”about steelworkers there in Northeast Ohio. He said ‘people’ hated it because it made people think Youngstown sucked. By people he presumably meant white upper middle class friends (see the Brooklyn reading segment from my last blog). Son, the displaced working class is more of an issue here in Youngstown than the laughable relationship issues your indie bands sing about.

We drove through the ugly square houses and shops around Youngstown State to reach the Museum of Labor and Industry, and dove into that Springsteen song in earnest. 12 hour days, 7 day weeks, towns ownede by one big company that then paid in vouchers for the company store, ran the entire town like a monopolgy, and murderously fought unions for an entire century. This is the kind of image I have in mind when I stare aghast at flag-wavers on July 4 talking about our proud country and its proud traditions. The immigrants came in wave after wave, in this land of immigrants that is still somehow one of the world's most hateful towards immigrants. I can't believe how pervasive the Italian presence is in the USA. They seem to have reached everywhere, this little country of homebodies who tend to find it difficult to embrace the non-Italian. If you haven't done any research on mining or the steel industry, do a little spelunking. You'll get a little taste of why people like me don't think of the rich as 'job providers', as the rhetoric goes.

In Cleveland we ate pizza at an Italian’s place. He opened it 22 years ago when it was a quaint little Euro-tinged community. Since then, it’s become a ghetto of vacated houses, with prostitution and drug sales as the main career opportunities open to its residents. Welcome to trickle-down economics, where the rich people move the production to wherever they have to avoid even more taxes than they already scandalously avoided, and the poor are left behind with nothing but the Republican’s lie: “anyone with work ethic and diligence can make a good living.” This guy can’t afford to close up shop, but he’s barely afloat now, and he doesn’t recognize anyone anymore. We chatted with a drunk guy talking at no one and a prostitute taking some shelter in the tiny waiting room of the pizza house. We went to the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame and walked into a great blessing from the rock gods: they happened to be screening U2’s excellent U23D (see Vanessa’s blog on it HERE); the room screeing the 3 hour 25th anniversary concert happened to be at its best moment, U2’s set. I marveled like a child at the material artifacts of the greatest tour of all time, U2’s ZOOTV, including the East German trabant cars that hung as spotlights, the neon ZOOTV sign, and Bono’s The Fly and Mr. MacPhisto costumes. There is something melancholy about seeing the artifacts of a great tour such as that. Rock n’ Roll at its best feels like eternity, and one expected Mr. MacPhisto to live eternally, in a succession of liminal moments between night and day, as the line “Midnight is where the day begins” plays on an eternal loop. But there was his retired costume. And now Bono is back to playing the alter ego the naïve call ‘himself.’ The saddest part of the museum? The exhibit on women in rock. Their costumes were less eccentric, brave than the men’s, more predictable. People like Gwen Stefani and Heart just can’t compare to Lennon and Springsteen. Worst, probably the most fiercely unslavish female rocker besides Joplin, Sophie B. Hawkins, was not even represented at the museum. I was left with the feeling that feminism has a lot more work to do in rock n’ roll.

It’s weird how states seem to change scenery as soon as you cross into them. Do zoning laws apply to types of crop and flora as well?! Illinois was all corn, and now Missouri is all a green trance of rolling hills. Ambient green. A much brighter green than California’s green, almost unrealistic. Some lines spoken to us in Missouri: “I don’t think you need to pay parking meters at night in St. Louis, even if it says you do.” “A foreign company took over Annheiser-Busch this year. Such a shame. That was Missouri.” “Well, I like it better here [than Merced, CA] cuz you only have to fight off Blacks for your white girls, not just Blacks and Mexicans.” Of course he’s “not racist at all.” One form of racism is the sense that white girls are a scarce resource that other races are poaching. Either way, most of the sickest human behaviors come down to a belief in property and propriety.

Detroit. I took a lot of photos. I’d like to staple them to the foreheads of anyone I hear telling me that the USA treats its citizens better than any other country. Detroit is the venereal disease the U.S.A. contracted after many decades of unsafe fucking-over of its people. I’m not trying to insult the amazing people we met there, from the anarchist collective house to the friendly direction-givers to the cousins. Detroit is almost a ghost town. Major streets are empty of cars and people. So many houses are abandoned it looks like a science fiction movie after a plague hits. Of course that’s exactly what happened. The plague is called capitalism, in its ugliest form: plutocracy. In areas like this the billboards announcing that abortion is murder are particularly cloying. Apparently the religious freaks would like to bring even more unwanted children into a city that has no jobs or social services by which the teen mothers could support them. Nice move, zealots. There’s nothing like religion for making people completely ignore economic realities in the name of hand-me-down morals.

But you didn’t think the Detroit section of the blog would be only depressing did you?! Not when there’s the Heidelberg Project!. A local artist, with the help of local residents (including a 10-year old kid we shot a few hoops with), transformed a few blocks of a poor neighborhood (kind of a redundant phrase in Detroit) into an art project: houses with hundreds of stuffed animals glued to the outside. Houses painted polka dots. Telephones and clocks glued to trees, anti-drug war messages everywhere, strange conglomerations of abandoned tools. The part that I found particularly brilliant and anti-bourgeois was that it was a functional street, not a set-aside piece of art. Interspersed in the art are actual residences with families living in them. Their children get to play on a street filled with art. It’s an oasis of CARE when it comes to aesthetics in a city and country that usually abandons aesthetics in the name of efficiency and practicality, as well as the ever-urgent late-capitalist imperative to keep everything distinct and separate, lest there be intellectual and class miscegenation. For all of the USA’s small ugly square-building towns with half their stores and houses over and done, there are little oases of hope and inspiration. These are the signs and wonders that point to revolutionary possibility still alive in this country where most slave for the profit of a few.

We met my brother-in-law Spencer Hawkins and his girlfriend-poet Ann Marie and went to bar with the best jukebox in America. Amongst the jewels such as George Clinton, obscure Leonard Cohen and Dylan albums, and Woody Guthrie, was The Coup’s Party Music, which I never see in jukeboxes. I texted Boots Riley, a comrade of all Teds, and he revealed that he lived in Detroit til he was 5. Talk about loyalty to your people! Detroit could use a little Boots-led revolution right now.

We drove across Michigan through a massacre of roadside woodchucks that almost matched the armadillo massacres of the South. Across Indiana in a drive so uneventful I wonder if Indiana is a figment of my imagination. How can I be sure it exists? There wasn’t even a state sign. I can be sure Illinois exists, however, because Chicago looms like a Jungian archetype over land and lake. Chicago is the architectural capital of the USA. There are so many funky, stylish, weird, majestic, nostalgic and many other kinds of styles crushing up against each other, it’s like a more organic and tasteful Las Vegas. It definitely has some Euro charm, but the sheer eclecticism of the architecture makes it unique. Strangle and marvelously, unlike, say, New York City, the confluence of styles doesn’t seem haphazard. It somehow seems perfectly planned out, as if all along the city planners and financiers had aesthetics in mind. Is this a legacy of a city that helped birth the American Socialist party and was hotbed of radicalism for so long?

Lucky for us “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” was playing for free in Wicker Park. Despite the usual flattening and deadening presence of hipsters, it was a gorgeous hot sweaty evening watching yet another of George Lucas’ magnificent visions. The film displays Lucas’ usual obsession with holding up a mirror to imperialist USA vis-à-vis the various empires in his films (Nazi, Galactic, British Colonial, Cold War USA, etc.) It also reminded me that one must stray off the path to the university to find the pressing educational experience. They’re ripping hearts out on the road that leads away from the university, even as they rip the heart out of the Humanities in the university itself.

We got to stay in the exceedingly cute basement of the exceedingly cute squished-against-other-houses residence of Gina Frangello, whose five-year old child reminded us that if we’re not looking, talking, smelling, and thinking like we’re five, we’re old and stupid. One of his gems: “I’d like to tell you about myself. I like to think a lot.” We were also told “I’m really cute and lots of girls like me.” If only one of the stars we know in Hollywood would talk so abjectly. Gina talked about trying to get behind the Mommy masks at her Mommy reading group, to the pot-smoking sexual beings underneath. I’m sure her very sensual fiction helps in that cause. Vanessa performed her usual magic on the streets of Wrigleyville and procured us two $75 dollar Cubs tickets for free. There’s something invigorating about going to the local city temple to watch the fallen idols try to win a game in a season that’s already lost, after 103 seasons without a championship. It reminds one of the importance of playing the full game out in life, of supporting your comrades even when the cause is lost. Rooting for the Cubs is like being a socialist. But as longtime Cubs-sufferer Tom Morrello texted Vanessa: “I think it’s likely we’ll see a full scale USSA utopia before the Cubs see a World Series.” Say it ain’t so.

You don’t really want to hear about the rest of Illinois on the way to St. Louis do you? Corn. Corn. So sad all the corn in the Midwest—it’s not very good for you and it’s a racket that keeps us all so cornfed. More to come!

Sunday, July 24, 2011

HELL OF ROAD TRIP USA PT. 3


SOUTH CAROLINA AND NEW YORK: SUPERBALL IX!

In the morning, Janet, Lindsey, Vanessa, Max and I drove out of New York City in a crazed podracing scene, shooting over the Manhattan bridge and out into New Jersey. It was as five-hour drive to the remote upstate New York town of Watkins Glen, where Phish and their collaborators (us all!) were to stage a 4-festival called Superball IX. Aaron and Karine drove down from Montreal and we all met outside the grounds. For the entire festival we introduced ourselves only as Ted, an increasingly common practice whenever we are together. Strangely enough, we’ve met two other separate groups of Teds since we started doing this—apparently we’ve given birth to a meme. Soon Teds will be everywhere. We all have Ted jerseys, with different numbers but the same name on the back: Ted. Other times we wear our The Sacred Dice shirts, the name of our revolutionary salon. Everyone has the same name because our chief aim is the birth of a new mass culture of cooperation, collaboration, miscegenation, de-identitfication. I’ve written about Phish on this blog before, so I won’t go into great detail about the show. I will say that I feel like The Sacred Dice and Ted are engaged in an experiment that takes friendship into an art form and a political formation at the same time. There is nothing casual about real friendship. One thing I’d like to encourage in the art of social interaction: political speech. By this I do not mean jumping on a soapbox for a lecture. I mean attentiveness to the kind of crowd you’re in, and changing the subject to the kinds of issues that are challenging for them (or for you, vis-à-vis them), in order to create interactions that are not the route of least resistance but that prize confrontation as the form of communication where something new arrives. Sometimes you can do this simply through dress and casual speech. At this festival for example, we all wore bandanas of the Quebec flag that Karine gave us, and spoke French as much as possible (the majority of Teds speak French). Given that both Canada day and Independence Day took place over the weekend, this led to some interesting conversations. We also moved in and out of the various time periods in American history built by the fabulous artists hired by Phish, role-playing everything from polygamous settlers in the West to guerillas.

During the show Vanessa kept talking about how much Trey Anastasio was fucking her and the rest of the crowd. I got to thinking about something I said on one of her blogs about U2, that sharing an audio-visual-spiritual moment like that with others can be as intimate—if you’re allowing yourself utter vulnerability—as conversation with my uncle over whiskey in Cassano d’Adda, Italy at midnight, as cuddling with friends, as losing your virginity. The indie kid nonsense about U2 or Phish shows being ‘too big’ ignores this capacity for intimacy. Intimacy is not a function of size or number (non-polyamorous people are especially vulnerable to this latter prejudice), but of commitment to connection and communication, to abandoning oneself completely to what leonard cohen calls ‘the holy and the broken hallelujah”. Thanks to Phish and all my comrades for achieving that this 4th of July weekend, even in the face of a bunch of idiots waving the flag proudly not that far from the factory towns where people have been exploited for two centuries.

It’s so interesting that when you run around in jerseys that all say “Ted” on the back at an arts festival, people assume you are part of the show, i.e. that Phish created us. People speculated that we were, variously, a marching band, bocce team, ushers, soccer team, etc. We answered differently every time: “revolutionary salon”, “the winning team at Superball IX”, “Venezuelan spies”, etc. I wish these fans would go back to their various cities expecting and acting like everyone was in on the show. Because we are all in fact in the show right now. That is the theme of the encore of night one, Show of Life.

NEW YORK CITY

Vanessa went with Aaron and Karine to Montreal. The original plan was for me to accompany them, but Canada’s increasing willingness to be the USA’s punked-out prison bitch means that I can’t get in the country with my criminal record. This is of course a post 9/11 measure taken for all of our safety and security. And lame, insecure Anglophone Quebecois wonder why my comrades want to secede. It’s embarrassing how beholden to the USA Canada is these days. I’m surprised they even bother to beat them at hockey.

So I instead took Janet and Max back to New York, dropping Lindsey off at the airport to go back to Berkeley summer school. That meant for me a week and a half in Brooklyn with them. Yes! There’s nothing like actually settling into a city and even getting some work done there. I’ve been writing in various coffeehouses, parks, and libraries by day, Tedding out by night. It’s daunting to write about New York City because everyone who loves cities eventually does. What strikes me most is how many people people are forced to run into in their daily lives. There is no hiding from people here—they swarm the sidewalks, from Queens to Brooklyn to Manhattan; they’re on the subway with you, which sweeps along rich and poor in its perpetual flow; they barbecue and throw parties on sidewalks and stoops, and the parks and playgrounds are chalk full. In short, New York City makes it nigh impossible to participate in the noxious and obnoxious American dream of excessive privacy and separation. In Los Angeles, you can safely tuck yourself away from people—most people drive everywhere and everything’s so spread out every class and every color and every culture can exist nearly self-sufficiently in their own neighborhood. It’s depressing. It’s actually inhuman. Human beings access their humanity most salubriously when they are in constant contact with other—especially The Other—human beings. That’s why it is the best interests of rich capitalists to defund anything free and public that encourages public gatherings, and to stratify cities via zoning and tax schemes into distinct worlds; why there are insane laws such as this one, and why Los Angeles can produce such a large number of inhumane humans: they just don’t see jostle and bump enough human beings in their daily lives.

Of course, there’s that famous New Yorker orneriness, which can lead to your getting yelled at on the subway for waving your hand too close to someone, or for crossing the street at the wrong time, but this is par for the course if you’re Italian, so no (copious amounts of) sweat off my back. Some of my friends come back from New York with tales of the Statue of Liberty and Broadway. I’m sure you guess that’s not where I’m heading. My notebooks (and by that I mean iphone notepad—notebooks is just a romantic word I still use) are filled with everyday meetings and sightings. A conversation with a Palestinian who sold me an excellent schwarma, about the Freedom Flotilla (“The USA would switch sides in a second if the other side suddenly got their hands on their interests.”). Conversations with Hassidic Jews, Senegalese immigrants, a student from Tucson freshly arrived to try her body out in the modern dance world, and a former U.S. Congressman (“The reason Obama isn’t what he seemed is that when you become president you find out things you didn’t know, like how many crazies there are out there trying to hurt us, and so your chief job is to defend us”. Actually, it’s the reverse: it’s our ‘defense’ itself which inspires the greatest number of ‘crazies’—nice technical term there—and their craziest actions.)

I took a five-hour walk with my brilliant friend Jon Cotner, participating in his project of creating unlikely moments of street solidarity through pereptual use of banal one-liner conversation openers or affirmation to everyone who passes. We met with radical publisher-activist, Anthony Arnove to discuss ways of bringing Vanessa and Anthony thoughts to the world. We went to the Native American museum, the Sex Museum (disturblingly unpolitical and lacking anything on prostitution or polyamory), the Museum of the Moving Image (who knew Jim Henson was an experimental filmmaker in the sixties? Not me), and the Tenement Museum. We saw Max Hodes brilliant band, Black Cosmic Mother, which seems to be an attempt to produce a wall of noise and then distinguish faint shapes of resistance, rebellion and love in the distorted Totality. Later Max and I went to the Met museum high and played "be the art". This involved us doing vocal jams to the art we were watching, and filming ourselves dancing in front of the art. A guard told Max: "No singing in the museum." After that we started grunting at the art, and talking like squirrels. Surely, that's not illegal.

But mostly we walked and wrote. The tenement museum was awesome, yes, but mostly the museum of human beings. What I thought was: New York City actually take human beings out of the museum and makes them participate in the regular bowel movements by which the universe shits out the toxins and prepares to receive the new day. In my favorite novel, Beautiful Losers, Leonard Cohen writes “I am the sealed, dead, impervious museum of my appetite. This is the brutal solitude of constipation, this is the way the world is lost", and for me he is talking about the USA. Talk about constipation and not understanding what the city is all about: I went to a reading in the Dumbo section of Brooklyn that was bourgeious par excellence. I use that word a lot, in defiance of the hipsters who think it’s too old-fashioned and the rest who don’t even know what it means. If you don’t, let me sum it up: it’s middle class white people giving lecture-readings that are supposed to be funny about how ‘people’ are and what ‘people’ like and don’t like. Our resident bourgeois pig started from the premise that ‘people’ don’t want to hear other people, and that one of the main struggles in the city is to get people to shut up: at coffeehouses, in museums, in movie theaters, etc. For one thing, this tool obviously has very few African-American, Italian or West African friends if he thinks ‘people’ value soft speakers so much. You can whine to me all day about whether or not that’s over-generalizing (I will say that the racist white assholes in prison scorned Blacks for how loud they were, and prided themselves on mumbling everything they said inaudibly), but the point here is that bourgeois folk want access to all the goodies in the city while still preserving the sick hyper-privatized isolation of their suburban experience growing up. In sum: they’d like to have the city without the community, the street without the piazza, the feeling that they’re not alone without actually having to recognize the Other. Ask yourself always whether what you think ‘people’ need or like is not actually the people in your particular class, city, country, trade, etc.

Luckily, right after the gathering of people-haters in Brooklyn the Teds and I gathered in Times Square for the opening of the last installment of the Harry Potter saga. Tons of teenagers in full costume and with no desire whatsoever to maintain a quiet street, lobby, or theater. For the 21- and 22-year olds, it was the symbolic true end of childhood, as they had grown up being the same age as all their heroes for 10 years, in a sometimes horrifying parable of post 9-11 USA. We stumbled off the subway at 4am and fell asleep for the last night in Brooklyn, ready to meet Jim Morrison’s challenge and embrace the West again.

The Sacred Dice - A Revolutionary Salon

The Sacred Dice is a salon of musicians, scholars, poets, sound sculptors, activists and artists of all kinds committed to art that is committed.  That could get us committed (to an asylum).  That disdain's art for art's sake and artists who have no idea why they do what they do.  We know why we do what we do--to create and celebrate community in a country still stuck in capitalist fantasies of individualism.  If you want in, you're in.  If you want out, don't worry--you already are.