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.
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!