Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of KRUI or its staff but of the writer.
MISSION CREEK DAY 3
Thursday, April 2, 2015
THE MILL: Jeff Chang
I’m standing in position and in good spirits to write about Jeff Chang’s talk at the Mill. The space I occupy is the same standing table I used as a flat surface previous nights. I’m starting to break it in. We had received Jeff Chang at KRUI before this appearance at the Mill, and he charmed us all with his willingness to chat and hang out in the studio. Jeff used to DJ at his college radio station KALX at UC Berkley, so our time with him planted many smiles in the room. Seldom have I grown to admire someone at such a quick rate. He is an ally for all people and here to do good and cut it straight to us kids. Our news director, Sri Ponnada, expertly interviewed Jeff and maintained a jovial, informal atmosphere while still keeping the questions compelling. In my sole interaction with him at the radio station besides expressing my gratitude, I offered him the new THEESatisfaction album after he joked about playing records to kill time before his appearance at the Mill, and when I handed him the album, his grin suggested I might have convinced him to stay, but unfortunately, we were cutting into another show’s time slot. It was a memorable interview. Unlike a certain famous TV astrophysicist who also sat down at KRUI for a brief interview, there is no condescension and only goodwill.
The crowd at the Mill tonight is by far the most diverse crowd I’ve been a part of thus far in the festival. It feels great to be in a varied collective such as this one. Men and women of many identities are here; it almost feels stupid to catalogue it because we’re not filling out a damn census, but to finally feel inside of a large group of people not uniformly defined in skin color, hair style, and background is quite honestly moving, and such a crowd should be celebrated and strived for, maybe even demanded. It’s somehow individual and collective at the same time. This is the college experience of unity and action I’ve always wanted and I didn’t find it in my hours spent in business school lecture halls or literature discussions; I end up finding that feeling tonight and in a bar. Why not learn in a bar? Public houses brought about revolutions when the literate read to the masses. I consider that learning, maybe even enlightenment.
Local icon Kembrew McLeod walks on stage and introduces Jeff Chang with a brief but loving monologue. Jeff climbs the short stairs to the stage amid a rousing applause and then thanks his numerous benefactors and gives context to his talk. He interviewed then-presidential hopeful Obama for Vibe in 2008 and while there was celebration in order for the election of this country’s first black president, the post-election exuberance distracted from the prospect of a real discussion of race in America.
He asks, “Has cultural desegregation changed things?” Pop and visual culture has begun to show cultural desegregation through hit television shows like Empire, but what about policy? Has the political world caught up to the cultural world?
It’s been a tough year. Jeff chronicles the bad year with popular hashtags, #ICANTBREATHE, #FERGUSON, and also touches upon the reactions of rightwing extremists, like the gunman who shot up downtown Austin to voice his dissent in the most asshole way possible about Obama’s executive actions for immigration. Sometimes I (and probably many of you) ask myself what the hell is going on in this country? But the thing is, it’s always been going on, this struggle with the unwilling cowardice of the rightwing (and even elements of the liberal establishment) to admit and confront the problems of race that are not enforced by specific legislative language but quite clearly institutionalized due to the obnoxiously higher rates of incarceration and deaths by police for people of color. Such a scourge upon vast swathes of people cannot simply be explained by the clichéd, racist stereotypes but by real goddamn biases that people have and are unable to reconcile because they’re too cowardly to admit something is wrong with their logic, something is wrong with the logic of this society.
Jeff doesn’t promise answers to our problems, but a few ideas to perhaps point us in the right direction and to this pragmatic gent, that sounds better than the status quo of bickering with the morons and blowhards who’ve been holding the map upside down this whole time. I say we just leave them behind to continue bloviating themselves into madness, drinking their own piss.
Jeff shows a slide of Obama on Edmund Pettus Bridge for the fiftieth anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s march from Selma to Montgomery. The 1965 Voting Rights Act passed with a popular consensus for racial justice. However, the Supreme Court recently stripped the Voting Rights Act. 1965 was the last time there was such a consensus. Jeff then goes on the talk about how 2042 will be when the demography of the United States will compose primarily of citizens once deemed minorities. Despite the oncoming equilibrium Jeff says that “the stakes in the quest for a just America are high, and we have to consider how culture affects this.”
How do we see race? Jeff posits this to the crowd and explains that national culture tends to move towards segregation, with whites moving to communities with better schools and public works, and while everyone else may have enclaves, these enclaves are not as privileged as white communities in terms of the quality of education and safety. How do we wright America’s direction towards better equality? It’s a damn tough question.
Jeff then raises some great points that, if you don’t know them already, write them down:
- Difference is human, and to notice it is human.
- Difference is a way to enhance superiority and a willed blindness.
What does “willed blindness” mean? Well, it means willful ignorance. This happens when the prospect of a true discussion about race is bypassed and we are told to wait just a little longer or that what we’re concerned about isn’t the way we perceive it, that racism doesn’t exist, that poor people are just lazy, that kids in gangs just suck at school, or any other shitty thing that people say to maintain their docility, their illusion.
I’m angering myself and I can feel body temperature rising. This is a historical moment in our country, and to be able to face it in a room of willing peers is jarring. Jeff shows a picture of a young, tuxedoed Eric Garner, and I don’t know, showing the younger picture of him, years prior to his violent death at the gloved hands of a white racist New York cop irks me, and to settle myself I take a weak breath, realizing the weakness of Eric Garner’s last breaths before being denied his right to live a full, complicated life that some people, like me and perhaps people like that murderous, racist cop will be allowed to realize without fear of violence, so I decide every breath I take from now on is an act of solidarity and remembrance for those who were denied a complicated, long life.
Jeff continues his talk and relates to us the historical amnesia of this country, and how people only remember the most convenient parts of MLK JR’s speech every February, forgetting his indictment of police brutality and considerations for black militancy. Years pass until the next moment in racial history, and that’s the eighties, when the golden age of hip-hop came about and widespread campus protests for a more multicultural world. Of course, there are those who feel threatened by this, and Pat Buchanan initiates the culture wars to convince idiots that somehow, difference is bad, and they strip the National Endowment for the Arts and cut funding for professors in the humanities. Then, the LA Riots blow up, and the culture war escalates.
All the while Jeff is giving this history, he uses old Time Magazine covers. In retrospect, it looks as if Time’s covers play on their reader’s racist fears; it’s almost a case study in how not to cover important cultural developments, so I decide I will never again purchase an issue of this magazine, because let’s be honest with ourselves, Time always kind of sucked.
Jeff Chang then focuses on the use of Obama as an image to attach causes well beyond his agenda and party platform. Supporters use images of him to push their causes, like environmentalism, immigration, withdrawing from the Middle East and closing Guantanamo Bay. However, detractors use his image in depressingly stupid ways. They alter photographs to depict him as a Muslim, or as an illegal president, or as some other ridiculous accusation he’s faced in the past and these pathetic appropriations of Obama’s image and their intended demographic of fearful senior citizens may explain why we as a nation tend to stick a lot of our elders into assisted living and ignore their phobic chain emails and let the Florida sun wither them in their racism and stupidity in instead of revering them as they do in other countries. Wisdom is usually not positively correlated with age in this country, but luckily, it is in my family and hopefully yours.
The speech ends on a note not of hope but of realism. Hope can be realistic, sure, but hope is convenient when realism is necessary, and Jeff provides us his theory as to the ingredients for precipitating change in this country and somehow, by some divine incursion, waves are again used as a metaphor, but much, much better than I did in the last column. Jeff’s idea of change is waves upon a shore: There are a lot of different factors that influence the currents and a wave, like change, is both an event and a process. So, we just need the right ingredients to make this happen, people. We live in an age where dreams are proscribed and then sold back to us, where the culture war is raging again and the people are re-segregating because the problems left unsolved by the previous generation still linger for us to continue working on. Jeff leaves the stage and the Mill erupts in applause. I go to him as he speaks with some other young people and I thank him again for coming to the radio station, but I shy away from telling him how much this visit to the Mission Creek festival means to me, so I shake his hand and walk away.
In my mind, we as a people can visualize the solution for these tired old problems, in fact, it may already be written on the board in front of us, but we’re still writing the equation, checking our work and perfecting the proof that this is the solution for the world we want and the world we can have, and then, only then, may we write QED.
GABE’S: How To Dress Well, Maids, Jack Lion
The walk from the Mill to Gabe’s is brief but a welcome bit to myself to clear my head in the cool spring night. Well, I don’t have that much space to myself, with the horny hordes of loud, harassing underage drunks that this town robs twice, first with tuition and then with the revenue from their arrests. Some weeks in Iowa City, the streets are more crowded on Thursday nights than Friday or Saturday, and that’s because of the mug club at the sticky-floored, piss-stained and bug-brained sexualized sewer-pipe of an establishment known as Brothers Bar And Grill, a name I take issue with because what does the name of the bar even mean if “brothers” is plural and there is no possessive? It’s like calling it Men Bar or Women Bar. Will I find plenty of brothers there, albeit none who take ownership of this place? I mean, I suppose I understand if none of the titular brothers desire to claim ownership of this bar, because it is, after all, a massive fire hazard of flammable egos and libidos with cheap, watered down drinks. This is where you go in Iowa City if you want to get away with drinking underage. The bar all but encourages it in language, but certainly encourages it in their demeanor. Hilariously, the Brothers Bar won’t let you wear sweatpants, basketball shorts, or baseball caps to this place, which is probably the sole reason the men at this bar are not wearing sweatpants, basketball shorts, or baseball caps, but instead my grandpa’s golfing attire, which, while stylish on my grandpa, makes these men look like they’re all attending the same barbeque, or maybe regatta fish-fry due to the amount of polo’s, boat shoes, and tiny shorts, but then again, the sailing motif may be a reflection of their love for Captain Morgan rum or the cheaper, equally disgusting dorm-variant Admiral Nelson. There’s also a fair share of women at this establishment, but if they’re smart, they go in large groups and form a human wagon circle to keep these buffoons from pressuring them into the poor decision of recognizing that they are made of matter and exist in space and time.
I wade through the sea of awful people on the streets and I arrive at Gabe’s a little early. This gent’s on the list and I see MJ, my friend whom I mentioned in my previous columns and produced the Amen Dunes show. He is also producing the How To Dress Well show. I also saw him briefly last night at the Ne-Hi show, as he had been hopping between the different venues. I grab a beer, something citrusy on sale and 7% alcohol by volume that I immediately regret purchasing, and I walk to a booth and meet the band Maids. Nice guys, Danny and Micky. I had run into them at KRUI after Jeff Chang left, as they were being interviewed on air as well. It’s a reunion of sorts, but this time we have a proper introduction. I’ve not heard them but I’m excited to tonight.
I walk upstairs to the second floor stage. I take a spot along the sides of the hall, where there is a convenient, wall-long table I can use a flat surface for writing. Jack Lion’s playing first, and I love their ambient electronic jazz. I would rate their performances as some of my favorites in the local circuit. They’re a three piece, and their songs travel very far with just bass, trumpet, synthesizer, and drums. Jack Lion step on without fanfare and the drummer, Justin, an energetic, restless fella whose paradiddles have charmed me before, goes headfirst into the first song as Drew the bassist plays some keys while Brian on trumpet puckers up and layers his horn’s long notes in echo. Brian’s an interesting trumpet player. Most trumpet playing I’ve heard is upfront and loud with a flurry of notes, but Brian plays long, brooding notes that shift the moods of a song. It works very well in their dynamic. Brain’s trumpet Drew’s bass work like the air around Justin’s detailed, eager drumming. Haven’t really seen anything like it. It’s as if they’re flirting, perhaps teasing with chaos.
The next song Jack Lion plays begins with intermittent noise, perhaps field recordings of what sounds like a gutter emptying rainwater onto the pavement in a downpour. It’s chopped up into something danceable, and the band plays around the watery sounds like glass around an aquarium and keep this liquid song under control.
The transition between songs could be compositions on their own, in fact, for all I know, they are. I’m writing in darkness again, and I can tell deciphering my nonlinear scribbles will be extra difficult. I’m not writing from the trenches at the Somme, but it’s still pretty damn tough to transcribe the experience. Suddenly, Drew takes his hands off the bass guitar and sings some echoed words into the microphone. Until tonight, I had known them as primarily instrumental, or at least without human voice, and now, obviously, they’re doing something different and upending my expectations of them. Drew’s words are chopped up in a live sample and looped into something upbeat and catchy. Drew focuses on his bass playing and the band proceeds to work around the garbled recording of his voice. I compared playing the modular synthesizer to watching someone troubleshoot a VCR at a desk, but when Jack Lion plays, it is watching scientists testing different ideas in a lab. There must be science to this music. A word comes to mind, “orbital.” I wonder how much they’re thinking during their set. It sounds so natural, but I can see them counting to themselves and gazing at each other for cues.
I go to the bar at the opposite end of the hall from the stage and buy a PBR after finishing the pint of terrible citrus beer. I am convinced that disgusting beer was poisoned and an attempt on my life. I go back to Jack Lion and let them take me on an interstellar jazz odyssey as I sink the PBR down my throat. They finish their set and I owe that band more words than I can pronounce in order to properly appraise their skill. I finish my beer and walk to the bar to order another PBR. I notice a woman, perhaps two decades my senior. She’s a locally based writer and somehow involved in Mission Creek Festival. I don’t know if she remembers, but two years ago, on my twenty-first birthday, I put some cash in the Foxhead jukebox and asked her to dance. MJ was there with me, and being the popular guy he is, knew her from his work with Mission Creek. He did not transmit this or his discomfort to me that night, so when I asked this woman and her companion to dance with MJ and I for my twenty-first birthday, they obliged.
“Here’s how you hold a woman,” I recall her saying to me as we danced to some old waltz.
MJ hates it when I bring this story up. Maybe his dance partner wasn’t as fun or maybe he’s embarrassed to have danced with people he works with on a part-time basis at two in the morning on the drunken encouragement of a newly legal fool, but either way, his embarrassment is understandable.
Anyway, she’s at the bar. Last I saw her, she had a kid in tow at a reading. I leave a lot of stuff out of this column, believe it or not, and past chases have been ill advised at best and for once this is apparent prior to my first step in the wrong direction, so I keep to myself, remembering the dumb stuff I’ve done in Iowa City and smile. I walk back to the stage area and Maids has begun setting their equipment up. A laptop on a table with a white cloth like an alter is stage left while a microphone with a sequencer is stage right. Danny and Micky are on stage adjusting the monitor volumes with the sound guy.
“Hey, we’re Maids,” they say.
The band initiates the first song and the subwoofers overwhelm me with bass. Christ, those subwoofers. Suspicious smoke fills the air from an unknown location and synthesizer arpeggios surrounds the crowd in the darkness, except for the lights on stage, which, from my estimation, is every light they had in stock at the nearest Party City. The lights color everyone in front of me with unnatural colors and it’s more or less bioluminescence. More bass bombards the crowd like a WMD and Gabe’s shakes so much I question its structural integrity. I’m standing at the midpoint of the venue a bit to the side and my nose is vibrating so much from the bass that I scratch it vigorously. I never understood why they say “drop” in reference to the bass kicking in at a certain point in an electronic dance song, but I think it’s because the power of the subs will make you feel as if your intestines are going to drop out of your ass, or perhaps because your nose hair shakes so much it may drop out of your nose and form a mustache on your upper lip.
Danny, the singer, modulates his whispered voice through a few effects so the repetition of his lyrics sounds more and more abstract, dehumanized. I try to focus on the repeating lyrics but again, that bass is overwhelming me so much I consider taking cover. It is cool, sure, but I doubt the only other people who experience this kind of personal earthquake are astronauts riding out the friction upon reentry into Earth’s atmosphere, and those people take very good care of themselves while I live lavishly for a university man, eating buffalo wings and burritos and drinking beer as if there’s an imminent embargo or shortage.
“What’s up? We’re from Des Moines,” Danny says into his microphone after thanking Jack Lion.
I start to come around to their variation on subwoofer music. The second song starts with some false guitar and slap bass. I think Prince when I hear it, but maybe because of its modern sense of retooling I don’t hear the famed Twin Cities Sound, but something particularly Iowan, and I dig it. People better start dancing. I decide to start, and by the end of the set, I’m a little sweaty, thankful for their appearance and converting me to the cult of the bass.
There’s a lot of time before How To Dress Well, so I grab a few beers with people and mingle in conversations both equal parts interesting and inflammatory. Lots of moods in the room. There’s a few writers here so I gravitate towards them, as well as a few people from KRUI who just came from the Freddie Gibbs show, a show, which they tell me was filled with flying beer and an insane contact high. I corroborate this testimony with a certain bar owner, and we toast to a good time tonight. Other people I speak to attended the Real Estate show, and they affirm my belief that while capable, Real Estate might be just too chill, but overall, their show was enjoyable.
I head back to the stage area and it’s quite crowded. I can barely see over the sea of heads like mounds rendered black by the minimalist white lighting. From my vantage point, I can see a singer with two microphones and a drummer. Word on the street is How To Dress Well is lacking two members because they had visa problems and are still in Canada, so I am told to lower my expectations of the reduced capacity of the band. They enter the stage, the singer and the drummer bounce deep R&B off the walls and the bass hits me in the gut. Reduced capacity my ass. The singer coos and flies into falsetto at will.
However, some technical difficulties occur by the second song, so the singer pleads for some retro-continuity, a mulligan, if you will, and they play the second song again and the crowd is on his side and they applause madly after the last notes float out of the speakers. I am so far back now that I can only see the singer’s forhead and the drummer is utterly invisible to me, so I take a position in what looks like a private booth already occupied by a cuddling couple I’ve never meet. The table is wet so the outside of my Moleskine soaks in a puddle of beer.
The band still sounds great with a few dozen rows of people in between the speakers and I. How To Dress Well, for me, comes alive when their music reaches its critical mass of volume and emotion, when the singer croons his falsetto into the second microphone outfitted with a hefty dose of digital delay. My notebook soaked, I stick it in my jacket pocket and head as close as I can and dance with the crowd. It’s not the sweatiest dancing I’ve done, but it’s pretty damn close. There’s a lot of yelled conversations with my ragtag group of radio station and writer companions amid our boogying, and I have a good time. The show ends, everyone’s exhausted, but a few companions head down the street for an ill advised shot of whiskey, and I don’t want to go home alone tonight, so I buy a gyro from the food cart and eat it in bed.
Tomorrow I go to see Alex Cameron and Foxygen at the Blue Moose and then Swearing At Motorists and The Sea And Cake at the Mill. Hopefully nothing bad happens at these shows and I have a good time like I did tonight, so until then, goodnight.
Again, I let people in the crowd write whatever they want in my notebook. Some of it’s incoherent. Here’s what they wrote, unedited (emphasis theirs):
“I CAN’T SEE A THING” – TA
“LACKING CANADIAN BAND MATES. NOT DRESSED VERY WELL.” – AB
“I’ve been thinking we could do this better” – DH
“What do you think it would take to have the sweet fiber optic cables in Gabe’s in every room I go in for the rest of my life?” – MD
“Just because they say it’s casual does not mean they won’t find you in the crowd and lay their head on your shoulder; tell that shit”-JK
You, my friend are a vision… A daring soul, a wild spirit full of flatbread and KRUI’s golden dude of sorts. I’m Socrates, by the way. Holla if you love Billy Joel!
Socky, AKA Socrates” – some nice lady who is clearly not Socrates and didn’t write her initials.
“The show was great; Joe was better” – JPC
“Reminiscent of the best essence of Brooklyn. That loose shirt. That grace. That deep spice” – JAW
“OH MY FUCK HE’S BEEN MULCHED!” – initials scribbled out, replaced with “Some Guy.”
“What in the name of SWEET FUCK” – DMM
“LOOK HOW LOUD I HAVE TO YELL!” – BLS
“Frigg off, Taylor Swift!” – JL
“I had fun. I have a separated shoulder” – TK, some guy who dresses… sharp.