Rockstar vs. The World Crime League
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By Ron Garmon
Culture is endlessly recursive, as reporters and documentarians know; you can trace the origins of most social behavior surprisingly far back in history, even the postmodern Yuletide custom of SantaCon – hordes of inebriated citizens in cheap Santa Claus outfits staging a marathon charge through select bars and public spaces. The roots in early 20th century surrealism are easy to discern and almost a century old.As Christmas became a mass-produced cultural experience, the very ubiquity of the fat, fur-trimmed icon became, in turn, oppressive, even totalitarian, so the impulse to lampoon the Big Red One became irresistible. Then, too, the public scarcely needs instruction from Damon Runyon’s “The Lemon Drop Kid” to know street-corner St. Nicks can be a raffish lot. Since public roistering itself has been on the downgrade since VJ Day, that this idea took so long to lunge its way into the zeitgeist is as puzzling as it was tardy.
And so it was with a certain historical inevitability that the San Francisco branch of the Cacophony Society threw the first SantaCon in 1994. The idea: (1) parody the rotten-souled commercialism of the Xmas season; (2) acquit (with honor and no dignity) the Cacophonic principles of antic anarchy; and (3) get five-bells, call-the-cops plastered with many of one’s current and future close personal friends.
Founded in the mid-1980s on the bones of the daredevil Suicide Club of San Francisco, the Society remains dedicated to the proposition that if you can’t beat the system, you might as well slip it a joy buzzer. The L.A. branch is best known in prankster lore for the zombie delegation it fielded during the 2000 Democratic National Convention and, in the hearts of many of the veteran Santas assembled last Saturday at Echo Park Lake for the Santacon ’08, the memory of that triumph was yet green. With a touch of formaldehyde.
Less Full Disclosure Than Modified Limited Hang Out
Though not present at that particular hallucination, I’ve run with L.A. Cacophony some. One February night, a bunch of us dragged a couple tons of dead Christmas trees down to a distant fire pit on Dockweiler Beach. There, in outrageous ceremony, we salted the dry and knotted heap with fireworks and set it alight. Cops are generally quick to buzz Dockweiler, but that night miraculously stayed away as the pile detonated, taking crude icons with it. As fireballs from Roman candles roared past my ears and my eyes filled with flame, I realized anarchy is wherever it can be pulled off.
The Running of the Beards
Not that last Saturday afternoon at Echo Park Lake was anything even so small-bore apocalyptic. The gathering of the Santas at the boathouse was on a comedy level somewhere closer to the Firesign Theatre, as nearly 300 crowded the park. There were hippie, hipster and biker Santas; Santas in Lucha Libre and green gorilla masks; and some tall St. Nick with a star on his eye like Paul Stanley from KISS. All moved in cheery circles around red-suited and tinsel-daubed ladies, some of them too slinky and sexed-up for lap-sitting shifts at any department store.
I paused at the sidewalk at Lemoyne Street, pulled over my street clothes the already-ratty $39.95 Santa suit I’d bought at Hollywood Toy Co. the day before, adjusted beard, hat and sunglasses, and joined the throng.
Bottles passed from hand to hand, and it was plain many participants had already glugged down considerable starters as Zero Hour approached. I haven’t taken a drink in six years, but instead steeled myself against the rigors ahead with several tokes of Sandoz-grade kush, so the scene took on an almost unbearably loony aspect. Bullhorns led a ragged chorus of “Come All Ye Faithless”:
Sing, choirs of sinners,
Sing in expectation
Oh, sing, oh, sing, like Jesus H. Christ.
Glory to God who will damn you all.
On our horde’s periphery, the civilians who got it were grinning broadly and those who didn’t were plain by their puzzled or hostile expressions. Within, all was restless bonhomie until organizers wheeled five rented school buses into line along Glendale Avenue and we piled in. I dropped down next to a squiffy dude chugging foamy tequila from a plastic bottle and occasionally spitting graceful arcs out the window into traffic. The caravan lurched forward and chugged down Sunset Boulevard with a lusty group hoot.
Snowballs on Sunset
We turned left for Silver Lake. Too big for any one bar, the party split itself between the 4400 Club and El Cid, with a trickle of red-suited roisterers staggering between the two. Inside El Cid, a pretty-boy tranny displayed a formidable ass (upon which someone thoughtfully marked in Sharpie “Santa comes here”), while drunks encouraged two female St. Nicks to make out, and I knew a moment of almost mind-bending tranquility as the PA unloaded Ben E. King’s “Stand by Me.” Knots of Cacophonists stopped traffic with sudden, oft-pointless dashes across Sunset Boulevard while startled drivers leaned on their horns and howled in laughter. Hippie Santas sprawled on the sidewalk and I was glad to see whey-faced twentysomethings rolling crunk-bombers with all the precision of their Boomer forebears.
There was apparently some hitch in the route, as organizers kept busy on cell phones and the party dug in along this stretch of the boulevard until late afternoon. By sundown, a semi-permanent Santa refugee camp had formed. Then, a kindly someone dumped a few hundred pounds of cracked ice onto 4400’s parking lot and an instant free-for-all ensued, with shrieking revelers lobbing crude snowballs over traffic. Just as I’d begun to nuzzle a promising female Santa or two, the cry went up for departure and we crammed our jollity into the buses and slowly rolled toward Hollywood and Highland.
Our stately procession west was escorted by dozens of bicycle Santas weaving with boozy expertise through Saturday evening traffic. Every stoplight occasioned a full-throated roar that bounced riotously off shop windows. By the time we pulled up to the Hollywood & Highland Center, the party had reached a boisterous peak, the group had jelled into something resembling ideological cohesion, and we charged the escalators with froot-loop élan. At the top, we clotted outside uWink’s futurist cocktail bar, looked out over the shoppers milling below, and started up a group chant of “Buy more shit!” that the mock-Babylonian architecture echoed many times its already monstrous volume.
Security panicked. One runty guard ran around shrieking threats of cops and jail, while his co-workers eyed us in nervous embarrassment. Most of the party moved downstairs to the Power House, a venerable Highland Avenue dive well used to rowdies. I lingered there myself a while before legging it with a knot of other Santas down to a distant corner of Yucca Street where the buses waited. Inside one, I skinned out of what was left of my now-mangy suit and got high with a comely female elf. The sidewalk outside began to fill with bedraggled Kringles and fresh bottles were passed around as I temporarily abandoned the party for home and wardrobe change. One Santa was falling over a potted palm tree as I rounded the corner, with throngs more reeling up Cahuenga, hungry for fresh outrages. The next stop was Jumbo's Clown Room, a famous booty-works not unknown to me.
Epilogue: Because the Night
Barely 90 minutes later, I stood outside the closed doors of the Echoplex on Glendale Avenue, where a remnant of Santacon 2008 had convened around the entrance, carefree and wasted before the afterparty. I’d just chemically primed myself to dance all night to mashups at Bootie L.A. when a delightful lady named Velvet gently grabbed my wrist and said simply, “Hi.” We dallied pleasantly at Echo Park Lake, a few yards from where this mishigas had begun half a day before, and saw other fragments of our party with similar ideas. It was past 11 when my new friend split for O.C. and home and I met a straggler Santa from San Pedro wandering along Sunset Boulevard, hot to party, but little-lamb lost. I steered him to the entrance and tottered off downtown, already hours late for the clubs. But even Santa must feel the weight of years and hours on Christmas Eve, so I bent clubward: Partying is way too serious a business to leave to fat men in red.
by Ron Garmon
Welcome to Hell. Population, You: Among the many and varied effects of Burning Man upon national culture is that it vindicates a long-cherished, if little-expressed, American desire to drive to another planet.
Admirers of Godard’s classic SF film Alphaville will get it at once, but the weeklong countercultural festival’s working mise en scene is more Fellini as underbid by Roger Corman. Turning off Highway 447 in northeastern Nevada onto the chalk-dusty board-flat Black Rock Desert, one’s first impression is a monstrous blankness. The playa presents an ego-flattening sight of infinity, with a poison bite of gypsum dust doing little for one’s sense of security. The wind, which abruptly changes speed and direction, routinely kicks up whorls, even tornadoes, of the stuff, but most of the time everything visible is lent a grainy texture, like stepping into a battered print of a 1975 movie, all scratches and faded Eastmancolor. Daytime temperatures can reach well above 100 degrees Fahrenheit, a hideous wake-n-bake rendering sleep heavier than a light soppy doze impossible. Occasionally a weary voice crackles from a bullhorn, reminding you to drink water or die. Long intervals of sweat-sodden effort alternate with lizardly inactivity; both are bearable by thought of sundown, a few minutes after which the mercury begins a drop of up to 60 degrees. The wind stills – usually – and the annual temporary municipality of Black Rock City, Nevada, gets its party on.
Go Ask Alice, When She’s 10 Feet Tall: The streets, lit by processions of costumed volunteers, surge with stoned pedestrians, drink-addled bicyclists, and dozens of gaudy art cars, ranging from golf carts tricked out as teacups to double-decker buses got up like the Empress of Ireland. All tour the sights and most participate in the show, if only to the extent of making a public jackass of oneself, like the thick-eared oafs pounding each other with padded sticks at Thunderdome, or the brave fools competing in Dance-Dance Immolation, a contest of twinkletoed skill garnished with flamethrowers.
If one has drugs, this is the hour to consume them, along with great floods of booze given away at dozens of ramshackle taprooms like the Lost Penguin and Spike’s Vampire Bar. Wandering your drunk ass into a private camp is as likely to get you forcibly bum-rushed as welcomed as brother-of-some-other-mother, so this is seldom done without an invite. An ex-soak myself, I wince at the amount of high-end booze and cheap beer I see gurgled down in that hot, dry environment, so hangover-unfriendly.
Nor is this the only fellow-feeling on tap at Burning Man. The only things for sale at the entire festival are ice at three locations and coffee at Center Camp, so any mainstream Gob-fearing Americano wandering in would be shocked to his Bass Weejuns at how much antisocial bullshit is eliminated thereby. Loud noise, weird clothing, pimp’d rides, absurdist architecture, and murderous art are all things Angelenos may take in stride, but the dominant vibe of loving kindliness can trigger a psychic meltdown. The shedding of urban teeth and claws is often a wrench for the more cynical newbie. You see their occasional public freakouts, as bourgeois individualism abruptly collides with the real thing for perhaps the first time in the subject’s life and (s)he scrambles to lift the psychic curtain on what must be a trick. Finding there’s isn’t one will determine what dear ole Hollywood calls the “takeaway” for any participant.
The Awful Majesty of the Law: Burning Man’s co-existence with authorities evolved over time after the event’s origins at San Francisco’s Baker Beach in 1986, when friends and bystanders burnt Larry Harvey’s first Man. An amateur sculptor and untutored social theorist certain he was onto something, Harvey eventually dragged one out to the northern Nevada playa for a 1990 Cacophony Society one-off called Zone Trip #4. The idea caught on, the ad-hoc group got a Bureau of Land Management permit the next year, and the event grew steadily since, breeding devotees, dissidents, pop-cult references, rumors, scandal, bootleg Burner Chix Gone Wild vid, and a deliciously queasy possibility of returning from the event in a zip-lock bag. Your ticket on the back waives liability by Burning Man Organization (BMORG) in case of “death or serious injury,” but not even a note from Cthulhu can save you from the prying eyes of cops.
Ostensibly, the closest thing Burners have to a community police force is the Black Rock Rangers; rakish, bushmaster-hatted folk trained in the arts of nonviolent problem solution. If you expect to publicly toke in the manner of L.A. b-boyz and hipsters, then you have a problem with any one of dozens of BLM feds, state, and local police, along with a curious Nevada statute making giving the shit away (even passing the burn-barrel dutchie ’pon the left-hand side) “distribution of narcotics.” This not only plays ordinary courtesy false, but directly affronts the gift economy of Burning Man, along with other generous impulses it inevitably loosens. As a rule, when a gorgeous young thing sporting a Nevada-hick accent walks up out of the mob with a compost-eating grin and a “Hey, man, um, ya got any drugs?” you may feel yourself free to laugh at the cop academy from which she matriculated.
The amount of actual crime seems limited to pilferage and the wages of addled stupidity, like the accidents that brought on BRC’s five-mile-an-hour speed limit. The rest is just the kind of random destruction to be expected in a festival devoted to fire, explosions, and wreckage. The ultimate caper in that line thus far is prankster Paul Addis’s 2007 premature burning of the Man. The upright crisp was dubbed Char Man, but didn’t last, as the pro-environment Green Man theme was hastily ditched in an effort to run up a replacement.
The rest of the week was marred by persistent dust storms and the Wednesday suicide-by-hanging of a despondent festivalgoer. Many had already sworn never to return, but I knew I would, even as wind lashed well past dark on Labor Day and blasts of impenetrable dirt delayed our departure many hours. It was 12:40 Tuesday morning when the wind stopped, the sky abruptly clearing over a town that had shrunk by 95%. There was a giant fire going out in the open desert, with drummers pounding mournfully around it. An invincible oontz-oontz pumped from the Root Society dome a half-mile away and a plaintive Roy Acuff tune wailed in the middle distance – another weary hillbilly itching to go home.
Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere: The theme this year is The American Dream, which itself was enough to keep many veteran Burners away, since “America” itself is what most American Burners run out to the desert to escape. Internet rumor was coalescing around the idea that Larry Harvey was going to stage some kind of Disneyoid flag-fuck starring a cast of fascist hippies, naked cheerleaders, and a 20-foot-tall animatronic Chuck Norris roundhouse-kicking random frat boys into a better tomorrow.
Prospect of Ground Zero at that pretty hallucination caused me to lash my gear together, lay in chemical augmentation, secure an early-entry pass, and hitch a ride to Nevada two Thursdays before Labor Day. Camping for the first time with the Black Rock Yearbook, I met Boz and Kiki in Pasadena, helped load their RV, and fell promptly asleep, waking in Nevada 12 hours later. Kiki is a pretty young camp-mama with a cute ass, and her man is one of those steely-eyed professionals with drive, organizational ability, and astounding talent for dissipation who made of America what it so evidently is.
The “Welcome to Nowhere” sign at the gas station in Nixon, Nevada, looming in front of my sleep-blurred eyes was a nice reminder I’d left L.A. One of three flyspeck towns on the way to the Black Rock Desert, Nixon is followed by Empire and Gerlach, the last-named a mining town whose three bars serve its 500 inhabitants. We arrived on-playa in the afternoon, when a few thousand freaks were working on installation between bouts of drinking and squawking through bullhorns. Friday night, I collapsed on a couch at an open-air cinema running 1906 Georges Melies trick movies. Saturday night at Opulent Temple rocked hard, with big gouts blasting from flamethrowers outside a titty bar whose entrance blazed like the tollbooth to Gehenna. “Gimme Back My Bullets” was detonating over the PA, and inside a stageful of undulating amateur strippers was just beginning to get out-of-control. I felt like I’d landed in Hillbilly Heaven, and sight of my first cop car on Sunday morning confirmed it.
Thanks to (spotty) wi-fi at Center Camp, I had a good long laugh at Obama’s naming of Joe Biden as his running mate. Burnerdom is as full of Obama-helium as anywhere, but few had kind words for Biden, sponsor of the RAVE act, which sought to outlaw desert dance parties to keep American youth safe from the temptations of breakbeats and bottled water. Since Burning Man is the King Kong daddy of all raves, Biden’s elevation is accepted here as part of Democrats’ long mutation into the No-Fun Charlies of national politics.
There’s also the general sense that conventional politics has nothing to do with them and they’re partially right. Certainly most participants have long since dropped out of what’s left of middle-American consensus reality due to precarious careers, nontraditional personal lives, or simple distaste. Still, it’s hard to imagine Burning Man in anywhere near its present form absent the eight hyper-materialistic, war-ridden, culturally sterile years of George Dubya Bush. Since the values, mores, and social expectations of Black Rock City are the point-for-point opposite of what obtains at home in the Last Superpower, it takes considerable effort of will to avoid concluding that the festival represents anything other than a sledgehammer critique of things as they are.
Looking around at art and theme camps these querulous and party-hardy folk are running up – bizarre caricatures of Uncle Sam; ironic tributes to bankruptcy, debt, consumerism; Orwellian placards and pyramid-eye paranoia – is to behold a dusty and temporary repetition-as-farce of individualism and the Affluent Society. Children playing amid industrial and ideological rubble, Burners grope to build a new world out of the post-Cold War, post-prosperity junk bequeathed by the practical joker of History.
Of Coif, Commute and Another Day at the Office: At midnight Sunday, horns and sirens went off all over the skeletal city, as the first official arrivals started rolling through the gate. Building and revelry grew frenzied, stopping not at all for the afternoon-long dust storm that whited-out most of the town. Waves of sexy new arrivals hit camp, each on a trail of hoopla and toasts. Gamey and unkempt, I went out in the middle of this alkali clusterfuck for a spot of personal maintenance; having my bleached-blond hair chopped into a Mohawk by a girl named Madeleine, my pubes trimmed by a boy named Cupcake, and letting strangers bathe me at the Human Carcass Wash, a camp specializing in assembly-line cleanliness, restored me to humanity, even civilization.
As the days passed, our camp gradually became a microcosm of the entire festival, a ceaseless round of indulgence and good cheer that no force of wind or weather could interrupt. My first two burns were the exact same, with last year’s blissfully gilded with near-constant cosmic sex with a treasured lover. Shorn of Chick, I instead had Story, but not even Gilles de Rais could write in the National Lampoon blur of boobs, bootie, and poppers ever before my eyes at Center Camp. So, on Tuesday, I lugged my computer over to the Black Rock Beacon, the playa newspaper, some distance away. Walking to work through a clownshow is nothing startling for an Angeleno, but a morning commute though cheerful clowns, along with dancing girls, hopping bunny-people, spooning couples, winged fairies, and gay cowboys limping home from some rectal rodeo affords a spectacle not oft-afoot even on Santa Monica Boulevard. I’m greeted by my playa name of “Rockstar” everywhere I go and my awesomeness is commented upon, as I respond with “Bellissima!” “Rock on!” and “Nice thong, d00t.” Friends demand to know what deviltry I’m up to and when they can read it. In the country of the Weird, even gonzo journalists are de facto members of an invisible and esoteric Establishment.
A heavier cat by far in this Freak Kingdom’s counsels is Mitchell Martin, editor-in-chief and resident Charlie Kane of the Beacon. His “default-world” job as editor at the online Forbes and a talent for forensic accounting leads him to the conviction that organizers aren’t getting rich off the festival. “It’s not the best organizational structure in that it has a paid hierarchy and beneath that, a layer of unpaid volunteers,” drawled Mitch, his eyes bright with cynical amusement. “It’s a very good model for reintroduction of feudalism, but it leaves a certain amount of democracy to be desired.
“Larry Harvey is reputed to make six figures – just six figures – which for an executive living in San Francisco isn’t much,” Mitch said, framing his points with the assurance of a man who loses few arguments. “The problem with Burning Man is you have a for-profit corporation staffed overwhelmingly by volunteers. Insofar as they’re volunteers who love Burning Man, no problem; they can always walk. We report on them, which is adversarial, but not unfriendly. One of the things we’re pushing for is increased economic data on Burning Man to tell us more about the city. Their financial statement is not particularly transparent, but you do know most of their income is ticket sales. They’re not trying to hide anything, it’s just not anyone’s job to know this stuff.”
Such data would give observers a good idea of the long-term viability of semi-utopian projects like Burning Man. To Mitch, the idea that the event lost its special character with increasing size is rubbish. “This desert, at this population density, can hold literally millions. The only size limitation is the tiny little road out of here to Gerlach. The fun thing about Burning Man is theme camps like ours who spend their time and money and food and drink to make it a big party as well as an experiment. If a million people a year showed up, that would be fine with me.”
Also hanging around the Beacon’s tent-office is Caleb Schaber, playa-name “Shooter.” This rangy, heavily inked fellow is, next to Paul Addis (now residing in a state prison elsewhere in Nevada), BMORG’s pet pain-in-the-ass. He started at the festival in 2000, as a Department of Public Works (DPW) volunteer who eventually made foreman with a ducal salary of $100 a day from the festival, plus all the volunteers he could recruit. “I used to give out a few $50 positions too,” added Shooter, a sometime-war correspondent with a nice sense of political leverage. “I had a $500 slush fund that I’d use to buy you whatever you want to work for free – socks, booze, rent money. A carton of cigarettes goes a long way out here.”
Bagmen peeling off Ben Franklin paper for favors are unremarkable, but what’s Burnerly about this is, along with the ludicrously small sums, the gonzo intensity of doing this shit for art’s sake, man. Still, after a DPW worker was killed in an accident before the festival in 2001, the joke of “radical self-reliance” was beginning to go a bit far for institutional tastes. “After that,” according to Shooter, “BMORG made everyone sign a ‘death waiver’ before they could volunteer.” This submission to sub-Dickensian conditions soured him on the org, but not the festival, a sentimental patriotism that curtains effective rabble-rousing. “People don’t report injuries,” he added. “I’m talking people who are into politics and rights, but they don’t wanna make waves or be responsible for an art piece not getting on the playa because they were hurt.”
This brute clash of material conditions vs. new-minted ideals gets replayed by everyone at the event, and organizers, being human, can abandon the latter as quickly as anyone else. Still, Burners are far keener than most on affairs being arranged for the People, not the Price. Tickets are among the least noteworthy expenses for participants, and any ambitious gearhead with $500 to buy a used San Francisco muni bus will sink tens of thousands and a flood of sweat equity turning it into a rolling bordello or pirate ship. Camps develop around these projects, giving participants an involvement entirely missing from popular culture and community life in the wider world.
Inebriation: The Final Frontier: By Thursday night, life in BRC was on a rising parabola of activity, even as the early arrivals began to flag and the one road in was clogging with weekenders. Whorls of white powder vanished up already cracked noses, and the ancient injunction against public sex was beginning to go by the boards, at least at night. The erotic atmosphere is about the most mind-altering aspect of life on the playa, as out-front sexuality, self-reliance, and owning your lust combine in a sex culture as courtly, even romantic, as it is skank-randy. This is the part I can least resist, but was scarcely alone.
In order to better balance the stern demands of story and gonads, I resorted to a heavy intake of marijuana and psylocibe cubensis, each toked bud and chewed cap transubstantiated from indictable Nevada offense to ineffably Nirvanic effect. Again, I was following a parade of tosspots, acid freaks, clit-bumpers, weed huffers, psychonauts, and candy-flip babies as one more lodge-brother. The whole scene was like an immense, drug-fueled version of the dance-marathon in They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? or if Hunter and Oscar had driven the White Whale into Bastille Day instead of business-as-usual on the Vegas Strip. A closer literary ancestor to this din is the fantasy novels of Thorne Smith, in which pretty young things run amok with faded rakes fevered by booze and quim, committing every witty indecency. Like such jazzbaby ancestors, we practice the ancient, if dangerous, doctrine that in heroic overstimulation is wisdom, if not transcendence.
Burning Man may well turn out to be one last freakish kink in the tail of the Frontier Thesis of American history. Articulated by historian Frederick Jackson Turner at the 1893 Columbia Exposition in Chicago, the idea that American culture rounded a fatal corner with the closing of the frontier has proven a remarkably durable meme, one never quite supplanted by an American Dream of endless consumption. If a sense of individual possibility was closed off, another opened with the myth of the road, of escape from society through constant motion. Alas, the marketplace makes every place like everyplace else and, apart from such GPS-forsaken sites as the Black Rock Desert, there’s no escape from its sway.
Such is the main heresy of Burning Man, more significant than any amount of pity and terror, sex and drugs. That self-willed exit from standardized reality is possible, even fun, is as radical in its way as realization one can’t eat money or discovery that the palaces of the rich are constructed of flammable material too.
Burn Night and Coda: These are but the idle thoughts of a whited-out Saturday afternoon. The Man burns in a few hours, but the wind is lashing tons of dirt around, stinging all the exposed skin and provoking talk of delaying the event. Which is what did end up happening, with the Man finally igniting a bit before midnight, as the post-Burn parties were already raging hard all over the city. Thousands gathered for the rite, with the 90-foot wooden structure expiring in a flaming heap after shooting off tons of fireworks. Thousands of festivalgoers rushed the fire and began the obligatory three-times-around march. Clothes were discarded, music from nearby art-cars thunderclapped, and the madness was on. At one point, a crew dragged up a large wooden statue with the cry “We’re burning Lady Liberty!” In she went with shouts from dust-blistered throats as loudspeakers blared Lenny Kravitz’s combustible cover of “American Woman.”
Hours later, a new friend and I were cuddled under her blanket at the Uncle Sam zoetrope on the far end of the playa. Out there in that place of blank vastation was “The End,” an unimposing sign denoting the farthermost piece of playa art and the last frame of the movie in which all 50,000+ of us starred. With gorgeous boof, it went up, pushing a black mushroom cloud skyward. Forty minutes later, kids were still peddling up on bicycles to see what the fuck had happened.
Cover story, LA CityBeat
Sept. 4, 2008
Photos by Curious Josh Reiss
By Ron Garmon
An undercurrent in the tsunami of grief welling up for comedian George Carlin, dead of heart failure last weekend at age 71, is surprise the querulous old bastard lived so long.
Justly compared in influence and fearlessness to Richard Pryor, the New York-born controversialist had little of Pryor’s winsome sensitivity and even less desire for the slow-motion martyrdom that claimed Lenny Bruce, their mutual hero and model. Unlike both, Carlin, hard-living and fatalism aside, seemed built to last much longer than one year past the allotted threescore-and-ten. His slow evolution from early-’60s Lenny-manqué to likeably scabrous hippie potty-mouthing the censors to old and crabbed cynic fully convinced “America is finished” would be just one more example of an artist mistaking flesh’s decay for the ruin of the world, but in Carlin’s case, he was being perfectly accurate, even reasonable.
Carlin’s range as actor never strayed far from the spacey, wisecracking hippies he played in films from Car Wash (1977) to the Bill & Ted movies, but his incisive outrageousness as standup comedian kept him before the public longer than most of his contemporaries. In his time, the institution of comic mutated from stringently licensed jester (like Lenny) to in-group cheerleader (like George Lopez, Ellen DeGeneres and dozens of other identity-politicians), with gravel-voiced Carlin providing most of what used to be called “relevance” in between. A devoted connoisseur of hypocrisy, stupidity and ethical laziness in the suphurous mode of H.L. Mencken, the comedian laid into our collective slack with a will that seems scarcely believable in an era steeped in euphemism and P.C.
Iraq, Dubya, and the wholesale decline of national fortunes gave Carlin something of a last hurrah in recent years, which he used to pummel us with ever-nastier, ever-truer observations on our shortcomings. “I’m happy to tell you there’s very little in this world that I believe in,” he observed toward the end. “Watching other comedians comment on political, social, and cultural issues, I notice most of their comments reflect some kind of belief things were better once. I don’t feel so confined. I frankly don’t give a fuck how it turns out for this country. That is precisely what I find amusing, the slow circling drain by a once-promising species and the sappy, ever-more desperate belief in this country there’s some sort of American Dream which has merely been misplaced. My motto: Fuck hope.”
There’ll be little enough cause to ask what this late, stupendously gifted funnyman would think of a President Obama and his rhetoric of “Hope” in the midst of our general, scrambling disintegration. We already know.
Published: 06/25/2008 in LA CITY BEAT
On a happier note, I'm now Arts Editor at the BEAT!
By Ron Garmon
If you can imagine an infinite variety of Kubla Khan pleasure-domes tucked within the rotting walls of the old Warehouse District, then you are already partially down with the L.A. underground. The rest of the way one finds by the ghost light of insider information, as was the case with the Lantern Festival put on by the sexy firebugs at Phoenix Projekt last Saturday night. Somewhere on an obscure street corner in Little Tokyo, waves of garishly dressed goddesses, freaks and party animalia were squeezing fur and feathers into minivans hired to haul them to the secret location of yet another private debauch.
The shuttle is fine fun, and a colorable chance to strike acquaintance with a G-stringed stranger – I tend to manage first impressions well with the subject sitting on my lap – but totally unnecessary if you have the address. Which I did, but it proved necessary, as I could feel the telltale subsonic oontz-oontz of DJ vibrations thumping against my inner ear as I loped across the Sixth Street bridge to the party. Pausing at Mateo Street, I noted the festive lights of the LAPD flashing in the distance and trusted J.Q. Law had his usual better things to do.
The subsonic beat grew stronger as I headed north on Imperial Street, past rows of battered buildings of elderly brick and dirty stucco. Tonight’s jollification was at the noble Beaux-Arts firehouse on South Santa Fe Boulevard, and this onetime home of Engine Company No. 17 was already rocking as I legged down the dim alley to the gate. The countercultural art party “L.A. vs. the War” made clever use of the courtyard and cavernous interior last month, but Phoenix Projekt had done the place up in a startling pan-Asian Burner Nouveau, with two DJ stations, bars, massage tables and art exhibits scattered throughout. Even by the design-snobbish standards of the underground, the décor was first-rate and the rooms functional and comfortable. Outside, the Phoenix troupe was putting on the first of three combustible dance performances, with the winsome cast spinning, juggling, caressing, eating and spitting flame to whoops and applause. The event was a fundraiser for Burners Without Borders, an organization aiming to harness the protean energies of the Burning Man subculture to humanitarian uses.
The festival, legal, fully permitted and sealed at every aperture by events staff, was beginning to surge with the downtown party elite. A vast, close-knit karass peopled with sexy ladies and eccentric gentlemen living full tilt boogie in a private D.I.Y. Jazz Age, this is a cadre I’ve seen in many combinations in warehouses, office blocks, nightclubs, deserts and forests spread across two states. Some danced, others lounged and smoked peppermint from big hookahs, still others moved in meditative frenzy though a proggy barrage on the dance floor. The heavy brick of the firehouse effectively muffled the noise from inside and the van arrived every few minutes with a dozen or so cheery friends and appetizing strangers, so we all socialized between gouts of fire from the stage. The art rooms got heavy play, Cristina McAllister’s leafy and tumescent female images being perfectly in synch with the incipient goatishness going on around me.
Denizens of this particular subculture survive all manner of party-related accidents, overindulgence and police encounters in jaunty style. Even so, I was surprised and pleased to see dainty blonde imp Lynnsane up and dancing after her celebrated fall last New Year’s Eve. 2008 was scarcely a few minutes old when this heedless beauty casually hula-hooped off the roof of an abandoned building, plunging 35 feet through a skylight onto a concrete dance floor. She looked like a broken Barbie as I peered down through the smashed glass, convinced the scene had paid for our fun with some of its dearest blood. Her warmth as I held her close convinced the empiricist in me she was very alive.
So was the party, which was beginning to veer further off the hook with each load of revelers. It was already just past the midnight hour and voices from the crowd were calling for DJ Oscure, 1990s breakbeat pioneer and the evening’s star attraction for the dance-dance set. It was just at that psychic moment when I wandered out to Santa Fe for a smoke and found the LAPD there.
Four friendly, grinning cops stood at the gate, peering at the paper-lantern hullabaloo deep inside the alley and dropping hints about a noise beef made by some disgruntled citizen or other. They took their time going in, but soon afterward the plug was pulled on the outside DJ stand, sending a first wave of deserters piling into the shuttle back to the rendezvous point. The hardcore refused to be routed, and we all packed inside, our bodies providing an extra layer of insulation against Breakbeat Buddha’s set. He upped the tempo, mugging and capering, cranking the party to life. Veterans congratulated themselves on Burner-ly sticktoitiveness, and the goodtime arc rose to another giddy parabola before the inside DJ was abruptly shut off as well.
Bratton’s boys have been leaning on the downtown party scene hard this year, with several recent events raided on unknown or specious pretexts. Indeed, one semi-permanent scene playhouse was cleared out one cold midwinter’s night even as a line of ticket-holders wound down an unlit street, and the only neighbors for blocks around were the species of rat unable to use a cell phone. It would be a lamentable night in the underground when the odds of seeing a cop draw even with those of kissing an ex-lover. Whether the shutdown better illustrates the power of Artist District gentrification or the futility of getting a police permit is still an open question at press time.
Well, on the eighth day, God created the after-party, and officers didn’t stay to hustle us out after the music ended. There was talk of action over on Washington Boulevard somewhere in the teens, and Cre8tivity, a Westside party-space hidden inside a vacant office building, was hosting another of its infrequent all-night romps. Home and keyboard were nearer than either, so I squeezed friends goodbye and made for Whittier Boulevard, where the only sounds troubling the early-morning air traditionally come from sirens and helicopters.
LA CITY BEAT
By Ron Garmon
It was blazing hot already when the car arrived for me and my driver bumped the mercury still higher. Mary-Jane is a platinum-haired vixen in leopard prints who makes the old men in my Boyle Heights ’hood quiver like cartoon lupines, so against a backdrop of skinned eyeballs, we bolted for the big noize n’ art party in Indio. I was sanguine my previous two years covering this high-Fahrenheit amalgam of dance marathon, open-air absurdist museum, and Dick Clark’s Day of the Dead would offer no challenge to my party-commando ass. Even ominous political signage like JOHN BENOIT: CONSERVATIVE REPUBLICAN dotting the roads betrayed only the obvious fact we were entering Planet Dubya, a place little understood by the international rock & roll set.
Security inside the Coachella compound Thursday night was already amped to palpably uptight levels; rude officials in cheap polo shirts made already-burdensome activities like camping and parking a confusing welter of closed gates, long marches and barked orders about wristbands. Indeed, events staff seemed concerned with little else; any conversation with them that didn’t turn upon what strip of paper around which wrist was universally met with cud-chewing apathy and, by Friday, the general atmosphere among campers was heavy with fuming. A Do Lab neighbor and longtime Coachella vet noted, “There are a lot of new rules changes this year, and all of them for the worse.” MJ was indignant. “I didn’t come all the way out here to be bossed by some guy in a three-dollar hat!” she huffed.
Friday lifted off magnificently despite the clampdown, and, by afternoon, the polo field was alive with dance kids and the rock fancy giggling gobstruck at the monumental art. The Do Lab’s acre-sized mist paradise was jammed with a pleasing variety of squirming half-nakedness and the grounds beyond were a sea of sweating goodtimers. American Bang tossed off an impressive series of Southern rock M-80s, as these Tennessee boyos went with brio after the young ’uns crowding the Mojave tent, jerking the kids around like marionettes.
Outside, festival curator Phil Blaine’s upended toy box of outsized art obliterated the event’s iconic palm-ringed horizon. The Copper Droopscape gleamed like doubloons hung in air, while the Big Rig Jig – two 18-wheel tanker trucks welded together in a Peak Oil corkscrew – towered monstrously over the midway. MJ and I endured a series of young, clean-cut locals whose pleas to sell them drugs had a noticeably coplike briskness. We lingered under the Lab’s gigantically spreading petals until night fell.
A skirl of bagpipes summoned Goldfrapp to the Mojave stage. Allison looked ravishing in a pink minidress, leading her band through frantic bursts of maximum disco ending with a chain-lightning rendition of “Strict Machine” splattering the air with sweat and pheromones. At the Sahara, Richard D. James of Aphex Twin presided over a lysergically creepy graveyard hum. Passing on Aesop Rock’s clotted hip-hop, we waded through the early-evening chaos to mainstage to tarry for every second of the Verve’s proud, soulful turn. Their first American performance since the breakup a decade ago was one of the most moving I’ve ever heard, as they spellbound a vast haul of old-line fans and blinking novices right up through “Bittersweet Symphony,” which front man Richard Ashcroft dedicated to the late Hunter S. Thompson. After such professionalism, the half-hour wait for Fatboy Slim at the Sahara seemed a bit steep a tribute for a mere iPod in shoes, so my girl and I adjourned to our tent, passing junk garage-rockers the Black Lips twittering at the Mojave some minutes before they wowed the NME by burning a guitar. Thrillsville.
Saturday, security backed way off and attendance grew to record levels, with the L.A. underground contingent there in noticeable force. Daleydale and Shiranda operated a floating party back at camp, while Curious Josh the photographer told of having charged the mainstage the day before. The cream of the DJ set disported themselves at the Do Lab while Dance Commander got a long Jumbotron look from the mainstage cameraman during Minus The Bear’s freakish and fine set. MJ and I drifted back to camp, where we solemnly ate shrooms and wandered back out for Kraftwerk.
The psychedelics came on slow, but lifted us both with decisive force. By “Trans-Europe Express,” the quartet’s celebrated cyborg disco seemed to transform a swirling hivelike crowd into dancing robots, with a long conga line of freaks clattering by at one point like unoiled, ill-coordinated androids. The atmosphere mainstage was still upbeat and party-hardy, until Portishead filled the acres all around with a stunning and magisterial gloom. I imagined the evening’s star attraction sitting backstage with a fine, foxy grin.
Prince made us wait a good while after the Portishead funeral obsequies shut down, with the lights going up at the magical and modest time of 11:11. Then, aided by Morris Day, Shelia E. and an uber-slick cast, he uncoiled a stupendous Greatest Hits show, with “1999,” “U Got the Look,” “Cream” and a puzzling cover of Radiohead’s “Creep” rolling over the polo field. The star did several virtuoso guitar runs, occasionally mugging impatience with his own awesomeness. A prolonged audience demonstration fetched Prince & Co. back to close out the night with a ferocious “Let’s Go Crazy.”
Sunday was hot and overcast, with only the hardest-core braving the last afternoon. I’m a huge fan of first-wave shoegazers Swervedriver, so not even wobbly sound and underamplified vocals took the propulsive shimmer off classic Swervie tracks like “Last Train to Satansville.” At the mainstage, gypsy punks Gogol Bordello were making the people move, with Slavic conga lines snaking through gangs of mazurka-maddened youngsters leaping in the heat. My Morning Jacket topped even this, turning in a complex and forceful set as the haze gradually dimmed to darkness.
My girl and I briefly watched Syd Klinge’s twin Tesla coils stage a wattage brawl as temperatures dropped and tens of thousands gathered for Roger Waters’s two-and-a-half-hour performance. We shoved up front during the wait, surrounded by kids who were plainly aware this was the closest they’d ever come to seeing Pink Floyd. The golden geezer emerged to play a long set of old and new songs, with fans receiving “Have a Cigar” and “Shine On You Crazy Diamond” with open reverence. As intermission time approached, a plane dropped bales of confetti which turned out to be Obama flyers that papered nearby neighborhoods, angering locals. Gas torches blazed perilously close to Floyd’s familiar giant inflated pig wallowing over the crowd, its white hide festooned with anarchist symbols. Eventually, the pig was set free, receding into a dot in the night sky just as Waters came back on to perform Dark Side of the Moon in its entirety.
As the registers rang for “Money,” MJ and I split for home, with the rest of the album following us out into the streets of Indio. As we made for the 10,“Eclipse” rattled windows along Monroe Street, and we were well ahead of one mother of a traffic jam.
~ by Ron Garmon ~
Homegrown’s all right with me.
Homegrown is the way it should be.
Homegrown is a good thing.
Plant that bell and let it ring.
American holidays ought to come complete with a rustic Jeffersonian hymn or two and Neil Young’s canniboid dirt-ditty celebrates the wake’ n’ bake spirit that rang in the first Earth Day. Proclaimed in San Francisco in 1970 as a temporal container for growing eco-awareness, April 22 inevitably became fixed in the public mind with the aligned cultural horrors of free love, burning reefers and planetary self-respect, with no less a bulwark of patriotic correctness than the Daughters of the American Revolution, with one matron warning Time magazine that “subversive elements plan to make American children live in an environment that is good for them.”
Well, as noted linguist Sam Goldwyn once mourned, “We’ve passed a lot of water since those days,” much of it into plastic bottles for employers to sniff for illicit substances, chiefly marijuana. Urine-testing as a condition for employment is a $4 billion a year industry spun off from the War on Drugs, a gigantic federal effort seeking to do the same execution on dope-sucking as the War on Terror does on anxiety. Still, as bad environmental news continues to match ongoing physical and economic deterioration visible everywhere, awareness of the limits of industrial enterprise have become acute and we are back to 1970, an anno horribilis John Lennon proposed renaming Year One.
Partisans of industrial hemp and other green-futurists point to the near-miraculous handiness of this non-psychoactive cousin to cannabis, with uses in plastics, packaging, construction, clothing, wood-pulp and biofuel. These glassy-eyed utopians have proven remarkably successful in convincing hard-headed farmers and bucolic libertarians in Kentucky, Michigan, South Dakota and elsewhere to unite in attempts to legalize cultivation. Results have been meager, but their efforts appear to be less product of the long countercultural march through the national mores than the first tentative steps toward a way out of the post-industrial impasse America has reached before any other country.
Indeed, the stuff I’ve been smoking of late gives the lie to the myth of American sloth and ineptitude. Tribute to some unknown Cali hydroponist’s illegal art, this is thick, rancorous-smelling booj lightly bristling with purple fuzz, a last chunk wedging with difficulty into the hollow of a pipe already packed with the baggie’s last sweepings. Application of flame soon kindles an un-Bushian fire in the mind and I can see the broad swaths of hemp verdantly rolling over the former Rust Belt. Acres of greenhouse cultivation spread across the inside of my eyelids, all tended by resettled urbanites grown fat and prosperous as so many nosering Babbitts. Traditional Open Door trade policy will push U.S. strains of marihooch into the eager lungs of all humanity and a cheeba-based dollar will reign supreme over an increasingly blissed and distracted global market.
This Earth Day, I urge Americans to toke for a better tomorrow.
LA CITY BEAT 4-16-08
by Ron Garmon
Hipgenesis defines itself in terms of a Phildickian consciousness coup or interdimensional ransom note: “Simultaneously a shadowy collective of artists and agent provocateurs, an increasingly disruptive series of horizonal events, and a word used to describe the transition point between reality and irreality.” This is talk to twitch the muzzle of a Homeland Security ferret but for the fact it refers to homemade debauchery, America’s last frontier and first excuse for itself.
The idea is this: You belong to an elite cadre of hedonists and high-rollers convening at odd intervals in the remoter crannies of Los Angeles, out from under the ever-lengthening shadow of the Man. Few spots are too remote or improbable for operations, and by the time theme and locale ping your inbox, you’ve laid in a dozen gaudy costumes with components to mix ’n’ match for any contingency. Anon comes the night and all assemble at some unlikely one-shot venue – downtown fire station, a South Central warehouse turned love shack, or Burbank office block made over as interdimensional spaceport – for an evening of dancing, musical performance, and the more esoteric forms of socializing. The fun goes on until you emerge blinking into the post-dawn hours and startle early-rising goodfolk on your way home.
A merry life, to be sure, and one I’ve led myself for the last couple of years, taking this comprehensive weirdness on top of my usual rock clubmanship. This sunless existence gave me a Lugosi pallor, a vast circle of friends and a distaste for the juiceless experience on tap at the local dance superclubs. Even so, the only downside to the Voodoo party Hipgenesis threw in the cavernous mainstream of Circus Disco in Hollywood on Saturday, March 22, was the 4 a.m. Hollywood curfew. Yes, yes, that’s what afterparties are for, but my own taste for such affairs was never great and dwindles every time some glitter-eyed civilian begs me score her some white-line yeyo.
Not that I didn’t abuse some privileges. Standing at the foot of a long line arterially clotted with youngsters and novice Burners, my pretty companion and I were informed by a welcoming bellow from Security this was for peeps on the guest list. This was surmounted with no trouble by the magic word “Press,” a Gorgon’s head one tries not to unsheath in polite company. Inside, one room of the two-story concrete sprawl was being worked by DJ Fatfinger, noted funketeer working electro-trance-funk havoc from behind the decks. Going for a sort of Anne Rice gothique, Hipgen’s set decorators went for a vampiric Vieux Carre carnival, with a fortune teller set up and exquisite posing from the Wandering Marionettes, a parcel of sexy undead preening in ultra-slow caricatures of worldly vanity.
Around me was a broad, tribal swath of hardcore revelers who show up at all these events. Most come from the Burning Man subculture; few bonds are firmer than with those who play with art that can kill. By midnight, Circus Disco was seething with the wild kids of Saturday night, and most of these civilians passed through our accessible- for-once party, delighted at the trimmings and taken aback at all the unclubby affection. Security was a bit laxer than in such well-upholstered penitentiaries as Vanguard, with even the guards trading hugs with us well before closing.
Indeed, it began to get downright adhesive. In a long, stately approach to the exit, I was seized and loved-upon by dozens of freakishly-dressed, hyper-sexy friends, each breathing a goodnight benediction into my ears. It was like boarding the last train from Wonkaville, or as good as Saturday night in Hollywood gets.
Published: LA CITY BEAT 03/26/2008
By Ron Garmon
A year and a half on, the self-immolation of Malachi Ritscher is due a reconsideration as terminal performance art. During morning rush-hour on November 3, 2006, the 50-ish Chicago musician lugged a video camera, a sign reading “Thou Shalt Not Kill,” and a quantity of gasoline (then averaging about $2.25/gal. in the Windy City) to the “Blaze of the Millennium” sculpture on the Kennedy Expressway. There, in full view of gridlocked hundreds, he set himself on fire.
Police didn’t identify the ashes for days and the news didn’t cover the act as protest at all. Almost a week later, Sun-Times film critic Richard Roeper editorially dismissed what the musician did as “sad” and “futile” as if the deed was merely one more occasion to measure thumbs with Roger Ebert. In the interim, Ritscher’s statement had become an underground sensation, with the auto-flambéed peacenik’s self-penned obituary and other leavings pored over by friends, acquaintances, and the generally stunned. That it took so long for big media guns like Roeper to open up allowed many to ponder the horrible significance of this “normal” suicide. Reports of “alcoholism” and “depression” helped depoliticize the act to the point where Ritscher is now scarcely remembered at all, save as one more doomed hippie.
His was but an extreme manifestation of the apocalyptic helplessness now on display most everywhere. All recent economic news comes painted in uniform shades of horrible, with venerable investment banks collapsing, national debt spiraling and suburbanites torching their foreclosed houses for insurance. This familiar bankerly process of sweating the middle classes of equity takes place against a backdrop of inflation, stagnation, and threats of permanent recession. The choices this election year now narrow to whomever Democrats finally decide to pit against John McCain, who insists a century-long U.S. military occupation in Iraq would be “fine” with him.
The war is an issue Democrats have decisively fudged. Barack Obama continues to radiate a genial Reaganesque mushiness on particulars, while Hillary Clinton runs TV ads suggesting she’d sit by the telephone at all hours, toothily eager to bomb the mortal shit out of anyone, anywhere. CBS/NYT poll numbers show nearly two-thirds of the American people disapprove of the way the Iraq war is being conducted, with almost 60 percent declaring it a mistake in the first place.
Mainstream liberals remain sunk in gloom. Chalmers Johnson concludes in Nemesis: The Last Days of the American Republic that Dubya’s blunders are simply the latest in a long series of imperial disasters that must eventually consume all traditional liberty and destroy popular government in America, leaving us to face “a military dictatorship or its civilian equivalent.” Feminist social critic Naomi Wolf, in The End of America, draws the same dreadful inferences from press restrictions, secret jails, extraordinary renditions, cop surveillance, large-scale domestic spying, and constant trashing of dissent, terming it a “fascist shift.” Whatever her gifts as prophet, such a prognosis would depress even Pee-wee Herman.
Mad Malachi Ritscher expressed similar thoughts in his online suicide note that ended with the homily, “The future is what you decide today.” That this sentiment can be put to more creative expression was shown to by marchers at the All Out! protest rally/street party staged in Hollywood last Saturday, March 15, by local antiwar coalition ANSWER-LA. Despite the lateness of the hour and very formidable excuses for citizen despair, antiwar activism is on the rise all across the political spectrum, with the radicalized trying new techniques, new alliances, and speaking out in startling creative ways about the looming national crisis. The accent is now on raucous dissent rather than moral outrage; a cheerful, two-fingered salute to the status quo. How the traditionally starchy antiwar left will absorb this new energy is but one question posed by the youngsters out in full puckish force.
As the current cycle of antiwar protest heats up, it is well to remember the fate of the last wave.
The State of the Movement
Most of us remember the deafening passion of the antiwar movement at the outset of Team Dubya’s Iraq adventure a half-decade ago. The sheer unlikelihood of the administration’s claims of Iraqi WMD coupled with open-manufactured hysteria quickly made it the biggest antiwar movement in history, with the protest action on February 15, 2003, bringing tens of millions into the streets all over the planet. The New York Times intoned “[T]here may still be two superpowers on the planet: the United States and world public opinion.”
Steve Mikulan wrote some impressive dispatches on the early demonstrations for the L.A. Weekly. “Well, at that point it was growing by leaps and bounds,” Steve remembered of 2003. “I spoke to Tom Hayden and he pointed out at that time that the antiwar movement was then far ahead of what it was in Vietnam. It took four or five years to accomplish what they did in a matter of months. I think there was a lot of expectation that this thing would keep building and get bigger. That didn’t happen, of course. I think part of the reason is that the mainstream media got a dose of what it perceived as patriotic duty and stopped covering these rallies, even though they were still attracting hundreds of thousands of people. The networks pulled all the antiwar commentators from talk shows and then stopped talking about the movement. You can only sustain energy at that level for so long and, in L.A., the ironically-named ANSWER-LA had no answers. Outrage will only carry enthusiasm so far.”
Not everyone just gave up and went home. One of the antiwar movement’s most durable organizations is Code Pink, the prankish feminists whose giddy stunt-politics include “kiss-ins” staged near military bases (“Make love, not war”) and draping a 30-foot satin “pink slip” out of a window of the Century Plaza Hotel while the president was inside at a reelection 814 fundraiser.
When I spoke to co-founder Jodie Evans, Code Pink was in the middle of planning various pre-rally actions, including an activist “training camp” in the wilds of Malibu and a series of demonstrations at the offices of selected local congresspersons. “I mean,” she laughed, “they shouldn’t go on vacation. We’re gonna take in visuals that show the amount each district has lost in not bringing the troops home. The other message that we’re carrying is that their votes are very critical on the Pfizer bill, which allows immunity for the phone companies to spy for Bush. So there’s actually a few members of the Judiciary committee ready to join Rep. Wexler to demand impeachment proceedings.”
That the outgoing president may well be beyond Constitutional reach at this point scarcely matters. “You have to care as much about the war ending as soldiers care about putting their lives on the line fighting for it,” Evans put it grimly. “We spent the last year pressuring Congress to quit funding the war and obviously that’s not gonna happen. The people who are making money off the war seem to have more power with these members of Congress than the voting public. We’re modeling what it looks like not to pay for war by not paying seven percent of our taxes. You can see that on our Web site.”
We spoke of trying to imagine a time when the war might conceivably end, but that seemed phantasmal, if satisfying to contemplate. “Unfortunately,” she sighed, “we’re all stuck like deer in headlights inside a war. The lack of imagination on everyone’s part is devastating. After we got back from Iraq five years ago, we went to see Hillary and she told us the reason she wanted to invade Iraq is to protect the people of New York.” Here she paused, then continued with care. “I said, ‘Are these the only two choices your mind can concoct?’”
Poets and Paperback Writers
Antiwar movements being much too important to leave to the politicos, I spoke to a wide assortment of committed Angelenos and found, as usual, the writers among the most militant voices. Lewis MacAdams is poet, activist, historian of Beat, and noted defender of the L.A. River. His “To the 43rd President of the United States” is a hard jewel of invective destined for anthologies, concluding with the lines: We must search our souls/To understand how/We could have/Lived all these years/And done all this work/And still allowed this to happen. “I wrote it just before the invasion, and read it a few times,” MacAdams remembered. “People were extremely enthusiastic. I read it at the Museum of Natural History, and a couple dressed very ostentatiously walked out and that was about it.”
“I think the airplanes have to land in their bases and the troop ships dock and the soldiers, sailors and contract killers have got to get on them and leave,” he drawled, “We in America are going to be suffering, whether it’s this month or the month after next. But it seems very likely there’s gonna be a civil war in Iraq after we leave and it’ll be part of America’s sordid karma. We’ll get ours.”
Lest anyone complain the literary tend to cluster at one end of the national political dial, I called my old friend – and sometimes writing partner – Brad Linaweaver. A science-fiction writer and Nebula award finalist best known for spinning bizarre alternate histories, Linaweaver is also a conservative-libertarian pundit Ronald Reagan was given to quoting on matters of doctrinal orthodoxy. Recent political writings and support for Ron Paul win him no friends in rightist circles these days.
“The Republican Party should not pretend to spread democracy to the benighted regions of the world,” said Brad, who was in rare form, bellowing down the phone line. “That is not in the Republican party’s job description. He’s in the wrong comic book. Bill Buckley thought his Iraq policy “un-conservative,” a fact noted by Fox News in his obituary, which I thought unusually fair and balanced of them.
“The left is completely failing to fight the war machine,” the novelist continued. “They won in ’06 and have failed ever since. They don’t understand even now how the corporate power-elite runs both parties. George W. Bush is such a happy man these days. Why? He’s done his job, serving his masters well, giving us a foothold in Iraq forever. We will never leave. McCain is being unduly optimistic when he said we’d be there a hundred years. We’ll be in Iraq as long as the American Empire exists. Bush went there for one reason – to stay there.” Echoing Jodie Evans, my old friend and antagonist charged the administration with the fantasist’s worst sin – lack of imagination. “They’d rather kill people than develop alternative energy,” he snorted.
‘Kush, Not Bush!’
Well, the idea that the fix is irretrievably in makes some cynical and gives others a reason to get up in the morning. If no one but the fractious, faction-ridden SoCal left had shown up for the ANSWER-LA rally in Hollywood last Saturday, the event would’ve been considerably less raucous than it was. Instead, the party had already started in the Red Line train when I got on at Pershing Square. Normal Saturday mid-morning service was glutted with knots of excited, jabbering young people. Most were dressed in ironical variations on military uniforms, stylishly-frayed tunics, and other fucked-up mufti. Some were carrying homemade signs, one reading “Drop Acid, Not Bombs.”
Topside at Hollywood & Vine, the famous intersection was already piled with noisy revelry well in advance of the noon start time. Rows of prop coffins lay neatly, flag-draped to represent the returning dead kept carefully from view by the Bush administration. Clowns jostled with masked anarchists, costume performers and Fire Department officers ostentatiously photographing protesters. The venerable chant One-two-three-four/We don’t want your racist war! welled from the crowd, a sentiment grown fusty from decades of racist wars eventually replaced by performances by the likes of Mojo and the Vibration Army. The marchers were overwhelmingly young, with most of the Movement graybeards sprinkled among them looking as if they’d burst from unaccustomed joy.
All was love and camaraderie, even for the media, even from the LAPD. Soon, the procession lurched forward and I entered the police cordon, walking backwards ahead of the mob and scribbling notes. The festive spirit even infected the counter-protesters; a half-dozen males in late middle-age, all with Christian slogans emblazoned on tees stretched tight over starchy bellies. “Hey!” one yelled at me through a bullhorn, “Don’t you write for the Communist World News?” I smiled and waved. It was just like old times. Another crooned, “This is treason! You are the new Al Qaeda!” Again, fierce hip-hop clattered out of the PA, drowning them out. News cameras honed in on a grizzled dingbat with a homemade John McCain sign, his jaws working rapidly as chanting and whoops smothered most sound. Indeed, ANSWER’s usual portmanteau of assorted left-wing causes was swept away as well. The kids didn’t seem animated by dialectical materialism, livestock rights, or the unhappy fate of Leonard Peltier. This was clearly not business-as-usual.
Cops cleared a path and the march swung left down Schrader. By this time, many of the sidewalk gawkers had begun to join the parade, stepping out into a self-staged, self-conscious show, a delightful suspension of the rules. There was much amplified jeering as the party bore left on Sunset and the CNN building rose into view, its iconic logo long a symbol of corporate propaganda to antiwar leftists and libertarians. Angry fists went up at this citadel of The Man and hundreds of bawled “Fuck CNN!” Office staff gathered at the windows, dim shadows peering down at a vast Technicolor ruckus their organization looked to be studiously ignoring. I gave a friendly wave, wishing they could be there. Signs reading “Whores, Not War!” “Kush, Not Bush!” and the plaintive “James Buchanan, Come Home! All is Forgiven” flapped in the sudden high winds alongside placarded pleas for Obama, Ron Paul and others, the plausible alongside the ludicrous.
The day belonged to the participants, since most of the promised star-power didn’t materialize. Organizers read a doleful list of no-shows from the speaker’s stand on Cahuenga. Marty Sheen, Jackson Browne, Ed Asner, and others all defaulted, and the redoubtable Gore Vidal was addressing the ANSWER rally in San Diego. Mike Farrell’s brief, tearful address that impressed many who weren’t born until after the actor’s run as B.J. Hunnicutt on M*A*S*H half a lifetime ago. Ron Kovic, the iconic Vietnam veteran now marking his 40th anniversary in a wheelchair, commanded attention for a few buoyant words – “I promise you,” he cried, “our time is coming! We will fill this street with people!” Eventually, the speakers shut down, and some guy with a megaphone started rapping for Obama. The LAPD, out in overly numerate force, were content to hang back and let this street carnival order itself, pausing to puzzle over performance artist Jade Thacker urging passers by to cut off pieces of the U.S. flag she wore as a dress. A performance troupe called Corpus Delecti performed a zombie butoh dance, writhing on the asphalt like undead worms. Bystanders drifted away slowly, but the atmosphere lingered on and I saw kids whooping and lugging signs later that night as far away as downtown.
Channel 7 estimated the turnout at 1,500 participants, police put it at 2,000, and ANSWER-LA claimed 10,000. The latter figure was exaggerated, but closer to the truth as the unexpectedly large number of first-timers plainly startled and elated organizers. Despite histrionic warnings from counter-protesters, I saw no violence and police reported no arrests.
Peace, it seems, is back. Five years of even a media-sanitized and conscription-free war were still quite enough to build a wave of revulsion in the young, who have as yet no place in a society that has long since numbed itself to the horror. Protest, long ridiculed in mainstream culture as being hopelessly ’60s and passe, is now retro and hip. This was inevitable, as there are only so many ways one can market greed and apathy, even to consumers offered little else.
As this impulse organizes itself, more traditional elements of the left begin to flex dormant muscles. The International Longshore and Warehouse Union voted a “No Work, No Peace” holiday, stopping all work on the West Coast for eight hours this May 1 to urge “an immediate end to the war and occupation in Iraq and Afghanistan and the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the Middle East.” Given the public’s surly mood, the idea of a mass-walkout of workers and the timeclock-bound could well gain traction as the hours tick off ’til May Day. After a half-decade of uneasy acquiesce to this latest, luckless imperial adventure, popular consent for war is being withdrawn and the peace movement has nowhere to go but up. The American people must, as usual, engineer their own rescue.
Published: 03/19/2008 LA CITY BEAT
Pic by Curious Josh Reiss
~ By RON GARMON ~
"Floridly worded, the advertisement made claims which even Phineas Taylor Barnum might have hedged at advancing. It alleged for the show’s female personnel a pulchritude impossible to equal ... . Furthermore, the midway of the circus was replete with sideshows wherein were curious images of the netherworld on display, macabre trophies of ancient conquests, resurrected supermen of antiquity ... . Thunder and lightning would attend the ceremonies and possibly a slight earthquake would be felt."
-Charles G. Finney,The Circus of Dr. Lao (1935)
Even before acquiring the Barnum & Bailey show one hundred years ago, Ringling Bros. maintained winter headquarters for their immense amalgamation of circuses in the brothers’ adopted hometown of Baraboo, Wisconsin. At the end of every touring season, legend informs, all the elephants, tigers, clowns, barkers, bottled atrocities, bearded ladies and dancing girls rolled into town in garish wagons drawn by barbered horses to button up for the long Midwestern night. Animals were quartered and tents folded up as the human flotsam and jetsam were paid off and departed for sunnier, cheaper precincts.
Carney faded into Beat, into hippie and Yippie, into punk rockers and hip-hopperz of later decades. Popular entertainment underwent several weird mutations, preserved in formaldehyde on YouTube. A marked decline in showbiz standards created indie sensibilities and a D.I.Y. ethic, which, in turn, creviced out a permanent underground beneath contemporary culture. Somewhere, in remote facilities devoted to theoretical and applied Hedonics, the Brechtian fourth wall was breached and the audience became the circus.
The most visible public manifestation of this woozy weltanschauung is Burning Man, the you-are-the-show arts festival held annually in a remote and lifeless desert in northern Nevada. Hell itself could be scarcely less inviting than the alkali playa the week before Labor Day, but last year sixty-thousand people crammed the gaudy temporary municipality of Black Rock City for seven days of Fat Tuesday. This year’s Satyricon came with an unsettling tinge of Altamont craziness, as suicide, freak weather, and the premature torching of the Man by a San Francisco performance artiste that didn’t seem particularly tetched by some scene anarchs. This individual was later caught by police allegedly carrying explosives near Grace Cathedral.
Needless to say, the Los Angeles contingent in this Brigadoon is massive, from down-low showbiz types to suburban moms who come to spin flaming poi. L.A. Decom, a post-Burn street party staged late in mid-October under the Sixth Street Bridge downtown, drew thousands. Many had come down from San Francisco Decom days before and others would see the post-Burn season through to the end at San Diego Decom the week after. I was there too, taking my ease outside between labors of love one night when a dust storm obliterated everything around me. The Clash’s “Overpowered by Funk,” then cranking into my ears, seemed mercilessly literal.
Decompression parties are Burning Man’s version of the Baraboo parade. Americans are devoted hobbyists, but even NASCAR fans eventually drink up and go home. One sign that Burning Man is more movement than pastime might be the party’s insistent refusal to ever really stop. Cre8tivity (hidden inside a former office building between Venice and Marina del Rey) has thrown some memorable blowouts in between troubles with authorities. At Dockweiler Beach, an informal crew known as Spirit’s Fire holds Saturday events irregularly throughout the winter with fire performers and DJs. The Terrakroma mob’s progressive-psychedelic roadshow recently appeared at this hippie A.I.P. Beach party, far from their usual haunts in an elegantly dilapidated warehouse on Pico near the long-empty Morrison Hotel.
Politics and tradition push most of the really big parties downtown. These are the warehouse events that always attract vast, startlingly-dressed crowds without advertising. It seems few verminous, ill-lit corners of the Artist District haven’t sported at least one long line of freakish men and bombshell women over the past two winters. Once inside, most conventional social restraints relax. Not surprisingly for Angelenos, what transpires is discreet and decorous, if a bit uninhibited. Proceedings go on until after dawn or whenever a spectacular injury abruptly stops everything. Then there are after-parties already in progress at private houses or even privater permanent venues deep in warehouse Legoland.
Wolfie, the eminent rock-breaks DJ, is a magnetically cheerful fellow who’s been throwing warehouse parties with the Hipgenesis crew for three years. “The first one was called ‘A New You,’” he remembered. “There was this pornographer who lives downtown, and in her building there was space for a one-time-only event. Carpets, pillows, everywhere. One huge hallway became the B room. When you came in, you had to write three things you needed on a sticker and wear it. A singer’s tag could read “I’m looking for a drummer, an agent and a web designer.” Everyone was hanging out to enjoy the music, but the conversations those tags sparked were just incredible. It did wonders for everyone who came to the party! All these people invented new things for themselves out of our event. There was a torrential rain that night, but everyone showed up. At one point, the power blew and everyone said Yay! It’s the underground! The lights went out!
“At Burning Man,” Wolfie reminds us, “the art and the weather make a serious attempt to kill you.” True dat. The exhilaration that comes from riding a go-go cage perched swaying atop a convertible into a crowded dance floor isn’t seriously tempered by knowing that a sudden burst of speed or gust of wind could pulp one into infinity. The winter months allow Burners to test costumes, props, art and performance under optimal, almost studio, conditions. “There’s a lot of things we can’t do at Burning Man,” Wolfie is warming to the subject like a playa Fellini. “You can focus energy and make a budget mean something in a more controlled environment. Build the space, focus the energy. You get everyone out to an outdoor event, people settle in and are already where they’re going. There’s no shouting into the thunderstorm, like on the playa, with their crowds of people and a limitless number of things going on.”
Civilians can get a taste of the experience at a new monthly party Hipgenesis is throwing at King King in Hollywood. The voodoo-themed circus on March 22 will be part of a take-it-aboveground trend in Burner culture of a scene still in the farthest Pellucidar of the deep underground. Its innermost recesses are the house-parties, province of a wastrel power elite who keep up with each other via e-mail and cryptic utterances on Tribe.net. That’s how I met “Mary-Ann.”
An ever-smiling cheerleader beauty who radiates manic calm, Mary-Ann is the reigning queen of the Burner house-party. The “1970s porno” birthday bash she threw herself early this year was flash-flooded by rainfall, with guests spreading tarps and holding down tent flaps as an unlikely storm geysered the Hollywood Hills. “The house was specifically bought ’cos it doesn’t have curb appeal and looks like a lot of other houses,” says the hostess, drawing sleight-of-hand attention away from the riotous touches she and others put on behind the door. “Still, for two years we had people getting lost despite a blue neon sign with our street number on it!
“I started throwing parties in the mid-1990s in Manhattan Beach. I’m not a Burner and have never been to Burning Man. I started throwing warehouse parties when they became too big for my house on the beach and I got invited to one that sounded very much like the ones I threw. That was the Blizzard of Oz, two years ago, the night I met my husband. People get into this community and it’s nothing they’ve ever seen or imagined, but what got me into it is that I was already expressing myself as a Burner would. It was like I’d been separated from it at birth! Up ’til that, I thought I was a drag queen trapped in a woman’s body!”
Whether Burning Man proves the wave of anyone’s future, a mystery clown cult, a rehearsal for revolution or merely the American people burning while its Roman Empire fiddles must await the fine-ground judgment of time. The event’s L.A. office has already sent Brian Wilson’s melancholic longings for summer to the pop cult junkyard next to the Little Deuce Coupe. Summer, like the circus, is where you find it.
NEW ANGELES MONTHLY
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