Having a Great Time in New Jersey: Life Changes, Pt. 1
Stephen and I looked out at the surf from the boardwalk. A rainstorm was misting most people off this thoroughfare, as a bonfire burned on the beach, unattended, for whose benefit we couldn’t say.
We looked beyond the flames to the rolling tide. “Someone’s gonna die out there this weekend,” he said. A grim thought to be sure, as much as it was a joke, but the mood was right. I thought of Sterling Hayden in Altman’s The Long Goodbye, barking mad and shit-faced, shaking off those who would keep him bound to the beach as he charged into the Malibu sea.
It’s been dark out for a while. The feeling, from where I stood, at the outset of this year’s American branch of the All Tomorrow’s Parties festivals approached that macabre level of grimness that is part of mine and Stephen’s repartee, and it’s only gotten worse in the past two months. It’s been a tough year for a lot of people, one which has shifted from desperate to Draconian. Despite an overall need for escapism, attendance was visibly far from sold out (though there were some events that proved difficult to get into). This year’s model was also the first East Coast ATP festival not to take place at Kutsher’s, a dilapidated mountain resort in the Catskills which was found in too poor of shape to be used by the organization any longer. Apart from the joy that special guest performer Jeff Mangum could provide most festivalgoers, the bands selected to perform this year made for a far less cheery emotional palette from which to draw: Portishead, Swans, Public Enemy, Shellac, A Silver Mt. Zion, The Pop Group, Anika.
I left Manhattan in the sun, stood for a while in Penn Station, anticipating my NJ Transit train ride to Asbury Park, and once boarded, slipped into the first Mighty Baby album, first-tier psychedelia that slowly drifts into a reflective, somewhat downbeat tenor by its finish. Mighty Baby never got their due in their own time, the late ‘60s and early ‘70s; neither did its members who were previously part of the Action, a solid, memorable mod band who even Sir George Martin couldn’t cajole into chart success. Prior to Mighty Baby, the Action cut a selection of demos, later bootlegged under the title Brain and ultimately reissued with the band’s consent under the title Rolled Gold. These recordings stand as some of my favorite music of the era, and it will never stop striking me as odd and quite melancholy that the songs never saw the light of day in the times which fostered them. I read a quote from Derrick May, reprinted in Waxpoetics, that really hit me in this regard: in a documentary, he walks the camera through a parking garage which was once the Michigan theater, and says “I totally believe in the future, but I also believe in an historic and well-kept past. I believe that there are some things that are important … because in this atmosphere, you can realize just how much people don’t care, how much they don’t respect – and it can make you realize how much you should respect.” That statement sealed off my year, and probably my last decade of life, trying to figure out which parts of the past would be necessary for me to be able to respect the present and prepare for, or even direct the course of, the future.
These sort of missed opportunities are part of what ATP tries to correct with these festivals. We tend to fold back perceptions of the past in terms of how attractive its relics are now, how the wisdom of simplicity or the unspoken joys of innovation rang clearly from the music of past generations. Recognition of this beauty is, to this day, only found in music listeners and aesthetes with the digger mentality in place, the kind of people I was hoping to be near throughout the weekend – music lovers who crave adventure and new experiences.
ATP doesn’t really give you that (no festival really can make this promise) but it offers the possibility, in a more or less controlled environment designed for an experience as memorable as you want to make it. Here you can see bands that might have escaped you for whatever reason – mostly them breaking up or ceasing activity, or your location or age in proximity to rock venues and their restrictions when these bands were going concerns. There is some value in this, of course, and it’s steered mainly towards those who have already seen the acts in question earlier in life. There is also possibility in meeting some of these people, many of whom have converged upon Kutsher’s for the past three years, and now enjoy favored nation status within the ranks.
Me, I’ve never been. Went to Asbury Park once to check out Sex Vid, and ended up with some intense goat tacos from some Mexican grocery store somewhere nearby. The place was a fucking void at this point (2007?), with Asbury Lanes, a bowling alley that served of the venues participating in this year’s ATP, the lone bastion of punk rock support in sight, the genre having to share time with rockabilly, rude R&B from the ‘50s, cheesy pinups, a snack bar, and possibly league play. Four years later, some semblance of revitalization has washed over the town, which has turned out quite nice and not at all the sort of place that you might fear for your life at. But who knows what it’s like in peak season? Certainly not me. You don’t catch me down the shore; it’s not part of my life, and up till now, ATP wasn’t either.
And yet, here I was, guest list spot procured, bags in hand, accommodations snaked. Stephen and his bunkmate Jon both graciously allowed me use of their top-floor suite at the Berkeley Hotel, a recently-remodeled beachside property that also served as the administrative core of this year’s festival. This is where the bands stayed and congregated in off-hours, where the faithful were given early-bird access to stay, and where some of the non-live music events (comedy, film screenings, book club) were held. The room I stayed in was directly adjacent to Steve Albini’s card room as well, and poker games wandered into the daylight hours. Looking at the pleather loveseat I would sleep on for the next two nights, I poured myself some really nice tequila, the kind you get down in Mexico in one of those blown glass bottles. No burn, barely any aftertaste, smoother than Al Jarreau on stool softeners. The ocean air and rain mists outside made for a weekend that was designed to be lost.
I felt lost, at least. Two weeks earlier, I found out I was going to be a father. This fucked me up for a while, and I had not really told anyone apart from a tight ring of associates at this point. For the record, events of the intervening months, plus some sort of superhuman calming force I didn’t even know I had in me have helped to stabilize things. Find me again when labor is underway and see how cool I am.
I have friends who got really excited the first time and told everybody, only to have lost the baby early on. It’s more common than you might think, and it sounds devastating, so the people I told were the ones I’d want to be able to depend on if it didn’t work out. I’ll be nervous until our child is actually born (after which point I will be nervous for the rest of my life), but for some reason the state of decreased anxiety I’m in as I write this is providing me with idyllic wonder. The days feel long now, for some reason, my psyche’s gift to my person.
I was also kind of rattled over something that had happened that week, when someone I know decided to dissolve a nearly decade-long friendship with me. Quick phone call, total ass about it, that is all. Life was assuredly pushing obstacles in front of me to change my path. Can’t say as I’m not at least partially to blame … fuck it, I’m not to blame at all. You watch a good friend lose it sometime, see how you respond when even compassion is met with hard, blank stares and blameshifting. In preparation and in protest, I started pulling out records I used to DJ with because I wanted to sell when I got back from ATP, both to make the money and the space I would need to protect my child. Life gets real. You don’t need that last Lifter Puller LP at age 34, unless you are eternally single, or from Minnesota. Mutually exclusive, I assure you. I’ve let this wall of LPs dictate my life and my moves for about 15 years. It is time to shed.
Big beers are like $9 but man they are big. 24’s. Big enough. Even the almost-warm ones taste OK. We walked into Convention Hall, its polished, flecked concrete floor like a church’s multipurpose room, stadium seats like a swim meet, and what seemed to be acoustics of the Superball variety, for all the tile and lack of bodies in the room at the start of Chavez’s set. I was late to the table on this band, and have had a few chances to see them in the past number of years. It’s great. The sound crew has sussed out a difficult-looking room with power and grace. The members of Chavez are like poster boys for the approaching middle age: still effortlessly rockin’, well-dressed (the crisp Oxfords halfway unbuttoned is a pretty excellent look), the way that none of their songs really make sense on a structural level, each one consciously trying to decimate verse-chorus-verse by hitting on the off beats and driving jagged, discordant riffs into one another, and somehow holding a knack for finding a hidden melody somewhere beneath it all, which rises to shine out in triumphant moments that pull all the fist-rising excess out of metal and transpose it onto what was, at the time, mostly unheard indie rock. This act of reclamation seemed so brazen at the time that I couldn’t hang with ‘em at all while they were around. I had just come off of nearly a decade of power ballads and shit I couldn’t stand, and I was still trying to escape that, through music either defiantly odd or ridiculously singular in approach. I used to work with a guy who said he wanted to be dead by 30. One day, though, he changed his mind. “Fuck that,” he said. “Getting older will be great. That’s where you find wisdom.” I didn’t feel bad about leaving that job but those words stuck with me, the idiocy of youth severed by a better idea within a span of about two weeks. I don’t think he was a Chavez fan. I knew better now. A bunch of other people seem to feel the same way, and they started to fill up the room. At this early hour (what, 6:30pm or so), that is a feat.
Think I got a sandwich and ran back to the room to eat it. Somewhere in between exiting the room and getting down to the lobby, it had started to rain. It was raining a lot. I think I had a small umbrella with me for just this reason, but why was I so wet? I was trying to find Asbury Lanes in the rain. No streetlights, flash flooding, limited visibility. No one is around. Everyone is smarter than that. I’m wandering around this half-block mass of concrete footers and exposed rebar. This was here the last time I came to Asbury Park, a giant monument to pulverized dreams, getting wetter than all of us. I step in water up to my ankle. I’m turned around.
Most of the festival is staged within a large building that bisects the boardwalk, which contains Convention Hall and the more proper Paramount Theater. These places are nearly adjacent to the Berkeley. Asbury Lanes sits several blocks from the rest of the festival proper. It does not receive the crowds like the other places, though the intrepid are piling in for Thinking Fellers Union Local 282. If you remember this band, you were likely alive and aware enough in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, when the band’s boho dervish spun whipsaw tales on three guitars played like a rock band that actually knew what to do with three guitarists: use ‘em. And if you were here now, you may have been living in a town where they didn’t play, or you weren’t old enough to see them the first time. An excited throng of what appears to be librarians is up front, taking group iPhone photos at the foot of the stage. Their excitement verges on annoyance, but they spent at least a grand on this weekend, I’m guessing, and it’s not my place to comment. Chavez and a few drinks have me a bit full of myself.
I try to break the ice with an acquaintance standing nearby, looking for common ground in that this is kind of an unexpected place for people to be exhibiting some “in the club” behavior. Maybe it didn’t come out that way, because he goes on the defensive instantly. This guy also writes about music, and though I like him, and certain other people who write about music, getting these people together in a group – particularly when one or more of them doesn’t share the exact same views, or is seen as “lesser” in the strata of journalists, it inevitably turns into a Highlander-esque struggle for dominance; “there can be only one,” so to speak. This is the worst, and it underscores all the issues I have with this thing that I do for free, writing about music, because it has to be done. His tirade somehow tries to fuck with my ability to save money, he blurts out some sort of vague insult about me being a fan of Marc Ribot (yeah, I took it that way), tells me how much I should be paying the people I’m crashing with, completely in his own head. The insults aren’t sticking but my temper is starting to flare. Days later, he explains himself, saying that he wasn’t going to let what he assumed were my bad vibes ruin his vacation (“I don’t write about ATP – this is for me.”) He has jumped the gun. I am mad. He is lucky.
After about eight songs, I’m done with his attitude and the mood of the space around me. TFUL282 solve an edge case in rock music: they find a way to make two guitarists have to share different sides of the same rhythm, and see what happens when the notes and chords involved start to separate before snapping back together. Push toward a vaguely Eastern European direction, and allow your resoluteness to patch up any holes beaten through by artistic liberty. Play with bombast; take things up just to the point of overt weirdness, but remain on the side of the rock band. Here’s a band that plays on its own terms so much that it’s said they’ve only played shows since a loose dissolution back in the ‘90s when someone decides to put up all expenses – airfare, accommodations, plus a healthy guarantee. Watching them go at it up there, I can see why. This is a strenuous affair, acrobatics that must be met with more than just “the love.” That’s fine. Their Strangers from the Universe album will get you wherever you need to go, but for me, the mystery is solved, and now I’m trapped in the corner of the lounge, talking to more music writers, one of whom gives me that whole “Doug doesn’t like it” look when someone mentions Jeff Mangum. Who cares? Why is it so important to judge what I think? Why is it that if you write about music in some capacity, your empathy towards a dissenting opinion busts through the drop ceiling tiles of this bowling alley? Because I don’t care. None of this bothers me. Mangum and the rest of Neutral Milk Hotel (all excellent guys, by the way) slept on my floor once. We left it at that. I had no desire to get through that, no matter how many people have come down here to fawn over him, and sneak photographs that will no doubt steal his soul away. I do not care and it bothers me even more that someone else would think that my decision to skip this lovefest is somehow going to taint their own good time. How am I bothering you if I sit it out, here on the divan with my whiskey? I’m mostly here to see Factory Floor and Oneida, and play pinball, and to have an Experience if the cosmos will allow it.
I wrestled my way back to the hotel at some point. A sign glares in the night: “WELCOME TO ASBURY PARK.” Yeah, thanks. On the way back I stepped into Convention Hall to get barked at by Shellac for a minute or two. Back in the suite, Stephen comes into the room and briefs me on the activities for the evening. We start talking about my situation. I’m content to say fuck it and just crash out here for the night, but I don’t. I’m getting the alone time I need, and I appreciate that. The sound of the card game would keep me company if I wanted it. I was carrying along a bunch of movies on my laptop and had resolved to get through some of them. Sure thing, go to this music festival and stay in a hotel room. This is my style. You should have seen me at Chaos in Tejas around Day 3.
I rode downstairs to the mezzanine level of the Berkeley, a confluence of the buildings central towers splayed out near ground level, connected by sitting rooms and cavernous bars, as well as a patio outside. Around this time, I had my first of what would be several encounters with the drummer Todd Trainer. After this weekend, he has become one of my favorite people I’ve met in quite a while. I’ve determined that a big part of the charm is in his approach. Stephen knows Todd professionally and socially, and nearly every time the two of us were at the elevator, Todd would sidle on up to us: “Oh, hey Stephen!” He would just fucking appear, as if there was a black cloud of smoke and ash, and from it this man would amble out, silent, undetected until he was ready to announce himself. This never stopped being funny, and I’m laughing about it right now. I’m not even sure which direction he was coming from; we’d hear his voice, turn around, and there he was. Again and again.
Aimlessly I stroll in on Hannibal Burress doing stand-up comedy to the polite laughter of about 150 people. He’s knee deep in a bunch of rape jokes, so I leave. Nothing he is saying is even remotely funny; some tirade about how since he brought home a woman from a bar at 4 A.M., and she didn’t want to have sex with him, that she had better just, like, be quiet and go to sleep, or else leave. His shame is unbearable to tolerate. He’s put me in no mood for Reggie Watts.
Back over at the venue, people are still in the thrall of Mangum’s set in the Paramount (“You should go see him! Right now!” one festival employee enthuses to me). But in the big room is Will Oldham and Bonnie “Prince” Billy. The room is so big, and the crowd so controlled, that it is not frowned upon if I disappear back into the stadium seats lining the back walls of the room and watch them soundcheck. I like this. It’s my own time, and we are sharing it, with no demands on my space or person; a respect between artist and performer that you rarely see in a small club. Maybe one of the charms of ATP is that you can make it whatever you want, no pressures involved. Yeah, I want to hear BPB tune up; I want to check out Matt Sweeney playing guitar again. I don’t stay long, maybe throughout the soundcheck and warm up jamming, through to five or six songs, by which point the crowd has rushed back in. Here is an artist who I don’t revere, whose work in the Americana tragedy song often requires an emotional toll I’m not willing to pay. But in this setting, it’s alright. Expectations to shine are off, so of course the band shines even more.
So that’s enough for one night. Back to the room, and the card game is in full swing, Stephen occasionally dipping in to grab some booze or something. Downstairs there is probably some wild bacchanal I could easily slip into. Instead I watch this documentary about ayahuasca ceremonies. Two subjects, both Canadian – a male layabout with drug and self-esteem problems who seems to have enough money to fly to Peru to ride the spirit vine, and a woman who claims she is there to do research on psychotropic drugs for medicinal purposes. Not to give too much away, but they both claim to have life-shattering trips, and the night vision footage of these two, pupils dimed, wonder of the hidden world ripping their consciousness apart, qualifies their statements. Interviewed after their experience, they both seem to have experienced something tremendous, and seem both comfortable and eternally disturbed by that fact, in a display of somewhat good fortune which costs a few lifetimes to properly digest. Midway through, these two were talking about how powerful the experience had been for both of them, before true self-reflection rose out of the pail. They behaved as if they knew nothing of the world around them anymore. I felt like the same was going to come my way really soon. A chapter of my life – the young adult decade of irresponsibility – was coming to a close, and with it a lot of the activities with which I had chosen to fill my free time. The clock is running out. Better make these count.
This is the end of part 1 of this story. Part 2 will run here on Dusted in early January. If you are interested in my best of 2011 list, please check http://still-single.tumblr.com on December 31st.
By Doug Mosurock