POLITICS VERSES THE MUSIC SCENE.
BY BOB FUCKING CUTLER.
Kevin Bacon was a messiah. In the ’80’s flick “Footloose” he freed a small town from its puritanical hang-up about dancing. He fought the law, and he won. He was a rebel, he faced the powers that be and danced away victorious, a hero to millions. It’s too bad that real life isn’t so simple, and so easily resolved in an hour and a half. While the puritanical doctrines of a few hysterical Christian types can be bothersome, and sometimes (for whatever silly reason) the basis for archaic municipal ordinances and laws, they are far from the only reason that there is often a political struggle between the powers that be and the denizens of any city’s music and arts community.
In the 80’s, the Lawrence City Commission dealt a serious blow to the local music scene when it enacted a noise ordinance. Vaguely worded, and wickedly (and abusively) enforced by the police, the ordinance was used to shut down one party after another in the “student ghetto,” the neighborhood bordered roughly by 9th, 14th, Massachusetts and Louisiana streets. This forced many a band to search far and wide for another place to cut their teeth (and the rug). On the surface the ordinance seemed to be a case of someone having too much fun for someone else’s comfort, but unless money is involved, things rarely get moving politically in this town, and the noise ordinance was no exception. In fact aging former hippies had started buying up the old Victorian houses in the neighborhood and were worried about their property values, and so they became the antithesis of their ’60s counterculture dogma. And perhaps worried bar owners figured that a way to attract patrons would be to eliminate the competition of a free-for-all party scene.
After a particularly ugly clash with the police at a party, in which the cops where caught on-camera violently abusing partygoers, smashing guitars, and shortly thereafter, smashing the photographer’s camera to destroy the evidence, a small and determined group found a tractor barn just outside of town which became the OUTHOUSE, a legendary all-ages venue for punk rock music. This was still only a temporary solution to a permanent problem: The MAN meddling in the people’s right to freedom of speech. It seems so backwards that something like the arts, music, theater, that allows such great expression and communication, as well as enjoyment and social intercourse, should have to find such crafty ways to battle the politics of the government, finding loopholes, technicalities, and at times violence just to exist. Its outright ludicrous in fact. Especially when compared to sports, which encourage macho-insecurity, might-makes-right rules, and the use of violence as a tool for success, and is funded and encouraged by the government with recreation centers oriented purely towards sports. God forbid that a young musician should find a develop his voice and expression artistically!
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It’s not just Lawrence. In 1980 in New York City, a loosely connected collective of artists and activists put together an art show intended to show the downside of gentrification, the sad state of housing and the shortage of art space. That was the beginning of ABC NO RIO, a collectively run, nonprofit art and performance space. “That first art show was done in a space in an empty building in the Lower East Side, so from the beginning ABC has been antagonistic toward the city’s housing policies,” said “Esnieder,” one of the people involved with the collective. The city immediately began exerting pressure, enacting various codes and ordinances to shut down ABC NO RIO. “After some negotiations ABC was given a semi-legal status in one of the city’s buildings. Ever since then, the city has been trying to evict ABC.” Seventeen years later, the struggle continues.
Using one loophole after another, and playing dodgeball with technicalities, ABC NO RIO teeters on the verge of extinction as a constant state of being. In New York the real estate market is brutal and acts fast. The gentrification process pushes prices artificially high for housing, something that should be a basic human right. Developers invest heavily in the local political scene, lobbying strongly for their interests. And for the city, a “clean,” gentrified area is a sign of progress. The mayor of the city of New York has a new concept: If you stop small crimes, you will stop bigger crimes like murder, rape etc. By his theory if you arrest a man for begging on the street then violent crime will go down. He has made a point of making the lives of homeless people as miserable as he can. He calls homlessness and begging crimes against “quality of life.” Anything that doesn’t conform to his image of middle-class American mall culture has to be stomped out. To the city government, art should be nothing more than whatever is sold at the Disney outlet in the newly refurbished megastore in Times Square. Groups like ABC NO RIO are a eyesore, a painful remainder that reality is harder than the city would like to admit.
Things are really not so different here in Larrytown. When a developer or landlord becomes a city commissioner, no good can possibly come of it. Unless, of course, you happen to be a contractor, or own a construction company. Not all of the pressure to close down music venues comes from the puritanical “No Fun Club.” More often than not, it is because many cash-starved promoters, music/arts collectives, etc. are forced to open their venues in the cheapest possible location, usually in the older, “slummy” part of town, which makes the easiest target for gentrification. And when a commissioner or political power-wielder has an ulterior agenda, masked by the charade of the “Public’s Good”, it spells disaster for the arts and music scene. The evil banker forecloses on the farm, forcing the family, and the kids onto the street. In a town like our Larryville, the few social and artistic outlets we have keep their doors open with beer sales. Due to an unfortunate, and misguided law that says that people under 21 shouldn’t associate with people who drink alcohol, this leaves anyone without a convincing ID card out in the cold when it comes to live entertainment. In a city that’s closing in on 100,000 people, with a median age of 24, it’s no wonder that teenage gangs, and the accompanying crime, drug use and severe clothing-size miscalculations are exploding. (A fact that took several years for the police dept to admit, and several more years for the local real-estate ad known as the Journal World to admit). And in a horrifyingly stupid misunderstanding of human nature, many of the local prophets (profits?) of decency blame music, MTV, or skateboarding for this phenomenon. But they’ve got it backwards. Perhaps if there was something for the young masses to entertain themselves with, then maybe crack use would go the way of goldfish swallowing.
Many cities in Europe sponsor or outright build and fund youth centers. Sometimes its just an old building owned by the city that they turn over to a youth committee to operate. The city provides funding for PA systems, utilities, and even cuts checks to the bands that play there. This has also been done in a number of towns around the United States and Canada. Its very simple: Build it, and they will come. Lawrence passed a mill-levy a while back to provide funding for a recreation center that they then scrapped in a whirlwind of political pie-fighting. Now 11 million dollars sits around waiting for the next city commission to spend on parks and recreation. It would seem that spending just a fraction of that cash on something that the youth of this city would actually use and enjoy (ie: a real skate park and all-ages live music venue) would be such a small price to pay to keep the kids from shooting up, or shooting each other. Music soothes the savage breast.
Another phenomenon in Europe is fueled by ancient “squatter rights” laws that date back to the 14th century. Since the ’70s, squatters in Europe have occupied buildings, forming collectives, and turning abandoned factories, and venues for all manner of artistic expression. In one example of this in Rome, a 17th-century fort has been squatted for nearly 10 years, and is the site of huge concerts, as well as an underground print shop, a recording studio, painting and sculpture studios, libraries and alternative bookstores. The place is truly amazing, and seems to operate just fine without the meddling of the political powers that be. (With the exception of a few attempted police raids every year, in which the squatters literally pull up the draw bridge and hurl rocks at the police. In Europe, they seem to take their right to exist a bit more seriously.)
When the Dead Kennedys released their “FrankenChrist” Lp, they included a poster with the album. The Artwork for that poster was a piece by H.R. Geiger called “Penis Landscape”. The artwork makes strong socio-political commentary, and fits very well with the content of the album. However, once a few uptight mothers caught wind of this poster on their kids bedroom walls, that mother-phone tree started up. The result was an illegal raid on singer Jello Biafras home, the offices of Alternative Tentacles, and a record distributors warehouse. The police confiscated much of Biafras personal belongings, and initiated a long and expensive trail which nearly bankrupted Biafra and the record label. This, in the midst of the hype over the PMRC (Parents Music Resource Center) Headed by political first-mates Tipper Gore and other Washington stepford wives illustrated the thin ice that our first amendment stands on. One can speculate for ages about the true political motives behind the persecution of Biafra, and pictures of penises. And either option is frightening: Where these prosecutors and persecutors simply trying to protect the public from what they deemed obscene? Or did they truly fear the political message, not only of that particular artwork, but within the content of the Dead Kennedys lyrics? Like the McCarthy commie-witch-hunts of the cold war, now a humorous anecdote in our history, is the states interest in defecating upon music and artistic expression a matter of upholding the archaic ideals of puritanical decency? Or a matter of self preservation in a growing tide of unrest and dissatisfaction with the state?
On February 22nd, in Sacramento California, politics and the local music scene clashed in a big way. A group called “Scenes from the Struggle” had organized a benefit concert of poetry readings and punk rock bands at the 24th street theater. The beneficiary of this concert was the Zapatista Solidarity Coalition, who sought to raise money to build classrooms in Chiapas, Mexico. Police, in full riot gear, raided the theater in the middle of a poetry reading and declared the event a “riot” and began arresting people. Several witnesses to the police harassment said that the police where physically and verbally assaulting concert-goers, at one point knocking a photographer to the ground and striking him with a billy club, and breaking his camera. (sounds familiar?)
One of the people arrested was Victor Rivera, one of the members of the Zapatista Solidarity Coalition. He was charged with “Inciting a riot” and released some 12 hours later, after suffering what he termed: “A lot of verbal and physical abuse” at the police station. “One question is on everyone’s mind: Why such a show of force? The punk rockers have told us that they suffer continual police harassment, but that this was something way beyond anything they had ever seen. There were at least fifty patrol cars, K-9 units, police in full riot gear, and helicopters lighting the scene with searchlights.” Said David L. Wilson, an associate of the ZSC. Wilson also gave this e-mail address as a contact for the ZSC: firstname.lastname@example.org. He said that trial dates had been set for later in march. ” The local corporate media have presented a one-sided, biased coverage based mainly on police reports.” Wilson said.
And if you consider mainstream media to be a propaganda machine of the government, bent on influencing public opinion to its own ends, as well as covering the blunders of its police force, then it makes sense that The local papers of Sacramento would try to obscure this abuse, as the casual reader will rarely question what is presented in the media.
To bring this home to Lawrence, the public may never ever read in the Journal World, that the investigators in to the Murder of Native American Chris Bread knew who the killer was almost two years before making the arrest, and instead used the “Investigation” as an excuse to harass, badger, bully, and intimidate members of the local music scene, especially those who had ties to the “OUTHOUSE,” an all-ages music venue just outside of town.
Another example of police going out of their way to protect their status of autocratic bullies is the Ice-T and Body Count concert at the OUTHOUSE in 1993. Amidst controversy and hype of the song “Cop Killer,” a concert by Body Count was booked at the Legendary OUTHOUSE. Several hours before the concert was to begin, as venue workers loaded in equipment, two uniformed, on duty police officers showed up in the parking lot, in a Lawrence City police car, and began harassing workers. An important note here is that the OUTHOUSE is located four miles outside of the city limits, well outside of the police departments jurisdiction. The officers began demanding that the concert be canceled, telling workers that it was “An official police order.” The policemen then conducted an “Inspection” of the premises, and decided that the building, where hundreds of concerts had been held for years previously, was “Unsafe” and therefore the concert should be canceled. After the police where reminded how far outside of their jurisdiction they where, as well as the fact that the government had created an entirely different entity to deal with building safety inspections, the officers left, covering their badge numbers from the video camera that had been turned on.
The underlying message that seems to incite this police intrusion into otherwise peaceful events such as these seems to be “The world would be a much better place if everyone just minded their own business.” Whether that is the government sending military force to intervene in the political affairs of third world countries, or a bunch of kids trying to entertain them selves with guitars and funny haircuts, the powers that be for some reason feel threatened. An old building used as an all-ages music venue is as big a threat to the strip-mall it is standing in the way of. And the collection of funds, and spreading awareness of corporate/political interference in third world countries is a threat to the interests of companies (or presidents) who stand to make millions from the oil production, or tennis shoe factories they erect there. One way or another, its about real estate, and maintaining the dominant paradigm, the corporate agenda of profit at all costs.
Nobody like to have their faults pointed out to them, and the state, as a corporate entity, certainly doesn’t either. So when an artist, or group of performers begins to point out the tightening noose of fascism within the governing body, that governing body is more likely to clench its fist, Darth Vader style, around the necks of said artists, then take a second look at its own role as prescribed servitude to the republic for which it stands. On the other hand, the manipulation of local government by real estate developers and those who have much (monetarily) to gain might also make strange bedfellows with such partisans of purity. If a realestate developer is eyeing a parcel of realestate occupied by a music, or artistic venue, and wants to protect his conflict of interest within the system, he might stir up a hysteria within the religious decency stealth coalition to send their barking dogmas after that venue in the name of public good. The developers get their dirty work done for them, the demons of decency apply political pressure to the establishment if their desire, and zoning ordinances, condemnation, and gentrification fall into place in time for the developer to swing in like a hero, and redevelop the eyesore. Yet the patrons of the establishments are left in the cold, with their artistic hearts on their sleeves, only to be kept warm and fed by the purveyance and use of illegal substance.
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The politics within the music and arts scene are much more complex, and not nearly as easily explained away in terms of profit, real estate, and gentrification. In an arena where the art is the purest expression of the ego, the ego will certainly drive the artist to the dirtiest of political trickery. A craving for attention, and desperate jealousy of others’ accomplishments has caused more then a few upsets in this little pond. Bands compete for gigs and local stardom using everything but their talents and abilities. Sowing seeds of dissension between bands, promoters and club owners have landed more then a few budding stars the glorious role of doorman, or (macho in-)security guard, instead of artist and performer. The dissent and conflict within the music community has always undermined the efforts to truly claim a legitimate place in society for the arts and music scene. It seems many wanna-be rockstars are pretty quick to cut down what they view as “opponents” in their clamor for the limelight, while only shooting themselves, and their own careers in the foot. But hey! That’s what they learned down at the playground.
But the outcome of all of this miserable gentrification, profiteering, backbiting and dirty politicking is that slowly but surely, all of the things that make Lawrence unique, and a nice place to live are eroding and being put out to pasture in favor of strip-malls, wall-marts and dross-pulp crap alterna-pop imitation. The Topekans and Johnson county hoards invade, a white flight from the crime and malaise of suburban sprawl, devouring everything in their path and destroying the things that made them want to move here in the first place. They erect corporate shrines to the ennui they bring with them. This town is doomed. To hell with it… I hear you can buy Topeka for a song.