Another Anthem for the Disenfranchised

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Todd Congelliere and some dancers in a makeshift venue in San Pedro

San Pedro is a good place to go when you’re looking for answers. It’s at the end of LA’s craziest freeway, south and central of South Central. It’s a tangled mess of dirty water and industry, glowing even at night in the toxic orange lights of the Port of Los Angeles. In a way, Pedro is America. It’s where the dock workers went on strike a few years ago and the president forced them back to work, arguing that America doesn’t run without the Port of Los Angeles. Of course, no one asked the question: if America really depends so much on these guys, why don’t we give them a raise? America doesn’t really depend on the president. Positions of power here are like the mythical hydra. Cut off Bush’s head and another corporate shill will sprout in his place. Cut off the salary of the Pedro dock worker, and we’re all fucked.

But these weren’t the answers I was looking for when I headed down to Pedro last week.

I went down there for two reasons. First, because Toys That Kill were playing with The Marked Men. A few weeks earlier, Toys That Kill played their record release show. I missed that one. The next day, though, I was hanging out with Razorcake columnist Jim Ruland and writer Roy Kesey. They’d both been to the show. It was the first ever punk show for Roy. He kept talking about it. He told me, “It wasn’t what I expected punk rock to be. No mohawks. No leather.” And: “It was the friendliest mosh pit. Kids would knock the shit out of each other, but stop and help up anyone who fell down.” I knew this about the show. I didn’t have to drive down to see it. Still, to hear Roy talk about it, to hear the amazement in his voice, felt like a clue of some sort. Another clue came from Ruland, when he talked about Toys That Kill playing the anthems of the gutted San Pedro kids. I listened to Roy and Ruland and kicked myself for missing that Toys That Kill show.

I didn’t miss the one with The Marked Men, though. Like I said, I was down there searching for answers. Or at least for a little insight. Because I’m worried about kids today. I’ll explain.

In typical Pedro fashion, venues changed on the day of the show. There was no listing for the show in any of the weeklies or online. The venue switch was publicized strictly by word of mouth. Still, word of mouth spread. Thirty or forty kids were milling around the venue before the first band had even played.

I forgot the first band’s name. They were from Boston. They weren’t bad, but they weren’t that good, either. Halfway through their set, the singer said, “I’m freaking out to be playing in the home of the Minutemen.” I was thinking, no shit; you’re copping more riffs off of Mike Watt than Mike Watt cops. I headed across the street to get a tall boy and brown paper bag to hold it in.

It was about ten o’clock on a Friday night. The local drug store was packed. It was obviously the spot where the locals got their booze. Different groups of kids milled around. I didn’t recognize faces, but I recognized the scenes: the goth girl with her pasty white skin and black eyeliner; the chicano metalhead who looked straight out of 1986; the mohawked punk with his pegged black jeans (who wasn’t headed over to the TTK show, by the way); the sad indie rockers with their Morrissey shirts; the hip hop kids; the dirty hippies; and of course me and the TTK refugees in our black t-shirts and jeans. Nothing new there. Nothing too strange except that I realized that every group of kids I saw was in their early twenties and ever scene they represented—goth, metal, punk, hip hop, indie rock, hippie—was in its twenties or older, too. These kids were dressed in the uniforms that their rebellious parents could’ve worn. And there’s something fundamentally off about that. It made me wonder where the next great youth movement was going to come from or if it would come at all.

Now, I know I’m basing my judgments on these kids solely on their clothes. I know that there’s more to a subculture than their clothes. I also know it seems like I’m looking down on these kids like the grumpy old man saying, “Goddamn it, get your own scene.” That’s not my intention. Because I don’t care. Dress however you want. Rebel however you want.

What concerns me about all these kids, though, is the time period when the fashions of scenes seemed to freeze. The mid-to-late eighties. It was exactly when corporations started to realize how to capitalize on youth movements, how to figure out exactly what the hot new trends were and how to repackage these trends so that it could be the corporations selling these trends back to the kids who started them. Over the past ten years, with the help cool hunting and data mining, this repackaging and co-opting of youth has only gotten quicker and more effective. Even the latest trend to promote independent music, Myspace, was purchase by Newscorp earlier this year. Newscorp (the media giant that owns Twentieth Century Fox and Fox News) paid $580 million for Myspace. They hope to recoup a lot of that money by selling demographic information from Myspace pages to advertisers. Take a second to think about that. Remember that old Jawbreaker line? “Selling kids to other kids.”

This repackaging of trends, this drive to sell our own culture to us, is having exactly the effect that you’d expect. Our music, our scenes, our lives become stagnant and superficial. It can get depressing. So I bought my tall boy and headed back to the show.

The Marked Men were setting up when I got back there. There was no sound man or sound board. Just a P.A. and a guy standing at the front of the stage, fiddling knobs. The venue was less of a venue and more of an abandoned space at the end of a rundown commercial building. Plaster flaked off the walls. The ceiling had holes in it. The floor was bare concrete. No advertisements hung on the wall. There was no doorman, no security. I don’t think anyone was actually working there. The only people dealing with money in the joint were the bands selling merch and the guy passing the hat for the bands. Nothing but the music and the people who came to hear it.

Enter The Marked Men. They’re definitely one of my favorites. When their album On the Outside came out a couple of years ago, it got stuck in my truck’s CD player. No malfunction on the part of the stereo; I just couldn’t bring myself to take the CD out. And since I pretty much only drove that summer when I was driving to the beach to go surfing, that album is etched in my mind as a sign of good things to come. They were touring this time to promote their new album, Fix My Brain. I hadn’t heard the new one yet. From the opening chords of their set, from the pure energy and excitement, from the kids swirling around me, going nuts, I knew The Marked Men were on to more good things to come.

There’s more to The Marked Men, though. They come out of a scene in Denton, Texas, that’s given birth to a few bands whose albums get stuck in my stereo: the Chop Sakis, The Riverboat Gamblers, High Tension Wires, The Reds. Now, granted, a lot of those bands have overlapping members, so the music scene in Denton may be smaller than I imagine. And, granted, The Riverboat Gamblers are on the Warped Tour this summer and, considering their amazing new album and live show, they are poised to be the next big thing, the next trend to be co-opted and sold back to us. That hasn’t happened yet, though. We’re still in that pure time when the Denton bands and their music have developed organically. It’s still a music scene that exists because we love the music, not because someone is trying to sell it to us. In a lot of ways, this was the perfect place to see The Marked Men—a word-of-mouth show in an abandoned commercial space. Nothing for sale but the stuff the bands sell to keep themselves on the road.

Up next was Toys That Kill. TTK is the band I’ve seen play the most in the past five years. Part of this has to do with the bands that TTK bring to town and play with. I guess I have pretty similar tastes in music with these guys. I have to thank them for bringing me shows with Dick Army, The Knockout Pills, Shark Pants, The Fleshies, The Arrivals, Tiltwheel, The Thumbs. The list goes on. Recess Records, the label that TTK singer/guitarist Todd runs, has put out albums by bands that have graced four Razorcake covers.

Most of the reason I’ve seen TTK so much has to do with how much fun it is to be at their shows. They have a following, a core audience that’s always there. I don’t know what to call this group. They’re loyal as deadheads and drunk as dock workers on their days off. I don’t know any of them personally, though I’ve seen them at dozens of shows. It’s enough just to watch them, to feel their energy, to see them singing along to every word of songs that are on an album that was released two weeks earlier.

And again, down here in Pedro we have something that mirrors Denton. We have a living, breathing scene that exists for the music and for the people who love it. It’s not flashy. It’s not what Roy Kesey expected to see at a punk rock show. And it’s not really punk rock in the original sense. It’s grown and evolved miles away from the original movement. The bands aping the old heroes draw yawns. The bands finding new ways to make high energy rock’n’roll etch the signs of good things to come.

So, yes, it’s a little bit of optimism. A show untouched by corporate culture. Anthems for the young and disenfranchised played in a way that they can’t be repackaged and sold back to us. It’s a beautiful thing.

But it’s not that simple.

On the long drive home, across the concrete expanse of LA, I kept thinking about it. Shows like The Marked Men/Toys That Kill one are a beautiful things. They’re connected to larger things, other scenes in other towns that are doing the same type of things. They’re signs of a living, breathing culture that exists because we want it, because we love it, not because someone wants to sell it to us. But when the sweat dries and the excitement wears off and it’s just me in my truck, rolling down another freeway, immersed in the cloned towns that engulf America like the repeating backdrop in a cartoon, I have to wonder if these little oases of culture can ever irrigate this dry society we live in, or is it just a matter of time until someone buys the oasis and sells us the water?

 

Author’s note: This is the eleventh chapter to a collection of Razorcake columns I wrote.  It originally ran in Razorcake #33.  For more information about the collection, read this post.

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