The Storm Before The Balm

Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Severe thunderstorms with strong winds and huge pieces of hail pounded western Michigan this afternoon. At the hotel where I've been staying, we were struck by lightning, evacuated to the lobby, and then, we waited while the local fire department did a room by room check.

Talk about the storm before the calm of what I hope will be the balm of my holiday weekend!

Writing from my hotel room in Grand Rapids, I’m watching and listening to Richie Havens sing “Freedom” at Woodstock some 39 years ago. As Americans celebrate the construct of independence and the idea of freedom some four decades later, live music factors as largely as fireworks into how people in the U.S.A. celebrate the awesomeness of our beautiful land and loving communities—two things worth honoring that exist inside this imperfect nation of promises and problems.

Back in Detroit, I could catch the free “CityFest” being held in my old neighborhood and see lots of local Motown music and an eclectic lineup that includes Broken Social Scene and George Clinton. In nearby Muskegon, I could take in a celebration that leans to the cheesy classic rock side of the fence and sing along to folks like REO Speedwagon, Blue Oyster Cult, and Sammy Hagar.

Across the country somewhere west, the Rainbow Family of Living Light hosts its annual national gathering. Down in Tennessee, some of my best friends are visiting the family I left behind, and I will only be able to phone in my best wishes because I have settled on another music festival called Rothbury.

Rock festivals are not for the weak in patience or constitution, but I have noticed nominal yet neurotic fears among the non-initiated. For rock fans, festivals offer the best bang for your buck by far, and the legendary reputation that some have owe more to rumor than reality. For better or for worse, these are, by and large, rather respectable affairs.

I couldn’t be doing this without the support of Rothbury’s organizers, my family, and friends to whom I am extremely grateful.

Rock and roll for me is much more than hobby and perhaps just shy of religion, but either way, it occupies a huge portion of my free time. But the prospect of writing about it brings me this opportunity, so that’s what I’m doing. The effort required to plan and pack, drive and survive are enough on their own terms, but what I “owe” those who have supported me is simply to tell this story, to use the best and worst and all of the above and write about it.

When it’s over, part of me might wonder, “What was I thinking?” and ask myself what possessed me to put so much into just a couple of days of dancing and delight. But not too long after the glow of the coming weekend wears off, I will inevitably be planning the next time.

There’s a lot of talk about creating a “green” and “sustainable” music business these days, and both the biggest and baddest called Bonnaroo and this little baby brother called Rothbury have invoked these themes. Rothbury is to make this its distinguishing idea and the first to devote an entire “think tank” to its discussion and advocacy. Anxious to see how the ambitious advocates and organizers present these perspectives and how well the participants play along, I want to see how it all turns out.

But even before I set foot on the ground there, spend the weekend, and survey the results, let’s get real with the contradiction. Rock and roll is not about conservation; it’s about consumption. Rock and roll is not about “living simply”; it’s about living as wildly, recklessly, and excessively as possible! While I party inside the paradox as much as anyone, let’s try not to make the paradox too pretty. The paradox is about wanton waste, about pee, sweat, and shit; it’s about thousands and thousands of empty beer cans and dozens and dozens of porta-potties.

Some might say, if you feel this way, why even bother? Because I crave the music with an ineffable ache, that's why.

I’m all about making shit sustainable, don’t get me wrong! As I talk about the contradiction, I don't mean to deny or denounce; I live it every day. But the only way to make rock and roll sustainable in the current situation is to unplug it and play it acoustic, DIY-style on your backporch. Until some serious things change, everything from tours to CDs to amplification itself will trim finite resources from the chance of a future itself for human society.


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