Will Straw’s “The Urban Night” and 2016’s Fight for the Right to the City

Will Straw – Cities of the Night, Cultures of the Night from Winnipeg Arts Council on Vimeo.

Sorry the video doesn’t allow embedding; I’ve done similarly with a few videos I’ve posted over the years, so I’m not complaining. Go ahead and watch it on Vimeo.

Over the course of my dissertation research, I’ve realized that the day/night binary in the city is largely overlooked in urban geography. Particularly in cities like DC, the population balloons during the day, though the census reflects overnight residents who may or may not take part in much of the city’s nightlife. The “day” population and the “night” population, especially as they increasingly overlap in the age of revanchist urbanism, engage in a tacit conflict over “whose city” it is. This becomes increasingly complicated when quintessentially “night” activity occurs during the daytime. As Straw mentions in this 2010 talk, cities like Winnipeg and others in their corner are embracing traditionally nighttime activities (raves, dance parties, punk shows) and reorienting them to happen during the day, thereby supporting the arts while lightening nighttime disruptions. Punk scenes like that of Washington, DC have been doing this with little to no involvement from the city government for decades.

300px-st_stephens_church_exterior_1932DCist recently posted a 2016 retrospective blog, which included a heated debate between punks and irate young professionals.  The blog PoPville, started by Dan Silverman (aka the “Prince of Petworth”), a legendary neighborhood blogger/flâneur and the veritable face of gentrification in DC, posted an anonymous letter from an irate resident of the Mt. Pleasant neighborhood who was more than slightly annoyed at the noisy music coming from St. Stephen’s. Unsurprisingly, Silverman’s responsible decision to post the email resulted in a firestorm of animated responses. The perpetual verbal tug-o-war between “new” residents and historic participants in underground culture makes for a fascinating read, and I’d love to use this comment chain as an introductory anecdote in a class on Urban Geography of the 21st Century. As obnoxious as the debate gets at times (it is the internet, after all), I’ve seen few better encapsulations of where David Harvey’s “right to the city” sits in the public discourse in 2016.

In the interest of being a professional reporter of this cultural geography, I’ll withhold my own opinions (though you are free to guess based on who I am and what I research, and you can always ask). One comment from a user labeled “harDCore” posted this some ways along in the comment chain:

This may come as a surprise to the NIMBYs on here but DIY music festivals like this are actually a good thing for the community. The church doesn’t do it to make money, they aren’t a for profit company, they do it to help support and be a part of their community. Events based around music like this keep kids off the streets and has them doing something constructive and positive instead of just doing drugs and becoming criminals. The church isn’t selling booze so people aren’t drunkenly disorderly around the event either. There’s less as less places for youth to play music in this city as the property costs keep going up and developers take over (the Union Arts building being turned into a luxury hotel is a good recent example of this). We need local and community art and music in DC, don’t try to push it out. I suggest Googling things like Positive Force DC and getting a better understanding of what a punk concert or festival really means to the community.

And I suppose the armchair lawyers commenting here didn’t realize that the festival had permits for the event, which the police know about, and why they weren’t doing anything if the permits weren’t being violated.

In the end if you want to live in a sterile, art free environment maybe the suburbs are for you.

The attitudes of the so-called NIMBYs continue a long tradition of city property owners who celebrate the arts until said arts create a disruption. Straw’s talk touches upon this, citing the late-19th-century sentiment that lighting up the urban night would eliminate “iniquity,” but instead created new shades (literally) of it. Perhaps some believe that moneyed development is to the late 20th century what artificial light was to the late 19th? Money has unquestionably shifted the “undesirable” elements, but it has not eliminated them, and in some ways, drawn even more attention to them. I find it hard to believe that the irony of the DC Public Library’s well-publicized punk archive would be lost on people committed to their city’s growth but not its history. This also belies Mt. Pleasant’s recent history as a predominantly underclass (and radical) Latin-American enclave, which is an entire other history that could easily compose its own post.

Anyway, I wish I didn’t have to say that there are no correct answers… but there are no correct answers; only correct attitudes. I look forward to following this issue as it continues to unfold, and maybe make it back to DC for Damaged City one of these years. For those of you who can make it (April 6-9…sadly overlapping with AAG in Boston), 2017’s event is going to be a doozy. They’ve got Marked Men!! And Siamese Twins (who I haven’t written about on this site, but every person needs to hear “Don’t Forgive Lightly” before they die).

While on the subject of gentrification, if you have access (or can obtain it) check out the lead article in the new edition of Southeastern Geographer. It’s an outstanding analysis of Knoxville’s place in that conversation, by my colleagues Scott Markley and Dr. Madhuri Sharma. Considering how much I’ve been picking through the complex geographic discussion of 21st century urbanism, this article is already proving inspirational for me. Congrats and great work to Scott and Madhuri.

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The Geography of DC in harDCore

Being able to teach an advanced course in Cultural Geography this semester has been great for many reasons, most of which stem from the ability to dig deeper (or, I guess in the case of this entry, drink deeper…get it? No? That’s fine) on both places and topics. One particular place has been my longtime hometown (and dissertation focus) of Washington, DC, and one topic has been how music both operates as a representation of the place it was made and reflects back upon the place to influence public imagination of that place (see Lily Kong “Popular music in geographical analyses.” Progress in human geography 19, 1995).

I’ve discussed DC’s perpetually-increasing role within the scholarship on musical geography before, but last week, I had the opportunity to present the geographies behind DC’s legendary underground music scene to my Cultural Geography course. It was a neat coincidence that Bad Brains, largely considered responsible for the “big bang of hardcore punk” (credit) in the Nation’s Capital, were nominated for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame this week. It doesn’t require a background in pop culture studies (which I don’t have) to realize this is a big deal. This means that, even if/when the Bad Brains don’t win the induction this year (considering all of the dad-rock they’re up against), DC has finally cracked through the record industry’s hegemonic glass ceiling. Obviously, the scene has created some fissures in the glass over the years; the biggest of which were probably Dave Grohl’s rise to super-stardom and the signings of brilliant  yet completely unmarketable DC post-hardcore bands to major labels in the early 90’s. Also, the fact that Fugazi had four albums chart (albeit swimming in the top 200) with absolutely no help from conglomerated media was remarkable. But now, the baby-boomer “rock” establishment has finally peered around the corner and realized that maybe those bands really did change the world without any #1 hits or platinum records.

As part of my lesson plan, I presented a truncated version of the first decade of harDCore, which had many unfortunate but necessary omissions due to time constraints. For example, I did mention how the now-universal terms “straight edge” and “emo” originated in DC in 1981 and 1985 respectively, but I completely forgot to mention that even the term “hardcore” punk emerged in DC as a way for the then-teenage Georgetown punks to differentiate themselves from poseurs who only dressed the part. A more thorough retelling of the story is readily available in Mark Andersen and Mark Jenkins’ book Dance of Days: Two Decades of Punk in the Nation’s Capital (2001, Akashic) among various other titles in print and on video, which I make no pretenses to replicate. I don’t need to retell the whole story since it’s already been told so well from so many different readily-available vantage points.

The story that my dissertation does tell, however (in predictably greater detail than here), is how Washington, DC’s geography affected that music scene. In my lecture, I began in the mid-1970s and stopped at the end of the 1980s to (1) conclude that every key trend in underground and punk music either originated in DC or had some noteworthy filtering through that city, and (2) ask the question: WHAT IS IT ABOUT WASHINGTON, DC?

I encourage my students to pose some form of that question to themselves whenever approaching any topic. For example, our East TN History Center visit sought out answers to the question “what is it about Knoxville…?” So, it was only fitting to bring in that question template when breaking down the wonders of the DMV. Here we go:

1. DC is where The South meets The North

easternusmapWhen teaching the history of American popular music, it makes sense to begin with Stephen Foster, the first American Popular songwriter. Foster spent much of his adult life in Cincinnati, which was a similar gateway between the South and the North due to its location on the Ohio River. Foster was able to borrow Southern musical traditions and references from workers who came up the Mississippi River, which coalesced with the English, Scottish and Irish traditions of the North and generated South-fetishizing songs like “Oh, Susanna.”

While DC’s (to paraphrase JFK) blend of “the warmth of a Northern City with the efficiency of a Southern one” wasn’t the only reason that harDCore happened, but it was why so many progenitors of the people who built the scene moved there. Ian MacKaye’s mother Ginger’s family came from Georgia, bringing with them a long Southern-Gothic storytelling tradition that eked into “the archive” that made punk so available over the years and is making it possible for mainstream sources to pay tribute.

2. DC has the Federal Government

The thing responsible for the greatest misconception about DC (that it has no indigenous culture or local scene) is actually responsible for most of that indigenous culture and those local scenes. The Federal Government brings people from all over the United States and world together into one veritable melting pot. The punks who emerged from that melting pot are too numerous to mention here, but a couple in particular spring to mind.

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3 Generations of Inouyes.

Senator Daniel Inouye (D-HI) came to DC to serve on the Hill even before Hawaii was officially recognized as a state. His son Kenny, born in Hawaii in 1962 and raised in DC, founded Marginal Man in 1982. Kenny remained one of the band’s core members throughout its existence, and even led the band to be one of few in that orbit to leave DC and tour. Here’s a video of them playing sometime in 1985.

Others came into the DC punk scene through more subversive paths. The photographer Cynthia Connolly, longtime Dischord employee, came to DC in 1981 when her mom got a job working for Reagan’s new government. Connolly even talked her mom into buying a house near Georgetown because that’s where she heard the punks hung out. She recalls as much in her notes at the end of the latest printing of her seminal photo-book Banned in DC, which gave much of the world their first visual glance into that volcanic scene.

3. DC is Small

Though the DC metropolitan area stretches well out into the Maryland and Virginia suburbs (even farther depending on where gentrification has pushed some people), and actual District is bounded within a pretty small physical territory. When punk was young, it had few places to exist and even fewer in the suburbs, so many of those had to be centralized. Tiny co-ops like the Hard Art Gallery and Madam’s Organ gave Bad Brains central locations to perform and teenagers from the more affluent side of DC could venture in if they could arrange a ride or were willing to brave the Metro. Unlike LA, which had dozens of nodal communities that were physically and ideologically distant from one another, DC’s social life existed upon a relatively small amount of acreage. This reason goes hand in hand with how…

4. DC is Diverse

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via greatergreaterwashington.org

…albeit segregated to no end. Natalie Hopkinson wrote in her great 2012 study on Go-Go music that DC was one of few segregated cities (at least formally, pre-Civil Rights era) to have infrastructure in place that afforded black citizens the luxury of living full professional and social lives without interacting with a single white person on a quotidian basis. Certain blue-collar domains within DC culture are also arguably quintessentially black provinces, such as the custodial culture on Capital Hill. I remember my friend Brian, who interned with Congress in 2005, being amazed that every single custodial worker that he saw while at work was black. This is hardly a coincidence; for generations, cleaning the chambers of lawmakers was among the more prestigious jobs to which many working-class African-Americans in DC could aspire.

All that being said, the growth of the Central American community in the DC area over the past thirty years has added another dimension to the town’s productive diversity. Though most of the suburbanites who commuted to Metro Center or Federal Center and spent little actual free time in the District wouldn’t have known it, the DC underground featured a vast array of blending “white” and “black”-coded cultures throughout the 1980’s. Trouble Funk, one of DC’s biggest Go-Go outfits, played several shows with harDCore bands like Government Issue and Minor Threat. The shows weren’t always successful, but at least they were f**kin’ trying.

Another byproduct of DC’s diversity and social structure was a prominent black middle class. Obviously, not all black harDCore musicians had been middle class kids, but it did contribute to a noticeably high proportion of musicians of color in the DC punk scene in bands like Void, Scream, Dag Nasty, Fire Party, Beefeater, and others. The standard-bearers of hardcore being African-American certainly didn’t hurt, either.

5. DC is a College Town

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Two points.

This is another commonly overlooked facet of DC. It has five major universities (Georgetown, George Washington, American, Maryland, and George Mason), yet people rarely mention it in the same “college town” breath as Boston or Columbus. But taking a cue from the Federal Government, universities provided fertile locations for outsiders to mix ideas, bands to form, and musical tropes to circulate. Although tape trading and mail-order existed well before 1983, I wouldn’t be shocked if the first time a lot of Washingtonians heard Naked Raygun was on the tape decks in the dorm rooms of Midwestern transplants. By the end of the 80’s, Dischord bands (and those in that orbit) were actually inspiring people to attend college in DC, as the most recent comment on this YouTube video of Shudder to Think in 1989 would attest:

I was there.  BYOB, as I recall. Freshman year GWU. I chose my GW ’cause of  Dischord Records and no other reason, never even visited the campus before moving there. 1989: One of the best years for D.C. bands since the Minor Threat days. Seemed like Fugazi played live every damn week that year.

Even if it’s not the punks themselves who come to DC for school, a lot of their parents had come to DC for school and stuck around. Guy Picciotto, best remembered from Fugazi and Rites of Spring, is the progeny of a French-speaking Italian-Syrian who came to Washington for graduate school, fell for an American woman, and stayed put.

6. Nobody Cared about DC

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via townhall.com (I know, I know).

I should clarify that plenty of people cared about DC; it’s just that the American hegemonic mainstream looked down on it, and they had their reasons in the 1980’s. It was blighted- a well-documented “murder capital.” The crack epidemic was in full swing, and white people of any means had by and large jumped ship a full generation prior. DC had a notoriously troubled mayor in Marion Barry, who was caught smoking crack on video in 1980 and still won reelection eventually. It figures how far he stuck his neck out for DC’s 8th Ward and other underrepresented people in an underrepresented (still, to this day) District.

Of course, the same people had no idea about everything amazing that was happening. The public perception of DC’s landscape as something untouchable or beyond hope gave those who actually lived in the District freedom from certain expectations. The bands were playing for their friends and each other; they weren’t aiming for the pop charts or trying to please people outside of their means. This same phenomenon was occurring in Seattle, San Diego, and other cities that didn’t exist within most music writers’ vernacular. Even after REM scored their first top-40 hit in 1987 and people began buzzing “what is it about Athens, Georgia?” many similar culture hearths would have to wait a full generation to get their due.

Hopefully this has provided a satisfactory primer on the how and why of 1980’s Washington, DC. Music fans often say that the influential hardcore movement would not have happened without Reagan in office, but I tend to disagree. The geographic factors of the landscape that spawned harDCore were already in place by the time he assumed office in 1981. I could also list further reasons why DC became what it was in the 1980’s and, via legacy, still is today in the face of incalculable gentrification and subsequent landscape modification. Its toxic culture of pre-packaged tourism and nationalist symbolism, for one, motivated many progenitors of punk to take great care when representing their city abroad. DC’s proximity and easy access to other east coast cities like New York and Philadelphia also aided in the circulation of people and the music they carried with them. The reasons go on and are still accumulating.


Thanks for reading. If you’re looking for a documentary about this era of the underground in our Nation’s Capital, there are several. American Hardcore, which came out in 2006, takes a wider focus but of course addresses the phenomenon of DC. Salad Days, Scott Crawford’s documentary on DC hardcore, came out in 2014 and is readily available. It has a lot of great footage and interviews, including some with Crawford himself (which may be a no-no for some documentary buffs). The next one coming soon will be James Schneider’s film Punk the Capital, which traces DC punk back through rock and new wave in the area. I had the chance to meet Schneider in DC and saw some of the amazing archived footage that he’s weaving together. He actually shared one highlight on his YouTube page, which I’ll embed here. In the summer of 1985, Gray Matter climbed onto the roof of Food for Thought (a restaurant near Dupont Circle owned by Dante Ferrando’s father) to play their cover of “I Am the Walrus.” The cutaway shots show a curious crowd watching from the graffiti-tagged median as well as several abandoned storefronts, common at the time. It wasn’t a paradigm-shifting spectacle when they did it, but it was part of one in the movement that was ‘Revolution Summer.’ Either way, they beat U2 to it by a couple of years. Enjoy.

ANTIFA: Paris in the 80’s

Thanks for the support on the last post about our GEOG 320 Project. I’ve got more coming soon from the Cultural Geography class, as well as some news about a couple of local and regional presentations I’ll be making this fall!

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A fight breaks out against Neo-Nazi skinheads in the crowd at the final R.A.S. show, 1984. Photo courtesy of Philippe Roizes, all rights reserved.

In the meantime, here is the most fascinating way you could spend your next hour-and-change. ‘ANTIFA: Chasseurs de Skins’ presents 1980’s Paris in all of her brutal reality. Some friends of mine had a conversation about just how much music influenced personal identity and clannish behavior for Generation X. This often played out politically in violently reactionary pockets of Western Europe on the heels of the “no future” era and international malaise of the 1970’s. Class struggles became, at the behest of the political right, “racial” and political struggles, and these played themselves out in the punk scenes in and around Paris for several years. It’s easy to forget how a band like Berurier Noir could have had such a profound impact outside of just music.

One thing that hit me while watching this was, comparatively, how pacifist the North American left is versus the French, Spanish, and British left(s). Actual progressive voices get quelled easily here (and the ones that don’t, well, have been putting their foot in their mouths of late). This is, among many other reasons, why the Presidential nominee of a major party has been able to succeed on a platform of symbolic (and actual) violence at a grassroots level. Unsurprisingly, violence is the only rejoinder many of these people understand or respect. Racists, Islamophobes, and other people who lack the inherent ability to think critically (or at all, really) have little reason to fear bricks to the head or other such retaliation, so they behave in an animalistic way and refuse to practice compassion. But then again, that’s just one American’s opinion and interpretation of a wonderfully done documentary.

For more context, see this article about the Black Dragon gang of anti-racism warriors and an accompanying documentary in the same style.

Was this your Dissertated Summer? (Paris 1988 & Paris 1926)

One of the things that nobody warned me about as I’ve slid down the slippery slope into dissertation mode has been the creeping guilt. I know everyone’s dissertation experience is different and I wouldn’t expect everyone to share my exact academic anxieties (everyone should harbor their own; it’s perfectly natural). But I’ve reached a point where, whenever I’m doing anything unrelated to my dissertation (academic, professional, or recreational/completely disconnected), I feel this benign (yet still jarring) guilt that I’m losing ground on my monolithic self-assigned finish line. I know my whole life can’t be reading and writing for the dissertation, because that would be insane. But concurrently, I’d be in a bad position if my own conscience wasn’t nudging me back toward my mostly-digital pile of notes and drafts.

Please don’t take this rare moment of vulnerability as a caveat about my progress (or any discouragement for potential employers, *wink*). I’m definitely going to finish it, and in all likelihood on schedule. I’m not writing this to elicit sympathy or cast doubt on myself. I still thank myself disproportionately often that I walked away from my 9-to-6 life in DC to dive into academia. I still occasionally stop and think… “wow, I get to write this for a dissertation. Rad.” The pressure of the dissertation isn’t even a guarded secret among academics; a member of a seminal 90’s band (a great drummer and label manager but hardly the scholastic type) even shouted friendly words of encouragement at me when after his new band’s show in SF when he found out what I did.

I have three primary reasons for wanting to bring this up, all increasingly relevant to what I’ll be sharing here.

  1. I want to impart what little wisdom I’ve accumulated from the writing process thus far to anyone reading this who may be thinking about pursuing a PhD. Most of those people probably already have their minds made up but are just stopping by on their daily blogroll (thanks!)
  2. This is why I haven’t written anything on here for almost a month. I know I’ve had similar gaps before, but in this case, I’m honestly too preoccupied with reading, notating, and writing, and that aforementioned guilt has kept me from trying to produce unrelated material for my site. I’m also pretty subdued about works in progress, so I’m loathe to share much material about my dissertation, which (again) composes a vast majority of my recent productivity. I’ll relax this a bit tonight, though, because…
  3. The ostensibly last-minute mad-dash for literature and source material has yielded a few things in the last 48 hours that I couldn’t keep to myself.

A wise(au) man once said “Don’t plan too much, it may not come out right.” One piece of advice I’d gotten ages ago from a colleague was to avoid handicapping myself by doing anything other than expecting the unexpected when it came to research, especially given any umbrella as wide as a dissertation’s. I do have my proposal to reference whenever I forget, but I could never rewind my brain to whatever mode it was in when I first landed on my topic. The qualitative researcher is no different than their subject(s)- fluid and subject to an endless stream of external and internal influences. It’s just as important to keep as open of a mind in qualitative research as anywhere in life. This applies equally when digging through cluttered archives as accumulating the most iconoclastic of oral histories from folks in another country (both of which I’ve done over the past year).

Two research practices that have yielded mouth-nearly-agape results-level material for me in the past 48 hours range from superbly post(?)-modern (YouTube) to the downright old-fashioned (library stacks).

PARIS, 1988
From where I sit, not a whole lot of scholarship has been done on how useful YouTube can be in qualitative research, at least within geography. Some disparate articles using YouTube have appeared over the last decade (Longhurst 2009, Garrett 2011, Carter 2015), but streaming and participatory video is hardly even a generation-old phenomenon. Video recording has become more ubiquitous through smart phones, but that doesn’t mean a treasure trove of audio-visual research material hasn’t been digitized and uploaded by benevolent users all over the internet. A full year after gathering stories about the first two Fugazi shows in Paris (November 1988 and December 1989), I discovered that not only were they both filmed with excellent sound for the VHS era, but they are also now online, thanks to Philippe Roger.

Even if you aren’t a fan of Fugazi’s music, this is a fascinating watch. You can see the violence breaking out among this snapshot of Paris’ late-80’s punks scene. Watch how annoyed (and even scared) the band gets when people won’t stop stagediving and otherwise disrupting them, but they still take it like true professionals and unleash their set of early-era highlights. Guy Piciotto (whose near-fluent French he speaks here) wasn’t even playing the guitar in the first show, embedded here below. You can check out the second one, from 1990, here. For those of you who were wondering what the essence of my dissertation was, and were looking for a response to be in video form:


PARIS, 1926
Yesterday, I decided to go the library to dig up a 1984 edition of Pierre Bourdieu’s  Distinction. Normally, I just use the handy delivery service that UTK offers to save time, but the other day, I decided to give my legs and brain much-needed stretches and walked over there. I also needed to return a couple books to a different campus library, but that’s besides the point. Right before a seismic monsoon landed on campus, I ducked into the main library and wandered up to the third floor. The Bourdieu book was nowhere to be found. The staff couldn’t locate it either. I know how many books just disappear or slip under the radar within library systems every year, but at the time, it was a little frustrating. I did, however, grab a few books on a whim that have already jumped to the top of my reading list and begun to influence my writing. These included Utopia Deferred, a series of essays by the always delightful leftist quote-machine Jean Baudrillard. I also grabbed French Cultural Studies, a 1995 collection edited by Jill Forbes and Michael Kelly. I’m not sure how prominently this book will figure into my work, but I’m more confused as to why it hadn’t occurred to me yet to dig into French Cultural Studies as a resource. Last but not least (actually, least-least) was Nancy L. Green’s exhaustively-researched The Other Americans in Paris (2014), an exhaustively-researched history of the American community in Paris, from the gold- and culture-digging elites down to the petty criminals who escaped Uncle Sam’s grasp in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

On Page 1, Green clearly lays out her mission statement:

There is an untold tale of Americans in the City of Light, a history of expatriation that parallels the story of those who came to France for creative inspiration. But with an important twist. While many Americans came to France in search of (European) civilization, many more came to disseminate the American version of it. Even as the writers and artists of the well-known “Lost Generation” expressed angst over modernity and America’s role in it, other Americans overseas were participating in the debate over modernity in another way: by selling it or trying to.

The cultural and sub-cultural exchanges between the US and France, while I’m focusing on the past four decades, have been prominent for the entire lifespan of both Republics. These thoughts had been crossing my mind for the whole lifespan of my project, but until I grabbed Green’s book on a whim, I hadn’t really thought much about how much interwar American expats and tourists told us about the societies’ love-hate relationship. Did you know there was a vicious anti-American demonstration on Grands Boulevards almost exactly 90 years ago this week? Did you know hundreds of angry locals gathered to take out their frustrations on a cluster of the 200,000 American tourists in town that summer? Well, it happened (see Green, p. 204).

What I’m trying to say is, these are the things that have distracted me from this blog this summer, and take an hour a week to wander around your library’s stacks. Even if they don’t have the book you’re looking for, it can and will push/pull your research in different and fun directions.

Back to writing….

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Carter, Perry. “3 Virtual ethnography.” Social memory and heritage tourism methodologies 49 (2015): 48.
Garrett, Bradley L. “Videographic Geographies: Using Digital Video for Geographic Research.” Progress in Human Geography 35, no. 4 (2011): 521-41.
Green, Nancy L. The Other Americans in Paris: Businessmen, Countesses, Wayward Youth, 1880-1941.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2014.
Longhurst, Robyn. “YouTube: a new space for birth?” Feminist Review 93, no. 1 (2009): 46-63.

June 16

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Sometimes with people, I fake I’ve seen movies, to round off the edges.
Subset of history, I lose my identity, start bummin’ at parties…
(“Life as a Rehearsal,” 1982)

Happy Bloomsday, aka International Minutemen Day. The former’s a tribute to the 20th century’s greatest epic hero, and the latter is an unofficial tribute to the 20th century’s greatest band.

Here is a spiel I wrote about the Minutemen around this time a couple years ago.

Here is San Pedro, their hometown (and one of my favorite places in the world), in the news very recently.

Here is a book that my friend Mike Fournier wrote about the Minutemen some years back.

Here is an (unsuccessful) attempt my friends and I made to recreate the “Double Nickels on the Dime” cover during a visit to Pedro in April.

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And last, here is some validation for you all, in the spirit of the unofficial holiday. Be good to each other, and  just as importantly, let yourselves be heard.

Conferences this Spring: GeoSym2016 (2/5-6), SEMSEC (3/4-6), and AAG (3/27-4/2)

An update to let you all know where and when you can find me and my research this Spring Semester.

GeoSym_flyer11x17.jpgGEOSYM 2016
The University of Tennessee
Knoxville, TN
February 5 – 6, 2016

This is not only a chance to see me present some of my research on France, but also visit my first conference as an event coordinator. My good friend and colleague Savannah Collins and I are currently in the home stretch of pulling the final schedule together for the papers, panels, and workshops. It’s been a challenging and already rewarding process, and we’re excited to welcome over 50 scholars, including our keynote Dr. Dydia DeLyser, to the symposium. I had wanted Dr. DeLyser to feature at this event ever since I became the chair of the 2016 event over two years ago now. Her talks on the geographic history of neon light restoration at AAG 2013 and 2014 were as entertaining as they were fascinating. For this conference, she will be presenting on the Geographies of Materiality, focusing on the restoration of three Indian Motocycles [sic]. Our schedule and other details are posted at our Facebook event here, and will shortly be added to the official page on our department’s site here.


 

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SEMSEC
Society for Ethnomusicology, Southeast and Caribbean Annual Meeting
Southern Academy of the Performing Arts
San Fernando, Trinidad
March 4-6, 2016

This sounds horrible, I know. Not that I post a whole lot anyway, but I’ll try to minimize the amount of beach photos on social media so you don’t all get jealous and start plotting my demise. No matter where the conference is held, I’m glad to be able to make my return to SEMSEC with my French DC/punk research in between eating my weight in doubles and sneaking in some scuba diving. Also, if anyone knows where to find the good dusty Calypso records, I’m all about that, too.


 

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AAG
Association of American Geographers Annual Meeting
San Francisco, CA
March 27 – April 2, 2016

I’m excited to see a lot of the usual suspects this time around, even some of the less-than-usual suspects, making the trek across the globe to one of the our coolest and most expensive cities. I’ll be presenting my paper at 6pm on Wednesday, April 30th. I’ll also be performing in the Second Annual GeoSlam! Event. More info on all this as it draws closer.

I’ve got some planning and budgeting to do.

The Next Big Thing: Jewish New York and Punk Comedy

A few years ago, I had the distinct yet hardly unique pleasure of introducing my girlfriend at the time to the Fox animated series The Critic. For those unfamiliar, it was a side project of Al Jean and Mike Reiss, two of the guys who made The Simpsons into the best sitcom in history for those six blazing seasons in the mid-1990s. The Critic featured the voice of Jon Lovitz as Jay Sherman, a relentless, basic-cable film critic caught in a world of a megalomaniacal Ted Turner-like station owner (Duke Phillipps, perhaps the second-most consistently funny character on the show) and a revolving door of celebrities, both real-world and apocryphal. He is about as stereotypically Jewish as Fox would allow a character to be without banning it outright, as they did with one episode of ‘Family Guy’ (which, upon viewing, I didn’t see anything wrong with, convincing me the “banning” was a typical Seth MacFarlane publicity stunt). However, Sherman had been adopted as a baby by an extremely wealthy WASP family, including a father named Franklin who was once Governor of New York and is completely insane (not to mention the most consistently hilarious character on the show). He has a teenage half-sister who he loves dearly and provides a platform for perhaps my favorite cut-away joke in sitcom history (which MacFarlane has been trying, and failing, to match for years). The show was a brief, blazing cocktail of New York and Hollywood in-jokes that fell prey to an unfortunate fate split between ABC and Fox and ultimately the corporate cutting-room floor. My girlfriend, after about an episode and a half, turned to me and asked “so, why the hell did this get cancelled so quickly?” I hadn’t really read into it at that point, so I guessed, “I don’t know, maybe it was just too niche Jewish New York?”

In retrospect, I was only marginally right, but that phrase carries so much weight. I also couldn’t help but think about it when reading Steven Lee Beeber’s fun chapter in Sounds and the City (2014). It is entitled ‘Juidos n’ Decaf Italians: Irony, Blasphemy, and Jewish Schtick,’ and is a brief history of a band often credited with cranking the gears of punk rock in motion, The Dictators.

The flip side of the dust sleeve is the other members saying "YEAH!" while Handsome Dick Manitoba raises his arms victoriously in the background. The photo is identical and you can't make this stuff up.

The flip side of the dust sleeve is the other members saying “YEAH!” while Handsome Dick Manitoba raises his arms victoriously in the background. The photo is nearly identical and you can’t make this stuff up.

Who were the Dictators? Funny you should ask, me typing rhetorically! They were an incredibly Jewish predecessor to the Ramones whose brilliant debut album ‘Go Girl Crazy!’ hit shelves forty years ago this past spring. Beeber’s chapter inspired me to throw their record on as I was getting ready to leave the house one morning last week, and it reminded me how not only may “Go Girl Crazy!” be one of the funniest records ever recorded, but it truly did anticipate an entire generation of self-effacing, perpetually two-steps-ahead of the haters punk music (only, with one foot solidly in classic rock).  I’ll embed it here so you can listen while reading. It provides a stunningly (not stunningly) good accompaniment.

So, what is it about The Dictators that puts them into a class firmly their own, and kept them from achieving the household name status that fellow Long Island Jews Jeffrey Hyman and Tommy Erdelyi achieved? The credo that genius is rarely understood in its time applies, yes, but it’s pretty easy to look back four decades and realize that most of their jokes flew over the heads of the general populace. As Beeber (p. 83) writes:

Song titles like “Back to Africa,” “Teengenerate,” and “Master Race Rock” speak not only to a comic-ironic take on American culture that is inherently Jewish, but also to darker – equally Jewish – experiences like racism, anti-Semitism, and Nazis. As we supposed to laugh or be offended? Amused or disturbed? Is all this funny ha ha or funny strange?

This is fair enough. Put yourself in the shoes of a fan of Epic Records’ output at the time, but in a middle-American city with an underwhelming Jewish population. Let’s say… Knoxville, TN. You managed to call up the local record shop (Cat’s Records, at the time, I believe) and get this oddball release with that wacky cover. A bombastic, husky quote about his “vast financial holdings” confuses you before you hear a note of music. If the first track didn’t confuse you a bit, then their cover of Sonny and Cher’s “I Got You Babe” at track two will certainly get you scratching your head and asking “what the hell…?” As funny as their version may seem now, it came off as weird and simply un-rock n’ roll in the mid-1970s. It’s times thinking about albums like these (critically revered years after their release) where I wish there had been a blogosphere, Facebook, or some kind of indexed record to see just who was actually on board with this band forty years ago. No matter how poorly the Dictators’ relationship with Epic went, not to mention how their relationship with their erstwhile singer went, it’s still remarkable (from a satirical standpoint) how they found comedic pay-dirt in Cher two decades before The Critic did.

When the Dictators formed, several decades had passed since Moses Horwitz, Louis Feinberg, and Jerome Horwitz needed to call themselves Howard, Fine, and Howard and tone down Yiddish references to succeed in Hollywood (albeit with rare, sly exceptions). In the 1970s, Woody Allen had brought Jewish New York to the big screen in a self-effacing, modern way, but Jewish culture was still not fool-proof. Despite how New York, at the time, had the largest Jewish population of any city in the world (Beeber 2014, 77), Jews still composed a severe minority on the scale of the United States. The subtleties of their humor hit too many cultural roadblocks on the roads leading out of places like Brooklyn, NY and Highland Park, IL.

The history still requires a much more complex look, particularly because it wasn’t really until the 1920s that Jewish people had gained an authoritative voice in the United States. As Jews began to carve a niche in American society, Vaudeville maintained a reliable set of tropes through which to lampoon them. The most straightforward frames through which to ridicule Jewish people came in the form of the places most adherent to tradition and ritual: weddings and funerals.  Many Hebrew dialect recordings revolve around Wedding gatherings (“At the Yiddish Wedding Jubilee,” in which our friend ‘Cohen’ makes a drunken cameo at the open bar) or a cultural preoccupation with marriage (“Marry a Yiddisher Boy”). Funerals did not provide as much fodder as weddings, despite how many Vaudeville comics joked that the two events were one in the same. Regardless, a funeral setting allowed “Cohen Owes Me $97” to turn in one of his finest performances as a stereotypical tightwad.

While none of these depictions of an (at the time) marginalized ethnicity are completely easy to stomach today, they are comprehensible within their historical context. One maxim that has remained true throughout the history of recording has been Taylor’s (2001) idea of how “the various media and technologies we use to disseminate and store information change our perceptions” (p. 29). Youtube has made a wide array of virulently racist old material readily available, so for an education institution dedicated to preservation and historical archivism to play down these antiquated discourses would be irresponsible and, as the UCSB site says “would deprive scholars and the public the opportunity to learn about the past and would present a distorted picture of popular culture and music making during this time period.” While racist imagery of black performers and non-black performers donning blackface, though firmly taboo, still persists, the image of the Jewish immigrant as buffoon has become folded into history. McLean (1965) expanded upon how “the minstrel show had emphatically relegated the figure of the Negro – a black intruder in a white world – to a role of comic inferiority,… an impotent and exotic creature in a land settled and governed by white stock” (p. 26).

Jewish people, being a vast majority Caucasian, did not face the same levels of ridicule. Many Jewish performers could pass themselves off as secular just as many secular performers could pass themselves off as Jewish for Dialect comedy purposes. Because of this, to determine who among dialect comics was Jewish and who was not presents a challenge. Maurice Burkhart is one example of a performer who could easily have been Jewish and lampooning his own culture to climb a ladder of success. Others, like Julian Rose, were less ambiguously documented as goys, and were coincidentally less fortunate. As Merwin (2006) wrote, “over time, many of these extreme forms of ethnic parody began to seem less funny, as immigrant groups became more accepted in American society… the Immigration Acts of the 1920s prevented new immigrants from arriving – providing fewer examples of unassimilated Jews for American culture to parody” (p. 22). This coincided with the slowing down of immigration after World War I. Shellac records and radios began to appear en masse during this era as well. Julian Rose, like many other Hebrew Dialect comedians, did not survive this windfall, at least not in the United States, where Travis Stewart (2013) says “the act wore out its welcome” (Travalanche) by the end of the 1920s. As radio exploded and changed the nature of telephony within music and theater, the second generation of American Jews emerged and changed the world. While several of them grew to fame using goyish stage names, a slew of Jewish entertainers (George Burns, Jack Benny, George Jessel being three on top of a very long list) were integral in radio’s arrival as what Timothy Taylor (2005) called “blurring [of] the distinction between public and private in America in the twentieth century” (p. 259).

This is not to say that Jews had not already experienced a steady, increasing flow of acceptance within the entertainment field prior. Jewish musical traditions were among the first elements of Eastern European culture that infiltrated the American mainstream. The ending of “Under the Matzos Tree” skillfully incorporated a couple bars of the traditional Jewish wedding song “Mazel Tov,” and “Marry a Yiddisher Boy” fit perfectly within the established framework of the Barbershop quartet. This was unsurprising, as many Hebrew performers, whether they were Jewish or not, adopted pieces that descended primarily from the New York City / Tin Pan Alley tradition.

Citing author Michael G. Corenthal, Merwin (2006) credits the millions of records sold by Jewish comedians (and comedians doing Jewish routines) during the early days of the record industry forged an integration with Christian America, bringing Jewish life into non-Jewish homes the continent over (p. 10). Even as a ridiculed, persecuted minority, the American Jew had, as McLean (1965) put it, “paradoxically, come to speak, through its rich tradition of humor, for the plight of mass man” (p. 114).

Generations later, certain programming that could be referred to as “quintessentially Jewish” such as ‘Seinfeld’ and ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’ succeeded, but largely through modulating more British arcs of awkward interactions and hellishly antisocial scenarios into American settings. Imagine Ricky Gervais in “The Office,” and ultimately Steve Carell reinventing that character archetype on our side of the pond. I would argue this, rather than “Jewish” humor was what made Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David into household names. If you want to split hairs, Seinfeld was probably the least entertaining character on his show.

Regardless, is this a matter of sociology, geography, or just some sick academic specialty in “comedy?” Beeber (p. 83) continues…

Hard to say. But, in combining their talents with [Andy] Shernoff’s and using Handsome Dick as their mouthpiece, [Rock critics and early promoters of The Dictators] Sandy Pearlman and [Richard] Meltzer just may have creating the missing link between pre-punk and punk – the Italian-acting, Nazi-referencing, Jewish tough guy, a wiseass and holy fool who’s 100 per cent New York.

One of Beeber’s major points here was the cultural hybridity of the Jews and the Italians, using the term “Juido” (admitting that there are plenty of people who may have issues with the portmanteau). This was a reality I grew up with; my grandfather’s best friend in the world was a first-generation Italian-American named Biagio (“Billy” to his friends). The Hartford where they grew up was obviously no New York or Philadelphia, but the natural inclination the Jews and Italians had to run together was just as strong. One group had flocked to Ellis Island from Eastern Europe and the other from Southern Europe, one group read the Torah and the other read whatever the Pope had to say. However, both Jews and Italians came into their own as Americans around the same time and grew up with guilt-tripping mothers. Even when I was in college, the Jews and Italian-Americans in my communications classes found themselves sharing countless “Oh man, me too!” moments. They have long provided valuable foils for one another both on-screen and off, for reasons that those belonging to neither group can understand but never truly get. 

I grew up relatively close to New York, but didn’t spend as much time there as I would have liked at the time. By the time I was old enough to hang out there on my own, much of the city was getting freakishly safe and expensive. The last time I was there, in 2012, I met up with my friend Tor, who was in the states from Oslo. He brought me to Manitoba’s, the erstwhile frontman’s dive bar in Alphabet City. We stepped inside, and in some strange way, it felt slightly like the New York of the 1970s had been stuffed into this (admittedly sanitized) time capsule. I’ll never forget seeing Blum himself sitting on a bench, holding court with a group of like-minded individuals in a corner. His wife was tending the bar and their young son rode around on a razor scooter. Most memorably, Blum just looked happy. He looked at home. No matter how much his city had changed, his humor and attitude never could.

It is still curious yet not completely unsurprisingly how readily the Dictators are minimized in discussions about the first wave of punk in light of New York counterparts like The New York Dolls, The Ramones, and Blondie. In October 2007, a friend and I went to see Beeber doing a JCC-sponsored appearance at the Black Cat Backstage to promote his book The Heebie-Jeebies at CBGBs. I remember most of the conversation revolving around the Ramones (for obvious reasons) as well as later-wave Jewish-led/influenced New York bands like Reagan Youth. I’m sure the Dictators came up once or twice, but I don’t remember them dominating the conversation like they could have. They were not the most famous “Jewish” punk band to rise from that era, but they were undeniably the most Jewish. Take that for what it’s worth. Handsome Dick Manitoba, Ross “The Boss” Funicello, Scott Kempner, Stu Boy King, and Andy Shernoff were, cumulatively, a wonderful, bombastic proto-punk Jay Sherman. Beloved in retrospect, given the shaft by corporate interests and history. Too bad the Dictators were never able to work out a brilliant crossover episode on ‘The Simpsons.’ I would love it if the “Flaming Moes” episode featured them rather than Aerosmith.

LINER NOTES

This entry features pieces of a paper I previously wrote for a course on Music and Technoculture, which would have done well to include The Dictators within the pantheon of New York/Jewish humor. Here are the works I cited above:

  • Benjamin, W. (1968). The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction. In Illuminations (pp. 219-253). New York: Harcourt, Brace, & World, Inc.
  • Beeber, S. L. (2014). Juidos ‘n’ Decaf Italians: Irony, Blasphemy, and Jewish Shtick. In (Lashua, B., Spracklen, K., & Wagg, S., eds.) Sounds and the City: Popular Music, Place and Globalization. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 76-91.
  • Burns, G. (1989). All my best friends. New York: GP Putnam’s Sons.
  • Gay Jr., L. C. (2003). Before the deluge: The technoculture of song sheet publishing viewed from late 19th-century Galveston. In R. T. A. Lysloff & L. C. Gay Jr. (Eds.), Music and   technoculture (pp. 204-232). Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press.
  • Gilbert, D. (1940). American Vaudeville: Its Life and Times. New York: Whittlesey House.
  • Katz, M. (2010). Capturing sound: How technology has changed music (Rev. ed.).   Berkeley: University of California Press.
  • Lysloff, R. T. A., & Gay Jr., L. C. (2003). Introduction: Ethnomusicology in the twenty-first century. In R. T. A. Lysloff & L. C. Gay Jr. (Eds.), Music and technoculture (pp. 1-22). Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press.
  • McLean, A. (1965). American Vaudeville as Ritual. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press.
  • Merwin, T. (2006). In their own image: New York Jews in jazz age popular culture. New   Brunswick: Rutgers University press.
  • Stewart, T. D. (2005). No Applause – Just Throw Money, or The Book that Made Vaudeville Famous. New York: Faber and Faber, Inc.
  • Stewart, T. D. (2013). Stars of Vaudeville #572: Julian Rose. Travalanche Weblog. 17 Jan 2013. Accessed 4 Apr 2015 here.
  • Taylor, T. D. (2001). Strange sounds: Music, technology & culture. New York: Routledge.
  • Taylor, T. D. (2005). Music and the rise of radio in twenties America: Technological   imperialism, socialization, and the transformation of intimacy. In P. D. Greene & T.     Porcello (Eds.), Wired for sound: Engineering and technologies in sonic cultures (pp. 245-268). Middletown, Conn.: Wesleyan University Press.