#AAG2017 Recap Part III: A Visit to Mirror Lake (St. Pete, FL)

As the AAG meeting was winding down, I snuck out of Boston a night early to fly to Tampa. Two of my good friends from Knoxville were back in the States (he and his Scottish wife live in the UK now; long story) to officially tie the knot. The American half’s folks retired to Western Florida some years ago, and they wanted to give their son a proper party in the US while they had the opportunity. So, a few of us converged on St. Petersburg for a couple of days. Though much of our trip was taken up by the Sunday wedding (my friend Shane, who has appeared on this blog multiple times, did a great job officiating it), we managed to fit in several other activities. We ate lunch at Taco Bus, spent some time at the beach, went to the Dali museum and caught a great Frida Kahlo exhibit, checked out Banana’s Records, and last but certainly not least, tracked down the site of another Ben Irving Postcard.

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Ben mailed this one from St. Petersburg on February 10, 1939. He had spent so much time in Florida over that decade, it would be fairly safe to assume that he’d decided by this point to retire down there eventually (as he did). He didn’t indicate whether he stayed in the Suwannee Hotel, pictured there, directly across Mirror Lake from the artist’s vantage point.

Considering how the hotel was a prominent selling point for the city in D. P. Davis-development-era postcards, I had a surprising amount of difficulty finding anything about the building other than cursory information. A few sources indicated that the hotel was closed but the building had been converted into “offices for Pinellas County,” which was not all that helpful in figuring out the coordinates. The postcard also didn’t have the address or phone number anywhere on it. The caption on the back just said it was “a fireproof building with 205 modernly-equipped, well-ventilated, steamheated guest rooms. Located in the center of everything of interest” and implored people to write the Managing Director John N. Brown for rates. At the time, the postmaster in St. Petersburg would know exactly where a landmark like a hotel with over two hundred rooms was, so an address was not really necessary for someone to write them. I only had the browser on my phone available at the time, so advanced newspaper searches were out of the question. Thankfully, the building’s location near Mirror Lake helped me to sort it out using Google Maps, since it’s highly unlikely that the city took such drastic measures during redevelopment that they needed to move a lake.

I sorted through potential locations, looked at buildings in street view, and settled on a location at the corner of 1st Avenue and 5th Street on the southeastern corner of Mirror Lake.

Until I tried to investigate the hotel building, I had completely forgotten that St. Pete and Tampa are in two different counties, which I suppose makes sense if they are separated by a big body of water, but creates an administrative nightmare for getting people and capital between the two cities. In the sports geography case, the Lightning and Buccaneers both play in Hillsborough County (Tampa proper) while the Rays play in Pinellas County (St. Pete). It seems hard enough to get from one city to the other using public transit, so I don’t want to imagine what it was like for the counties to battle over the Tampa Bay sports franchises.

Anyway, back to the vantage point search. In an attempt to recreate the aesthetic of the postcard image, I convinced my companions to visit the site as the sun was setting. We drove over to Mirror Lake right around 7:00 pm, as the sun was setting, and it was finally no longer too hot to comfortably walk around. In fact, the temperate was perfect and the Mirror Lake ring road felt like heaven as the Spanish Moss floated in the breeze. I knew if we let the sun get too low that my phone’s camera (not too advanced to begin with) would have trouble adjusting for the dusk light levels.

We parked the car next to a gorgeous church across the lake from where the Suwannee Hotel’s apparent address was.

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I was considering including this as a ‘bonus’ item to my Boston re-photography entry, but once I started writing what you’re about to read below, I decided to give Mirror Lake its own entry.

One thought that occurred to me is how Florida, while already carrying the title of ‘America’s Weirdest State,’ is exceedingly difficult to parse geographically. This may actually have something to do with how weird the state is. Most people know the mantra about how Florida is culturally split between a ‘southern’ North and a ‘northern’ South, but once you actually observe and take stock of the state’s cities, that dichotomy is complicated. For example, three of the biggest cities in the state (two of which are twin cities…kind of) are laid out across the nebulous transition zone. Orlando, St. Petersburg, and Tampa are all crossroads between South and North Florida. Orlando is the home to University of Central Florida (among many other colleges), where Tampa Bay, not much farther South than Orlando, is the home to the University of South Florida. I’ve never heard anybody describe Tampa Bay as “southern Florida,” considering how much territory is located beneath it. Granted, the Everglades eat up a lot of the land west of Miami, but there are still a large handful of prominent cities strewn across the marshy Southwest coast, like Sarasota and Naples. Only four proper cities (Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Daytona, and Jacksonville) fall clearly into those cultural categories, two of each on each side of this highly arbitrary and slowly unraveling (in my mind, at least, as I’m typing this out) division.

I’ve gone on record here claiming that Gainesville is my favorite city in Florida, but it’s by no means a “major” city, considering it owes its existence to a massive land grant and perpetually growing state University. I know popular culture has tried to ensconce Gainesville within the realm of ‘southern’ Northern Florida, between a CMT reality show and generations of ‘southern fried’ punk bands, but it’s still a college town full of Caribbean influence and enough Jewish students to merit knishes on the menu at hole-in-the-wall diners.  I’ve only been to Tallahassee twice, and I haven’t seen any knishes for sale anywhere, but the moment I expand this conversation into the panhandle is the moment I expand the geographic discussion by about 4 paragraphs. I don’t want to disparage Pensacola, though, since SEDAAG 2015 was enjoyable, I have some good friends there, and it’s only 45 minutes from Mobile.

Anyway, this is all to say that, yes Florida is weird, but to the cultural geographer, weird is almost always good. As long as I live, seeing Spanish Moss swinging in the breeze will always fill me with joy. It’s so serene, it makes it easy to forget how invasive and harmful the species is. Not that I’m any ecological expert, either.

 

Going Back to Mayo

The Mayo Water Tower, March 2010.

The Mayo Water Tower at sunset, March 2010.

Sometime in March of 2010,  I was involved with a wildlife filming expedition (of sorts) to Northwestern Florida when my group wound up riding through a small town called Mayo. Initially, we found the town’s name quirky enough and its water tower iconic-seeming-enough to earn a drive through the small central district. I wasn’t able to spend as much time getting to know Mayo as I would have liked. A lot of our filming happened elsewhere in the thinly-populated Lafayette County, which I somewhat ignorantly referred to as “the abyss between Tallahassee and Gainesville” to northern friends. Pragmatically, though, there is something almost ghostly about that area. Mayo’s population has hovered precariously around 1,000 for most of the 21st century, yet it’s still the county’s administrative seat. Our business there was filming some county council meetings, speaking with some regional citizens who had lost property during widespread wildfires that had ravaged Northern Florida earlier in the decade.

Students from American University interview a Lafayette County resident about his experiences with wildfire on his property while filmmaker Wolfgang Obst looks on.

Students from American University interview a Lafayette County resident about his experiences with wildfire on his property while filmmaker Wolfgang Obst looks on.

Before too long, I got bored with the proceedings and decided to wander outside to stretch my legs. It wasn’t my project; I was only there because I wanted to catch another glimpse of this quiet little town before wrapping our filming week and heading back to DC. My restlessness led me to a softball tournament happening in the fields outside of the high school, which quickly became a highlight of the entire trip. I have no idea when I would have time to write a paper about it, but there has to be some ground to the types of activities that provide the most “authentic” (dirty word, I know) experience of a place. I would place “softball tournament” right up there with “local dive bar performance” as the best barometer of what constitutes the quotidian in any locality. People are there in equal parts because they want to be and because they have some type of civic or familial duty to be.

Mayo, FL - March 2010

Mayo, FL – March 2010

The timbre of the crowd watching softball (including myself, I gladly paid the $4 entry fee) seemed to lean toward the former. The early-evening temperature was perfect and the Florida Panhandle accents abounded (keep in mind this was still a novelty to me at the time; I wouldn’t move to Tennessee for another three years yet). Needless to say, that tiny town in what felt like the middle of nowhere off the Suwanee River left a disproportionate impression on me. I left a couple days later to go see a music festival in St. Augustine, and I couldn’t get Mayo out of my head for some reason. I had a standing offer to return to Lafayette County that weekend for what our group’s regional liaison Sharon referred to as “the biggest redneck barbecue of the entire year,” but I couldn’t manage it. In fact, a few days later I flew back up to DC and resumed my life, wondering if I would ever have the chance to pass through Mayo again.

Main Street, Mayo, FL - March 2010

Main Street, Mayo, FL – March 2010

A few weeks ago, against some range of odds, it happened. My friend Sean and I were on a road trip between Tallahassee and Gainesville, and decided to take the rural route 27 rather than the markedly less scenic and only marginally faster freeway-to-freeway route. The only real advantage to doing that would have been a photo-op with that iconic Cafe Risque “We Bare All” billboard. We made the right choice in taking 27. One thing I had forgotten was that Mayo is almost exactly in between the two cities. There did not seem to be a clear majority of Seminoles or Gators gear on license plate frames or poorly-fitting t-shirts. The equilibrium felt (here’s that word again) ghost-like. In fact, the town felt largely the same, though it was a welcome relief seeing it in full daylight.

March 19, 2015. Pardon my misplaced enthusiasm.

March 19, 2015. Pardon my misplaced enthusiasm.

My friend and I stopped at Meme’s cafe (pronounced Mimi’s) right in the center of town for some lunch and to recharge. Meme’s is located in the space where Sonny C’s Barbecue Chicken stood five years ago (you can see the sign in the photo of Main Street above). We were distracted with a sign that read “ya’ll come back” to exiting customers; were the proprietors of this diner trying extra hard to seem Southern? It wouldn’t shock me to find out that Mayo has pockets of retirees or non-Natives who wanted a quieter, less expensive life than places like New York, Miami, or Atlanta could have offered. We also wandered into the one prominent supermarket in town (actually directly to the right of where I’m standing in that picture above) and discovered how heavily Latin-American the market was. It came as a surprise, considering how off-the-beaten-path the town seemed, despite exploding Mexican and other Central-American populations throughout the “New South.” Only approximately 16% of census respondents categorized themselves as Latino of any race as of 2000, though one could assume that’s risen substantially since then.

The porch of the Old Lafayette County Courthouse (1888), now a  Bed and Breakfast. The current Lafayette County Courthouse (built in 1908) can be seen off on the right side of the frame. March 19, 2015.

The porch of the Old Lafayette County Courthouse (1888), now a Bed and Breakfast. The current Lafayette County Courthouse (built in 1908) can be seen off on the right side of the frame. March 19, 2015.

It’s easy to get condescendingly wistful when you pass through places like Mayo. It has more warmth than a succession of one stoplight towns in Northwestern Texas, and it has more noteworthy architecture than plenty of towns twice its size. But, as I discovered this time around, Mayo didn’t really need my pity. Unlike so many tiny towns in the United States, it doesn’t appear to be much worse off than it was five years ago. Actually, if you look at that photo of downtown from March 2010 again, you may notice an abandoned pair of buildings – one red, one tan. This is what they looked like a few weeks ago:

Tumbleweed's Smokehouse, March 19, 2015

Tumbleweed’s Smokehouse, March 19, 2015

Nothing against Meme, but I wandered into the restaurant on the left out of curiosity before we left for Gainesville. The scent of roasting BBQ smacked me in the nose and I think I may actually have said “wow” right within earshot of the proprietor. It made sense, considering how the actual smokehouse sat right next door to the dining room; most of the time you see smokers sitting fairly far afield from where the customers actually eat it. Not a bad approach for the latest agents in the always-changing BBQ situation in Mayo. I wish we had chosen to eat there. There’s always a next time, though.

I know some of you may be getting sick of how much love I give Florida on this site, but it’s hard for me to resist. I know it’s inaccurate because I’ve spent a disproportionate amount of time there, but I feel like I’ve found more cool small towns in the Sunshine State than the other 49 combined. The lesson here is, no matter how you may feel about a state, you will very rarely regret taking that rural route if you have the time.

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Back in Knoxville

I had these highly ambitious plans to check in while on a road trip through the South recently. You can probably guess how well that turned out. 

That being said, I’m back in Knoxville for a little while now, and I’ve got some classic moments to share in re-photography and maybe other introspection on life on the road in 2014 if time permits. Stay tuned.

Pensacola, FL.

Pensacola, FL.

Attempts at (Re)photography in Florida

A big thank you to all of the Geographers and supporters thereof who converged on the Tampa Convention Center and Marriott for AAG last week, and a big apology in advance to all the ones who I met that won’t hear from me for a little while as I’m busy catching up on work and otherwise getting my life back in order. I had grand ambitions to do some work while in Tampa, but if you’re reading this you can probably take a wild guess as to how that turned out. As anyone who’s been to a conference like it knows, everyone’s too busy being constantly distracted in order to really accomplish anything other than make new connections and pray they remember you.

That being said, I was excited to see the book with a chapter I contributed displayed prominently at the Ashgate table in the exhibitors’ hall in such good company.
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I would love to give Tampa proper some attention here*, but in the interest of time, I’ll skip right to the point. A few months ago, I posted cryptically about some antique postcards that came into my possession. Where the postcards are from will hopefully one day be under an organized-enough umbrella to present here, but for now, let’s have a quick chat about (re)photography.

The term “rephotography” (alternate “re-photography” or “(re)photography”) didn’t originate in Jason Kalin’s 2013 article (found here), but he did bring the scope of its uses to my attention last year. Considering how easy the internet has made it, our culture can barely digest content without (re)contextualization. This is both a good and a bad thing, but acting on what I hope is a good manifestation of it, I decided to set out on foot from the Tampa Convention Center to try to recreate one of my the postcards myself. The over-friendly hotel concierge** told me the Davis Islands were located a walking distance from the downtown area, though strategically disconnected from the Convention Center area proper. I suppose they didn’t want legions of drunken Lightning fans stumbling over from the Forum into their bars (which are located way too deep into the island for the casual ambler).

Anyway, here is the result of my efforts:

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Not perfect, but I would have needed to defy death and stand in the middle of Bayshore Boulevard in order to get a more accurate recreation of the original artist’s perspective. Also, the bridge from Hyde Park over to Davis Islands has been remodeled, and the Davis Island residential areas of 2014 are a far cry from that of the pre-War era. Obviously, the hospital and adjacent office buildings were not there when D.P. Davis*** imagined this crazy project before building it and disappearing.

From what I can tell, the fencing by the harbor has largely retained its character, and the vegetation nearby in the foreground is even quite similar to the classic depiction. The bright yellow building depicted on the postcard can be seen at a distance to the right of the hospital today, which helps highlight how the postcard image (obviously painted to sell the city and the Davis development) is based on an off-scale interpretation. I would need to dig deeper and find archival photographs of Davis Islands in order to determine what exactly was misrepresented, and thanks largely to the conference that brought me to Tampa backing up my workload, I have no time right now. At least there’s always Google, right?


LINER NOTES (SPECIAL “IF” EDITION)

* If you’re in Tampa, though, and looking for great places to hang out, look no further than New World Brewery (Ybor City), The HUB (Downtown and if you’re okay with smoke), and the Independent (Seminole Heights, next to the wonderful money-pit Microgroove record shop). Full disclosure, we didn’t make it into the Independent since our ride downtown was leaving, but you could just tell it was awesome.

** If you’re wondering if that’s a reference, the answer is yes.

*** If you want to read one of the most fascinating accounts I’ve found about the mysterious Florida land developer, check out this history thesis by Rodney Kite-Powell. It helps explain his legacy and bizarre disappearance.

Returning to Florida Next Week

I'm not actually staying in this hotel. But I may need to go check it out.

I’m not actually staying in this hotel.  I may need to go check it out, though.

It’s hard to believe that the AAG Conference is almost already here. I’m looking forward to seeing some old friends and making new ones over a backdrop of near-constant happy hours and pontificating.

I’m working on posting some background here about the research I will be presenting in Tampa next week. In case I’m not able to (and you’re in the Tampa Bay area), here’s where you can see me. Copied directly from the AAG Program.

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Geographies of Media 3: Music Geography (Sponsored by Cultural Geography Specialty Group, Communication Geography Specialty Group)
Room: Meeting Room 2, Marriott, Second Floor (Paper Session)
ORGANIZER(S): John Finn, Christopher Newport University; Joseph Palis, North Carolina State University
CHAIR(S): Tyler Sonnichsen, University of Tennessee

2:40 Tyler Sonnichsen*, University of Tennessee,
‘The Boston I Knew is Lying on the Ground’: Reinterpreting Boston Landscapes Through Song.
3:00 Rex Rowley*, Illinois State University,
Evoking Las Vegas Place Particularity and Typicality through Popular Music.
3:20 Ola Johansson*, University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown,
Lost in Translation? The Role of Place in Swedish and American Music Media.
3:40 Deborah J. Thompson, Ph.D.*, Berea College,
Performing Gender in Eastern Kentucky’s Old Time Music Community. .

Bow Down to Gainesville (Part 2)

Another weekend, another conference. It is almost springtime, after all.

I’ll be making my first of at least two trips to Florida this semester to present at my first Ethnomusicology conference, the annual meeting of the Southeastern and Caribbean Chapter of the Society of Ethnomusicology happening this weekend in Gainesville, Florida! Hopefully things have cooled off since the Associated Press threw the #1 ranking at their Basketball team yesterday.

More information about the conference is at the official website here. I’ll post the draft schedule here, with me and some of my Tennessee colleagues highlighted. I have to admit: “flutelore” sounds pretty badass.

Here’s lookin’ at you, Gainesville. See you all soon.


Friday, February 28

Session 1 (8:30 am  – 10:00 am)
Historical Perspectives on Women and Music
Kathryn Etheridge (Florida State University), “The Modern Girl Composes Herself: Japanese Modernist Yoshida Takako”
Sarah Kahre (Florida State University), “The Gravest of Female Voices: Women and the Alto in Sacred Harp”
Megan MacDonald (Florida State University), “‘Heaven is Nearer Since Mother is There’: Gendered Spaces in Southern Gospel Songbooks of the Great Depression”

Session 2 (10:30 am – 12:30 pm)
Drop on Down in Florida: Musical Models For a New Generation
Peggy Bulger (American Folklife Center, Ret.), “Dropping Back Down: From the Field to the Archive to the iPod”
Dwight DeVane, (Florida Folklife Program, Ret.), “The Drop on Down in Florida Reissue: Opportunity, Conceptual Framework and Digital Access”
James Cunningham (Florida Atlantic University), “A Grass-Roots Applied Ethnomusicology of in the Glades”
Gregory Hansen (Arkansas State University), “Fiddlelore and Vernacular Theory within Presentations of Public Folklore”

Session 3 (2:00 – 3:30 pm) 
Multicultural Musical Mediations in the United States
Sarah Renata Strothers (Florida State University), “Looking Like the Enemy: Negotiating Risk in Japanese-American Musical Performance”
Elizabeth Clendinning (Emory University), “Symbiotic Sounds: University-Community Interdependence in World Music Ensemble Instruction”
Matt DelCiampo (Florida State University), “‘Real Beauty Turns’: Beauty and Gender Perceptions in Mixed Media”

Session 4 (2:00 pm – 3:30 pm) CONCURRENT SESSIONS (continued)
Identities and Spiritualities In South and Southeast Asia

(idioteq.com)

Tyler Sonnichsen (University of Tennessee), “Can’t Breakaway: Indonesian Punk and Xenocentrism”
Nina Menezes (University of Florida), “Voices of Sheila: Re-signification in Bollywood Filmic and Non-filmic Contexts”
Gavin Douglas (University of North Carolina, Greensboro), “The Sounds of Buddhism in Myanmar: Dhamma Instruments and the Cultivation of Divine States of Consciousness”

Book signing (3:30 – 4:15 pm)
World Flutelore: Folktales, Myths, and Other Stories of Magical Flute Power
Dale A. Olsen (Professor Emeritus, Florida State University)

Keynote Address (4:30 – 5:15 pm)
FOCUS ON FLORIDA: DOCUMENTING AND PRESENTING MUSICAL TRADITIONS OF THE SUNSHINE STATE
Robert Stone (Independent Folklorist)

See the website for the Saturday schedule.

Postcards from Tampa Bay, 1938 (Part One)

Last week was even more of a mess than the week prior to it. This week? Plenty to do, but I do have a few minutes to post a quick update on some recent activity over here.

(mush records)

First, for those who missed it, I recently contributed a column to ZME Music commemorating the tenth anniversary of the release of my favorite hip-hop album of all time, Aesop Rock’s Bazooka Tooth. Hip-hop had never cast such an anti-establishment love letter to any city as Ian Bavitz did to New York in a moment when that town desperately needed it. While what I wrote skewed heavier toward media studies and sociology than geography, there is plenty of place-based thought crammed into there. I hope you enjoy it and would love to hear your thoughts, especially if you haven’t endured the positive brain-numbing of this record yet.

Last weekend, I inherited a massive stash of postcards mailed to Brooklyn from around North America over the course of the Great Depression and the onset World War II. I am not adequately prepared to explain the significance and context of these cards here, but I am happy to provide a teaser.

In honor of the upcoming 2014 Association of American Geographers meeting in Tampa, Florida, here are a few wonderful postcards from the region in 1938, with brief descriptions. Taken as a whole, they represent a fine cross-section of the pre-Disney Florida tourism industry imagery. (h/t to Derek Alderman for this observation). All scans are mine.

St. Pete's Green BenchesMany American cities have unfortunately done away with benches like these for class and urban blight-related reasons, but the ones in St. Pete have gone through a bizarre history, now lending their heritage to the city’s finest craft brewery. Read more about the green benches here.

HotelDixie_Bradenton_1938

Until I saw this one, all I could really tell you about Bradenton was that it was the subject of a Hot Water Music song. When I saw this archival photo on the postcard, flanked by these cool 30s-Hollywood decorations on the side, I discovered Bradenton had quite the fancy landmark back in the day. The city tore the building down in 1974. You can read more about that here.

DavidIslandsTampa_1938About eight decades before Dubai had everyone in the developed world talking about man-made islands, the enigmatic D.P. Davis (one of the kings of the Florida land boom of the 1920s; read about him and the boom in this masters thesis here) pumped a bunch of mud onto a pair of small grassy atolls and created one of Tampa Bay’s first upper class residential communities. More background can be found here.

hotelfloridian_tampa_1938Of course what better place to stop than the Hotel Floridian? It has a fairly common story: built at the height of the Jazz Age in 1926, fallen into disrepair, and restored to a modicum of its glory, and available for those who can afford rooms today. The ribbon was actually re-cut last year, so looks like it was just in time for the hordes of Geographers who probably can’t afford to stay there but will definitely pass through and take a look.

There’s more where this came from, so don’t worry. Here’s a quote from John Blacking (and a music video by a Tampa band that pretty much proves his point) to tide you all over until next time:

The value of music is, I believe, to be found in terms of the human experiences involved in its creation. There is a difference between music that is occasional and music that enhances human consciousness, music that is simply for having and music that is for being. I submit that the former may be good craftsmanship, but that the latter is art, no matter how simple or complex it sounds, and no matter under what circumstances it is produced.

– John Blacking, 1973 How Musical is Man?, University of Washington Press, (2000 Edition), p. 50.

Merchandise – Time from Id House Vid. Group on Vimeo.

Bow Down to Gainesville (Part 1)

People hate Florida, and I know why, but I really do not understand why. Perhaps liberals harbor some type of pent-up resentment over the crooked procedures that ultimately threw the presidency into George W. Bush’s lap in 2000, or internet-shackled millennials still implore their twitter followers to #FF Florida Man to a religious degree. Being fair (and realistic), Florida is not only saddled with one of the most interesting iconographies of any American state (palm trees, oranges, Gloria Estefan, EPCOT center, gators, The Gators, ‘Noles, early Spanish landscapes, the Everglades, and for some reason, Hulk Hogan), but also carries singular contradictions, a place where, as Travis Fristoe writes, “[people] get misty eyed at shuttle launches and wave foreign-made American flags as plutonium is launched into orbit.”

See? (via TheCasualGeographer)

On a personal note, it is easily the state that I have spent the most time in among those in which I’ve never lived. Florida, more than most US States, as far as this site is concerned, lies at a solid intersection of emotional and imagined geographies. I say emotional geographies because I will always have a soft spot for my once-annual visits to see my Bubbe in North Miami Beach, frequent jaunts to see Goofy and ride Space Mountain, and the places I experienced over the course of a handful of highly meaningful trips I have taken as an adult. This is not much different for hundreds of thousands (potentially millions) of other Americans and international visitors.

I evoke imagined geographies because this aforementioned iconography of Florida generates a substantial series of mental landscapes reflective of Tim Cresswell’s treatise on how “even a totally imaginary place has an imaginary form in order to make it place-like.” Florida is a state of contradictions, split heavily between the isolated peninsula and the not-just-South but “Florida-South” (as a friend who grew up on the Gulf Coast puts it) panhandle. Bubbling somewhere in the midst is the University town of Gainesville.

To someone who may not be as fascinated with punk on both a musical, subcultural, post-structural, or visceral level as myself, Gainesville is a modest college town that lies at the crossroads and functions as a gateway between the “Florida-South” and stereotypically Jewish / Cuban Southern Florida. The University of Florida Gators are known for not messing around when it comes to several Division-1 sports, nor are they known for mincing words when it comes to their friends at Florida State University up the road in Tallahassee. But what Gainesville has becoming increasingly mythologized over is punk rock. No Idea Records started (initially as a fanzine) in the town in the mid-1980’s, but grew, over the following decade, into a powerhouse of sun-soaked, working-class punk rock in the form of bands like Hot Water Music, Against Me!, and Rumbleseat.

In March 2010, I took advantage of a filming trip to northern Florida and paid a brief visit to Gainesville simply to see or get a mere impression of what this fuss was all about. I drove into a sleepy city (U of F happened to be on spring break… poor planning on my part I suppose) and eventually found Hyde and Zeke records, which was one of No Idea’s scattered storefront presences at the time. I had a nice conversation with the owner, bought an original pressing of the Operation Ivy “Hectic” 7-inch, and made my out of town. I was not so naive to assume that I would stumble upon Radon (or a modern facsimile)  playing a bar or house show somewhere; I knew I was about fifteen years too late (that, and I was not able to make it down for the annual Fest). But the Gainesville I discovered myself was a far cry from the legend it had built up through years of punk rock lore.

That is not to say at all that Gainesville is not worthy of such a reputation. When it comes to reminders of why the city has such a place in punk rock’s collective, self-centered heart, no band better encapsulates the spirit to both outsiders (and, as the story goes, to insiders) than Radon.

Based on this band’s story line, I’m going to assume this photo was either taken in Gainesville or not far from it. And based on those overalls, I’m going to assume this photo was taken in 1992 or not long from it. (Source: LeadUsDown.com)

Let’s talk about this band, and why despite their deep obscurity and a relatively slender catalog of officially released music, they are virtually unmatched* in musically and aesthetically projecting all of their town and states’ personality quirks onto an ever-expanding canvas. First of all, I would like to thank Mitch Clem for introducing me to this band through his punk comic strip Nothing Nice to Say. His character Blake’s lamenting not having a girlfriend whom to dedicate “Rehab Barbie” implored me to look the band up, and before long, I could not stop listening. Even without considering the geographic ramifications of the band and their town, the music itself is rock-solid. A vast majority of Radon’s limited discography (augmented by a 2006 reunion album, which I love despite the title) is as catchy, well-played, and timeless as anything that emanated from that strata of rock music in its time. Dave Rohm (guitar/vocals), Brent Wilson (bass/vocals), and Bill Clower (skins) were not good vocalists by any means, but they still managed to convey messages ranging from cryptic to explicit with the concision and intelligence of musicians twice their age and thousands of times as popular.

Radon are well-regarded enough to garner this level of niche attention and praise, though still willfully obscure enough so that only a small handful of their songs have made it onto embed-able media (“Lying to You,” the opening track off 28, is the only song of the album’s ten that I could find on any video site). Given how much attention the post-modern age has bestowed upon overlooked artists like these, seemingly shoving them into the spotlight around manufactured legend (see: Rodriguez), it is no surprise that Radon are not a (blatant) exception. Granted, while the album 28 (or as certain authors imply, self-titled…even the record’s name is open to interpretation) and the assorted, iconic single releases are not going to land serialized reissues with accompanying coffee table books (that I know of), it does bring a smile to my face that the former is gradually dripping through the lattice onto a slowly rising pedestal of consideration as one of the great pieces of American rock music of the 1990’s.

I spent some time trying to convince the great music writer/fan Hendrik to let me whip together a series of posts about Radon for his One Week, One Band site, but there hasn’t been an opportunity yet. So, imagine how my eyes nearly jumped out of my head when I passed by a bookshelf in Columbus recently to discover that Travis Fristoe and Aaron Cometbus had beaten me to the punch. Oh well.

(LeadUsDown.com)

This collection of two contrasting essays on Radon (in light of their LP “28”) is a parody (of sorts) of, and tribute to, the indispensable 33 1/3 series.** Being a quintessential yet still “willfully obfuscated” cult band (with a tightly wound niche of a cult at that), there is no way any major publishing house would take a chance on these three brilliant rednecks.

Aaron Cometbus approaches the band Radon in a highly post-structural sense. He avoids dealing with them directly (his actual meetings with the members in the past had been awkward), but he hits the nail on the head when explaining why; even they have less ownership of this music than members of the Gainesville diaspora do now. Radon reminds even the pedestrian Florida punk fan of what makes the city such a lynch pin the narrative balance between punk rock’s music and cultural mores. They strike an emblematic balance between punk-as-lifestyle and punk-as-critical-art. Their decidedly acapitalist (not explicitly anti-capitalist) approach to making and performing music still gives outsiders like myself an unfettered window into how music and performance dictates the spatialities of human emotion, especially of a specific somewhat middle-American place. It reminds me of how Nichola Wood and Susan J. Smith wrote in 2004:

We might not wish to privilege music as an emotional relation above all other means of social elaboration; but equally there is a good argument for using musical performance as a starting point in charting when, where, why and how a range of emotions infuse the spatialities of everyday life.

(Via punknews.org)

Both Cometbus and Travis Fristoe approach the band as individual fans taking the legacy of both the trio and their scene into account. Their collaboration does not include any quotes from the band, outside of scattershot far-past conversation nuggets here and there, but it hardly matters. Radon were about more than what Dave, Brent, and Bill had to say about their songs. The writers, especially Fristoe, evaluate the gravity of Radon upon Gainesville and Gainesville upon Radon. This often expands to the trio’s ostensible home-state, too. I don’t know if all of three of the members grew up in the Sunshine State, but the band as an entity did, which is what counts. They recorded their pair of 7″ records in a living room in Tallahassee^ and scraped together the motivation to release a full-length several years after the ten songs that compose it were at their peak of relevance to those who experienced them the first time around. Cometbus ties the band and their music together with place-based geography quite impressively when taking the songs on “28” into account (emphases mine):

Radon come from a really weird state, and one of their strongest qualities is their ability to evoke a sense of place. Other bands might just as well be from anywhere; there’s no scenery in their songs, or if there is it’s of some faraway metropolis where they once played a gig. They offer a tourist’s point of view while overlooking home, the strangest place of all.

Rap is site-specific, but very few punk groups really paint with the local colors or weigh in on the local issues. Radon’s LP (and I’m not here of their later, reunion release) has not one but four Florida-specific songs.

The first is a tribute to the mysterious Rastafarian jogger who moved like Pac-Man through their town; it conveys the slightly askew atmosphere and humor of Gainesville’s kudzu-covered “student-ghetto.” The second is an impassioned plea for justice for Haitian refugees – a political anthem that inflames and informs without resorting to hackneyed slogans. The third views Florida through the lens of science fiction: the alien landscapes and mines where “one million tons of phosphogypsum tailings rise to the sky.” The devastation and corruption behind the Tropicana bottle’s “unlimited sunshine.”

Last but not least, Grandma’s Cootie, one of the most heartbreaking songs ever written, ending with a rollercoaster climb at Disney World and a view of the beach.

That’s what made Radon unique: their ability to be personal and political, direct and evasive, local and universal. They were willing to tackle complicated subjects and also embrace life’s simpler pleasures and absurdities. They broke your heart and made you laugh at the same time. What a band!

The song about Haitian refugees that Cometbus refers to, “Haiti,” shuns pop songwriting convention to call attention to hypocrisies of the Florida government; they barely rhyme any of the lyrics, prodding the establishment with the line (repeating at the end) “If we all came over on a boat, how come you act like you walked here on the water?” The sentiments that Fristoe highlights about his own time living and breathing (the chemical radon?) in and around Gainesville are no less impassioned:

Florida will always be a science fiction place, no fables or coded songs needed. The Everglades sit irreparably dredged and drained for Big Sugar. Disney’s obscene and autonomous nation-state stands dead center, tax-free. Invasive animals (Burmese pythons, Nile monitor lizards, Cuban tree frogs) run rampant. Sinkholes open up without warning and swallow homes whole… The picture Radon painted may seem fantastical, but it’s not far-fetched.

Is it impossible to discuss Radon without evoking their home state and its laundry list of contradictions and obtuse (sur)realities? Clearly, the band was writing and performing songs with absolutely no responsibility to anybody but themselves, their friends, and the place that made them. It follows somewhat naturally how the story of Radon is a story of Florida. As Blake Gumprecht writes, “less commercially successful performers are less bound to market demands [and] are the ones who have, historically, presented the highest percentage of themes tied to specific places.” This is perhaps one of the tightest theoretical parallels between classic blues and punk. Just as the story of Blind Lemon Jefferson is the story of rural Texas, the story of the Ramones is the story of Queens, New York. Once a band no longer tells the story of a/their place, do they lose relevance or quality? Not necessarily, but the gauge of their music-as-anthropological barometer is cloudier.^^

Radon’s most unwitting accomplishment, then, was something that the trio had no fair method of recognizing at the time. They were the simple pleasures of listening to a band singing and playing to what they knew, which was, essentially a tiny world of dive bars and nearly-condemned houses. Increasing that scale seemed impossible, which was why their early songs reflected that mob mentality so well, and why it fascinates those of us on the periphery of that expanded bubble two decades on. Like Baudrillard wrote on the time and place of an object’s creation, the moments and places-in-time that generated Radon’s music cannot be recreated, yet we still attempt to as best our minds can. As Fristoe goes on, “Music history is useful, so are facts, but each lonely person in their bedroom in their bedroom listening to records is an equal, valid force. Let us instead champion the precariousness of memory, mondegreens, and true believers.” Despite Radon’s intentions (whatever they were), their legacy is intact, and so is Gainesville’s. Bow down.

LINER NOTES
* Please don’t let this take anything away from artists like Load, Tom Petty, Torche, or even Blowfly (long stories there). If I expanded the focus of this piece beyond Gainesville at a very specific era in time, I would never finish a single entry. I imagine that nerds all over the internet have proffered their lists of most hopelessly brilliantly innovative music states, and Florida deserves to be near the top of every one. “Artistic flourishing in pre-internet isolation” could easily formulate a series of dissertations.

** One of my highest accomplishments was making it onto the 33 1/3 shortlist for publication last year for a proposal I wrote on The Dismemberment Plan’s classic album “Emergency & I.” This is still technically a project in the works, but the blanket of emotional geographies I folded that record and the city of Washington DC into in the proposal make it a perfect item for this site. I’ll get to it eventually, I’m sure.

^ This is what I remember from the “In Your Home” liner notes, at least. If anyone wants to fact check me on this, go ahead. Warning, I may call you a nerd for it. Unless you were in Radon, in which case I’ll be ecstatic that this made it that far.

^^ Whenever I make or articulate this argument, I often hear the Bruce Springsteen (Joisey), Beach Boys (SoCal), Beatles (Liverpool), etc. argument. In all three of those cases, one could return the argument that they represented their locations while at their younger and most iconic periods, or that these locations were represented for commercial aptitude during the bands’ rising phases. The Beach Boys’ cartoonishly dumb later output (e.g. “Kokomo”) disproves much of that prior argument almost single-handed, and I would be the millionth person to point out that they were not really surfers.

CITATIONS

  1. Baudrillard J. 1968. The System of Objects.  Trans. James Benedict.  2006 Edition. London: Verso. Radical Thinkers.
  2. Cresswell, Tim. Place: A short introduction. Oxford: Blackwell, 2004.
  3. Gumprecht, Blake. “Lubbock on Everything: The Evocation of Place in Popular Music (a West Texas Example).” Journal of Cultural Geography 18.1 (1998): 61-81.
  4. Wood, Nichola, and Susan Smith. 2004: Instrumental routes to emotional geographies. Social and Cultural Geography, Vol. 5, 533-548.

The 33 1/3 Author Q&A: Phillip Crandall

I have an entry coming soon about Gainesville and punk rock for your Floridians by birth and at heart. A large component of what made Gainesville the crux of such a vibrant movement was a heavy concentration of cheap rents, a transient atmosphere that removed the burden of permanence, and (you probably guessed it) the explosive house parties where bands like Radon and Spoke spoke of radon (as it emanated into the FL punks’ lungs in clouds of sweat). There are a few academic studies of mosh pits and the spatial dynamics of private, DIY spaces out in the ether, but nothing could adequately prepare us for the firey world of Andrew W.K. So, let’s put the social science aside for a few minutes and hear from Phillip Crandall, whose volume on “I Get Wet” is shaping up to be one of the highlights of the 33 1/3 series. PARTY HARD.

333sound

PhillipCrandallOver the next few months, we’ll be profiling the authors of the eighteen forthcoming 33 1/3 titles here on the blog so you can get to know them, their writing, and what kind of twisted soul chooses to think about just one album for months at a time.

Next Up: Phillip Crandall is a South Floridian and longtime music writer, particularly of oral histories. He’s also in a band called There’s Gonna Be Girls There, and every day, he wakes up believing the Chicago Cubs are going to win that day (poor guy). Of the experience working on a 33 1/3 about Andrew W.K.’s 2001 party rock album I Get Wet, he says, “It’s been extremely moving and incredibly rewarding, but when I look back at it, sappy-me is probably going to remember most fondly my wife announcing halfway through that she was pregnant with our first child. So…

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