Friday, September 12, 2008
Tour tales no. 1: The wages of profanity and political commentary
The Ws were always the kind of fan that any group would be honored to have. When they were still living in Bakersfield, they came to every show, talked us up to all their friends, bought all our records and swag, and even filmed many of our performances. (They would always follow up by sending me carefully annotated DVDs adorned with artwork of their own devising.)
Actually, for a few of our early Bakersfield shows, the Ws comprised nearly half of the audience. Yet they stuck with us regardless of the sort of turnout we got: they were just as enthusiastic about the "tumbleweed gigs" as they were about, for instance, our performance in front of thousands of people at the 2007 Bakersfield Jazz Festival.
So when we arrived at Eugene's Cozmic Pizza last Wednesday evening and found the Ws waiting for us (they had driven 40 minutes from Corvalis, the Oregon city where they had coincidentally moved in the last year), I was, to put it mildly, flattered beyond belief. Initial pleasantries were exchanged (the Ws took pride in knowing several members of the group by name) and we all prepared for the evening's concert.
Once things got rolling with our opening tune (our tribute to Keith Jarrett, which you will remember from the last tour), I sort of lost all perspective on the audience (as I tend to do when I go into conductor mode). So it wasn't until after the end of the first set that I discovered that the Ws were gone. And it wasn't until I had had a chance to speak with Matt (who, as usual, went way beyond the call of duty on this tour and worked the door for pretty much all of our shows) that I learned what had driven the Ws away.
In a nutshell, the Ws were offended by 1. our "filthy" language and 2. our anti-McCain song (which, I probably should have mentioned earlier, is called "Civility").
No, really! Apparently it is possible for someone who has only heard our earlier albums (which feature such wholesome tunes as "Mamas, Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboy-Presidents," "Full-on Freak," and "Baby, Shake That Thing") to assume that we are an innocuous, god-fearing, Republican outfit.
What can I say? On the one hand, I'm sort of proud that something we created actually pissed someone off enough to make them walk out of a show. I mean, isn't the ultimate point of political art that it have some sort of observable impact? That it move beyond merely noble-sounding lip-service? Isn't that the quality that purists long for when they (however bombastically) say that jazz (or punk, or whatever) is no longer a "socially relevant" music?
On the other hand, if that's a victory of sorts, it feels kinda hollow. I mean, this group is in no position to be losing fans -- particularly the sort of fans who remind one that the root of of the word "fan" is "fanatic." I genuinely liked the Ws, and I'm just as irritated by the fact that they failed to see the "offense" that they took as an opportunity for dialogue about art / politics as I am by the fact that their "fanhood" was very hard-earned over a long period of time. The situation sort of cracks me up and depresses me at the same time.
Not that I have any regrets (whatsoever) about the aesthetic / political directions the band has taken in recent years. The charts are what they are: the truest music I know how to make at the moment. I can't do much about that -- and in fact in some ways I feel that it is only recently that the group has managed to find its own voice. Why on earth would I want to dial that back?
* * * * *
1. We had good reasons to edit our final two shows of this tour. Our PDX hit was an all-ages affair attended by many youngsters 10 and under -- so while we left the John McCain song in place, we had to creatively tone down the language in some of the other tunes, which truthfully added a whole other level of comedy to the experience (for instance, in "Big Ass Truck" we substituted the phrase "fiddlesticks" for "what the fuck"). And moments before our Yakima show -- the final night of the tour -- I got the talk from the series' artistic director: "Yakima is a pretty conservative town, they're not going to go for anything with the word 'fuck' in it, etc., etc." Again, we creatively toned down some of the language, though it wasn't quite as funny in this context for some reason.
2. A few days after the tour was over, I got a package in the mail. It was from the Ws. They were returning the CD and the T-Shirt they had bought in Eugene a few nights before, with a note explaining that they couldn't support offensive music.
What the fuck?