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Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Fear and Self-Loathing in Denver (Part 3)

A Literary Homage from the Depraved Center of a Cultural Revolution

Yuppies Ruin Everything... (End of the Rainbow) - 4 May, 2015

Sweet Jesus, how long has it been? Two weeks today since that strange day in Denver. I’m sitting here now, in my own living room, looking out the window and the sky is half blue and half black. A giant thunderhead is rolling off to the north on 40 MPH winds after drizzling over most of town. From the west, the harsh, hard, setting 5 o’clock sun is forming the most intense rainbow I’ve ever seen against what would be the backdrop of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains if they weren’t hidden behind the fogbank that the low thunderhead has become. It’s truly a wonderful sight, even despite the irony that the rainbow ends directly on top of the house across our fence that serves as a drive thru window for meth and heroin. The neighborhood junkies’ “pot of gold” at the end of the rainbow. Last year it was raided twice. Those must have been dark times for the living zombies I watch lurch up and down Agua Fria most afternoons.

For the past 2 hours, I’ve been sitting here, staring out that window at the gloom and drizzle, refreshing Facebook every few minutes, watching Jon Oliver rant about everything nobody knows is fucking us, and idly packing Tim’s old wizard pipe, staring at a bunch of fragmented notes on an otherwise blank page that are supposed to outline the conclusion to this jangled saga of the depressing realities I came face to face with on that awful trip to Denver. That’s a lie. I had a good time. But thinking about the thing as a whole depresses me. There’s no promise of a bright future. Only the exact future we’ve been building for ourselves as a society for the last several decades. It’s almost a perfect summary of everything the 80s, 90s, and post-9/11 era were about, at their core. Looking back it seems our present socially starved limbo of hyper-narcissism was inevitable – like the return of the strung out, wiry old woman that just parallel parked for 5 minutes before walking into the “dispensary” of her choice – and I struggle to find solace in the knowledge that the potheads and stoners I’ve always thought of as “my people” are by and large no longer thought of by society as comparable to the folks that come and go all day, to and from the crack-den across the way.

Especially when that legitimacy comes at the price of losing our bizarre brand of comradery to the same corporate evils that have hollowed out the center of every great American tradition from baseball to the investigative journalism. It hurts to look this closely at the patterns. This same thing happens every time young people try to create a cultural identity of their own. Seattle, Austin, Brooklyn… now Denver. Every time a large number of young people move somewhere – because they’re poor and it’s cheap – and they successfully define their culture on their own terms, it inevitably becomes “cool,” and there are sharks in the water before anyone has the presence of mind to recognize what’s happening. It’s like watching a nature documentary, helplessly rooting for the small, isolated young gazelle, split from the herd, as it falls prey to a wily pack of predators, simply engaging in the perpetual natural rhythm.

The greatest tragedy, quite possibly, is that Denver was “over” before it was even really “cool.” Denver never got to really define its cultural personality in any mainstream way before it was inundated with commercialism and mercilessly gentrified. That said, this could prove to be a blessing in disguise, as the music and art scenes will likely never be as intensely commercially exploited here as, for instance, Seattle in the 90s.

I’m not saying, by any means, that the music or art scenes in Denver are in any way “over.” Those fighting that fight are resilient and inspired as ever. Their fight is simply that much harder for all the attention their city is getting for other reasons. Rising rents are forcing small DIY venues to compete on a level many can’t keep up with, but the few that do are at the cutting edge of what could be this generation’s defining art form: the house party. Specifically, the DIY concert hosted at a multimedia art/living space.

Millennials grew up multitasking. We were raised by the 90s, activity-centric soccer mom mentality, and it’s no surprise we’re all jacks of many trades. Everyone I know is in a few bands, does some sort (or several) of art, and/or engages in some sort of expressive art form, be it dance, acting, or what have you. So it’s natural that when you get several of us together, our living spaces often become multifaceted funhouses of creative expression. I will repeat this sentiment to my dying breath: every one of the best concerts I’ve been to has been in someone’s basement, living room, or garage. And more and more of these strange group dwellings are realizing that a party only gets better if the walls are painted random colors, covered in weird art, and flooded with engaging projections. DIY house venues may not be a new invention, but they now represent the pulse of almost every modern art form. From music to painting, to performance art, they are to the rest of the country what Austin’s dive bars are to their scene. There’s an entire circuit of DIY music that’s spawned from the love affair between the internet and rock and roll’s affinity for couch-crashing. Bands can travel indefinitely, touring up and down both coasts, and through the middle of the country for almost no money, playing living rooms, porches, barns, roofs, alleyways, and anywhere else a bunch of young people are gathering to get drunk and rub up against each other. Even a one-horse retirement community like Santa Fe has a thriving (if small) underground DIY scene, but Denver’s is the quintessence of how a DIY scene is supposed to be run. 


The secondary objective in our journey was a concert taking place at one of the oldest DIY venues not only in Denver, but maybe in the whole country. Rhinoceropolis celebrated its 10th anniversary last weekend, making it the oldest DIY venue I’ve ever been to, and cementing its reputation as a pillar of the local scene. We were planning on catching Annabelle Chairlegs, an act composed partially of our old schoolmates, veterans of the DIY circuit, now based out of Austin.

But in the state we found ourselves after the Cannabis Cup, the fear began to arise in me that we would not make it that far. Zenon and Amy were asleep in the back, and we were on a quest for coffee, lest we succumb to similar fates. I actually don’t drink the stuff, but I was so despondent from what I had witnessed at the Cup that I found myself close to the edge of total, irrational despair. What would I write about? Surely there was nothing to learn from the fact that the culture marijuana users slowly developed between one another over the course of half a century of hiding from the law like plague rats is now being turned into the new frontier of cutthroat capitalism and being sold as t-shirts and trucker hats to kids who will never know a world where you can do jail time for a joint. We’ve gone from incarcerating people for their vices to making money off them. Maybe that’s what truly defines this country, and everyone that allows themselves to buy into the “Dream.” Nothing pure cannot be corrupted with the promise of legitimacy and a barrel of cash.

It was a dark moment. Worse yet, finding a cup of coffee in Denver after 4 PM is, as Dylan would say, in the words of Macho Man, Randy Savage, “Like men playing with boys: It ain’t gonna happen.” The third coffee shop we arrived at turned out to be open, thankfully, and as we sat inside, staring idly at our phones, I began to realize the dark reality of the situation. It was perfectly put by the girl behind the counter when I asked her opinion of living in Denver at this moment in time. “Maybe it’s because I’m from New York,” she prefaced, “But I just have no respect for a city that defines itself with pot, skiing, and cross-fit training. Especially cross-fit,” she added, “I fucking hate that shit.”

An alarm went off in my head from that statement. My mistake all along had been that I was relying on an image other people held in their minds for my own sense of identity. That’s what yuppies do – buy their personality in an applicable paste. I’d seen the scumbags on every street corner since coming to this town, and every conversation I’d had with anyone about the major differences between Denver “then and now” came down to the massive influx of yuppies, here to grab their slice of all the cash that’s being thrown around the pot fields.

“We brought in 80,000 people last year,” JD had told me that morning, “I grew up in a historic neighborhood, so all the homes were over 100 years old. That neighborhood used to be young families with blue collar jobs. But now it’s doctors and lawyers moving in next door and the diversity has gone way down. The reason for that is the area’s gotten a lot more expensive.” The hope is that, with this influx of money and youth, the city will move more toward being a hub for art and music. JD mentioned the booming Rhino (River North) Arts District, but as I would find out that evening, a commercial boom is not always in the best interest of an art district.

You see, the problem with living near yuppies is that there is never enough money for them. JD explained the process perfectly, from the perspective of someone who watched it happen to his own neighborhood, “It’s not that people are being forced to sell their properties,” he says, “It’s just, they realize they can make some quick easy cash and move out to a suburb. Then someone comes and flips the house and turns it into a duplex. And suddenly where there was one family and a large plot of land, now there’s two families and they each have a small plot of land. It’s just packing it in. [This attracts] the same kind of people – the kind who can afford it – and that’s just young professional white people. They come in, get a job downtown, with a starting salary of $65,000 a year, and they get a house right nearby. And a lot of them just flip homes on the side, too, so they actually perpetuate the problem.” They make more money and attract more yuppies. As JD pointed out, the ironic joke is that, “[It’s] money they end up having to spend, because they affect their own cost of living.”

One important obstacle most of the people flocking to Denver aren’t thinking about right now is the most obvious to those of us who grew up in the desert. “With 80,000 people moving here – and with California being in a drought – and they take water from Colorado as well – so… We’re gonna need that water eventually. And the more Denver grows, and the denser it gets, we’re gonna need to make sure that water gets to the right place.”

But based on what’s happening in the Rhino District, the newcomers aren’t likely to wise up to the issue anytime soon. Talking to Ben, who was running sound at Rhinoceropolis that night, I got a firsthand account of how it looks when “progress” moves in next door.

“I’ve never seen a block change so quickly,” he explained, “The money just came through. Now there’s an artisan beef place and a market right there,” he points down the street. “It’s been an industrial neighborhood since the 1800s. It was always steel plants, and this is the first time it’s being gentrified.”

A native of Huston, who left when Austin started exploding, he has an interesting perspective on the crowd that follows these “scenes.” “There’s people who come to places because they hear a certain thing is changing,” Ben says, “And it becomes oversaturated with people who are just interested in hype.” This has caused a new paradigm in how populations migrate. Ben continues, “People used to move places because of jobs. Now they don’t go because of jobs, they just go because it’s cool. It’s a double edged sword. [People] want indie film scenes, and DIY music and art. But the more people want that – with their money – the more it becomes impossible, because the money corrupts it. This is the ‘Rhino Arts District.’ [Rhinoceropolis] has been around longer than the [name] ‘Rhino Art District,’ and yet nobody knows about it. But they’re bringing in so much money that nobody can afford to live here. They want it to be an arts district but they’re kicking out all the artists.”

The local supporting acts were all tremendously engaging and brought a diverse, interested crowd. You know it’s a good show when even between sets, this fucking guy is feeling it this hard. Maybe that’s just a testament to whatever he took in preparation for the night, but the fact remains that freaks like he and I wouldn’t be welcome if this party was organized by the same people as the Cannabis Cup. Not without a cool $50 at the door and possibly an insurance waiver.

I had a hard time watching the show. It’s a strong testament to my pessimism, but every time I see an organic, beautiful project of self-expression arise among a group like that, I get sad. Especially with one as established as Rhinoceropolis, I just can’t shake the ugly realization that one day it is going to end. Usually DIY venues operate for a year or maybe two or three, and then people move, and the scene goes to a new place. But when a DIY venue becomes an establishment, like this place, the inevitable demise is an actual, perceptible detriment to the community. The worst part is, with the right public subsidies, there’s no reason spaces like Rhino couldn’t be sustained. But sadly, respectable society’s idea of “progress” revolves around property value. And these days it seems there’s no room for beauty at the expense of the bottom line.


Sitting on a Couch, Listening to Tinariwen

I had to look away. I was happy that my old friend Daniel had shown up. We wandered around the space, taking pictures of the walls and the stories they told. Since his childhood, Daniel has been playing East African music, and now he teaches it in Boulder, to ease the white guilt of those very same yuppies that are unwittingly threatening to end this oasis of honest expression. Hanging out with Daniel always tends to level me out, which, after the day’s events, was my only hope for warding off catatonic bewilderment. I was clinging to the frayed ends of reason as we sat in the parking lot and I recounted the day’s events to him, between sips of a Rainier tallboy (A momentary respite from my distress came an hour or so earlier when Zenon had found my favorite shitty beer at a liquor store. The biggest advantage to this sort of concentration of hipsters is a healthy selection of beers).

Once, many years ago, Daniel and I sat on a couch at a party at Jenny Luna’s house, very much like this one. There wasn’t a band, but the mood of the night, at least from my perspective, was very similar. Maybe that’s just a symptom of exhaustion. Either way, at this party, years before, Daniel and I had agreed, at one point, in a very high and drunk state that we both felt the strange time dilation I described earlier; as though we had always been sitting on that couch, listening to Tinariwen. And, regardless of where we went in twenty minutes or twenty years, we’d likely, in some universe, always be sitting on that couch, listening to Tinariwen. We occasionally still text each other from great distances, reminding one another – when we remember ourselves – that we’re really still just sitting on Jenny Luna’s couch, listening to Tinariwen. It is a thought that has comforted me on many nights when my demons and self-doubt loomed fiercely and I found myself unsure that – as another friend is often fond of reminding me in moments like these – the sun would in fact rise tomorrow, and everything would be back to normal. And on the evening of April 20, it definitely kept me from going over the proverbial edge of despair and diving straight to the bottom of a bottle.

Instead, I hung out with Daniel. We left the show early, as he, too, had been awake since very early, and was eager to get home. The friends I’d come up here with were driving back after the show, and, faced with the option of sleeping in a car or on a couch, I opted for the latter. I would simply take a Greyhound home from Boulder the next morning (or so I thought). On the drive to his house, Daniel and I discussed getting old, and the steps we so reluctantly stand on the brink of, along with so many of our peers. Friends are having children. Parents are dying. Soon we will be “average Americans.” Soon we will be adults. Might have already happened, and we’re just now realizing. That’s a very threatening proposition for a group of people that still very much enjoys cartoons and keg parties. It’s not that we’re not ready. It’s that we’ve known this was an eventuality since we were old enough to understand the news that was blared at us 24 hours a day. The minute we take responsibility for where we go as a society, we’re also taking responsibility for where we are as a society, and nobody wants to do that. That’s why every generation that goes by identifies that much more readily with counterculture; “culture” is rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

Millennials will very likely – in the next decade or so, as they start to have more and more children (and they will, despite whatever trends you read about on the internet) – become just as obsessed with money as everyone that came before them. But eventually (possibly quite soon), we will live in a world that nobody wants to bring more children into. Until that day, this cycle, of young people pushing the edge of creative culture and being immediately co-opted, commercialized, sold-out and abandoned by the Market of Cool will continue to perpetuate itself like clockwork. Everyone needs to make a buck. Even I intend to sell these words I wrote about it. Because wherever young people are converging, there is money to be made. That’s the real American Dream. Being young enough to grab what you can in the name of progress. Then you make kids of your own and they find a new way to start the circle again. God bless us, every one.

The next day as Daniel and I walked to a taco truck several blocks from his house, we came across a shelf of books on a corner with a sign, reading, “Community Library.” Daniel stopped to browse through the available titles, only to find self-help guides and trashy airport paperback fiction.

“I like the concept,” he laughed, as we walked away, “Just not the selection.”

Couldn’t have said it better myself.

The Long Way Home

It turns out the quickest, cheapest way to get from Denver/Boulder back to Santa Fe, New Mexico is to rent a car. If that’s out of your price range, you’re probably not welcome anyway. I had never rented a car, as I don’t own a credit card, but nevertheless, Daniel and I were able to convince the man at the dealership that we are responsible people. If he rented a car “to Daniel” and signed me up as a “secondary driver,” I assured the man I would get it back to Santa Fe in one piece.

Unfortunately, due to the nature of the exchange, he was only able to rent me one of Kia’s drivable toasters, the newest model of which, the Soul, is legal on the highway and can reach speeds of almost 80 MPH. That said, the upholstery was very pleasantly toast-scented, which lasted most of the duration of my trip back south. Upon entering the Pecos wilderness, as the sun set, and I sped the last stretch toward home, I was overcome with the urge to feel the wind in my face, and I rolled down all the windows for a good 30 or 40 miles, listening to nothing but the sound of the evening desert air blast around me and trying to wrap my head around everything I’d seen the day before.

“Well no one really knows what you’re talking about, so I guess we’re already there. And no one opens up when you scream and shout, so it’s time to make a couple things clear. If you’re afraid of what you need… If you’re afraid of what you need… Look around you. You’re surrounded. It won’t get any better.”
-“Home,” LCD Soundsystem

I’m still just trying to process it all. That’s the problem with trying to define a paradigm as you live it. There’s too much information that you just can’t look at with honest eyes while you’re knee deep in experiencing it. The Gonzo thing seems to address that particular shortcoming of human perception, with the liberal application of drugs and alcohol forcing you to look at the culture you’re engaging in with what I like to refer to as “soft eyes…” But who can live like that all the time? Especially with these God awful deadlines?

Ten years from now, we will have a lot more perspective on what was accomplished in places like Rhinoceropolis, and perhaps their influence will be a lot more permanent than that of pot culture, which will eat itself alive faster than skateboarding and punk rock combined. Twenty years from now, when Cheech and Chong seem as strange and dated as the Charleston, perhaps commercial art and music will have collapsed into a free-for-all of artist-run DIY venues and exhibition spaces, and maybe we’ll all be laughing about the days when we allowed corporate entities to try to dictate the direction of popular art for profit.

I hope that day comes soon, but I’m not holding my breath. I’m just going to keep going to house shows. Awful hacks will always cling to whatever new thing becomes cool, but that’s what keeps pushing people to innovate further. The hacks are the ones that wallow in what has already been established as cool, without adding anything of their own to it. There’s nothing wrong with taking inspiration from whatever moves you, it’s when you fail to make it your own that it becomes stale, and the problem with most commercial ventures is that, once the money’s involved, nobody is willing to risk deviating from the established formula.

The only advice I have for anyone that feels the irresistible urge to create in this climate of self-interest verging on absolute narcissism is to not be afraid of the tendency to talk about what you know, even if nobody seems to care. Just do it with honesty, and as long as it’s true to your experience, somebody will relate.

“Same as it ever was. Same as it ever was. There is water at the bottom of the ocean.”

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