Each guest writer took advantage of this open room (or cultural vacuum) and produced meanings from different corners and contexts. Riz Rollins, who closed the series, examined the city through the condition of its arts, which he believes have been flat-lined rather than stimulated by the deluge of corporate capital. "What I want to address," he explained to me, "is the responsibility artisans have toward defining and shaping the official culture and tenor of human celebration in the new millennium. Since the world didn't end and the Antichrist may have come and gone, it seems to me that we--and I mean every deviant, pervert, rocker, graffiti artist, slam poet, hacker, skate terrorist--have an inherent and inalienable responsibility to run the city in which we live. What I want to do is continue to lay the groundwork for changing this city, for getting this party started right." A month after his spectacular talk, which concluded the series, we sat down at Linda's for breakfast and tried to figure out the meaning of his talk on Seattle and its Meanings.
In your talk, you mentioned several cultural sites or spaces that don't exist anymore in Seattle. For example, the club or church called "The Monastery." I don't know much about the Monastery except that it was owned by George Freeman--who ran for city council last year--and that it was kind of sleazy. Could you explain why the Monastery was relevant to your talk?
Cultural conservatives rely upon the singular example of the Monastery to bolster the argument that all-ages clubs necessarily result in perversion and debauchery. George Freeman ran the Monastery under the constitutionally protected cloak of the separation of church and state. The Monastery wasn't a club but a religious sanctuary, free from the financial and legal restraints of the city government. It was an after-hours, all-night anomaly, defined and clothed in religious speak; one could only gain entrance to the place by becoming a member of Freeman's church, paying tithes. There was a "baptismal" pool, and Freeman gave nightly sermons. Although it raised the ire of parents who were alarmed at the pan-sexual nature of the clientele and the drug use within, the city finally clamped down on the club due to the panic over bathhouses and the spread of AIDS.
Those same conservatives, however, ignore the fact that the Monastery was but one of a few clubs that were open and intended for all-ages shows. The one I remember best was a place in Pioneer Square called the Metropolis, because I frequented a reggae night they had there.
The larger problem, though, isn't the obvious fact that idle youth who have nowhere to go resort to drugs and crime, but rather that American pop culture and the larger politic is almost wholly dependent on rampant youth for its life and vigor. Rock, punk, new wave, and hiphop are entirely youth entities. Without that deviant input, what we'll end up is staid and fossilized--hence the Experience Music Project's wholly fossilized youth culture.
I agree, Seattle is no longer a soft city in the Jonathan Raban sense, but a fossilized city. In the early '70s, Raban bemoaned the fact that London had become a hard city, meaning that it had become hard for artists, writers, and hipsters to survive in the city because it was too expensive. Seattle is no longer a soft city. It was when the Monastery was around, but not anymore. We are now weighed down, decelerated by expensive flats, expensive drinks, and hard cultural tropes, fixtures, and figures, like that ridiculous statue of Hendrix on Broadway.
But, Riz, are you saying that if radical spaces like the Monastery had survived, then Seattle would now have a vibrant youth and art culture? Isn't this a bit nostalgic of you? I recall you mentioning that you did not care for nostalgia, but here I detect a hint of nostalgia--a nostalgia for the pre-Paul Allen days.
No. What I'm saying is that if the politics that allowed the Monastery to exist in the first place had been allowed to develop, then Paul Allen wouldn't be the defining aesthetic for tomorrow's generation. What makes nostalgia so insidious is that it's so reductive. You can't have a conversation, let alone a meaningful political discourse, in an environment so relentlessly black and white about the uses of delinquency.
What Allen and his ilk are doing is removing the juice from the fruit of culture. So with Hendrix, you reduce him to a merely great instrumentalist, as opposed to an insightful philosopher, hedonist, and partly disgruntled charlatan who also refused to live or perform here. You can commodify the former, while the latter remains fluid and elusive. But in doing so--in reducing him--you've further removed the focus from inspirational power, and that's tragic. Allen and that museum enshrine the past rather than allow themselves to be instructed by it.
Yes, but all this may be telling us is that Seattle was once a Wild Wild West town; that not long ago it didn't have a sense of how to regulate youth culture or police sex, radical activity, freethinkers and all that, because, like all Wild Wild West towns, everyone was a madman.
As Raban pointed out in his book Hunting Mister Heartbreak, Seattle made its wealth by housing--supplying fucking madmen who were chasing impossible dreams near the Arctic Circle. But the moment Seattle got ideas about becoming something more than an outpost catering to the needs of madmen, and moved from regional aspirations to international ones, it had to clean house: People sobered up, whorehouses were shut down, and the George Freemans, the radicals, and the freaks were run out of town. Doesn't something like this happen to every city awakening from the Edenic sleep of frontier life?
Perhaps for a time it was probably a state of war, but we only lost a few on the frontlines: the bootleggers and the whores. Meanwhile, the johns and drunks remain. In the aftermath we should imagine a different ideal, maybe a Parisian ideal or a Netherlands ideal, or here's a stretch: Instead of building a staid neo-millennial kingdom of heaven--that David Byrne heaven where nothing ever happens-- accept the lesson of the destroyed tower of Babel, that mythological place where confusion is embraced as a divinely wrought ideal.
Let me explain: The Pentateuch tells of an aspiration of early men to build a tower to Heaven whereby humankind could enjoy the horizon of the gods. In those days, the story goes, mankind spoke one language. God allowed the tower to go so high, but when it went beyond a specific point, he confounded the language of the builders, making them speak in numerous dissimilar languages. One of the lessons of that story is that confusion, even chaos, is good--divine, if you will. Our city, our paradise of confusion, is now endangered by the legitimization of culture, by the rich men's institutions. But that wasn't my focus.
What started these trains of thought was the New Year's party debacle. Seattle was the only city in the entire world that opted not to celebrate the next thousand years. Our leaders advised people to stay at home and be reflective--and many stayed home. In Paris and London and Athens and Sydney they symbolically immolated their artifacts. Seattle's reaction to impending terrorism was to close up, shut down. And it seems to me we've yet to reemerge from that. We didn't postpone our party, we canceled it entirely. I believe the climate to do such a far-reaching thing existed long before the terrorist idea and even long before the WTO debacle. The children of the Monastery, of that earlier time, matured crippled by the civic misgivings of their parents. And it is this misgiving that has become the governmental ideal. And it is wrong and it hurts everybody. I believe it is squarely the responsibility of sculptors, poets, DJs, skate terrorists, hackers, and breakers to run this city. Artists ought to define this landscape just like Paul Allen does; and they should even blow shit up from time to time.
Earlier this year I DJ-ed a citywide function held in a new subway station in Sofia, Bulgaria. Modeled after a rave, the event drew 2,500 people, including the city's mayor, and lasted until 4:00 a.m. Two thousand more people had to be turned away because the space wouldn't hold them. All the while the Bulgarians were apologizing for flying me over for such a paltry event--they thought that Americans were so used to large celebrations that [the Bulgarians'] party certainly suffered by comparison. The Bulgarians thought they were emulating us!
That is the funniest thing I have heard all year! Can you imagine Mayor Schell partying until 4:00 in the morning with thousands of teenage ravers?! Unthinkable. But I find it interesting that other cities imagine us as wild and unfettered, and so talk themselves into becoming exactly what we are not. Take, for example, Singapore. In a recent effort to acquire "the more eccentric aspects of American life," they ended a long ban on street performers, whom the government deemed no better than beggars. Street performers can now do their thing for the passing public, but only after they have been through a national board that determines if they have any talent or not! My point is, Seattle is moving toward a ban on street performers--if it hasn't already arrived there. So while we dream of Singapore, Singapore dreams of us.
On another matter, I'm also curious about something you said about Louis Farrakhan. You pointed out that he'd been to Seattle twice and still couldn't get a handle on it. Why did you bring this up?
I brought that up to illustrate the fact that many Seattleites think we live in this small provincial village unaffected and unnoticed by the larger world. But Farrakhan's comment is partial evidence that what happens here is quite public and even extraordinary. Seattle is no New York or L.A. or San Francisco, but in us being uniquely who and what we are, we contribute mightily to the lasting fabric of the rest of the country. Hendrix, Jacob Lawrence, Ray Charles, Nirvana, the almost relentless literary cynicism of this very newsweekly, even Sir Mix-A-Lot's ubiquitous big-booty music--all these things have further-reaching effects than we acknowledge or realize. The big-butts phenomenon, you ask? That happened at a time when even African Americans were groaning under the weight of rap's harder propaganda. But NWA's gangster ethic didn't exist here, so Mix served to diffuse that hardness in much the same way Sun Ra's Uranus did with jazz, or George Clinton's Funkadelic Mothership did with R&B. Playful levity was just the right medium needed at that moment.
I don't think that if Mix were a child of D.C.'s or Atlanta's politics that he would have made that booty song. This isn't what Farrakhan was alluding to, however. Farrakhan said that he couldn't get a grasp on what Seattle was, particularly in relation to the national ghetto ethic. He said he found it to be an interesting, provocative "experiment," as if there was any deliberation to our society. He was dumbfounded by the fact that, generally speaking, we coexist here in ways that have no precedent in the rest of the country and much of its history.
Yes, I recall when my New York friend Joe Wood--who suddenly vanished on Mt. Rainier last year--first visited Seattle in 1993, he was dumbfounded that a city of this size did not have any projects, or at least projects as he understood them. In fact, when he wrote about Seattle in Vibe magazine, he expressed great disappointment at the lack of a black ghetto--he thought it was a big flaw. And yet he returned to Seattle and died on Mt. Rainier.
I don't know what he would have meant, but it's terrible to think that this city needs a Cabrini-Green in order to be legitimately ghetto. That's a sad thought. As if AIDS, crack, and neo-liberalism aren't difficult enough, we gots to have projects too?