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Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Monday, October 04, 2004

GETTING TO A JOHN CAGE CONCERT

Friday morning at my parents’ place in the country outside Kalamazoo, my hometown, my parents’ friend Mary Godfrey, whom I’ve known all my life, dropped by. First Friday of the month, it’s “Art Hop” in downtown Kalamazoo, Mary said; “A lot of the businesses have art openings and receptions. It starts at 5 o’clock. Brooks and I will be going.”

I wanted to go into town to get some Kalamazoo paraphernalia from the Chamber of Commerce anyway, and I always enjoy stopping by the Michigan News Agency (a terrific news/magazine/bookstore near the Chamber), and they’re both downtown.

I made it to the Chamber about 90 seconds before it closed at 5, which put me right on time for Art Hop. Bought a magazine at the News Agency and wandered through Kalamazoo’s lovely downtown square, Bronson Park, which is surrounded by grand old churches, a nice old City Hall, the County Building, the YWCA, the Civic Theater, the Kalamazoo Institute of Art, and the library, and which is home to war memorials going back to the Civil War, including one placed on the spot where Lincoln gave an anti-slavery speech in 1856, as well as what I always thought of as the Peace Monument, a group of statues of children from the liberal 1970s, sponsored by local ecumenical religious groups -- Hindu, Jewish, Christian, Muslim, Taoist, and Buddhist.

A block from Bronson Park is where the art action was happening. I checked out a couple shows and picked up a program of events. 8 PM, a free performance of a John Cage piece, “Four 6.”

I really wanted to go. My family had a plan to get together for dinner at 8, but I could probably beg off. I called my brother, Jeff, who was still at work. We agreed to meet at 6:30 at Bell’s, Michigan’s oldest and still Kalamazoo’s most popular brew pub. Having arrived at our parents’ late the night before, I hadn’t seen Jeff yet.

We got there at almost the same time and walked up to the bar. A friend of his came to talk to him -- “Dude, we’re playing some John Cage at the Smartshop at 8 o’clock tonight.”

“Yeah! I read about it. I really want to go,” I said. Jeff’s friend Brad is a high school counselor who almost got fired from his job for having a ponytail. Seemed like a nice guy.

Shortly after, another friend of Jeff’s, Richard Bowser, whom I’d met at his house, came up. “Hey man, we’re playing a John Cage piece at the Smartshop at 8 o’clock tonight. You better be there. It’s on North Avenue just across from Louie’s.”

A DIGRESSION ABOUT RICHARD & ME

I’d been fond of Richard even before I met him, because of a story my brother had told me about him. Jeff and Richard were talking, some years ago when they were getting acquainted, and Richard had been in a band in Kalamazoo in the early ‘80s, and Jeff had said, “My brother was in a Kalamazoo band then too.”

“What was the band?”

“The Young Rossums.”

“The Young Rossums! They were the first punk band in Kalamazoo! They inspired me and my friends to start Violent Apathy.”

The Rossums had been my band in high school. Turtletop correspondent Jay Sherman-Godfrey (son of Mary, whom I mentioned above) and I initiated the band and recruited the members when we were 14, after having first talked about it when we were 10. John de Roo, whom I’ve written about here, was the main lead singer. We played Kinks, Troggs, Pistols, Ramones, Talking Heads, Byrds, Chuck Berry, Dylan, Stones, and other covers, as well as lots of originals written by Jay, John, or me.

A few years ago Jeff convened an approximately 20-year Rossums anniversary reunion gig at a 4th of July bonfire and pig roast at his house in the country outside Kalamazoo. Jay, John, ace drummer Dave Lewis (now of Riverside, California), and I came from our corners of the country, remembered the old songs for a couple hours the day of the party, learned the Beach Boys’ “Be True to Your School” for Jeff to sing, and played a set for friends and family members.

After we played, Richard DJ’ed, and people hung out, ate pig, drank Bell’s beer, and, after nightfall, watched the giant bonfire. Rather late into it I borrowed Richard’s microphone with his permission and recited a favorite anti-Kalamazoo poem, “The Sins of Kalamazoo,” a snotty bohemian anti-small-town anti-bourgeois poem by Carl Sandburg from the nineteen-teens. “The sins of Kalamazoo are neither scarlet nor crimson. The sins of Kalamazoo are a convict gray, a dishwater drab.” Richard, having no idea of what I was going to do, immediately backed me with a wonderfully surreal melange of records of strange and kitschy and patriotic music. It was great. I was feeling it. The poem is a few pages long, and when I got to the climactic lines I shouted at the top of my lungs, “‘We’re here because we’re here’ is the song of Kalamazoo. ‘We don’t know where we’re going but we’re on our way!’” People in the crowd cheered drunkenly, “Woo woo!” It was a deeply gratifying moment, and Richard’s DJ accompaniment was perfect.

END OF DIGRESSION

My sister called to let us know that the family dinner was cancelled and we would convene at breakfast. Cool. I talked Jeff into going to the concert. “It’s abstract music, arhythmic and unmelodic -- a lot of carefully arranged random sounds.” Plus, the concert was free, and his friends were playing it, so what the heck.

We bumped into another Bell’s regular, a friend of my brother’s and mine from junior high named Jon. I knew Jon would know Cage. “Hey, we’re going to a John Cage concert in a little bit.”

Jon was psyched. “I met John Cage! I was a bicycle messenger in New York, and you always see famous people in New York, but when I saw John Cage I had to stop. I said to him, ‘You look just like John Cage.’

“‘Yeess?’ he said, with a big smile -- he was a very effeminate guy.

“‘I can’t tell you how much your work has meant to me, your music and your writing.’

“‘And what do you do?’” [Jon smiled broadly in his impersonation, very friendly.] “He was asking me what I do! Can you believe it? ‘Well, uh, I, uh, sort of make videos and music and . . . ’

“‘Best of luck,’ he said, and he patted me on the shoulder and kept on walking. John Cage!”

So Jon was up for the concert.


[It’s late, and I need to sleep, and I’m nowhere near getting to the end of the story, and my thoughts about the actual concert -- which was wonderful -- and how thought-provocative it was to see the first opera in Wagner’s Ring Cycle the following night at Chicago Lyric Opera, and so with regret and apology I say, to be continued, and good night.]


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