Y Marks the Spot: What Robin Williams Helped Me Learn

Robin Williams

Appropriately, I found out about Robin Williams’ death because of someone in a hole, six feet deep.  I was on my porch, wasting my life on the internet, tuning out the neighbor across the street as he toiled in said pit and tried to fix a broken sewage pipe.  Eventually, his roommate came out to the cratered boulevard and, in a voice loud enough for me to hear, announced that Robin Williams had died.  My instincts to internet fact-check kicked in, confirmation was acquired, and I found myself staring at the pit and thinking holy shit.  Even when in shock, my brain has an inane tendency toward wordplay.

            My second thought was that World’s Greatest Dad, a movie in which Williams plays a father coping with his son’s accidental suicide, had just gained an evil sense of foreshadowing.

            I’ll get back to that thought, but first: a disclaimer.  My traditional position on the topic of public tragedy is that of a skeptic at best, an asshole at worst.  As I’ve gotten older I’ve gained nuance and empathy, and I’ve lost a lot of my bullshit urges to posture as a cool and unaffected prick, but I’ve never stopped being paranoid over the whitewashing and exploitation of the dead.  History is littered with religious, political, and philosophical figures who have been abused in this way, but there are also many current examples of people who in death were transformed into something other than who they were.

            When Princess Diana and Mother Theresa both died in 1997, the nonstop public breast beating, calls for the instant canonization of both women, coupled with Elton John pillaging his back catalogue to provide the ubiquitous soundtrack, struck me as phoniness on a massive scale, ritual attention seeking that had little to do with either woman.  When Columbine happened, all I took away from it at the time was that weird, trenchcoated kids like me were a public menace and, therefore, acceptable scapegoats.  But my all time favorite whitewashing of the dead has to be Michael Jackson’s, a man who in the eyes of many was a creepy alleged pedophile the day before his death and an untouchable musical genius in the next.  That dime turn in public perception and complete trade in of the flawed version of Jackson for the flawless has always disturbed me.  It makes me dread what cinematic auteur and convicted kidfucker Roman Polanski’s image will look like once he belongs to the ages.

            The public’s reaction to the death of Robin Williams, one day after the fact, feels different.  Of course, the feeds are all overflowing with personal stories about how warm and brilliant he was, both as a person and a performer.  I think that speaks volumes about his character, but I also kind of think that part of this very welcome change in tone between today’s tragedy and those of the somewhat recent past is due to where we are with technology.  In 1997, the media pretty much controlled the mourning industry outright, running scripted, edited in memoriam pieces that felt like advertisements for the developing historical version of the deceased.  If you wanted an off script eulogy, you had to know where to look or who to talk to.

            Yesterday and today, I’ve been able to see a multitude of very real takes on Williams from my friends, from random people, and from public figures who were impacted by his death.  The mourning didn’t feel external, induced or dictated by the press, but a conversation.  People were able to share all the individual, personal reasons why his death was such a horrible thing, all of the performances they’ve loved of his, all the weird stories they had of him just showing up somewhere and being amazing.

            And what I think has affected me most, the thing that I feel is most different, is that people aren’t shying away from his faults, either.  His substance abuse problems are getting a fair place in the conversation without feeling like tabloid fodder that I always mentally connect with John Belushi and Chris Farley’s deaths.  More importantly, the depression that likely ended his life is actually being talked about without much of the usual macho hyperindividualist delusions about how people can just force themselves to be sane which usually accompany conversations about mental illness and suicide (conservative pundits, as always, being the exception to this outpouring of empathy).

            People are still talking about Robin Williams like a person. 

            Which brings me back to World’s Greatest Dad.

            In this movie, Williams plays a frustrated writer who teaches at the same high school that his son attends.  Everybody hates the kid, who is an asshole to everyone, but he soon accidentally hangs himself and dies. The moment when Williams discovers the son’s body, when his eyes focus and there’s no real change in his expression at first but he knows that his son is dead, is one of the purest distillations of real horror ‒ that moment before all the blood and guts and reaction when you see the monster and the monster sees you ‒ that I’ve ever seen in film.

            What follows throws all that terrible reality away, and we see a complete whitewashing of the kid’s life, both by the dad and by everyone else in the school.  The dad writes up a fake suicide note which changes his son’s status in school from living pariah to dead saint.  People get tattoos of the kid, write poems about him, fight over oldies albums he reportedly listened to.  Seizing the advantage, dad rides his son’s revisionist history to fame and fortune before Robin Williams gets naked and dives into a pool.

            With hindsight, this movie may become the most haunting thing that Williams has ever done.

            I’d have loved World’s Greatest Dad satire of professional grief in any event, but what makes this movie into one of my favorite Robin Williams flicks is that I first watched it the same week as my cousin died.  My cousin was an asshole and a scumbag.  The last time I saw him, he offered me coke, then started yelling at me for not staying in contact, then punched out one of my friends who was trying to rescue me from this trash vortex.  After that, I made the conscious decision that I was never going to speak with him again.  And I didn’t.

            Five years later, he was dead.  I still don’t know the cause, but I assume it was drug related and, if not overtly suicide, caused by enough amassed damage and depressed apathy to make little difference.  When I found out, I felt almost nothing.  No shock.  No sadness.  Maybe even a little bit of relief that he wouldn’t show up somewhere down the line and suck me into the quagmire of his ruined life.

            I remember my cousin’s death entirely through the reference of World’s Greatest Dad. When I watched how Robin Williams’ character worked through the death of a similarly unsympathetic relative, it gave me a little nudge of solidarity.  It made me feel a little less alienated or sociopathic because I didn’t feel all the expected death feelings and instead viewed my dead cousin as a person.  Not an admirable person, not a particularly monstrous one, but simply someone who was there, and who didn’t mean that much to me.  It wasn’t an overwhelming epiphany, the lesson I picked up from this movie, but it was something small and kind.

            It’s okay to feel nothing.  It’s okay to feel something.  It’s okay to feel everything.

            And now the shoe is on the other foot, and a person who helped me work out my feelings about real life death is dead, and now I feel some things completely different from indifference.  I’m not overwhelmed or destroyed, but I do feel much the same way I felt when George Carlin and Rik Mayall died: kind of pissed, kind of sad for the people close to him, but largely grateful that this brilliant, imperfect person was able to make me laugh and help me figure out some of my shit ‒ sometimes at the same time, like when Rainbow Randolph screamed about his dick: “It’s small, but it’s fierce!”

            And I’ll take one flawed genius over a hundred whitewashed saints.

            Thank you, sir.

Mouthing Off On Stage, 10-14-2013

So I do standup. Here’s 25 minutes of it.

Brett vs. Brett: Stand-Up Revengefuck

Image

Lameass Megalomaniac (Photo by Sue Mattson)

 

Brett Emerson claims to be a comedic genius, brilliant writer, and master storyteller. Personally, I don’t buy it. In all the years I’ve known this Frankensteinian scoundrel, I’ve been subjected to all manner of slothful and slovenly behavior, lewd anecdotes, sacrilegious tomfoolery, vulgar musicianship, and indecent exposure. Oh, but now he says he’s a stand-up comedian and he’s slithering back to La Crosse to do a big hometown hoopla for all his degenerate friends. How nice. I’m sure his act is appropriate for our fair community. People, this man is a menace to the frail fabric of society, and he doesn’t deserve to be within a hundred feet of a public forum. Unfortunately, as I am La Crosse’s go-to guy for interviewing the suburban rich and famous, I was tapped to hold a discourse with this loathsome specimen. What follows is, without question, the lowest point of my esteemed journalistic career.

 

Brett Emerson: You’re looking well.

 

Brett Emerson: Well, you’re looking amazing!  What are you doing after this interview?

 

Emerson: Cut the crap.  Just tell me about your stupid stand-up.

 

Emerson: Ask me nicely.

 

Emerson: Are you serious?

 

Emerson: (Makes kissing faces) Lick me.

 

Emerson: Fine, you idiot. Please tell me about your magical adventures in comedy.

 

Emerson: Wellll, since moving out of La Crosse in 2010, I’ve lived in beautiful Bellingham, Washington, located between Seattle and Vancouver and about as far northwest as one can get in the continental United States.  It’s only slightly larger than La Crosse, but there’s a massive arts and music scene out here that is really inspiring.

I’ve always been a huge comedy dork, even since I was a little kid. I grew up listening to Bill Cosby and George Carlin, and I’ve watched Comedy Central since its very beginning. I’ve always had this goal of being a comedian, whether it was in the format of stand-up, sketch comedy, or film. I have notebooks full of ideas that have never made the jump from theory to reality. The problem was that I’ve never been in a place in which I could regularly get all the ideas out of my head and into those of other people.

 

Emerson: Well, that, and you’re astronomically lazy.

 

Emerson: Well, yeah.

 

Emerson: So how was Bellingham any different?

 

Emerson: A lot of what’s happened in Bellingham seems like a series of deliberate accidents. During the four day drive from La Crosse to Bellingham, I listened to nothing but stand-up, pumping myself up to get here and start looking around for stand-up open mics. When I arrived here, Bellingham didn’t seem to have much in the way of open-mics, but when I looked around for venues I discovered the Upfront Theatre, which is a fantastic little improv theater full of brilliant people who make up comedy off the tops of their heads. Just genius, creative chaos. My first impression was that I had found my tribe.

I’ve spent three years studying and performing improv with these people, using stories and characters to figure out myself. They’ve also always held a monthly stand-up show at the Upfront, but I never got on stage enough to draw together any sort of confidence or material. Other forums popped up around town, but they were always on nights I worked, so I couldn’t go.

Yet blind, stupid luck would lead me to a particular bar on a particular night four months ago, when I randomly met a guy who was starting up a new, weekly stand-up night that I could make it to. And so a terrible beauty was born.  I had the good fortune of stumbling into the ground floor of Bellingham’s exploding stand-up scene, and things are getting bigger and better. I put it this way: for the first three years I lived here, I averaged five minutes of stand-up every six months. For the past four months, I’ve been doing up to thirty minutes per week. And I’m far from the only person reaping the benefits.

 

Emerson: I was at that awkward, shambling mess you refer to as your first stand-up show at the Casino.

 

Emerson: So was I, so that figures. When you have a leprechaun in the crowd heckling you, it makes you question your whole existence. Really, I just wanted to vomit every malformed joke I ever thought of out onto the audience that night, because I honestly didn’t think I’d ever get the chance again.  That was forty minutes of sheer stuttering embarrassment, but I’d have also severely regretted not doing it.

One of the best things that improv has taught me is how to fail. How to enjoy failure and keep moving forward. How to adjust to things not working out the way you envisioned them and still turning the situation into something amazing. I’ve failed, a lot, and active failure feels a lot better than passive failure.

I’ve done horrible improv shows and horrible stand-up sets, sometimes so badly that I’ve wanted to run away and never put myself out in front of people ever again. And then I come back the next time, and nobody remembers that I sucked but me. People seem much quicker to remember the times when you were awesome. Except you, of course.

 

Emerson: Of course. For you, what are the differences between doing improv and stand-up?

 

Emerson: It’s the difference between forgetting and remembering, winging it and being very prepared. When an improv show is over, it’s over forever. Never replicated. I’ll maybe think about the show for the rest of the night, but the next day, it’s a past life. In contrast, I record everything I do in stand-up, and I listen to my show over, and over, and over, and over. I’ve largely stopped listening to other comedians since I became one. Not out of narcissism or arrogance, but because I became so obsessed with developing every nuance of my material that I never stop thinking about it. I’ve never been so absorbed in anything, ever.

 

Emerson: How do you go about developing your material?

 

Emerson: I’m learning the benefits of being prepared so well that you can throw the notes away. At first I had a basic idea for things I’d want to do in a set; then I’d get out there and bullshit my way through and listen to the recordings and hear what worked and what needed work. Very oral tradition. The aftermath remains the same, but when I’m working out new stuff now I’m much more apt to plot things out beforehand and bullet point each turn of phrase. I’m getting way better at memorizing my sets, which oddly frees me from the program. I was always a great test taker in school.

 

Emerson: Are you still a creepy little pottymouth?

 

Emerson: Oh, of course, but that’s not all there is. I’ve learned how to sneak in the shock rather than beat people over the head with it. Oddly, I used to be really afraid of telling jokes that were cleverly profane while wholly unafraid of verbally shitting everywhere, and yet the one joke which earned me the worst reaction, a full gasp, was a really mundane one about country music fans. To be fair, I told it like crap that night.

I’m really into terrible puns. I love silly one liners. I love conceptual comedy about ideas and inventions. I love talking about all my insane adventures and insane feelings and philosophies. I’m a filthy nerd, but I’m still a nerd, and I’m not so afraid of showing that off anymore.

 

Emerson: You sound happy.

 

Emerson: I am happy. Probably best ever happy. This level of satisfaction and ambition is completely alien territory.

 

Emerson: Sounds wonderful. Soooo, you wanna get out of here?

 

Emerson: Hell yeah, stud.

 

The grin of a man who just scored with himself.  (Photo Sue Mattson)

The grin of a man who just scored with himself. (Photo Sue Mattson)

 

Oh God, what have I done? Brett Emerson will play the Cavalier Theater & Lounge on Thursday, September 19th at 10pm. I, unfortunately, will be there.

 

Y Spy: Save the Warehouse

Warehouse Stairs

There was a great era in my life, between living in California and Washington, when my hometown of La Crosse, Wisconsin was amazing in ways it wasn’t before. I’ve lived in La Crosse for a total of 27 years, and for a majority of that time my hometown has bored me to tears. There’s a carefully crafted sense of belligerent apathy in La Crosse, an omnipresent boredom coupled with a refusal to do anything to erase that boredom. Don’t rock the boat, the apathy has always said. In La Crosse, this leads to a chicken and the egg question where I have to ask: is La Crosse boring because it’s drowning in alcohol, or is La Crosse drowning in alcohol because it’s boring and doesn’t know what else to do?

            Whatever the answer may be, hail to the heroes who fight that apathy. In the four years of my return to La Crosse, I saw my hometown in a completely different light. This change wasn’t just in my head, though. In this era, there was a seething underground punk scene, the development of creative venues like the Root Note that weren’t just watering holes that incidentally played music over the fog, the renovation of River City Hobbies from a good comic book store into an amazing one, and the evolution of the Second Supper from an Onion also-ran into a weekly newspaper with gigantic balls. (Appropriately enough, the first Supper issue I read in the new style had a cover story about this story’s subject.)  I wrote for the Supper for three of my four years back, and as a result I saw and did things I never expected I’d see or do in La Crosse.  It was a time when I truly fell in love with my town like never before.

            But like all things La Crosse, entropy and apathy reasserted themselves. Many of the upstarts were phased out or absorbed into the status quo. The Second Supper got bought out and completely lost its edge. It now has a fourth of the page count it boasted in its heyday, it comes out monthly instead of weekly, and the precious little material left isn’t much more than an events calendar and a syndicated advice column. The guys who all but ran the house show punk scene in La Crosse moved out to Washington, and knowing a sinking ship when I saw one, I moved out here with them. Here, I found improv comedy and stand-up scenes – two scenes which will almost certainly never take root in La Crosse – and now I can’t see myself ever coming home to stay.

            It’s getting worse. Now, even the few old, fun institutions are fading. River City Hobbies recently closed following the death of owner and all-around amazing guy, John Vach, leaving La Crosse, a moderately sized city, completely without a comic book shop (and no, Barnes and Noble doesn’t count). Now, the Warehouse, which has for decades served as the stalwart enemy of La Crosse apathy and the city’s only music venue for people who aren’t into bar blues and jam bands, is days away from closure.  Should this happen, La Crosse loses its only all-ages hangout for people who don’t want to be barraged with Jesus pamphlets, and La Crosse as a whole loses a vital part of its culture that never gets replaced.

            Here’s what you can do to help. Go to Indiegogo’s “Warehouse Rescue Campaign” page.  Donate anything. Share this with your friends. Tell everyone you know. Become the Girl Scout cookie entrepreneur you were always meant to be.

           Because on August 23rd, it’s over.  Done.  And if the Warehouse doesn’t meet its goal, La Crosse, Wisconsin gets even more boring.  To those of us from La Crosse, the Warehouse seems like it has always been around, but if you and I do nothing, it won’t be anymore.

            THIS IS IMPORTANT. I dare you to give a shit.

            Warehouse owner and all-around amazing guy, Steve Harm, recently talked to me about the details of the Warehouse’s financial woes, what he plans to do about it, and why he never regretted standing apart from the typical La Crosse apathy and creating something difficult and beautiful.

Warehouse owner Steve Harm, with Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails

Warehouse owner Steve Harm, with Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails

Y Spy: So let’s start with the basic question: what’s the current fundraiser to save the Warehouse all about?

Steve Harm: Well, we have been successfully amassing a pretty serious amount of debt over the past 5 years, which really started when we got conned into buying the building next door by the tenant who quickly filed bankruptcy and took off leaving us with a huge amount of commercial space to rent. The original idea was that the 2nd building, a school of cosmetology, would fund the Warehouse. All ages no alcohol venues don’t survive as independent entities anywhere, but the Warehouse has always had the caveat of a first floor commercial tenant and 4 more band tenants in the building. That’s how we have squeaked by for 22 years.

But the guy who ran the beauty school approached me in late 2007 about buying the building he was in from the owner in Minneapolis. He was afraid that a local developer would buy it and move him out or seriously jack his rent. He offered us a solid 5 year lease, which meant we’d have consistent income for 5 years minimum, allowing us to have extra money each month (unheard of for the Warehouse) AND be able to put in new windows, upgrade the sound system, do a bunch of brickwork, etc. All we needed to do was take ALL of the equity that had been built up in the WH over the past 17 years, borrowing 100K more for roof work and electrical improvements and a new HVAC system for both floors, and we’d have that constant stream. Something we had never been able to count on. What could go wrong?

What went wrong was that the guy cleared out all the student loan deposits and tuitions from the school here and his school in Madison, ran to Florida, bought a house in the Florida Keys, and filed bankruptcy. Untouchable for us, leaving us 6 months into 2008 in the middle of the real estate bust, with a giant commercial building surrounded by a downtown full of empty buildings.

So our first plan was to try to find another school of cosmetology to move in. We spent a couple months cleaning and upgrading. We marketed the space to all of the cosmetology schools in Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa, but in that economy, no one was biting. Selling that building has been problematic, because developers (the only people who would pay for commercial buildings right now) want to pay pennies on the dollar.

Y Spy: Are developers being cheap because of the downtown location and the cost of renovating old buildings, or is this just the general nature of the beast these days?

Harm: Developers are cheap because developers are efficient. At least until recently there has been a glut of property downtown. The City of La Crosse even added to the problem by building the Transit Center a block away, with 12000sq. ft. of commercial space available. So property owners were basically competing with the City to lease property, on a City-built property that we paid for.

On the fundraiser end, we’re trying to raise enough to pay off the property taxes, catch up on several months of mortgage payments and pay a little on the loan to get the payments down a little, pay off other various debt (contractors, city fees, state inspection fees, insurance, BMI, ASCAP, SESAC, water bills, accountant fees), replace some critical parts of the sound system, and do enough renovation work on the leasable space to make it more attractive so that it can again be what keeps the Warehouse running.

Y Spy: Have there been any other problems lately?

Harm: About 8-10 years ago, the payola practice of “buying” on to big tours for smaller bands started working its way down to smaller venues. It became normal for local bands in Minneapolis and Madison to have to buy $500-$750 worth of tickets to a show just to be able to play that show. That made things harder for us with agents, as Minneapolis or Madison could always offer substantially more for a tour, because they had $1500-$2500 to work with right out of the gate — they were taking no chances, they had guaranteed income from local bands. I would not, will not ever do that to local bands. Young bands have to pay for equipment, rehearsal spaces, vehicles, trailers, promotional materials, recordings… they should never have to pay to play.

Y Spy: Is touring for most bands even worth it, when practices like this are becoming the norm even at the ground floor?

Harm: No! It is getting SO hard for young bands. First, there are too many of them, and it is really easy to tour because of the internet. That is a problem. Pre-internet, it took at least a morsel of brains to put a tour together. Actually, it was a tremendous amount of work. Now, bands have it really easy. So that clogs the highways of America with vans and trailers. But because of the tremendous amount of bands, there are also a tremendous amount of shows. When we first started, the only places you could see all-ages shows in Wisconsin were in Green Bay at RockNRoll High School, in Milwaukee at the Rave, and at the Warehouse.

That was actually a GOOD thing, because it made every show an event, unique, special.

Y Spy: Now there’s a surplus of disposable labor.

Harm: Yes there certainly is. And they are all hungry to play, so all those hungry guys are chewing off their own legs by overplaying and not making shows an event.

Y Spy: Didn’t you have another recent fundraiser?

Harm: There was a fundraiser last year to help pay for our cabaret license. Those only cost around $125, but the City ties in a tax called the “Personal Property Tax” with it. The Personal Property tax is a tax on everything besides income. A tax on every chair, table, microphone, light, etc. etc. etc. It is not a very high percentage tax. Ours should be around $200. But you file it by April of the previous year, and if you miss the filing, they decide that you need to pay a “doomage”.

Y Spy: Sounds ominous.

Harm: We missed the filing 2 years in a row (my mistake), but on this year’s filing, we would normally owe around $200. The City billed us… hang on to your britches… $6,900. A penalty of almost THIRTY FIVE times the actual tax.

Y Spy: Wow. Do you feel like the city is trying to shut you down on purpose?

Harm: I tried to get the Assessor to come down on that $6,900, tried to get the City Attorney to intervene, nobody gives a shit. “It will be lower next year” was the best I could get. They did give me the option of “making payments,” but is making payments on something I should not have to pay really doing me a favor? I’ll bet you if any of the big players downtown made that filing mistake, the City would take care of it mighty quick. Me, I’m a nobody. I don’t show up at City Hall screaming, I don’t call the mayor and get something changed, I don’t have secret meetings with the old boys’ club. I work ridiculously hard, and so does everyone else here, to provide an alcohol free venue for kids that no one in this damn town will appreciate until it is gone. Like us here or not, no one ever fell in the river and drowned from too much music at the Warehouse.

Y Spy: This isn’t the first time people have gone after the Warehouse. The guy from Fayze’s, the lady running Jules, a few other locals, I’m sure ‒ you’ve racked up a few complaints over the years. I’ve always felt that La Crosse’s reaction to the Warehouse was never that different from the plot of Footloose. Those damn sinful kids and all that. “Why can’t they be satisfied with Crossfire?”

Harm: Yeah, we’ve been a pariah sometimes, but not really for any legit reason. I know Chris from Jules gets pissed when her all-day coffee customers can’t park on Pearl because we’ve got some band vans parked. But those band guys, and concert kids, get a lot of coffee there. Even when there is a tour bus parked out front, it does not deter people from going to Jules. If anything, it attracts some curious people who end up getting coffee. Fayze’s… I think that was a misunderstanding that we probably could have rectified with a more open discussion with the Wakeens. They’ve turned out to be some very nice people. But it turned into Footloose at a City Council meeting; that was actually kind of awesome. Yeah, I always hear about “the Warehouse Kids”, when they really mean “those Crossfire Kids”.

I don’t want to rip on Crossfire too much, I get that they are trying to save troubled kids with Jesus. And you know, if they can save troubled kids, I really don’t care HOW they do it. But that place got over $800,000 in renovation donations, plus most of the contractors worked for free. Have they had more effect on kids in this area than The Warehouse? Less? The same amount? Or the real question: Have they had a million dollars more of an effect?

Y Spy: But they have the Looooord! It is an unfair double standard, regardless of their intentions.

Harm: Yes it is. We get “Jesus” bands all the time, bands that preach at length during their set. As long as the kids aren’t booing, I don’t care. But I have a talk with them after the show. I tell them that instead of preaching to the kids from the stage, they would be better off setting a good example when they are meeting kids at the merch table or anywhere else in the Warehouse.

We are built on the most important part of Christianity ‒ treat people like you want to be treated. I think teaching kids that is more important than teaching them anything else. Everyone knows morals ‒ they are mostly inherent. But I always tell Christian bands that Christians are the ones who give Christianity a bad name, so try not to talk down to kids or force-feed them Bible verses. Instead, be good examples.

Y Spy: Is this desire to teach kids the reason you’ve never sold alcohol?

Harm: Well, not entirely. It is a MAJOR misconception that I hate alcohol. I don’t. I love a well-crafted small brewery beer. I just never have time and am perpetually so overworked that one beer will knock me on my ass. But La Crosse has a rich brewing tradition. Turn of the century, this town had more breweries per capita than Milwaukee. I understand where the drinking culture, and with it, the alcoholic culture, came from.

Kids are going to drink. It is unavoidable in this town.

Y Spy: The problem is that there’s little else to do in town but drink. And it makes La Crosse incredibly boring.

Harm: We just try to delay that for a few years by providing over a 100 sodas that are from all over the world, to show them there IS interesting stuff to drink out there. Australian root beer, for example. It’s delicious.

Y Spy: I had way more adventures before I started going to bars. I felt really boring once I started barhopping. The way they are used in La Crosse, bars really suck the joy and fun out of a place. Drinking in bars has a lot of ritual and habit to it, and I’d call La Crosse a town drowning in ritual and habit. Your place is one of the few places in town which goes against that.

Harm: Well I see that, because “Warehouse kids” invariably “grow up.” I see them hitting 21 (or 20, it seems anyone can get into bars downtown if they put a little effort into it). Some of the kids complain that they don’t see their friends anymore, because “everyone goes downtown”, but the reason everyone goes downtown is because everyone is going downtown. I understand the need to have a few drinks socially once in a while. But La Crosse… damn. Who exactly “has a few drinks” when they go out? They might DESCRIBE it that way.

Y Spy: Alcoholism created out of boredom and a lack of imagination and options.

Harm: And APATHY.

Y Spy: It’s so goddamn hard to get people to care about anything there. It’s why I left.

Harm: La Crosse has a great “arts” scene. Pump House, Community Theater/Weber Center for the Arts, Jason is giving is a go at the Cav, Root Note does some great shows for their clientele, Popcorn is always jamming with jam bands jamming their jams… and we do metal and acoustic and hip hop and rock and pop and punk and wrestling and freakshows and industrial and gothic and ska and such.

I expect that if we go down, some local bars will attempt Sunday or Monday night “teen nights”, maybe with bands. Those are always the worst idea ever, because they are designed to make those teens feel comfortable in that bar atmosphere specifically, so that when they hit 21, they know where they are going. I hate that bullshit. It is so obvious.

It will be interesting/embarrassing to see who the vultures are. That’s for sure. Who has the least class first. Because you know that someone is out there right now planning on capitalizing on our 22 years of ingraining booking agents with the knowledge that La Crosse is a good stopover, even if what they actually mean is that The Warehouse is a good stopover.

Y Spy: So financially, musically, and culturally, what would the Warehouse have been if it wasn’t an all ages venue and instead sold alcohol?

Harm: If we were a venue, but we had sold alcohol the entire time?

Y Spy: Yeah.

Harm: I don’t think we would have lasted. I think the supply of locals would have dried up, because that “drinking age” band would not have wanted to haul their gear up 49 steps. Not when they are already playing that week at the Popcorn, next week at Stein Haus, tomorrow at Del’s, then at JB’s. There would be no point to add one more location to their schedule, especially if it was up 3 flights of stairs. We’d probably have a way-above-average amount of customers going to the hospital from falling down the stairs drunk. That front door wouldn’t be glass anymore; it would be half metal like Top Shots. I just don’t know if it would have worked at all.

I know we would have had a hard time getting many of the bands we did, because many of them insist on an all-ages crowd. Bands aren’t dumb − they know who buys Tshirts and hoodies and shorts and, yes, sometimes music (vinyl these days): teenagers. Bands can tell you what it is like trying to get bar customers to part with $10 for a band shirt when they can get a $2 PBR instead.

Kids don’t come here to hang out. You can see that. They come to see bands. They are attentive. They WANT to see the band do what they do. Bands love it.

Y Spy: True. When I lived in California, shows were little more than a forum for preening, bored douchebags who have nothing else to do that night but be seen. I’ve always argued that kids in the sticks are way more excited about shows than people who can see amazing shows any day of the week in big cities.

Harm: Well, that’s another angle on our financial woes too. Let me explain.

As I lecture bands constantly, booking agents have gotten lazy. It used to be, 2 bands would go on tour; the local promoter could add 1 or 2 or 3 locals. Makes a great show, and local bands would get all their friends to come. They could do these shows in any sized market.

Now, agents put together 6,7,10 band shows that are so big and need so much money that it completely prevents the show from happening in small markets. Agents just run them through the same 30 promoters in major markets, and they no longer have to think about routing or secondary markets. This causes a hardship for us, because those 2 national band/3 local band shows can be house-fillers. And what is even worse for the national bands on those megatour packages is they end up only playing in major markets, where kids are going to see ANOTHER 10 band package next week, and another the week after, and that band who thought it was great to get on this “big” tour finds out they are just a cog in the machine.

Take the same band and run them through smaller markets, their shows are huge, because EVERY kid there loves them and becomes an honest-to-god fan, as opposed to the 10 band shows in major markets where they are just one more band of the 60 that played that month. BAD FOR EVERYONE.

Y Spy: Once again, nothing but disposable labor.

Harm: Yup. I explain that to bands who are on labels and are parts of those big tours; they don’t really get it. Then they play a Warehouse show, and they sell more merch per capita than ANY of the big shows. They sign more autographs. They even sell MUSIC. THEN, they get it.

Sometimes, I feel like we are a music school on so many different levels.

Y Spy: Well, and you’ve hosted actual courses on touring, too, with Martin Atkins.

How sheltered and insulated do touring bands get?

Harm: They definitely get into a routine. Just to back up and relate: If we can get this fundraiser to work, we are going to try to find a way to set up the Warehouse as a non-profit (my accountant already calls me “anti-profit”) and get access to various grants etc. that would let us bring in lots of national speakers like Martin Atkins, host monthly musician’s meetings, bring in musicians for music clinics (why have a guitar clinic at Dave’s when he could set it up here in a performance space), make the building available for local film students to shoot band performance videos, learn location recording, etc. I see a lot of expansion possible with reorganizing.

Y Spy: Nice. So not just treading water. How is the fundraiser going so far?

Harm: Definitely not treading water. With a more secure future, we should be able to do some really creative, beneficial things. The fundraiser is at $20,000 with a loooooooong way to go. But only until Aug 22. After that the bank is going to come down on me with a furious wrath.

Y Spy: So it’s pretty much do or die?

Harm: It is definitely do or die. It was “die” when I walked out of the last bank meeting. To tell you the truth, we started this fundraiser to throw a wrench in the machinery because that was the only option other than handing over the keys. The bank has backed off, because they are watching this to see what kind of support we get.

Miracles have happened in the past couple months. [Refers to articles discussing Jack White and The Killers donating hundreds of thousands of dollars to save hometown venues.]

Y Spy: Any ideas for provoking said miracles?

Harm: Last night I wrote to NIN’s manager, a friend who sets up the piano every night for Elton John, and Fall Out Boy’s manager for the third time. The tough thing is actually getting through to these people. There are thousands of people in the entertainment industry for whom the entire amount of our fundraiser would be a throwaway for them, no sweat at all. But regardless of how it seems like people use twitter or facebook, when they are at that level, they have people managing their social networks. The level of insulation between common folk and Robert Downey Jr., for example, is astounding. So just getting one of those people to read a letter or look at a video is damn near impossible. But I see kids who are posting on pages every day that I never would have thought of. And I think that kind of appeal, from kids who come here, is really important.

I am hoping that 22 years of treating bands fairly will generate enough karma. If I was not an eternal optimist, I sure as hell wouldn’t have been here living day to day for 22 years, fighting bill collectors, tax collectors, and the Man. I always have hope.

I will maintain that hope until 11:59pm, August 22nd. Then, we shall all watch the vultures.

 Warehouse Stairs 2

Please Help. Donate anything. Spread the word.  On August 23rd, one way or another, this ends.

A Hard Man Is Good to Find

A Hard Man Is Good to Find

I’m an idiot.

Election 2012 Fake News

 

“The Million Dollar Man” Ted diBiase and “The Genius” Lanny Poffo Engage in Spirited Final Debate in the Race to be President of Pro Wrestling

 

PARTS UNKNOWN, UT ‒ The race to be the next president of pro wrestling came to its final stop last night, as “The Million Dollar Man” Ted diBiase faced “The Genius” Lanny Poffo in their last debate.  Held in the Ultimate Warrior Fine Arts Center at Parts Unknown University, the candidates faced a night of tough questioning from moderator George “The Animal” Steele.

Each candidate restated his platform and agenda for the wrestling universe with little deviation from their established stances.  The Genius once again expressed dismay at the state of pro wrestling’s education systems and poetic abilities, whereas the Million Dollar Man, flanked by his running mate and manservant Virgil, fell back on promoting tax cuts for pro wrestling corporations and outsourcing national security to Andre the Giant.

While the details broke little new ground, the drama between the candidates hit a fever pitch, during a particularly testy exchange on the subject of marriage equality between tag team partners.  Within his statement, Poffo read a particularly nasty limerick concerning the size of diBiase’s liquid assets, provoking The Million Dollar Man’s rebuttal with a steel chair.  The candidates were quickly separated by the referees at ringside, though each was clearly dazed from the melee.

The crowd, whipped into a frenzy, chanted “USA!” at both candidates.

 

 

 

 

Scott Walker has Bad Dream, Mistakenly Campaigns for Self

 

COLORADO SPRINGS, CO ‒ When Wisconsin governor Scott Walker ran into a room of Republican businessmen in the conference hall of the Sheraton Hotel in Colorado Springs, he launched into a stump speech which would have been appropriate but for one detail ‒ he was campaigning for himself.

Governor Walker, who survived recall in June, launched into a presentation in which he promised “his fellow Wisconsinites” that they would “beat back this pointless recall effort and get Wisconsin on the path to big business.”

Though the audience initially received Walker’s speech with loud enthusiasm, confusion soon set in.  Eventually members of the audience spoke up, letting the governor know that the recall was long over and that they were, in fact, in Colorado.

Sheepishly, Governor Walker rubbed his eyes and yawned loudly before looking down and realizing that he was dressed in feetie pajamas covered in teddy bears and the words “UNIONS SUCK!”  Muttering a brief apology, he shuffled off the stage and went back to bed.

When later asked about this strange display, a more rested governor Walker responded: “You ever have that dream where you’re back in middle school?”

Y Spy: Josh Olsen – Quick Walks Outside the Lines

If there’s one word that kept coming up in my interview with newly published author and fellow La Crosse expatriate Josh Olsen, it was nontraditional.  In describing himself, his writing career, his road to becoming a teacher, and his family life, Olsen often defaulted to using this term.  The shoe seems to fit; most of the roads he described in his life were painted as accidental journeys, not so much paved by choice but by unexpected opportunity.  It was through these slips of fortune ‒ finding himself a father at age 19, taking an inconsistent educational path through graduate school, developing a writing style he expected no one to see, and being offered various teaching positions in which he could teach that growingly public craft ‒ from which Olsen was able to gain the chance to enact a more conscious change, recently publishing Six Months, his own book of one page stories, over a decade after he began writing.

Even his choice of writing these one page stories doesn’t come off as conventional.  “Initially, I definitely did consider what I did poetry.  That’s what I called it; that’s what I submitted it as.  It’s probably because I wasn’t really familiar with other possibilities outside the genre.  I knew that what I was writing wasn’t traditional short story or a novel, but at the time I wasn’t familiar with the smaller subgenres like flash fiction.  I always had that short narrative style, but once I started gathering it into a collection, thinking what it would look like on the printed page, I intended to contain each piece in one page or less.”

Despite literature traditionally being a more time-consuming investment, Olsen enjoys this short, easy, and concise style of writing.  “60 minutes, 90 minutes, there are a lot of good things you can do in that amount of time: listen to a fantastic album, watch your favorite movie.  I like that condensed space and time.  I think that a lot of people are moving in that direction of condensed style, saying as much as you can in as few words as possible.”

At first he wrote solely for himself.  “It was definitely used as an emotional release, helping me cope with various things I was going through at the time.  I didn’t begin with any expectations of anybody reading my stuff.”  It wasn’t until he attended creative writing classes at Viterbo College in La Crosse that he decided to grow his writing beyond journal-keeping.  “I was exposed to the idea of other people seeing my stuff.  I’ve gotta workshop it, I’ve gotta tweak it, make it presentable.”

One thing that came up in our conversation was the idea of a journaler’s conflict, of writing solely for one’s self in a medium built for communication.  No matter how secret a piece is kept, writing is designed to be read, either by being found by others or read and remembered by the author in the future.  The question always arises: who is a writer, even a solipsist one, really writing for?

“I think there’s definitely a conflict.  I would be hard pressed to think of a time when I’ve written something and not thought afterwards about whether it was something I could use, revise, build upon, extract to another piece.  It’s still for myself to this day, but there’s still that thought in the back of my head.”

Though he submitted a few pieces to college publications at Viterbo and later at Mankato University in Minnesota where he undertook graduate work, Olsen didn’t submit work for publication until he was out of school.  By then he had decided to not only write but teach about writing.  For seven years he has led the life of a nomadic instructor, working primarily at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor and at Wayne State University in Detroit as well as picking up college level writing courses around the area, sometimes hitting multiple schools in one day.

Teaching wasn’t something he planned to do.  “I knew that I wanted to work on my writing and improve it.  I knew that I eventually wanted to publish, but I had no intention to teach.  An opportunity came up to intern in a screenwriting class.  I enjoyed the time I had there with the professor I was working with.  I had the opportunity to teach my own section of Composition.  Definitely a rough start, but it was the one job that I enjoyed, more so than my experiences waiting tables or working at gas stations or factories.  I came to it rather late, at least with my intentions.”

Olsen noted that a lot of writing instructors are past life writers themselves, something which he is determined to avoid becoming.  “It was a goal of my own, seeing so many former writers become teachers and then forget about the writing.  For me, part of being a writing teacher is to teach what I’m actually doing.”

What he ended up doing was releasing Six Months in 2011, finishing off a year and a half long process of creation.  The stories within this book were taken from a five year period in Olsen’s writing, roughly spanning the years 2005 to 2010.  After writing for 10 years and attempting to develop various projects to fruition, he received a book offer from Brian Fugett, publisher of the online-print publication Zygote in My Coffee, a frequent supporter of Olsen’s work.

That support was vital for Six Months.  “At least for that first book, I wanted somebody else to put their name and trust behind it, that traditional model where somebody embraced what I have written.  Since then I’ve definitely put my feet to the pavement as far as promoting it.  It’s definitely another part time job, more time consuming than I’d assumed initially.”

Going the traditional publishing route, however, isn’t something that Olsen sees as necessary to his work.  “I’ve definitely had my hangups about, in certain forms, how the ideas of self-publication and self-promotion are accepted.  You expect a band to put out their own demo; if you sell albums out of the trunk of your car, it lends credibility in the music work.  You expect an independent filmmaker to fund, direct, produce, and put out their own movie. But for some reason there’s a stigma of why a writer can or can’t do that.  It just seems kind of unfortunate to me that there is that idea of ‘vanity publishing’ is lesser than getting somebody else to publish your work.  You need somebody else to lift you up, and I have my own hangups on that which I’m trying to move away from.”

The stories in Six Months tend to be intense recollections of Olsen’s past and analysis of how those moments affect the person he is today.  “The theme wasn’t intentional as the individual pieces were being written, and I don’t think that that idea really came to me until I moved to Michigan, until I was living 10 hours away from La Crosse, which was for the most part my hometown.  It wasn’t until I left when that theme came through in my writing, and I really didn’t notice it until I started putting the book together.”

The story’s main piece, a tale of periodic homecoming featuring La Crosse as its center, is a perfect example of this battle between past and future.  “[It's about] going back and forth every six months, taking that trip from Michigan to La Crosse every Christmas and summer break and having that distance, that sense of clarity in seeing things I hadn’t seeing before, being more of an outside presence within my family, within my circle of friends, people I worked with.  There’s that conflict of nostalgia and clarity when that homesickness, when that nostalgia wears off.  It’s nice for a couple days, but you can only go downtown so much.”

As well as analyzing his past surroundings Olsen gets quite blunt in his opinions of his family, freely disclosing his parents’ shortcomings with varying levels of amusement and bitterness.  Yet according to him these stories aren’t displays of bridge burning.

“Once I grew accustomed to writing with the intention of publication and getting things out for other people to read, I made a point to not censor myself.  I don’t write with the thought of somebody possibly reading it and being offended or passing judgment on me.  I’d have to say that despite the other people, family members, and friends that come up in these stories, I don’t think that I’m casting any negative light on them.  I think that myself, as the speaker, the narrator of the story, is the punchline.  For my friends and family members who have read the book, that’s what they take away from it as well.”

Even more important within the overall theme of Six Months, however, are Olsen’s relationships with his own children, now 13 and 7 years old.  Having started his path toward professional writing at around the same time as the birth of his first child, Olsen’s works often draw stark, occasionally fearful comparisons between the bizarre events of his own childhood and the strangeness which surrounds the new members of his family ‒ again, a nontraditional setup ‒ today.

Olsen himself credited fatherhood as the primary fuel which operates his writing.  “As my children grow up, as they experience things that I may have experienced at their age, I may not have thought about the things I experienced as much if it were not for the fact that I have two children.  I’m very conscious about what they experience now, and I draw that comparison or parallel to what I experienced.”

The sum total lesson that Josh Olsen took away from the long process involved in making his quick book which incorporates all these parallels, fears, and misadventures, is that though its results may be gratifying, creativity doesn’t just manifest by itself.

“It takes a lot more time and work than I ever could have imagined.  I know that I had the ideas that many prospective writers have, that all they need to do is put together a manuscript, send it out and get published.  Maybe that does happen for a lucky few.  I’ve never done things the traditional or easy way, in my education, my work, or my family, so I think it’s only natural that I took that roundabout path to publication.”

“Being able to read the book with some distance and time between me and it, it’s interesting for me to look at it as an artifact of my thought process, the things I was observing and doing at that time, and to compare and contrast with what I’m doing and working on today.”

That today includes plans to put together a second book, another collection of stories featuring some which will break from the one page format and run longer.  Describing the forming whole as both more autobiographical and more fictional, Olsen hopes to finish and release the book in a year or so.

Six Months is available for purchase at zygoteinmycoffee.com.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.