Kaleidoscopic maps of blue and green keep twisting me up. Blue is for the dedicated lanes criss crossing town, commuting corridors guiding overgrown children from their sleepy hamlets to the downtown office blocks and commercial strips. Green is for less trafficked streets winding through neighborhoods. They never go where I’m going but I follow stencils of bicycles running away from my destination over broken asphalt until the bastards turn a quick corner and I find myself surrounded by confused Suburus angry at me for making them so nervous. The promised safe passage over freeways dissolved into concrete walls, and the only path which doesn’t promise immediate vehicular slaughter is in the wrong direction. Look at the candyland map, ride up a hill for three blocks just to ride down it again.
Abandoned when I most needed help carving out a path into the hated hinterlands of Southeast Portland where the bars and boutiques grow thick and people live to spend hours in line for brunch. Scott H. Biram, countrified folk blues mutant, has been tricked by some asshole agent into playing The Hawthorne Theater and I’ve come to bear witness despite the double digit cover.
Southeast Portland is the promised land for emigres seeking a life free from responsibility and self-awareness. Hawthorne is the sparking clean strip mall heart of a funemployment promised land. The Hawthorne Theater is a venue that places expensive full page ads in the anaemic weekly papers drawing starry-eyed newcomers and cultureless suburbanites to a pasturized variety of entertainment. It is not my scene. Greasers who’ve never stepped foot in a mechanic shop and truckers who have never sat behind the wheel of a rig are not my people. Tattoos and Pabst and beards and me, with no appreciation for the fashion or even a guidebook. There was no risk of anyone coming up to talk to me in my big ass backpack with a bike helmet strapped to it.
Everyone had imprisoned themselves behind the ironworks delineating official patio from sidewalk, ignoring the opening acts within. Heartland rock bounced around the empty room, played enthusiastically but without the misery and despair which defines open spaces and roads to nowhere. The keyboardist couldn’t stop smiling. But they don’t wear Hank III t-shirts or pretend to be anything other than well-rehearsed fans of a genre genetically different than their own cesspool. I clap along with the dozen weirdos unpopular enough to have no reason to be outside. After the set ended it was too dark to read the two issues of The Asian Reporter I’d brought to keep me company. The temptation to duck the alienation of being surrounded by strangers killing time by pounding beers was overwhelming but I sat on the floor milking a tallboy consulting my bike map by the light of my cell phone.
Months ago I went to see Eilen Jewell play The Alberta Rose Theater. I didn’t know if it would sell out so I showed up early, found the venue filled with seats and people my parents’ age. Itchy and affecting whatever antisocial demeanor I could muster to keep people from sitting next to me I drained four beers on an empty stomach and left the place reeling. Almost $20 for the ticket, $20 for the record that the drummer confessed wasn’t even recorded analog, $20 for beer and then probably another $20 for the pizza and beer I hoped would restore my ability to walk afterwards. I wouldn’t even have sex with myself at the end of the night, so it was a horrifically expensive wash and not one I cared to repeat.
I’m not sure if I was trying to avoid getting wasted at The Hawthorne Theater or to avoid spending the money it would take to get wasted.
The second act tested my abilities to keep cool under-hydrated under pressure. I’m sure the singer really is from Oklahoma but that’s no reason to wear a guitar strap that says ‘Oakie’. When I saw Merle Haggard he just wore a black turtleneck. Kicking the set off with ‘a song about titty bars’ didn’t help. Two guitars aping the same chord with little licks spilling out made me feel better about my own musical abilities but even the passionate exertions of the harmonica player and bassist couldn’t hold together songs that took their sweet time getting nowhere. Their best numbers followed the tried and true hyperactive chickenscratch cow-punk approach, the lyrical themes too tired to keep up. But these were hometown heroes and an audience began to form, abandoning the patio and karaoke lounge to testify in between shots of whiskey. I played along, clapping politely, and somehow managed to make that first beer last through the hooting and hollering of the crowd.
Biram is a solo act who takes a handful of guitars and a kick drum barnstorming around America. I just took it for granted that he rolls around in a beat up car plastered with coffee cups and fast food wrappers but the fact that he had a guitar tech setting up the amps throws my personal mythology out the window. When the stage was set the headliner muttered something unintelligibly Texan before banging out his stripped down and tweaked rock, caterwauling like a defrocked preacher possessed half by the spirit and half by spirits. White trash chic mixed with wandering frat boys in a swirl of drunken introductions and gossip. Trucker hats swirled around print dresses with tall boys in the air, convulsing to the incessant, cardiac assault of the amped kick. It looked like an embarrassment of social dilettantes who had picked their evening by throwing a dart at the show guide but people were singing along more often than not. They hooted at opening lyrics, knew about the bullhorn and other inside jokes.
Still, on the slow burning tear jerkers it was hard to hear above the spectacle of people talking about their tattoos, reintroducing themselves and friends, yelling poorly timed nonsense at the stage.
Off-stage moments were few and fleeting:
A drunk couple who’d been lurking around all night took the front of the stage to flail around like Pentecostals. He was wearing cargo shorts and sandals, grinding and freaking without the benefit of grace or rhythm. Cool kids in coonskin hats and officially licensed urban cowboy ephemera pointed fingers and laughed, but the couple couldn’t even see them. Between songs she was standing alone staring up at the stage, then suddenly whipped around without provocation. He was returning from the bar, and she could feel it. Psychic connection. Fuck the giggles. Fuck the jokes. They danced.
During the encore Guitar Tech appeared in the crowd and asked a woman to two-step through a ballad. This magical nothing was quickly seized upon and sullied by every piercing eye in the crowd, narrowing at the realization that maximum fun was actually not being had. Imitation consumed the mold, something inspired was ruined.
Generic mid-size concert venues are safe employment for aging rockers still falling short of musical immortality. Two dudes in metal t-shirts with matching receding ponytails tapped the shorts and sandals wearing dance maniac to take their picture. They stood with Biram pummeling a guitar in the background, hands on each other’s shoulders, and gave toothy grins. High fives all around.
The bartender couldn’t come up with a place for me to get pizza. Portland’s law compelling bars to operate kitchens repeatedly fucks with my ability to get cheap food on the run. I ended up walking the dozen blocks to Sweet Hereafter only to find that it was spilling out into the street and crawling over the picnic tables of the neighboring pizza place that was, of course, long closed. Wednesday night and there’s fifty fucking college kid birthday parties going on. I didn’t want to stay squeezed onto a barstool elbowing my neighbors, drink orders being yelled over my head. The back patio was only half full but then I would have to risk walking out, asking if this seat was taken, convey through body language that I wasn’t trying to pick anyone up or creep anyone out or even involve myself in anything other than the beer in my hand and the food on its way. I just wasn’t up to it. Sometimes I feel like I need an interpreter more in America than I ever did living overseas.
People kept yelling drinks over my head and I watched them argue over who paying, order five dollar chips and salsa, and then cram themselves in the most tightly packed corners available. A glass shattered somewhere off in the distance and the room erupted into a unified Kindergarten ‘woooooo’. The bartenders looked like they wanted to die. I cut out as quickly as I could and tried to follow the damn map, but my little stencil friends ditched me within a couple of blocks and I got turned around trying to find them again. Fuck it. All I have to do to get home is ride straight lines and not give a shit what the bike routes say.