Friday, June 16, 2006

Anywhere But Home

I just got back from the Wind Gap Bluegrass Festival, four days of pickin' and partyin' with the The Grillbillies, of which I am a humble "member", in quotes because membership is so easy to come by, just ask Matty!

After my doctor's appointment on thursday, which went a lot longer than it should have, I loaded up the van and we set off up the Schuylkill Expressway for Wind Gap at about 4:00 PM. Traffic was lousy, as usual: it's my firm belief that if someone threatned Philadelphia with terrorism, our city would be royally fucked. The highways in and out of town are totally obsolete, and barely up for the task of carrying 3:00 AM traffic withut incidents. I don't know if it's true or not, but legend has it that the original design for the highway was based on building on the east bank of the river. When the Fairmount Park Commission objected, the planners just stuck it on the west bank, with no major adjustments. When you add the completely foreseeable explosion in automobile ownership to a highway designed in the early 1950s, you have the dictionary definition of a clusterfuck. or to put it more clearly: there are no merge lanes on the expressway. None. Every on-ramp is the site of a traffic jam or an accident.

Thus, the "hour and a half" that Mapquest estimates it should take to get to Wind Gap is actually more like two and a half hours. In reality, it was more like four hours because the directions at the festival site are vague, and the directions at Mapquest are bad. The forecast called for rain, and we hit it just south of Allentown. It came down in buckets, with such force that at times I could barely see the road in front of me. By the time we got to the festival however, the rain was gone. Still, we arrived with plenty of time to set up the massive tent I got last year and to see a little of Thursday's entertainers. Even better, the campground had put in some improvements, including a drainage ditch that prevented the floods that the Wind Gap Bluegrass Festival is known for. I stayed up until almost 2:00 AM that evening, and would have gotten a bit more sleep except for the jerkoffs in the rv parked next to us, who turned on their generator at 7:00 AM.

A joke: What do you call someone who pays $85.00 to stand in a muddy field and listen to him/her self play guitar?

The answer is, of course, "A bluegrass fan".

Out of four days of bands, I really only saw two or three. I never miss Dan Paisley and the Southern Grass: they're the definition of bluegrass, if you ask me. I made a point of catching the Hunger Mountain Boys, an old time revival trio. Fantastic music, and great singing: their bass player also plays for my former band, Jim and Jennie and the Pinetops. Hell of a nice guy too, and I convinced him to pick up some Super-Nils (more on those later). I saw five minutes of Junior Barber and Bear Tracks before leaving. Barber is a hotshot dobro player, a real champ on the instrument. Unfortunately, the music he and his band play is just really really REALLY boring. I caught half of the Lewis Family's set, but without others to balance out Little Roy's antics, it quickly becomes the "Little Roy Goes Freakin' Bananas and Insults Everybody Especially the Women" show.

No, instead of watching bluegrass all day, these festivals are an opportunity to unwind among like-minded friends and PICK bluegrass. They are also an opportunity to cook. Steaks on the grill; chicken on the grill; burgers; and a huge buffet dinner courtesy my grillbillying colleagues. Izzy Zaidman came out; Jack Ward came out; Banjo Eric was there, and so was Larry Maltz. It was Christina's first bluegrass festival, and I think we have a new addict. I can't even begin to name all the folks at the festival, people I only see during these few weekends in summer: the Marceras were there: Chris, his dad Rick, his mom Linda, and his sister whose name I can never remember (that's OK, she barely knows my name anyway). Abbi, who is great, and Rhiannon and the rest of the Napolis, who are also great. No-Way Dave and I had some good conversations over coffee on Saturday. Matt, the man who brings it all together, was in fine form, keeping us awake until dawn. Jesus, I could go on for hours about Matt, a true superhero of the bluegrass community.

And then there were the Super-Nils, aka, my new bass strings. It's no secret that in Philadelphia, I play far more guitar than bass. This is because most of the bluegrass pickers in this town are rank amateurs, and it's a lot easier to show a musician how to play acceptable bluegrass bass than it is to teach them acceptable bluegrass guitar (they ALWAYS go for the rock-n-roll chords and solos, which just don't work very well). Because it sat neglected for so long, my upright's G-string corroded a bit and was near breaking. The problem is that new steel- or nickel-wound strings cost upwards of $125.00 for a set, and besides steel-wound strings put an aching on the fingers. When strung, the tension is very high, making it difficult to get good volume without getting blisters. The Super-Nils went for $70.00, and Dan Paisley told me I'll get a year out of them. The G and D strings are nylon, while the E and the A are wrapped with steel wire (as opposed to ribbon). The result is a very soft string that doesn't have to be wound anywhere near as tight on the tuning machine as steel strings. They're a pleasure to play and they are louder than hell.

I always try to avoid political discussions of any kind when I got to a bluegrass festival. As my friend, the hard right-wing retired USAF Lieutenant Colonel Bill Knowlton is fond of saying, "One of my best friends is the former president of NY state's National Organization for Women We've become so close because we each decided the other was a hopeless case politically, and now we talk about things we can both agree upon." He's right: anything else, when it comes to bluegrass, gets in the way. When I'm out in a field enjoying the sun, the beer, and the pickin', the last thing I want to think about are those troglodytes in Washington DC, intent on bringing out country to its knees, selling us all out to the almighty dollar and their corporate cronies, and killing our children and wasting our money in Iraq and tax cuts for the already wealthy. Yet it comes up occasionally, although I am never the instigator. There were two instances this weekend, each which said far more about the instigators than about me.

The first night we arrived, a young woman in her early 20s from Brooklyn, roped Christina and me into a discussion about the "illegal immigration problem", which if you ask me is a crock of shit. It's very easy to solve the problem: pass and enforce laws requiring corporations and plantations to pay illegal immigrants the same wage they pay citizens. Ta-da: profit margin disappears, incentive to hire illegals disappears. Not that anyone in Washington or any state legislature will pass anything like this: it is, after all, the bottom line and ONLY the bottom line that matters.

Christina is one of the most agreeable people I've ever met. When we first started dating, I remember mentioning to my dad that the one problem I was having with the relationship was that she wouldn't bicker and argue with me. Pop had a good laugh out of that one. "Oh, so she's pretty, smart, goes to an Ivy league college and she won't argue with you? Gee, that sounds like a real problem. You should dump her, and maybe I can start dating her instead." But damned if during the course of the debate with the mixed-race, Brooklyn xenophobe, Christina didn't smilingly burst each vacuous bubble that came out of the girl's mouth.

"They refuse to learn English!"

"Yes, but new immigrants learn English in only two generations these days, not five or six like our grandparents." POP!

"They're taking over our jobs!"

"yes, but they're jobs that most Americans won;t take for that kind of low pay. If we passed and enforced laws that protected American workers.." POP!

... and so on. The girl didn't speak to either of us for the rest of the festival, except to shoot us dirty looks.

The second incident involved Peter, an enormous man of about 50 with the worst dye job I've ever seen. His hair looked looked like Harpo's wig, but in that weird orange color produced by hydrogen peroxide. Last year at Delaware Valley Bluegrass Festival, the topic of the war came up, and as I was about to lambaste The Decider, Pete looked up and with an ugly look in his eye stated, "There's NOTHING wrong with George W. Bush." The conversation was over before it had even begun.

At Wind Gap, Pete and Christina hit it off fairly well (I'm sure he had no idea abouther politics), and at the Grillbiliies' campsite he remarked to me how lucky I was to have her. He then launched into an astrological discussion.

"You're a Libra, right? I am too. Do you ever have trouble making up your mind about things?"

"Actually, no," I replied. I'm not really into astrology. "But that may be because I'm on the cusp of Scorpio." The conversation went on for a few more minutes about how Libras and Tauruses get along, rising signs, cusps, and all that other gobbledygook.

"You know, it's nice to see you've gotten a bit more conservative," Pete added, as we walked toward the campfire. "Because last year, you were a screaming liberal." I stopped in my tracks. Other than the previous years' amputated conversation about the war, in which I'd contributed not even a complete sentence, Pete knows nothing about me. Like most self-described "conservatives", he jumps to conclusions about people, seeing everything in obsolete and inadequate shades of black and white. Democrat=Liberal. Liberal=Bad. Republican=Conservative. Conservative=Good. As if there's anything conservative about paying for tax cuts ot the wealthy by borrowing from future generations, starting wars based on lies and then mismanaging them, squandering even MORE of the national treasury, illegally spying on Americans, and trying to amend the Constitution, for purely political reasons, to ban same-sex marriage and flag-burning. "Conservative"? "Radical" is more like it, wild-eyed, foaming-at-the-mouth, shrieking radicals.

"No, my politics are the same," I said. "And I'm actually not a liberal. Liberals are all talk, but once it affects them, maybe not so much, like bussing. That's why Phil Ochs wrote Love Me, I'm a Liberal. I'm not a liberal. I'm a LEFTIST. So let's start there.

"And I have to tell you, I never used to understand Republican complaints about Democrats until I moved to Philadelphia and got a real taste of how corrupt the Democratic machine is in the city, because there are some real dirtbags. Mariano. Corey Kemp. Pay-to-Play." Pete nodded approvingly. "But I also have to tell you, I have seen Republican corruption up close too. What about Speaker Perzel's promise, after he took over the Philadelphia Parking Authority (in violation of our home rule charter) that he was going to use the increased fines to benefit Philadelphia public schools? He welched on the deal. We never saw a cent."

Pete rubbed his forehead and sighed. "Look, as far as the school district is concerned, it's not money that's going to fix that. I know, because I used to teach. You know what it's going to take to solve the problem of Philadelphia's schools?" He sighed, as if he was talking to a very small, and perhaps retarded child, then fixed me with an intense stare.

"You have to get rid of the blacks. They have a culture of ignorance. If one of them gets good grades, he gets beat up for being like 'Whitey'. If you got rid of the blacks, took 'em out of the system, the schools would be a lot better." It was all I could do not to say "I'm glad you're not a teacher anymore." It was disgusting really, the image of this openly prejudiced man telling me he used to teach children, telling me in essence that the moment he entered a classroom, he wrote off his African American students immediately as hopeless. I didn't know what to say, and luckily a jam session began and I had an excuse to walk away.

Outside of those two incidents, Wind Gap was enormously fulfilling and relaxing. It looks like I've got a second festival to go to at the end of the month, volunteering at Out Among The Stars, in Benton PA.

See you there!


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