Music | Music Issue 2017

Freedom Lurks Around Us

Nate Earnest

Two nights before the end of a wild, rocky year, I watched Patti Smith, Godmother of Punk, tear through her seminal debut album Horses. It was her seventieth birthday. She started out by calmly moving through the album, until about halfway through, when she started to talk about the thing she couldn’t not talk about. “Not my fucking president!” she howled, and bang: for the next hour or so the agenda was rock ’n’ roll, love, and freedom: songs written in 1975 twisted for the present age. “Land: Horses/Land of a Thousand Dances/La Mer (De)” was reformulated as prophecy for the new generation: “They will rise up with a new optimism never seen before!”

Over and over, Patti declared that love and music would defeat evil and make us free, and we enthusiastically agreed. My friend J, my bandmate and a longtime veteran of Chicago’s DIY rock scene, clutched my hand, and together we screamed. We knew that when Patti talked about the young artists who would lead the new revolution, she was talking about us. She moved into her last planned song for the night, “People Have the Power,” but as the crowd swayed and clapped along, the spell broke for me and my friends: the white, fifty-something person next to us raised a single fist. My friend turned to me and said, “I’m sorry, but I hate white people.”

Patti pulled us back in with an electrifying performance of the Who’s “My Generation,” but my friends and I still felt mixed emotions upon leaving the Riviera Theatre. we were enraptured with the power of music and the possibility of revolution, but also squirmy about the hippie clichés we had seen on display, and suspicious of the grown-up punk rockers, the almost entirely white and middle-aged audience. Over cheap pizza and beer, my friends and I shared how this ambivalence comes out in our creative projects: we’re stuck somewhere between “People Have the Power” and “My Generation”—too skeptical to make art that hopeful or that angry. Too self-conscious to call what we do revolutionary.

But a revolution is what people need right now, and what people want right now. Patti Smith knew this, and she fueled her performance with the knowledge of our desire. Revolution is also what Chicago’s world of DIY art and music is already doing. This is a world that bypasses established cultural institutions, a world where people set up concerts and art shows in their homes, publish zines, run their own recording studios and record labels, become sound engineers, curators, and stage managers in basements and converted warehouses that don’t publish their addresses online. But this is a revolution that refuses to claim itself as such.

In the past year or so, people have been doing significant work to make this DIY world more organized, safe, and inclusive. There were the DIY town hall meetings to discuss safety at shows and the role of underground venues in Chicago’s residential neighborhoods. The Feminist Action Support Network (FASN) started up again to address sexual violence in the scene, taking on ambitious and risky projects and making some missteps; old and new volunteers are currently working on reforming the group with those missteps in mind. The Pretty Pit started hosting monthly workshops for women and femme folks in skills ranging from playing the bass to car maintenance. In response to the tragic fire that destroyed the Oakland DIY venue Ghost Ship, The Dojo began training its volunteers in fire safety and emergency protocols. There were benefit shows for #NoDAPL, Planned Parenthood, Chuy Garcia and Bernie Sanders, plus canned food drives. Hostel Earphoria recently embarked on a zero-waste sustainability project.

What these people aren’t doing is casting their work for these DIY venues and events in terms of radicalism and freedom. As we critique our predecessors in underground rock movements and continue to sharpen our standards of responsibility toward each other, we’ve come to fear ego. The sixties love children were naïve and high, the early punk scenes were too masculine, the riot grrrl movement was too narrow in its concept of womanhood, and all of these movements were far too white. But we’re making progress: we are demanding safety and accountability in DIY venues, blurring the lines between activism and art, thinking critically about the space we take up in the city. Importantly, as in the case of FASN, we are willing to learn from our mistakes and keep moving. But a reluctance to make bold declarations keeps us from greater unity, clarity, and purpose.

We suffer from a failure of imagination and faith that something other than the way things are is possible. The radical proposition of any utopia-dreaming movement is that something other is possible, and even realistic. I think if people in the DIY scene of Chicago were to view their work through a radical lens—to see more clearly that what we do is not just an escape from the present reality, but an argument for a future reality—we could be more focused, work even harder, and make our argument even stronger.

To be honest about the mixed emotions my friends and I felt at the Patti Smith concert is to acknowledge that we partially blamed the older white people at the concert for the current state of affairs. This is based, perhaps unfairly, on the assumption that most of the people in attendance that night are truly mad and scared about a Trump presidency, but have stable incomes and moderate politics and don’t go around ripping strings off electric guitars and starting revolutions with music. These people remind us of a society that devalues the work we do: making art and organizing communities without the blessings of the state. They are our parents and aunts and teachers and local politicians; they worry about our security and so want us to live more normal, less idealistic lives. But Donald Trump is about to be president, and we cannot afford to not be idealistic, in politics and in art.

There’s a moment at the end of “Sonny’s Blues” by James Baldwin when the narrator finally begins to see and understand his younger, musical brother:

Then they all gathered around Sonny and Sonny played. Every now and again one of them seemed to say, amen. Sonny’s fingers filled the air with life, his life. But that life contained so many others. And Sonny went all the way back, he really began with the spare, flat statement of the opening phrase of the song. Then he began to make it his. It was very beautiful because it wasn’t hurried and it was no longer a lament. I seemed to hear with what burning he had made it his, with what burning we had yet to make it ours, how we could cease lamenting. Freedom lurked around us and I understood, at last, that he could help us to be free if we would listen, that he would never be free until we did.

Can we, as Patti said we would, “rise with a new optimism” in these dark and cynical times? Can we believe (without embarrassment) that love and music will help us be free? I think we already do. We are doing the work of building and organizing a movement—all we need to do is listen to and trust ourselves. 

Sasha Tycko is a DJ (Sasha NoDisco), a member of the band Warmth, an editor of The Sick Muse zine, and a curator of the Corner event series, which happens every Monday at the Promontory in Hyde Park.

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