I love you, the cosmos loves you, the universe loves you, the multiverse loves you, so go out and make some poetry. GET ON YOUR BUS, DRIVE AROUND, MAKE SOME POETRY, RIGHT? NOW EVERYBODY SING IT!”
-- Brad Parker, “The Days of Poetry” ***
***NOTE: Although these blog posts may give the impression of telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth, they are not. I’m recounting events from a month ago to the best of my ability. Quotes are often clumsy paraphrases. I have flattened my friends into mere characters, down from the scintillating unfathomable soul-beasts they truly are. There are infinitely more true-stories-of-Splendor in addition to the one presented here, many of them more interesting and more true.
But I have constraints! Constraints like my brain! Constraints like my heart! Constraints like space-time!
I mention this because it would be disingenuous not to, and as has recently become clear to me, I should have done this a lot sooner. If you appear in this whole goofy series, and are squeamish about your portrayal, I’m sorry and I'd love to hear about it.
I also mention this because, this post is extra subjective. So, in the words of my many less-flexibly-employed friends on Twitter: Opinions expressed are solely my own and do not express the views or opinions of my organization. Except so far as Splendor is me and I am Splendor, and Wiley has given me a login to this blog.
“Check it out guys,” James said, from the driver’s seat. It was Day 9 of the tour, October 24, 2016, and we were passing through Victorville, California. A crowd of people stood on a street corner holding pro-Trump signs. It was a Trump rally. They were watching us approach...and they were cheering.
“They like the bus?”
James waved, and then panicked that he was sending a message of political support. Which is not the message he wanted to send.
“What do we do?”
Whitney grabbed the dust jacket to Wiley’s signed copy of the Hillary Clinton memoir. He brought his head and arms out the window, smiled and waved (I'd like to think warmly and genuinely), and pointed at her face. We rounded the corner, and contact was broken forever.
“How did that go?”
“I don't know,” Whitney said, frowning. “They saw it.”
I was off the road and in my polling place by election day. But in the weeks leading up to the election, I was living on a 35 foot blue school bus, touring California, singing songs about my love life to crowds of friends, soon-to-be-friends, and total strangers.
Over the same period of time, my friends back home went on road trips from San Francisco to Nevada to get out the democratic vote in a swing state. And maybe I was flaunting a civic duty to do the same.
Regardless of your politics, this year the political theater was very, very intense. Maybe I was fingering a lute while there was work to be done upon the barbed steeds.
Or, depending on your politics, maybe I was playing while Rome burned.
Which raises the question: What’s the value of art?
Since the election I’ve been going through a kind of crisis of civic responsibility, especially as it relates to this question. How much time and energy should I devote to art? Especially art like my music, which doesn't have an obvious social or political agenda?
A few things to get clear: (1) I'm not attempting an airtight philosophical argument, and (2) I'm not responding to anybody else’s well-formed criticism, as nobody has shamed me for being politically inactive. I’m responding to the chaotic swiveling of my internal compass.
My partner, who is a more rigorous philosopher than I am, warns that I might be trying to morally justify decisions I made without actual regard for morality.
I’m not convinced. Despite my crisis, a few days after the election, Victoria and I went to “Into the Mouth of the Wolf” a circus-arts and theater performance in San Francisco. The MC opened the show by thanking everyone for coming out to support the arts in a difficult time, and for supporting people doing weird things, because it was more important now than ever. That felt very true to me.
Other things that happened on our drive through the desert: it rained on-and-off buckets, the roof still leaked and we got wet. We saw a double rainbow. We also went through a mud puddle so deep we couldn't see at all out the front window after the splash. A gas station owner softened after we bought $100 of diesel, but still insisted his bathroom was out of order. We found some space to walk out into, and some inadequate things to squat behind. Bradford hung out with us, we took turns driving his yellow bus/van along behind.
We were on our way to Pappy and Harriet’s Pioneertown Palace.
Pioneertown is a real town, sort of. A 15 minute drive from Joshua Tree, it was built in the 1940s as a live-in set for western film and TV crews. It is no longer in use as a movie set, and currently has a population in the hundreds. As Amy Beddows wrote for the San Diego Reader:
"An abandoned bowling alley stands opposite a reconstructed jail, bathhouse and bank. Carts of “dynamite” sit like props in the dusty street, presumably from the weekly Old West re-enactments. Unsettlingly realistic dummies slouch in rocking chairs on porches, and fake crows are tied to rails and posts. We pass a grave with a wooden sign proclaiming “Welcome.” It is hard to tell what is real and what has been purposefully set up to unnerve.”
Pappy and Harriets is the local Pioneertown restaurant, saloon, and performance venue. While it’s very far from anything like a city in every direction, famous people play here a lot. Famous like Robert Plant-Eric Burdon-Vampire Weekend-Lucinda Williams-Ke$ha-famous.
We'd been looking forward to this show for a long time. Back in Santa Barbara, Derek told us, “My mom saw that Paul McCartney played there last week, and she called me and said, ‘I’m confused, you guys are playing the same place as Paul McCartney?’”
“I had to explain that Paul McCartney played a show there to hundreds of people. And we are going there to take over the Monday open mic night.”
That was the hope, at least.
In order to play an open mic night, you need to show up in time to sign up. We started our day in Topanga Canyon, with Pappy and Harriets about 150 miles away. And while there are a lot of things the bus is good for, going fast is not one of them.
We had a plan, though. As the bus foundered, Pancho, Natalie, and Victoria were hauling ass in Pancho’s car so they could sign us up, or at least buy us some time.
They arrived hours before we did, and put their beautiful faces to work, sweet-talking the hosts over Arnold Palmers.
Splendor All Around has a cousin in Cambodia. The Khmer Magic Music Bus tours the Cambodian countryside, and brings Cambodian folk musicians to perform in villages across the country.
I found out about the Magic Music Bus from my friend Jake Wachtel, a talented musician and filmmaker who made a documentary about the project. And while we're not affiliated, it appears the Magic Music Bus people share a lot of Splendor’s motives: people like music, performances are magical, it’s fun.
But they’re also doing this because in the mid 1970s, the government tried to kill all the musicians.
Musicians were by no means the only people targeted: their deaths made up but a small percentage of the Cambodian Genocide. But today, the Cambodian people are still especially estranged from live music. According to the founders, many Cambodians have never even heard live music, ever. And, for now, busing performers and teachers around the country is one of the only ways to fix that.
In case you forgot your World History education, the 20th Century was batshit crazy. Between the wars, a dark political phenomenon took root in just about every corner of the globe -- modern autocracy and authoritarianism, totalitarianism, fascism. The Khmer Rouge is extreme, even by historical standards, but from Pol Pot to Mussolini to Hitler to Mao to Stalin, all the autocrats and authoritarian regimes were and are obsessed with censorship and social and cultural control. Independent artists were among the many things they definitely didn’t like.
America had its own love affair with aggressive, overt censorship and cultural control. These days we call it McCarthyism. In the 1950s, the American government jailed artists, blacklisted Hollywood, and anything that didn't fit the cultural norm was in danger of being prosecuted as “un-American.”
All this makes Splendor look less like a migrating butterfly, and more like a canary in a coal mine. If a government is abusing its power and veering into real fascism, things like Splendor -- artists, living on the road in a amateur-modified vehicle, playing their own songs wherever and whenever the heck they want, for whomever they want -- tend not to do too well. Splendor All Around is important partly because it’s what a free people tends to do, and if it’s ever outlawed or suppressed it’s a really, really bad sign. A land without Splendor is a nation that has lost its way.
It's easy to find reasons not to care that the Victorville Trump supporters liked the bus. We’re really privileged people in a lot of ways, so who cares whether they like us or not? But it wasn’t obvious that they would like us. Hippies, independent artists, mixed-gender cohabitation, vagabondism -- Republicans don’t always cheer for these things.
However much I dislike (and fear, and am repulsed by) their candidate, I think their enthusiasm is real evidence that the people we drove by weren’t complete fascists. At least not yet. And I take real comfort in that.
“Quick PSA: we need a home for the night for the bus,” Derek said, on the Pappy and Harriet’s stage. “There’s a campsite right there that wants to charge like 20 of us $10 a person. Where as we will just be your best friends forever if you invite us over.”
It turned out that Pappy and Harriet’s was expecting us. David, a friend in town, had tipped the venue off that we were coming. They scheduled the open mic an hour early so everyone would have time to play. Each act still had to sign themselves up, but those of us on the bus arrived just in time for all of us to get on the bill.
I went up first out of all of us. I was disorganized and had to rush onto stage, spent a little too long tuning, and tried to take off my jacket and got my purse stuck in my hair. The hostess came up and helped. After that I did great.
Luckily, Derek more than made up for my lack of professionalism. I kicked back in the audience, eavesdropping on the impressed murmurs of strangers. I felt good.
“Gone are the days where we’re wondering: Are we going to kill it, tonight?” Pancho said, patting Derek on the back when he got off. “We’re just killing it consistently.”
After a band of local high schoolers, "D Tension", absolutely rocked the place (not kidding), Pancho and Wiley also killed it. The set included “Osawatomie”, a song on Pancho’s next album, about the 19th century militant slavery abolitionist John Brown.
They performed with the Pappy and Harriet’s open mic backing band, which is really amazingly good. You get up there, play your songs, and the band follows your chord changes like pros. If this is hard to imagine, think the prom band in Back to the Future, but better.
“You guys just wanna wing it? We’re gonna wing it?”
Bradford, James and Casey Jane played with the backing band, too. James and Casey Jane also performed together, on a song that was half a traditional gospel tune, and half a James Wallace-style exploration of a post-apocalyptic, post-electric society. Bradford sang a few of his own songs on James’s telephone mic, which was also sweet, and a different kind of collaboration.
Apparently the house band is made up of professional musicians, some of them very professional. The night was almost over when we found out the house keyboardist, Andy Cahan, was in the Turtles. This lead to a full house performance of “Happy Together.”
The hostess, Lisa Lynn Morgan, was also a top-notch vocalist. She sang along onstage, as did a big, bearded security guard, who happened to be the same security guard who shut down our hopes of camping and grilling in the parking lot a few hours earlier.
“Look,” he had said, remarkably gently, “you can’t camp and cook dinner in the parking lot of a restaurant and bar. You just can’t.”
We have no hard feelings: he was right. But this is why we were looking for a driveway.
When we started to feel cooped up, Victoria and I took a walk around outside, and checked out the night. The sky had cleared, and the moon was hiding beyond the mountains. The stars were dense and very bright. Just a week ago, I was in the heart of Silicon Valley, home of soylent, social media, and drone delivery. Just a few days ago I was in Los Angeles, in uniform in some kind of benevolent-totalitarian spa. Tonight, I was dirty, freezing my ass off, and my phone didn't even work: not the cellular, not the wifi, nothing. For a minute, Pappy and Harriet’s felt like a society of radical separatists from a technological and possibly dystopian world mainstream civilization. The New Mexico to California’s Brave New World.
Then there was Brad.
We learned a lot about Brad over the course of his set. His resume includes songwriting for Cher, sharing a stage with Michael Bolton, and penning a hit country single for Kathy Mattea. He's about to marry a woman he dated 30 years ago, and he is currently mourning the passing of a dear friend.
We also learned that in 1969, he rode on The Bus, Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters’ Furthur, and then he and some friends bought their own bus for adventuring. He said he was glad to see us, another generation of weirdos carrying the torch.
Brad closed his set with “The Days of Poetry." The song is Brad's love note to the Beat Generation: the hip young wanderers, writers, musicians, artists, philosophers, and psychonauts who found a way to thrive despite the staid and repressive 1950s.
My understanding of history is that, eventually, the counter-culture bloomed at the surface of the mainstream in a glorious, garish, unstoppable algae, and the 1960s were born.
In the middle of the song, Brad put on an impression of the beat poet Lord Buckley. He called the audience “m’lords and m’ladies, hipsters, flipsters, finger-poppin’ daddy-os.” He told us that every day was a day for poetry, he told us that tending our inner garden is the only way to blossom, and he exhorted us: “GET ON YOUR BUS, DRIVE AROUND, MAKE SOME POETRY, RIGHT? NOW EVERYBODY SING IT!”
He returned to the chorus, “These are the days of poetry!” In the front row of the audience, Splendor jumped around and sang.
In this blog, I haven’t written much about artists outside the Splendor sphere. But while working this post, I kept thinking of this woman I once wrote an article about named Connie Converse.
Connie Converse was an American singer-songwriter in the 1940s and the 1950s. She was a brilliant student who gave up a full ride at Mount Holyoke and moved to New York with her guitar to try and join the folk scene.
Her story is both very sad and pretty astonishing: She never “made it” as a musician, never recorded professionally, never played a public concert. She gave it up, and eventually got a job in academia. And then, in the 1970s, she disappeared and was never heard from again.
In the 2000s, an old man who had recorded her in his kitchen in the 50s happened to play a song of hers on NPR. A young man who produced advertising jingles happened to hear it and it shook his bones. That man, Dan Dzula, hunted down her legacy, gathered up her demo tapes, and produced her first album.
Now she’s a (missing, probably dead) star. Or at least star enough that I can be a huge fan.
The first time I heard Connie Converse’s music, I thought (with great and foolish envy) that she was a young hipster, new on the scene -- someone my age or younger, who had already written the songs I wanted to write, but better. When I learned her story, I was completely enchanted. I also came to understand a little bit of why I originally thought she was contemporary.
Most folk artists in the 40s and the 50s were either playing renditions of traditional country, folk, and blues songs, or they were writing songs explicitly about politics. In this context, Connie's songs are very weird. They are about her feelings.
She sings about failed love affairs, about successful ones, about happily living alone, about loneliness. Some are witty and funny, some are poignant and poetic. Many are at least a little bit strange.
The funny thing is, there's something very political about these songs. Her music gives insight into the soul of someone who ran against mainstream America, in a time before women’s liberation, in the era of Joseph McCarthy and blacklists. Connie Converse was a smart, independent, single young lady when that definitely wasn’t easy or normal, and her songs lay all of that bare: her intelligence, her independent lifestyle, her pleasure, her pain, her hopes and fears. “This is a human," they say. "This is what a human looks like.”
Before each of our acts, we repeated Derek’s plea for a driveway, until eventually, we found one.
We pulled up to the door of Kevin Kane’s desert bungalow at around midnight. Kevin’s an older gentleman, and so far as we can tell, he’s living the California desert dream. The tour he gave us upon arrival included bathrooms, showers, refreshments, various knick-knacks, whirligigs, model trains, and a painfully beautiful expanse of dark and lonely desert. We wound up in a den full of instruments -- piano, guitars, bongos, maracas, organ, bass, microphones. Everything that could have been plugged into an amp was already plugged into an amp. Throughout the den, Kevin had strewn thrift store Halloween masks, wacky hats, sequined things -- what in college we called “rally.”
“It’s like this place was built just for us,” Rachel whispered.
I had no doubt that it was, in a sense. But I was beat, along with everyone else. Most of us who could get away with it were already sleeping on the drive over, and had dragged ourselves out of slumber to meet our host. I looked around the room at all the instruments and all my friends’ drooping eyelids and all the amps that were humming softly and thought to myself, “Oh man, this guy is being so hospitable but he really did want to have after-party with us. And now we’re all just going to go to sleep, how sad.”
I was wrong.
I don’t remember how it started. I do remember that James started playing a Bob Dylan song on the piano, and it turned into him and Derek singing “Laura”, which is by a very absent, very original Splendor musician, Eliot Eidelman. They directed the song at Laura, who handled this beautifully. Derek got on the bongos and played a swinging, karaeoke-style “cover” of his own song, “Grief Songs”. Pancho put on a vampire cape and sang a medley of 90s pop hits as James, in a Merlin hat, played the chords. Kevin, delighted, swooped around the room with his phone, playing documentarian. It was some long-overdue, good, clean, silly fun.
After the music wound down, we had a meeting. I expressed my growing concern that the bus smelled “fumey.” Everyone rolled their eyes, and Kevin had James Febreeze the bus’ insides while Angela took me on a walk around the property to prove that I was just smelling weird ambient odor of the desert and its wonderful, stinky creatures that night. I apologized, abashed, but Wiley thanked me for speaking up.
We all brushed our teeth and found dark soft places to curl up to sleep. I don’t remember where I slept but I do remember I slept well.
The canary thing doesn't quite sum up the role of art.
Governments target artists for a reason, although the given reason is often seems crazy and evil. Joseph McCarthy accused America’s scriptwriters, directors, actors, folk musicians of spreading “Communist propaganda,” degrading America’s moral fiber, and using entertainment to commit espionage or incite treason. Stalin called the artists, authors, and scientists who did not self-censor to promote the state-approved narrative “enemies of the state,” and punished them accordingly. The Khmer Rouge said it wanted to restore Cambodia to a mythic golden age of agrarianism, which apparently had no room for professional musicianship.
My partner, who cautioned that I risked engaging in some sloppy philosophy in this post, said the ethical argument for music is simple:
“Music makes people happy. While you might say that it’s better to perform music that encourages people to take some kind of political action, that’s a little tricky -- because politics is nuanced, and political action is hard to get completely right. But just playing music for people who enjoy hearing it, with people who enjoy playing it, seems like a fundamentally moral act. It’s contributing to the public good.”
I think he’s right. But I also think that art has an incredible power over imagination, narrative, and experience.
The most powerful art I can think of isn’t normative. It doesn’t say “Go out and do this!” It’s descriptive. It says, “This is my experience of the world/love/pain/beauty/America/humanity,” in the completest, purest, most personally moving way the artist can muster. This includes obviously political statements like, “Someone I care about has suffered at the hands of our own society/government,” but it also includes more prosaic or personal statements like:
"I'm in love."
“America’s wilderness moves me in ways I can’t even begin to understand.”
“I hate my job."
"The big city is lonely.”
“(I am a woman and) I have interests beyond house-making.”
"Isn't this beautiful?"
The art that resonates with me most inspires and infects me. I end up sharing it as much as I can with as many people as I can. It can change the way I think, what I value, and how I behave.
My armchair, 20-something, 1984-inspired take is that this is why authoritarian governments target artists. Art gives people a means of understanding the world that comes from outside the state. It also gives them a means of experiencing beauty. It’s transferred person-to-person, or person-to-many -- it's chaotic, it's mysterious, it can spread like a virus and it can mutate like one too -- whether or not it fits into the “approved” definitions of what’s good, human, or real.
Politics is nuanced, and the intersection of art and politics is complicated. There's plenty left to say here, and plenty left to think about. One could make the case that because the Splendor bus is its own billboard, and art on the move, it pierces cultural bubbles and escapes echo chambers. Or one could say that Splendor is particularly important because it is not only an art project, but a community that supports, pushes, and connects a growing network of artists and weirdos, (and communities like that are really, really important.) I know I wouldn't be writing the music, or playing the shows, or leading the life I am today if I never met these guys. Or one could point out that because Splendor is an experiment in temporary intentional living, it's good practice for if America-as-we-know-it ever crumbles and us artists become real refugees. Or for if the nation remains intact, but independent artists get priced out of traditional home ownership.
One could also argue that a lot of that is bogus. Or one could point out that even though we were at the outskirts of civilization, we were still playing to an audience of mostly liberal Californians. Or one could draw attention to the fact that sometimes, authority supports and encourages art as a means of cultural control.
I’m not saying I get a free pass on political awareness or engagement because I’m an artist. I definitely don’t. I’m not saying Splendor is bulletproof insurance against dystopia. It’s definitely not.
But what I am saying is: in times like these, art -- even the art I make -- is important.
Things that happened in the morning: Whitney made breakfast, the mob made more music, Victoria taught juggling, we talked among ourselves about the election in sober tones, Kevin gave us cool t-shirts, Bradford wore a sparkly hat, we drove off into the noon day sun.
The Alignment Tour is over, but the blog lives on! I'll be posting backlogged stories from the road for the next couple weeks