Alex Smith: Keep Dreaming.
The walls crawl with mold. Shoddy paint jobs peel like cracked skin, revealing the pink, fibrous flesh of insulation. Nails protrude the wrong way on the floor boards. And I’m surrounded by sound.
After I make my way down the steps, into the dense thicket of bodies pressed up towards a band, I sidle against the side wall and feel the thick, cool concrete slab through my sweater. The band is called Disappearances and, full disclosure, they’re shredding the place up. Their intricate guitar lines slither in and out of existence – noise for noise’s sake, crashing down like lightning as it cuts through the thick, plodding angular basslines.
The singer growls into the mic, a throaty rush of words and distorted phrases that nobody can really make out. But everyone nods along, strangers mostly, connected through the bashing, all of us souls riding on the vibrations of the crash symbol.
It’s nights like this, in junk basements in some stranded part of post-Temple North Philadelphia, that the world feels like it’s going to erupt into a thousand rainbows casting prismatic light onto vast lush fields or turn to a dusty barren wasteland, where we are all living out of hollowed out Corollas, all of us left to fight over scraps and cans of beans.
On these nights music grabs hold and either strangles or gives life.
After the band’s set, I make my way up the steps, an even more treacherous journey than the descent. The door is locked. It’s pitch black and, as I’m the guy in front of the restless line, I’m fidgeting with the knob. I don’t live here (does anyone?) and I don’t know how to get this thing unlatched.
“You’ve got to jiggle it,” someone on the bottom step implores. “I know, it’s difficult.”
“There it is,” I say.
The door creaks open and I’m washed in the incandescent light of someone’s living-slash-merch and amplifier-storage room. It is a familiar scene. As I tuck myself into my jacket and make my way to mill about outside, a sudden wave of danger flits over me like a spectre. I look up into the trees, smell the night air, watch the moon, glance at the other bands loading in equipment.
I should be freaking out. I should be thinking claustrophobic thoughts of nightmarish fire hazzards. All I can do is nod at the guitarist pushing an amp up the sidewalk and say, “Watch those steps.”
Once, in my home state of North Carolina, I went to see Rage Against the Machine, Atari Teenage Riot and Wu-Tang Clan. Yes, they played the same show.
We were ushered into a giant field, a parking lot with the scenic grandeur of a mass grave. We shuffled over the rocks and mud and walked through the gate. Shirtless white youths sprawled for what seemed like miles.
ATR was playing their caustic mix of hardcore, ultra-digitized techno-inspired electronica and shouted political missives. They were just, like, three crust-punks on a stage about the length of a full city block, and they did all the best they could, pogo’ing like mad to try to induce the crowd.
I thought then, “Man, this would probably be sick in my friend’s living room.”
It was a thought that seemed preferable when a 6-foot-5 redneck rocking a bandana and jean shorts walked by yelling “Wu Tang! Wu Tang! Wu Tang!” while he waved his shirt around him.
Eventually, he’d get his wish. The Wu took the stage and managed to, as they said in the parlance of the day, wreck shop despite the suspicious absence of Method Man and Ol’ Dirty Bastard. Mosh pits erupted all over the lawn, down the small hills and across the coliseum floor, just shy of the barricade.
As a sea of young people who looked like they’d just as soon drag me behind their Jeeps in the eastern Carolina mud bashed each other’s heads in to 36 Chambers, I started to feel strangely claustrophobic. I felt like I ultimately didn’t belong there.
The surrealism reached its peak when friends of mine from a band called Rent America took the stage before Rage. They were three humble, sweet young dudes in a thrashy, emo-y hardcore band from a tiny town and they were invited on stage to talk about something I’d heard them talk about before their sets at various teen centers, skate parks and dive bars – the war for oil in Nigeria, about Ken Saro-Wiwa and the Ogoni 9, African freedom fighters who were murdered by their state for standing up to Shell Oil’s exploitation of the area.
When Rage finally raged, urging the crowd to “take the power back” and admonishing governments for “killing in the name of,” the Marines went ape in ecstatic delight. A ghost-like sense of ennui settled over me as I stared blankly into the dawn.
I‘d seen Rent America in a barn and they did in fact talk about the Ogoni 9. Present at that show were future members of the Ku Klux Klan wearing the teenage disguise of punk rock – the tattered clothes, the spikey hair, the Screeching Weasel patches. Those kids would grow up to hate.
Rent America blazed through 15 minutes of music so intense it was as if I could visibly see every discordant note lift out of their amps. And while a few of those drunk punks would never make it out of the trailer park mentality, plenty of the kids there, exposed to ideas and sounds and movements by this wild band, exposed to a new vision for how to live a life in a disturbingly commodified world, did escape.
Lives were changed that day.
We call them safe spaces. They are refurbished warehouses, re-configured teen centers, re-structured barns. They’re somebody’s basement or living room. They’re cramped practice spaces spilling over capacity. They may not be “safe” in a baseless, orthodox sense, but the feeling and dreaming, the movements, that are born in these spaces give rise to any and everything imagined.
Everything that finally makes it to MTV, that lands, somehow, on Paris runways, concepts that find their way into government, medicine and social services – all of these things started in the intimacy of creative spaces re-imagined from the dirt.
I know that we are supposed to fear the coming state of things. I know that this new regime has empowered the so-called alt-right to invade our safe spaces. I know that in the wake of the Ghost Ship fire in California and the Pulse shooting in Orlando, that we are supposed to be cautious, to tread into these places with fear and lightness of step.
I also know that whatever “they” give us – either a Gattaca-esque false utopia or a Mad Maxian hellscape – we will need safe spaces, autonomous zones and artist hovels even more fervently than we do now.
We will need to continue to dance, to uplift, to wheat-paste, to raise voices and fists, to jury-rig those symbol stands with duct tape for microphones, to cobble together a sound system, to be vigilante, to spend those nights with ink stained fingertips Xeroxing a new world, dreaming it up.