There’s something in the water.

Austin, TX, 2:06 pm

In the Austin-Bergstrom airport, waiting for my flight back to Newark. It’s been an interesting few days.

In the midst of all of this insanity, this world full of hate and pain and bombs and flooding, wars, nuclear fallout, whatever the hell is happening, here in Austin for South By Southwest, there were people dancing in the street. Dancing on lawns. Dancing in their homes. At houseparties. In the clubs.  In the restaurants. Smiles and friendly grins.

There is something undoubtedly magical about Austin. A freedom, a liberation from the concerns of most of our great nation. There’s a harmony here that I’ve experienced in little dribs and drabs in my life—perhaps on the beach with my family in Cape Cod, perhaps when we opened for Levon at his barn, various trips along various roads, certain concerts I’ve attended, and certainly so many nights at Banjo Jim’s – a feeling of being IN IT, in the midst of these people with a shared love, a shared narrative, a shared WANT to be free from the worry of the world, and to simply celebrate life, love and music—whatever that music might be, whether the roar of the sea, or the chill of a winter wind, or the notes played by a lone mandolin or an orchestra of revelried voices.

The SuperShuttle driver, Brian, and I struck up an incredible conversation on the way out here this afternoon. It started when I simply asked him, “What’s your favorite part of Austin?” He laughed, said it was a hard question to answer. Then proceeded to tell me of his life, moving here from staid Florida, having been an Army brat with a Pentecostal background, hard in his morals and his rigid ways. He’d moved here unexpectant of anything. One day a friend of his, who happened to be gay, asked him: “Do you believe that by being friends with someone who’s gay, you’re going to hell?”  No, he answered. “Then why do you disapprove of someone being gay?” And Brian at first was like, well, whatever they do, it’s their business, I just don’t want to be involved with their personal stuff…then realized he had been judging others, and this little moment blew his mind, changed his whole outlook. He opened up to the world in a new way and, frankly, let a new sense of harmony wash over him.

“Harmony,” he said to me, “This is what Austin is. It a city of Harmony. People move here from all over the world—and I mean all over the world.  And while their cousins and brothers and sisters are waging war against each other, they’re sitting here playing checkers. That’s their war.”

What an incredible thought, I said, and asked him to elaborate. “Well,” he said, “for instance, right where we’re going right now, there’s a huge field. And immigrants to Austin from Iraq, Iran, Pakistan—Sunni, Shiite, all these different sects, they all go out and pray together.” Together? I said. “Yes, all of these people from different Islamic sects, different countries and backgrounds—they all go to this field, and put out their carpets, and pray to the East, together.”

This is a truly incredible place, I said. What do you think it is?  “It’s the water,” he said, and laughed.

An oasis. A place of respite for all of these travelers, a new home.

I told him about a unique and uplifting experience I’d had on Saturday here. Instead of going out in the thick of things, I’d decided to roll with Dickey, who’s been playing bass for me down here, to a houseparty. The moon was closer to the earth than it had been in 18 years. I wound up jamming with him and a whole crew of locals til the wee hours…and at a certain point, we were getting pretty out there into this soupy psychedelic rock/blues, and, my eyes closed, the band took it higher. And took me higher.  And my eyes still closed, I played at a higher level, a higher plane, than I’d ever played in my life. In this house, with a handful of people watching, I reached this amazing transcendent place musically that I knew I’d been searching for; it was overwhelming and lovely. And then we sung songs to the moon, dancing on the front lawn til 5 am. It was this overwhelming feeling of everything falling into place, like everything had been arranged to suit this moment, and that this moment was one of such lovely significance…and that it could have ONLY happened here, in Austin, at that time, with the people surrounding us, with the lovely bright moon overhead, with the wind whistling in, with clouds passing quickly putting the moonlight into pockets, with a Lone Star in my hand.

Brian told me to hold onto that feeling, and to remember, if I took one thing back to New York with me, that Austin doesn’t just play music—it celebrates music.

Later, on the plane…

I firmly believe that change happens on a small level, and grows into global shifts.  We’ve seen this now in the revolutions in the Middle East, caused as they were by the ability for information to be distributed between like-minded people on a much easier level, by people seeing what happened in Egypt and saying, “I can do that, too.” It’s the butterfly effect, on a massive scale.  The times we will soon be facing are unwritten, unpredicatable. It’s going to become harder and harder for autocracies to exist. People have more power, and slowly are beginning to use that power in all sorts of ways to change their worlds.

I’ve been traveling the U.S. a lot the last year or so and have seen a massive shift in the people from my generation, and younger…its as if we’ve adapted the utter idealism of the hippie generation, so lovingly and brutally dramatized in “Easy Rider” (remember the scene in the commune?) and realistically implemented it into daily lives.  Whether it’s folks running a groovy coffee shop in otherwise bleak Orlando, or a CSA in Manhattan, Whole Foods switching to paper bags, an airline reducing its plastics, local markets refusing to support factory farming, Ford Motor Company building a green roof on its River Rouge factory, or massive city-wide recycling efforts in San Francisco and Chicago, the localized, back-to-the-earth notion combined with a new type of urbanism, and a strong sense of reality and just enough capitalism to make sure everyone can pay their bills, is very slowly (or maybe not so slowly?) moving towards the mainstream.

What’s overwhelming about being in Austin is that the entire town, it seems, has not only accepted these notions, but, again, celebrates them. It’s as if these age of Aquarius ideals have taken root and firmly embedded themselves in the town…and what you have are a cadre of people who have moved to this place and are in it together, trying to make a change stick, trying to keep their city special.  There’s a refreshing lack of disparity in Austin—certainly there are poor people there, like there are anywhere, but I literally saw two, maybe three people who resembled New York or San Fran’s completely down-and-out homeless, and I was all over the city…part of this, I’m sure, is Austin’s propensity to “take care of its own.”  While I haven’t researched this fully, there are so many resources available for the local people…it’s simply easier to live there, to live well there despite not a lot of income, and you feel this warmth, this strength of both the people and place surrounding you.  And the following fact simply knocked me off my seat: A resident of Austin who is a professional musician is eligible for free health, mental dental and vision care.

My glasses are three years old, bent out of shape, and scratched as all can be.  And I work at the bar mainly to pay my health insurance ($430 a month) and various bills, with so little left over. I live very simply, rarely eat out, and don’t go out in general all that much as I used to (in case you’re wondering why you haven’t necessarily seen me “on the scene” lately). And thus, I can’t afford new glasses. Or to fix the busted heel on my Frye boots. So here I am, wearing ancient glasses that slide off my face, wearing beat-up and ripped old Converse, trying to figure all of this out.

And while I love living in New York, and where I am, how I am in my life, it’s entirely frustrating to essentially live in fear of Bloomberg’s regime, to not be eligible for subsidies, to worry about where my next meal is coming from, to watch the hordes of homeless or simply poor men and women walking the streets of New York with a scared look in their eye, to see a 65-year-old woman sweeping the steps of the subway simply because there is no other work available, to look into the faces of those truly hungry, truly junked out, truly suffering, and to not get angry at the disparity. I live in New York, one of the wealthiest cities in the world, and the ranks of homeless, struggling poor and unemployed, etc, are growing every day. Street crime is increasing, and instead of dealing with this, police will soon be busy busting cigarette smokers in the parks, since in May it will become illegal to smoke there. (Quick source of revenue for the city and a big waste of time, in my opinion.) Our system of public transportation, as relatively inexpensive as it is compared to other metropoli, such as London, has increased in fare almost 80% since I moved to the city 8 years ago. And people aren’t making any more money to be able to afford this.

It used to cost me maybe $15 a week to get around town. Now it’s pretty much doubled. $30 a week for public transport might seem like chump change to those of you used to spending $12 on a cocktail, but for me, that extra $15 a week, that extra $60 a month, is a lot. Those are meals I’m skipping. I have never before had fear about where my next meal was coming from. And certainly I have resources, and thank God, I have a job, but this fear, much as I try to keep it at bay, is now revealing itself.

I don’t make as much money bartending as I did two years ago. People are going out less in New York. Part of this, and hence a reason musicians and bartenders also have it doubly difficult, is because Bloomberg’s police Mafia have now taken a stand against music venues and bars. Systematically, bars and venues are being invaded by troupes of heavy duty nightlife police, enforcing antiquated laws regarding dancing in bars (held over from Prohibition), stopping shows in midstream, basically shaking down club owners with fines and what not.

Certainly, I’m all for enforcing certain laws. And certain venues and bars certainly need to make sure they are up to code, and not over capacity. But to come into a thriving business in the middle of a thriving night, to hold the patrons hostage until their raid is complete, to fine businesses that have more than 3 people dancing—my God, that is fucking ridiculous. What is this, “Footloose”?

Let me give it to you straight: Bars in New York, especially music venues, are hard businesses to run. And regardless of how a bar appears to be doing, the quirky, cool places that I assume many folks go to for music have ridiculous overhead and rent. We buy liquor and beer on credit most of the time. Our electric bills are staggeringly high because of necessary refrigeration and climate control. We have to pay certain taxes other businesses don’t. We have to pay our staff, and of course simple things, like upkeep, cleaning products, etc. Then on top of that, we have to get people in the club drinking and enjoying themselves, and hope that we have enough to pay the bills. So we’re already operating at a fringe, and most of the time profits are scant. We’re lucky to break even. And even luckier if all of our bills are paid for. Very few bars and restaurants are in the black.

So take this reality, and then add in the very real fear of getting shut down over whatever minutiae the nightlife goons decide, and you’ve got a few things happening. You’ve got a room full of people who feel violated and scared when the po-pos come streaming in, you’ve got a staff that feels violated and scared because THEY will likely be liable for something, and at the bottom line, you’ve got business owners who might not be able to make their bills at the end of the month because they’ve just been fined $2000.

So the aftereffects of this?  I believe (and it’s unfortunately been my experience) that patrons are less likely to return to the venue because the fear now exists that, at any time, the bar might be shut down, and/or if cops walk in, let’s say they have a joint in their bag, they might get searched and thrown in the Tombs. Musicians are less likely to want to play there for the fear that their shows may be shut down. And bar owners and staff are left holding the bag, because it’s up to us to make the bar money, and if we don’t have enough money to pay the bills, well, maybe we won’t have enough money for new mic stands. Or cocktail napkins. Or soundproofing. Or light bulbs. Or glassware. Or, far worse, beer, wine, and liquor. Not to mention, with the lack of business in a bar comes less tips for bartenders, and we have troubles making our personal bills.

But putting that all aside for a second…Do you know how it feels to tell people who are truly rejoicing in music, in moving their bodies as God intended to rhythms and melodies, to stop dancing? To apologize to musicians because they have to stop playing because we fear that someone might call the police?  Or that the police walking by might come in and find something “wrong”?  To live in fear of being able to express?

I’m a fucking musician. And I’m a man who loves to dance. And I just spent a week in a city that prides itself on its dedication to arts, on its dedication to freedoms, to making the CITY a wonderful, open place to live, where visitors and natives alike were dancing in the street!!!

So I can tell you, to be forced to tell people to stop expressing themselves because of the fear of police, or what have you—It makes me so motherfucking angry I can feel it like arrows shooting into my spine.

If New York City is going to survive as a cultural capital, well, certain parties and so-called “powers-that-be” need to treat it like one, and not just pay lip service to our arts scene, which, despite the attempts to be shut down, still thrives and grows.  I see it every day I walk the streets and see some kid on the sidewalk playing a ukelele, I see it on Saturdays when I host the open mic and see kids coming in scared to death of a stage, but get the gumption to get up there and bare themselves, to challenge themselves to grow.  And I feel like they are being cheated by our city, because of how hard they will have to work to simply EAT, man!

Music should not be an afterthought in one’s life if one wants to make a life in music. Ok, so you might have to wait tables, so you work whatever shit job, so you do this, do that to make ends meet. That’s as true in Austin as it is in New York. But as it gets harder and harder and harder in our city to make those ends meet, musicians are frankly being attacked. The more venues that get raided, the more tickets issued for unloading your car in front of a venue, the more kids being busted for a roach on the sidewalk and thrown in jail—the more we kill our very real chance of continuing to grow as an artistic city.

It is so difficult to make a living as a musician in New York. Even my friends who have reached a certain level of success have troubles making ends meet, and often have to take additional jobs. Yes, it’s an expensive city, but we are such a huge part of what makes it so amazing, and there is no reason why people shouldn’t be able to feel a certain level of respect from their local government. Not just artists, but any of the working poor. (Which, let’s face it, is a category many artists fall into.) Now, I’m not saying artists should be put on some sort of pedestal. There’s nothing wrong with having to work hard to achieve your goals, and I would never say I or other artists shouldn’t have to take certain jobs once in a while to support that life, to a certain extent. Music is certainly unpredictable.

But artists should not be FORCED to essentially have to have a second career to support their primary career, when the infrastructure to support the primary career already exists. However, the scrutiny the NYC artistic infrastructure is put under in these times is regressive, and denies artists a positive way to potentially make a living. (Not to mention the utter lack of interest in the arts by our governemnt, but that’s another story.) And to tax the working poor—by increased health costs, increased transportation costs, clothing taxes, etc.—the people who need the most resources are the ones getting the least, and being forced to contribute the most. This is unconscionable.

New York is failing itself by going after the very people that keep it alive. By not fostering younger peoples’ want of innovation. By letting our poor go hungry and sick and die in the outer boroughs while we pride ourselves on “keeping the streets clean” in most of Manhattan. (In case you didn’t know, Bloomberg has deliberately moved most of the homeless shelters out of Manhattan, and while homeless people increase in number every day, you wouldn’t know it from looking around.) And by making the struggling people pay an ever-increasing percentage of their income just to get to work!

And the ultimate slap in the face is New York failing itself by squelching people’s desires to move their bodies, to celebrate. By making people live in fear. It’s fucking hostile, and sour, and hard wrong.

And I am not going to take this anymore. We have a lot to learn from Austin. From musician’s-only loading zones to public funding and health insurance, there is so much we as a city can be doing to help foster music, to help our working poor. And I’m sorry, Mayor Bloomberg, but I want to fucking dance whenever and wherever I feel like it.

We need to change, NOW. What has happened in Austin can be translated to so many other cities, not to mention the smaller towns where people live, work and play. If people are willing to learn, to give up a few of their profits for the betterment of the society in which they live, to help others, to help their neighbors—to even just say hello to your neighbors—things will start to change. Yes, there are many more people in New York than Austin, and many more problems to deal with, but there is no reason why New York should not help itself grow into something with just a little more heart.

And there is no reason why our city, the scene of so many artists’ lives and deaths, and the stages on which so many artistic endeavors have been set, should not allow us to truly celebrate our art, our music, our bodies, each other. In times of woe, war, hate, natural and manmade disasters, there’s really not much you can do except dance, celebrate, love, hope, and grow. If we want it, we can have it. So let’s want it, and let’s have it. Let’s dance.

Let’s dance down the streets and block traffic. Let’s dance in the bars and the music venues. Let’s dance in the parks, let’s dance on the sidewalks, in the gutters, in the alleyways, in the rain, in the heat, in the subways. Dance in protest of the hurt. Dance in honor of the dead. Dance to make yourself feel good, to feel God. Dance to make children smile. Dance to make things change. Dance to make yourself feel SOMETHING. Dance.

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3 Responses to “There’s something in the water.”

  1. Inda Says:

    Bravo Jeremiah…You need to organize a “dance-in” in Central Park. Just do it via twitter! you could get a real crowd there. And contact the media before it happens.
    and Send this treatise to the NY Times and other places online nad off line. – at least the second part about NYC.

  2. Just Another Folk Singer Says:

    Well put, Jeremiah. I am re-posting, if you don’t mind. xo

  3. Something with Heart by Jeremiah Birnbaum « Just Another Folk Singer Online [archive] Says:

    […] There’s something in the water. by Jeremiah Birnbaum. Read, like, and share his post! I don’t know how I managed to miss this when it was originally posted in March, but he touches on so many relevant issues dealing with struggling artists, musicians, and general concerns today. After I read it, I was reminded of a song of his called “Heart.” Jeremiah Birnbaum and Mystie Chamberlin (Just Another Folk Singer) performing cover of Jesse Malin's "Brooklyn" @ "Jeremiah's Off-the-Wagon Showcase," 04.20.10 @ Banjo Jim's (700 E. 9th St. @ Ave. C, NYC). iPhone Hipstamatic Print by David Jordan (Lens: Lucifer VI, Film: Ina's 1969). Performance # 127. […]

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