Save Music in Chinatown
September 7, 2017
We’re in there, Kimm and I– afterschool , after hours- at Faye Ross Junior High.
It’s the usual group of geeks gathered in the classroom, the kids who would actually stay after 6th period bell rang instead of bolting like all the sensible kids. They were probably already in the garage sniffing paint fumes or shoplifting Penthouse from Village Liquors, but we were in here with big acoustic guitars smothering our corduroyed laps.
Mr. Misajon is walking around the room, checking on each student as they struggle with the concept of tuning to the A he kept blowing through a pitch pipe.
He’s the cool teacher, all stonewashed flares and Puka Shells, and he takes this curse of teaching beginning guitar with ease.
“It’s like this, here and here,” he says, guiding our nubby stubs onto the impossible cables arched high above the warped necks. We give the strings a tenuous strum, but the strings yield only a skreech and awful clunk, like the distant thud of a drunken clown finally hurling himself out of a fifth story window.
Perhaps the very best thing we do in this punky community is come together for a good cause.
Oh sure, we’re all split into our different factions within any given scene, the straight edge and the boozers, the goths and the gutters, but it seems as though we all do indeed stand united against the normal world out there. And when one of our own needs some help, hell, where do we sign up?
I came to the first Save Music in Chinatown show 5 years ago, with no real expectations or explanations.
It just seemed like a nice way to pass a Sunday afternoon in a part of town I hadn’t visited since Madame Wong’s closed their doors for the final time in the mid eighties.
The space at Human Resources was all white, and somehow that made it an even more fitting blank canvas, to be colored and themed by the people and music brought together that day. That first show we all sat like children in a school cafeteria, hushed, mindful of our neighbors’ space, and listened as Bob Forrest struggled to make Sammy Hagar Weekend palatable to the 5 year olds that listened, rapt.
It is a Sunday afternoon, we are eating cookies and drinking coffee, and seeing the people we usually only encounter in noisy nightclubs: shouted hellos into each other’s ear canals the only sense of community.
Like strange creatures brought up from the depths of the sea into the light of day, we all stood there blinking in the afternoon light, and had the chance to say, Friend! how have you been? and hear the actual response.
The next time it was our turn in the white room, and we found ourselves facing that toughest of all audiences: sober people and their children. Kids have the most open and honest reaction to music, and when a crew of earplug-wearing toddlers started their own little mini pit at our knees, it was probably the moment of validation that we had been chasing all these years.
It is such a rare treat to see these bands in such a setting: The Gears bouncing around the room, as if playing to a more innocent time long gone. There’s Jimmy Decker of the Crowd getting loose and wild and sharing some curse words these kids had probably already heard, but perhaps not by a dancing man in a suit, and said with such glee.
The gals of BadCop BadCop rocking hard, inspiring a new generation of little girls to pick up guitars. And The Adolescents playing for a crowd that is able to sit and watch, actually watch the magic of Kids of the Black Hole being coaxed out of wooden guitars and drum shells.
The show moved across to Grand Star, with Bruce Lee standing guard out front. A newer generation of bands, always eclectic, mirroring Martin’s wide range of musical appetites, are always represented on the bill. I imagine these are discoveries made on his impressive journeys into the LA night scene, often accompanied by flyer artist Eloise, a kid that has more stories to tell on any given Monday morning than most of the staff at Castelar.
These shows have become such an institution on the Los Angeles music calendar, and an honor to be invited to play. You almost have to remind yourself that they are put on foremost with a purpose: a sincere effort to save music education in a public school. In these days when the Arts are in very real danger of being cut in the name of efficiency, we are faced with the threat of what is truly lost in the absence of art.
Sure, those first songs we learned in the after school program were corny– Baby I Love Your Way and Country Roads!– but it is because of that program that we are up there playing our own corny songs today.
We were given the possibility to sit under industrial fluorescent tubes and have a patient man, used to teaching kids already, show us the magic and thrill of bringing something out of the string and wood. It’s a trick that never fails to astound.
And if that is something that can be accomplished in a few lessons, you consider what else a child capable of, with maybe just a little bit of help.
I hit the strings again, bearing down, but could still only coax a muted question mark. I turned and watched Kimm as he clamped down onto the strings so hard his tiny cuticles turned white.
We chewed our tongues and eased off a bit, and followed Mr. Misajon’s gentle advice.
“Yeah man, don’t try to strangle it. Relax, that’s it, just push when you need to.”
We took deep breaths and shook the cramps out of our wee paws, and assembled fingers on the staircase again.
We strummed down, and heard for the first time that chime and sparkle of steel string against neck, the strings kissing the wood between frets with just enough contact to make the chord sing.
We looked at each other, astonished, and hit the strings once again, calling the religious alarm that would follow us home and into our lives to this day.