It was by complete coincidence that I recently renewed ties with my old friend Bada Shanren who I had worked with in 2001. After coming down to Phree Audio, Bada Shanren graciously volunteered to put his thoughts into words. Although having never attended an electronic music event prior to our free outdoor jam, some of his insights into our culture are very telling, especially considering they are coming from a person on the periphery, looking in. Please read and enjoy.
FIRST IMPRESSIONS OF THE REBEL SOUND SYSTEM
By Bada Shanren
There is a great truism about being out of work– the pay sucks, but the hours are great. To whit, one of the luxuries of being unemployed is having the ability to attend cultural events throughout the city, either during normal work hours, or else on weekends, without having to worry about getting up early in the morning and going to work. The normal concerns of the employed masses — getting a good night’s rest, getting to work on time, etc. etc., — do not apply to you. And so it was that on Sunday, August 17th at two in the afternoon, I found myself at Battery Park in lower Manhattan, attending the Phree Audio techno festival, organized and sponsored by my friend Destro. Under normal circumstances, I most likely would not have been there. But fate, chance, luck, karma or whatever you’d label it enables you to meet interesting people along the road of life, and Destro had been one of the more interesting, for sure.
Back in 2001, when I was a struggling college grad looking for some sort of gainful employment in the ad biz, (little has changed in the interim; I’m out of work again, except now I’m even more jaded and cynical) I found myself working at an ad agency in Manhattan. Destro joined the firm a few months after me, and we quickly became friends. Along with one other guy, the three of us were the only youthful entities in what was effectively a geriatric ward. (Lest anyone think I dislike older folks, the previous sentence does not have any malicious intent). We hung out during lunch hours and sometimes after work. It almost goes without saying that the job itself was dull, low-paying and unfulfilling in every respect (Is there any other kind?) But that is truly beside the point. I’ve learned since then that even a lousy job can be worthwhile if, when all is said and done, you make some good friends. I was immediately drawn to Destro’s good humor and combination joie de vivre / “I don’t give a fuck” attitude. Look, this is a guy who had no qualms about smoking a bowl of weed in the often-used office stairwell and returning to work a few minutes later. Personally, I prefer a little more privacy when I indulge in the sacramental herb, but I certainly admired his brashness and sense of free will.
Anyway, I discovered that my new friend was extremely passionate about electronic music, and sometimes DJ’d on the side. My own tastes in music are diverse, encompassing classical, jazz, reggae, blues, rock, and some hip-hop, but electronica, trance and techno were definitely genres I was not too familiar with. I mean, at the time, I subscribed to several music magazines and considered myself reasonably familiar with the music world, but I always believed there was so much out there, one could never become familiar with it all. Destro was shocked to discover, for example, that I had never heard of Frankie Bones. In his mind, that was probably the equivalent of not knowing who Mozart or Miles or Jimi was, but my response was essentially along the lines of “Dude, I don’t really know electronic music, give me a break.”
Destro was fortunate enough to leave the agency before me, having chosen to pursue a second round of higher education and obtain an M.B.A. This was shortly before 9/11. I went on to quit my job and land an equally dismal position at another agency. We talked on the phone several times but ended up losing touch about a year later. Recently, I decided I should make an effort to make contact with him again. I did a search on Google, and lo and behold, Destro appeared in a Yahoo discussion group on buying vinyl records. I got in touch by e-mail and we made plans to meet up at an upcoming techno festival he had organized. The event was called Phree Audio.
The day of the event, I arrived at Battery Park, crowded with vendors and throngs of people. I hadn’t been there in years and had forgotten how nice it was. The sun sparkled off the water and the weather was truly beautiful. I soon located the Phree Audio performance tent. A sizable number of people were hanging out in the area, mostly younger folks, but some older ones too. Destro greeted me and told me how fate had conspired to give his rental equipment van a flat tire on the way. In its infinite wisdom, the rental company did not provide spare tires, apparently to avoid liability in the event someone actually changed a tire and keeled over dead from the exertion. Nevertheless, this setback did not prevent the show from going forward. A couple of kids helped crank the portable generator and it was showtime.
As the first DJ started on his set, I was able to survey the crowd. To be sure, there were some weird individuals, but it seemed like all were in a cheery disposition and having a good time. There was a 40-ish Asian-American man, bare-chested with an open shirt and baseball cap, doing a solo dance while waving two handkerchiefs. He made overtures to several folks to join him, but perhaps wisely, no one took him up on the offer. I noticed a young brunette dancing with a lot of style and energy. She just kept going on and on; I suspect she was on a severe ginseng diet. This was a cute chick and it would be disingenuous if I said I didn’t look in her direction more than a few times. Kids have all the energy. At 26, it’s hard for me to keep up. I was soon reflecting on the diverse folks that are drawn to live music performances. A female U.S. Navy sailor in full uniform stopped for a few minutes to enjoy the beats, as did many tourists and families. At least three cruise ships left the harbor during the event, and I know the people standing on deck were feeling the music as they embarked into the great unknown.
A great downpour of rain eventually soaked the entire area, but the people kept on dancing, and the DJ’s kept on playing. It was cool to be able to get a close up look at the DJ equipment. Heck, with all those freakin’ switches and knobs, the controls looked like an airplane cockpit to me, but I could see the DJ’s actively using the controls to achieve various sound effects. Talking to several of the DJ’s, I was struck by how completely unassuming and sincere these guys were. There was no artifice to them, either in their dress or personalities. It seems for many mainstream artists, appearances, entourages and props have become more important than the music. The DJ’s I met are hard-working, sincere folks with a great passion for their music, and they were more than happy to come out and display their talents for free in front of an appreciative crowd. If that’s not the mark of a true artist, I don’t know what is. Not for the first time, I mused that artists contribute so much more meaning and pleasure to people’s lives than any politician ever will, well-intentioned or not.
All of the six or so sets were consistently excellent. When things wrapped up at 8:20, there were still a few fans savoring the sounds of the final act. So, what did I learn from all of this? 1) Honda makes awesome portable generators. 2) Good music draws hot chicks like moths to a flame. 3) There are artists out there who are more interested in perfecting their craft and performing than in crass commercialism and shameless self-promotion.
Bada Shanren is a freelance writer living in New York City. For more info please contact Alancats99@yahoo.com.