An open bar, trendy hors-devours, swag bags and stretch limousines. The red carpet’s long and narrow tongue greets us with cameramen (why are they always men) lined up on our right side. My friend Jen hesitates in front of the intimidating mass, not sure how to proceed. I grab her arm and say, “We’re nobody. They won’t bother us.” So we run by the paparazzi who are checking their batteries and adjusting their lenses, waiting for the beautiful and damned to totter in on their Louboutin heels. Hey, I know my high fashion terminology. My sister works in the god-forsaken industry, after all. It looks like there is one cameraman for every guest, and every other polished attendee is dressed in a faux-weathered leather jacket, as if in standard-issue tough-guy uniform. But we are not here with switchblades and chains, ready for a rumble. The cause is modern-day slavery and the trafficking of humans for sex and forced labor. The Not For Sale campaign has teamed up with All Saints and BRMC to make tonight happen. The numbers are staggering – 30 million in Thailand alone. Women and children kidnapped and sold by manufacturing companies from all over the world, including the United States. Capitalism at its finest, folks!
At the newly-renovated Music Box theater in Hollywood, I score free drinks at an open bar and feel guilty for not having any cash to tip the bartender with for pouring my organic vodka. Meanwhile, President Obama is across the city charging $35,800 a head for a dinner, courting the Hollywood elite, rapidly acquiring a hefty campaign budget in hopes of re-election so that his hair can grey even more rapidly, so that he can continue to chip away at the massive Berlin wall that is our United States Congress. Wall Street is overrun by citizens being brutalized by the NYPD, Turkey is under post-earthquake rubble and bone, Gaddafi’s sodomized corpse is on display in a vegetable crisper and I’m feeling guilty about not tipping with money I don’t have. They don’t take credit here. Cash only. I have been living off credit for a couple of months now after my knee surgery forced me to stay home from work. When Courtney Love screamed, “I got no credit in the straight world,” is this what she meant?
Sarah Ferguson is here supporting the cause, sitting in a VIP booth in the corner while lights and cameras illuminate her fair skin. Remember when she was considered a rebellious, young royal? I was a teenager when she divorced that life and turned her back on Windsor Castle. Weight-loss ads followed, and now she is here to support anti-slavery while England recovers from their own civil unrest. It is the age of Aquarius, in case you were wondering. It is that time again. Time to unleash the disgruntled masses onto the paved streets, tanks or no tanks. Time to take back our country from the sticky hands of the corporate sharks and crooked money lenders. We want our pound of flesh. But, as Shakespeare made clear, it is not that easy, is it? A pound of flesh to even the score is what Shylock wanted. No more and no less. And the 99% want justice, want criminals on display, want to jail and tax the men who gorged themselves on people’s humble dreams while writing off hookers and blow as business expenses. “Let them eat cake,” is not what we are being told, of course. That would be in bad taste. We would much rather attribute such insensitivity to a woman who was, in her own right, essentially sold by her family in a political transaction. Slavery comes in all shapes. But I digress.
I am here primarily to see Black Rebel Motorcycle Club. I have been following this band for a few years now, and every live show is another dose of sonic dopamine that I have come to crave, and similar to heroin’s effect, post-gig nausea promptly sets in at the stroke of midnight. This is par for the course, along with a few days of tinnitus. It is all worth it.
The band arrived on motorcycles, not in limousines. We know this because we see the cycles lined up in the parking lot. Humble could mean being misconstrued as unsuccessful. This is not the case with BRMC. Their devoted fan base and tireless touring keep their flame lit. Their visit to Cambodia last month after playing in China is a testament to their devotion to the Not For Sale cause, and although they believe in making a difference, they were raised in a home that encouraged it. Robert Been’s mother, who I meet backstage, is an activist in her own right. His father, the late Michael Been, was known for his upstanding morals and spiritual mentorship. Their son is a bi-product of this sincere concern for justice and the welfare of those less fortunate, and thus the reason the band is here tonight.
That said, BRMC does not mingle with the crowd before the show. They don’t pose with models and ex-royalty while their audience gets good and liquored up. They shyly appear one by one at the edge of the stage, peek out to see what’s what and then disappear again. They are skeptical of such glamorous parties, but they are wily enough to understand that tonight might provide a necessary boost in the cause’s visibility and budget. It might also give the band a chance to win over some new fans before the release of their sixth album.
They walk onto the stage without fanfare or warning. The true fans know when they’re about to appear because we know their pre-show playlist: Spiritualized’s “Don’t Go/Stay with Me” followed by The Ronnette’s “Be My Baby”. Peter Hayes and Been saunter out, heads bowed, not even looking at the crowd as Leah Shapiro unassumingly takes her seat behind the drum kit. A hard-working, hard-touring, hard-rocking trio of talented musicians who know a good cause when they see it, BRMC scream “Fuck the US government” into the microphone before their subversive track, “US Government,” ends. Unapologetic dissent. This song is played live sparingly for obvious reasons. And then “Six-Barrel Shotgun” with a chorus that echoes the bitterness of citizens who have been chanting in the streets for over a month now: “We shook hands, and the criminals won.” The words mean a lot to me since I essentially work for the government as a public school teacher by day. Both my government and my union keep chipping away at my modest paycheck, so I am more than happy to spew some bile tonight.
After the show, Peter runs outside for a smoke, and Rob greets fans and friends while leaning against a wall. He’s really good at leaning against walls, that one. James Dean reincarnate, some say. Others feel the spirit of Jeff Buckley in his gentle speech and wry wit. His bass hooks are epic, and that is all that matters to me. He wears his leather jacket tonight, along with all the other trendsetters. But, this specific look is one that the band took on years before motorcycle jackets and boots re-emerged on the catwalk. BRMC’s aesthetic has remained classic black and leather for over a decade now, and they do not wear labels on their clothes, although they do support labels that are politically conscious and ethically sound. Of course the irony in all this is that the less they try to call attention to what they wear, the more the media focuses on just that. No dummies, the band understands that image has its place in rock and roll, but Rob doesn’t miss the opportunity to sarcastically point out the “importance” of fashion when he gets up to the microphone earlier in the evening. He’s been known to mock the couture contingent before, even when agreeing to play during fashion week in Manhattan last year where he donned a black velvet dress and leopard-print coat over his usual jeans and t-shirt.
Peter hangs around for a bit, so naturally I take the opportunity to ask him about the harmonica malfunction and their latest jaunt to China. They (wisely) refrained from playing the incendiary track “US Government” for fear of being jailed or having their audience jailed simply for being there. Peter’s gracious, yet endearingly awkward, conversation is still disarming, even after several encounters with the man. Low key and humble, he responds to our compliments with a shrug and chuckles softly when another fan schools him on how to accept a compliment. When Leah beckons him over for a post-gig hug, he obliges. He is a genuine talent, and like most perfectionists, is hard to please. This quality is what legends are made of, and no matter how many jingle writers cross over to write catchy top-40 hits (Foster the People), I know without having to ask him that he will never stoop to that in order to make a buck. He would rather pump gas for a living, if that job still existed.
BRMC earned its stripes years ago. Dropped by Virgin Records in the middle of touring for their second album, they started their own label and continue to work without an expensive producer in the studio. They do their own writing, mixing and recording. They even put out the acoustic-heavy HOWL knowing that that they might lose fair-weather fans in the process. They have credibility in spades. Now, before you die-hard fans bring up the fact that BRMC has been allowing songs to appear in car commercials and cell-phone ads for a pretty penny, let me refer you to one of my favorite pop-culture critics. Henry Rollins has expertly covered this exact issue for me, so I won’t even bother to put my own spin on it. I refer you instead to the disgruntled and consistently eloquent punk icon instead:
Selling out is making the record you’re told to make instead of making the record you want to make…. Pay them! Pay them double! Pay them now! It’s about fucking time!
Copyright © 2011 Armine Iknadossian. All rights reserved.