Punk wake

Sometimes the best place to read "Finnegans Wake" aloud is in a disgusting San Francisco nightclub flanked by a wall of TVs.

Published March 16, 2001 9:58PM (EST)

We were overeducated punks drinking Budweiser in San Francisco's Tenderloin where vomit and blood decorated the sidewalks outside our rehearsal hall and if you didn't watch your guitar it would end up in a pawn shop down the street or maybe you could buy it back from a guy cheap and not get beaten and stabbed in the alley. The drugs they sold on the street were bad but "Finnegans Wake" would mess up your mind if you read it aloud nonstop while drinking Budweiser. Punk was inviting pink into its palette of black at that time and you didn't have to be working class anymore; two-fifths of our band had been to graduate school, and we actually thought "Finnegans Wake" was cool. The nightclub called the Sound of Music was ugly, dangerous and disgusting but it was across from where we practiced and we could get a gig there anytime, so that was where we decided to do our reading of "Finnegans Wake."

There was a tall guy named Walter Alter who fixed scooters on Valencia Street before Valencia Street had a restaurant where the president eats. Walter Alter collected television sets and attended our gigs at the Sound of Music and the Mabuhay Gardens. Girls loved him because he was tall and he was an artist and he would fix their scooters. We let him in free if we could.

The constraints of song structure chafed at our creativity so we had a side combo called Grupo Jammo, which made as little sense as Joyce's novel. We decided to properly read "Finnegans Wake" aloud in the Sound of Music we should have a tower of television sets behind us and Grupo Jammo should "play." Walter Alter brought televisions in his van. We had to carry them in. Some were heavy and some were light. There were modern little white ones like girls had in their apartments and there were elephantine fake wood beer-stained consoles. I had a television bought from a bar with a primitive remote control; the remote didn't work but you could jangle your car keys in front of the TV to make it change channels. Really.

We piled the televisions up onstage and plugged them all in. Some just had snow. Some had the news. There were Sandinistas being killed on one. And we sat on a chair at a table with candles and tall Budweisers and read. I did most of the reading aloud because I had always been the best at it since third grade.

Get drunk. Whether by wine, by poetry or by virtue, just get drunk. That was the idea.

While a terrible cacophony of improvised noise droned on and people with spray cans painted the stage walls and dancers rammed each other in a slow-motion slam dance, we got drunker and the music became uglier and more revolting and louder and the television white noise got louder and our words were drowned but we continued to read aloud though we could not hear our own words. As we got drunker and could no longer make out the words we became an expressionist collage of youthful desire and fatalistic self-loathing and a devout and humbling worship of the great minds of literature. The words blurred and the music fell on us like the blows of a hammer.

If you will recall from your classes in punk history, one of the tenets of punk was breaking down the barrier between performer and audience, a shopworn aesthetic if you sobered up long enough to consider it, but grounded in a loathing of elitism exemplified by rapper Michael Franti's first band, the Beat Nigs, who invited audience members up to bang pieces of metal at the end of their sets. The stage of the Sound of Music accommodated the blurring of distinctions between audience and performer admirably because to get backstage you had to walk across the stage. So all through the reading there were other performers walking past us as we read.

After a while the house lights began to blink on and off. Our act was being called off the stage. I did not want to leave. I liked it there. So I closed the book and drained the tall Bud and laid my head down on the table, hoping to take a short nap onstage before the owner dragged us off.

My sleep was soon interrupted.

P.S. Some months later Walter borrowed my large television set for another art project, and reported to me afterward that my television had inexplicably exploded.

By Cary Tennis

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