It's 3:30 p.m. on the banks of the Missouri River, and Team Kerry is pretty lax with the press credentialing. I show my Society of American Travel Writers card and am waved through without a second glance. The Japanese guy behind me -- who is not, as far as anyone can tell, a journalist -- plays the bad-accent card and is also, by way of confusion, waved in.
Around the state Capitol, people are lined up for blocks. Across the street, someone is sporting a giant Styrofoam waffle costume. I'm pretty warm in a sleeveless shirt, so that can't be comfortable.
The crowd is 99 percent white, more night shift than NPR. People in bleachers are holding red, white and blue signs -- "Believe in America," "America Can Do Better" -- to shade their rapidly pinking heads.
I can't see the musicians onstage, but I hear them playing the 40 billionth rendition of "Mustang Sally," surely the most tired bar band staple in history.
I scan the crowd. When did Secret Service agents get cute, young and hip-looking? The one nearest me can't be more than a college sophomore. His sunburn doesn't completely disguise the discreet remnants of adolescent acne. He's chewing gum. Off in the distance, the band segues to "I Feel Good."
In the press pen, a local TV reporter carps about what a "mofo" the outgoing Missouri governor Bob Holden is, an opinion that seems to be based largely on the Holden staff's animosity toward the press. There's not a dissenting journalist in the bunch. The band launches into "Don't Be Cruel."
"Soul Man" starts up, although I now realize that the crappy oldies band has been replaced by a marginally less crappy sound system. Some college-age kids come onstage and start chucking Kerry T-shirts into the crowd. People "ooooh" appreciatively at each T-shirt toss. Missourians are nothing if not polite and easily impressed.
When the candidates arrive -- if the candidates ever arrive -- the sun will be straight in their eyes. I would've oriented them in front of the Capitol, flanked by the limestone steps and the imposing statue of Thomas Jefferson. However, I also would've warmed up the crowd with something besides Free, Paul Rodgers' band before Bad Company. Boston delegates got Wyclef Jean, Mavis Staples and at least a few songs written in the 21st century. We are obviously the victims of Red State programming. I feel a support group at work.
"All Right Now" is followed by the theme to "Rocky." "Revolution" starts but soon skips to the truly execrable "Eye of the Tiger" by '80s nightmare Survivor. The reporter beside me has been covering both campaigns for months. "Can Republican music be any worse than this?" he asks.
The next choice on the soundtrack is even more schizophrenic, EMF's (Epsom Mad Funkers or Ecstasy Mind Fuckers, depending on whom you talk to) 1990 dance hit "Unbelievable." "Oh! What the fuck was that?" echoes through the chorus. No one seems to notice.
EMF gives way to Mellencamp's "Small Town." In radio parlance, this pairing would be referred to as a train wreck. A 50ish white guy bounds onstage. "Are you hot?!" he asks. The crowd roars. I wonder how the waffle is holding up.
I ask the reporter who our emcee is. His look says I should know this. "That's former governor Roger Wilson." I am not good with faces.
Wilson introduces Senate candidate Nancy Farmer, who introduces lame-duck governor Holden, who introduces state auditor Claire McCaskill, who kicked Holden's ass in Tuesday's primary. McCaskill is a shrill blonde who's fond of shouting "Huh?!" when she wants the crowd to agree with her.
It's 6 p.m. when Wilson says, "When the candidates get here..." and I start to fret. Kerry is notoriously late. We hear that Team Kerry is coming in from St. Louis via Amtrak, which has an even worse on-time record. I abandon any hopes of dinner.
A reporter shakes his head. "Will Rogers said, 'I don't belong to an organized political party. I'm a Democrat.' That seems to be the case here."
"Soul Man" starts again and the T-shirt boys reappear.
I leave the press pit to search for the source of the repeating music. No DJ, but there's a white iPod connected to a soundboard behind the camera risers. I want to see the playlist, but the guys guarding the board won't let me touch it. "That'd be my job," one of them says. "The music's coming from a CD, anyway. There's only one song on that iPod."
Further investigative journalism reveals that there's more than one song on the iPod. Nevertheless, the song is queued up, ready for the Johns' arrival.
The CD plays "All Right Now" again. Making people stand in the August sun for three hours is one thing, but a double dose of Free amounts to cruel and unusual punishment. "Who picks this crap?" I ask.
One of the sound guys shrugs. "John Kerry."
The press tag hanging around my neck and the notebook finally sink in, and people begin to get nervous. "Off the records" start coming fast and heavy. One of the national advance team members backtracks. "I'm not sure Kerry picked all of it. You'll have to talk to a spokesperson. You're not going to quote me, are you?" The phrase "I'll be in deep doo-doo" is repeated. Twice.
Another reporter walks up and offers to locate a different CD. Everyone's a critic. I grimace at "Revolution" and one of the guys (none of whom will give me his name) goes on the attack. "What? You don't like this song? What do you want, gangsta rap? You want some Dre?"
"At least it's better than the band," I say.
"Yeah," he says. "The band sucked. Off the record."
Walkie-talkies crackle and it's show time. The crowd roars obediently. Kerry and Co. take the stage and the iPod springs into action. The song is "Twice as Hard," by the Black Crowes. I look at the sound guy. "You have got to be kidding." He shrugs.
What follows is about an hour of the same stump speeches you've been reading excerpts of all month, plus a few lame local references.
Random non-music-related observations: Teresa Heinz Kerry should not refer to Elizabeth Edwards as "a giant of a person." Christopher Heinz really is hot in a John-John sort of way. He and Teresa are the only two who have sense enough to keep their sunglasses on. I'm pretty sure we're all aware that Kerry served in Vietnam. It's a good point, but it doesn't bear as much repeating as he seems to think it does. Volunteer. Purple Heart. We get it.
Kerry finishes by urging us to "go out and reclaim our democracy!" accompanied by Bachman-Turner Overdrive's "You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet."
Deal, John. We'll do something about reclaiming democracy. You do something about the music. Please.