This was probably one of my favorite days in the past year. It’s not that I felt grateful for what I have, necessarily, it’s more that I felt ridiculous for not having made the effort to visit skid row or volunteer before, for being so damned insular in a city that’s so culturally vast. I grew up poor, grew up working around homeless men my grandfather would employ at the bar part-time and give temporary housing to, yet for some reason, I was afraid of skid row. Take a look below at my original FREE SHOW SKID ROW story below. VICE article HERE.
It’s election day, LAPD cars swarm San Pedro in 90 degree heat, polling locations have three-hour lines, nobody at the county registrar has any record of the three times I’ve registered to vote, and Sun Araw is playing a free show in skid row. Skid row, by the way, is not just a hack 80s hair band or a fabled place of destitution: it’s where real people live. Not that most of LA would know.
The skid row community, formed by places like Lamp Community Center, has yet to entice the larger LA community to embrace the area or even acknowledge it exists outside of a handful of human interest pieces that rarely capture anything but the rainbows and butterflies version. And it’s because of this that we decided to work with Lamp Fine Arts director, Hayk Makhmuryan, to bridge the gap with the one thing we can all agree on: music makes us real happy.
When I walk up to Lamp, where Sun Araw’s going to play, two men with blues guitars sit cross-legged on the cement tuning by ear, and upwards of 50 people are talking to friends, lying down, or staring at the sky then back at their hands or feet as they wait outside for their washers and dryers to finish in the only Laundromat for the thousands of people on skid row. A handful of men talk only to themselves. The area is predominantly non-white and African American, and this should be noted, because despite LA’s recent threshold crossing that makes white people the minority and Latinos the majority, black people are only 9 percent of the population overall but make up a full half of the homeless population. Look, we’re clearly doing something wrong with race relations here in LA. You’ve seen Boyz N the Hood, right? Let’s just say it’s far more accurate than Kid n’ Play’s House Party, though I think we can all also agree that we love House Party.
Hayk tells me this is an especially difficult day—fights broke out, cops are on the scene, Mercury is in retrograde, and there are people in the world who are voting for Mitt Romney. When I set down my bag, Marlon, a Lamp Fine Arts participant who’s opening the Sun Araw show, walks me to his electric piano setup. The words for 10cc’s “I’m Not in Love” are printed out, propped on the music stand. Marlon walks with a cane, kisses ladies’ hands. He’s been playing the flute and keys almost his whole life, beginning in theater performances, and now here at Lamp, where he uses the Tony Ocean Music Room, which is designated by a cracked and peeling paper placard. Marlon says in a few months he’ll buy his own piano, once he gets back down to Long Beach. He looks at my tattoos, asks, “Are you in the military?” He served back in the 70s, just after Vietnam. I tell him that’s good, because he wasn’t deployed. He says, “Nah, when you’re not getting shipped overseas to fight other people, you’re just here fighting with each other.” I think of a guy I knew who said the military takes away all your books and music when you get to boot camp, leaving you with only a Bible for entertainment. Not a religious guy, my friend was able to borrow CDs from their meager library, but the only album they had left was Red Hot Chili Peppers’ Californication. He listened to it for three straight weeks before he literally went crazy, and they kicked him out of the army, and this was right in the middle of the Iraq war. If that’s not proof that music matters, or that RHCP are a terrible band, I don’t know what is. Luckily, skid row’s caught on to warding off the insanity devil with music at least a little.
Just a few doors down from Lamp, a local pastor hosts a weekly karaoke night, which is usually packed and spilling into the streets. Union Rescue Mission often books local acts to perform for residents, though they’re largely Christian groups. But before all this, in the mid-80s, LA had Justiceville/Homeless USA, a geodesic dome village erected in skid row that housed hundreds of homeless people and vibrant musicians until partisan politics brought it down. JHUSA was revolutionary, and you’ll even see a musical tribute to the domes in John Carpenter’s They Live score track, “The Siege of Justiceville,” but Justiceville is long gone, and Lamp can only house so many residents, especially since they focus first on those who are mentally ill. The question of how to care for all of the people at San Pedro and 5th waiting for the only washing machines in their neighborhood still remains. I ask Hayk if it was like this in Armenia, where he was born and raised, and he gives a stilted moment of silence before saying, “Families will usually take care of the mentally ill and homeless there.” He assures me that it’s just different over there, but I’m still feeling exactly like a selfish ass for living thousands of miles away from my aging mother and grandparents…but I’ve gotta sit around here and write about music and set up shows with musicians I admire, so we all make our sacrifices, ya know?
Sun Araw arrives, and Marlon’s circling the coffeemaker like a shark. He wants to get started soon, because otherwise he’ll just sit down and play until someone tells him to stop. And he does. One minute Sun Araw’s doing a sound check, and the next, Marlon’s banging on the keys, and we’re in the middle of an afternoon jazz freak fest. Women holding bunches of ratty plastic grocery bags are peering into the window, and about ten residents wander in and take a seat, and one young woman takes a tambourine. She actually has impeccable rhythm and later tells me she got to skid row last year to get out of a bad situation states away, but she saw the drummer of Pink Floyd play when she got here, and now she’s hell-bent on learning to play the drums in the Tony Ocean room. She didn’t even know skid row was a real place until last year, and now it’s her home.
I tap the shoulder of the guy in front of me, Kenneth Severan (61), and ask him if this is his first time here at Lamp. He says he got here 4 days ago, transferred from a hospital, where he was “seduced” into treatment, after a year of no access to the pianos and guitars he’d once had when he was living with another musician friend. I ask him his history with music. He says he was a roadie for a short time, says I wouldn’t know the musician, but when Hayk stops the freak fest to announce Marlon will open and Sun Araw will close the set, his eyes light up, and he reaches for my arm. “Oh my god! They named their band after the guy I used to work for!” I was like, “Sun Ra?” Yes. Sun Ra’s roadie was in the audience to watch Sun Araw (Kenneth and Sun Araw talk about this huddled in a group of plastic chairs after the show.).
A second later, Marlon says, “This song is for April,” and I blush, and he proceeds to play and sing the most authentically beautiful rendition of “I’m Not in Love” I have ever heard, followed by an original composition with ilimba accompaniment. An hour earlier, I was frustrated by my spotty internet service at home and the politics of voter registration when my vote doesn’t really even matter because I’m a liberal in California, and now I’m watching an impromptu ilimba performance and wanting a 60-year-old man to be my boyfriend. When Marlon finishes, Sun Araw brings up Lamp painter and percussion player Gary, and frontman Cameron Stallones waits for Gary to bang on a bongo before he turns some knobs on the synthesizer and the two saxophonists follow lead. As soon as Marlon sees Gary with the band, he points at his piano still set up center stage and mouths the words, Yeah? Can I?, but by the time I think to answer him, he’s already playing with the band. I sit down in a corner to take photos, then put my camera down. A woman in the front row with her collapsible shopping cart catches my eye, and we both smile, and she mouths the words Soooo good to me.
Whenever I talk to fellow music writers, we trade our usual favorite clichés (mine is “pulsing disco beats”) and sentiments of how we only get to review or listen to the hordes of flat, mediocre releases heaped upon us and how being a music writer puts you in this endless writing ghetto, where you say the same things everyday, and nobody cares except for the band you’re reviewing, so you use bigger, more interesting words, and you still end up saying absolutely nothing of value. But what’s missing from this, from most music writing down that Pitchfork rabbit hole, is context. I can tell you about the “ethereal Beach House-esque vocals” or all the times the bass “kicked in,” but it is nothing until it’s viewed from a lens outside of your bedroom and iTunes download promos. If you’re getting bored with music, then maybe you’re doing it wrong. This show was soooo good.
When the improvisational Sun Araw set winds down, and Marlon plays the final key, every person in that room is smiling, whether they know it or not. Cameron gives me a hug after, says, “Thank you for asking us to play. This is a dream of mine, to do something good with music,” and I would have thought we were in one of those rainbows and butterflies moments if the police sirens weren’t so annoyingly audible and close outside. You see, the problem with putting more dollars into music education and places like Lamp in skid row is that we put all of our assets into the LAPD presence. A place like Lamp isn’t perfect; there’s going to be violence, unrest, theft, urine, whatever, but we’re focused more on the punishment than the prevention. According to Lamp, “A night in a Los Angeles jail costs $64, a night in a mental hospital costs $607, and a night in a general hospital costs $1,474. A night in supportive housing [like Lamp] costs just $30.” This should be a no-brainer for the city, but 24,000 people are chronically homeless in LA, and up until last week, the city was more concerned with passing a resolution to allow AEG to build an NFL stadium downtown—despite the fact that we don’t have a team—but ended up somehow striking a deal with the company to have AEG also establish a $15 million Housing Trust Fund that would help build low-income housing in the skid row area for the privilege of building the stadium. Maybe funding for skid row arts programs could turn around, but it seems unlikely.
When proponents of rehabilitative programs like music therapy go after funding, donors and government agencies are looking for hard numbers on how something as intangible as music will actually rehabilitate people and what exactly will happen. Hayk says he wishes he could have a definitive story of a person who used the Tony Ocean Music Room and magically solved all of their problems through the healing powers of distortion pedals, but that’s not what happens. What does happen is sometimes people show up to the jam sessions and music lessons, and sometimes they don’t, but when they do, they leave happy, and maybe that happiness wipes away a little of their gritty days and helps them to get motivated. But none of that’s for sure. All Hayk knows is that playing music makes the residents happy. How do you quantify happiness for your grant applications? Just draw a little smiley face and see if they throw you some dollars.
Before I leave Lamp, Marlon offers to take Kenneth to vote, then turns to me and says he is so happy to see a woman like me in charge of something like setting up this show and writing articles for magazines, and I promise him I won’t waste the opportunity. I walk back through the downtown parade of police cars and wandering barefoot peoples on San Pedro screaming Hey lady can I use your phone at me, and hike up the hill to my polling station to file a provisional ballot. In California, we have important initiatives, like repealing the death penalty and the archaic three strikes laws, but our politics are in the interest of punishing or punishing less severely. Absolutely nowhere on that ballot did I see anything resembling a simple vote for something that would actually make us all happy.