Let’s talk about nostalgia. We chase it more and more as we age, and this past weekend reminded me of a particular period in life. I’m not sure if this phenomenon exists outside of the northeast, but I’m going to assume it does not. I don’t even know if it currently exists! As this may have been a one shot reunion deal. We are talking about the American Legion/VFW show. (lets refer to them as VFW)
The band was asked to play a 30th birthday party, at which the birthday haver (new word) would eat a hamburger for the first time in his life. While this concept is too fantastically mind boggling for me to get into, let’s just say I support the eating of hamburgers. He rented a VFW hall in central New Jersey, and invited several bands to play. Everyone there had gone through this routine. A good portion of our collective childhoods were spent in rooms just like these, filled with sweaty people and half stack amplifiers. Before we get into specifics, lets cover some history.
Now, this history is mostly assumed, but I’m going to guess most of it is true. And on the internet, well, that’s as good as any bibliography I’ve ever encountered. This is oddly appropriate, considering it was memorial day weekend. VFW(Veterans of Foreign Wars) halls are little social organizations for veterans, usually containing a bar and some type of performance area. They need a place to get together and do what social organizations do, kind of like the mafia. Come to think of it, it’s exactly like the mafia, only the government recognizes VFWs and doesn’t get mad if they don’t pay taxes.
Somewhere along the line, bands realized these rooms could be rented out, by people less sketchy than promoters and venues, to hold local shows. Black Flag and Fugazi notably pioneered this cause in the hardcore music scene, a tradition that we hope will continue long into the future.
It was a huge breakthrough. All you need is a PA, and you’re set. Contrary to popular belief, kids don’t want to go around fucking things up and ruining everyone’s day. They just want a place to congregate. Admission is cheap, and you likely know at least a few of the bands or people putting it on. Everyone has a stake in it, because if it goes well there will be more, if it doesn’t…there won’t. Where as at a club of some type, you don’t really care at all. They’re not nice to you, you’re not nice to them.
Where as a previous generation might have been able to play in bars to “cut their teeth” and learn to play live, this is what we had. Bar owners would make you buy tickets in advance to sell to your friends (a concept known as “Pay To Play”) so really, nothing gets accomplished. You’re playing for 10 of your friends and maybe some parents, no one from the venue wants you there. Shows are most likely not curated at all, so any friends of the other bands don’t give a shit about you or your music, Its just not a welcoming environment.
Independently run shows were the polar opposite. If a kid puts up a few hundred dollars to rent out a hall, they’re going to take great care to put on the best show possible. Bands are of a similar style, people actually have a good time the entire show. It’s an incredibly supportive environment, and I genuinely feel band for anyone who did not experience this. I sometimes attribute my concept of adult responsibility, the fact that I have an income, have not been to rehab, and have no police record, to this era of my life….but then I realize just as many fuck ups were in this scene as well. There goes my government funding.
My first experience at a VFW show was somewhere in Patterson NJ, yes, the one from the Bob Dylan song. I had gotten my license mere days before, and drove down to sit in with a band I would join later. The ambitious decision was made to drive there after my bank teller job, with hand written directions and no passengers. This dear readers, is what we call “Good Decision Making.”
I got incredibly lost. Patterson was a frightening area, not the most friendly looking place do a dumbass white kid driving for the first time. I definitely scraped a concrete wall trying to make a 3 point turn, and arrived just as the last notes were being played, lugging in my 50lb Fender Twin in one hand and a guitar in the other. That sounds dramatic, but that is exactly what happened.
Experiences were far more good than bad though. I’m trying to think of the worst shows I have ever been a part of, and none of them have been of the VFW type. The PA was always terrible, but somehow you learned to play without monitors. New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maryland, a lot of ground was covered at these events.
It’s hard to have these places in cities, especially in NY, but Death By Audio in Brooklyn certainly captures that aesthetic. Most likely a fire hazard, not the best sound, but you feel like you’re truly flying under the radar. There is that VFW in Hoboken that you walk by on the way to Maxwells on Washington Street, with a giant deer head hanging, but they’re probably wise to the real estate, and no punk ass kids can afford it.
Our experience this past weekend may not have been exactly as we remembered it…the music of this band is a lot quieter than previous projects, none of the amps have a distorted channel…people just kind of sat on the perimeter on folding chairs. There was very enthusiastic applause though, much more so than at a random bar show. Maybe its true that you can’t relive your childhood, even you buy a giant ranch with an amusement park or trade bodies with Judge Reinhold.
I really do wonder if these shows are as present today. The youth of America has far surpassed anyone in their late twenties when it comes to using technology, they probably have entire shows just made up of status updates. I’d like to hope though, that somewhere out in the sketchy backwoods of Southern NJ, there are some dudes loading a half stack Mesa Boogie Triple Rectifier and a 9 Piece Orange County Drum Kit into a partially dilapidated shed, with no mid range in sight.