Every now and then, I'm reminded of the bubble that I live in. I usually feel like I live my life among a diverse group of people. I live in Chicago. A city that people from all over the world call home, and that millions more come to visit each year. The thousands of people that I happen to cross paths with in any given week, provide me with a broad sampling of backgrounds and worldviews, as well as a complex and colorful assortment of ways in which they choose to communicate and express themselves. So I find that I'm rarely surprised by what I see of people on the surface. (Thankfully people are still full of surprises once I get to know them.) But sometimes I stumble upon something that I just didn't expect to see. And that happened a couple of weeks ago when I walked into a room with a few hundred people expressing overt feelings of racism.
The location was a sports bar/live music venue just north of downtown. The event was a David Allen Coe concert. When I first saw that name among some concert listings last March, I immediately thought of one song. Its a catchy, beer-drinking, sing-along country song that I've heard in a number of bars and at parties over the years, and it was with that song in mind that I decided the concert might be fun. So, without giving it much thought, I decided to get a couple of tickets and invite a friend.
In hindsight, I probably shouldn't have been so surprised by what I found at the concert. I was talking to a friend a few days before the show, and he reminded me that Coe was the author of a few blatantly racist songs. I knew about those songs in the back of my mind, but I forgot that they were written by Coe. And even after he reminded me of the fact, I decided that I'd go to the show anyway. I figured that those songs were just ancient relics of an old songwriter, and that he probably hadn't played them in years. And I rationalized that I'd gone to see hip-hop artists that had misogynist lyrics, and metal bands that glorify all sorts of violence, and that I'd have to cut music out of my life all together if I only wanted to listen to artists that shared my views on everything.
So I went to this show, knowing that I might encounter some racist sentiments. And that, in and of itself, wouldn't be too surprising in most settings. Racism certainly exists in Chicago, just as it does anywhere else. I see prejudice, in many different forms, on a near daily basis. But here in the city, I don't often see it expressed as clearly and openly, and by so many people, as it was there.
My friend and I walked in right as the music was starting. The first thing that I noticed was Coe himself. He's 71 years old and severely overweight, and he was sitting in a chair that he would remain seated in for the duration of the performance. There were a few other musicians on stage, but other than that the stage was bare.
Most of the people in the crowd would have seemed out of place in any other bar on that block. The beer guts that bulged through t-shirts with Harley Davidson slogans and images of the confederate flag (One guy had an actual flag. Not just a t-shirt with the image of a flag.), crew cuts and mullets, and leather jackets with biker gang logos, were things that you'd easily find in the small mid-western towns and rural areas that surround Chicago. However, in the middle of the city, they're mostly limited to the occasional weekend tourist. But that night, they had carved a little niche for themselves at that bar.
All in all, it looked like a lot of the crowds that I've seen at other country music shows, though just a little more rough around the edges than most. But with the help of Coe, they soon began to distinguish themselves. Coe spat out the vulgar lyrics and the tales of rowdy nights past, that he is known for. And as the words that he spoke/sang became more crass, the crowd responded with raucous cheers and acknowledgments. And then he finally threw out the well worn racial epithet that, by then, I probably knew was coming. And that was received with a roar of approval by a large number of the people in the audience.
Well before that point, just a few songs into the set, the experience had shifted for me. It was no longer the concert that I had come to see. The music was just a vehicle for the hyperbolic stories and the cheap sixth-grade thrill of saying a bad word. But there were definitely other aspects of the show that I found fascinating. I watched the employees of the bar with a mixture of curiosity and sympathy. Wondering what their thoughts were, and noticing, in some cases, clear discomfort with the people they were serving and the sentiments being expressed. And the guitar player, that turned out to be Coe's oldest son, was an enigma that I couldn't keep myself from watching. Throughout the show, he stood at one far end of the stage, and his expression never changed. He seemed at once completely detached and yet filled with something that was boiling just below the surface. The exact nature of what was brimming underneath that face was difficult to discern. It could have been deep sorrow, overwhelming rage, or perhaps even guilt or fear. Whatever he was feeling and thinking, he seemed far removed from any sense of peace or contentment with himself and his surroundings.
But regardless of what I was getting out of the concert, I had begun to feel dirty and guilty by association. And when the loud cheers of approval were given to Coe's racist words, I decided to remove myself from the room. My friend and I walked into the sports bar section of the venue. From there, the music and the crowd were barely audible. So we sat down and ordered a couple of beers and talked about what we were witnessing in the other room.
We seemed to be more or less on the same page. My friend, who is an actor, shares my proclivity for people watching. We talked about the son/guitarist and the uncomfortable looking young woman that was selling beer from a cooler just a few feet away from where we had stood. We talked about Coe himself, and his boastful rants about his self-proclaimed greatness. And about those in the crowd that had responded so jubilantly to Coe's words. Taken together, it was a pretty sad display.
That room was full of insecurity, ignorance, fear, self-loathing, and malice. Yet for all of that, the question of whether to go back in still remained. As disgusted as I was, I was also drawn to the carnival. I wanted to watch the freak show. And truth be told, I still wanted to hear the one damn song that had prompted me to buy the tickets in the first place.
We did go back in. And he never played that song. (Which is okay. I think the simple joy that I found in singing along to that song with friends and strangers will probably be soiled now anyway.) But I couldn't just settle in and watch. By being there, I was making myself a part of it, whether I liked it or not. So after a quick trip to the restroom (Where I witnessed some more ignorance and cowardice.), I leaned over to my friend and told him that I was ready to go. And at that moment, the show came to an abrupt end. He'd been on stage for less than an hour, and he was done. This pathetic and decrepit old bastard wasn't even going to give me the pleasure of marking my protest with an early exit. Instead, I stood with my friend and watched the lights shine on the crowd for the first time since we'd arrived. And they shone on me too.
Among the many thoughts and feelings that I was sorting through at that moment, was a sense of foolishness and naivety. I know that racism exist, and I know that it is one aspect of country music culture. But for me, its far from the defining aspect of that culture. But I see now, that with David Allen Coe, it is a defining aspect of his music and his following. And the signs of that were all around me, long before I went to that show. But I looked right passed them and saw what I wanted to see, until the truth became so bright that I couldn't do anything but stare at it head on.
And that lead me to the question that was the central lesson that I want to take from that night. What else do I choose to ignore? Am I really as astute an observer as I like to believe? Do I view myself and others in an objective manner? Or do I carry a pre-constructed paradigm around with me, and then mold my experiences to fit that structure?
I think the honest answer lies more in the direction of fitting things into my paradigm than I want to believe. The question that remains though, is whether I'm willing to make an effort to move myself in the other direction. I don't want to just think of myself as a free-thinking intelligent man. I want to actually be a free-thinking intelligent man. But that takes a constant effort, that quite frankly I'm not always interested in giving. And it takes a sense of humility that I sometimes find hard to hold.
But as difficult as that process may be, the alternative is just too unsettling to stomach. The alternative is to insulate myself from thoughts and people that are unfamiliar to me. To dismiss, overlook, and even attack the unknown, or the "other", in order to protect the viewpoints by which I define myself. And that sounds frighteningly similar to the display that I found so disturbing on the evening that I went to go see David Allen Coe.