I was walking up Market Street, hand-in-hand with my wife, past drug dealers, loud teenagers and tourists, the smell of stale urine and beer wafting from each alleyway that we passed. San Francisco may be a “yuppie” city today, but it still has a rough edge here and there. These edges were much more obvious when I was a youngster, but since then Market Street has been transformed from a sleazy, grindhouse-lined thoroughfare into something more like a tourist-friendly location. The part of the street that my wife and I were walking along lies in a transitional location, sandwiched, on the one side, by venues catering to monied theater-goers and, on the other, by porn palaces advertising free “ladies nights” and lap dances. I kept smelling marijuana as we passed the crowds of well dressed theater goers. I assumed they were not the ones smoking pot, although maybe I was wrong.
As we approached the Warfield Theater, the sight that greeted us provoked a strange sense of comfort in me. The Specials, one of my favorite bands from the early 1980’s, was on the bill and outside of the venue, it looked as if it was 1982 all over again. There was a line of Mod scooters – customized Vespas and Lambrettas – lining the sidewalk, surrounded by a throng of young and not-so-young mods, rockers, skins, punks and two-tones. I felt uncharacteristically happy, swept away into a world from the past. “I should be ashamed of myself,” I thought. “Here I am, a tenured philosophy professor, and all I want to do is to race around on a scooter and hang out with weirdos.” Nonetheless, I can’t deny that scooters, music and socializing were always much more fun than department meetings or faculty dinners. How could any sane person disagree with that?
Once inside the venue, we made our way upstairs. The show was sold-out, and the only available seating was high above the stage in the middle rows of the balcony. It initially struck me as a rather lame arrangement for watching a ska band, but in middle-age I’ve come to realize that I just don’t have the physical stamina to endure the crush and the violence of being in the midst of a dancing crowd anymore. The last time that I waded into such a group, I lost my glasses and was almost knocked unconscious by a whirl of bodies slam-dancing to the Angry Samoans. When I was in my teens, that was exhilarating. Now, in my 40’s, it is just unpleasant.
A two-piece rock group from San Diego called Little Hurricane was on stage as we entered the theater. They seemed like an odd choice as an opening act, but their music and stage presence were interesting and entertaining enough. The female drummer was very deliberate as she pounded out a beat, while the male guitarist/vocalist was full of manic energy. There’s nothing wrong with that; although their music didn’t really set the proper mood as we waited in anticipation of The Specials. I suppose there are very few acts that could live up to such a task. However, I think I would have booked a local, ska/punk band (like the Uptones) to play the role instead.
Once The Specials hit the stage, no one was sitting. From our vantage-point up above, the dance floor appeared as a sea of bodies, heads bouncing up and down in unison to the beat of the music. In the balcony, we were all, likewise, on our feet, dancing and swaying to the rythyms, while singing along with all of the familiar lyrics. At points I felt like I was in a trance, which was very close to the truth. My own physical movement and vocal engagement produced a meditative point of focus that became more and more intense as the show went on. Just as monks in monasteries practice prayers and mantras in order to enter a different level of consciousness and touch the Holy, so too did I feel as if I had somehow transcended the mundane, time-bound world around me in order to enter a different reality. Of course, The Special’s version of the “Holy” is an especially nihilistic one, pointed to by lyrics such as those in the song “Do Nothing“:
I’m just living in a life without meaning,
I walk and walk, do nothing.
I’m just living in a life without feeling.
I talk and talk, say nothing.
Nothing ever changed,
Oh no. Nothing ever changed.
My wife said to me during the course of the show, “It’s weird how their music can be so bouncy and happy, while their lyrics can be so sad and depressing.” But this is precisely what has always attracted me to The Specials. The lead singer, Terry, seems perpetually depressed, but with an ironic and angry edge. I identified with this from the first time I heard their music. The band as a whole resists despair, demanding of its audience an upbeat and active orientation toward a crappy world. They jump about and dance on stage, all the while complaining about how stupid people are, how fucked-up the world is, and how miserable life can be. The best solution to our troubles, they seem to be suggesting, is music. Sing out about your misery and through this, you tend to feel a bit better, even if in the end “nothing ever changes.”