Don’t phunk with my hope

Pub date February 27, 2008
SectionMusicSectionSonic Reducer


SONIC REDUCER You probably can’t tell, but I’m totally high. I gotta be because I can’t stop watching this Kennedy family endorsement and that Texas debate clip, this crushed-out cult of personality vid and that hip-hop remix ode. I’ve admitted I’m powerless over my addiction — that my life has become unmanageable. And I’ve come to believe that a power greater than myself can restore me to sanity. That power is — I mean, Barack Obama. Look, I know I got a problem: I can’t stop watching Black-Eyed Pea’s celeb-studded "Yes We Can" video in praise of the Illinois senator. Frankly, I lo.a.the the Peas — "Let’s Get Retarded," yo, I didn’t think up that title — and I can’t stop wanting to repunctuate’s gooberish stage handle, and even "Yes We Can" is a bit embarrassing.

But the tune is queued up there along with the Oprah clips, the 60 Minutes sound bites, and the "" parody. You know Obama’s got something going on when his speechifying inspires such spontaneous music-making — and oh yeah, I’m tripping on the fact that we went to the same Honolulu prep school, and I’m drunk on the possibility of electing the first African American president, and I’m getting dizzy looking back through the media’s looking-glass lens at him, myself, and a shared past through yearbook photos of a now strikingly diverse-looking Punahou school. Sure, he complained about the school in his memoir, much like me and my friends have — at the time it seemed like a lily-white beacon of privilege on a brown island. I feel like I’m tumbling down a historically revisionist rabbit hole, seeing it as both exotic — and for presidential candidates of a certain age, class, and region, it is — and familiar. Now it looks like the culturally diverse rainbow gathering of kids that civil rights activists were fighting for. Maybe I’ll have to write a song about it.

Get on the Bus, Part Two Hope is in the air, and I’m feeling it, listening to Evil Wikkid Warrior’s John Benson talk about his recent troubles with the Bus, the 40-foot AC Transit behemoth he converted into a vegetable oil–swilling clean machine and mobile-as-a-dinosaur, all-ages, all-fun free underground music venue. Noise and party starters from here and away like Warhammer, Fucking Ocean, and Rubber O Cement have been playing down-low shows in the vehicle while it was parked on quiet, oft-industrial San Francisco and East Bay streets, but that all seemed to screech to a dead halt when, on Dec. 22, 2007, after a West Oakland show put on by a Benson cohort, the Bus was vandalized.

Bored neighborhood youth, Benson theorized, smashed all its glass windows, busted its solar panels, and threw bricks on top of it. "It was probably just a bunch of bored kids in the middle of the night. They saw this big thing, and it was like, ‘Duh, throw rock at big thing,’<0x2009>" offered Benson, who at the time was on a trip to Detroit. When he returned a few days later, the former A Minor Forest and Hale Zukas member faced compounding problems: the winter rain had flooded the exposed interior, damaging the electricity, warping the wooden floorboards, and causing the oriental rugs to molder.

Benson had planned to take the bus to Mexico to shoot a film, but that was out of the question. "The police told me that I wasn’t allowed to keep any vehicle on the street with a broken windshield and windows and they’d have to tow it," he recalled. "But then I also wasn’t allowed to drive a vehicle with a broken windshield. It was a catch-22, and with no place to keep it, the cops visited me on a daily basis." He also couldn’t find glass that would fit in the windshield, since most of the AC Transit fleet from back in the Bus’s day had been sold to Mexico, according to Benson, and it appeared that the only glass available would have to come from there — at more than $1,000 a piece.

Fortunately Benson’s friends and the noise community-of-sorts came together to support him. Guardian contributor George Chen threw a benefit that raised about $300, and word got out on the message board Spockmorgue that Benson needed money to repair the bus and a PayPal account was started on his behalf. Benson told me, "I did spend a lot of money on new solar panels and new skylights," but what kept him going were the many people "e-mailing me privately, saying ‘Keep it up, John. Don’t give up. Don’t give up.’ I just got a huge amount of support from people I don’t even know." One Boston member of the message board donated $100 simply because he said he had heard about the Bus through his friends who had performed on it and wanted to help.

An artist friend welded new metal frames to fit the vintage 1962 windshield glass that Benson discovered were the closest fit for the Bus, and after a few months of work the Bus was finally completed at the beginning of February. "It was miserable," he remembered. "We were literally working in rain under tarps, broken glass everywhere, bleeding fingers, miserable. There was a 24-hour paint job with a lot of volunteers. Someone said it was like Fitzcarraldo — there were so many times we were burned and bloody and freezing cold in rain, trying to the get floor replaced and carpet. Definitely insane."

Fortunately, work was completed in time for Benson to drive the mammoth vehicle down to Miami for the International Noise Festival, picking up pals and playing shows along the way. Later this spring he’ll head back to Florida to do more work on the Bus — it’s resting in Orlando in a friend’s backyard — and then drive it north for an East Coast tour. "In terms of love the bus is doing better than ever," Bensons said happily, while eating chicken with his 12-year-old daughter, who’s also his Evil Wikkid Warrior bandmate. "Mechanically it’s just a little wrinkled." *



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