Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Syracuse music scene

Nestled in the corner of the Coffee Pavilion, Tom Brigandi turns and takes a swig of his Bud Light. After setting down his beer on the window sill, he pivots past his tip jar and towards the almost vacant seating area. The clapping of but four hands ceased moments before, yet he remains strapped into his six-string electric bass. It is the same instrument Brigandi used when he toured with Chuck Mangione in the 1990s. Following negotiations with his percussionist and guitar player, he strikes up the band once again.

A few blocks away at the Ohm Lounge, an unusually large crowd of musicians gather for a “Party for the Arts.” Three Syracuse arts supporters--­Jim Horsman of Center Stage Events, Larry Luttinger of the CNY Jazz Arts Foundation and Leo Crandall of the Cultural Resources Council—staged the event to celebrate those who contribute to the local arts scene. A variety of players join each other onstage, while onlookers shake hands and eat plates full of rye bread and humus.

Guitarist Mark Copani attended the party on Feb. 2. Like most Central New York musicians, he spends his free nights performing. “It’s been a long time since I’ve seen that many musicians together,” said Copani. “Musicians have a hard time seeing other musicians ... You kind of forget that there are other musicians doing the same thing.”

Most CNY musicians tour the restaurant and club scene where they are paid according to the amount of people in attendance. The steady decline over the past 30 years in the amount of fans coming out to hear live music is causing artists to cash smaller and smaller paychecks. The city government does little to alleviate this problem; it hasn’t included arts funding in its budget for 10 years. The county gives some money in the form of grants thanks to the initiatives of State Senator John DeFrancisco, an avid supporter of the arts, but for the most part, its solutions are lip service.

In 1990, Onondaga County Executive Nick Pirro commissioned a council called the Partnership for the Arts. When the Partnership issued its report in 1992, they found three things that affected the music community: High taxes hurt the venue owners who had to stop music series or cut pay for musicians playing at their establishments. An increase in advertising from television, radio and print diluted the message sent about arts organizations and their events. And many fans of the local music scene are aging and no longer coming out to gigs.

The Partnership suggested evaluating arts institutions on a case by case basis and finding new ways to fund their projects, which did little to help these organizations in the short term and nothing to help the individual artist.

The bigger organizations solve these issues by throwing fundraisers and revamping their advertising campaigns, while most solo artists are put the position of beggars. This is not to say that the arts organizations and the single musicians are adversaries: The Syracuse Symphony makes a big announcement each year when it has balanced its budget, a statement that sounds equivalent to Brigandi’s tip jar scenario.

Back at the Coffee Pavilion Brigandi sets down his bass after a three hour set. He looks over at the adjacent table where his plastic tip jar holds a few dollars and some change. He hands his bandmates their share and walks over to the counter to order another beer. Brigandi has toured the world with jazz star Chuck Mangione, but for now he will continue to play for one or two faces every week at a coffee house.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

Music is a Contraceptive

The floor boards of the second story bar bend under the weight of an enthusiastic crowd. Those in attendance are mostly metalheads, drawn to the Downtown Quarterback in Binghamton, N.Y. for an extreme music night featuring six Upstate bands. A few take turns nudging each other into the onlookers who surround the stage. Others head-bang and stand with arms crossed, beers pressed against their chests. Onstage, the lead singer with lopsided mahogany hair screams something about the deprivation of humanity. Behind him are blast beats and shredded guitar riffs. I stand in front about ten feet from the stage.

When I look behind me from my post, a plethora of black t-shirts and tattoos catches my eye. I think I’m the only one here with any pigment stained onto their clothes. I am also the only female that is not attached to the arm of some metal guy. No, I didn’t come as somebody’s girlfriend. I came as a music fan. Shows like this one keep me grounded.

The first concert I ever attended was Tori Amos at the Landmark Theatre in my parent city of Syracuse, N.Y. I was 13-years-old, and consumed by her latest release, Boys for Pele. I bought a copy on one of my weekly excursions with my girlfriends to the local mall. I took it home and played it non-stop for two months—until the day of the show.

It was a chilly May evening, still with the condensation from an earlier rain. The concert was the most touching event I had ever experienced. Multiple times I felt tears run down my face. Finally, someone shared my vision of the world.

After the performance my friends Lydia and Christine and I snuck through the back entrance of the theater and lingered outside in an alley. With a small gathering of fans, we waited for Tori to come outside on her way to her trailer. Our hands were slightly shaking from the cold, our breath, visible. We each held a single white rose and an unbearable sense of anticipation. When the doors finally swung open and Tori appeared with her manager, my heart nearly stopped. Here I was a few feet from the one person to whom I could relate. She made her rounds, eventually arriving at my outstretched arms. She accepted the flower and returned the favor with a hug.

My friends grew so tired of hearing that Tori story. I was still telling it far into the following summer. That was the season when Lacy made her big announcement: she was pregnant. Lacy was a few years older than the rest of us, besides Kara, who shared the same grade. The two of them set the bar high in terms of crazy stunts. Two years prior to her pregnancy, Lacy’s parents found both of them in a bathtub, naked and high on some of Kara’s anti-psychotic drugs. When they came home from the hospital, their parents tried to keep them away from each other. They claimed that both girls instigated each other’s bad behavior. Instead they snuck around and got hooked on pot and boys. They convinced the rest of us that drugs and sex was cool. In those days cool meant fast. And for Lacy, fast manifested itself in a pregnancy.

We all converged at the same bus stop each morning. I would walk out of my way through backyards, even in the snow. I would arrive at the corner with my jeans soaked to the knee. I never wore a proper jacket or hat—that kind of conscious preparation would not be tolerated by the hipsters. Sometimes Beth brought beer, other times Heather brought a bowl packed. We always lit up cigarettes while we waited for the bus to Cicero North-Syracuse High School. Camel Wides, Marlboro Reds, Winston Regs, Lacy’s favorite was Newport 100s. She continued to smoke, despite the bump in her belly, which grew larger and more noticeable as the winter months passed. After school she would sit around the table at Heather’s house and watch us smoke weed. Sometimes she would take a hit—what did it matter; she was giving her child up for adoption anyway.

By that time was had our own experiences with boys. Jen, Emily and I made a virginity pact the summer Lacy got knocked up. The first to have sex was the winner, the winner of what, I’m still not sure. Emily was the pioneer. She was so drunk, the day after she told us that she wasn’t sure what happened. Jen was next. She chose a 14-year-old who didn’t like to use protection. A few months later she terminated her pregnancy.

I was still a virgin by the time Lacy had her baby the following spring. She decided to keep him and name him Connor. She would push him in his stroller over to Heather’s house, drop acid and leave him in the living room. I stopped coming around as much because it was an ugly sight. Soon after Lydia became pregnant, then Chrissie and then Rochelle. During my high school years it seemed like one of my friends was always knocked up. I got on the pill and started going to shows on a regular basis.

All of these events took place in an affluent, middle-class suburb called Cherry Estates. All of these girls are Caucasian. Many people are under the assumption that teen pregnancy and drug use is an inner-city phenomenon, most likely to effect minorities. But as time progresses and more studies are conducted, the results reveal an increase of high-risk behavior among white, suburban teens.

According to the New York State Department of Health’s 2003 report, the teen pregnancy rate for girls between the ages of 15-19 was 31 in every 1,000. While there are no statistics available specific to the Syracuse suburbs, there are numerous articles that informally document the problem. In a 1996 Post-Standard article titled “Teen Pregnancies are Still Rising a Health Report Shows Problems in Some Parts of the City and County,” a guidance counselor from my alma mater talked about the taboos of young motherhood:

“[Cyndy] Franz said the pregnancy rates among suburban and rural teens may be less well-known than those of city youths, but the problem has always existed. “’In suburbs, the tendency may have been to abort, while in the city, kids kept the child,’” she said. “’More and more, what's happening is that in the suburbs the kids are keeping their kids. It's more acceptable to see teen-age girls with kids at home.’”

That was the trend that I witnessed in my formative years. Now many of my friends are sending their children off to grade school. The last time I saw Lacy she was living in North Syracuse with her son and a coke dealer who had sired a second child with her. Soon after my visit, Lacy’s son and daughter were taken away from her and placed in the care of her parents because her boyfriend burned Connor with a cigarette. That was five years ago.

In those five years I’ve managed to stay somewhat sober and completely childless. At times during my normal course I find myself thinking about my past and the fortunate choices I’ve made. Like now: one of the show attendees bumps into my shoulder and I’m suddenly I’m back at the bar. I move my head back and forth, shaking the thought of Lacy and her children from my mind. I become aware of the blaring music, and as I look towards the stage I am fulfilled by the community that surrounds me. It is as alluring as sex, as desirable as drugs and much safer than back-roads of Clay where I grew up.