It was nice out. The night air in Little Rock was warm enough that we could all stand outside without needing to huddle together for warmth. We were comfortable enough in long sleeves.
I was standing under a buzzing streetlight in an alley behind the Arkansas Arts Cooperative with about thirty twenty-somethings, all smoking Virginia Slims and talking about music. They were talking about bands that I had never heard of, and took some delight in that, like when people in the North ask a person from the South to talk, mostly for entertainment value.
“So wait,” one said. “You’ve never heard of Gangster’s Rag?”
“No, who are they?” I would reply.
They would laugh. “Wait, wait, wait… what about Entertainment Center Round House?”
Vacant stare. Laughter.
We were in this alley because we have been given the five-minute warning that the opening band at this punk show would be starting. Everyone poured into the alley to smoke their last cigarette before the show. People were taking their final drags, stomping out the butts on the old pavement, and making their way past the buzzing light and into the buildings back door.
The co-op is a cool open space with art hanging on the walls from local artists, mostly featuring urban Blacks in various states of poverty. But that is not the crowd I am with tonight. This group walks past the art, down a set of stairs into the basement. Here, a collective of white kids show up to hear various bands from the region play a half hour set.
The walls are all painted different colors in graffiti fashion, except the one wall which has floor to ceiling shelves with books about art, beauty, photography and fashion.
There are no lights down here, except what the bands bring themselves, which usually consists of a couple dim bulbs which slowly rotate different colors. A photographers nightmare. That’s what I am here for. This show was promoted by Scion, a car company which really targets this demographic of people: white, young, hip with disposable income. They asked me to come take pictures of their promotional work and the show.
I was told it was going to be a concert in Little Rock, at a smaller venue. It would start at 8:00. I pulled up to the address that I had been given and looked at the building, back at the paper, and back at the building. The front was small, had strange pictures of poor people in the windows, and was completely dark inside.
I walked across the street to Subway where an Indian man welcomed me and asked what kind of sandwich I wanted. “Oh, no. I don’t want anything. I’m sorry. Do you know if they have concerts in that building across the street?” I asked. He eyeballed me, but said nothing. We looked at each other for a good three seconds until he said, “You buy nothing, I say nothing.”
He said nothing.
“Okay, I will take a 6-inch meatball on wheat.”
“We have no wheat,” he said.
“Okay, we are out of meatball.” Eventually we did this long enough that I walked out with black olives and banana peppers on white bread. But I got my answers. “Yes, those damn kids over there, driving their mommas cars, always taking up my parking, but buy nothing! If you are going over there you tell those little bastards not to park in my spots!”
I was in the right place.
I walked across the street again and looked in. Nothing. Blackness.
A voice came behind me. “Are you wanting to get in there?” I whirled around to see a skinny guy with a baggy grey hoodie hanging off of his frame.
“Yeah, is there a concert here tonight, do you know?”
“Yeah, there is. But the promoter is a real tool,” he said.
“Yeah?” I said.
“Yeah,” he said, reaching out his hand. “I’m Casey Jones, the promoter.”
Casey is kind of the ring-leader of the motley crew of hipsters in the basement, a local God for some. He has a day job, he does computer work for some big company in Little Rock, but before that, “I worked for ACORN, helping people and shit. I was writing software that was helping people get their lives together and shit before the fucking Republicans killed us.”
“So concert organizing is a side job?”
“Job? No, I don’t get paid for this. I have never made a dime off of a concert. It’s just something that I thought was fun.” He tells me a story. When he was fifteen a couple of friends of his were starting a band and sitting around daydreaming about having a concert one day. Casey said they should do it, and he would promote it. That night he broke into his high school library and made about a thousand copies on five different colors of copy paper and began distributing the flyers. The next day, sixty people showed up at the park where the concert was. “Sixty people is a big fuckin’ deal when you’re fifteen.” He’s had the bug ever since. I didn’t really understand it. He went through a lot of work to make these things happen. It is long nights, frustrating scheduling and unpredictable from night to night. I would want some sort of compensation.
Eight o’clock rolled around. There were only five people there. I asked if the bands were going to get started soon. He told me that they wouldn’t start til there were more people there, probably around 10:00. Until then, we wait. Slowly people began to trickle in and around 10:00 we did get started.
Everyone made their way in to hear the first band, three estrogen driven scream-o girls from Fayetteville called Color Club who played a fifteen minute set for about 20 people. They thanked everyone for coming out, and immediately the basement emptied as everyone went outside for another smoke break. I did likewise only to have to listen to more bands whose names seemed suspiciously made up. Things like: hardwood speekers, Case the Nation or the White Board Markers.
“Okay dude, answer me this,” one guy said. “Who was the bigger poser? Batman posing as a super-hero, or the Ramones posing as a punk band?”
This is kind of how the rest of the night went. A band would play, we’d hit the alley to smoke as much as possible in five minutes, then head back inside for the next band. Through this though there were some moments of awesome beauty that I am glad I was there to witness.
There was a girl who showed up after the first band who was obviously from somewhere in Latin America, who spoke very little English. When she walked down to the basement she stood all alone in the middle of the room waiting for the next band. She in her bright red skirt and bright red headband knew exactly where she wanted to be for the next show, and there she stood, talking to no one, unmoving.
During the second performance, a band called Million Young, the scream-o girls grabbed onto the lonely Latin girl and began to dance with her. At first she was a bit shy but after a couple of songs she was giving the three girls salsa lessons in the middle of the crowd.
During the final act, a band called Class Actress, the band told everyone to step up and dance with them in the band area. One guy, wearing a nice button down shirt and slacks, jumped right up and began dancing with the female lead. He wasn’t the best dancer, or the coolest guy in the room, but for one song, he was a rockstar dancing with a rockstar.
I shook hands with Casey Jones at the end of the show. People were walking out, shouting at each other because their ears were ringing, all heading home. It was about 1:30 in the morning. I told him thanks, I enjoyed it. He asked if I got any good shots. I told him I thought so.
I began to understand a little bit about Casey Jones. At the beginning of the night I didn’t understand why he would do all of this for free, towards the end of the night I began to realize there was some reward in it. He was bringing people together for moments of beauty in his little basement-kingdom, and that is something a little more meaningful than money.
I also understand why these kids loved him so much. Because, despite the fact that their lives are probably pretty average: school, part-time jobs and middle-class families, they get to come and be something else on a Monday night. They can wear strange clothes, jump around like a lunatic, give salsa lessons and dance with a lead singer. Casey makes that happen, and that is why they love him.