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Personal Essay: The Outskirts of Cool
The Outskirts of Cool
By Leah Mueller
*Editor's Note: First appeared on Maximum Middle Age.
It's difficult to attend Bumbershoot for the entire Labor Day weekend, especially when you're nine months pregnant. In 1995, before Seattle's software explosion, four-day passes cost only 45 bucks. My due date was a week away, but I was determined to see as many bands as possible. I figured it would be my last chance to rock and roll for quite awhile.
My boyfriend Doug and I headed towards the mainstage, stopping occasionally to collapse on the ground. I sweated profusely in my maternity sundress. The shapeless garment was decorated with a demure pattern of tea roses, and it sported a high lace collar. Its message was clear: there was no longer any purpose for sexuality. I was sick of baggy dresses, and of being asked by random strangers whether I was expecting twins.
Years beforehand, Doug had lived in a seedy part of Los Angeles with a group of aspiring musicians, including Suzi Gardner, the lead guitar player for L7. Though Doug described Suzi's musical style as “playing the same Black Sabbath riffs over and over”, she eventually had the last laugh, and was the only person in the group to achieve fame. After her meteoric rise, Suzi magnanimously remembered the little people, and she never failed to offer Doug backstage passes whenever L7 came to Seattle.
During the late 70s, I had eschewed punk rock in favor of a retro 60s sensibility. While my friends sported safety pin earrings and skull tee-shirts, I walked around in tie-dyed wraparound skirts and embroidered Chinese shoes, and listened to albums like “Best of Cream.” Now, almost 20 years later, punk had returned with a vengeance, and I was less cool than ever.
Doug and I found the mainstage, and approached a bouncer. He was a beefy, muscle-bound fellow with a haircut that looked as though it was capable of shredding glass, and he sneered when he saw us. Doug casually fished two backstage passes out of his pocket and waved them in mid-air, and the bouncer reluctantly allowed us to enter the inner sanctum.
“DOUG!” a female voice shrieked. Suzi burst from the crowd and rocketed towards us, then threw her arms around my boyfriend. “I am so fucking glad to see you, buddy. I'm not into this bullshit today.” Suzi was dressed entirely in black leather, although the temperatures were in the mid-80s. She pivoted, and I noticed a small rip in the seat of her pants.
“Oh hey, Laurel,” she said. “Lots of changes since the last time I saw you, huh?” She leered at my stomach and grinned. “Do you need a chair? You look as though you might need to take a load off.” Suzi pushed a folding chair in my direction, and I collapsed into it gratefully. She turned away sharply, and I heard a ripping sound. “Dammit!”she lamented. “I've got a hole in the ass of my pants, and it keeps getting bigger. Well, I don't give a fuck.”
I felt puzzled by Suzi's consternation, since her clothing featured several strategically placed tears. “I can barely see it,” I said consolingly. “Thanks honey,” Suzi replied. “It's been a long day, and I don't know what I'm doing any more.”
Suddenly, Suzi's bandmate Donita emerged from the crowd, shaking her fist. Like Suzi, she was clad entirely in black.
“Somebody stole a bunch of band photos, and that's totally uncool!” she shrieked. “If I find out who did it, I'm gonna beat your ass! Better hand them over!” Nobody stepped forward.
I rose from the chair and wandered around, searching for a bathroom. I felt acutely aware of how absurd I looked-lost, hugely pregnant, and clad in a flowered dress from Target. I strolled past Krist Novaselic, and he smiled at me encouragingly.
Finally, I spotted an open door, which led to an inviting toilet. I shut the door firmly behind me. The tiny room was comfortable, and I was in no hurry to rejoin the hipsters. I could still hear Donita, as she loudly searched for her purloined photos, her voice like a hacksaw.
You had to hand it to these women-they didn't take shit from anyone. Still, they belonged to an entirely different tribe-a lawless, rapacious group that had no qualms about stealing photos from people who despised them. Perhaps Lester Bangs was right-it was better to be uncool, and stay home. Fortunately, it wouldn't be long until I'd be doing exactly that.
I emerged from the bathroom and wandered back into the fray. The concert was due to start in an hour, and the band members hustled around frantically. Donita had abandoned her search for the photos, but continued to bark orders at the roadies. Suzi spotted me and smiled maternally. “I've saved a good spot onstage for you and Doug,” she said. “I'll have my staff set up some chairs.” Suzi snapped her fingers, and several guys ran over to her immediately. “Please assist these people,” she said. “Put them on stage right, beside the speakers.”
I trailed behind the men as they led the way onto the enormous stage. I felt a sense of awe, since I had only experienced it from an audience member's perspective. It was the same stage where I'd seen Miles Davis perform at the 1987 festival. We wandered towards a cluster of speakers, and one of the roadies pointed towards a line of folding chairs. “Sit wherever you want,” he said.
I carefully lowered my body into a chair. It was rigid and uncomfortable, but would do for a couple of hours. From my perch, I could see both the stage and the swelling audience. Throngs of people swarmed across the astro-turf, clutching burritos and cups of lemonade. Many of them looked like they would be more at home at a Dave Matthews concert.
I relaxed considerably. After several minutes, Suzi appeared to my right. “Are you comfortable?” she hissed.
“Yeah, it's perfect,” I assured her.
“Good,” she whispered. “I'm not looking forward to this concert. I'm sick of performing. I mean, just look at this fucking crowd.” She shook her head with disgust. “Not an ounce of punk rock in any of them.”
Suzi retreated backstage, and I waited patiently for the concert to begin. After several minutes, the stage lights came on, and the band members strode fiercely onto the stage. They sneered at the audience and launched into a scorching rendition of “Questioning My Sanity.”
The crowd roared, and Donita sang louder, shrieking the lyrics as if possessed by demons. Suzi's fingers tore across her guitar strings. The sonic noise almost propelled me backward, but I managed to remain in my chair. I thought of my unborn daughter, and hoped she wouldn't be traumatized by the decibels. I worried briefly about my own hearing. Perhaps I should have worn earplugs, but they would render me even more uncool than the audience members. I existed beyond the outskirts of hipster-dom, but at least those people were worse.
A young man wearing an Abercrombie and Fitch polo shirt attempted to mount the stage, and was promptly ejected by one of the bouncers. Suzi's face contorted with fury. “If you folks don't stop this bullshit, we're gonna end the concert and blast Phil fucking Collins through the speakers! Don't say I didn't warn you.” The crowd laughed derisively, then burst into a wave of cheering.
As the music swelled to a discordant crescendo, the torrent of lemons began. A nearby lemonade vendor had sought to justify his weak, overpriced refreshments by including half a lemon with every purchase. When hurled with great velocity, these lemons were easily transformed into missiles. A line of grinning young men rushed to the forefront of the crowd, weapons in hand. They began to pelt the members of L7 with the yellow fruit, pitching it as hard as they could.
Suzi winced as a lemon struck her thigh. Bits of pulp slid down one leg of her leather pants. She abruptly stopped playing, and screamed, “I told you guys, but you didn't listen! I'll warn you again—cut it out or you're gonna get Phil Collins!”
The band resumed playing, yet the lemon volley continued. One of the missiles sailed over Donita's head and landed on the floor beside my left foot. I stared at the fallen lemon, transfixed. I liked a couple of Phil Collins' songs, but there was no way I would ever admit it to anyone.
I felt a sudden rush of compassion for the band-they were contracted to play the Bumbershoot gig, no matter what. The male audience members knew they'd never be able to score with a punk rock chick, and were trying their hardest to hurt the women they would never be good enough to fuck. Obviously, being cool and famous carried its own set of occupational hazards, and I was better off remaining anonymously un-hip. It wasn't like I'd ever had a choice anyway.
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