by Kristen Gallagher
Kristen Gallagher is the author of three books: We Are Here (Truck Books 2011), Grand Central (Troll Thread 2016), and 85% True / minor ecologies (Skeleton Man 2017). Recent work appears in The Baffler, Air/Light, Distantia, and Hybrid Pedagogy. A collaboration with Human Scale (David Diaz), "hs341: 85% True/minor ecologies," an infinitely generative audio piece, is available through the Human Scale app. She was recently awarded a NYSCA Artist’s Grant for a collaboration with filmmaker Tara Nelson. You can find her on Instagram @minor_ecologist and on Twitter @openopenopen.
The Classic Rock DMZ
Essentially, I’m on an assignment to find out if the Fountain of Youth makes you younger. I’m getting paid by Art Papers to review Michael Marinucci’s current “situation,” as he likes to call it. This time, for one month, he will take a daily one-hour soak in the Fountain of Youth, then take a photo to see if he gets younger over time. He’s glamping on site with an entourage. I got a space nearby, through a new service called “Berniebnb” modeled after Airbnb, but “socialist” in that guests pay on a sliding scale and the money gets redistributed to pay hosts according to their need—and everyone involved agrees that they are socialist to some degree.
My host Colleen works as a commercial musician and songwriter. Upon arrival, I learn that she can’t hang out much during my stay because she’s working on an album she’s been hired to complete by weeks’ end. The producer wants Christmas songs that combine trucking and Christian themes. She says he believes it’ll be a hit on the Christian trucker rest stop independent CD market this Christmas. She's calling it Merry Trucking Christmas.
“They still make CDs?” “Oh yeah! Big time! With truckers, it’s all they listen to, they’ll buy them! This is how I pay the bills!” I ask, “Are you Christian?” “No! I’m a Canadian Jew—but I know what they want.”
When I tell her I’m a writer she says, “Well you gotta help me write these songs! You want in? Let’s have wine!” She opens the cupboard, “I have strawberry, blueberry, or chocolate.” “Can we have berries and chocolate?” I ask. “Well I never thought of that, but then we’d have to open all three bottles!” “Oh, you’re talking about the wine, sorry, then how about chocolate?” “Ok, but if you’re hungry, the strawberry wine goes great with these vegan nuggets and salad I’m about to offer you.” “Then let’s do strawberry.”
We drink and work on a song she’s trying to finish, but in the end, my lyrics never get chosen. My approach is too liberatory. I want the trucker to stop and give the cargo away to the poor. I want the trucker to wonder why we don’t have more safe high-speed rail. I want the trucker to run over Ron DeSantis. Colleen always says, “This has to be about Jesus or my rent won’t get paid.”
At some point, the trucker needs to have a revelation and it has to rhyme with snow: “he’s in a hurry, but then he looks ahead into the trees and realizes a deeper truth.” She strums, “driving on the road he sees / a vision in the snow,” I offer: “maybe he can be delivering a truckload of shoes and he sees a child with no shoes.” She laughs and says “nope, he has to see Jesus and it has to rhyme exactly, like this: ‘and surely it was Jesus / surrounded in a glow.’” We continue late into the night, polishing off the strawberry and the chocolate wine.
The next morning, I’m outside in the 110-degree tropical heat and humidity, staring at Colleen’s grass-free yard of smooth stones, ceramic turtles and frogs, windsocks and chimes, bird baths and plastic pelicans. I don’t drive, so I’m relying on the local “Steve's Taxi,” whose drivers, Colleen informs me, are three super-friendly guys who look exactly like the X-Files’ Lone Gunmen, “but today’s version, with facial piercings.”
While I wait, loud classic rock radio wafts out of a nearby home, blasting the neighborhood with “Caught Up In You” by .38 Special. “So caught up in you-oo-oo / little girl / you’re the one who’s got me down on my knees / and baby it’s true-oo-oo / you’re the one....” I feel it trying to hijack my nervous system with its high-pitched, straight-cis, swoony proclamations of the only love our enemies find acceptable. It makes me miss my high school boyfriend. Gross.
My driver shows up, the brunette Lone Gunman. He’s playing Jesus and Mary Chain on cassette. He talks to me about how much he loves Jesus and Mary Chain. When I get out at the Fountain of Youth, I see he wears a Jesus and Mary Chain tee shirt.
It doesn’t take long to find Marinucci’s glamping site, a series of colorful medium-sized circus tents taking up about half an acre at one corner of the park. His tent, at the far end, is loosely “guarded” by some leather men wearing leather panties, straps and hooks in various configurations around their bodies, each carrying a gigantic pole with a large fan of peacock feathers on top. “I’m here to see Marinucci? from Art Papers?” A furry blond man smiles and pulls back the curtain-door and gestures me in.
The artist is reading his phone in a hammock. I introduce myself. He leaps up and trips over himself to shake my hand. I begin: “Do you mind if I ask, in the most queer-posiitve way, but given the situation around here, I wasn’t expecting to enter into such a queer scene.” “Is it too weird?” he asks, somewhat sarcastically. I laugh, “I love it, just … Do you feel safe? I mean these days, around here?” “Oh, no! No honey we do not feel safe, that’s why we are doing it. We decided, just be out in the open—at the fountain of fucking youth! I don’t really think anyone will hurt us, but on the other hand, it only takes one person.” “But this began as an ecology project, right?” I ask. “It still is,” he assures me, “but now it’s a big gay one.”
“How are y’all sleeping?” “That’s the right question, and we are not really. It’s like, the whole idea was to just live out here and play with the idea of the fountain and colonial history and its effects on the water. My crew just happens to be a bunch of queers. So now it’s become a public queerness thing, because that’s what is actually happening, it’s happening to us. Now we are probably aging just as much as we are re-youthifying, you know?” “Have you been harassed?” “You know, I have to say, the park has been great, they are just trying to keep people away from our space, but we go down to the water every day to shoot and we do get stares. One lady prayed at us, like really violently, violent prayer, imagine that.”
I was just in time to accompany them on the days’ soak. I had a bathing suit on under my dress, so I went in too. The water, the color of assam tea, brackish and buoyant, does feel like it’s doing something. “Oh, it’s having some positive effects. Tommy says he’s been way less bloated and gassy, it’s the minerals. But this water used to be seriously healing, direct from a nearby spring, and the kinds of trees indigenous to the area, their decaying leaves fill the water with vitamins, it’s like soaking in a rich tea and mineral salts, and super fresh. But now, the water is more….” “Polluted?” “Yes, like everything, but more depleted, though it still has high vitamin and mineral content.” Then he holds his nose and goes under for a long spell.
“Do you see a lot of manatees?” I ask. He looks me dead in the eyes, “Umm, I could ruin manatee for you.” “What?” “They are evil little bastards.” “What?” “We saw a group of them one day, trying to impregnate a female. It’s mating season. It was awful, you don’t wanna know.” “Wow.” “Yes.” “That’s typical? That’s how they…?” “Yes. I asked the park expert, yes.” “Huh. That sucks.” “But they’re still endangered and part of the ecosystem. People try to get you to fall in love with endangered animals by making them cute. Animals are often capable of ferocious things, even your house cat. It doesn’t mean they need to die.”
After the crew packs up, we have dinner and drinks. Everyone seems happy, joyful, but admits various kinds of trepidation about working in rural Florida during a time of anti- queer and trans fascism. They share stories of park visitors’ responses: some supportive, some slurs, lots of stares. Marinucci tells me to come back in three days for the finale, a water-themed dance party.
On my way back to Colleen’s, my driver, the blond Lone Gunman, immediately upon picking me up, informs me that a sinkhole has just opened up under a resort in Orlando, “swallowed the whole thing, probably killed people. People’re gonna have to learn somehow, there should never have been hotels on this land—never!” He’s playing local news radio. I stare out the car window, taking in the lush overflowing tropical abundance of inland Florida. But also realizing I have a bad ear worm: “Caught Up in You” has been in the background all day.
When I arrive back at the place, the neighbor’s radio still blares. Now it’s Bob Seger’s “Hollywood Nights.” I ask Colleen what’s up with the neighbor blaring radio all day. She laughs, “been going on for about four years now.” It began, she says, when a Latinx family, “first one in the neighborhood,” moved down the street and played “their music” loud. In response, the neighbor who now blares the classic rock station, called the cops. Cops came, the music went down. But eventually the music went back up. The white lady called the cops again. This went on, Colleen says, “maybe three months, like a whole summer.” In the end, the white lady decided to install her own small-concert-level sound system to drown out the Latinx family with classic rock. At this point, Colleen says, the Latinx family gave up. But the lady who blares classic rock never stopped. The neighborhood is now subjected to classic rock six days a week, 9 AM–9 PM. “She does take Sundays off at least.” I ask how people feel about it. Colleen laughs, “you get used to it.” “How do you think the Latinx family feels?” “Not too sure about that, but they still live here!” She points from the kitchen out the front door, across the street to the left.
I imagine for some in the mostly white neighborhood, having classic rock blaring can take on a fun, pool party vibe. But the friendly threat is often the most sadistic one. The person offering the friendly threat is always just barely holding back their power to harm, and you can feel that their power is actually hungry for an outlet, so you’d better watch out. That’s why no one messes with the classic rock lady.
The next morning, I awaken to Colleen, long bleach-streaked hair piled high in a wild bun, wearing a new colorful pattern of the same tight minidress she had on yesterday, carrying a guitar and a pink smoothie. She seems psyched all the time. She’s hot, probably in her late 50s, constantly cusses, super-tolerant, and has real gives zero fucks energy. She’s kind of inspiring.
But also, sadly, I awaken to “Caught Up In You” still in my head. Yesterday’s high-pitched love squeals in A/G# took hold of my melty, barely clothed August-in-Florida body and won’t let go, animating me with the desire for high school pool party romance. My high school boyfriend Bob appears to me again. Ugh. I can’t seem to stop it. I remember Ian McKaye saying “a song isn’t a song until it’s in someone’s ear.” This one’s in my whole body—and it’s a hostage situation.
I go for a walk. When I pass the end of the street where Colleen said the Latinx family lives, I look for some sign of how this radio domination is affecting them. But I just see a ranch house, a mix of stucco and brick, all closed up for summer, with an air conditioner running in the front window. Two kids’ bikes lay on the lawn, an array of different sized balls congregate around the garage door, a folding lawn chair sits empty in the shade, and on the other side of the driveway, by the hedge, two push lawn mowers, one with no handlebar. I wonder what the kids in this house are learning about music, what they think of classic rock radio. I wonder what kinds of earworms they have.
Rush’s “Tom Sawyer '' is playing. In this context, a surreal assault. I remember accounts of the US military blasting classic rock when invading other countries—Noriega in Panama, both invasions of Iraq—or using it to torture captives, like Abu Ghraib. I remember a chilling passage in Eric Havelock’s The Muse Learns to Write where he recounts walking down Charles St. in Toronto in 1939 as a public loudspeaker airs a live broadcast of Adolf Hitler, exhorting everyone to give up and submit. Havelock describes it so physically: “the strident, vehement, staccato sentences clanged out and reverberated ... flooding over us, battering us, half drowning us, yet kept us rooted there listening....”
I also remember my friend Ike’s description of his trip to the Korean DMZ. He imitated the overhead loudspeaker offering threats in Korean that translated to things like “any small grandma might carry a bomb or contraband in her pocket. Any grandma carrying contraband will be arrested.” He described it as a constant overhead voice: a flat, fake-warm, fake-friendly, familial tone that also suggested imminent personal threat, even death. The classic rock lady has set up a neighborhood soundscape annexation. She never wanted quiet, she wanted control of the sound.
Also in Florida, the Jordan Davis murder tells a similar story: a white man murdered a black teenager because the kid played hip hop loud enough that the white man getting gas next to him could hear it. The defense asserted that the killer was not guilty because it makes sense for a white man to feel threatened by “loud rap music,” that playing loud rap music is objectively scary. And the jury who heard the case agreed: pulling out a gun, confronting players of loud rap music, is a sensible white man’s response. Not guilty, the jury said. Training white people to associate certain sounds with certain negative qualities holds our racist, gender-policing, vigilante culture together.
The American classic rock industry has always packaged rock as a creation of white people, even though rock’s origins and some of its best artists have been black, native, and Latinx. By the time Jimi Hendrix came along, he was cast as a rare black man in the game. In “Ripping Off Black Music,” Margo Jefferson anticipates a future where the black creation of rock-n-roll is erased from history: “The night Jimi died I dreamed this was the latest step in a plot being designed to eliminate blacks from rock music so that it may be recorded in history as a creation of whites.” Rock has been colonized territory from the beginning. And like everything colonized, it gets sold back to white people as their homeland.
This neighborhood should band together to settle this. There are so many options: alternate who gets to DJ; salsa lessons on Saturdays; send the classic rock lady to socialist re-education camp….
The night before I am to return to Marinucci’s site, halfway through our second bottle of chocolate wine, Colleen sees it: how to end the album. Our trucker is driving fast at night, taking curves, not stopping, peeing in a bottle, all so that he can make it home for Christmas. But then, just around midnight, he peers into the glow of oncoming headlights and realizes: Christmas really IS about Jesus, not the presents, but only Jesus. I’m concerned it’s too close to the other song; Colleen says it’s perfect.
Since she’s done the album early, I invite her to come to the dance party with me the next day. “Sure! Sounds awesome!” she says.
So now it’s the next day, and we are driving to the Fountain of Youth. I’ve gotten a bit obsessed with the classic rock DMZ in the neighborhood and how it ties into everything else. I talk Colleen through my thoughts. I go on and on about how living beings adapt to and are shaped by experience, including how we are taught to listen, and who and what we are taught is worth listening to. Our formative experiences of sound and music lay tracks in our minds and bodies, preparing us to perceive (or not) whatever else we encounter for the rest of our lives. We are taught to value or devalue certain rhythms and sounds. People form and deny relationships over musical tastes. Too many people end up like the classic rock lady, only able to listen to and to hear what has already been heard many times before. We are the broken record, the earworm!
“Meh, it’s just music,” says Colleen.
I drop it. But I’m disappointed she doesn’t see it.
Getting ready for the big finale, everyone in Marinucci’s crew seems excited and a little nervous. Marinucci says, “We are about to film ourselves looking pretty fucking gay, doing a bunch of gay shit, dancing, at a park with some heavy family vibrations. If we pull it off it’s gonna be incredible.” The park rangers are clearing out the guests: some seem disappointed to be leaving early, a woman asks “who are they, taking over the park,” eyeing the crew with their European-style swim panties and rainbow lanyards. But eventually the day crowd moves on and the space is ours.
The show begins with synchronized swimmers moving to Sylvester’s “You Make Me Feel Mighty Real.” Then behind us, the DJ plays a bumpin’ track synched to a huge image of Alex Jones angrily screaming “water pollution turns the freakin’ frogs gay” on loop, while giant shadows of dancers wave like flames over it. People get to take turns soaking in a “hot tub” full of a concoction based on what the ancient waters contained. The night slowly turns into a dance party. I’m definitely getting younger, my skin feels smooth from all the minerals. I’m drunk on champagne and feeling emotional. Public queerness in Florida is emotional.
The last track of the night is, of course, Gaga’s “Born this Way.” The crowd unifies in a kind of scream-singing. People are crying. I’m crying. Joyfully crying. A well of fury is emerging from me, purging the earworm I’ve had all week. People take off more and more clothes. Everyone’s crying and pouring champagne over each other. When the song is over, we rush into the water, continuing to scream and sing and hug and kiss each other because we are us, whoever is here is us, and we did this together, and now we swim together, against all odds, in this beautiful, fucked up place.